Saturday, November 9, 2019

Game 33: Mission Impossible (1979)

The opening screen of Mission Impossible

The screen above shows the beginning of Mission Impossible, the third Scott Adams adventure, and it starts with a bang. Well, relatively speaking; we're not exactly at the fireworks factory, but by the standards of the era things are zipping along. You start in a briefing room, with someone running away (from you, presumably). There are three obvious courses of action suggested here: check out the mysterious object in your possession, listen to the tape recorder, or follow the person. From a modern perspective it doesn't seem all that special, but having spent the last few years playing adventure games from the 1970s, this feels propulsive. There's a sense of action that no game before this one has attempted, and it feels refreshing.

But before I get into the game proper, it's time to back up and talk about the history a little.  I've already covered Adams' previous two games on the blog: Adventureland and Pirate Adventure. I enjoyed them well enough, though both of them were standard affairs, being innovative only because they came so early in the life of home computing. Adventureland in particular was a valiant effort to get something resembling Colossal Cave Adventure onto the TRS-80. Regardless, both games sold well, and it's probable that by this point Adams was one of the most successful game designers around.

For his third game, he went with a spy theme, and in a blatant disregard for intellectual property rights called it Mission Impossible. In Adams' defense, the early gaming industry was full of such infringements, and the show was hardly a going concern by 1979.  Even so, somebody must have wised him up, because later ports were renamed: it was called Mission Impossible until around 1982, when it was briefly renamed Impossible Mission, until the name Secret Mission was finally settled upon. Also, it was called Atomic Mission on the Commodore 16 and Plus/4 for some reason. These name changes were fairly haphazard; I've read that while the title on the front was covered with a gold sticker featuring the new title, the spine remained unchanged, and the disks inside were still labelled as Mission Impossible. Regardless of any later names, in this post I'm going with the original title. The title screen for the TRS-80 version calls it Mission Impossible, so that's what I'm going with.

The original packaging is not entirely accurate;
the saboteur didn't have a key or a gun!

As I mentioned above, the game presents you with three obvious options from the outset. Checking your inventory reveals that you're carrying a surgically implanted bomb detector, which is currently glowing green to indicate that the bomb is safe. What bomb, you might ask? That riddle is solved by listening to the tape recorder, which plays the following message:


A little more of that good old IP violation. The recorder doesn't
self-destruct, though.

Okay, so a saboteur, presumably the fellow who just ran away, has set a time bomb to blow up a nuclear reactor. The security keys and map you'll need for the mission are contained in a provided manila envelope, but when you LOOK around the room the envelope is nowhere to be seen. The game doesn't draw your attention to this, but it leaves it up to you to draw your own conclusions, the obvious one being that the saboteur has made off with it. It's a very early example of environmental storytelling, and the game has a little more of that to offer later on.

The area that can be explored outside of the briefing room is small, but it actually comprises almost the whole game. It consists of a central hub, with a Maintenance Room to the west, a room with a strange apparatus to the south, and three colour-coded doors (white, blue and yellow) each monitored by a security camera that demanded I "show authorization" before I'd be able to get through.

All of the time I was exploring this area the saboteur was running about just out of my reach. At first I worried that catching him might be a time-sensitive puzzle (the kind I hate most in adventure games, just ahead of "all alike" mazes), but I was thankfully wrong. After a while I heard a thump, and found the saboteur's dead body slumped on the floor near the yellow door. An empty pill case on his body indicated that he had just committed suicide via cyanide capsule.

Also on his person was an empty envelope and a torn up map, no doubt the one I'd been looking for. There was no sign of the keys, but he was carrying the tape recorder, a piece of yarn, a photo of himself labelled "window maintenance", and a leaflet. The leaflet was nothing more than a cheap plug for Voodoo Castle, Adams' fourth game, and could safely be ignored, but the rest was sure to come in handy or provide clues to where he might have hidden the keys.

Finding the saboteur's body

Still unable to unlock the coloured doors, I went back to the other rooms. In the Maintenance Room I found a bucket, but of much more interest was the apparatus in the south room, a box pointing at a chair bolted to the floor. Sitting in the chair revealed a line of buttons: red, white, blue and yellow. The buttons had keyholes under them, but I figured I'd try pressing them anyway.

I went in order, and discovered that pressing the red button caused my bomb detector to buzz angrily and flash yellow: the bomb had been armed! Pressing the white button right after that activated the box pointing at the chair, which turned out to be a camera. It also disarmed the bomb, at least temporarily. I guess the saboteur had booby-trapped the camera? That's fair enough, but he really shouldn't have made it so easy to disarm right after. I'd guess that most people would press the buttons in order, and that's all I had to do to get this sequence right. If he was really committed, the bomb would have gone off as soon as I pressed that red button.

I left the room, now in possession of a photo of myself stamped "visitor". After some experimentation, I figured out that showing this photo to the camera on the white door would allow me to pass. (It didn't work for the blue or yellow doors.) Past the white door was a visitor's room, with a panel of buttons, a window connected to some red wires, and another camera monitoring the window.  Looking through the window (with the EXAMINE command) I could see that I was on the second floor, with the control room of the reactor core below. I could also see a ledge, just outside the window.

The panel had two buttons, one white and one green. The white one simply allowed me to leave the room, while the green one activated a movie projector that was currently empty.  Obviously the window and the ledge beyond were of more interest. I tried to BREAK GLASS, and the game prompted me as to what I'd like to try breaking it with. It's suggestion of my fist was ineffective, so I had a look at my inventory. A picture, an empty bucket and a piece of yarn didn't sound heavy enough, so I tried the tape recorder. Success! It smashed through the window, falling to the control room below. Unfortunately, the TV camera came to life, and my bomb detector starting flashing yellow again...

Ignoring the warning, I stepped out onto the ledge, where I found some broken glass and a yellow key. My bomb detector was wailing now, but I scooped up the key and tried my best to get it back to the room where I'd had my picture taken. Alas, the bomb exploded before I could get there, and it was back to the beginning.

This time, I figured that I should try to identify myself to the camera before breaking the window. The saboteur had a picture that identified him as "window maintenance", so I took that with me this time. The camera was powered down when I tried to show it though. So I broke the window and then tried it, getting a message that said "owner of badge is not present". Figuring that a dead face is still a face, I lugged the saboteur's body into the room and showed the picture again. This powered the camera down, and allowed me to get onto the window ledge without setting the bomb into a countdown mode. I was able to take the key out of the room, use it to unlock the yellow button, and take a picture of myself marked "maintenance". And once again, taking this picture set my bomb detector back to a safe green level.

Fooling the security system with a dead body.

The maintenance picture allowed me to pass through the yellow door, which led to another maintenance room. This one contained some wire cutters and an old yarn mop. I pocketed the wire cutters, because I figured I'd be defusing a bomb at some point. As for the mop... remember the piece of yarn I found on the saboteur's body? That was a hint, and a SEARCH through the mop caused the blue key to fall to the floor. Upstairs there was nothing but an empty movie projector, so there was nothing left to do but head back to unlock the blue button.

This time, unlocking the button and pressing the correct sequence got me a picture marked "security". The only door left that I hadn't been through was the blue one, and sure enough my new picture allowed me to pass. Inside was an anteroom, with a door labelled "control room", a room to the west, and stairs leading up. For some reason I couldn't open the door, so I looked in the room to the west. In this storage room I found a radiation suit (which I put on) and a vat full of heavy water, which is generally used for cooling nuclear reactors. I figured I'd have to fill my bucket with this stuff for later.

The stairs up lead to a viewing room, with a small window. Looking through, I could see that the control room door was blocked by some debris. Heading back down, I tried a bunch of ways to get the door open. HIT, BASH and PUSH were all ineffective, and I didn't have anything in my inventory that looked useful. At this point I was stuck, but also pretty eager to get this game over and done with, so I looked up the solution: PUSH HARD was the answer to my problem, and I later discovered that KICK would have worked as well. So I had the right idea, but ran afoul of the parser. Stepping through, I saw that the debris that had been blocking the door was the tape recorder that I had earlier thrown through the window. It's a nice bit of continuity, but when I read "debris" I was picturing a pretty sizable blockage. I doubt it affected my ability to solve the problem, but it was a bit of a disconnect from what the game described.

The control room had stairs leading down to the core, and a break room off to the east. There was also a sign: "No beverages, please use Break Room". A seemingly superfluous detail, but those are few when you're dealing with games with such tight memory restrictions. There was also a film cartridge, which I took back to the empty movie projector to watch. It showed me a safety film about the core, with two relevant bits of information: 1) Plastic deforms strangely in radiation, and 2) Even short exposure to high radiation is lethal, so suit up. I'd already done the latter, so all I had to remember was to not take my bucket into a high radiation area.

