Monday, February 12, 2024

Game 502: Scepter of Kzirgla (1982) and Two BRIEFs: Arena (1988), and Explore (1980)

Sometimes it feels like the Color Computer wasn't a platform so much as a cult.
Scepter of Kzirgla
United States
Independently developed
Released 1982 for TRS-80 Color Computer by Rainbow Connection Software; 1983 for TI-99 by Kuhl Software
Date Started: 9 February 2024
Date Ended: 9 February 2024
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: User-definable from 1-9; difficulty of 5 is easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
This is a pretty bad game, even by the standards of 1982, even by the standards of Color Computer owners. "At last," the manual boasts, "a real-time graphics adventure game with arcade sound!" The thought of any player firing up this game, looking at the blocky, low-resolution graphics, listening to a few dits and bloops, and saying "at last!" is too depressing to contemplate.
The Kingdom of Kzigla used to be ruled in peace by kings who drove away evil with a magic scepter. But the usual Evil Wizard used stealth to steal the scepter and usurp the throne. The scepter wouldn't obey him, so he tossed it into the bottom level of a 13-level dungeon, and it's up to you to retrieve it.
Character creation has you choose from wizard or warrior classes. The game then randomly divides 30 points between hit points and strength, which you can accept or reject. You then set a difficulty level from 1 to 9. With no other choices (even a name), the game begins.
"Character creation."
Each level is 9 x 30, the walls and treasure locations randomly generated, with the entrance on the left and the exit on the right. Squares that could either contain traps or treasures are annotated in light blue or maybe purple. Your character is a dark blue upside-down "L" while enemies are red backwards "Ls." Your job is to cross from left to right, fighting or avoiding enemies and gathering treasure if you feel like it. 
Enemies don't show up until you're next to them. I don't think the game seeds them; there's just a random chance with every action for an enemy appearing in an adjacent square. Sometimes they appear behind you. Sometimes two or more appear at once on opposite sides. There are 10 enemy types: zubus, ildors, gremlins, elves, dwarfs, lizard-men, berzerkers [sic], zombies, skeletons, and kcash-oidars (an anagram for "Radio Shack"). I only typed those all out because there's so little to say about the game. The enemies aren't even any different. They all hit for the same amount on their respective levels; they all die in one hit; they all provide you with the same boost in hit points when you kill them.
Fighting against a dwarf or something.
Combat has you just attack, choose a direction, and choose a weapon from sword, axe, mace, dagger, club, magic pendant, or bare hands. You start the game with a few of these and find others in treasure chests or on enemy corpses. A single treasure chest might give three or four weapons. There's a chance that they'll break when you use them, but you generally have plenty. Wizards can't use anything but magic pendants and daggers; warriors can't use the pendants. If you use a pendant, you get the choice of two spells, one of which blasts everything around you and the other of which blasts everything in a straight line.
The wizard gets to choose from a couple of spells but is physically weak.
You can try to bribe enemies to go away--the only use for treasure--but it  never worked for me. I didn't try it often.
Maybe I'm just cheap.
As you move down the levels, you gain both hit points and strength, but even with plenty of both, you can die in a couple of hits from monsters. There's a strong case to be made for just avoiding all treasures (since they carry a 40-50% chance of being a trap), running away from all monsters, and just heading for the doors. You can find flying carpets that speed up this process, allowing you to travel across open areas without triggering encounters or traps in one move (you stop at walls). For traps, I only ever found poison gas (reduces strength) and trap doors, which dump you to the next level. In fact, my winning fighter transitioned levels through trap doors far more often than by making it to the actual exit. I found that wizards seem to take damage faster and often die from trap doors.
Getting a free ride to Level 10.
As you go down, there are increased chances that the exit will be blocked by one or more walls, and you have to attack the walls to get through. It's an annoying addition to the game since it takes a few hits to destroy a wall and you can "miss" while attempting it. 
Beating at the wall with a mace.
I died twice at low difficulty levels while I figured out how the game worked. After that, I managed to win with a fighter on difficulty Level 5 in about 25 minutes. You win as soon as you go down the stairs from Level 12 to Level 13. "You did it!" the game congratulates, then shows a picture of a scepter, which I didn't manage to capture. "You have recovered the powerful scepter and taken the kingdom back from the evil magician! All hail the king!" The game then shows you final statistics but doesn't try to aggregate them into any kind of master score, beating which would be the only reason to play another game.
Not just some of you, now. All.
It gets a 12 on the GIMLET. The game was published by Rainbow Connection Software out of Rochester, Minnesota, which sold a number of low budget titles by mail in plastic bags. "Gaming After 40" blogger Dale Dobson identifies the author as Paul Penrose, but I'm not sure how he knows that, as I can't find the name anywhere in the documentation. In his coverage, El Explorador de RPG thought that the author drew inspiration from Robert Clardy's Dungeon Campaign (1978), but I don't see the resemblance except for the low-res graphics. A reviewer in the May 1982 Rainbow thought it was "a good buy" and in particular that "the fighting is the best . . . real-time and pretty authentic." God help us.
That guy is about to cut his own hand pretty badly.
A 1983 sequel called Conquest of Kzirgla cannot be found and has been added to the Missing and Mysteries page.  It supposedly tells the second half of the story, elided in the endgame text for Scepter, in which the hero uses the artifact to defeat the evil wizard, named "Kolobarr."

