Saturday, January 11, 2020

Game 35: Wilderness Campaign (1979)

The manual cover

Just under four years ago I posted about Dungeon Campaign, the first game from Robert Clardy. It was a decent (for 1978) maze exploration RPG, where the player controls a large party of adventurers trying to escape the dungeon alive while loading up with as much treasure as possible.  One year later, in 1979, Clardy and Synergistic Software released his follow-up, Wilderness Campaign. I'm playing this on an Apple II emulator, and as far as I can tell the Apple II was the only platform that this game was ever released on.

A look at the manual gives the following backstory: the once-great kingdom of Draconia has been reduced to poverty and decay due to the influence of the Great Necromancer, who seized power ten years ago. The goal of the game is to lead a small band of men to organise the Necromancer's overthrow. It's boilerplate stuff, but looking back at the CRPGs I've played for the blog, I was surprised to see that this is the first one with a "kill the wizard" plot. Literally every other game before this has been a treasure hunt of some sort (even the sci-fi game Space was about amassing wealth). So it's not just the adventure games that have been recycling the same goal over and over again.

While I'm on the topic of firsts, this is also the first CRPG on the blog that takes place in an expansive wilderness. Only two other CRPGs (of the thirteen I've played) before this even take place outside of a dungeon: Space and Sword & Sorcery. I'd hardly qualify the galaxy of Space as a wilderness, and while Sword & Sorcery takes place in a succession of forest arenas, those are randomised and quite restrictive. Wilderness Campaign has a map that remains the same every time you play, and Draconia has a decent claim on being the first "world" ("land" would probably be more accurate) depicted in a CRPG.

The title screen (a big step down from Dungeon Campaign's epic dragon)

As with Dungeon Campaign, you are in control of a band of adventurers rather than a single character. When the game begins, you have 10 fighters. All of them are unarmed and unarmored, but they're carrying around 1,000 gold coins and a small supply of food. The first goal is to make it to a village to buy some supplies, and after that to find enough treasure to hire and equip an army large enough to defeat the Great Necromancer's forces. The manual recommends that you have 50 to 75 well-armed fighters before tackling the end battle (although I was able to beat it with a smaller force than that).

Mercenaries can be hired at any of the villages dotted about the land, but you have to pay them on a regular basis, and they come with no weapons or armor.  The number of mercenaries you can hire varies depending on how much gold you offer to pay them. Offering them a high amount will attract more troops to your cause, but if you don't have enough money when payday rolls around they will abandon you instantly. Far more reliable are the soldiers that can be found at the castles. Sometimes when you visit a castle, the lord will give you some of his troops, as well as a donation of gold. These troops never abandon you, and come equipped with weapons and armour of the highest strength. Unfortunately, some castles are empty ruins, so you can't always rely on getting enough of these soldiers to beat the game.

In addition to your army, a magical weapon is required to penetrate the barrier around the Necromancer's fortress. This is also mentioned in the manual, which says that it can be found in the Sanctuary of the White Mage. You can stumble across the Sanctuary while exploring, or an agent of the White Mage known as the Oracle might show up and direct you. I never found it by accident, as the difficulties of wilderness travel and food consumption stopped me from doing much wandering at random. Eventually though, the Oracle appears, and the location of the Sanctuary will flash on the screen for a short time, giving you it's location.  Once you find the Sanctuary, the White Mage offers you a choice of two magic items. Two of those on offer (the Staff of Power and the Lightningrod) can destroy the barrier and allow you to attack the Necromancer's fortress.

The map of Draconia. The various villages, castles and dungeons are
placed randomly at the start of each game.

Getting about the wilderness presents a number of difficulties, depending upon the terrain.  Draconia has five distinct areas: the Plains to the south-east, the Swamp to the west, the Jungle north of those, the Mountains that cut across the map even further north, and the Desert beyond. (The Necromancer's fortress is in the far north-west.) The plains are the quickest to traverse, while the mountains, swamps and jungles take more time.  Each of these terrains has monsters that are unique to that area: Sand Serpents, Stingwings and Ghouls in the Desert; Orcs, Cyclops and Rocs in the Mountains; Gorgons, Dragons and Werewolves in the Jungle; and Allosaurs, Pterodactyls and Lycanthropes in the Swamp (the manual doesn't note any monsters unique to the Plains).

