Saturday, July 24, 2021

Game 424: Empire III: Armageddon (1983)

The long-awaited third game in the series.
        
Empire III: Armageddon
United States
Peachtree Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1983 for Apple II
Date Started: 11 July 2021
Date Ended: 20 July 2021
Total Hours: 10
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 
      
The Empire series comes to a conclusion with this final entry from David Mullich. It's been a strange ride. I've previously documented my experience with Empire I: World Builders (1981) and Empire II: Interstellar Sharks (1982), both of which--primarily in their documentation--offer some of the same uncomfortably bizarre ambiance as Mullich's The Prisoner (1980). The first game chronicles the early years of an Earth-based interstellar empire, and the lives of the colonists who establish outposts on various planets. Interstellar Sharks is set at the height of the empire, with the player taking the role of a stock trader, diplomat, or pilot, ultimately trying to find his way to the imperial home planet of Triskelion. In both games, the manuals present the Empire chiefly via propaganda. The player is manifestly meant to understand that beneath the veneer of the materials, and their portrayals of the ruling Lazur family as the "apex" of civilization, lies a mysterious and corrupt bureaucracy. The enigmatic "Lord of Light," godhead of an outlawed religion, makes some cryptic appearances.
   
Empire III is in many ways the most obscure of the trilogy. Copies only made their way to the Internet within the last few years, and they do not include the game's documentation. I was looking forward to the manual most of all, but no one seems to have posted it, and those who claim to have a copy have been stubborn about responding to calls to scan and share it. Part of the problem is that it was released just as Edu-ware was being acquired by MSA, which ultimately only cared about educational and business software and sold the few remaining game titles in plain boxes with "educational" labels (hence the Peachtree imprint). The date of publication is in question, too. Some sites say 1983, some 1984, but the game was being sold in catalogs as early as June 1982. The title screen for the version I played has a copyright date of 1983 but a release date of 1984; however, it is a later edition. I settled on 1983 as the most likely but far-from-certain year.
   
The lack of documentation hurt my efforts to explore this title. The previous two games did a great job explaining the games' vocabularies and when you would use certain words. For this one, I was able to extract about 115 words that it understands via hex dump, but there's nothing about the context in which they're used. In particular, there is a potion-crafting system and a mining system that I've been unable to explore, in the first case because I think the manual offered recipes for the potions, and in the second case because I have no clue how to mine. As we'll see, this is keeping me from winning the game.
     
This is a reagent for a potion-crafting system I don't know how to use.
      
Both Empire I and Empire II blended role-playing elements with a kind of life simulation. You had to enter multiple commands in a precise order to accomplish even mundane things, like growing and harvesting crops, mining and selling minerals, or taking a ship from one planet to another. Empire III ditches most of the simulation elements and provides a more straightforward graphical RPG/adventure. This change is most acutely felt in the game maps. All of the titles have featured some movement around cities or landscapes, but usually more as concepts than actual geographies. The planets of Empire II were all linear geographies, for instance, in which all key encounters occurred along straight roads. Armageddon offers standard first-person RPG maps in which LEFT and RIGHT don't move you between nodes but actually turn and face you in those directions.
        
The city and wilderness maps. This is the only game in the series to feature areas that you can map like this.
     
Character creation is much as in the previous game. The game randomly chooses your sex, and then one-by-one rolls values from 3 to 18 in dexterity, constitution, strength, aim, senses, intelligence, willpower, charisma, speed, and psionics. ("Psionics" has existed as an attribute in all three games, and in none of them has it been overtly called upon.) You choose your background from three classes: aristocracy, technocracy, and "fremarket." Unlike the other two games, I didn't see any places here in which the choice of background made a difference.
        
Character creation. Trust me: you're going to want to roll a high speed.
     
Each character starts with identification, 1 credit, 10 food, 10 water, and 100 units of currency in an unnamed city. Character creation (and also hibernation, where you can save the game) is revealed to have taken place in a building called the "Pyramid Club." Other buildings surround you, but most of them turn out to be unnamed "tenements."  Entering them usually produces an encounter with an NPC who says, "Please leave at once," or, "Please don't hurt me." No commands really allow you to interact with NPCs. I suppose you could kill them for their meager goods.
     
The city is mostly "tenements."
     
Moving around the game is slow at the default Apple II speed setting. It takes a few seconds for the screen to draw each step. The only review I was able to find complained about this. I had to jack up the emulator to about 5 times the normal speed to make it tolerable.
    
The city runs to 14 x 14 coordinates and besides tenements and the Pyramid Club contains the following buildings, most of them just a single screen:
    
  • United Ores. Here you can buy and sell ores like obsidian, onyx, and "omnimium" and buy mining-related equipment like drills, picks, and shovels.
  • Chemist. He sells four things: a spraygun, a "watercart," a "basecart," and an "acidcart." I have no idea what these things are for, but I suspect it's related to the game's potion system.
  • Hybrid Foods. Here you restock food and water, which are consumed at a rate of about 1 every dozen steps, but only in the wilderness outside the city.
  • General Mercantile. Buy and sell knives, ropes, torches, lamps, and compasses.
       
This is supposed to be a sci-fi game. I hope those are at least British-style "torches."
       
  • Medi-Sci. Get a current scan of your attributes and injuries, and pay to heal injuries.
  • Hedonistic Services, described below.
  • Neurotech, described below.
     
The Hedonistic Services building sounds like the place on Denieves in Interstellar Sharks, where you could gamble, buy drugs, and hire a prostitute. Here, however, it simply opens into two sub-rooms, a bedroom and a shooting gallery. Searching the bedroom produces a Medallion that various empire officials seem to wear. I put it on, but it never explicitly did anything for me. The shooting gallery, instead of allowing you to shoot anything, simply offers hints for the game:
     
  • "Pull the plug." I have no idea what this was referring to.
  • "You must rise and then descend." This refers either to the mountain or the Pyramid.
  • "Seek the mountain man." More on him in a bit.
  • "She is but an image." This refers to the empress; more in a minute.
  • "The second password is ERGO." You might recall that I got this same hint as my "prize" for winning Interstellar Sharks. That didn't turn out to be much of an advantage unless you missed it here.
      
The Neurotech building is a fully-explorable dungeon. It's dark when you enter, and you need a light source to explore. It leads you to an encounter with a secret society that, if you make a charisma check (a roll of 1d20 against your charisma), invites you to join a plot to overthrow the empress. If you agree, you get a "field disruptor" and can then be trained in lock picking, chemistry, technical traps, or firearms. Training in each of these subjects takes one year and requires passing an associated attribute check. Passing the skills gets you a bomb, glyceride, a "damping" (which turns out to be a type of armor), and a dartgun in that order. I'm otherwise not sure what good the skills do for you. They don't appear on your character sheet.
     
The "Mechanics" enlist me in their cause.
      
Once you're done with the city, you can go outside, onto a 14 x 14 wilderness map in which trees create "corridors." A river bisects the map and requires a dexterity check to successfully cross (or you drown). As you explore the outdoors, you randomly find reagents like mako, palmna, hymlik, and holly, which I assume are part of the potion-crafting system.
         
