Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Game 48: Journey (1979)

The original cassette packaging of Journey.

For a game I had never heard of before, Journey does have a certain level of historical significance.  In an early feature article in Softalk magazine, a number of text adventures were mentioned among those that Roberta Williams played before she started creating Mystery HouseColossal Cave Adventure is one of those, of course, and it's not surprising that she also played every Scott Adams adventure she could get her hands on.  Also mentioned among those luminaries was Journey, a much more obscure title.  So obscure, in fact, that it was barely mentioned anywhere on-line before Jason Dyer of bluerenga.blog did the detective work to dig it up.  Even now, it's far from well-known, but if it had any influence on Roberta Williams, then it's a much more important game than its obscurity would indicate.

Journey was created by Steve A. Baker, and released by Softape for the Apple II.  I tracked down Steve Baker's web-site, and it turns out that he had an extensive career in the video game industry, releasing games for Apple and Atari, working for Epyx, and making games all the way up to circa 2006.  It's all here if you want to learn more.

The packaging and manual for Journey don't give an accurate picture of the type of game it is.  The image on the front cover depicts a well and a mansion, both of which are in the game, but it really makes it look like it's in the horror genre.  The manual simply says that the goal is to find everything of value and put it in the SAFE-est place possible.  That it's a treasure hunt in the style of Colossal Cave Adventure is clear, but further details are unforthcoming.

The closest thing Journey has to a title screen.

The game doesn't provide any further guidance or preamble, simply beginning with you standing next to a wishing well.  I went through my routine as usual: INVENTORY revealed that I was carrying nothing; HELP gave me a hint to try a compass direction; and SCORE revealed that I would need 350 points to fully beat the game.  As mentioned above, the goal of the game is to find as many treasures as possible and put them in the right area (in this case, a safe).  The game ends after 175 moves, then gives you a score and a rank.  Even if you die, you can keep resurrecting until the time limit is up.  175 moves doesn't sound like much, but it's more than enough time to do everything in the game in a single run.  The main thing that sucks up time is the paltry four item inventory limit; there's a decent amount of going back and forth required to collect everything.

The area around the well is mostly fields, with some gardens and a mansion to the east.  I also explored down the well, finding a sewer tunnel, a closed grate, and a brass key on the ground.  My initial instinct was that this game would be fantasy, or perhaps something in the haunted house genre, but the following scene divested me of those notions.

I was not expecting this.

Downtown Hollywood? That was something of a surprise, I'll admit, as modern cities haven't really been tackled in a text adventure before this point.  This game is pretty light on fantasy and sci-fi trappings in general, a rarity at the time.  There is a dragon that pops up sometimes when it's dark, but that's about it.

The map for Journey isn't particularly large or difficult to traverse.  I'd divide it into five distinct areas: the area around the well; the sewers; the mansion; downtown Hollywood; and the tunnels connecting Hollywood and the mansion.  I'll go through each one by one and highlight the most interesting stuff.

THE WELL

The well itself is pretty much the only thing of interest in this area.  It has a winch with a rope attached, and you can climb down the rope into the sewers below.  The well is specifically called out as a wishing well, and dropping a coin in it reveals the solution to a later puzzle.

THE SEWERS

The area under the well features a brass key on the ground, as well as a closed grate (both of which I mentioned above).  The grate can't be opened from this side.  Because of rising water this area can't be explored much further, and if you linger here for too long you will drown.  (I should also note at this point that the items aren't always found in the same place: every time the game is reloaded, the items are shuffled around. The item locations run through the same sequence every time the game is loaded, though, and I just kept playing with the initial configuration rather than trying different ones. I'm unadventurous like that.)

The other section of the sewers is accessed from downtown Hollywood, either via a manhole cover or a sewer drain.  The only item I found down there was a pile of diamonds.  The sewers are also inhabited by rats, which will go for your throat when they see you.  Eventually they will kill you, unless you get them first by throwing a hunting knife (found in the mansion).  They remind me a great deal of the dwarves in Colossal Cave Adventure.

Being attacked by a large threatening rodent.  I have no knife,
so there's nothing to do but try to run away.


Also in the sewers is a vertical shaft with an o-ring at the top.  At first I thought this o-ring was a type of seal or gasket, but I think it's actually a railing.  I was able to get down the shaft by tying a rope to the o-ring.  There was nothing at the bottom of the shaft, but I suspect that in other games some treasure might be located down there.

DOWNTOWN HOLLYWOOD

This is a busy area of the game, so I'll run it down in point form.

  • There's a hardware store where you can find an electric lantern.  A light source is necessary to explore the sewers and the upper floor of the mansion; if you wander around in the dark you'll soon be incinerated by a dragon.  The lantern runs out well before the game's time limit, so it needs to be used sparingly.  (Remembering the final puzzle that stumped me in The Wizard and the Princess, I tried to RUB the lantern.  The game didn't recognise the command, but I'm pleased that it's entered my list of standard actions to try. Hopefully I won't forget about it.)

This dragon only ever attacks when you enter a dark room
without a light source. Don't ask me how the two correlate.


  • At the back of the hardware store is a dark alley, which was empty in my game but probably has an item in others.  There's also a sewer drain, from which you can see someone staring back at you.  If you DESCRIBE that person (this game's version of LOOK or EXAMINE), you get transported into the sewers.
  • There's a manhole cover, with a nearby shed.  Inside the shed is a crowbar, which is required to open the manhole.
  • South of the initial area is a police station, and entering it gets you thrown in a jail cell.  The only way out of the jail cell is to JUMP through a window, which leads to the area with the manhole.  If you do this while the manhole is open, however, you'll fall through the hole and die.

THE TUNNELS

The tunnels connecting Hollywood, the mansion and the sewers aren't that extensive, but there's enough going on down there to tackle it in point form as well.

  • There's a secret passage, which can't be escaped by using standard compass directions.  The solution is to type GET OUT.  It only leads to the police station jail though, so going through there doesn't serve much purpose that I could figure out.  As with the other useless areas I discovered, I suspect that items are located there in other games.
  • One of the tunnels has carvings on the wall, which give the following clue when examined: "The key to the password lies within <the password>".  I never figured out what this was about.
  • One area has a broken bottle on the floor, which has just released some poison gas.  When you try to leave, the game asks you for a magic word. It also gives you a hint: "the roll candy with the hole".  The answer is LIFESAVER, referencing the lolly brand that is in turn referencing the flotation device.  I'm rarely a fan of puzzles that require knowledge from outside of the game, but in this case the word can be learned if you drop a coin in the wishing well.  Beyond the gas is a sewer grate, which can be opened, and leads back to the area under the well.

Regular Lifesavers are alright, but give me a packet of
Fruit Tingles any day.


THE MANSION

The mansion has two floors (with more rooms on the top floor, which is something of an architectural marvel).  One the bottom floor there are two rooms, containing a box of matches and a gold coin.  The coin can be used in the well, as I've said.  The matches are a possible light source, but every one you use comes with a penalty to your score, so it's not recommended.  The matches also keep getting blown out, so they're just annoying all round.

The top floor is dark, and infested with hostile rats.  This is where I found the hunting knife, the only weapon in the game.  Not far from that is the attic, where there's a rope hanging from the rafters not far from a chair.  Climbing up on the chair and trying to take the rope results in death by hanging, but you can take the rope safely if you cut it with the knife.  It's useful for accessing the shaft in the sewers.