Combat involves trading attack and defense round after round, using a formula that I don't entirely understand. First strike is probably affected by your Speed score.  Weapon and armour types (each ranked from 1 to 5 in strength) are definitely factored in, as are your Strength score and experience (which goes up the more fights you win). Various other factors grant bonuses: positioning (one of your combat options involves getting into a more advantageous position), attack and defense spells, and using the appropriate weapon for your foe (bows and spears against flying enemies, crosses and holy water against Vampires, etc.). All of this is modified by a Luck roll which flashes on the screen until you stop it by hitting the Space bar. The numbers flash by too fast for any skill to come into it. Once I was decently equipped I found that combat was easy, with most rounds going by with no casualties, but occasionally the enemy would cast an Evil Spell that raised their attack total just high enough to kill one or two of my guys. The most annoying part was that I never seemed able to kill more than about half of my remaining foes, even when I overwhelmingly outnumbered the enemy.  It's all fairly simplistic, and tactically speaking there aren't any decisions to make except whether to reposition for advantage or flee when things start turning against you. Thankfully the combat isn't too difficult once you're well-equipped, and it goes by pretty quickly.

In addition to random encounters with monsters, there are environmental hazards that can block your path, such as gorges, bogs, cliffs, and overgrown areas. To get past these you require at least one of the necessary item (such as an inflatable raft to traverse the bog, a wooden plank to get over the crevasse, rope to climb the cliff, a machete to cut through trees, etc.). These can be purchased at the villages markets. If you don't have one, there's nothing else to do but backtrack and try to find a path around. A couple of times I got stuck in areas that I couldn't escape from (particularly when leaving a castle), so it's a good idea to load up with these items as early as possible. Each village only sell a limited selection of gear, so you have to visit a few before you can buy everything you need.

Blocked by some brambles. Note the pointless Yes/No question; you can
answer Y as often as you like, but you're not getting past
without the right gear.

There are also dangers such as avalanches and wildfires which can kill your men. Casualties are determined by a combination of your Dexterity score and a random roll. Most of the time I was able to get through these without losing anybody, but every now and then they would kill one or two of my men. For the most part this was merely an annoyance, but when I you're carrying a full load of equipment losing one or two men becomes one of the most infuriating parts of the game. More on encumbrance later.

Treasure is mostly found by exploring temples, tombs, ruins and abandoned castles. The type of structure being explored doesn't seem to make much of a difference, although I suspect that different types of monsters may be encountered in each.  A light source of some kind, such as a torch or a lantern, is required to enter most of these places.  Treasure is sometimes guarded by monsters, but can also be found unguarded.  Eventually you will explore all of the safe areas in the dungeon, and every round spent searching will have a chance that you are caught in some kind of a trap or hazard, which works much the same as those in the wilderness.  Once you leave one of these dungeons it closes up behind you, so you can't keep raiding the same one over and over again. This means that you can't keep raiding those dungeons that are close to the villages, forcing you to go further afield as the game progresses.

Treasure comes in gold, silver and copper coins. One gold coin is equal to 10 silver and 100 copper.  There are also magic items to be found. The most useful of these is the crystal ball, which warns you of nearby monsters and allows you to flee before entering combat. The magic rug is another great one, allowing you to move to anywhere on the map without worrying about hazards, obstacles or resources, but it can only be used once.  There's also a magic lamp and a magic ring, each of which allows you to choose one of three stats you'd like to raise (Strength, Dexterity, Speed, Charisma or Experience). All of these items can be destroyed by hazards such as wildfire or avalanches. You can also find Attack and Defense spells, which I think are always active once they're in your inventory, or at least that's what the game told me when I tried to use one before a combat.

Getting treasure is easy, but keeping it is another matter entirely. Not only do you have to use it to feed, pay and equip your troops, but you also need to be able to carry the stuff. Encumbrance is by far the most important, and irritating, factor in the game. Thankfully you can hire porters in any of the villages, in much the same manner that you hire mercenaries. They can still die in combat though, or from other various dangers.  And when you're loaded up after a dungeon expedition and trying to haul your treasure back to the nearest village, there's nothing more aggravating than losing a couple of guys in a skirmish, or a wildfire, or to starvation. Every single death means you have to drop some gear. Obviously the copper and silver coins will be the first to go, but I spent far too much time in this game staring at my inventory screen, agonising over what to leave behind.