Drowning in the river.
      
Aside from the city, there are three destinations in the wilderness map: a mountain, the ruined Nyrf Tram Station, and the imperial Pyramid, home of the empress. The mountain requires a lot of climbing, during which you have to make regular dexterity checks or take injury. I got a rope and grappling hook at some point but couldn't figure out how to use them to help with the mountain. At the top is a mountain man who tells you, "The first password is COGITO," something that Deano figured out back in our Interstellar Sharks discussion.
      
I approach the old man on the mountain.
    
The Nyrf Tram Station is like the Neurotech building: another dark maze for which you need a light source. Like the other building, it takes you to the headquarters of a secret society that wants to overthrow the empress. This one is called the Apox, and they follow the Lord of Light. They teach traps, stealth, climbing, swimming, knives, propaganda, garrote, and camouflage, and again it was rare that any of these skills came explicitly into play even when doing obvious things like climbing the mountain or crossing the river. At best, maybe they provided bonuses to the attribute checks. Most of the skills didn't provide any items, but I did get a knife and a garrote.
      
Nobody seems to like the empress.
      
That leaves the Pyramid, which took me longer to explore than the rest of the game combined. You have to have a field disruptor to get through the energy field surrounding it. Once inside, the pyramid is 13 levels up and at least 2 levels down. As you ascend, the levels get smaller until the top level is just one square. Every level has separate "up" and "down" elevators, but oddly you always arrive in the northwest corner of the level, not in the position of the associated elevator.
    
Every time I thought I must have reached the top level, there was yet another elevator.
          
Guards appear randomly in the rooms as you explore. When they do, you have one round to act before they order you to halt. On the first level, they mostly just greeted me and let me pass (because of the Medallion?). On the others, they often searched me and figured out that I was a spy. When this happens, you have to make a speed check to "escape" back one room. If you fail, the game is instantly over, as the guards doom you to death in the Arena. This happens so often that sheer probability dictates that it will happen to every character, no matter how high his speed. I used save states to reload, of course, but there must be some mechanism or set of commands for players to avoid this fate that I'm not seeing--maybe the potion system, or some command that I've overlooked that calls camouflage or stealth skills into play. You can choose to FIGHT the guards in your one round, but one battle is hard enough let alone multiple times per level.
   
 A speed check determines if I escape the guard or die.
   
There are also a lot of traps in the Pyramid's corridors. Some of them you have to LOOK to find. They include heat sensors, sonic sensors, and light sensors, and in all three cases, they seem to serve as "spinners" in the typical grid-based dungeon, pointing you the wrong direction and occluding some doors. There are other traps like tripwires and pits that require a skill check--either dexterity or senses. Again, I can't help but think there must be some mechanism or tool for disarming them, especially given the "traps" and "technical traps" trainings, but I could find any combination of verbs and nouns that did anything. 
     
   
The game checks to see if I can avoid a trip wire.
       
Among the 15 levels of the Pyramid, I otherwise found the following encounters:
   
  • On Level 1 is an audience chamber in which the empress delivers a one-line speech ("I must leave you now" or "There is a traitor among us") before she disappears. The code suggests that she's just a projected image (consistent with the hint above), but I can't quite figure out how to reveal it. When she leaves, an official remains behind in the room that you can fight and kill for his weapons, armor, and medallion.
     
You can't really do much in this chamber.
     
  • Levels 1 through 3 have multiple storerooms in which you can find items like compasses, lamps, and earmuffs.
       
The first level of the pyramid.
       
  • The two basement levels have multiple shelters which can also be searched for items, including a gas mask and absorption armor.
  • Level 2 has a kitchen, where there's food and water.
  • Levels 2 and 8 both have steel doors that you can open with USE BOMB. If there's another way, I don't know it. The one on Level 2 has weapons inside; the Level 8 one is empty.
  • Levels 4 and 6 have vapor traps that you must be wearing a gas mask (found in the basement) to pass.
  • Level 5 has a trap that causes paralysis; you have to be wearing absorption armor to continue.
  • Level 6 has both a library and a laboratory. The library has a book that reads: "To pass through the computer door, you must make an explosive of onyx, corbomite, and mustard." I'm not sure about the laboratory, but I suspect it's used to either make that explosive or potions or both.
       
The "library" has only one book worth reading. I look forward to The Elder Scrolls series, when I'll lose hours in a room like this.
   
  • Level 6 also has an observatory with a book that reads: "The white rock has great powers; do not use it near the computer." You might recall the mysterious white rock in Interstellar Sharks that got me through the planetary defense shield. I stole it from a priest of the Lord of Light. The observatory also had a pair of goggles. 
     
I'm not sure what to make of "the old imperium," which isn't mentioned in the documentation of the previous games.
        
  • The upper levels all have force fields that you need a field disruptor to get past, but you needed one to get into the Pyramid in the first place.
  • Levels 10 and 12 have harems, including "harlots" with medallions.
       
Alas, this is the harem of an empress, not an emperor.
         
  • Level 10 of the Pyramid has a door that leads to a weird area with green corridors, seemingly not part of the level's standard level space. I found nothing in these corridors despite searching every square and bumping into every wall.
  • Level 11 also has a steel door that the bomb won't work. I suspect this is the "computer door" described by the library book.
     
On Level 13, you can enter a room with the empress herself. It takes you directly into combat. While the empress is wielding a lasgun, she has no armor and is easily killed. She has the white rock on her.
   
Combat uses the same system as the previous two games, where you can FIRE with a missile weapon, close the distance and HIT with fists or STAB with a melee weapon, or take a round to AIM. Both you and the enemy have individual hit points and disabilities on various body parts. It's a strong system, but you fight so rarely that it's tough to master it.
       
I didn't expect to fight her one-on-one. I have no idea what that thing to the right is.
        
The empress's death doesn't seem to change anything. You get no victory screen, and returning to the secret societies gives you no new messages. I suspect that the issue is that I must get into that computer room with the explosive. The problem is the need for "corbomite." Onyx is sold at United Ores and mustard can be found in the wilderness, but I suspect corbomite must be mined, and I have no idea where. The only places I've found where mining tools work is that odd set of caverns off Level 10 of the Pyramid, but whether I use the drill, pick, or shovel, in any of the rooms, the game simply says that no minerals are found.
    
The only message I get, no matter what I do.
       
