Sunday, April 28, 2024

Game 512: Futurewar (1977)

 
Most of my screenshots use a white font because I prefer it, but I thought the title screen should have the era-accurate orange glow.
      
Futurewar
United States
Independently developed
Released 1977 for the PLATO mainframe at the University of Illinois
Updated several times between 1977 and 1980; recreated for Cyber1 in 2017
Date Started: 26 April 2024
           
The impossible nature of my project to play every CRPG is perhaps best encapsulated not in the fact that we can't seem to ever finish all the CRPGs of the 1980s (new ones get added to online databases all the time) but rather that we can't even seem to exhaust all the CRPGs for the first CRPG platform. (For a history of games written for the PLATO mainframe, see this entry.) But while I may groan every time I have to fire up the TRS-80 or VIC-20 emulators for some obscure 1980s commercial title, the PLATO games rarely disappoint.
   
Futurewar, in particular, needs to be better remembered. Developed without reference to prior CRPGs, it manages to anticipate elements of Dungeon Master, Fallout, and the entire first-person shooter genre. I missed it on my first pass through the 1970s because it wasn't available on Cyber1 yet; only in 2017 did the original authors recreate it with printouts of the code and graphics. It is not only the first known science fiction CRPG, it may be the first 3D CRPG. Although Moria (1975) precedes it, Moria did not get its 3D perspective until later in the 1970s. Oubliette (1977), which also had a 3D view, and Futurewar were roughly contemporaries, and it's not clear 50 years later which was first available to students.
                   
Futurewar has you battling mutants and robots in 2020.
      
The framing story starts the game in 1978. You, a member of an "elite S.W.A.T. team," have breached the castle of the evil Doctor Brain. Brain intends to take over the world by transporting mutants from an apocalyptic future. He escapes in his time machine, and you follow him--to the unimaginably distant year of 2020. Admittedly, there were aspects of that year that felt post-apocalyptic.
   
A nuclear holocaust has destroyed the world, sending the remnants of humanity underground, fighting a constant battle with other factions and various mutants. The factions are the Americans ("a mixture of rednecks, bikers, and convicts"), Guerillas (former soldiers and police), Barbarians (feral humans), Martians (colonists returned to Earth), and Cyborgs (enhanced with technology). As the game begins, you pick a faction and roll your character. Attributes are strength, quickness, endurance, technology, and intellect, with derived attributes of power and hits. Assuming you get the minimum values necessary, you can choose from professions of leader, techno, soldier, hunter, spy, medic, assassin, or holy man.
       
Character creation. Note the "rating" tells you how good the aggregate statistics are for your chosen faction.
       
The game takes place in a 20-level dungeon of 20 x 20 levels. The top 5 levels supposedly belong to the factions, although you can find plenty of enemies there. You always start the game at coordinates (2,1) or (1,2) (counting from the northwest). On each dungeon level, coordinates (1,1) are an "exit" where you can recharge your hit points and power, get cash converted to experience points, and leave the game.
      
My map of the Guerilla Zone.
     
The character starts with no equipment except an unnamed rifle with as many shots as you have "power." It disappears the moment that you find any other weapon. As you can see from the shots, the barrel hovers at the bottom of the character's 3D field of vision, much like a modern first-person shooter. When you fire, you even see a little bullet travel to the enemy and either hit or miss. If you have an automatic weapon, it's a burst of bullets.
   
Combat still only occurs when you enter an enemy's fixed square, and on the faction levels, those squares are always marked from a couple of squares away. Combat itself is not turn-based, but it is timed, with characters having a limited number of seconds to aim, shoot, switch equipment, use an item, or run in between enemy attacks. You'll notice "aim" in there. The gun barrel can be moved to the right or left to get a more direct shot against foes, who also continually move. These mechanics are the basis for the game's "first first-person shooter" status, although I wouldn't go quite that far.
   
Enemies are drawn liberally from popular culture and monster tropes. In the civilized zones, I got tentacles, daleeks, PUDs, and pudbots. The War Zone level (the first level below the faction zones) brought giant grubs, x-men, aquamen, R2-D2s, and cylons, some of which had to have been added after the first release.
      
My submachine gun barrel is too far to the left of center to hit this dalek.
     