The most hated screen in the game

I never was quite able to master the balance of resource management in this game. I was lucky enough, however, to fluke a win on my third attempt. There were three castles on the map, and all of them had friendly lords who bolstered me with loyal, well-equipped troops. With a mere 35 soldiers, I took my chances attacking the Necromancer's fortress, and was successful. Alas, I forgot to take a screenshot, so I only managed to grab the final victory screen.

I really should have typed a message at the prompt as
proof of a legitimate victory

Feeling a little unsatisfied I tried to win again, and I never managed it. Every time I found myself battling against the game's resource economy, never having quite enough gold to feed my troops, hire a large army, and get around the map without starving to death. I also had games where I had a lot of trouble finding the Great Sanctuary; you get a general sense of where it is when its location flashes up on the map, but finding the exact spot where it is can still be frustrating. In general I found getting around the map, and navigating the obstacles and hazards, to be a laborious process.

The Oracle shows me the location of the Sanctuary: in the mountains
east of the Necromancer's fortress

The Necromancer's fortress is situated in the far north-west, and once you have one of the items from the Sanctuary you can go there whenever you feel you're strong enough.  The final battle is with around 50 or 60 of the Necromancer's troops, who have decent weapons, but I've never seen them with weapons and armor of the highest level.  The first time I fought against them, with 35 soldiers equipped with the very best gear, I made very quick work of them.  The second time I got there with only nine guys, and did not go so well.

The combat screen, upon which the Necromancer's
army is about to kick my arse.

Once you've beaten these soldiers you get a screen telling you that you've killed the Necromancer, and then another that says you won before dumping you back to the prompt. It's all very perfunctory, but that was how all games ended in those days.

I nicked this screenshot from Chester.

Final Rating

Story and Setting: It's tempting to give this game some bonus points for originality here. The story is a simple "kill that evil wizard over yonder" plot, but at least in CRPGs there's a chance that it might be the first "kill that wizard" plot.  The land of Draconia is little more than a wilderness map, backed up by the scantest amount of lore, but it might the first wilderness map in a CRPG. In the end, I still had to go with the minimum score, as the content here is still very basic. There's a category for innovation down below, after all. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters and Monsters: There are no characters of note in this game; the Necromancer is little more than a name, and the lords of the various castles are also non-entities.  There's a good selection of monsters to be found, but none of them are appreciably different in combat.  Some of them are vulnerable to specific types of weapons (i.e. Vampires and holy water) but I never noticed that it made much of a difference. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The Apple had some of the prettiest graphics of its day, but when you're talking about 1979 that doesn't count for much. The wilderness map is well drawn, but little more than serviceable, and the rest of the game is nothing more than drab grey and black menu screens. There's no music, and the sound effects are simple beeps that had me reaching for the mute key (although the squidgy noise when you destroy the Necromancer's barrier is pretty good). Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: The combat is rudimentary, and the process of exploration is frustrating, but those aren't the core of the game. The real core of Wilderness Campaign is all of those fiddly little things that most Dungeons & Dragons tabletop games ignore: encumbrance, rations, and equipment. Wilderness Campaign is a game of logistics, and on that score it does pretty well, with a decent number of systems that balance well against each other. Yes, it can be frustrating, but it's rarely unfair. I am going to dock it a point for those times when I got trapped in an inescapable part of the map, though. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: I've mentioned before that this game can be aggravating, but I think a lot of that comes down to the fact that I have little patience for these types of games. Give me a dungeon to map, and I'll be at it for painstaking hours. Give me logistics to manage, and my eyes glaze over. Checking over at The CRPG Addict, I see that Chester found this game to be pretty easy, confirming that as a gamer and a blogger I'll be forever in his shadow. Overall, I'd say that the game is pretty well balanced: combat becomes easy in short order, but the process of building up an army to take on the final boss is something I found pretty hard - in about ten attempts, I managed it once. Sounds about right to me. Rating: 5 out of 7.