There are a number of other mysteries that may have something to do with the solution:
      
  • The potion-making system, for which I can only assume the recipes must be in the manual.
  • On the second basement level, there's a room that produces endless combats with rats every time I try to move through it. (There's no chance to enter a command after they appear and before combat.) I don't know how to beat them once and for all. I wonder if the manual didn't give some recipe for rat poison as part of the crafting system.
  • The game's code references a torture chamber that I never found. Perhaps it's on the other side of the rats. You can apparently be caught and tortured, and there's a chance that you'll spill the beans on the Mechanics or the Apox.
  • The code also references a "kennel" that I never found.
  • The economy in general is a mystery. Everyone refers to the game's currency as "credits," but you start with only 1 "credit" and 100 "money." Purchases are deducted from "money." You never find money anywhere, not even on slain foes, so the only way to make any is to sell items to the stores. But stores only buy what they sell, so you can make a few bucks selling extra compasses or torches, but there's no store that sells weapons and thus none that buys them. The only way I could make enough to afford mining equipment was to GET water in the river and sell it for 3 credits each at the food shop, but that takes a long time. Meanwhile, United Ores sells "Omnimium" for about 6,000 credits. I have no idea how you'd make that much or why you'd want it.
  • Verbs and nouns I never found any use for (and that don't seem to be part of the potion-crafting system or buying/selling): CAREFULLY, CUSTODIA, DEXTER, DRESS/UNDRESS, GARROTE GLYCERITE, GIVE, JADE, LOAD, LOCK, NOTE, PROJECTOR, PUDEE, ROCK, STASIS, STEAL (it doesn't work in any of the shops), WAGER, WOOD.
  • There are also creatures listed in the game's code that I never encountered, including bandits, drunks, pilgrims, dogs, lizards, snakes, crocodiles, and bandersnatches. These might be leftovers in the code from World Builders. I did discover that trying to "enter" the trees can get you attacked by a bear.
       
You want to avoid walking too close to trees.
       
Based on what I was able to experience, I would give this game on the GIMLET:
   
  • 2 points for the game world. The story has a lot of originality, but the game never really feels like it's set on the capital of an empire. This will probably go up if I had the backstory in the manual.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. The creation process is RPG standard. I can't say much for development, as the series has no experience and no mechanisms for leveling except the skill-learning parts of this game, which seem to do nothing.
      
Learning skills is one of the few ways to "develop," but I'm still not sure what it did for me.
      
  • 1 point for NPC interaction. They exist, but of all the commands the game offers, you'd think some kind of GREET or TALK option would be available.
  • 3 points for encounters and foes. I give most of this to the variety of encounters that require an attribute check, although the accumulation of them makes the game too hard for the player not using save states.
  • 3 points for combat. As I mentioned above, it's a good system; it just isn't used all that often.
     
Fighting an official of the empire.
    
  • 2 points for equipment. Most of it is for puzzle-solving.
  • 2 points for the economy. Maybe the manual will untangle some of the mystery and bump up the score.
  • 2 points for a main quest. No side quests, no options.
   
You could say I "won" in that I accomplished my misssion.
     
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are serviceable, the sound non-existent. The text parser works okay but could use some Infocom-style shortcuts like "G" for "repeat the previous command." I might lower this to 0 if I played at era speeds, which would have been a dealbreaker.
  • 3 points for gameplay. The challenge and length are good, but it's more linear than its predecessors and I don't see much replayability. 
   
That gives us a final score of 22, a bit lower than the 29 I gave Interstellar Sharks, which I thought had a more compelling plot and more interesting character options (again, however, I had the manual for that one).
         
I suspect the manual will show up eventually, or we'll otherwise figure out the answer to the endgame, but rather than take that chance, I'll simply describe the ending as I understand it from an inspection of the code: If I could find or mine the corbomite and craft the explosive, I can blow open the door to the computer room, which I believe is the one on  Level 8. There, I would encounter the "Empire III Computer." I would have to enter the two passwords: COGITO and ERGO. (SUM oddly does not appear in the code and is not recognized in the vocabulary.) The final message only seems to appear if you have the white rock:
   
I AM THE LORD OF LIGHT. TO HAVE SURVIVED THE GREAT PYRAMID, YOU HAVE LEARNED THAT MAN IS THE GREATEST FORCE IN THE UNIVERSE, AND ALL ELSE IS SUBSERVIENT TO HIM. I BANISH THE SHARKS INTO NETHERSPACE AND COMPLETE THE CIRCLE OF HISTORY. GO FORTH AND AGAIN BUILD A WORLD.

   
"Build a world" and "sharks" are references to the subtitles of the previous games; this final message seems to be a suggestion that everything is cyclical and you're supposed to start over at the beginning. It's a slight let-down for all the build-up that the series has been doing. For instance, I went into this game thinking that the empress was a puppet and I'd probably have to rescue her rather than kill her. There's no evidence of language to support this idea, though, and there's no pause to enter a command when you enter the empress's room before she attacks.
   
I've spent a number of years baffled about this series. I'm slightly appreciative of games that offer something new and unusual, but also slightly confused as to what the author was trying to accomplish. Were we supposed to understand references and subtext in this plot? Was Mullich articulating some kind of philosophy or just telling a story?
   
I failed to remember that I had the answers to some of these questions in a 2014 e-mail exchange I had with Mullich. I never reported on it because he didn't respond to the e-mail in which I asked his permission to do so. Nonetheless, looking over his answers now, I can't believe he'd mind if I reported on at least some of the insights that he sent me. First, when Edu-Ware asked him to make the trilogy, they gave him the three subtitles. His goal, he says, "was to create scenarios that were appropriate to each title." His influences included Asimov's Foundation series, Star Trek, and Robert Heinlein's Time Enough for Love (1973). He said that despite common belief, he had never read Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light--something that Zelazny himself apparently inquired about. Most important, he reported that he had nothing to do with the manuals, which were written by Edu-Ware's marketing director. (I don't know whether the marketing director was Steven Pederson or Wendy Peterson, both of whom have manual credits on the series.) Thus, what I perceived as an intentionally bizarre contrast between verbose manual and austere game seems to have a mundane explanation.
   
I'll update this entry if we ever get the documentation. Until then, let's continue clearing out some of these early 1980s titles.

Friday, July 23, 2021

BRIEF: Dungeon (1993)

 
You get the backstory in a text bubble on the main screen.
        
Dungeon
United Kingdom
Independently developed; released through Budgie UK.
Released 1993 for Atari ST
     
If I wasn't rejecting it because it isn't an RPG, I might reject it based on its name. The last thing the world needs, particularly as late as 1993, is yet another game called Dungeon. To Google it, you have to do something like:
   
"Dungeon" "1993" "Atari ST" -"Reaping the" -"Dungeon Master" -"Dungeon Hack"
   
And you still get a lot of dross.
   
If not for the title, I would probably reject it for its all-mouse control scheme, which is a lot worse than "all-mouse" suggests by itself. But more on that in a minute.
      
Beware how boring it is.
   
Dungeon was the creation of London-based T. C. Basset, who had previously created a strategy game called Overlord using the same creation kit. That kit was Talespin by Mark Heaton, published by MicroDeal in 1988. It's meant for adventure games with a fair amount of text and dialogue, without much regard for combat. To make a dungeon crawler out of it, Basset had to essentially model combat as a violent "dialogue," complete with clicking options in text boxes.
    
For the graphics, Basset turned to the Fantasy Graphics Disk from Deltronics, created specifically for the engine, published in 1991. One might assume that with an engine from one kit and graphics from another kit, Basset would simply offer the game as freeware, but instead he charged £6.99 for the game and £9.99 for the game plus a manual. The only versions I was able to find are demo versions.
    
Whether to attack aggressively or defensively is the only choice you really make.
    
