Sunday, April 23, 2017

Game 19: The House of Seven Gables (1978)

Evocative.

The House of Seven Gables is the second game from Greg Hassett, twelve-year-old rival of adventure game legend Scott Adams.  Hassett's first effort, Journey to the Centre of the Earth Adventure, had all the hallmarks of a game that was incomplete; it was full of red herrings and areas that served no purpose. It also only had one puzzle, making it extremely easy to finish.

The good news is that The House of Seven Gables is a much tighter game. There are still a few things in it that I never found a use for, but it felt to me less like Hassett didn't program them and more like I just didn't solve the puzzles.

If The House of Seven Gables sounds familiar, it might be because there's a Nathaniel Hawthorne novel of the same name. The game has little to do with the book, although both have elements of witchcraft and the supernatural. Hassett's game is the first "haunted house" adventure I've played for the blog, and possibly the first one ever made. A lot of haunted house games will follow, so it's influential in that respect. (Oddly enough, at the same time I'm playing The House of Seven Gables, I'm also playing House of Hell over on my gamebook blog. That one's a bit more hardcore though, there's some genuine nightmare fuel in that book.)

One rule of my blog is that I try to run the games I'm playing as close to their original version as I can get. Where possible, I'm going to play games for the system for which they were developed. The House of Seven Gables was released for the TRS-80, so I'm emulating that machine. The emulator (found here) was a little finicky to get running. I had previously used it to play some early Scott Adams games, but had completely forgotten how to use it in the interim. A bit of Googling served me well, though, and I was ready to go.

The game begins with you standing at the front door of a house with seven gables. There's a doorbell, and a compass lying on the floor. The compass is an odd thing, because you can't move anywhere without it. As soon as you pick it up the exits from the room become visible, and you can move around. It doesn't make a lot of logical sense, and it also takes up an inventory slot which is kind of annoying. Once you pick it up though you can forget about it, so it's not such a big deal. Just don't lose it, or you'll be stuck in one location forever.

There's nothing to do outside the house except to pick up the compass (GET is recognised, but not TAKE, the opposite of my complaint about A3). You can't open the door, but if you ring the bell you'll be sucked inside to the living room. At this point there's no way out, until you defeat the witch who is in charge of the house (although that's not apparent just yet).

But why am I even here?

What's also not apparent is the objective of the game. Escaping from the house alive is one, but as is customary with games of this vintage there are treasures to collect. There's also a score, with a maximum of 160 points. You earn points by returning the treasures to the Living Room, which is something that I had to figure out on my own. Not that it was that hard, because Hassett's previous game used the same device, and a bunch of other early adventure games have done so as well.

The first thing I do when starting a text adventure is to map out as much of it as I possibly can. I don't think I've described my method before, so I'll quickly give an example. Instead of making a map of the physical space, I simply list all of the rooms that I find in alphabetical order, with exits marked and interesting features noted. Every time I add a new room I place a line beneath it for every possible exit: N, E, S, W, NE, SE, SW, NW, U, D.  I then try each direction in turn, regardless of whether the game tells me there's an exit. If it leads to a room, I note the destination. If it doesn't, I delete that line. It may be an unusual system (I'm not sure how anyone else does it), but it ensures that I don't miss any exits, and still gives me a good sense of the map in my head. Here's an example of what the end result looks like below:

LIVING ROOM
    E - DINING ROOM
    S - TOP OF A STAIRCASE
    W - GUEST ROOM

MAD SCIENTIST'S LABORATORY
Objects: Chemicals
    D - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 4

MAMMOTH ART GALLERY
Objects: Priceless Rembrant
    N - ONE END OF A HALLWAY

MAZE OF HALLWAYS 1
    N - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 2
    E - WEST END OF THE HALLWAY

MAZE OF HALLWAYS 2
Objects: Rusty Axe
    N - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 2
    E - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 2
    S - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 1
    W - MAZE OF HALLWAYS 3

Exploration in The House of Seven Gables is made difficult by two enemies that pop up at random.  The first is the Ghost, who demands a treasure from you. If you don't give him one he kills you, but if you do give him one you can't get the maximum score. I never did figure out how to defeat the ghost, or if you can retrieve any treasures given to him. Once he shows up, though, there's nothing you can do but relinquish a treasure or restart the game.

Running ghosts are a rarity.