There's a locked door that can be opened with the brass key.  That leads to a dining room where you can find a silver spoon.  Past that is the safe, which is the place where you need to store your items.  The game doesn't discriminate between treasure and mundane items, as almost everything in the game gets you points if you drop it in here.  There are eight items that need to be placed in the safe: the key, the coin, the knife, the matches, the crowbar, the diamonds, the silver spoon, and the rope.  The lantern is the only item in the game that doesn't count as a treasure, as you are unable to drop it once it's in your possession.

Depositing treasure in the safe.

I would have been finished with this game in a day or two, but I got caught up in trying to find all 350 points.  I was stuck on 312 for a long time, until I figured out that the rope in the attic could be cut down.  Currently, I'm stuck on 349 out of 350; this game has a Last Lousy Point in the style of Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork.  There aren't any walkthroughs or guides out there for Journey as far as I'm aware, so I'm going to have to give up on this for now.  I did email Steve Baker to see if he can give me any hints, but I haven't gotten a response, and to be honest I'd be surprised if he remembers the answer after 40 years.  Anyway, here's the list of things I've earned points from, just in case someone reading this has beaten Journey and can tell me what I'm missing.

  • The game gives you 1 point for every two moves, so regardless of how well you play you'll always end with at least 87 points.
  • Finding all nine items (lantern, key, coin, knife, matches, crowbar, diamonds, silver spoon and rope) is worth 134 points.
  • Putting all of the items above (minus the lantern) in the safe is worth 88 points.
  • Turning the winch on the wishing well is worth 10 points.
  • Unlocking the door in the mansion is worth 10 points.
  • Opening the sewer grate is worth 10 points.
  • Opening the manhole is worth 10 points.

I might revisit this one day, but for the moment that elusive point will have to go undiscovered.

Something else for me to tell my therapist, I guess.

Having played Journey, I don't see a lot of influence on the work of Roberta Williams.  Jason Dyer remarked on Journey's humourous deaths, and their similarity to the kinds of deaths in Sierra's adventure games, and I suppose I can see that.  The humour in Journey is pretty sparse though, and I wouldn't have drawn the connection myself just from playing the game.  Aside from the contemporary setting, most of what Journey does is pretty obviously cribbed from Colossal Cave Adventure, so anything Williams would have gotten from it would also be covered by her more famous influences.

RADNESS INDEX

Story & Setting: This is a treasure hunt, and treasure hunts don't earn no points around these parts unless they're exceptionally well done.  As for the setting, it feels pretty disjointed and poorly realised.  I feel like video game abstraction works better when dealing with things that the player isn't familiar with.  Fantasy realms and sci-fi worlds are all well and good, but when you start depicting things like downtown Hollywood, the obvious deficiencies of ancient games are made even more stark.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The only characters in this game aside from the player are the rats.  They do serve as pretty much the game's only obstacle to victory, but typing THROW KNIFE over and over again and hoping you kill the rat before it kills you isn't my idea of great interaction.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: It's a text adventure with terse descriptions and no sound.  What else do I gotta tell you?  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Puzzles: Most of the puzzles in this game are rudimentary actions like unlocking doors and opening grates.  The Secret Passage GET OUT puzzle is very mildly clever, and I'm lukewarm on the poison gas/LIFESAVER puzzle, as it makes no logical sense.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: The game has a simple parser that works well enough.  The use of DESCRIBE instead of LOOK is an odd curio, but doesn't adversely affect gameplay once you know about it (and it is in the manual).  I didn't have any issues here, but it's pretty simplistic. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: I'd rate this game as a touch too easy, with one caveat: I didn't figure out how to find that last point.  Still, rating this on what I actually played, it's going to score low.  The rats are the only genuine danger, but surviving them is down to pure luck, which makes them an annoyance rather than a challenge.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Fun: I didn't hate Journey, but I also can't think of any moments that made me smile while playing it.  Aside from the initial surprise of discovering downtown Hollywood, I doubt there's much about the game that I'm going to remember a year from now.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 0.

The above scores total 11, which doubled gives Journey a RADNESS Index of 22.  That's pretty far down the list.  In terms of adventure games, it's 30th out of 34 games, equal with Journey to the Centre of the Earth Adventure and King Tut's Tomb.  It's definitely not the worst adventure game I've played so far, and I don't know that I'd even describe it as bad.  It's probably the most unremarkable game I've played though, notable only for a novel setting and its minor influence on Roberta Williams.

NEXT: My next game is The Datestones of Ryn a return to the Dunjonquest series that gave us The Temple of Apshai.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Priority Adventure 2: The Wizard and the Princess (1980)

The packaging of the initial release of The Wizard and the Princess

The second game on my priority list - The Wizard and the Princess - is also the second game by Roberta and Ken Williams. I tackled Mystery House, their first game, a few months ago, and didn't exactly love it. It was visually impressive for its time, but the graphics were still crude and often indecipherable, and as a mystery game it left a lot to be desired.  I'm a fan of Roberta's later work on King's Quest, and The Wizard and the Princess covers similar fantasy/fairytale themes.  My hope, before I started it, was that it would be a step up in quality from their first effort.  As I write this, I'm still undecided about that.

The Wizard and the Princess was released in 1980 for the Apple II, through the Williams' own company On-Line Systems.  Mystery House was something of a side-project for Ken, who had initially formed his company to get into the lucrative business software market. He helped program the game to humour his wife, and test if there was any money in selling graphical adventure games.  It turns out that there was, so they set about making their second game a more focused, professional effort.  Most notable of all, they upped the ante on the graphics, taking the monochrome wireframes of Mystery House and adding colour.

Some later covers for the game. The left one is for the initial release on Atari 8-bit
computers, and the one on the right was used for a bunch of different platforms.

The game is set in the land of Serenia, where King George's daughter Priscilla has been kidnapped by the evil wizard Harlin, and taken to his castle in the mountains to the north.  The player is a wanderer who is just passing through, and hears a proclamation that the king will give half his kingdom to anyone who rescues the princess. And so the player sets off, armed only with a pocket knife, a blanket, a loaf of bread and a canteen full of water. All of this backstory comes from the original documentation, and is absent from the game itself.

I checked some later documentation, and the re-release for the SierraVenture line is interesting in that it's presented from Harlin's perspective.  He talks about how he's already been defeated, but that he has the power to reverse time, and try to win again.  It's a nice albeit unnecessary conceit to explain how players can keep trying the same adventure.  It also says that the obstacles along the way were placed there by Harlin's magic, which certainly explains some of the nonsense I'm about to get into shortly.

The version of the game I'm playing is copyright 1986, and was seemingly published
by Green Valley Publishing. Their main claim to fame seems to be an attempt to
monetise an unofficial version of Eamon.

Booting up the Apple II version of this game, I was instantly impressed by the graphics, as absurd as that sounds when you look at them in 2020.  But having spent the last six years playing through text adventures, blocky TRS-80 games, and mostly monochrome games on the Apple, they're a huge step up.  Of the games I've played for the blog, I'd say that only Akalabeth compares to it, and that only has colour in the intro sequence.  The big drawback is that the images are slow to draw if you're playing at authentic Apple II speed, but that's been true of most of the home computer games with graphics that I've played.

Starting the game in Serenia, which really looks like a dump to be honest.

The game begins in a village in Serenia, which is oddly devoid of people.  I started with my usual routine: SCORE gave no response, and HELP got me a reply of "no way".  Checking my INVENTORY showed that I had a pocket knife, a loaf of bread, a blanket and a water canteen, as indicated in the documentation.  This is a good start, as I'm always pleased when the manual matches what's in the game.