There was nothing left to do except head down into the core. I found a time bomb attached to the reactor by a red wire. I snipped it with my wire cutters, causing my bomb detector to buzz angrily. Taking the bomb, I carried it to where I had left my pail, in the break room. There I put down the bomb, poured heavy water all over it, and it was defused. I had, apparently, beaten an "impossible mission".

No, it was actually very possible.

Going into the core without a radiation suit on is lethal, of course, and results in you falling over and retching as the bomb explodes. Taking the bucket into the core is also a bad idea, because it deforms and spills your heavy water. Finally, you can't defuse the bomb in any other room except for the break room. You can't actually take the bomb back out through the control room door, so there are only three rooms to choose from anyway, but the break room is the only one that has a floor that doesn't absorb the water when you pour it.

So that's Mission Impossible, a pretty simple, small game that nonetheless did some interesting things with the adventure game genre.  Firstly, it completely discards the treasure hunt format so popular at the time for something with a more narrative focus. It's not necessarily the first game to do this, but it's definitely among the earliest. Of more significance is its use of environmental storytelling: the missing envelope at the beginning, the various items on the saboteur's body, and the piece of yarn from the mop in particular, are examples of this kind of thing. I'm not playing the games from 1979 in a strict chronological order, but regardless of whether another game got there first, Mission Impossible is still doing it in 1979, and that has to count for something.

That said, the story it's telling, aside from being a complete knock-off of a popular TV show, doesn't exactly hang together. The saboteur's plan is the main culprit here, as his various booby traps are pretty nonsensical, obviously designed to be puzzles from an adventure game rather than actual traps a real saboteur might set. Yes, I get that criticising a game for having unrealistic puzzles is a little absurd, but the closer to the real world a game's setting tries to be, the more it invites this kind of criticism.

And now, to the Final Rating.

Story & Setting: The setting for this is a novel one, but it's not all that convincingly realised, being little more than a series of coloured doors to get through. That's no doubt a consequence of the hardware, but I gotta rank what's there. As for the story, it gets some extra points for novelty and environmental storytelling, but it's still too simplistic to rank high. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: There are none, aside from the saboteur who commits suicide right at the start of the game. You're never able to occupy the same area as him until he's dead, and his body is even used to solve a puzzle, so he's much more of an inventory object than a person. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: It's a sparsely-written text adventure on the TRS-80, what did you think it was going to get? Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: It's the same two word parser that Adams has been using since his first game, and even at this point it's starting to feel a little long in the tooth. I had one "guess the verb" problem, which I probably shouldn't dock it for, but I'm feeling ever-so-slightly uncharitable right now. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: I'd say this game is a little too easy, even though I consulted a walkthrough to beat it.  That took me about an hour, and I'm pretty confident that I would have sussed out the answer without too much time on top of that. It's certainly Adams' easiest game yet, so I can't rank it high. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: This should get some points for being an early Scott Adams game, as well as for its storytelling innovations. It might seem simplistic now, but I haven't played anything else for the blog that had done this kind of thing before. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Fun: The main advantage this game has in this category is that I finished it really quickly. On the other hand, I consulted a walkthrough so that I could finish it more quickly, which I think says something. It didn't elicit any negative feelings in me, but I wasn't exactly having a blast with it either. Rating: 2 out of 7.

I won't play Mission Impossible again, so it doesn't get the bonus point. The above scores total 15, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 30. That put's it 23rd out of 33 games played, and 12th out of 19 adventure games. It's equal on points with Greg Hassett's Voyage to Atlantis as well as Colossal Cave Adventure II. Both of those are better games, but the former lacks Mission Impossible's interesting points, and the latter is full of hella annoying puzzles.

NEXT: I'm sticking with the TRS-80 to play Atlantean Odyssey, which has a decent claim to being the first ever fully graphical adventure game. Eat that, Roberta Williams!

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Game 32: Dunjonquest: The Temple of Apshai (1979)

The mood lighting in this dungeon is wild.

For the beginning of 1979, I opted to go with Dunjonquest: The Temple of Apshai.  It was either this or Akalabeth, and I was in the mood for something new.  I've punted Akalabeth further down the list, because I'm quite familiar with it, and I also wanted to give myself something to look forward to later in the list.

Besides being the first game I'm playing for 1979, Temple of Apshai feels like something of a watershed moment for the blog. It's a game I'm vaguely familiar with (having played a little bit of Temple of Apshai Trilogy on the Commodore 64 back in the day), it's historically significant, and it's been on my extensive CRPG bucket list for years.  This is exactly the sort of thing that I started this blog for, and it's exciting to finally get to this point.

Temple of Apshai was created by a trio of Dungeons & Dragons players in 1979: John Conneley, Jon Freeman, and Jeff Johnson.  Its roots began when Conneley purchased a Commodore PET to help him organise his D&D notes, but found that the computer was far from up to the task. Instead, hoping to write the computer off as a business expense, he decided to write some games. Being a better programmer than a games designer, he recruited Freeman, and the two of them formed Automated Simulations, which would eventually be known as Epyx. Their first game was a space strategy game called Starfleet Orion, and their second game was Temple of Apshai. For this they brought in fellow gamer Jeff Johnson to help, and together they created one of the first truly significant CRPGs of the home computer era. (I don't want to say that it was the very first of significance, because I'm not sure when it came out in relation to Akalabeth. I'm pretty sure that Apshai was first, as Akalabeth is generally believed to have been released late in 1979, but I don't know for sure.)

Not only is Temple of Apshai significant in its own right, reportedly outselling both Ultima and Wizardry in the early 1980s, but it's the first game in the Dunjonquest series, the first series of CRPG games ever, with ten individual titles. While it lacked the staying power of its contemporaries - the last original Dunjonquest game was published in 1982, compared to Ultima and Wizardry lasting for decades - it was the first, and you have to admire the confidence of Conneley and co. for going whole hog with a series before there had even been a big CRPG hit on home computers.

The game was originally released for the PET and the TRS-80, but I wasn't able to find a version on-line that I could get working for either platform. The earliest version that I could work with was the 1980 port for the Apple II. Just now I discovered another TRS-80 version at The Digital Antiquarian (where I got most of the historical info about this game), but I'm immersed in the Apple II port now, and I don't like to switch versions partway through a game. Maybe I'll tool around with the original for a bit when I'm done.

Before I start with the game proper, I should mention that it has an honest to god manual. This is a rarity in 2019 and was seemingly a rarity in 1979, especially in terms of the size and quality of Temple of Apshai's manual. It begins with an introduction that waxes rhapsodic about the possibilities of tabletop RPGs, and the experiences they can provide, going on to relate that to the Dunjonquest series. It runs through the rules in a fairly thorough fashion, though not so thoroughly as to lay all of the game mechanics bare. Similarly, the monsters are described in general terms without giving away their stats. It even provides a fictional backstory for the temple, from the perspective of an adventurer named Brian Hammerhand. It's not quite up to the standards that Ultima would set later in the 1980s, but it's still very good.

The back half of the manual is taken up by descriptions of traps, treasures, and rooms, divided up by dungeon level. These are to be referred to during play. When you enter a room, you read the relevant description in the manual. You do the same when you find a treasure, or set off a trap.  It's an ingenious way of providing a D&D-like experience on the highly restricted memory of the earliest computers, and for me brings back fond nostalgic memories of the journal entries from SSI's Gold Box games. Admittedly, from a modern perspective it can feel weird to be constantly consulting the manual for in-game information, but I got used to it very quickly, and it certainly does provide a higher level of immersion than previous CRPGs have done.

Temple of Apshai's title screen

The game begins with character creation, which is done by answering questions posed to you by an innkeeper. You can have the computer roll stats for you randomly, or you can use a character from your favourite tabletop RPG. The latter choice is an interesting one, as it basically allows you to set whatever stats, experience level, and magic armaments you like. It's a built-in cheat system, really, and one that I abused pretty mercilessly, but more on that later.

Each character has six attributes, rated from 3 to 18 because that's the way D&D does it. These attributes are Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Intuition, and Ego. The first three function much as you'd expect. There's no spell-casting in the game, so the main use for Intelligence is haggling with the innkeeper and talking to monsters. Intuition helps with finding secret doors and traps. Ego apparently measures mental toughness, and allows you to do better when the tide of battle turns against you, but whatever effect it has was invisible to me.