The quest is given on the title screen by Shaa, "Keeper of the Crypt and centre-forward for Gillingham." You're to explore the dungeon, defeat Malik Abdul Aziz the Necromancer, and recover the Great Orb of Thoth. This makes me wonder if Arab RPG developers name their villains things like "Peter Cunningham." You choose from warrior, fighter, cleric, mage, and thief classes, which are differentiated solely by their starting equipment; for instance, warriors get a sword while clerics begin with cloth armor and a healing potion.
  
You open the door to a very linear dungeon and immediately begin encountering monsters. Every move, every choice, every combat round is followed by a few seconds of loading while "zzz..." appears on the screen. This is even true if you set the emulator to 400%. Everything involves a billion clicks.  You have to click on messages even when you have no choice. To fight, you have to click on one button to make an "aggressive attack" or a "defensive attack," then wait a couple of seconds. Then, you have to click on the sword icon to see the results of your attack, and acknowledge it by clicking on the message. Then you have to click on the shield icon to see the results of your defense, and acknowledge the message by clicking on it. You do the sword and shield again. Every click has a pause for a couple of second after it.
     
I love the insignia on the skeleton's shield.
  
After combat, you find a chest. This is how you open a chest: 1) Click on the "hand" icon, which causes a bubble to appear telling you how much the chest has. 2) Click "Get gold" in that same window. 3) Click on the same hand icon to now get a message that the chest is empty. 4) Click "Click here to continue." 5) Click the arrow on the GTFO panel to go back to the main dungeon screen. Why couldn't the author just have the image of a chest appear with words indicating how much gold you've found, and then automatically take you back to the dungeon window, no clicking required?
      
Why do I have to click "get gold"? Is there some reason I wouldn't take it?
   
In addition to gold, you can find potions and scrolls in chests. Potions heal you; scrolls instantly kill monsters.
      
The first dungeon is only about a dozen forward steps and four combats. Then some stairs bring you up to a town, where you can have a drink in the tavern, spend your gold at the armory, or deposit it in the bank. If you're extremely wounded, a helpful woman in a chainmail bikini shows up to give you a healing potion. You have to speak to the bartender to get access back to the dungeon.
     
It turned out that these prices were meaningless, as we'll see.
       
I don't know if every dungeon trip is randomized or if they proceed in a specific order, but generally it's just a straight corridor with one or two T-junctions. Eventually, you always come to a stairway back up to town. In a couple hours of playing, I never found anything but combats with the same four monsters: skeletons, murderous thieves, vampire bats, and zombies. 
   
What the game lacks is any kind of character development system. You have no attributes, no levels, no experience. The only way you get better is to find better equipment or to find more gold and buy it. Even that doesn't really seem to work, as after I bought some leather armor, nothing I did would get the blacksmith to take my money for anything else. I kept trying to buy shields, armor plating, and weapon improvements, but the game just acted like it did something and no money was subtracted from my purse and my character portrait never changed. Maybe that's because it's a demo version.
      
You can view your character in town. Nothing ever change no matter what else I tried to buy.
      
Anyway, it fails my definition of an RPG twice over. There's no character development, and combat is based solely on equipment and luck. It's basically a group of nice fantasy images strung together with a minimum of mechanics. I'm grateful I can reject it, because after a couple of hours, my hand hurts from all this clicking.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Updates on Perihelion (1993) and Arcan (1993)

Perihelion
    
I just finished and rated Perihelion a few days ago. I had written to author Edvard Toth, but I hadn't received a reply by the time I finished the game. Later, I noticed that he had replied, but that his e-mail had gone to my spam filter. We had a brief exchange that led to a little more insight into the game. He also said he had read the series of entries and enjoyed the commenters' discussions, and he sees you as a "very committed and knowledgeable audience."
   
Toth said that he had never heard of Sentinel Worlds: Future Magic (which was a long-shot; I thought there were similarities between the Guardian and the Key of Thor), but he had absolutely played some of the Gold Box games, which serve as a base model for Perihelion's combat. "Those games usually looked like crap and were quite terrible from a technical point of view, but they had fantastic combat design and team-based strategy." He was also an admirer of other games from Psygnosis and Cinemaware, particularly It Came from the Desert (1989/1992), an atmospheric action game.
   
He confirmed that the names and places dropped throughout Perihelion were not just words; he had extensive lore, sketches, and short stories for the game's various creatures, locations, people, and factions. Carnivore's avatar was a "vile, bloated, cadaverous baby with razor-sharp teeth," for instance, and he had written a short story about "a procession of Carnivore priests moving through a city slum, their life-draining auras inadvertently affecting the residents, setting off a series of crazy events." He mentions trying to write in the nature of Robert E. Howard, which was ironic given that I used a quote from Howard in my coverage.
  
Toth had planned to set several sequels in the world of Perihelion, perhaps with a unique focus on psychic powers and the toll they take (which was a minor feature of Perihelion's backstory):
    
I'm . . . quite obsessed with the premise of emotion-based psi powers and the dramatic (often tragic) potential in [them]. The sacrifices that practitioners have to make, the traumas they have to endure, and the discipline they have to develop to experience, recall, and sustain sequences of emotional states is very powerful material. I have the 'metaphysics' worked out, along with several pretty impactful personal stores. Maybe one day . . .
      
Toth doesn't see much hope of a direct sequel at this late date, though. He sees the original Perihelion as "too simplistic, stale, and one-dimensional." He noted that one of the "hooks" of the original game was "the very high production values, execution, and atmosphere," something that requires a lot more investment of time, labor, and money today, after 30 years of development in graphics and sound.
   
Nonetheless, he thinks about it, and he has some models in mind:
     
I'm a huge fan of George Miller's Fury Road [the 2015 Mad Max film], an unbelievable achievement that conjures up a lush and intricately detailed universe utilizing minimal dialog and exposition. Another great piece of poetic world-building is China Miéville's Perdido Street Station [a 2001 novel]. A new Perihelion would certainly be more along the lines of these sensibilities.
         
Part of me wants to disagree that a "modern" game would require anything more than the graphics, sound, and music of the original, but I guess I'm a rare player. And even I admit that the idea of exploring a world like Perihelion's in a contemporary first-person interface is thrilling.

Arcan
    
Well, I've tried a new version and made another two tours through the areas I was able to map for my first entry, but I still can't make any more progress. The issue may be that only demo copies exist, or that it's bugged in the way that Dungeons of Avalon II was, but I can't help shake the idea that I'm just repeatedly missing something. Irene is always accusing me of "man-searching" when I fail to find something that's right in front of me, but sometimes I can look at the same shelf (or wall in a computer game) repeatedly and miss the object of my search despite it being right in front of me. I'd be grateful if any of you have a chance to download it, play it, and let me know if you got any further with the map than I did.
   
In the meantime, I ran through a quick GIMLET and put the game at 20. There were a lot of 0s and 3s. But I hardly experienced anything of the equipment and magic systems, and for all I know there's a more interesting story, better enemies and puzzles, and other features later in the dungeon. I updated the original entry to tie it off and added it to the "Missing and Mysteries" list.
 