Innovation and Influence: The plot and setting elements are innovative, albeit in a very minor way that probably shouldn't influence this score. The gameplay is moreso, being one of the earliest examples of a CRPG that gives you command of an army, and the logistical challenges that entails. As for influence, it's difficult to say. It bears little resemblance to what CRPGs will look like going forward, and any influence it might have had was probably more focused on strategy games. (I'll leave the question of whether Wilderness Campaign itself qualifies as a CRPG alone.)  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Fun: Despite finding various aspects of the game annoying, I've had more fun with this than some of the more recent games I've played. Just now I had another crack at it in the middle of writing this post, which ended when I assaulted the Necromancer's fortress with an army not quite strong enough to prevail. If only it was just a little more forgiving with encumbrance, and featured slightly fewer environmental obstacles, with one or two more ways to influence combat... It's almost there, but I can't in good conscience rate it higher that Temple of Apshai. Rating: 3 out of 7.

The above scores total 18, which doubled gives a score of 36. Normally this is where I would award the coveted Bonus Point, but I'm amending that as described below:

The Bonus Point (Amendment): The bonus point is for games that I would happily play again.  I've been awarding it before doubling the score (which I realise is a worthless conceit just so that I can have scores out of 100 rather than 50, but I'm still sticking with it because I like it better).  From now on, I'll be awarding the point after doubling the score.  A game will get 1 point if I can maybe see myself playing it again in the future.  It will get 2 points if I can definitely, absolutely, 100% see myself playing it again in the future.  This should give a little bit more variation in the scores on the list, and open it up to actually having odd numbers. I won't be going back to change any of the previous games I've rated; if I open up that floodgate I'll end up changing all of my ratings, and I'd rather not do that.  I'm aware that CRPGs in general have more replayability than adventure games, and are more likely to get the bonus point, but guess what? I don't care. CRPGs rule, you guys.

Anyway, Wilderness Campaign gets the double - 2 bonus points! I will absolutely give it another shot in the future, if only because I feel like I fluked the one win I got.  That gives it a Final Rating of 38 - equal 13th overall and 8th out of 14 CRPGs. It's sitting right on the line separating the games I enjoyed from the ones I didn't: Sword & Sorcery is just above it on 40 points, and Moria is just below it on 36.

NEXT: Something called Battlestar, which seems to be an adventure/exploration game based on the Battlestar Galactica TV show. Much to my dismay it's a mainframe game, which could make it a long one. Hopefully it's more Sword & Sorcery, and less Moria. I see that Renga in Blue knocked it off in four posts, which is somewhat heartening.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Game 34: The Atlantian Odyssey (1979)

I want to know more about Ultra-Mon, the Intelligent Monitor!

Today's game is The Atlantian Odyssey (spelled as the more aesthetically-pleasing Atlantean Odyssey in some places, but I'm going with what's on the title screen). It's not one I've ever heard of before, and I can't find anything about its origins except that it was created by someone called Teri-Li, with later help from a Mark Robinson. It's relative obscurity belies its possible historical significance, however, because it has a decent claim on being the first text adventure to feature graphics throughout the game (Zork and Stuga had some ASCII art, but it was very occasional). That accolade is usually given to Sierra's Mystery House, which was released in 1980, but if The Atlantian Odyssey was written in 1979 (as Renga in Blue believes likely) then it definitely came first. Even if it's a 1980 game (as the copyright screen shows), it still stands a good chance of being first. And even if it's not first, being the second ever graphical adventure game is still a pretty big deal.

Not every area of a game can be an innovation, however, as the plot of Atlantian Odyssey sees the player having sailed to an island in the Pacific Ocean in search of a number of treasures (six, in fact). The goal of the game is to find all of these treasures, sail back to Hawaii, go into the pawnshop and type SCORE. It doesn't have a points total like Colossal Cave Adventure and Zork, but the player does get ranked based on how many moves they took to finish the game.

So uhhhh I can see sand *and* a beach?