I went north from the village, and found my path blocked by a snake that, while not actively hostile, wouldn't let me continue further.  My knife was apparently too short to kill it, and I had no other ideas, so I took off exploring in other directions.  To the east I found desert.  To the south I found more desert.  To the west I found - get this - even more desert.  The desert is a maze, where the "rooms" have identical descriptions but slight graphical variations.  There are only two things in the desert that can even vaguely be interacted with: cacti, and rocks.  The cacti serve no purpose beyond decoration, and the rocks have scorpions hiding under them that will kill you if you try to take one.

The first obstacle in the game.  I can't walk around him for some reason,
even though I'm in a wide open, barren desert.

This was almost the entirety of the first post, because I spent almost three days - playing an hour each day - wandering the desert and getting killed by scorpions.  I don't think I've ever been angrier with a game on this blog than I was with this one.  Sure, I've been stuck in games before, but to be stuck right at the beginning, without having achieved one solitary thing?  That is unprecedented, and I honestly couldn't believe that Roberta and Ken thought this was okay.  It seems I wasn't alone, because apparently the help line for On-Line Systems (and later Sierra On-Line) got so swamped with calls for this puzzle that later versions of the game were packed with a little hint book just for this one section.

Pretty much sums up my first few hours with this game.

Luckily, I figured it out, or this post would have been little more than bile and invective.  My first thought was to map out the desert, but I'm not sure I properly managed it; lots of the locations looked identical, and with only four items in my inventory the bread-crumb method wasn't super-effective.  Eventually I just got lucky, and picked up the one rock in the whole desert that doesn't have a scorpion lurking underneath.  Using that rock I was able to kill the snake, and continue on my way north.  Later on I discovered that typing LOOK ROCK lets you know whether there's a scorpion hiding underneath.  Knowing that earlier would have saved me a lot of grief, but I guess I only have myself to blame. Examining everything is just basic adventure game methodology, and I should be better at this by now.

North of the snake was more desert, but laid out in a much less maze-like fashion.  Exploring around I found a stick, a cracker (sitting inside a hole in a cactus for some reason), a locket, and two halves of a note (as shown further below).  The only dangers in this section are another snake (which appears at random, but can be driven off by hitting it with the stick), and thirst (which is solved by the water already in your possession).  The only other encounter is another snake, which is pinned under a rock.  Given the other dangerous snakes around this seems like a counter-intuitive move, but I picked up the rock and freed it.  The snake turned out to be the King of Snakes, and he gave me a magic word: HISS.  Saying that word turned me into a snake briefly, and could be used as often as I liked.

I also got another magic word from inside the locket: LUCY.  Saying that one caused all of my items (including the locket) to disappear, and I couldn't find them anywhere afterwards.  After that little test I was forced to go back to the beginning of the game.  It has a save feature, which requires a blank disk and some disk swapping, but I hadn't used it yet.  (A note on the disk swapping, if you end up playing this game: be careful not to save anything on the game disk.  I did that by accident, and a bunch of the graphics wouldn't load afterwards.)

The next obstacle came in the form of a chasm, with a house and some woods on the far side.  It was too far to jump across, and when I tried to climb down I fell to my death.  Slithering down the side as a snake wasn't an option, either.  I'm afraid to say that I already knew the solution to this puzzle, from dim memories of other blogs I've read (probably the Digital Antiquarian).  It involves the two notes I found earlier, which combine to form a password as shown below.

The two notes combined to form the word HOCUSThis might
be the best puzzle in the whole game.

The word is HOCUS, which causes a bridge to appear across the chasm.  This puzzle is actually pretty clever, and makes good use of the game's graphics, but I think it would work better with at least some indication that a password is required.  As it is, you're faced with a chasm that presents to all intents and purposes as a natural barrier, with no magic involved.  A magic password would have been the furthest thing from my mind as the solution, and I have a pretty strong suspicion that I would have had to look up the answer here.

Inside the house on the other side I found an apple.  I didn't get to keep it for long, because as soon as I went into the woods I bumped into a gnome, who nicked all of my gear.  I was worried that I'd done something wrong here, but I kept exploring just in case.  The woods were fairly small, about eight areas.  I found a stream, and north of that a tall tree that I could climb to get a view of the ocean.  I also found a parrot, who I suspected would respond to being fed a cracker, if only I could get it back into my possession.

Finally, I found a hole in a tree in one area and a crevice in another.  The hole was big enough for me to fit through, and it led to some stairs, but the door at the bottom of those stairs was locked from the other side.  The crevice was smaller, but by using HISS to turn into a snake I could get through into a tunnel, where I found my stolen stuff.  The tunnel led to the other side of the door, which I was able to unlock from this side without needing a key.

With my stuff back, I returned to the parrot and gave it a cracker. It rewarded me with a vial of green liquid.  I still hadn't saved my game, so I stashed it away rather than test it.

East of the woods was a beach, but the way forward was blocked by a lion.  I've played enough of these games by now to know that food is usually a good bet, so I threw it my loaf of bread.  (It wasn't interested in the apple.)  It took the bread and left, which seems like odd behaviour for a carnivore, but let's not bring science and biology into adventure games now.

It's a magically vegan lion. Let's go with that.

On the beach I found a coil of rope and a boat.  Getting into the boat I saw that it had a hole, so I fixed it by plugging it with my blanket.  I had my doubts as to whether this would hold, but it was apparently a water-tight seal.  (My approach to the puzzles in this game was starting to boil down to just trying the items I hadn't found a use for yet, regardless of whether it made sense.  I was lucky enough to get it right first time here, and it's an approach that served me well for the rest of the game.)

The ocean gives the illusion of being infinite, but in reality there's a pretty narrow path to another island that can be navigated via visual clues.  The beach I landed on had a great big X on it, so I figured I'd need to dig there once I found a shovel.  Elsewhere I found an empty cave, an anchor on another beach, and a tree house.  The tree house was too high for me to reach, but by tying the rope to the anchor and throwing it over a branch I was able to climb up. Inside I found the shovel I was after.

Digging at the beach I found a treasure chest, but before I could do anything a pirate showed up and ran off with it.  Despite some initial trauma flashbacks to the pirate from Colossal Cave Adventure, I quickly twigged to his obvious hiding place, and sure enough he had left the chest in the formerly-empty cave.  Inside I found a harp, which played a nice tune (described only via text, alas), but was otherwise unhelpful at this point.

The pirate's ingenious hiding spot.

I had no obvious way forward, but I did have an obvious item I hadn't tested yet, so I saved my game and drank the green liquid the parrot gave me.  It turned me temporarily into a bird, but only for a couple of moves. It seemed like a good bet, but I was skeptical that this short duration would be enough to get me over the horizon to an unseen island.  I needn't have worried; the land across the ocean to the north was very close, despite the complete lack of visual clues.  (This would have been a much better place to put the tall tree with the view.)

Heading from the beach into the foothills, I found a sapphire ring.  I tried wearing it, but it had no immediate effect.  Heading up into the mountains I encountered an old woman, who warned me about the local giant.  She doesn't serve any other purpose that I can tell.  East of her is an area with a rainbow, that disappeared one move after I entered the room.  I didn't manage to do anything with it before the opportunity was gone.  East of that was a bridge, and the game was very quick to tell me that it looked like it would collapse under my weight.