[Ed. Got the help I needed, faster than I expected. Look for more on Arcan.]
 
Bandor III: The Final Encounter
    
This one also goes on the "Missing and Mysteries" list. If it ever was finished, I can't find it.
 

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Game 423: Dragon Quest (1983)

The little-known first game in the popular Square Enix series begins.
        
Dragon Quest
United States
Independently developed; Midwest computing (publisher)
Released 1983 for Atari 800
Date Started: 22 June 2021
Date Ended: 23 June 2021
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)  
      
Here's a fun coincidence: In 1981, 13-year-old Brian Reynolds wrote Quest 1, a simplified version of Dunjonquest, and published it as code in Softside magazine. Although not an epic game, it had some interesting features. Much later, he achieved renown as a strategy game designer whose credits include the Age of Empires series. Two years later, 17-year old Matt Pritchard created a more complex game called Dragon Quest starting with the Quest 1 code. Although still not an epic game, it had some interesting advancements. Much later, Pritchard achieved renown as a strategy game designer whose credits include the Age of Empires series. 
    
I would have been delighted if it turned out they worked in adjacent offices and never knew their common background, but alas, Pritchard told me that he never met Reynolds, the two having worked on different titles while at different companies.
    
Quest 1 is reasonably well-traveled ground for us at this point. We saw how its code was adapted to Super Quest (1983), Dungeons, Dragons, and Other Perils (1984), and Cavequest (1985). I missed Dragon Quest on my first and second passes through 1983, but someone alerted me to it a few years ago. The titles are characterized by fairly simple character creation, a "menu store" to which the character repeatedly returns, inventories of arrows and holy water, monsters with weaknesses to certain weapons, a small maze to explore for treasure, and action-oriented combat.
   
To this, Dragon Quest adds:
   
  • A main quest involving rescuing a prince or princess (the opposite sex of your character) from a dragon.
  • Graphics instead of ASCII characters.
  • Teleportation doors that you have to search for. These take you into parts of the dungeon unconnected by maps to the rest.
  • An intelligence statistic that determines your success in searching for secret doors.
  • More rooms--about 100 to Quest 1's 58.
  • A bargaining mechanic with the merchant by which he jacks up the price if you try to lowball him.
  • Some interesting room configurations.
  • A special enemy called a "flagship" capable of blasting you with a cannonade (no other enemy has a ranged attack), even through walls. 
  • A few spells.
                
Strength and dexterity look good, but that intelligence is going to be a problem.
          
The one-page manual has been lost to time, but the general story is that you've descended into Mt. Dellega to find fame and fortune and to rescue a prince or princess from a dragon. You roll attributes, name the character, and choose race (human, elf, dwarf) and sex. There's a brief stop at a store--where a beginning character really can't afford anything--before you hit the dungeon. The way back to the store is always in the first room you enter, but you have to L)ook for it, as you do with other secret doors in the game. The player has to return frequently to the store to spend his found wealth on arrows, magic arrows, healing potions, and holy water. Unlike some Quest variants, there are no weapons and armor to buy.
     
All you get for a backstory.
      
The dungeon has a fixed layout and composition. Each room typically has one enemy and one treasure. In Quest 1, you always killed enemies in one hit, but there might be a stack of anywhere from 1-15 of them in the same room. Here, that's re-cast as a single enemy who might have anywhere between 1-15 "strength." Even after you kill the fixed enemy, "wandering monsters" can show up at any time in any room. Foes include goblins, orcs, kobolds, skeletons, wraiths, and mummies.
    
I'm fighting a ship in a room with an odd configuration. A treasure awaits.
         
You earn experience from kills, but experience doesn't really do anything for you. There are no levels and you never gain attributes. It seems to me as the game went on, enemies got more difficult and wandering enemies appeared faster, which might be a consequence of experience. I think the statistic is more of a "point" score than experience in the classic sense.
   
The lack of armor is particularly felt. Your goal as you explore the rooms is to avoid ever having to F)ight in melee combat, as even the basest enemies can suddenly deliver 60% damage in one round. Only a couple are capable of ranged attacks, however, so you want to kill them at a distance with arrows and holy water. In most Quest variants, enemies can only be damaged by a particular type of weapon--for instance, undead can only be damaged by magic arrows or holy water--but in this game, it appears that everyone will take damage from both types of arrows. A regular arrow might do 1-2 damage, a magic arrow 2-3, and a vial of holy water 3-4. Holy water always seems to hit, too, whereas even high-dexterity characters miss about 50% of their shots with arrows, but it can only be used on undead. Combat becomes an economics game. One vial of holy water, three magic arrows, and 7.5 regular arrows all sell for the same price. What's the most efficient way to knock down that zombie with a strength of 3? Healing potions fully restore you but cost 50 gold, so it's better to expend your missiles than get caught in a melee fight.
      
Shooting an arrow at a giant rat. With a strength of 11, it's going to take a lot of arrows.
      
Treasures are usually worth gold, which the game automatically converts for you. Occasionally, you get something worthless. Sometimes, you get arrows, potions, or holy water.
   
Searching for secret doors is one of the more difficult parts of the game. They're not so much "secret doors" as "portals"--that is, they don't appear in existing walls, but rather as doors in the blank space of the map. They warp you to new areas. To find them, you have to pound away at the "L" key, and even then, your intelligence has to be high. A low-intelligence character may never be able to return to the store because he can never find the way back. Wandering monsters appear frequently while you're searching. 
  
A secret door will get me into that inner area.
         
One of the more interesting elements of this variant is the spell system, although out of five supposed spells, I only ever found #1 and #3. You have to figure out what they do through experimentation. #1 is a "kill" spell that blasts the enemy with damage. #3 is an "imprisonment" spell that circles the enemy in a wall. That's original. 
    
I didn't feel like fighting this giant, so I just boxed him in.
     
Once you find all the treasures, the dungeon resets the next time you visit the store (which is also the only place you can save) and leave again. The monsters get harder and the treasures more rewarding with each reset. But you have a maximum number of arrows (magic and normal combined), and soon it's taking half your quiver just to kill one enemy. Because of the high treasure values, you can afford to buy more, but it's a pain to keep returning to the store.
        
My map of the dungeon. The treasure and monster annotations only hold for the first iteration of the dungeon.
          
I was unable to find the princess. The best I can figure is that the way is via two rooms that I mapped at the bottom of the map. A teleporter takes you to the west room. The room immediately to its east has north and south exits, but they simply warp you back to the opposite side of the same map. The author told me he thought there was some trick to those passages, but I'm afraid I couldn't figure it out.
     
Dragon Quest was independently developed by Matt Pritchard, then a high school student living in Michigan. He sold it through a local company called Midwest Software and perhaps sold 20-25 copies. It got good reviews from the Michigan Atari Computer Enthusiasts. I Skyped with Pritchard one evening in June, and we had a long conversation about his experience in the gaming industry in general. He was a little abashed at having obviously cribbed the base code from Quest 1, although he pointed out that it was a social norm of the time. He later dropped out of college to start a company making business software and earned the nickname "The Optimizer" for his high-efficiency assembly code. In the mid-1990s, he produced MODE X, a "library of high-performance assembler routines for setting, accessing, and manipulating the undocumented 256 color modes available in all VGA adaptors." This earned him "special" thanks credits on a variety of games, including Karl Quappe (1994), Velcro Mind (1995), and Battle of the Eras (1995). 