The second enemy is the One-Eyed Ghoul, who will show up in a room and kill you on your next move. Dealing with him is less obvious than the Ghost, and it took me a while to figure out how to kill him. The solution is to mix some chemicals found in a Mad Scientist's Laboratory, and throw them at the Ghoul, which melts him. What's kind of lame is that Ghouls just keep showing up and attacking you no matter how many you kill, but the chemicals don't disappear after you throw them so it's not so bad. It's just another item you need to keep in your inventory along with the compass.  You also need to mix the chemicals when you find them, or they're useless against the Ghoul; there's a hint about this in a room of the house where a hollow, disembodied voice cryptically tells you "MIX THEM".

"Heavens!" is perhaps a sanitised exclamation here.

There are eight treasures in the game, which I'll list below.

  • Silver Candlesticks (worth 10 points). These are found right next to the Living Room, so claiming them is no trouble at all.
  • A Rusty Axe (worth 5 points). The axe is found in the middle of a very small maze.  Mazes are an obligatory part of any adventure game at this point, but thankfully this is a small one; the limited memory of the TRS-80 is good for something after all. The axe is not only a treasure, but it's also used to chop down a locked door that leads to a staircase to the upper floor.
  • Some "Valuable Recipies" (worth 15 points). They're written in "Witchish", so you can't read them. They're found on the upper floor, not far from the stairs.
  • A "Priceless Rembrant" (worth 20 points). Really, Greg Hassett might have been well served by spending less time on coding adventure games and more time working on his spelling. The painting is on the upper floor, in an art gallery.
  • A Diamond (worth 15 points). Again, this is on the upper floor, not far from the entrance to the Witch's lair.
  • A Beautiful Rose (worth 10 points), found at the top of the stairs to the upper floor. 
  • The Witch's Hat (worth 50 points). You need to defeat the Witch in order to claim the hat, but more on that below.
  • A "Sulton's Dagger" (worth 35 points). This is one of the more difficult treasures to obtain. It's found in a coffin, which also houses (surprise!) a Vampire. The Vampire can be driven off with some garlic from the kitchen, but later on it will block your path back to the Living Room. The garlic doesn't work on it a second time; you need to STAKE VAMPIRE while the dagger is in your possession.

Stupid game, all Vampires are Draculas.

Claiming all of these treasures earns you the full 160 points. A few times while playing I noticed that my score had dropped into the negatives, and kept dropping with every move I made. At first I had thought that this was to do with losing treasure to the Ghost, but that doesn't seem to be the case. I also thought it might have been the result of escaping from the Witch without killing her, but that wasn't it either. It's a mystery I haven't solved, and not one I'm ever likely to.

As mentioned above, you can't get one of the treasures without killing the Witch. The first hint of her presence is found in a Dungeon, where a crude note is found on the wall: "YOU CAN'T GET OUT WITHOUT KILLING ME FIRST! --WITCHY POO".  Her lair is accessed via an altar on the upper floor that has a button on it; press the button and you're whisked away to her lair. (There's a book in the library with the helpful hint "NOTTUB SSERP"; thanks, I never would have gotten that otherwise.) The Witch isn't dangerous at all; she doesn't attack, and you can easily escape from her lair via an exit which leads to the Living Room.  Killing her is not hard to figure out, but there's a clue you can find by unfolding a paper airplane: "REMEMBER THE WIZARD OF OZ". The answer, of course, is to douse her with water, which you can find by filling a bucket in the kitchen.  Then it's a simple case of THROW WATER when you're in the Witch's presence, and she's done for.

"Her hat remains." I don't know why, but it makes me laugh.

Once the Witch is dead an exit to the north appears in the Living Room, and you can leave the house. This counts as winning the game, regardless of whether you've earned all 160 points or not.  But if you've collected all of the treasures, you'll get the screen below.

Sigh. If only I'd taken one more move.

Hardly the most satisfying conclusion, but it's par for the course at this stage. Really, the most satisfying thing about this was being able to knock off a game in a single day. After the long PLATO slog, it's a massive relief.

Before I give this game a Final Rating, I'll list some of the things that I never found a use for.