Having encountered similar puzzles in the blog so far, I figured that I'd need to get rid of my stuff to cross.  First, just to test it out, I tried crossing as a snake.  It didn't work, but it's the sort of thing that really should have.  Instead, I had to use the word LUCY from the locket, which made my entire inventory disappear.  With all of that stuff gone, I was able to cross.

(Can I just say at this point how much I appreciate that this game has no inventory limit?  Pretty much all adventure games have one at this point, and it's not always necessary.  There are games for which it creates a sort of logistical puzzle, but there are plenty of others where it's nothing more than an irritant that's seemingly only there because Colossal Cave Adventure had one.)

I suspected that the game would be quick to give me back my stuff, and I was right: it's in a cave very close to the other side of the bridge.  East of that is the aforementioned giant, who blocks passage onwards.  He's not otherwise hostile, and will leave if you play him a tune on the harp; doesn't seem like a such a bad chap, really.

North of the giant is the wizard's castle, which has a raised drawbridge and a moat full of crocodiles.  But before that, there's a peddler who's selling a whole bunch of stuff: a dagger, some boots, a jug of wine, a frying pan and a horn.  He's selling these items for one gold coin, which is something I didn't have.  I tried to sell him my ring, but he wasn't interested.

Harlin's castle, with one threatening crocodile.  Were crocodiles in moats ever
historically accurate?  Given that they're not native to Europe it seems unlikely.

The obvious place for me to find some gold coins was the rainbow from earlier, but that had vanished, and didn't look like it was going to reappear.  So I restored to a game before that, and this time when I got to it I typed GO RAINBOW.  This led to an area where I found a single gold coin, and not the pot of gold I was hoping for.  Heading back to the peddler, I had to decide which of his items to buy.  My first instinct was to buy the horn, which I then blew at the front gate of the castle.  The drawbridge opened, and I entered Harlin's castle.

The leprechauns have fallen on hard times.

Obviously, I got lucky here, or was perhaps guided by dim memories from having read about this game before.  With the wrong placement, this "guess the item" puzzle with the peddler could have been pretty rough, but as it is it's only two areas away from the problem it solves, so it's not too bad.  I did go back and test the other items to see if any of those provided solutions, but they're all worthless.  The only one that comes close to being useful is the dagger, which you can throw at the crocodile, but even that just results in you missing and losing the dagger in the moat.

I entered the main hall of the castle, and took some stairs leading up.  In a room to the east I found some shoes in a closet, one of which had the word "whoosh" written inside.  Saying this word whisked me all the way back to the start of the game.  I obviously needed to save this until I'd rescued the princess, so I restored my game.

West of the stairs was a room that with an enormous frog, but before I could do anything the wizard appeared and zapped me away.  I kept trying to go back to fight the frog, but the wizard was pretty insistent in not letting me stay in that area.  I decided to explore elsewhere, and come back here later.

Confronted by a giant frog.

West of the main hall I found a dining hall and a throne room.  In the throne room the wizard appeared again, and zapped me to a courtyard where I was menaced by a giant boar.  I fell back on my standard "feed the enemy" tactic, and gave the boar my apple.  The apple was poisoned, and it dropped dead.  (I don't know why I never tested the apple earlier than this myself. I think I forgot about it until I was searching my inventory for things to use on the boar.)

From the courtyard I went through a kitchen and came to a dance hall, where the wizard appeared again and zapped me into a cell.  The cell was bare, but I was able to escape without much fuss by using the magic word HISS to turn into a snake.  From the cell I explored south and east, and came to a locked door.  I was running out of unused inventory items, but I still had my pocketknife, and I used it to pick the lock.  It worked, and I gained entrance to a room at the base of a tower.  (By being zapped into the cell, I bypassed a pretty large and empty maze that led north from the main hall.  I mapped it later on, which didn't require any of the usual tricks; this maze is pretty trivial.)

At first the top of the tower was empty, but after I left and returned there was a bird fluttering about.  I tried to catch it, but every time it flew out of my reach, and none of the items I had seemed to work.  I was stuck again, and this time - after an hour or two of butting my head against it - I did look up the solution.  It turned out to be the sapphire ring, which is what I had suspected: it was the last unused item in my inventory, after all.  I'd tried wearing it and throwing it and waving it, and a bunch of other things, but the solution was to RUB RING.  This transformed me into a cat, and I leaped up and ate the bird.  (I really need to add rubbing items to my standard methods of testing them, it's been the solution to loads of puzzles.)

The gripping climax.

This seems pretty pointless, unless you know that the bird is actually the wizard Harlin in disguise.  The game certainly doesn't tell you this, and the only indication of it is that he stops showing up to zap you afterwards.  Regardless, this is the first game I've encountered where the hero wins via cannibalism.  I mean, it's presented as a cat eating a bird, but we know what's really going on here.  It also makes the backstory with Harlin reversing time after his defeat a bit odd.  Where's he doing that from, inside my stomach?

The only thing left to deal with was the frog, which in true fairytale fashion transformed back into the princess after I kissed it.  I have to say, though, that the graphics did a lot to obscure that this was the princess.  Scroll back up and take a look at it. That frog looks threatening, and when I first encountered it I was convinced it was an enemy.  I was actually mildly surprised that it ended up being the princess, which is hard to do with a "frog/princess" situation.

With the princess in tow, I used the magic word WHOOSH, and we returned to Serenia, where I won the game.  My reward was being declared a "junior-master adventurer"; I'll have to assume that I was given "half the kingdom" as promised off-screen.  Although, given that the kingdom is a hellscape of desert, rocks and scorpions, I'm not sure I really want it.

Some day son, half of this could be yours.

Having written all of that out, I'm still undecided on The Wizard and the Princess.  I'm glad I played it; it has historical significance, and serves as a sort-of prequel to the King's Quest series.  And to be honest, the middle portion was pretty enjoyable.  I made steady, constant progress through it, and that's where I like to be in an adventure game.  The ending has some issues, particularly the anticlimactic non-confrontation with Harlin.  I'm not sure how anyone would get to RUB RING except through trial-and-error.  Making it a lamp might have been a little obvious, but at least rubbing a lamp is something you might try in an adventure game.

The real problems with this game, though, are at the beginning.  When you end up having to create special documentation just for one puzzle, you know you've messed up somewhere.  It's impossible to get the numbers, but I'd love to know what percentage of the people who bought this game played it for half an hour and quit in disgust, never to return.  I suspect the number would be far, far higher than those who solved it on their own.

I guess I have to lump The Wizard and the Princess into the category of "flawed classic", but that flaw is pretty significant.  I'm interested to see where it ends up on the RADNESS Index, because I don't think I've yet had a game that's pretty good except for one terrible, almost game-breaking element.

(Normally I'd do a Ports of Call here, checking out some other versions of the game, but for Priority List games I've decided that I'll save this for when the game comes up in my chronological order. It's my sneaky way of allowing myself to play the classics more than once.)

RADNESS INDEX:

Story & Setting:  The story is a standard "rescue the princess from the evil wizard" affair, but what's surprising to me is how little that's been done at this point in adventure game history.  In fact, going through the list of games I've played, this might be the very first one.  (Castle had a princess, but no wizard.) I have jumped ahead in the timeline, given that this is a priority list game, but I've only jumped by a year or so.  It's weird to think that this could be the first adventure game to use such a cliched plot as its basis.