One of Midwest's promotions for the game, courtesy of the author.
       
Games were always his first love, so he began interviewing with developers in the late 1990s. Warren Spector at Origin personally turned him down for the Ultima VIII team. He got a job at Ensemble Studios instead and worked on the Age of Empires and Age of Mythology series through the 2000s, then took a position at Valve towards the end of the decade. Today, he serves as the Director of Engineering for Forgotten Empires, which continues to develop the Empires series. He told me he regrets that he never had a chance to work on another RPG, particularly since he is a "huge Fallout fanboy."
    
Pritchard is in the process of setting up an "Atari 8-bit room" in his house near Seattle, so I happened to write to him just as he re-discovered his old Dragon Quest materials. Unfortunately, we were unable to work out how to trigger the endgame encounter. 
  
Like its compatriots in the Quest 1 line, Dragon Quest entertains for a few hours, but it's not really much of an RPG specifically. In fact, as this one lacks character development, it technically fails my criteria. In a GIMLET, it earns:
       
  • 1 points for the game world and its brief backstory.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. That's all for the limited creation, since the character doesn't really develop.
           
A late game character sheet.
       
  • 0 for no NPCs.
  • 1 point for some generic foes with no other encounters.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. There aren't any options, but I like what the limited spells did. I don't know why I never found Spells 2, 3, 4, or 6. Maybe you just have to keep resetting the dungeon.
  • 1 point for a limited amount of equipment, but no standard RPG weapons and armor.
          
Buying items at the market.
       
  • 2 points for the simple economy. In the early game, finding valuable treasures does feel rewarding.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are functional and a bit more colorful than most Quest variants. There are some basic sound effects, and the keyboard inputs are responsive and easy to master.
  • 3 points for gameplay. It gets some credit for replayability, challenge, and user-defined length.
    
That gives us a final score of 16, which is three points higher than I gave Quest 1. Pritchard asked me how well his game ranked against other Quest variants, and I was forced to tell him honestly that I thought Super Quest did it better, but Dragon Quest might be better than Dungeons, Dragons, and Other Perils. (I had forgotten at the time about Cavequest.) You have to give a break to anything published in the early 1980s, before the giants had clearly set the standards, but this little line of games is already a simplification of another series (Dunjonquest), which itself had somewhat limited gameplay. The gaming world did not need too many variations of it.
  

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Perihelion: Won! (with Summary and Rating)

The girl on the box is entirely unexplained by the game's end.
     
Perihelion
Hungary
Morbid Visions (developer); Psygnosis (publisher)
Released in 1993 for Amiga
Date Started: 20 June 2021
Date Ended: 11 July 2021
Total Hours: 27
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
  
Summary:
   
Set on a dying, post-apocalyptic planet, Perihelion offers a highly-original, moody, cyberpunk aesthetic, reinforced with grotesque graphics and a superb score. Six genetically-engineered heroes race against time to stop an invasion from an inter-dimensional entity called the Unborn. The game contrasts first-person exploration with top-down, Gold Box-style combat. Unfortunately, a completely linear story, a fixed number of combats, and a terrible mouse-only control scheme dampen the fun.
  
******
    
As I played the final acts of Perihelion, all the references and bits of lore made me think of the epigraph that accompanies Robert Howard's first Conan tale:
   
Know, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars--Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen- eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.
    
To me, this is one of the most effective, efficient uses of world-building in the history of English literature. Enormously lush and evocative, it draws you immediately into the setting and makes you want to know more about this world, all while raising far more questions than it answers. Howard and later authors would make use of these proper names, but I often wonder if Howard had any idea what they were when he wrote his first short story, or whether he was just riffing. Did he already have a Hyborian Encyclopedia to draw from? Or were these just words? Is it better not to know?
    
I wonder the same thing as I read the scrolling text in Perihelion. When the game tells me that Lord Daleth is not only a crime lord but also a high priest of Carnivore, "an insanely evil entity from the Twilight Continuum," did the authors have any idea who Carnivore really was and what the Twilight Continuum really was, or were they just pulling names from novels and comics? Again, perhaps it's better not to know. I love the idea that there are more stories to be told about Perihelion--that the urgency of our quest doesn't leave us a lot of time to get into the details of history and culture, but that if we did have time, those details would exist
      
The Guardian is never well-explained.
    
Daleth was the ruler of NightFall, a one-level fortress that seemed bigger than it was because all of the backtracking required. We were there to get hold of the Guardian--the mysterious force or object that had banished an extra-planar entity in the past. As we entered, we immediately fell into combat with Daleth's elite insectoid guards from the "Eastern Wastelands, far over the borders of the Allied Territories." The battle wasn't hard (no combat for the rest of the game was really hard), but it was a bit annoying because enemies appeared on the map after combat had already begun. I don't think this happened in any other battle. Fortunately, the enemies were all-physical, and grouped together nicely for mass-damage spells.
   
Getting through NightFall meant finding a series of keys and marching back and forth between the doors that they opened. There was some light puzzle-solving necessary, but nothing like what was required in SoulTomb. We got some equipment upgrades in various storerooms. There was another battle with insectoids at a guard post, and a tougher one with three "witchmasters of Carnivore," trained in the "southern caverns," where they go blind, deaf, and mute, but develop extraordinary extrasensory perception to compensate. That ESP apparently doesn't allow them to become aware of the presence of their own companions, because each of them cast spells that caught the other two in their radiuses. Two of them died that way. It wasn't hard to swarm and kill the one remaining.
    
Targeting a witchmaster.
       
One corridor had the fortress's netcode--MURDER--spelled out in individual letters. In addition to the security code for a later door, the files on the net station told us more about the mysterious Guardian. Daleth's own analysis revealed that the object had the energy capacity of a "class M2" star, the psychic energy signature of a "E1 Entity," and "divine level" intelligence. Daleth was planning to sell it to the mediators in the Tower of Neon for 2 million credits. I'm still not sure why we're interrupting this transaction, since the mediators are planning to use it to banish the Unborn just like we are.
   
The Guardian was locked behind a door that required both the passcode (more specifically, a key encoded with the passcode) and a sample of Daleth's DNA. To get the latter, we had to find our way into Daleth's meditation chamber and kill him. The game did its best to build him up ("mighty, dark physical energies begin to fill the chamber around you"), but ultimately he was just one guy. He had some powerful spells, including an electrical attack, but I had plenty of characters to keep up with healing while the others shot and stabbed him. He left a wicked-looking broadsword that served my lead character until the end of the game.
   
I forgot to get a picture of the sword, but here's the DNA sampler.
      