  • The house does indeed have seven gables, but I'm not entirely sure that Greg Hassett knows what a gable is. As you progress through the house you'll find areas named "First Gable", "Second Gable", etc.  Hassett must have thought that a gable is a room, but it's actually defined as "the triangular upper part of a wall at the end of a ridged roof".  I kept expecting the Gable rooms to become important, but they have no significance.
  • There's a banana in the kitchen. If you eat it you're left with the peel, but it never became useful. I had thought I might be able to trip the Ghoul with it, but no luck there. You can't drop it in the Witch's cauldron of brew either.
  • In the Second Gable is a black cat. If you try to catch it it disappears, with the ominous warning that it will return. It does show up in other rooms of the house after that, but nothing I've tried works on it.
  • In the Third Gable there is a test tube of fluid. Drinking it results in a black cloud that makes you drop all of your items, which is a game over because it means you lose the compass. Otherwise, it does nothing that I've been able to discern.
  • The compass goes from shiny to tarnished after a while, for no apparent reason.

That's not too bad, compared to the unfinished feeling of Hassett's first game. Now that that's done, it's time for the Final Rating.

Story & Setting: It's a treasure hunt, without even the proper rationale for one. There's no reason given for why you're at the front door of the house, or why you'd want to go inside.  Perhaps one was given in the documentation, but I wasn't able to find any on-line. The setting has all of the standard haunted house trappings, but the writing is so sparse that it never manages to create a spooky atmosphere. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The game has a few characters throughout the game: the Ghost, the Ghoul, the Vampire and the Witch. Interaction with them is minimal, though, and they do little except for functioning as puzzles or obstacles. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The game has no sound, and the graphics are limited to black-and-white text. The descriptions are exceptionally terse, as necessitated by the extremely low memory of the TRS-80, and as such they don't convey much beyond the purely functional. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: It's a simple two-word parser, and there are one or two instances where the obvious command isn't what the game is looking for, but the game is small and tight enough that it's not a big problem. I also like how it has the room description at the top, with the character's actions and their results below. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: The game is pretty easy, though a touch more difficult than Hassett's first game. The major difficulty is with the Ghost: if it pops up, you can't beat the game with full points. Otherwise, the game shouldn't trouble anyone for more than an hour or two. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: In terms of mechanics, it's very much like Journey to the Centre of the Earth Adventure, and the first two Scott Adams adventures. It does get some points for being the first ever "haunted house" adventure, though. Rating: 3 out of 7.

This game doesn't get the bonus point, because I'll never go back to it. The above points add up to 13, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 26. This puts it dead level with Journey to the Centre of the Earth Adventure, which is about right. It's a better game, but not a great deal better. From a modern perspective, they're much the same in quality.

Next: It's Acheton, a mammoth adventure game from England that borrows heavily from Colossal Cave Adventure. It's quite a bit larger, though, and much more sadistic. It's so large that I haven't even finished mapping it yet, and I very much doubt that I'll be done with it before my next post.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Game 18: Aldebaran III [aka A3, designed using Wander] (1978)

The closest thing it has to a title screen.

Aldebaran III is the second of three existing games created using the Wander system. The first was Castle, which I covered last year. It was surprisingly sophisticated for being the very first text adventure, although it should always be remembered that most mainframe-based games were developed over a number of years.  It was less sophisticated in its story-telling, with the ultimate "reward" being sex with a prince or princess, whichever of the two you rescued. (Okay, yes, you could also have sex with both of them at the same time. Okay, yes, I did fix the bugs in the game's code so that I could get that ending. Can we move on here?)

Aldebaran III, like Castle, was created by Peter Langston (the creator of Wander) and Nat Howard.  It's more generally known by its filename of A3, but as no title appears within the game itself I've decided to give it a name that's more descriptive.  It might make googling this thing a bit more difficult, but who cares. I like it better, so I'm sticking with it. I may have the date wrong for this game; the source code lists the final update as being in 1982, but the esteemed Renga in Blue has the creation of the game pinned down to 1977 or 1978, so I'll go with that.

Aldebaran III is a sci-fi game, possibly the first text adventure in that genre.  (Greg Hassett's Journey to the Centre of the Earth Adventure is the only other contender, if you count Jules Verne pastiches as sci-fi.)  In it you play as Jaime Retief, under-secretary to the ambassador for the "Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne". You've been sent to the planet of Aldebaran III to avert an uprising by the natives against Terran nationals, which is expected to come to a head at the end of April.