You begin the game on a beach, with your sailboat nearby. It's interesting to see just how much stuff the game says you can see: jetsam, sand, a roadway, the ocean, the beach, and your sailboat. Most of these are pointless, or can't be interacted with, which is a pretty rare case of wasted resources in a game of this vintage. All of those red herrings are using up precious memory! Similarly, the boat contains a number of mostly useless items: a speargun, a scuba diving suit, and a knapsack containing a flashlight. The flashlight has been rusted by seawater, and doesn't work. The speargun can be used to shoot a shark in the ocean nearby, but that only serves to provoke the beast into killing you. And while the scuba suit can be used to dive underwater, its air-tank runs out pretty quickly and is superseded by another item in short order.

From the beach you can swim into the ocean (which is thankfully restricted to a single area), or you can head east. The island itself consists of only three locations: the beach, a jungle clearing, and an ancient temple. Inside the temple is a crystal pyramid - the first of the treasures - and a mural, which depicts a man underwater, wearing a medallion with a glowing ruby.

At this point, I have to admit that I got stuck for a decent amount of time. Wearing the scuba gear I was able to swim down to another temple beneath the ocean, but I wasn't able to do anything there, and as mentioned before the air in the scuba tanks doesn't last long. The solution, which I eventually figured out through a lot of trial and error, was to DIG in the jungle clearing. This uncovers the medallion from the mural. It's described as a "flat hexagon with a ruby-sapphire-blue diamond around a green opal". Not only is it another of the treasures, but pressing the ruby grants the ability to breathe underwater.

Hanging out in an underwater temple. You can just make out part of the
hexagon on the floor.

With that ability, I was properly able to explore the underwater temple. This place had another mural, this one showing a man wearing a medallion with the opal glowing. I pressed the opal this time, and found myself transported to an area called the Gates of Hercules, with a sea cave and a path leading up a cliff.

A quick dip in the ocean showed me that I was now in the Mediterranean. I tried to swim down again, but this time it didn't work. The path up the cliff led to a rift, which was dark beyond. Instead I went into the cave, where I found a lamp hidden beneath some rocks. There was also a door disguised as a bas-relief sculpture, but I decided to explore the dark rift first. Inside were two rooms, and a cylinder inside a decayed box: the third treasure!

Back in the cave, I went through the disguised door, into another small room. There didn't appear to be anything of interest inside, but the graphics showed something on the floor, and when I typed LOOK FLOOR I was told that there was a hexagon painted on it. Taking the hint, I started pressing the stones on my medallion. The opal took me to another room, but it was underwater and I promptly drowned.

(More accurately, I was transported to Davy Jones' Locker, a maritime euphemism for being dead. I could still take actions, although only one had any effect: by pressing the sapphire on my medallion, I was transported back to the beach where I started the game, with my inventory fully intact.

I made my way back to the room with the hexagon, and this time I pushed the ruby before pushing the opal. The small underwater room I found myself had only one exit, which was locked, but an examination of the wall showed a pyramid-shaped depression. The crystal pyramid was the obvious key, but getting it in there was a struggle with the game's simple two-word parser. INSERT seemed the obvious command, but that wasn't recognised. I tried some others, like SLOT, but the eventual solution was PUT PYRAMID (testing it now, I discovered that PLACE also works). The game then gives a prompt that says IN WHAT?, to which the answer is WALL, but it's all a bit clumsy. Two word parsers can have their advantages, as they let you know there's a limit to how complex a puzzle can get, but on the other hand they can make even something as simple as putting a pyramid in a slot a trial.

A quality parser at work.

With the door opened, I was able to enter a large hall. To the east there was an "arcade", which in this case would be a covered passage with arches, not a building full of video game cabinets. The ante-chamber this led to had no seeming purpose, and I never did figure out what this room's deal was. It has a hexagon on the floor (although not pictured in the graphics) but pushing the gems in the medallion had no effect.

North of the hall was an alcove with a large wall sculpture, showing the same medallion-wearing man, this time with his medallion glowing. There was also some "cloth material", which on closer inspection is velvet. Underneath it is a gold dolphin, which is treasure number 4. Annoyingly, the game doesn't recognise CLOTH, only MATERIAL, which is a bit rough when it's written in the description as CLOTH MATERIAL. You're going to try the words in that order, you know?