Players can join into teams, although a single character's life isn't as short here as it is in Moria or Oubliette. The hunter is described as a "jack of all trades" and has the lowest attribute requirements, so I've mostly been focusing on him. I frankly haven't seen many places where technological or intellectual skills come in handy, let alone the "diplomatic and social skills" that the backstory promises will be relevant. Both combat victories and treasure contribute to your experience pool. Leveling is swift and rewarding, accompanied by increases in maximum power, maximum health, and attributes. Attributes also go up as they're exercised during combat.
    
As I fight this enemy, oddly called a "cookie," my strength increases by 1 point.
      
In addition to enemies, levels also have random loot, mines, pits (taking you to the next level), areas of sewage and radiation that cause damage when you walk through, and rubble that you cannot pass at all. Each faction level has a "base," but they're all "closed" in the current edition. I'm not sure what's supposed to happen there; perhaps they offer some place to spend all the money you accumulate.
      
You only do this once.
      
Some other notes:
   
  • Every door is depicted visually with a board over the door, and it must be kicked open, which sometimes takes a few attempts. It's possible to create a character so weak that he cannot break down any doors and thus cannot progress in the game. This is particularly true of the Martian area, which requires you to break down a door to even get out of the starting hallway, and yet Martians routinely roll strength in the single digits.
  • There are secret doors found by just kicking through blank walls.
  • Levels can wrap, although most do not. When they do, their coordinates become offset by 1; that is, a character on Row 7 walks east from Column 20 and finds herself on Row 8 in Column 1.
  • There is sometimes creative graffiti spraypainted on random walls.
       
Are there any other kinds?
      
  • Miscellaneous items that you can find include metal detectors and flashlights. I'm not really sure what they do or how to use them. There are a few commands I have not yet explored.
  • Every time you enter a new square, there's a chance you'll find a first aid kit (restores health) or a battery (restores power).
       
I can survive a little longer before heading to the exit.
       
  • Only technos and holy men can use some forms of technology, which are basically this game's version of spells. They include "Sleeping Gas," "Flame Bomb," and "Death Ray." The minimum attribute requirements for either class are so high that I think only Martians have a chance to qualify. I played a Martian techno for a little while but I didn't find any of the supposed technology that he could use. I did find that the Martian level is a lot harder than the other ones that I'd tried.
  • You can get a full set of enemy stats during combat, which is a nice feature.
       
"Securitron!" The game really does anticipate Fallout.
      
  • The instructions suggest there are clubs that can be used as melee weapons (without requiring power) with the "f" key. I've never found one, and for me the key otherwise does nothing.
  • I guess you can fight players in other factions. No one else has been around during my sessions.

It took me a long time to keep a character alive for more than a few minutes. You have to stay near the exit and refresh every time you get below 50% or so. Power often runs out faster than health. You're well into your teens before it becomes advisable to leave the starting level by taking the elevator down to the War Zone.
     
My best character so far.
      
This act is particularly risky because the elevator deposits you at (1,1) and you have no idea, until you map it, how to find the elevator back to previous levels. For the most part, I found enemies in the War Zone to be the same difficulty level as those found on the faction levels except for one--something called a man-beast. He's 20 times as hard as any other creature. Most enemies on the early levels have 1-10 hit points; he has close to 50 and he damages you for almost as much. I had a character up to Level 15, with a submachine gun and a ballistic vest, and he died when he was unable to successfully escape from a man-beast. Losing him was a real gut punch.
    
Sob.
      
The theoretical way to "win" the game is to defeat Doctor Brain on the lowest levels of the dungeon. When Nathan Mahney at CRPG Adventures attempted this in 2020, he only managed to map a couple of levels before the game glitched and wouldn't let him go down any more. He dropped a note in the lab files to the game's author, Erik Witz, who later fixed the problem, but by then Nathan had moved on to other games. Lacking such an excuse, I'll try to finish it, but there are a number of other bugs in the game, and I can't guarantee that winning is even possible.
 
Note that El Explorador de RPG also covered the game fairly recently. 
   
I was briefly #4 in the hall of fame.
         
Author Erik Witz's father was a professor at the University of Illinois and got Witz interested in PLATO programming as early as age 11. Later, Witz attended the University High School, which was on the PLATO system. He began Futurewar when he was 15, later collaborating with university student Nick Boland. I was able to get in touch with him just a few hours before I scheduled this entry for publication. I included some of what he told me here, but I saved a bit more for the next entry.
          
This isn't one of my "official two" games, so it will be in the background until I have something new to report. 
   
Time so far: 5 hours

32 comments:

  1. I wonder if Corey Cole knew about this evil past (and future) when in 1991 he made his game about the Castle of Doctor Brain (where the latter appears to be rather nice, I think, and you're trying to get a job in his lab)?