Just from that little snippet, you can see that the storytelling here is a lot more advanced than any other adventure games I've played so far.  This is probably also the first adventure game in which you play a distinct character, rather than a generic stand-in for the player.  There's a reason for that increase in sophistication: Jame Retief (it's spelled differently in the game) of the CDT is a pre-existing pulp sci-fi character, and the star of around 50 short stories. I haven't read any of them, but from what I can tell it doesn't appear that the plot of Aldebaran III is taken directly from any of them.  Certain elements are definitely cribbed, though, and it explains the nagging sense I had throughout the game that I was missing something.  I suppose that makes for another first: the first adventure game to be based on an existing property (albeit unofficially).

Aldebaran III begins when I (as Retief) disembarked in the spaceport.  There was a credit card on the ground, which I picked up and examined. (The parser didn't recognise GET, to my annoyance, but it did recognise the obvious alternative of TAKE.) I'm not sure why it was on the ground, as it belongs to me; I suppose it's so important that the designers didn't want to hide it in the player's inventory.  Speaking of which, my inventory contained my identity papers, and some notes that I had taken on the planet and its inhabitants. Looking at the papers is the only way I know of to learn that you are playing as Retief, although the mention of the CDT in the intro would have tipped off fans of the series.

Groovy Super Phat Crazy Trainee?

The notes span multiple pages, and I had to to read them multiple times to get all of the information, as Retief kept getting too bored to continue.  I learned the following relevant info from them:

  • The planet's atmosphere is close enough to Earth's. It's day lasts for 18.628 Earth hours (although they still use a 24 hour clock). It's axial tilt is such that the planet has no variance in the seasons and the length of it's days, which is a really clever way to explain why sunrise and sunset always take place at exactly the same time in the game.
  • The ruling species on Aldebaran has six legs, a human torso, and a "brain-case" with tendrils that give them exceptional senses of sight and smell.
  • Some of them have larger brains, and can alter the appearance of their bodies at will.
  • Aldebaranites are deeply religious, and place a great importance on certain "magic" artifacts.
  • The Aldebaranite language has a lot of dialects, and differs greatly from region to region.
  • The head of state is known as "the Rep".

There's a bunch of other stuff, but the clues above are the ones that play into the rest of the game.

As you might have noticed from the first point above, Aldebaran III keeps track of the passage of time.  The game begins at midnight on April 1st, and time advances by an hour for every action you take. As mentioned above, you have until the end of April to stop the uprisings. I finished the game well within that time-frame, but I decided to loiter around to see what would happen. On the dawn of April 29th you get a message that "Tensions seem on the breaking point".  Then again on April 30th. Then again on April 31st. Hang on a second. Then again on April 32nd.  As far as I can tell, April just extends on forever, and there's no actual deadline implemented, which is a shame. I wouldn't be surprised if the intention was there to put one in, but for whatever reason Langston and Howard never got to it. Sure, the only way I ever got close to the deadline was by waiting around doing nothing for weeks on end, so it's not a genuine threat, but it would be nice to have something happen. Even a message saying "You Have Failed" would be enough.

The opening area of the game is the Aldebaran Spaceport. Its most notable feature is a vending machine, which you can buy various items from: cigarettes (10 credits), mystery grab bag (10 credits), biorhythms (25 credits) and subway tokens (25 credits). You only begin with 50 credits, so at this point in the game it's a tough choice, because you can't buy everything. You don't need the cigarettes. Getting your biorhythms read is an excuse to drain you of your money and make a joke about it. The "mystery grab bag" at first gives you a condom, which gave me some uncomfortable flashbacks to the ending of Castle, but I never found a use for them in the game. Buying the grab bag a second time gives you an electronic all-dialect dictionary, which is essential to reading various messages in Aldebaranite scattered through the game. The tokens are also essential, because the subway is the only way to travel between regions. You don't need to buy them here, though, because there's another area that sells them much cheaper. I didn't discover it until much later in the game, so I spent most of my time wasting half of my money on a mere 2 subway tokens.

Okay, good one. Ya got me.

Leaving the spaceport involves a trip through customs, where you'll need to show your papers and declare the items in your inventory. Some of the items in your possession (the cigarettes, condoms, dictionary and your credit card) come with a customs fee, which is another drain on your credits. Even without buying the cigarettes and taking the condoms, I was left with 0 credits by the time I got through. You can save 5 credits by dropping your credit card in the spaceport, where the wind will blow it through an electrified fence and into an alleyway outside, but it's hardly worth it.