We used a "DNA Sampler Unit," found elsewhere, to collect his genetic material. As we left his chambers, the game had a surprise:
     
Your blood instantly freezes as Lord Daleth--or better say something what once was Lord Daleth--suddenly bobs up in front of you, despite that you have killed him with your own hands and you've seen him die not even an hour ago . . . when an awful, unholy howl escapes from inside the undead creature as it begins to speak on a scornful, evil voice: "FOOLS . . . DID YOU THINK YOU CAN KILL A MEDIATOR OF LORD CARNIVORE WITHOUT PUNISHMENT? NOW YOU CAN SEE FOR YOURSELF THAT EVIL--AS YOU CALL IT--NEVER DIES, IT ONLY CHANGES FORM . . . ETERNALLY!
    
Despite all the build-up, the second battle against Lord Daleth might have been easier than the first. He had a lot of attacks per round, but there was one of him and six of us. I think the battle only took two rounds.
   
Also, despite all the talk of "changing forms," he looks pretty much exactly like the first time I met him, except now he drools more.
      
With Daleth eliminated--or just changing form, or whatever--we were able to get into the vault and retrieve the Guardian. The game described it as a "small, round-shaped thing" that glows and radiates "eternal wisdom and love." It noted that in its chamber, the party for the first time did not feel the oppressive touch of the Unborn.
    
Back out in the world, the only place we could go was the Tower of Neon, so called not because it glows brightly but because it is ruled by Lord Neon, "the most influential Entity of this world." The game noted that Lord Neon, a genius, has long shaped the world with his ideas and inventions, including bionecromancy. However, Neon is also to blame for the inter-dimensional experimentation that brought the Unborn into the world.
       
I wish the game had more time to explore how a mortal emperor manages to rule a land of living gods.
    
I enjoyed the psychedelic textures as we explored the lobby. Our way was blocked by various doors, but eventually a weird, scarred woman showed up, greeted us on behalf of Archon Monterey, and escorted us to "our quarters." She told us to wait there until the Archon was ready to receive us, and not to venture out of the quarters. We waited for a while, but when nothing happened, we wandered outside, where a couple of temple guards sent us back. This happened three times before they got fed up and attacked us. Part of me wonders if there wasn't a Far Cry 4-like alternate solution to this place where if we'd waited long enough, the Archon would have come to receive us peacefully.
   
After we killed eight guards--again, the battle wasn't hard--we began exploring the rest of the "quarters." We soon found an imprisoned Archon Darley, who admitted that he had been in charge of the "Entity Project" that brought the Unborn to Perihelion: "We were searching for new cosmic energy channels in the outer space when the Unborn detected the discontinuity in our dimension." With the breach came an "astral storm" that killed almost everyone in the tower. Archons Darley and Monterey survived as a demonic "winged beast . . . an ancient creature from the Plane of Infinitum" took the throne of the tower for himself. Monterey has recently gone to try to establish contact with Neon in the Inner Sanctum.
   
To get there ourselves, we had to find Darley's "palmprint disc" so we could bring it back to him and he could encode it to allow us passage. On the way there, we had to kill our hostess, revealed as "Chamelea, one of the deadliest assassins from the period of Interregnum," executed forty years ago. The Unborn apparently has the ability to resurrect the dead. She attacked with several guards, and we fought another long combat. As usual, a combination of offensive spells in the first round, physical attacks, and healing carried the day. I'm glossing over a lot of the battles just because there isn't much to say about them that I didn't say in previous entries. I don't mean to suggest that they aren't enjoyable, or that tactics don't matter, just that I have no new information to report.
      
A network document shows how the discs work.
       
Ultimately, we made our way to the Inner Sanctum and fought the demon there. Both its portrait and its icon looked pretty cool. For the first time in a while, I had to reload a couple of times in combat, because it was capable of killing some of my weaker characters in one round. I largely ignored offensive spells (mostly because I was too lazy to mix up one-enemy versions of the "storm" spells I'd been using up to this point) and just pummeled him with physical attacks while healing the characters he targeted. 
      
I thought this was the final battle.
       
I had gotten mixed up with the story, and I thought this demon was the Unborn, so I was surprised when the game didn't end with our victory. Instead, the dying Archon Monterey told us he had been unable to commune with Neon, as "the astral channels are totally deformed." Monterey knew where the Unborn was coming into the world: a cave in the western side of Mount Torch.
  
Back on the overland map, we marched to the mountain and entered. The Guardian did something that warped us to another plane ("this cosmic pool of tears wept by countless civilizations before their vanishing into nothingness"), where we saw the Fortress of Steel from the prophecy. I thought the Fortress would be a large dungeon with a lot of combats, so I was surprised when we were brought right to the endgame. The Unborn tried to hypnotize us into serving him, but the Guardian forced it back and made it take mortal form. 
      
Reaching the Steel Fortress at last.
      
The final battle was disappointingly easy, but it had some nice visuals. The battle canvas was a face with glowing eyes, and the Unborn itself was a winged demon. It cast a variety of spells, but nothing immediately fatal. All my characters had melee weapons going at this point, and we just surrounded him and hacked away.
           
Is that the Guardian in the background?
       
Eventually, the Unborn "died" and was resurrected in the form of a literal fetus, with the game labeled "the CHAOSEMBRYO." Attacking it felt a little messed up, but it was capable of all its previous incarnation's magical and physical attacks, so we had no choice. I was prepared to lose a character or two in the final battle, but I didn't have to worry.
      
From 2001's alternate ending.
   
When it was dead, the final cut scene appeared. Against a backdrop of the sun-scorched Perihelion, our SandGlider sailed away from the final battle. The scrolling text read:
   
After reaching the outside world again, you immediately ignitiate [sic, but what a great word!] an emergency launch sequence on your SandGlider ship's computer to get the Guardian out of the critical zone before the dying Unborn attempts to destroy it with a final, desperate strike. Checking your sensor readings, you realize that you cannot put enough distance between you and the collapsing Steel Fortress to save your own lives as well. The background radiation level is so high that no living organism--including you--will remain alive within more than 200 miles of radius. The world will survive. You won't. But it doesn't really matter now . . . you're just standing proudly, silently, watching the rear sight, watching as a second sun is rising on the horizon . . . 
   
A somewhat triumphant, somewhat bittersweet composition plays over the ending graphic. Presumably, the Guardian will be recovered from the wreck of our glider once the radiation subsides.
      
The party zooms away, although apparently not fast enough.
        
I end the game still feeling positively about it, and I expect it to GIMLET relatively high, but it does have a few problems. Names and allusions aren't the same things as a well-drawn backstory, and it's going to be hard for me to give a very high rating for the game world despite the rich atmosphere. Second, the game didn't last long enough to justify its complex approach to magic. There are between 20 and 25 combats, far fewer than the 40 spells the game supports. The extremely linear nature and lack of replayability will also cost points. Nothing is more annoying than the all-mouse interface, however. Having to click a bunch of buttons needlessly prolongs combat (which would otherwise get high marks) and makes mechanics like mixing spells, trading inventory, and analyzing weapons and armor tedious and cumbersome. 
   