After your attributes are determined you're given an amount of money in silver pieces. I'm not sure exactly what the range is, but I'd lay odds that it's 3d6x10 (30-180), because that's how D&D did it at the time. With this money you can buy armor (leather, ring mail, chain mail, partial plate or full plate), a weapon (dagger, shortsword, broadsword, hand-and-a-half sword, or great sword), a small or large shield, a bow, arrows, and healing salves. Starting gold varies, but generally I was able to start with a broadsword, leather armor, a large shield, a bow, and a decent number of arrows.  You can haggle the innkeeper's prices down, and as mentioned above this is easier if your character's Intelligence is high.  There are Strength requirements for some of the high-end weapons, but I never rolled a character who was unable to wield a broadsword.

You don't want to load yourself down with too much gear, especially if your Strength is low, because encumbrance is very much a factor in this game. The more loaded down you are, the more moving and fighting adds to your fatigue, and running out of energy during a battle can be deadly.

After purchasing equipment you can enter the Temple of Apshai, which has four levels. You can choose which level to enter, with level 1 being the easiest and level 4 being the most deadly. I won't go too deeply into the backstory from the manual, because it doesn't affect the gameplay all that much. The Temple was founded long ago by priests of the insect god Apshai, who carved out tunnels in the ground beneath, growing strange crops and mining gold and gems. They practiced dark rites, while young people from the lands around disappeared, and insects swarmed from the nearby swamps. The people of the land prayed to their gods, and eventually the Temple of Apshai collapsed and was destroyed. Only recently was the temple excavated. Only four levels were cleared before the work parties started to disappear, and nobody would enter the place. Now the temple lies open, full of monsters and treasure as such places tend to be, and the player's goal is to get in there and take as much of that treasure as possible.

Temple of Apshai doesn't have an end goal, so I gave myself a simple one: map out all four levels, find every treasure, and visit every chamber described in the entries at the back of the manual. I managed all of these, but as you'll see the legitimacy of that victory is somewhat debatable.

The first chamber of level 1.

"The smooth stonework of the passageway floor shows that advanced methods
were used in its creation. A skeleton sprawls on the floor just inside the door, a
bony hand still clutching a rusty dagger, outstretched toward the door to safety.
A faint roaring sound can be heard from the far end of the passage."


The dungeons are pictured from a top-down perspective, with each chamber being drawn on the screen as you visit. I've heard that this is excruciatingly slow on the TRS-80 (often a problem with games written in BASIC), but on Apple II the speed was tolerable. Movement takes a bit of getting used to. You need to turn by pressing R (for right) and L (for left), or V to do a 180 (I think this stands for volte face, which is the sort of tortured construction you end up with when each key on the keyboard is used for a separate command; see also Ztats from Ultima). Once you're facing the desired direction, pressing a number key determines how far you want to move. The further the move, the more it adds to your fatigue. As usual when a game doesn't use the arrow keys for movement it can be baffling at first, but it's simple enough to grasp after the initial confusion.

The non-movement commands are mostly related to opening doors (regular and secret) and looking for traps. There are plenty of secret doors around, but thankfully finding them isn't very hard; if you're facing a wall when you hit the (E)xamine key it will search the entire wall, rather than the section directly in front of you. You can also listen (with the command (H)earken) at doors, which might tell you what monster lurks in the room beyond. Traps are similarly easy to find, as the (S)earch command works on the entire room, causing any trapped area to flicker for a second or two.

Locating a secret door in the east wall. Note that it's in the upper right, while
I'm way down near the bottom of the screen.

"A finely carved and painted mural fills the east wall of the passage, opposite the
opening, depicting men tilling the soil. A ransacked backpack rests under the
mural. A roaring sound can be heard from the north."

Combat is simple, although managing your fatigue gives it an added dimension. There are three basic melee attacks: (A)ttack, (T)hrust and (P)arry. Thrusting does more damage but uses more fatigue, while parrying does less damage than a regular attack but lowers your fatigue. Arrows can be used to attack from a distance, but you have to be lined up with the enemy to have a chance of hitting.  There's no shooting on diagonals, unfortunately. You can also talk to monsters (using the ! key for some inexplicable reason), and occasionally they will allow you to pass without harm. As I mentioned above, the likelihood of success here is based on your character's Intelligence.

Your "Wounds" are measured as a percentage, and when you're reduced to 0% you're dead. It's pretty hard to die permanently in this game though: usually you'll be found by another adventurer who takes your body back to town to be resurrected. There are three such NPCs, each of whom demands a different price. Olias the Dwarf takes all of your treasure and magic items, while Lowenthal the Wizard is satisfied with taking just your items. Benedic the Cleric does it for free; the manual says that he asks for a small donation to his church, but as far as I can tell the game doesn't take away any of your treasure. Very rarely, the monsters will eat your corpse, and in that case your character is dead and gone.

Fighting a swamp rat, with the combat messages displayed under my stats.

"The room is well lighted by the phosphorescent glow emanating from the greenish-
yellow algae covering the high ceilings of native rock and well worked stone walls
to the north and south. A broken bow lies in two pieces near the east wall."

You can get stronger by earning experience points, which is done by killing monsters and exiting the dungeon. I don't think you get experience for finding treasure, but I'm not entirely sure about that. As is usual with such things, gaining experience allows you to hit more easily in combat, and sustain more damage.  The Apple port that I was playing keeps track of your character's experience, but from the manual I gather that the TRS-80 version didn't. You had to note it down yourself, and type in the total every time you wanted to use that character. It sounds like something from the neolithic era.

Treasure is represented on the screen by a brown square, and it's nature is usually indicated in the room description from the manual. For example, the opening chamber has a treasure that is described as a skeleton sprawling on the floor with a rusty dagger in its outstretched hand. When you (G)rab a treasure, you're referred to the manual to find out exactly what it is and how much it's worth. This ranges from items that are worthless (an all too common result) up to emerald bracelets worth 5000 silver pieces. As with experience in the TRS-80 version, the game doesn't actually keep track of how much treasure you have (this goes for the Apple II port as well). Whenever you end a dungeon expedition you're given a list of the treasures you found, and it's up to you to record their values and add them to your current total. There's nothing stopping you from giving yourself loads of treasure aside from your own honesty.

There are also magic swords and armor, books, boots, cloaks, rings, talismans and potions. The magic items weren't something I really got to explore, because by the time I started finding some I was using a horribly overpowered character that was effectively invincible. More on that later.

My first character, who I named Nathan because my creativity has been atrophied by the rigors of adulthood, was far from stellar. His scores were all low to average, with only Intelligence rating above 12. Nevertheless, with no reroll function I was convinced to buy this guy some weapons and armor and take him into the temple.

The first level seems to be some sort of garden. It features a number of streams and pools, and many of the rooms are covered with moss and fungus. My initial foray ended when I tried to take a wooden box containing a shimmering cloak; the box was trapped with a needle that killed my character. Luckily, I was taken back to the surface by Benedic the Priest, and after being resurrected I was ready to go back in. Exploration of the level was slow going. The Swamp Rats weren't too difficult to kill, but the Antmen were much tougher, as were the various giant creatures such as Spiders, Beetles, Wasps and Leeches. Things got much easier once I was able to afford a suit of full plate, and I was able to clear out the level except for a section to the southeast. This area was infested with Giant Ants, which were incredibly tough. I found them to be almost impervious to arrows, and melee combat with one was about a 50/50 proposition. I eventually cleared them out with sheer persistence and a reliance on being resurrected by NPCs, and by this time I had a few thousand silver pieces and little to worry about financially speaking.

A rough map of level 1, with room descriptions from the manual noted


The second level was where things fell apart for this character. There was an Antman in the entry corridor, but I was pretty confident that I'd be able to beat him. After all, I'd killed a dozen or so on level 1. This guy was much harder though. I swear I fought him twenty times, seemingly with little effect. I had the best armour in the game, and the best weapon that my Strength would allow, but it seemed that nothing I did would be enough to kill it. Still, I kept going back in and trying to whittle him down (the game can save the state of the level, which it stores in a different file to the original level; I'm pretty sure that monsters retain any wounds you inflict on them between forays). He killed me every time, and eventually I copped a death where my character was eaten. It was time for a new guy.

(Having reread the manual, it does note that certain monsters will be stronger on higher levels of the temple. The only one I noticed this with was the Antmen, but from memory that's the only monster that is found in any significant number across dungeon levels.)

At this point I didn't want to start fresh though, so I decided to abuse the character creation system. Calling him Cheatus, I gave him an 18 in every stat, around a million experience, +5 weapons and armor, and a hefty supply of healing salves and magic arrows.

With my new, over-powered character I was able to get my revenge on the Antman and get to the business of exploring the second level. What I found were mostly living quarters for the ancient priests of Apshai, various storerooms, and a prison section to the east. My memory is a little hazy, as I'm writing this some time after finishing up with the game, but I remember fighting a lot of Antmen, and Ghouls in the prison cells. The Ghouls didn't have a paralysing touch, but they did receive multiple attacks per round. Even with the over-powered Cheatus I still died a few times (mostly to Antmen) but the level was not too difficult.