The game's structure is also notable, in that it's a pretty linear progression through a series of dangers and obstacles.  This feels familiar to me from later Sierra games (King's Quest V in particular, which now strikes me as something of a remake of this game), but it's unusual in the context of what's gone before.  Most of the games earlier than this have been quite a bit more open, and it does give this game more of the feel of an epic quest.

It's hard to rate this too high, given the well-worn fairytale territory that it's drawing from, but I was surprised at how different it actually is from the games before it.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The characters in this game barely qualify as such.  In true early adventure game fashion, they're obstacles to be bypassed, not interacted with.  The wizard does seem to pop in and out to harass you in his castle, but those events are tied to certain locations, so he's not as dynamic as he first appears.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The addition of colour does elevate this game above the graphics of its predecessor, Mystery House, but the actual drawing of the scenes and characters is similarly crude.  The writing is also very rudimentary, and there's nothing in the way of sound effects or music.  Despite the improvements from Mystery House, I can't quite bring myself to give this a 3, so it's stuck on the same score.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Puzzles: For most of this game, the puzzles are simple and effective, even if some of them don't necessarily make sense.  On the basis of those I might have given this game a 3 in this category, but there's the whole desert maze/rock/scorpion ordeal to consider.  For that puzzle alone, I have to knock this game down by a whole point. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: The parser is simple, but it does its job, and I never had any problems with it.  The only mechanical element I can complain about in this game is the painful slowness of the screen drawing, but its hard to criticise something that was innovative at the time.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Challenge: As with Puzzles, this is a hard category to judge.  For most of the game, the challenge level is really well judged.  But for one puzzle, it's the opposite of that, and it's also the first thing that players have to tackle in the game.  The vast majority of those playing this game at the time would have been adventure game novices, and the desert maze is not a novice level challenge.  I'd have been more lenient if this puzzle came later in the game, but it loses an extra point for its extremely ill-judged placement.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Fun: Had I rated this after my first couple of fruitless sessions with the game, I'd have given this the lowest mark without hesitation.  Once I got over that point though, I found the game enjoyable, but unfortunately I have to take those first few hours into account.  If I hadn't been playing this for the blog, I never would have continued with it.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 1.  I'm giving this game a bonus point for historical significance, and its status as a precursor to King's Quest.

The above categories total 15, which doubled gives a score of 30.  Add the bonus point, and The Wizard and the Princess gets a RADNESS INDEX of 31.  Out of 55 games, that places it equal 24th, and in terms of adventure games it's equal 13th.  It scored three points higher than Mystery House, which feels about right.  For the most part its an improvement, and without the desert maze puzzle it would have scored around a 37.  This would have been enough to put it alongside Adventureland, up among the more enjoyable adventures I've played so far.  But alas, this game was dragged down by venomous scorpions, like so many of those who have tried to beat it.  A fitting result, I'd say.

NEXT: The next game on my list is Journey, a text adventure for the Apple II.  I know nothing about it, except that it's standing in the way of me playing the first Ultima.

Monday, August 31, 2020

Game 47: The Count (1979)

Remember at the end of my last post, when I said that I was taking a break for personal reasons? Well, those reasons haven't disappeared, but I'm making my return to blogging much sooner than I anticipated.  I'm currently not working (for at least a few more weeks, until Melbourne exits Stage 4 lockdown), so I have plenty of time on my hands.  I was planning on using that time free from work and blogging to play some games, but when I asked myself what games I wanted to play, the answers I was giving myself were Ultima I and Wizardry I, games that are coming up on my blog schedule fairly shortly.  And every time I thought about playing those games without blogging them, I felt guilty about it.  So, I'm back.  It turns out that I have nothing better to do right now, and I ended up missing this more than I expected.

I am making one change to my schedule though: I'm upping the rate at which I play games on the priority list.  Previously, I'd had four games from 1979 between those on the priority list, but I'm shortening that to two.  It means that things will be jumping around the timeline a bit more than I'd like, but it also means I'll be playing more games that I know I actually want to play.  I considered having only one game between priority list games, but decided against it.  I want to play the classics, but I also want to make progress through the timeline, however slowly.

That brings us to The Count, by Scott Adams.  This is the fifth game released by Adams, whose previous efforts have ranged from decent (Mission Impossible, Pirate Adventure, Voodoo Castle) to pretty good (Adventureland), at least by the standards of the time.  I've heard that The Count is one of his strongest games, so I've been looking forward to digging into it.

The original version was released for the TRS-80, first through the Software Exchange (the game publishing arm of Softside magazine) and then through Adams' own company Adventure International.  I'm playing a later version of the TRS-80 release, shown on the title screen as v1.15.  It might differ from the original, but it's the earliest version that I could find.

Dracula has his own face on the front of his castle.

With Adams' games, it's always worth checking out the front cover as released by Adventure International (I don't believe the Software Exchange version had any images on the packaging).  The explanation is pretty vague: apparently I'm going to be waking up in a bed in Transylvania with a mysterious package.  Said package is shown in the image, addressed to "The Count" from someone called Yorga, with a note saying that it shouldn't be opened until Halloween.  The rest of the imagery - the title written in dripping blood, the bat, the hammer and stake, and the huge D on the gate - point to this being a game where I'm going up against Dracula.  Subtle it ain't.

Alvin Files will go on to wrote Pyramid of Doom, the 8th Scott Adams
Adventure, and the only one not written or co-written by Scott himself.

As the cover indicated, I began the game lying in bed, with little idea of what I was doing there.  I typed SCORE, which the game didn't understand, so presumably there aren't any points to accumulate.  I typed INVENTORY, and found that I was carrying a tent stake, which I assume is wooden.  Typing HELP gave me a helpful hint to GET UP, which I probably could have figured out on my own, but I appreciated the parser guidance anyway.

I was in a bedroom, with a closed window and an exit to the north.  I'd been expecting the mysterious package from the front cover, but it wasn't there; I even tried looking under the bed, but no luck.  Looking through the window, I saw Voodoo Castle in the distance (nice plug, Scott), as well as a ledge I could stand on.  Opening the window and stepping out, I found nothing but a flagpole, so I decided to explore inside.

Outside of the bedroom was a hall with exits in all four directions.  West was a kitchen with an oven and a dumb-waiter.  The dumb-waiter was empty, and the oven was radiating "a tremendous amount of HEAT & SUNLIGHT".  Sunlight seemed like a pretty weird and specific thing to be coming from an oven, and at first I wondered if maybe I could use it to kill Dracula.  The oven was too heavy to move though, and it was too hot to check inside, so I explored elsewhere.

North of the hall was a bathroom, with a mirror, a pocket watch, and a toilet.  The toilet was usable, but served no other purpose.  Looking in the mirror showed me that I looked healthy today.  The mirror can be used to check your appearance and state of health, pretty much telling you how many days you have left to beat the game.  In another game I broke the mirror and was told that it was seven years of bad luck, but I have no idea if this affects gameplay at all.  The watch tells time, but in a very game-specific way: it tells you how many moves you have until sunset.  I took these with me at this point, but in later games I ended up leaving them in the bathroom. They're handy, but the map is small enough that you can easily go back there and check them when you want to.