I give it:
   
  • 5 points for the game world. If I told you in a vacuum that the game is set on a world called Perihelion, ruled by Emperor Rex Helion, with gods named Toxic Waste and Carnivore, you'd probably roll your eyes. The atmosphere established by the cinematics, graphics, and music almost makes it all work, but at some level you're still entering the SoulTomb Mines to talk to PearlBlood.
  • 5 points for character creation and development. I like the originality of the classes and attributes and the way attributes develop through use. It is a little bit uneven. My fighters made great strides in all physical attributes except constitution, which nothing ever seemed to increase. The same goes for my mental characters and "6th sense."
       
The final stats for my party leader.
     
  • 3 points for NPCs. This is one of many games in which I can't give a high score to NPCs because they don't actually exist in the game's environment until you step into their squares; they're thus more "encounters" than NPCs. You learn a lot from them, but the game really undervalued its ASK command; hardly any NPCs respond to keywords.
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. Perihelion has an original selection of enemies with a variety of special attacks. I give some credit for the varied "encounters," including the net stations and the inventory puzzles. Where the game fails is any sense of role-playing or choice in those encounters.
  • 5 points for magic and combat. I want to give it more, as the system is based on the tactical, turn-based Gold Box model, but the magic system is more complicated than it needs to be--too complicated for the number of battles you actually fight--and the controls are tedious.
      
Aldhabi looks over his mixed spells.
      
  • 4 points for equipment. You get a variety of weapon and armor upgrades, a lot of which I missed or didn't care about because I never got the sense that it made a big difference. I ended the game never having used any of the dozen or so grenades I found. I like that the game offers you an ANALYSE option to get specific statistics about your items; I hate that it takes so much time and clicking.
  • 1 point for the economy. You start with a lot of credits. You slowly deplete them through net services. Even spending them liberally, you're never in danger of running out. You only gain more once, from a single credit card. There are no shops. 
  • 2 points for a main quest with no choices, no options, no alternate endings, no side-quests or even side areas.
  • 5 points for graphics, sound, interface. It gets all of that for graphics, sound effects, and music, which are all just perfect for this era and scope of game. It gets nothing for the cumbersome interface.
       
I love the psychedelic textures of the Tower of Neon.
     
  • 6 points for gameplay. Extremely linear and not very replayable, but also pitched at the right challenge level and length. 
     
That gives us a final score of 41. I was thinking that if I rated the game on an ABCDF scale, it would deserve a solid B--extremely promising but too flawed to be excellent. A rating of 41 puts it at the 85th percentile, which is right in the middle of "B" territory.
    
For once, my rating is perfectly in line with contemporary reviews, which were almost universally in the 80s, whether from ASM (83%), Score (83%), Amiga Games (83%), Play Time (82%), or Joystick (80%). There were some in the 70s or lower, though, including from the one English review that I could find, in the June 1994 Amiga Computing (60%). The rating is a bit mysterious. The author, Simon Clays, has nothing but praise for the complementary graphics, sound, and music, but still rates them at 68% (graphics) and 70% (sound). He doesn't like the combat system--specifically, the breaking of immersion necessary to take the player to a separate, third-person combat system. I guess real-time Dungeon Master clones are the only combat styles that Amiga Computing likes. Overall, the rating is far too positive to end at a score of 60.
   
Perihelion was written by Gyula Szentirmay (programming), Edvard Toth (graphics, story, and dialogue), and Zoltán Végh (music and sound) while they were still in high school. Toth has some recollections about game development on his site, including the John Harris painting that inspired the tone of the world. (Note that nowhere does he refer to the game as Perihelion: The Prophecy.) I wrote to Toth hoping he'd answer some questions--I particularly wanted to know if he'd played the Gold Box games or Sentinel Worlds--but I never heard back. [Ed. I corresponded with Toth after this entry first posted. The material between asterisks below is new information based on that conversation.]
    
****

Toth said that he had never heard of Sentinel Worlds: Future Magic (which was a long-shot; I thought there were similarities between the Guardian and the Key of Thor), but he had absolutely played some of the Gold Box games, which serve as a base model for Perihelion's combat. "Those games usually looked like crap and were quite terrible from a technical point of view, but they had fantastic combat design and team-based strategy." He was also an admirer of other games from Psygnosis and Cinemaware, particularly It Came from the Desert (1989/1992), an atmospheric action game.
   
He confirmed that the names and places dropped throughout Perihelion were not just words; he had extensive lore, sketches, and short stories for the game's various creatures, locations, people, and factions. Carnivore's avatar was a "vile, bloated, cadaverous baby with razor-sharp teeth," for instance, and he had written a short story about "a procession of Carnivore priests moving through a city slum, their life-draining auras inadvertently affecting the residents, setting off a series of crazy events." He mentions trying to write in the nature of Robert E. Howard, which was ironic given that I used a quote from Howard in my coverage.
  
Toth had planned to set several sequels in the world of Perihelion, perhaps with a unique focus on psychic powers and the toll they take (which was a minor feature of Perihelion's backstory):
    
I'm . . . quite obsessed with the premise of emotion-based psi powers and the dramatic (often tragic) potential in [them]. The sacrifices that practitioners have to make, the traumas they have to endure, and the discipline they have to develop to experience, recall, and sustain sequences of emotional states is very powerful material. I have the 'metaphysics' worked out, along with several pretty impactful personal stores. Maybe one day . . .
      
Toth doesn't see much hope of a direct sequel at this late date, though. He sees the original Perihelion as "too simplistic, stale, and one-dimensional." He noted that one of the "hooks" of the original game was "the very high production values, execution, and atmosphere," something that requires a lot more investment of time, labor, and money today, after 30 years of development in graphics and sound.
   
Nonetheless, he thinks about it, and he has some models in mind:
     
I'm a huge fan of George Miller's Fury Road [the 2015 Mad Max film], an unbelievable achievement that conjures up a lush and intricately detailed universe utilizing minimal dialog and exposition. Another great piece of poetic world-building is China Miéville's Perdido Street Station [a 2001 novel]. A new Perihelion would certainly be more along the lines of these sensibilities.
         
Part of me wants to disagree that a "modern" game would require anything more than the graphics, sound, and music of the original, but I guess I'm a rare player. And even I admit that the idea of exploring a world like Perihelion's in a contemporary first-person interface is thrilling.
 
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It's too bad we never saw a sequel in the setting. It ended up being Morbid Visions' only game, although all three developers went on to work for Philos Laboratories, where they worked on Theocracy (2000), a strategy game set during the height of the Aztec Empire. Toth moved to California in the late 1990s and has worked for a variety of game studios, though he never got back into RPGs except to do "additional graphics" on Cleveland Blakemore's Grimoire (2017). Szentirmay has also remained in the business, most recently doing programming for the Mafia games by Hangar 13. Végh, judging by his IMDB page, seems to have gone into music and editing in the Hungarian film industry.
       
I was curious what game would come next from Hungary, and it turns out to be a Commodore 64 title called Newcomer (1994), a seven-disk epic that, according to the C64 wiki, "pushes the C64 to its limits." It sounds like it has a bizarre, Prisoner-like plot. I'm enjoying the backstories from these Hungarian games. That coupled with the fact that I'm currently in love with a Hungarian jazz band called the Hot Club du Nax has made me more eager than ever to visit the country.