A rough map of level 2


Again, the difficulty ramped up on the third level. This was a series of mines and natural caverns, infested with Vampire Bats and deadly cave-ins. I explored it a little with Cheatus before stumbling into a secret room where I fought a Wraith. Every blow the Wraith struck drained my Strength score, until eventually I was forced to flee and v e r y  s l o w l y inch my way out of the dungeon. With a Strength of 1, pretty much anything other than moving at minimal speed dropped my Fatigue below 0. I was able to escape from the temple, but with no way to restore my Strength, Cheatus was hopeless as an adventurer, and I had to retire him.

Thus arose Cheatus Jr. He was a genetic chip off the ol'  block, with an 18 in every stat. This time I gave him the most experience I possibly could, a total of 9,999,999. Going out on a limb, I tried to give him weapons and armour with a +100 bonus. Much to my surprise, the game accepted this as perfectly fine. D&D tops out at +5 generally, and I expected that Apshai would follow suit, but the power scale is much higher here. I did some experimentation, and it accepted bonuses up to 200, but anything of 300 or more would cause the game to crash.

I took Cheatus Jr. into level 3 and stomped that wraith in a single hit. To be honest, I stomped pretty much everything in a single hit, and I barely took any damage from monsters or traps. This time, I had broken the game pretty thoroughly, but I was too fired up with the spirit of progress to feel bad about it. I have a lot of games on my list, you know, and if a game provides the systems for me to legitimately cheat I'm going to take them if things become too frustrating.

A rough map of level 3. The Wraith was in Room 60.


Leaving a lot of dead Vampire Bats and Amoebas in my wake, and loaded down with gold nuggets, I took on the final level of the temple. This was the temple proper, where the priests conducted their worship. The barracks were seemingly here as well, because there are two rooms in the west where I fought 40 Antmen in a row. Luckily they fought me one at a time or I'd never have stood a chance (the game never has you encounter more than one monster at a time, but some rooms will have monsters appear one after another until you've killed them all). What seems to be the main chamber of the temple has an altar with a statue of a praying mantis that has rubies for eyes. Of course the mantis comes to life when you try to take the rubies, but I have no idea how difficult the battle really is because I obliterated it in a single blow. The rubies are worth 3,000 silver pieces each, which is a hefty sum, although somewhat meaningless by this stage of the game.

A rough map of level 4. Room 25 had the praying mantis statue.

So, my Temple of Apshai experience was somewhat marred. I was keen to move on, and rather than take the time to grind and become stronger, I took a shortcut and made a powerful character from scratch. When even that wasn't enough, I caved even further and created an invincible character. I still had fun mapping the place out, and exploring all of the chambers, but I don't really feel like I experience the game as intended, at least after the first level or two of the temple.

FINAL RATING

Story & Setting: In terms of backstory, setting, and the integration of the two, Temple of Apshai is unparalleled in the CRPG field at this point. The use of the manual to flesh out the temple might seem odd from a modern perspective, but it provides an atmosphere and the sense of a lived-in world that would be impossible using just the computer hardware available. Of all the CRPGs I've played for the blog, this is the one that comes closest to recreating the feel of a D&D game. Rating: 3 out of 7.

NPCs & Monsters: The only NPCs in this game are the innkeeper, who is simply there to facilitate character creation, and the three characters that are there to bring you back from the dead. Interaction with them is nonexistent, and they count more as game mechanics than characters. As for monsters, there are a good variety, but most of them boil down to sacks of hit points. Only the Wraith presented any obvious special ability with it's Strength drain. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The game has no sound effects or music, but the graphics are pleasant enough, and more colourful than anything else seen on the blog so far. Most importantly of all, they're functional. The writing of the room descriptions is also quite evocative, and should definitely be a factor here; they're as much a part of the game as anything else. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: This one is a little hard for me to judge, because I broke the game in the second half with my rampant cheating. The movement system is a little odd and unwieldy, but searching is quite streamlined; the creators anticipated how irritating it would be to have to search every section of wall, and made the player's search area very generous. There are also other nice little touches, like the ability to talk your way past monsters, and listen at doors. The fatigue system is the major mechanic of the game, and managing it is your main concern in combat. It's not much to go on, but it's a step above hitting A repeatedly until somebody dies. Mostly, I would say that everything in the game works well enough without anything in particular standing out. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Challenge: This is another tricky category for me. After level 1 of the dungeon I might have scored this higher, as I found it challenging with only moments of frustration (the giant ants, mostly). The difficulty ramps up too quickly on level 2, though. After clearing out the first level I would have thought I'd have a chance against the first enemy of level 2, but I got murdered over and over again. Even with a weak character, the difficulty curve felt much too steep. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Innovation: As the first game in the first CRPG series this deserves to rate highly, but it should also be noted that Dunjonquest in itself was not all that significant or influential in the long term. Temple of Apshai is much better known than the series that it was a part of, and even it didn't provide an obvious influence for a lot of games that came afterwards. Rating: 5 out of 7.

Fun: I enjoyed mapping and exploring this game more than I enjoyed playing it, if that makes sense. The atmosphere and evocative writing is good, but the game itself can be a bit of a slog, full of frequent combats and frequent deaths that necessitate starting back at the dungeon entrance. Rating: 3 out of 7.

I'll give Apshai the bonus point, because I'd like to go back to it some day and try to play it properly. This above scores total 23, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 46. That puts it on a level with Orthanc and pedit5, the earliest top-down mainframe CRPGs, which feels about right. It's not as good as those games mechanically, but it makes up for it with evocative descriptions and atmosphere.

NEXT: It's time for Secret Mission, the third of Scott Adams' text adventures.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

The Years in Review: 1974-1978

I've given up on Daniel Lawrence's DND, so it's time to take a look back at the years leading up to 1978.  It's been a long time getting here: I've been at this blog for about five years, and while I have covered about five years worth of games it feels like I'm making slow progress. Nevertheless, this is a good time to look back, take stock, and consider where the blog is heading in the future.

When looking back at this era and determining the highlights, it's important to remember that there's a huge technological gulf between the mainframes that the earliest games were developed on, and the home computers that games were being created on starting in 1978. Because of that I'm going to split them up by technology, as well as by genre.

THE MAINFRAME CRPGs

It's pretty safe to say that the bulk of the time I've spent on this blog has been taken up by mainframe CRPGs, particularly those on the PLATO system: DND and Moria took me a year each to complete.  By the standards of the time, these are staggeringly large games, complex in a way that home computers wouldn't be able to match until the late 1980s at the earliest. Of all the surprising things I've learned during the course of this blog, I think the most surprising has been that the earliest CRPGs were far from primitive compared to things like Ultima and Wizardry. And yes, I'm aware that these games were developed over many years, but for the most part the ones that I played were fully formed by the late 1970s.

There are two distinct lines of influence in this era. First was the line of top down, iconographic games started with The Dungeon (aka pedit5), and continuing through The Game of Dungeons and Orthanc. The second was the line of first-person 3D games that started with Moria, and was continued with Oubliette.  The top-down line continues on into 1980s with things like Telengard, but eventually it peters out. I suppose that Ultima could be considered as part of that line, but Richard Garriott has always said that he developed his games on his own, and any resemblances are purely superficial.  Similarly, Rogue has some similarities, but that game's creators have also denied being influenced.  The third-person 3D line is far more influential, being an obvious ancestor to the Wizardry series, which in turn led to such varied games as Bard's Tale, Dungeon Master, and some of the most important Japanese RPGs.

It's pretty obvious that all of these games were an attempt to recreate the seminal tabletop RPG, Dungeons & Dragons. As if the number of these games with the DND filename wasn't proof enough, the mechanics are often drawn directly from that game.  But while the mechanics are drawn from D&D, the ability to craft an emergent narrative that's inherent to that game was still beyond the technology of the 1970s. The PLATO CRPGs are all very much lacking when it comes to plot, setting, and characters, and it will be a very long time before any games can mimic any of D&D's elements beyond exploration and combat.

I'm slightly torn when it comes to picking a Mainframe CRPG of 1974-1978. The Game of Dungeons v5.4, with a rating of 54, would be the obvious choice. It's certainly the PLATO CRPG that I enjoyed playing the most, and by far the best of the top-down line. And yet, Moria and Oubliette are much more influential games. I can rule out Moria pretty safely, for being far too empty.  But Oubliette is a different story, with a sizable yet manageable dungeon that's full of tricks and traps. Where Oubliette falls down is the lack of a modern community: it lives and dies on its multiplayer capabilities. If I were to go back and play in the 1970s, I've little doubt that Oubliette would be the game of the era. But from a modern perspective, The Game of Dungeons v5.4 is the superior game, and I have to reluctantly go with it.