The customs official also gives you your first taste of the casual racism of the native population, calling you a "Terry" and being condescending in general.

The game is split into five sectors, and you begin in the spaceport sector. It has the following interesting locations:

  • An alleyway, where you can find some keys and an old wine bottle. Looking at the bottle gives you this image, which is reminiscent of some of the images from Zork.

    Supervisions?

    You can also find your credit card here if you dropped it in the spaceport. Sometimes when you enter the alleyway you'll be robbed by ruffians, who steal your credit card. (You can find them in the bar afterwards, beat them up and take it back.)

The only time in the game where you get to kick ass.

  • A bar, which has sign (in Aldebaranite, so you need the dictionary to read it) telling you that you can't leave without showing the bartender your papers. If you do, he sees that you're a UNIX user and offers you a free drink. (And yes, if you check your papers it mentions that you're a member of USENIX.) The bartender has more to offer than free drinks, though. If you type ASK BARTENDER he leaves a map on the counter, which you can take and read outside. It has a message on it: "Find Ignarp in Crystal City -- secret password is 'Axolotyl'." The plot progression of the game is a little obtuse, but I suppose that the bartender is a Terran sympathiser, and after seeing your papers directs you to the person who can help. It just about works.
  • There's a series of maze-like streets, which you can only progress through by typing LEFT or RIGHT. Choosing correctly takes you to the next street, and choosing incorrectly dumps you back to the beginning. If you get to the end, you'll be rewarded with a shovel (and a lot of alliteration).
  • When leaving the street with the shovel, you get a message that says "Not always..." I've come to be suspicious of non sequiturs like this in adventure games, so I made a note of it as something to come back to later. I'm glad I did, because solving it became one of the keys to the game. If you type SOMETIMES, you are taken to the Information Booth in the Hoople St. Sector, and you can get back from there by typing the same thing. In that sector is where you can buy cheap subway tokens, which allows you to save some credits.
  • Finally, there's an iron gate with a slot in it. If you insert a subway token, you gain access to the  Subwalk Station, where you can access the other four sectors: Hoople St, Boardwalk, Imperium Worlds and the Government Sector.

The Hoople St. sector, which you can gain access to by the secret way I mentioned above, or by the subwalk, is a much smaller area, and only has two things of notes.

  • A machine from which you can buy tokens for 1 credit each (much cheaper than paying 25 credits for two tokens in the spaceport). You need the dictionary to translate the sign above the machine, though.
  • A tourist information machine that will tell you the location of various things and people in the game for the price of 2 credits. Given the note on the bartender's map above, the obvious thing to ask about is Ignarp, which gives you the message "Ignarp is where you find Him." Asking about HIM or GOD doesn't produce any results, but if you ask about CHURCH it tells you to "Subwalk to Imperium Worlds Station, rub ring and ask directions." This would be a good clue to follow after obtaining the map, but I completed the game without ever using this machine.

The Boardwalk Sector is an interesting one. It begins by noting that ground is made out of white paper, which seems odd at first, and only gets odder when you realise what it's getting at.

  • A jail, which you can't enter unless you have the keys. If you do go in, the guards close the door behind you and confiscate the keys. The only way to get back out is to BRIBE the guard, which only costs 1 credit and also allows you to get your keys back. I'm don't think there's anything else to do in there.
  • A riot happening on 'Park Place'. If the rioting Aldebaranites see you, they will beat you up and steal your subway tokens. If this happens, you'll be saved by a disguised "TerrySymp" (Terran Sympathiser).
  • The Terran Embassy, where your intended boss, Ambassador Pouncetrifle, lies dead under a pile of rubble. Only his hand is visible, and his ring which you can take. The ring has some writing on it that's too small to read. Looking in the source code, I see that it's supposed to be magnified using the wine bottle, but I can't get it to work; either the code is wrong, or I'm using the wrong command. It says that the ring can only be activated on a clean surface.
  • A paper-covered street named 'GO'. The ground is marked with a gridwork pattern, with black and white stones placed like so:

    I have no idea.