The game was reviewed in the April 1983 Rainbow and was sold (along with Scepter) in multiple issues, so it definitely existed. The review mentions that its graphics, in contrast to Scepter, are high-res. The game seems to have consisted of a large maze containing the evil wizard and  his minions, who had weird names like Cellapod, Centapor, Mantoid, Jartrex, Cadaver, and Tantrite. You have to get stronger against the minions before you can take on the wizard. The description makes it sound like it had action-oriented gameplay. It also apparently had no treasure, and the reviewer found it "monotonous."

United Kingdom
Independently developed; published by Cult Games
Released 1988 for Commodore 64
Rejected for: No character development
Arena is another misclassification by GB64, which seems to think that any game in which a character is represented by a little icon is an RPG. It is instead a strategy game in which between two and eight wizards--all of which can be human-controlled or computer-controlled--compete in an arena for the dominance of a kingdom. 

During character creation, the players choose names, icons, and colors for the wizards and set a difficulty level. You're then presented with a list of spells to examine or choose. They include summoning spells like "Bat," "Gnome," "Wyvern," and "Crocodile," plus other defensive ("Magic Armour" ), offensive ("Fireball") and terrain or exploration ("Grass," "True Sight") spells. Each spell is aspected to an alignment: neutral, law, or chaos. The spell selection is different for each character; it may have something to do with the icon or color choice.
Creating a wizard.
The game begins in a large, walled arena. Each wizard takes turns doing several potential things during their rounds, including casting spells, moving units (in addition to any magically-summoned creatures, you start with a few armies). Some summoned allies are capable of casting their own spells. When you cast a spell, the game asks you to pick from "Reality or Fantasy?," and I'm not sure what that means. I had trouble with the control scheme and am thus not sure that I explored every available option.
The armies of two wizards near each other and clash.
The game continues until one wizard remains. He is the victor. 
It was on "easy" mode.
Each wizard does seem to have different strengths and weaknesses in different spellcasting powers, and the summoned characters have attributes like attack, defense, ability, and magic--but these are fixed from the beginning of the game. After a winning battle, the winning wizard is discarded. He does not level up and continue on new adventures. 
A bat's "attributes."
The game strikes me as likely based on Julian Gollop's Chaos (1985), whose 1990 sequel, Lords of Chaos, had more RPG elements. Here, you don't even have a persistent character.
This was an odd fantasy outing for Hertfordshire-based Cult Games, whose 1986-1991 titles are almost entirely about football. (We previously saw them with SoccerStar.) None of the individuals in the credits for Arena, including programmer Tony Gould, show up in other Cult titles, so I suspect they just published it rather than developing it.

Independently developed; disseminated through the Toronto PET Users Group
Released 1980 for Commodore PET
Rejected for: No character development.
El Explorador de RPG already covered this one, and I can tell from his coverage that the game doesn't meet my definitions of an RPG. It's an adventure game in which the player explores a fixed dungeon, collecting treasures, and fighting monsters from a fixed pool of vitality. He does not improve during the short, small, all-text game.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Yes, very clearly based on Gollop's Chaos. The reality or fantasy question is likely rooted in that as well, since you could have illusions instead of actual beasts.

  3. Heh, of all the games covered on this blog, Scepter of Kzirgla is the first one that looks so bad that it makes me shudder.

    1. Yep, having had a peek at the code it does not look great - it's all very random. For example there is a straight 33% chance to get a trap door, gassed or a chest for any treasure square you land on (although your skill level seems to influence some of the other calculations eg chance of weapon breakages)

      "blogger Dale Dobson identifies the author as Paul Penrose but I'm not sure how he knows that"
      This can be found in the code

    2. I think it doesn't look too out of place for an 1982 RPG, except for the colours. And at least on the CoCo there seem to have been at least a few more games made with that colour scheme.