Mainframe CRPG of 1974-1978: The Game of Dungeons v5.4

THE MAINFRAME ADVENTURE GAMES

When it comes to adventure gaming in this era, there's no escaping the influence of Colossal Cave Adventure. Every game that comes after it bears its influence in one form or another, to the point where "adventure" is the name of the whole genre.

There aren't obvious lines of influence with adventure games as there are with CRPGs (although that could be my relative lack of knowledge when it comes to those two genres).  But there are many games here that feature the main elements of Colossal Cave Adventure: exploring an area, and earning points by collecting treasures. Acheton, Zork, and The Cottage all follow this format, as does the multiplayer MUD1. The main outliers to this format were Castle (which apparently predates Colossal Cave) and Aldebaran-III, both of which were created using the Wander programming language.  Aldebaran-III in particular is strong on setting and narrative, or at least it appears that way at the beginning. While the games that sprung out of Colossal Cave were the most influential in the short term, Aldebaran-III provides a glimpse into a future of adventure games more narratively sophisticated than simple treasure hunts.

It would be remiss of me not to single out MUD1 for special attention here, because it's the progenitor of a whole line of multiplayer games, and is influential in ways that go far beyond my meager knowledge of MUDs. As with Oubliette, it would be a real contender if there was still a community playing it today. It's still an enjoyable single-player experience, but obviously that's not its greatest strength.

It's quite a bit easier to pick the Mainframe Adventure Game of 1974-1978. While Colossal Cave Adventure is all-pervading in its influence, and Acheton is the largest and most challenging, there's no denying the sheer quality of Zork. It has the highest score on the blog by a large margin (70), and holds up pretty well even today. A case could be made for it being the greatest adventure game of all time, and I wouldn't argue too much with anyone who had that opinion.

Mainframe Adventure Game of 1974-1978: Zork

THE HOME COMPUTER CRPGs

With 1978, home computing finally became accessible with the advent of three computers: the TRS-80, the Apple II, and the Commodore PET. These machines were woefully under-powered compared to the mainframes I talked about above, and were quite incapable of recreating the types of games that could be found on PLATO. As such, there's a certain disunity of theme and style in the games of 1978.

In fact, there are just five games to consider here. Beneath Apple Manor has a lot of Rogue-like elements, with its randomised top-down dungeons containing monsters represented with ASCII characters. Space is very much based on the tabletop RPG Traveller.  It has a claim on being the first sci-fi CRPG, but it plays much more like a collection of mini-games than a traditional RPG. The third game is Dungeon Campaign, a fun but somewhat slight attempt to emulate the party-based play that's inherent to D&D. Devil's Dungeon is potentially endless, but the version I played was bugged and broken. Finally, there's Richard Garriott's DND1, or at least the recreations of it that were made as part of a competition from a few years ago. It's not really a home computer game, but in terms of gameplay and  complexity it belongs in this category.

Obviously we're in the earliest days here, with the creators of these games still trying to figure out how to bring the tabletop RPG to home computers. There's very little sign here of influence from the mainframe games; that won't come for a while yet. It's interesting to see these early efforts, and the gaming lineages that might have been, but ultimately, with the exception of DND1, these games would have little influence on the genre as a whole.

The Home CRPG of 1978 is pretty obvious. Space, Devil's Dungeon and Dungeon Campaign hold little interest beyond an hour or so. DND1 is of great historical importance, but it's very difficult to detect any of Ultima's DNA in this primitive game. Instead, I have to give it to Beneath Apple Manor, which I enjoyed playing and could quite happily go back to right now.

Home CRPG of 1978: Beneath Apple Manor

THE HOME COMPUTER ADVENTURE GAMES

The home computer market for adventure games was largely dominated by the work of two men. Or rather, one man and one boy: Scott Adams and Greg Hassett.

Before Infocom arrived on the scene, Scott Adams and his company Adventure International were the leaders in the adventure game field. In 1978, he produced two games: Adventureland and Pirate Adventure. The first is an obvious attempt to recreated the experience of Colossal Cave Adventure on a home computer, albeit in a highly truncated form. Pirate Adventure stretches a bit in terms of genre, but still presents a treasure hunt as the man focus (but what else do you want from a pirate game?). Both are solid, enjoyable games.

By contrast, Greg Hassett was a thirteen year old kid, who was prolific in his output (probably because all he had to worry about was teenage kid stuff). He released three games in 1978: Journey to the Centre of the Earth, King Tut's Tomb, and The House of Seven Gables. These games were of varying quality, with House of Seven Gables obviously being the best. I have to give Hassett some credit for avoiding the fantasy genre that everyone else was seemingly obsessed with, but his games are somewhat lacking in polish. I mean, all the games of this era are lacking in polish, but Hassett's efforts don't measure up to those of Adams, at least at this point.

Of the games that remain, Lords of Karma is the best, a polished effort that tries to provide some extra interest with a focus on doing good deeds. In reality it's just another treasure hunt, but the idea was there. Treasure Hunt is an expansion of Hunt the Wumpus with some adventure game elements added in, and Quest might be the simplest adventure game I've ever played, with nothing more to do than choose cardinal directions to move in.

I'm tossing up between Adventureland and Lords of Karma for Home Adventure Game of 1978. Karma blends in some CRPG elements, which is the sort of thing I like, but I think that Adventureland is a bit stronger as an adventure game.

Home Adventure Game of 1978: Adventureland.

So that's it for 1978, wrapped up, done, dusted and disposed of. I'm not sure where I'm going next.  I'll probably create a page in the sidebar giving my schedule for the games of 1979, but I have to figure out what that schedule will be. I'll probably start with either Akalabeth or Temple of Apshai, but I'm still undecided.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Swords and Sorcery: Finished

I'm done with Swords and Sorcery, which I ended up playing for much longer than I thought I would. There's a simple reason for that: I was enjoying it. But while some games remain enjoyable for a long time, there are others where you eventually hit a wall, and they stop being fun. In that regard, Swords and Sorcery has one of the sharpest declines that I've ever experienced.

As of my last post, I had around 130,000 experience points, and the missions I was getting from the king involved killing Demons. These were not too hard; in a head-to-head battle, I would generally earn just enough XP from killing a demon to offset the damage taken. Using maneuverability, ranged attacks, and the protection of the magic circles, I was able to beat them without taking much damage at all, gradually increasing my XP (which double as hit points).

Soon I was getting missions to kill Invisible Demons, which were about twice as tough as regular Demons. Their invisibility could definitely be a problem; it was easy to get into a rhythm while clearing out weaker foes and not realise that an Invisible Demon was attacking me repeatedly, draining 1,500 XP with every attack. The best way to beat them is by using the Magic Lantern, which reveals their location. The duration of the lantern is limited, but generally long enough to last a whole mission.

After that came Goblin Kings, which looked like regular Goblins but were a whole lot tougher. Each one had around 20,000 hit points, and it was taking me around a dozen hits to kill just one. Luckily they're weak to arrows. Especially effective were the magic arrows that fire three shots at once. With those, as well as the ever-useful magic circles, I was soon beating them and earning even higher rewards. I'm pretty sure that your XP reward for killing a monster is equal to its hit points, so the Goblin Kings were granting me some hefty rewards.

Finally, the king started giving me missions to kill Men. This is where the game really took a turn. Each man had over 200,000 hit points, and on a successful strike would deal a like amount of damage. I had around 1 million XP by this point, but even so just a few hits from a Man would be enough to wipe out hours of progress. My return strikes were only doing about 2,000 damage, and my arrows were even less effective. I was able to kill them from the safety of a magic circle, which was a lengthy process that usually involved breaking a number of swords. This would have been fine, because my regular readers will be aware that I have a lot of patience and persistence, but not every section of the forest has a magic circle. Eventually it's necessary to kill a Man without that protection. I was able to do it, by staying out of range and peppering him with arrows, but that took me over an hour. It was lucky for me that I'd acquired a quiver with an infinite amount of arrows; without that I surely would have run out first. Regardless, at that point I realised that I had four more Men to kill to complete the mission, all without the aid of a magic circle, and that's when I gave up. The time-to-fun ration had definitely dried up.

That said, it now occurs to me that I could have switched to playing in 1x1 forest maps, which would guarantee the use of a magic circle against all foes. I'm tempted to keep playing now to see if there are any enemies beyond Men. There was a weird jellyfish icon on the opening screen that I haven't encountered yet.

Fighting a Man from a magic circle. His icon is the same as mine.
You can see in the bracketed text below how many hit points he has left.