East of the hall leads to a courtyard outside the castle, where I found a bell-pull and a coat of arms that bore the family crest of Dracula: my first concrete sign as to where I was.  Pulling the bell caused it to ring, but had no other effect, so I continued to the main gate.  An angry mob was gathered outside, but before engaging with them I took the time to look up at the castle.  I noticed another window under the ledge of my bedroom window, and determined to check that out as soon as possible.  First, though, I went out through the gate to see what the mob would do.  I was little surprised to find that I was torn apart and killed.  Apparently I'd been sent to the castle to kill Dracula, and chickening out wasn't an option.  My mission was finally clear, but what wasn't clear  is why I'd be sleeping in a bed inside the castle if I'm on a vampire hunt.  That's not a question that the game ever deigns to answer.

After rebooting I decided to check out the window underneath my bedroom window.  I reached it by tying the bedsheets to the flagpole and climbing down.  The window had some daisies on the ledge, and the room beyond was empty except for a portrait of Dracula.  Moving the portrait, I found a dark passage beyond, but with no light source I was unable to explore it without falling over and killing myself.  I restored my game, and discovered that I would have died regardless, because the flagpole broke when I tried to climb back up the bedsheet.  It's an obvious solution to accessing the window below, but it's also a deadly red herring.  The real solution is to tie the sheet to your bed, which allows you to climb down and back up again.  I didn't figure this out until much later though.

At that point, I was pretty much stuck.  The map is very small, even by 1979 standards, and I only had two obvious places to go: the dark passage and the dumb-waiter.  For the former I was lacking a light source, and for the latter I couldn't figure out the right commands to go up or down.  To be honest, I wasn't even certain that it could go up and down.  I've never seen a dumb-waiter in real life, and pretty much my entire knowledge of them is that Wolverine uses one to get around the Hellfire Club in Uncanny X-Men #133.  (Sorry folks, comic books are my only frame of reference.)

With nothing else to do I tooled around the map trying various things, until I heard a bell sound.  I went to check the front door, and saw that someone had left a postcard.  The postcard was actually an "eating and ghouling" bill from a local mortuary.  (Is this meant to be a pun? If so, I'm missing it.)  Paperclipped to the postcard was a note saying that the postmaster would deliver a package tomorrow.

Not long after that, the sun set and I started to get tired.  Then something happened (it was too dark for me to see) and I woke up in bed the next day with two holes in my neck.  The game told me that I had a hunch I'd been robbed, so I checked my inventory: the tent stake was gone.  Looks like Dracula was taking away the things I could use to kill him.

Later that day (in which I made no other progress), the postmaster delivered a package as promised.  It had a note from Count Yorga, as shown on the cover above.  Ignoring Yorga's instructions to leave the package unopened until Halloween, I found two items inside: a bottle of Type V blood, and a pack of Transylvanian cigarettes.

Presumably Adams took the name from the early 70s vampire movies
Count Yorga, Vampire and The Return of Count Yorga.

That night, Dracula attacked again, but he didn't drink my blood this time. Instead, he drank the blood from the bottle.  He also stole the pack of cigarettes.  Possibly he just wants to smoke them himself, but I suspect that they must be somehow vital to my mission.

With no light source, and seemingly no other way forward, I spent the next two game days accomplishing very little.  On the third night Dracula drained my blood again, and on the fourth he turned me into a vampire.  Obviously, that was a game over.  The postman made no other deliveries during that time, so it looked like I'd have to make do with the items I had.  It also looked like I had three days to defeat Dracula, with the bottle of blood giving me an extra day.

Who is "I" in this scenario, and who is "you"? Why are they both in trouble?
Is the vampire protagonist of this game coming to get me for realsies?

I got very stuck at this point, but I was pretty sure that the dumb-waiter must lead somewhere.  Eventually I hit on the correct commands: RAISE DUMBWAITER and LOWER DUMBWAITER.  (I just checked, and the HELP command tells you this straight out. That would have saved me a lot of angst.)  The dumb-waiter went one level up, and one level down.

The room above the kitchen was a pantry, where I found some matches and a clove of garlic.  Below was a workroom, where I found a rubber mallet, a vent in the wall, and a locked door.  The mallet I assumed would be useful for staking Dracula.  The vent, I was told, was about the right size for a bat to enter or exit.  The locked door had a memo stuck to it, which was simply a thank-you note from Scott Adams, expressing his appreciation to the audience for making him a success.  (I feel tentatively safe in saying that, of the famous Scott Adamses, this one is the nice one.)

I didn't have a key for the locked door, but I did have a paperclip, and with that I was able to pick the lock.  It led to a dusty closet where I found a vial containing three No-Doz tablets.  My character had been getting tired as sunset approached, so I figured I could use these to stay up later.

Down from the workroom was a dungeon, with iron rings in the wall and a pit in the floor.  The bottom of the pit was dark, but a lit match revealed a torch, which I took.  I had a light source, but I had no way out of the pit except to wait for Dracula to come and get me after sunset.  (Later on I figured out that you can tie the bedsheet to the iron ring above and use that to escape.)

With a light source I could now explore the dark passage through the window below my bedroom.  It led to a crypt, where I found another vent (also bat-sized), a pile of used cigarettes, and a sign that said "POSITIVELY NO SMOKING ALLOWED HERE!"  Signs in adventure games are made to be ignored, so I lit up, and was treated to a discovery and an awful pun.

Maybe the other Scott Adams is the nice one after all.

The coffin was closed, and locked from the inside.  My initial thought was to break the coffin, but neither my fists nor a rubber mallet were sufficient to break the stone lid.  After that I suspected that Dracula might open it from the inside, so waited around until sunset and ate a tablet to stay awake.  Now that I had a light I could see after sunset.  Dracula attacked me in bat form, but was repelled by the garlic I was carrying.  I was able to get inside his coffin, but all I found there was a slide bolt.  I was pretty sure that I needed a way to break it so I could open the coffin during the day, but nothing I had on me did the trick.  Besides, this was the second day, and Dracula had already stolen my stake.

Obviously, the problem of Dracula stealing my stake and cigarettes was one I'd have to deal with.  My first thought was to hide them in the oven, but I wasn't able to figure out how to put them in there.  My second thought was to put them in the dumb-waiter, but Dracula found them there.  Next I tried the dusty closet, but I didn't lock it behind me, and that didn't work.  Finally, I tried the closet and locked the door, and that did the trick.  I had a hiding-place for my arsenal.

That whole process reminded me that the oven was something I should check out, and the fact that it was radiating sunlight still seemed odd to me.  I thought that maybe I'd be able to get a look inside after dark, and with the aid of a No-Doz tablet I was proven right.  Climbing inside the oven, I saw a lens (because this was a solar oven) and a nail-file.  The lens was stuck in place, but I was able to take the nail-file.  It seemed a little dubious that it could break a metal slide bolt with any great speed, but it worked.  I had the final piece of the puzzle, and now all I needed to do was sort out the right sequence of events.

That didn't take long.  Day one was for gathering items, hiding the stake, and getting the nail file from the oven.  There's no avoiding getting bitten by Dracula after dark, unfortunately.  I tried hiding in the closet, but the door on;y exists as an object on the outside.  The next day involved waiting for the package to arrive, heading down to the crypt, and disabling the lock on Dracula's coffin with the nail-file.  There's also the matter of hiding the pack of cigarettes, but you can get around that by taking a single cigarette from the pack; Dracula won't steal that one when he attacks that night.  On the third day, it was time to grab my stake and mallet, and head to the crypt to kill Dracula.

This time the vampire was asleep in his coffin.  It was a simple matter to kill him with my stake, and I was carried off by cheering townspeople.  I'd been a little worried that there might be more to it than that; I was particularly concerned that Dracula might be able to escape through the vent.  But nope, once you're in Drac's coffin with the right gear killing him is dead simple.