    3. What's weird about this is that it seems to be the default character set for the computer, probably why there are more than a few like this. Its kind of like how Rogue and roguelikes use the default ASCII character set to depict everything. That said, this, unlike Rogue, is hideous and yet seems to advertise itself based on some idea that this is impressive. (I suspect that this wasn't true even in the day) The author seems to have just stopped short of ending his enticement blerb with something like "suck on that, you Atari/Commodore/Apple *peasants*!"

    4. One small correction -- there was no "default" character set; it was the _only_ choice (unlike e.g. the Atari 8-bit). The Coco used the 6847 video chip (32x16 characters and very chunky graphics in text mode).

      High resolution graphics modes were available, but using these both consumed significant memory and required more artistic skill than most programmers possessed.

    5. I think that the Rogue graphics are "better" only because you are used to them. There is nothing terribly hideous about this character set.

    6. Based on his own statements, from these rather humble beginnings Penrose managed to go on to a long (and apparently successful) career in programming, including a patent for a real time operating system in a cardiac pacemaker.

  4. Oh, I definitely played Arena back then. Thanks for bringing back my memories.

    About the original TRS-80 I think Jimmy Maher's coverage at is a riot. And I don't mean any disrespect to TRS-80 owners (since I vaguely remember a rather peeved reaction here in the comments by someone about TRS-80 jokes).

  5. You are generous by saying it is "based" on Gollop's rip-off - it is a straight rip-off, with only, apparently, a larger arena.

    The choice "real or illusion" comes straight from Chaos. In Chaos, "real" summons can fail (eg Summon Red Dragon has 10% success chance, while Summon Zomie is typically 90% success chance) but "illusion" summons have 100% chance to succeed, whether a zombie or a red dragon. The "illusion" behaves normally, can kill or die just as well of the real thing... but it is killed in 100% of the case by the "Disbelief" spell, which fails 100% of the case against a real creature.

    By coincidence, the DataDrivenGamer, MorpheusKitami and a few commenters are currently playing a multiplayer game of Chaos and we report on the game on my forum - I almost invited you but then thought you would not be interested. You can see the real thing unfold with 8 real players here:

    1. Ahhh Arena, I bought this from a very strange shop called Anco, which was an outlet for the developer of the same name who became well known for their football game -kick off 2. The shop was very strange it seemed to be open for only about two hours a day.
      Back to Arena, I bought it for my c-64 and was very sad to find it didn't work on it, it did however work on my friends c-64 (a slightly earlier model) and that made me sad cos I really liked the game.
      Later played lords of chaos which was my favourite game for a a few years and then later I found the original chaos and can confirm arena was little more than a rip-off which expanded the original a little.
      Incidently, without chaos, we might never have got xcom...

    2. For anyone considering to give Arena a try (or replay it), the tape inlay included/s the keyboard controls and some tips (like: "Some monsters can carry wizards" or "Spells are colour coded, the brighter they are, the easier they are to cast") and on the backside the manual for the game, including a very short backstory / framing story, instructions on gameplay and a list of spells and their effects.

      It was indeed described / classified as "Wargame [/] Strategy" on its tape cover.

  6. Another set of interesting stubs! I'd definitely take Tunnels of Doom on the TI over this one though...

    I can't recall if I've mentioned it, but you might look at the old TRS-80 game "Escape from the Dungeon of the Gods" by a Ray Sato for a BRIEF if you haven't done so. I don't think it qualifies as a CRPG, but I recall playing it on the Apple II+ back in elementary school. Actually Franklin-Ace 1000s in our case. I see it mentioned but don't see a download.

    1. Escape from the Dungeons of the Gods' source code was initially published in this magazine:

      I studied it and came to the conclusion that there was no character development. Experience points only serve as score. I think it is a text adventure, but Jason Dyer says it is an RPG...

    2. There isn't and it won't fit the strict definition of a CRPG... but I have fond memories of playing it back in the day! It really is a text/CRPG hybrid, more akin to Eamon. Mind you, it was almost 40 years ago when I last played it, so I can't be sure of my memories!