Still, I'm done with Sword and Sorcery at least as far as the blog is concerned. Time for a Final Rating.

FINAL RATING

Story & Setting: The story is simply that a king keeps sending you into a forest to kill increasingly stronger monsters, with no end-point in sight. That's fine for a game set-up but it's not going to score a lot of points. The forest is a novel setting in what has been a dungeon-heavy genre thus far, but it's not a particularly interesting one. Rating: 1 out of 7.

NPCs and Monsters: This game has a solid number and variety of monsters, but as is usual at this time they're differentiated only by icon and number of hit points. The Goblin King had a noticeable weakness to arrows, so it's possible that there were other weaknesses and immunities that I didn't catch onto. The Invisible Demons also added an extra challenge. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The graphics were clean and functional, and I've always marked the PLATO games up a little for that warm, cozy orange glow. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: This is a tight, well-designed game, at least up to a point. The combat is tactical in a way that I haven't seen in any other games on the blog, relying more on maneuverability and ranged attacks than items and spells. The advancement system is rudimentary, but I appreciate the way that it cuts out the middleman by using XP directly as health. I have to mark it down a little for the very steep rise in difficulty, though. I'm also not super keen on the way the movement controls work, but they were fine once I got used to them.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Challenge: Right up until I started getting missions against Men, I was prepared to rate this game pretty highly in this category. Before then, it maintains a really good balance, with the monsters ramping up in difficulty just as things start getting a little easy. It's possible that I missed a weakness that might have made killing Men easier, but they really did make the game stop being fun very quickly. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Innovation and Influence: The influence of this game seems to me to be negligible, but as far as RPGs go it represents a play-style that I haven't seen in the blog so far: the tactical RPG. That's probably to do with its roots as a Star Trek variant. The only other game I've played so far that felt at all similar was Richard Garriot's DND1, and there was definitely no mutual influence there. So it gets some points for originality. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Fun: As I mentioned in the last post, this game was dominating my thoughts but I did get sucked into it whenever I found the time to play. When the challenge was still there, it remained enjoyable, and I'm a little disappointed that it stopped being fun with such abruptness. Rating: 3 out of 7.

I'll give this game the coveted bonus point, because I wasn't done wanting to play it when I had to stop. The above scores total 20, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 40. That's a very respectable score, placing it 10th out of 27 games overall, and 6th out of 11 CRPGs. It's not quite up there with the games I would genuinely recommend, but it's a solid, very playable game that would have scored even higher without such a steep rise in difficulty.

NEXT: If I can't get Daniel Lawrence's DND up and running (and it looks like I probably won't be able to), I'm done with 1978. I'll do a wrap-up for that year, hand out some awards, and then it's time to start with 1979. Looking at some of the highlights for that year I see Adventure for the Atari 2600, Akalabeth, Temple of Apshai, and The Count (which I've heard is Scott Adams' best game). I'll probably kick off the year with Akalabeth, because I'm a total stan for Ultima, but I haven't decided for sure.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Game 31: Swords and Sorcery (1978)

Monsters on the battlements from left to right: demon, werewolf, zombie,
goblin, dragon, unknown, and wizard.


Ah, that familiar orange glow. Despite all the grief that the various PLATO CRPGs have given me  - I'm looking at you Moria, and you The Game of Dungeons - going back to that system almost feels like going home. There's something warm and comforting about it.  It could be Stockholm syndrome, or it could just be that the best PLATO games are so much better than their contemporaries on home computers. It's one of those.

(While I'm on the topic of Moria, Ahab over at Data Driven Gamer has just started playing it. If you didn't get enough of that game during the eight months that I was immersed in it, that blog has you covered.)

Today's game is Swords and Sorcery, which as far as I can tell is the second-last PLATO game I'll be covering. It was developed by Donald Gillies, who was a student at Urbana High School at the time, where he had access to PLATO. Its inspiration was a game called think15, created by Jim Mayeda, which is another one we have to chalk up as having been deleted by an overzealous system administrator. Following think15 was another game called think2, which Gillies describes as running incredibly slow. Development of Swords and Sorcery started in 1976, but the full game wasn't playable until 1978. Thankfully, Gillies made the game available again on cyber1.org back in 2003, so we can still play it today.

 Apparently, this lineage of games is heavily influenced by Star Trek from 1971, which is a very important piece of early gaming that I've never actually played. In that game, you fly the Starship Enterprise around a map with 8x8 quadrants, blowing up Klingons and seeking refuge in starbases. Swords and Sorcery takes the same idea and applies it to the fantasy genre.

There's no back-story in the Help file (no Help file at all, which is unusual for PLATO games, which normally have manuals that go into excruciating detail). It's set "1200 years ago," and you play a warrior or a knight undertaking missions for the king. These missions take place in a forest, and usually involve killing a certain number of a specific monster, except for a character's first mission which requires chopping down trees or collecting treasure chests.

Before you are given a quest, the king will ask you to determine the dimensions of the forest you'll be exploring. You can go as small as a single screen (1x1). I'm not sure what the upper boundary is on size; I'd test it out, but I don't want to get locked into a mission that might take me over an hour to complete. The larger the forest, the more monsters you have to kill to complete the mission, and the higher the reward you get from the king when you finish. I generally default to a 2x2 configuration, which is 4 screens. In the note files for the game, Gillies says that playing with a single screen is the most efficient way to advance, but I find that I rely on shifting from one screen to another quite a lot to survive. There's not a lot of room to maneuver one just one screen.

Moving around the screens takes a bit of getting used to. You need to type M (for move), followed by a direction, followed by the desired speed. You can move in all eight directions, using a number pad (or the arrow keys if you only want to go north, south, east or west). If you don't have a number pad the directions are mapped to different keys, but I can't remember what those are. The speed you set determines how many steps you move in one turn. Normally you can move from 1 to 3 steps, but by using adrenaline (which you can buy or find in phials) you can move 4 or 5. The trickiest thing to master is the inertia mechanic, where once you start moving in a direction you keep moving that way until you stop or change direction. I spent a lot of time early on killing myself by bumping into trees, because I couldn't figure this out. Once you get the hang of it it's not too bad, as you can stop your movement by pressing 0.

Loads of monsters, three chests, a Magic Circle on the far right,
and me at the bottom, surrounded.


Each screen will be filled with monsters, which will move towards you and try to kill you. Melee combat is a simple matter of hitting S (for sword) and choosing the direction you want to swing. Either you do enough damage to kill the monster, or you don't and it gets to retaliate. The weakest monsters are goblins, with about 10 hit points. Moving up from there are thugs, zombies, werewolves, dragons, wizards, and demons. Worst of all are the invisible demons, which have about 10,000 hit points, deal almost 2,000 damage per hit, and can't be seen. I've lost a number of characters to them without even realising I was being hit.

You can attack monsters from a distance with arrows, which do more damage than your sword early on. Arrows can be fired the length of the screen in eight directions, but they're in short supply; you need to buy them or find them. There are magic arrows that do extra damage, and can fire through multiple foes.

Some screens have treasure chests, which are opened by pressing T when you're next to one. Most of them contain bags of gold, but occasionally you'll find gems, jewels, or a magic item. Gems and jewels can be sold, and are extremely valuable. Much like original Dungeons & Dragons, finding valuable jewels is the quickest way to advance in experience. Magic items include swords, shields, boots of flying and the magic lamp (which allows you to see invisible enemies). I've found a few cursed weapons as well. Your character will normally default to the best weapon and shield, but a cursed item will force you to use it instead.

The forest will have a number of Magic Circles, which are vital to your success. Once you step on a Magic Circle, you can't be damaged by attacking monsters. You can retaliate, though, so it's a good place to fight back against those monsters that are more powerful than you. You can also sell gems and jewels here, trading them in for bags of gold. The Magic Circles are also where you can buy experience points (1 gold piece buys 25), arrows, and adrenaline. You can also pay for the ability to fly, but this isn't something I've tested out much yet; the one time I did it I accidentally left the forest and was executed by the king for failing my mission.  If your sword breaks (which occasionally happens during combat, even to magic swords), and you don't have a spare, you can buy one here or beg to have the king send you a replacement if you don't have enough gold. A sword costs 50gp, but you're better off spending that money on experience points, then begging for a free sword. Speaking of swords, don't swing one at a magic circle; the circle will become hostile, and you can't use it any longer.

Enjoying the protection of a Magic Circle.


Experience points are the most important thing in this game. Not only do they measure your progress, but they double as your hit points. You can buy them, and earn them by killing monsters, but every hit you take reduces them, and if you go below 0 you're dead. It's a fairly elegant distillation of the Dungeons & Dragons system, in which earning treasure grants you experience points that allow you to gain levels and more hit points. Swords and Sorcery does away with levels, lets you spend your treasure on experience directly, and uses that experience total as your hit points. A simplified system like this works for a simpler game.