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    1. What are you talking about? Clearly it's the same character! It's just that after this game he reformed, and later on when he accidentally made good and evil clones of himself, the evil one returned to the personality from this game.

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  2. I remember those damn man-beasts! I lost 2 high level characters to them and ended up quitting the game. It seemed to me that they were unbalanced to appear at such a low dungeon level.

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  3. "I played a Martian techno"
    I prefer other music genres, but could you share a link? ;)

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  4. Looking at the title screens of our articles there is something that doesn't add up to me.

    In all of them it says that it is version 5.0, but I played it in 2018 and Nathan in 2020 (it can be seen in the copyright below of the title screens, with 2017 and 2019 respectively), and the number of players on my screen is higher. I'm sure the game has undergone changes and stat resets recently, even if they haven't changed the version number.

    Another interesting thing about these screens is that on ours there is no winner, because as Nathan discovered it was not possible to win then, but on yours it is. The bad thing is that he is the creator of the game, but I would like to think that it is really possible now and I am looking forward to reading your account of such a feat.

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    1. Erik Witz saw your comment and sent me an email. He says he updates the copyright date every year. The "5.0" for the version is based not on the current programming state but rather the version the game was in when he printed the code in the 1970s. All changes that have been made since 2017, up to the present day, have been attempts to get it working back to 5.0 standards.

      "Nathan was stuck due to a combination of there being an old bug and the fact that the maps are not the original levels. He also did not have the elevator key which would have circumvented the bug."

      I read the notes file and Witz patched the game almost immediately after Nathan reported the problem. I think Nathan was relieved to be able to retire the game and thus probably kept himself deliberately ignorant of the fix. I'm a bit jealous: my readers never let me get away with that kind of thing.

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    2. Hahaha your readers are the worst (best)

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    3. I guess it makes sense to keep the version number in the situation the author explains.

      The truth is that I was very sorry that Nathan left his blog, I hope he decides to return to it one day.

      I didn't have the patience to even try to take those elevators. If in the first level that was not one of the initial ones of the factions there were man-beasts, I didn't want to imagine what I could find below...

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    4. I think it took me a while to get back and check if it had been fixed. As for what my readers would let me get away with... you have readers and I don't really, which happens when you flake out as much as I do. Always appreciate the shoutout though

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  5. I'd love to give this one a try - how do you play it on a modern computer?

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    1. You don't. You play it on an old mainframe via https://www.cyber1.org/

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    2. How come there is still no stand-alone emulator? Sure, PLATO ran on the supercomputers, but that is by the 60s and early 70s standards. In the 2020s a run-off-the-mill office computer has more FLOPS and IPS than supercomputers of that era.

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    3. Cyber1 emulates the mainframe. If there's still an actual CDC Cyber mainfraime running, which I doubt, it would likely be in a museum.
      The biggest hurdle to setting it up locally is that both the operating system and the PLATO system are likely proprietary.

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    4. It's very easy. You just go to

      https://cyber1.org/

      And follow the instructions under "Get a Signon!" at the top.

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    5. "The Friendly Orange Glow" tells the Plato story in a most favorable light, yet by the end, one cannot help but feel that the proprietary and closed nature of the Plato environment was a huge lost opportunity. The world marched onward, but Plato did not. And so, it seems, it continues to this day. Where is the local emulator? I'd like to learn with the ground breaking Titrate application, locally: where is it today? For a very long time, all of its former (but still limited access) greatness is now no more than a tiny isolated island in the vast sea of accessible content. Historically interesting, ground-breaking in its day, but extremely limited in its extent by the mindset of its _owners_. This despite (who knows?) certainly tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars that originally funded nearly all of it through the years.

      Thank you for your great coverage, CRPGAddict, but thanks to both Plato's and my own quirks, I think I'll pass on this one.

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    6. Open source wasn't really widespread back then, and even if, who would you have shared the software with? Plato ran on a series of supercomputers, and these were rare and very expensive. It's the very reason why these programs are so advanced for their time. Compare that with the (also closed-source) Unix OS, which ran for the most part on much cheaper and less powerful PDP systems in its early days.

      Still, emulators exist and the software (OS and Plato) can be downloaded for them.

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    7. PLATO ran on a rare and expensive supercomputer (unlike e.g. Unix, which was originally created on the much cheaper PDP series of workstations) - one of the reasons these games are so advanced for their time. Even if open source would have been more widespread back then - who would you have shared it with?
      Still, emulators exist, and the operating system and PLATO can be downloaded and installed on them.