Staking the Count.

On the whole, this was a pretty satisfying game, and I fully understand why this has a reputation as Adams' best game.  I haven't played them all, but of those I have played I'd rate this one as the strongest.  The set-up is a welcome step away from treasure hunting, and the time-based mission is something that hasn't really been seen before.  A few games have had smaller sequences with timing-based puzzles (Acheton springs to mind here), but this is the first time that it's been so heavily featured, and it's definitely a milestone.  Aside from any historical significance, I just enjoyed the process of figuring things out.  It was frustrating - I think that's unavoidable in text adventures of this vintage - but satisfying to solve.

PORTS OF CALL

This games, like everything made by Scott Adams, was ported to an absolute buttload of different computers.  I'll try to stick to the more prominent ones, which would be the Apple II port from 1980, and the Atari 8-Bit and VIC-20 ports from 1981.  Unfortunately, I can't find a copy of the Apple II port anywhere.  All of Adams' other games are easily found, but not The Count.  As for the VIC-20, I found a cartridge version, but getting cartridges to work on the VICE emulator is a nightmare.  If anyone out there knows a VIC-20 emulator that's better at loading carts I'd appreciate you letting me know.

I did get the Atari 8-Bit version working.  It looks to be a UK version from 1984.  The text is mostly similar (a word here or there is changed), but it has two pretty big differences: the first is that I never saw Dracula fluttering about in bat form after sunset.  Possibly connected to this is that Dracula can be found in his coffin at any time.  It's actually possible to kill him on the second night, which means you don't have to bother finding the nail file and breaking the lock on his coffin.

The ending of the Atari 8-Bit version.

RADNESS INDEX

Story & Setting: The story is a hackneyed one in terms of general pop culture, but less so in video games at this point.  The time-based plot also deserves consideration here.  The setting of Dracula's castle is pretty small, and minimal in description.  The player's imagination, probably fueled by countless vampire novels and movies, does a lot of the heavy lifting here.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: It's literally just the angry mob and Dracula, and neither of them are exactly brimming with personality.  Dracula might be a great character in general, but in this game he's just a threat that knocks you out after sunset, and there's nothing you can do to interact with him.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: A Scott Adams text adventure is pretty much locked into the bottom of this ranking, I'm afraid.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Puzzles: The puzzles all make sense, the game has enough hints to help the player along, and the addition of timing-based puzzles adds an extra layer of interest.  I got stuck a few times, but never for long enough that I wanted to give up, and the solution was never something that made me upset.  It's hard to fault anything here, really.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Mechanics: It's only a two word parser, but its awkward moments are few (mostly restricted to tying the rope to other objects).  The dumb-waiter was the only time I had trouble with the parser, but if I'd used the HELP command it wouldn't have been a problem.  Everything here works pretty well. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Challenge: The puzzles are just tough enough that I was occasionally stumped but never for too long.  Aside from my trouble with the dumb-waiter I was always able to make some form of forward progress, and for me that's always important with an adventure game.  Rating: 5 out of 7.

Fun: This is a quick, solidly enjoyable game, though it is perhaps a little too vague at the beginning.  Frustration is inevitable with this genre, but I found this among the least irritating of the text adventures I've played so far.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 1. I'm going to give The Count a bonus point for its innovations in story-telling,  It's not quite fully formed as a time-based game, but it's an important step along the way.

The above categories total 20, which doubled gives a score of 40.  Add the bonus point, and The Count has a RADNESS Index of 41.  In overall terms, that puts it equal sixth, with Beneath Apple Manor.  For adventure games, it's placed third, below Zork  and MUD1, but above every other adventure game for home computers so far.  That's an incredible showing for such a small game, but deserved.  Its the best Scott Adams game, and at this point in time Scott Adams was the benchmark for quality adventure games on home computer.

NEXT: I technically have Futurewar sitting in my backlog, which I abandoned due to some problems with the game.  Those problems have been fixed, but I'm really not in the mood for a lengthy PLATO slog right now, so I'm going to push forward for a while.  That makes my next game The Wizard and the Princess, an early game from Roberta Williams and the second adventure game on my priority list.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Rogue: VICTORY!!!!

After six years of blogging, I've just caught up to the CRPG Addict's first post.

And so, after four months and 288 attempts, I have finally completed Rogue.  I wouldn't exactly say that I'm proud of it as an achievement - beating Rogue requires more persistence and luck than genuine skill, I'd say - but it is an achievement nonetheless.  The percentage of people that have played Rogue and beaten it would be pretty small, and the percentage that have beaten it without cheating would be smaller still.  Being able to say that I'm in that small percentage feels pretty good.

Getting "good" at Rogue is a weird process in terms of CRPGs.  For most CRPGs, that process involves improving your character statistically.  If your numbers aren't good enough for a certain fight, you can just go somewhere and kill easier enemies for a while until your numbers improve.  Even proto-roguelikes like The Game of Dungeons, which also featured perma-death, had this as an option.  And yes, even Rogue sort of has this as an option if you happen to find two rings of slow digestion (something that happened to me exactly once in close to 300 games).  But for the most part you're on a hunger timer in Rogue, and the need to find food keeps you from being able to stop and grind for experience.  With that as a limitation, there's no way to avoid death by improving your character, and the only method of advancement is through knowledge.  You learn what the different items do, how strong the various monsters are, and what tactics and items are needed to maximise your survival.  And above all, you learn the value of patience.  It's a rare CRPG where the player's improvement is vastly more important than that of the character.

For me, things didn't click until right near the end.  I spent months sending characters into the Dungeon of Doom, with very little to show for it in terms of improved performance.  For every game where I made it down to level 20, I'd have a dozen more where I didn't even make it to level 10, or died on level 1.  Up until a few days ago I hadn't even found the Amulet of Yendor, and I was starting to worry that I'd be playing this game forever.

Then, out of nowhere, I had a game where I made it to level 26 of the dungeon and found the Amulet.  I had no idea what it was going to look like, and it turned out that it was disguised as a comma, hidden among the full stops that represent an empty space.


I hadn't done anything different than usual during that game, but I did have a number of advantages over the average adventurer: good armour, a two-handed sword, a high Strength score, and loads of hit points.  Having a decent hit point total is crucial to beating the game, and unfortunately that's something that's almost completely out of the player's hands.

Once you find the Amulet of Yendor, you need to take it all the way back to the surface: that means traversing levels 26 through 1 all over again in reverse order.  They aren't the same levels, either; the level 25 you just beat won't have the same layout the second time you tackle it.  The amulet doesn't give you any extra offensive powers, but I think it does stop you from getting hungry.  At least, I don't recall having to eat any food while carrying it.

Anyway, the first time I found the amulet didn't go so well.  I made it back to the stairs and climbed to level 25, but then I walked right into a trapdoor that dumped me back to level 26.  Then I walked into another trapdoor and found myself on level 27.  Then after I found the stairs I stupidly went down instead of going up.  Eventually I fought my way back up from level 28 to level 25, only to get cornered by a pair of Umber Hulks, confused, and killed.  Umber Hulks are the worst.

After that game, though, things just fell into place for me.  I had 34 more game after that, and in 25 of them I made it past level 16 (which is where the game starts to get really hairy).  I'm not sure exactly what had changed, except perhaps that I was more engaged and "switched on".  Finding the amulet was a real shot in the arm, and I was playing with a lot more determination and patience, and also a better knowledge of what I needed to win.