    3. Agh! This is arthurdawg posting again... forgot I can't login to Google at work.

    4. Sometimes I really think that games without character development but with RPG-like mechanics are like playing a fragment of an RPG, like playing your character's adventures between one experience level and the next in D&D. I guess there isn't that much difference and they are equally enjoyable for lovers of the genre, there are simply too many games like that, and even I, who have a looser definition of what an RPG is than The CRPG Addict, have to leave them out if I want to advance minimally in the chronology.

      Explore, for example, I only played it because I saw in its source code that the character fought better the more monsters he had already killed, despite not even having attributes. Let's just say I considered it a kind of character development that most of these adventure/RPG hybrids don't have at all. It was also a game by Jim Butterfield, a very relevant person in the world of Commodore computers at the time.

    5. Yes! And early games like these are just an earlier and simple critter in the evolutionary lineage.

  7. On Scepter, the Coco always felt totally disconnected from the rest of the gaming community & history, with very few ports and conversely a lot of exclusives.

    It is an insular but always-positive community. Whatever its intrinsic quality, whatever few new games are released on Coco are going to receive advertisement in Rainbow and be praised to the skies in a review in Rainbow, a review that will only reference earlier Coco games and ignore the rest of the industry.

    That's why 40 years later, the diminutive Coco community is still active. Which other contemporary platform has a weekly stream/show like "the Coco Nation" exclusively dedicated to it?

    1. I agree. Even though Scepter looks suspiciously like a magazine type-in, there were so VERY few RPGs on the system that anything would be reviewed positively.
      Heck, I even tried to write my own once.

      I was a subscriber to Hot Coco rather than Rainbow (which had limited distribution here in Canada), and that magazine was more focussed on arcade games and "serious" software. I do not recall a single RPG being reviewed.

      As a Coco owner in the mid-1980s, I was largely unaware of what was happening on other systems/consoles. There was no reason to read multi-platform magazines as they had no relevant content, and, anyway, why would I care about games that I could not play for a system that I would never own.

  8. The particularly generic name has made it difficult for me to verify, but I have memories of having long ago played a fair amount of "Arena 2", which this "Arena" it clearly was a sequel to. Not worth playing, as it's no more an RPG than this one, but it was an interesting memory to stir up for me. The terrible MIDI music remains stuck in my head to this day.

  9. The Trash-80 may get mocked quite a bit, but it's what got me interested in computers in the first place. I've never actually used one, but an insert in some 80's comics showed two kids using TRS-80's to help Superman solve crimes (!). Right then, I wanted a computer. Any computer!

    1. the "Thrash-80" is the non-Color Computer. The Coco is a totally different architecture and only shares the "TRS-80" name for marketing reasons. TRS-80 and Coco games and software are not compatible. It confused me at the beginning as well.

  10. "That guy is about to cut his own hand pretty badly."

    Hey, half-sword is a thing, even without gloves/gauntlets.

    1. If you thought that illustration was rather basic, you should check out the ones in these ads for both games in the December 1982 Rainbow Magazine ... but we all started out somewhere, see my comment / link above on Penrose. Plus these were different times and a rather small community for a simple(r) platform, as others have pointed out.

    2. Beware, the cardboard wizard!

      (After at least two decades of using them, I only just noticed that floppy disks are called "diskette" in English, too.)

  11. Wow... don't often see a Coco game with a TI-99 port!

    The TI version of Scepter of Kzirgla is up on an Italian 99'er site. Someone at some point revised it to run in Extended BASIC, which is probably a good thing. They also have a compiled version which runs faster.

  12. ...a weapon from sword, axe, mace, dagger, club, magic pendant, or bare hands. You start the game with a few of these...

    I would not be surprised if this game might generate a character with no hands, but then he can take those found on an enemy corpse.

  13. "El Explorador de RPG thought that the author drew inspiration from Robert Clardy's Dungeon Campaign (1978), but I don't see the resemblance except for the low-res graphics"

    It reminded me of Dungeon Campaign because of the colorful dungeon in low resolution, because of how the monsters appear next to the character and then chase him around the map, because of the trapdoors that send you to a lower dungeon level, because of the poisonous gas traps, and above all because of the flying carpets. How many games of that time had a carpet as a magic item that allowed you to automatically move through the dungeon avoiding monsters?

  14. I fondly remember playing Lords of Chaos on the Amiga 500 and enjoying it, but I agree it’s a strategy game more than an RPG.

    It eventually evolved into Magic & Mayhem on the PC (again strategy more than RPG although there was a more comprehensive storyline in that one). The game itself was fun but the best part about it was the soundtrack, created by members of the Afro Celt Sound System and using remixes of existing pieces from their studio albums.


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