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    8. Great! Could you please point us to a site where emulators exist and the software (OS and Plato) can be downloaded for them?

      Thanks!

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    9. The CDC Cyber emulator is called Desktop Cyber or dtCyber. This page offers a good overview, as there are several forks of the project since the original developer retired from it: https://codex.retro1.org/cdc:dtcyber:start . It also has a PLATO section (see upper left) which contains some documentation e.g. on the TUTOR language.

      Your best best is probably this version of dtCyber: https://github.com/kej715/DtCyber which looks like it's being actively maintained, and it comes with two versions of the NOS operating system. The version 1.3 contains an instance of PLATO.

      Note that this is open source in it's original form - i.e. you download the sources and compile them yourself. I'm not aware of any prebuilt binaries, but I didn't look very long.

      For most use cases, you're better serverd with the Cyber1 instance. It's already set up and gives you at least some of the networking experience of the original. Also, you wouldn't find stuff like Futurewar, that has been lost and reentered into the system, in the dtCyber package.

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  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  7. Olá, Chest. Você pretende jogar algum RPG brasileiro ou explorar como o gênero foi desenvolvido na América Latina?

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    1. Dear Sir. I understand you because I'm Portuguese, but most people on this blog won't understand you (apart from the fact that most North Americans think that only Spanish is spoken in South America). That's why I think it would be nicer to ask the question in English. But I think it's unlikely that he'll grant your request because he's playing RPGs sequentially (although he often goes back in time, playing old RPGs that have recently been rediscovered) and there are so many RPGs, that to get to the games of the year 2000, it's going to be a few more years. And by the way, something I think would be very interesting is if it were possible to gather all this information (including the images and the most relevant comments) in a book, so that this information could be preserved.

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    2. Acredito que o Google Tradutor faça essa tradução automaticamente nos dias de hoje.

      Delete
    3. AlphabeticalAnonymousApril 29, 2024 at 10:32 AM

      I'm not sure what you mean by "automatically" [automaticamente], but regardless: agreed, this sort of translation is relatively trivial these days.

      However, I suspect it will hardly be productive if we all start sharing what we believe to be the stereotypical views of other groups.

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    4. Hi, Jonas. Development in Latin America will never be my primary focus, but yes, I'd like to be able to offer coverage equal to what I've offered on the UK and France, for instance. The problem is that it takes a while to get there chronologically. I'm also not sure that English databases offer an accurate list of Latin American games.

      I'd welcome a guest post on this subject to get started. I don't even know what platforms were most common in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s.

      Delete
  8. "But while I may groan every time I have to fire up the TRS-80 or VIC-20 emulators for some obscure 1980s commercial title, the PLATO games rarely disappoint."

    Naturally. They were created almost purely for the gaming enjoyment, without any commercial or reputational goals in consideration.

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  9. VIC emulation is fine, but every time I have a TRS-80 or a Coco in my list I wonder whether I am going to have to beg someone to make it work or whether trying all the command lines that those people taught me earlier one will eventually launch the game :).

    Funny how the age of the computer is orthogonal to the difficulty of emulation. With Mac emulation, I have a 100% begging rate (to the DataDrivenGamer) but it is usually worth it but the SOL-20 emulation for instance is trivial.

    I would read a special cRPG episode on emulation.

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    1. I was talking more about the quality of the games we're likely to see for those platforms than the ease of emulation. VICE, the emulator I use for the VIC-20, couldn't possibly be easier to use. I agree with the TRS-80 and the TRS-80 Color. I've never gotten a handle on why some games for those platforms autostart and some must be coaxed out of their hiding places.

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    2. Macintosh emulation is easier than credit is given, since most of the difficulty is in installing your own OS, of which pre-built ones exist around the internet if you know what you're looking for. That said, they really should have an easy to find tutorial somewhere for getting StuffIt files onto the emulated Mac, because everytime I have to do that I forget the process and make more work for myself.

      That said, from experience the worst computers to emulate are the Japanese ones. Sure, it's bad having to guess how you're going to emulate a TRS-80 or Coco game every time you get one, but have you tried doing that in a language famous for its difficulty, with the added bonus that the rips are bad and nobody noticed?

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    3. I've never had significant problems with TRS-80 Color Computer emulation. TRS-80 Model I/III emulation, on the other hand, has been a wildly inconsistent nightmare.

      Delete

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