I'd like to say that skill was the sole factor in my eventual victory, but to be honest I hit the absolute motherlode in terms of luck and item drops.  I found banded mail armour early on, and several scrolls of enchant armour.  I found a two-handed sword around the mid-levels, and was able to enchant that once as well.  With potions I enhanced my Strength score, and managed to keep a potion of restore strength in reserve so that I'd have that score when it was needed most.  My hit points were good.  And best of all, in defiance of all the odds, I found two scrolls of genocide.

Besides finding the Amulet of Yendor, there's little more exciting in Rogue than getting your hands on a scroll of genocide.  I don't think they're included in the later versions (correct me if I'm wrong).  When you read one, you get to completely wipe a monster from the game.  I never hesitated to wipe out Umber Hulks: their confusion gaze and the near-total lack of agency that resulted made them by far the deadliest monster near the end of the game.  With two of these scrolls, I genocided Umber Hulks and kept the second scroll in reserve.  That way, if any monster type ever looked like killing me I had a guaranteed ace up my sleeve.

As it turned out, I didn't need it.  Without Umber Hulks to worry about, I found that I was formidable enough in battle to survive most situations.  Of the monsters on the lower dungeon levels, only Xorns gave me much trouble.  Vampires aren't all that hard, and Mimics are easily killed after their initial surprise attack (they disguise themselves as other items in the game).  Dragons and Purple Worms are tough, but I never encountered any that were hostile; they just sat motionless while I skirted around them.  I did get level-drained by a Wraith (twice), but that was the extent of my difficulty.  Any other monster that I didn't fancy fighting hand-to-hand I bumped off with my wands of drain life (which drain half your current hit point total and deal that as damage to the target).  I descended to level 26, found the Amulet of Yendor, and got back up to the surface with only minor difficulties.

I have to say that on the way back, once I got to level 15 or so, I felt great.  By that point I'd left the really tough monster behind, and all that were left were things like Centaurs, Quasits, Orcs, Hobgoblins, etc.  Victory was assured, and it was kind of like taking an extended victory lap while I murdered a whole ton of monsters that had previously made my life hell.  There are other games that have given me this experience before: Half Life 2 springs to mind, as the souped-up gravity gun near the end of that game makes you pretty unstoppable, and the final battle in Super Metroid is another great gaming moment where it's just about impossible to lose.  More games could stand to go easy on the player in the final stretch, I find it to be a nice end-of-game reward.

Here's my winning character on the cusp of victory:


And this is the inventory I had at that moment:


Just before I left the dungeon, I ate all of my food and drank my last potion of healing. Then, with great deliberation, I unfurled my scroll of genocide and took great pleasure in wiping out every Xorn in the dungeon.  Vengeance is sweet, and unnecessary vengeance is all the sweeter.

So Rogue is done, and I have to say that it's been one of the best experiences I've had with a game on this blog.  Frustrating, yes, and far far too time-consuming.  But unlike other games that have eaten up far too much of the blog's time, I'd quite happily sit down and have another crack at the game right now.  It has problems, but I expect it to do very well on the RADNESS Index.

RADNESS INDEX

Story & Setting: This is one of the categories where this game will fall down the hardest, because the story is absolute nonsense.  The goal of the game is to find the Amulet of Yendor at the bottom of the dungeon, simply so that you can be admitted to the Guild of Fighters.  It's a reward that in no way befits the difficulty of the task in question, and really calls into question the sanity of the hundreds of adventurers I sent to their deaths.  As for the setting, the Dungeon of Doom is a random labyrinth whose rooms and tunnels are represented in ASCII.  Any atmosphere here comes from the game mechanics, and not much else. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters and Monsters: There aren't any characters to interact with as such, but it's not that kind of game.  What it does have is monsters - 26 in total - and each of those has its own abilities and behaviour.  From the weak bats that flit about at random to the tough Umber Hulks with their confusing gaze, from the Wraith that drains levels to the Troll that regenerates, this game might have the most well-realised line-up of monsters seen yet, and the most faithful to its Dungeons & Dragons-inspired roots.  Rating: 5 out of 7.

Combat: The core combat here is basic: you simply exchange blows with your enemy until one of you has been killed.  But with the ability to maneuver, and the raft of items available, Rogue has what is probably the most tactical and enjoyable combat to date.  Why exchange blows when you can use a wand of drain life, or a healing potion, or a scroll that teleports you out of the battle entirely?  Like Akalabeth before it, the entire game engine is available during battle, and that opens up a lot of options, but Rogue has far more variables in play, and makes for a much more exciting experience.  My one complaint is that it can be a bit random at times, but that's true of most games of this vintage, and of D&D itself.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Aesthetics: This is Rogue's weakest point, for sure: it has no sound, and its graphics are entirely represented by ASCII characters.  It's functional, and it does have a certain charm - enough so that the genre inspired by it still frequently uses the same style - but it's still a definite failing.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: It's tempting to give this game a very high score here, because everything about it just works.  The monsters, the items, the combat, the exploration... it all melds together into an incredibly tense gaming experience.  It also controls really well.  There are a load of keyboard commands, and some keys do different things depending on whether they're capitalised or not, which you'd think would be terrible.  In practice it works, especially when you get to the point where you no longer need to consult a cheat sheet.  Even so, I feel like the randomisation lets it down.  There are some games where you just can't win, regardless of how well you play, and that's a let down.  Rating 5 out of 7.

Challenge: This is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyably challenging games I've ever played, but it is far too random to score highly here.  In some games, like the one where I beat it, all the items you need fall into your lap.  In others, you get nothing, and limp into the high levels with 30 hit points and not a prayer of victory.  Ideally, you'd stand a chance of winning in every game after mastering its tactics, but that's not the case here.  That's not cool, but at the same time, there's just something about Rogue that kept me coming back and trying again.  Rating: 4 out of 7.

Fun: Despite how futile, random and frustrating it can be, Rogue is a lot of fun.  I think that's because of how open it is: no two games are ever alike, and there's no end to the situations you can find yourself in.  Sure, it sucks to win a hard-fought battle against a Xorn, only to take one step into a trap door, fall down a pit, and get instantly killed by Quasit.  Yes, it sucks when you polymorph a Bat into a Purple Worm and get eaten on Level 1.  But what other games of this vintage allow such variety?  There are plenty of times playing Rogue where my death was inevitable, but I always felt like there was something I could try.  Plus, after nearly 300 games and four months I still feel like playing it. That has to count for something. Rating: 5 out of 7.

Bonus Points: I'm giving Rogue the full two bonus points, for inspiring an entire genre.

The above scores total 25; that score doubled, with the bonus points added, gives a RADNESS Index of 52.  That puts it on top of the CRPG pile, six points ahead of The Game of Dungeons v5.4.  It doesn't crack the top of the overall list though, as Zork is well ahead on 64 points.  At this early stage, though, I feel pretty good about two genuine classics like Rogue and Zork topping the charts on this blog.

NEXT: To be honest, I'm not sure what comes next.  This pandemic situation has me going through some bullshit, and as readers of my other blogs will know I'm currently taking a blogging hiatus.  I'll call it a hiatus for now, because I'm pretty sure that I just need a break, but it's entirely possible that I might not be back.  If that's the case, and this is my final post, I'd like to thank my regular readers, and I hope you've enjoyed what I've been doing here.  I'll still be reading comments on the blog, and I'll be on Twitter (@NPMahney) if you want to get in touch.