I found this game to be very Deadly at the start, to the point where I started to despair of ever making any progress.  The first mission can be tough, because you begin the game with 0 experience points. Any damage will kill you, even bumping into trees as I mentioned before. Combat is right out, because you start out not being able to do enough damage to kill even a lowly goblin in one hit, and the return strike will absolutely be fatal. One method of survival is to outmaneuver the enemy, and either collect the required treasure (or chop the required amount of trees) without entering combat. Another is to try to nab a treasure chest and then find a Magic Circle, where you can buy some experience and arrows. The third method, the one I eventually came to favor, is to find a Magic Circle and use its protective power to kill your enemies without taking any damage.  Also useful is switching from one screen to another; you'll never be attacked on your first move into a screen, and the layout will rearrange every time you enter. So if there's a Magic Circle that's too hard to get to, just leave the screen and return and it might be in a more convenient spot.

My current character.


Using these tactics I'm making slow and steady progress. My current character has about 130,000 experience, and is mostly being given missions to kill Demons. I'm enjoying it quite a bit; it's not the sort of game that dominates my thoughts when I'm doing something else, but when I do play it it's very easy to get into a rhythm and lose a few hours. It has that thing where a mission is just short enough that it's always tempting to play just one more. I could probably finish this up in one post, but I want to keep playing, and I suspect that there are more powerful enemies that I haven't encountered yet. I'll give it one more week and see how it goes.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Game 30: Quest (1978) - Victory!

Back in May I played a game called Treasure Hunt, and I was pretty sure that it was as basic as the adventure game genre could get. Well, step aside Treasure Hunt, because we have a new contender in Quest.

Quest was written by Roger Chaffee (who I think was a school teacher), who was inspired by Colossal Cave Adventure. He started the project when his school received a pair of Commodore PETs, and finished the game in a couple of weeks. The code was printed in the July 1978 issue of Byte Magazine, which is archived here. I'm playing version 3.0, using WinVice as a PET emulator.

The premise is dead simple: you stumble across a cave where it's rumoured that a pirate his his treasure years ago. Like many an adventure game, your goal is to find the treasure and bring it back to the cave entrance.


The command list above is the entirety of what you can do in this game. You move around using the four cardinal directions, as well as up and down. I spent a good few minutes trying to type things in like it had a real parser before I realised just how simplistic this game is.

With nothing else to do but wander, I didn't have to feel bad about my usual method of ignoring puzzles until I had mapped out a chunk of the game. It's not all that large, and mapping only took me a little over an hour.

The two exits from the first cave lead through either a narrow tunnel, or the home of the Gnome-King (who is currently not home). There's a maze of twisty passages, in which the rooms are thankfully distinguished by subtly different descriptions. A pit leads down to a canyon, which features the graffiti "Bilbo was here". Past the canyon is a guillotine room, which is not as deadly as it sounds. (I'm not actually sure you can die in this game; I never managed it.)

Climbing up the canyon leads to the home of a Giant, who your character will automatically avoid if he shows up. Another path leads through an incense-filled room, and then to Xanadu, which is described as having "caverns measureless to man" in a reference to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem Kublai Khan (see, have some culture). East of Xanadu is the Quest Control Center, which is probably a reference to the end-game of Colossal Cave Adventure, where you end up in a repository of the game's various elements. When you enter the Control Center you're immediately kicked back to Xanadu, so this was as much as I was able to map to begin with.

The treasure is found in room above the Guillotine Room, and the game simply prompts you with a yes/no question as to whether you want to take it. This is where Quest actually becomes an adventure game, because you can't take the treasure back to the entrance: the Gnome-King will be there to block one path, and on the other the tunnel is too narrow to fit the treasure through. The goal is now to find an alternate path outside.

The first path I tried was through the maze, but I hadn't gone far before a Pirate jumped out and reclaimed his booty. My first instinct was to go back to the treasure's original location, to see what was there. It wasn't the treasure, but there was a note saying that pirates never hide treasure in the same place twice. My second instinct, based on my memories of Colossal Cave Adventure, was to thoroughly explore the maze. Sure enough, I found the treasure in a dead end. I half-expected the pirate to show up again after I reclaimed it, but he never did.

I swear this is the exact dialogue from Colossal Cave Adventure.


After bumbling around for a little while, I eventually went back up to Xanadu and tried the path through the Control Center. This time, presumably because I was carrying the treasure, the path led to a Crystal Palace, and then to a labyrinth. The labyrinth was dead simple, as it only has two rooms, and I was able to get through by heading south repeatedly. It ended at a Black Hole, and by heading down from there I entered a chute that dumped me near the cave entrance. One move north, and I was outside and victorious.

Beating the game.


Originally Quest didn't have a score, but Chaffee added one after the children who played it complained. You score 1 point for every location entered, as well as for things like meeting the pirate and escaping with the treasure. The game also counts the number of moves it took to win, but I don't think that affects the score. The best I was able to score was 60 points, but the article I linked to above says that there are 66 in total. I didn't know that until I started writing this post, though, and I'd already declared myself victorious. In this case, unless one of my readers would like to point out the six points I missed, I don't think I'll go back to find them.

All that's left is to show my map, and the do a Final Rating.

Click to embiggen

Final Rating

Story & Setting: The treasure-hunting set-up is already well-worn, and the setting is a mish-mash of disparate elements that's pretty sparsely described. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The denizens of this game are obstacles and nothing more, and there's no way to interact with them at all. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: I feel like I've written this phrase a thousand times already, but a text-based adventure game isn't going to score any points here unless the writing is descriptive and atmospheric. The descriptions in Quest are functional, and nothing more. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: This is a tricky one. The mechanics of this game are simple, but they do everything they're supposed to do. Sure, all you can do is move from one place to another, but the implementation works fine. In the end, though, I think I have to dock points for sheer lack of mechanics. Yes, they work, but what they do is the absolute bare minimum that every other adventure game on this blog has achieved. Those games did much more on top of that, and it wouldn't be fair of me to mark this game on the same level. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Challenge: This game was dead easy. All you have to do is explore, and you'll eventually complete it. Literally the only way to fail is to give up. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Innovation: This game takes its inspiration directly from Colossal Cave Adventure, and adds nothing of its own. Instead, it takes things away, which might have been a technical necessity but still loses points on innovation. It doesn't look like this game had any influence either, but I'll give it an extra point for being a very early microcomputer adventure. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Fun: At best I would describe this game as mildly distracting.  Even so, a short, simple game is welcome every now and then, and I didn't hate it. I reserve the minimum score for games I genuinely dislike, so Quest gets bumped up a little. Rating: 2 out of 7.

No bonus point, I won't be revisiting this one. The above scores equal 11, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 22. Alas, that puts it second last, just above Library (which was horribly broken). It's much too simplistic to score high, I'm afraid.

NEXT: I'll be returning to the lovely orange glow of PLATO to play Swords & Sorcery. Thankfully, it's nowhere near as big as the other PLATO RPGs, and should be another one-poster.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Lords of Karma - Victory!

Having spent most of my last post on mapping and exploring, I decided it was time to dig into this game and start solving some quests. The most obvious goal was to earn enough karma to enter Heaven, but there were a number of other quests in the game as well. Laying out my goals was helped by the discovery of a book on a mountain top, which purports to hold the wisdom of someone called Maharathi. Continuously reading the book gives a number of hints:

  • CHAPTER I. Putting the Torch to Cobwebs
  • CHAPTER II. I Give a Beggar a Silver Dollar
  • CHAPTER III. A Cooling Egg
  • CHAPTER IV. Secrets Found in a Crystal Ball
  • CHAPTER V. An Idol Destroyed.

This was a pretty good set of quests to go on. In addition, I had been asked to rescue a princess from a knave and return her to the palace.  Tackling all of these took me the better part of an afternoon, which was time I could have better spent watching hard Japanese wrestlers batter the hell out of each other (it's G1 Climax season once again!). Still, I've had worse weekends, and played worse games.

Rescuing the princess turned out to be not difficult at all. Her and the knave are always found somewhere in the Oak Forest to the west of the city of Golconda. The last time I tried to fight him he killed me, but this time I battered him to death with a lit torch. Combat is very swingy in this game; you can kill a Troll with your bare hands, then lose a fight to a bat when armed with a sword. It's very much just a case of luck, though it seems that the knave is one of the game's weaker enemies.

The princess then started following me, demanding to be returned to the palace. I returned her to her father, who rewarded me with a diamond before taking his daughter on a vacation. From that point on I was able to enter the palace without fear of being thrown in the dungeons, although there's not really much reason to do so.