Anyway, pushing the medallion's diamond opens a door, which leads to a long corridor and another door. It's locked, but has a metal plate to the side, and opens when you insert the cylinder. Beyond is a "gigantic underwater city" which sounds daunting but in actuality is like four locations. One of those involves getting lost, but you can always swim up (revealing that you're in the Atlantic Ocean) then swim down to return to the first area. The other two are an empty building, and a plaza full of debris. Hidden in the debris is an atlantean coin, the fifth treasure. That's the entire extent of the lost city of Atlantis folks!

Behold! The majesty of fabled Atlantis!

Unfortunately, I'd explored everywhere and only found five of the six treasures. Finding the elusive sixth took about half an hour of roaming around and searching every little thing I could think of. Eventually I discovered that the room beyond the rift where I had found the cylinder also had a hexagon painted on the floor (even though there was no sign of it in the graphics, like in the other hexagon rooms). A press of the opal took me to a palatial bedroom. Searching the drapes revealed a string of black pearls, the final treasure. There's a pointless balcony (which you can jump from if you feel like committing suicide), and a library full of books that crumble at the touch. The library has a hexagon on the floor, which is the only way to leave this area (by pushing the opal).

With the six treasures in hand, I set sail to Hawaii to get my final score. Not only did I score poorly, being ranked as a Novice, I was told that I was not being properly ranked because I had killed my "android" (by drowining, presumably). (I guess the term avatar hadn't yet been coined for the player's in-game proxy, and probably wouldn't be until Ultima IV.)  The Novice rank, I figured, had to do with how many moves it took me to beat the game.  So I played through again as efficiently as I could, and this time I got a slightly more satisfying victory screen.


A check of the source code showed that Professional is the highest rank, achieved by winning in under 95 moves. So, with The Atlantian Odyssey officially done and dusted, it's time for a Final Rating.

Story & Setting: Oh look, it's a treasure hunt! Look, I get it, it's an easy justification for an adventure, and it's a natural story type for gaming. It's never going to score highly in the category though. The underwater setting of Atlantis is slightly novel, although Greg Hassett's Voyage to Atlantis came out the same year with a similar premise; I don't know which was first. Either way, it's not fleshed out enough to elevate this game beyond the lowest score. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The only living things that can be encountered in this game are a shark and some fish. The fish are simply there to remind you that you're underwater, and the shark is a hazard only if you provoke it with the spear. Otherwise, the game is conspicuously empty: even the pawn shop in Hawaii is devoid of life. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The addition of graphics had the potential to elevate this game above it's contemporaries, but let's be real here: they're pretty ugly. The TSR-80, by and large, was not known for its visuals, and this game doesn't change that. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: The parser for this game is a clunky two word affair that only recognises the first few letters of any word, and has to go to some awkward places just to facilitate something as simple as placing an item in a wall slot. Still, it's functional, and I only had a couple of instances where I had to struggle for the correct verb. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: The puzzles for this game are rudimentary, and for the most part make sense. The main sticking point for me was right at the beginning, where it wasn't clear exactly what I had to do; digging up the medallion was pure luck and persistence on my part. After that things progressed more smoothly, and I had cracked the game in about 2 hours. I'd say the game errs on the side of being too easy, with the only difficult parts being frustrating rather than clever or challenging. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: It's difficult to rate this one. It deserves a high score for being one of the first - if not the very first - graphical adventures. On the other hand, it doesn't appear to have had much of an influence or legacy. It doesn't even have a page on mobygames as far as I can tell. Still, I'll be generous, and rate it high for what it achieves. Rating: 5 out of 7.

Fun: I didn't get a lot of enjoyment out of this, but it's hard for me to give a game this short the lowest score. There's a lot to be said for entertainment that doesn't overstay it's welcome. Rating: 2 out of 7.

No bonus point, as I won't be playing the game again. The above scores total 15, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 30. That puts it equal 23rd overall, and equal 12th out of 21 adventure games played. It's on a par with Mission Impossible, Colossal Cave Adventure II, and Voyage to Atlantis; all of those are slightly better games, but the graphical innovation edged The Atlantian Odyssey a bit higher than it strictly deserves.

NEXT: It's back to the world of CRPGs as I tackle Wilderness Campaign, Robert Clardy's follow-up to Dungeon Campaign.

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.