Reuniting the royal family.

It was time to get to the clues in the book, and I started with the beggar. The silver dollar is usually found somewhere in the Oak Forest to the east of Golconda (the locations of items and creatures is randomised, although they usually pop up in the same general area). The beggar is easy to find as well, as he's always on the road either north or south of the city. I gave him the dollar and he rewarded me with a lamp that never runs out. This game involves a fair bit of stumbling around in the dark, so it comes in handy.

The next easiest clue to solve was the one about torching cobwebs. I'd found some cobwebs in the Cyprus Swamp, so I went there armed with a lit torch and tried to burn them. None of the commands I tried worked, so I explored a bit and was soon attacked by a giant spider. The spider kept firing webs at me, but with my torch I was able to burn them away and thus avoid being killed. Eventually I struck a killing blow, although it was a long, laborious process of typing KILL over and over again. Searching the swamp afterwards I found a sword, which soon became my primary weapon.

I had no idea about the egg, but after an hour of fruitless exploring, monster killing, and treasure-finding, I decided to try talking to everyone I met. Most of them just attack, but I was quite pleased to note that every creature I tried to talk to had some sort of response.  Success came when I talked to the giant who lives in the Redwood Forest to the south-west. He told me that humans aren't welcome in his forest, but I could win his trust by bringing him a sapling.

I'd found a sapling in the swamp during an earlier game, so I wandered around (and killed a crocodile) until I found it again. The sapling is heavy, so I had to drop everything from my inventory to even move. Then I couldn't get back out of the swamp the way I came, because the sapling was too big to fit through a crack in a wall. I was forced to find another path east and north of Golconda, but I was eventually able to circle around and take the sapling to the giant.

I hope those are some REALLY big leaves.

He rewarded me with an egg. I suspect there's a way to hatch it, but I never did figure it out. The "cooling egg" in the clue had me trying to light it on fire, which I couldn't get to work. So I'm not convinced that I solved everything here, but finding the egg is good enough for me to consider the third clue dealt with.

The other two clues took quite a bit longer to deal with, because they both involve exploring underground. There are a number of underground areas in the game: the sewers beneath Golconda, the tunnels under the mountains, more tunnels accessed through holes in the swamp. The most extensive of these seems to be the caves under the southern Promontory. It's hard to tell, because there are secret doors all over these areas. Sometimes they appear when you LOOK, and other times they don't, so fully exploring these places is a matter of luck and patience. I'm still not sure I got everything.

There are monsters underground, and all of them can kill you: the worm and the vampire bat are the weakest. There's an axe-wielding goblin, a mace-wielding troll, and a shimmering wizard who will happily roast you with a fireball from his staff when he sees you. The idol mentioned in the clues is also underground, in the caves below the Promontory, past a maze of stalactites and stalagmites. The troll always guards the areas leading up to it, and he can be tough to kill even when you're well-armed.

The idol is dedicated to Baal, and when you examine it you're asked to make an offering. I knew it would be a bad idea, but I had to try it at least once.

Whoever the god of this world is, he punishes you worse for this than for murder.

Yes, I got blasted for idolatry and took a massive karma hit. Needless to say, I restarted.

With idol located I needed a way to destroy it. I had earlier found a bomb lying in the Aspen Forest to the north-west, and I figured this was the way to do it. Sure enough, I took the bomb to the idol, lit a match, lit the fuse, and moved away. The bomb exploded, reducing the idol to rubble, and I got a big karma boost. (What I didn't get was a screen shot, because my torch had run out while I was waiting for the bomb to go off.)

My final goal was obtaining the crystal ball, which I knew was being held by a friendly wizard who roams about the wilderness. When you talk to him, he asks you to bring him the staff of the shimmering wizard. Which I then tried to do. Many, many, many times. That guy is tough.  In the end I resorted to praying at the temple, which sometimes results in you grabbing a torch and wandering into the underground tunnels, and is probably the quickest way of finding the wizard. So I just kept on praying, fighting him when I found him, and returning to pray after he killed me. It probably took me thirty tries to beat him (with a lot of fruitless underground journeys when praying sent me to the wrong area).  When I took his staff to the good wizard, he rewarded me with the crystal ball, which I discovered could be used to see secret doors. I considered using it to map out the whole game accurately, but even I have my limits (I would have totally done it if this was an RPG though).

Say "appear" one more time...

Last of all, it was time to earn enough karma to make my way into heaven. If I'm being honest though, I accomplished this one way before destroying the idol and obtaining the crystal ball. The number of points required to ascend to heaven is randomised with every game; in some games I've ascended with only 24 points, and in others it's taken me over 300. So as you can see, the game can vary greatly in difficulty.

There are three ways to earn karma: solving quests, donating treasure, and killing monsters. The first of these I've covered pretty comprehensively above.  Donating treasure simply involves taking any treasure you've found to the temple and using the DONATE or GIVE command. A sign tells you that "contributions will be gratefully accepted", so it's not all that obscure, but it did take me a few tries to hit on the right command. Despite this game's premise supposedly being to do good deeds, it still ultimately boils down to finding treasures and returning them to a single location. We haven't escaped the influence of Colossal Cave Adventure just yet.

Killing monsters is a little more interesting, because doing so can earn you karma as well as lose it. I think it has something to do with the weapon you're using.  When you examine a weapon it tells you where it was made. Some are forged in Valhalla, some in Hades, and some are made by "Knave Armaments, Inc."  I'm pretty sure that you get points when using weapons from Valhalla, and lose them when using weapons from Hades. I found a ring from Hades that shot lightning bolts, and while it was powerful I lost karma every time I used it.  As for the Knave Armaments weapons, I'm not sure, but I think you lose karma from those as well. I just tried to test it and got killed by a vampire bat, so it'll have to remain a mystery.  Oh, and of course killing friendly characters always loses you karma.

So I amassed a couple hundred karma, went to the temple, prayed, and got the following victory screen.

After this it dumped me to the OS prompt, so I guess heaven is using a TRS-80 you guys.

So that's Lords of Karma done, dusted, and off the books. After a couple of games that I feel like I didn't properly beat, it's a relief to notch up another win. All that's left is a quick Final Rating and I can move on to something else.

FINAL RATING

Story & Setting: The set-up for Lords of Karma promised more than the usual late-70s adventure fare, but in the end it wasn't much more than another treasure hunt. It perhaps deserves some props for being one of the first game adventure games that has a number of sub-quests, and multiple paths to victory. It's possible to win without donating any treasure at all, by completing the quests instead. The setting doesn't have a lot of personality, and I'm tempted to dock it for mixing mythologies with Hades and Valhalla. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The characters are simple quest-givers, but they do all respond when spoken to, and have a minimal amount of personality. The selection of monsters is decent, although combat is too random to differentiate them all that much. It's a slight cut above the other adventure games available on home computers at the time in this regard, though. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: As with so many of its kind, it's a text adventure with very sparse descriptions. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: The parser is very simple (I doubt it knows more than about a dozen commands), but it gets the job done. Once you know how to GET, DROP, GIVE, TALK, PRAY, LIGHT and KILL you're pretty much good to go, and the games does what it's supposed to do. Combat is very random though, and there are no tactics that can mitigate this swinginess. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: In terms of puzzle solving this game has very little in the way of difficulty, and gives a decent amount of hints as to what you need to do. Earning karma is also not that hard, especially once you know how to avoid losing it. The game even resurrects you when you die, with no loss of karma at all. The most challenging thing is combat, but even that's a minor setback in terms of the goal of ascending to heaven. It's probably about the right amount of challenge for the size of the game, if not a little too easy. The randomisation gives it some small replay value, though. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: It doesn't seem as though this game had much of an impact, but it does feature some minor innovations. It might be the first adventure game to explicitly have "doing good" as a goal, and it might also be the first to feature elements of Eastern philosophy and religion (albeit in a minor way). Rating: 3 out of 7.

Fun: I only had three sessions on this game, perhaps five hours in total, but I found myself enjoying it while it lasted. There's just enough to see and do in the game to make it worth exploring for a short while, although the combat can be very frustrating. Rating: 2 out of 7.

No bonus point for Lords of Karma; I doubt I'll revisit it.  The above scores add up to 17, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 34. That puts it equal 14th overall, and 8th on the chart for adventure games. That's right in the middle, equal with Pirate Adventure, and among the highest-rated adventure games for home computers.

NEXT: It looks like I have tracked down a copy of Quest after all, so I'll be looking at that if I can get it to work. If not, it's either Swords & Sorcery (a minor PLATO RPG) or Daniel Lawrence's DND (which I doubt I'll be able to get running but you never know). The end of 1978 is finally in sight!