    It's the boardgame Go, obviously, which is not a game I've ever played. You need to move the white stones (marked with the @ symbols) into a winning position in order to win some credits. Not knowing how Go works, I did it through trial and error. You can leave and come back as many times as you want, which is very helpful; saving and restoring with every failure would have been tedious. Winning gained me the sum of 10 credits, which seemed a bit paltry to me. That's because I hadn't fully solved the puzzle. You can win 200 credits by just typing PASS. Because if you pass Go...  Yes, it's a Monopoly Board. Don't ask me why. It's a puzzle that I never solved, and would have saved me some grief later on; I wouldn't have had to work out that SOMETIMES puzzle. This sort of nonsense fits really well in certain types of adventure games, but Aldebaran III set itself up as more naturalistic than the standard treasure hunts that have come before. Finding a city sector modelled after a Monopoly board was incongruous to say the least.

The Imperium Worlds sector is where the plot comes into focus, and most of the action of the game happens. You can skip Boardwalk and Hoople St. altogether, but you can't win the game without visiting Imperium Worlds. As soon as you try to exit the subwalk, you'll be told that "I don't think you're quite clean enough for this neighborhood". The trick is to type CLEAN, which sends you through a hidden autobath, and dumps you on a spotless street. It's not a puzzle that's obviously singposted, but I solved it on a whim. You can get a hint to the answer by rubbing the ambassador's ring while in the station; a local appears and tells you that cleanliness is next to godliness.

Also in this sector is a church, where you meet a strange man who demands to know your identity. He doesn't trust your word or your ID papers, but if you ask for his identity by typing SAY NAME something weird happens. He tries to tell you that he is Ignarp, but something about the church makes it impossible for him to lie, and he reveals that his name is really R. Nixon Shilth. He springs to attack you, but if you fight back it gets even weirder: he undergoes some sort of internal struggle and morphs into a female. This is the true Ignarp, who was slipped a "Groaci drug" by Shilth that gave him dominance over her for a time. You can't so anything here unless you have the password from the bartender's map: AXOLOTYL. If you give this word, Ignarp explains the plot to you.


Look! A story!

So it turns out the riots are being orchestrated by Shilth, who wants the land that the Terran Embassy sits on. Shilth stole three sacred art objects and sold them to Ambassador Pouncetrifle, who proudly displayed them as his own. Pouncetrifle was arrested as the thief, but managed to negotiate things so the return of the objects as well as a fine of 1,000 credits would settle matters. Pouncetrifle paid 985 of those credits, but the art objects have once more been stolen and hidden by Shilth.

So that's the objective of the game: collect the three art objects, and return them to the Rep along with 15 credits. The objects are a "green zwerf", and "alabaster yangst" and a "pale xyller". I had one clue: they were rumoured to have been hidden in an area near Pont St. Michel.  It's a little unfortunate that for all the great work done in the intro to create an interseting story, it all boils down to a treasure hunt.

Pont St. Michel is a street not far from the church. It leads over a flimsy bridge, and ends at a locked gate. You can only carry one item over the bridge, which can result in some problems later. Getting through the gate requires the keys, but this is where things get a little contentious. As I did with Castle, I needed to alter the code here to beat the game. I spent hours trying to get this gate open, until I gave up and went into the source code. Here's the problem: it's coded to open if you have a "key" in your inventory, but the one you find in the alleyway is listed in the code as "keys", plural. There's nowhere else in the code that refers to a singular key, and the game itself doesn't even recognise the word. So I feel justified in changing the code to work with the keys I had; I'm 100% sure it's an error on the part of the designers.

Beyond the gate is a graveyard area, which functions like a small maze; all of its areas are described identically, and you can't go back through the gate. All three of the art objects are buried in the graveyard, the yangst in one specific area and the other two found at random.  I was expecting an extensive treasure hunt, but to be honest I wasn't disappointed to be denied one. Sometimes I just want a game to be easy.

The way out of the graveyard is through a crypt, which loops back to the locked gate. Inside the crypt is a coffin, and if you open it a "Transylvanian Count" pops out and invites you to rest with him. Yes, this game has Dracula in it.  Normally I'm quite happy to have Dracula pop in any type of narrative you care to name, but even I'll admit he's out of place here. He gets very annoyed if you try to leave, and stops you from getting past. He tries to kill you, but he never managed it against me. I simply kept moving around the graveyard with Dracula in pursuit until the sun came up and vaporised him. It's an odd addition to the game, made even more pointless because you can just ignore the coffin entirely and he won't come out. Perhaps this sort of thing is consistent with the original Retief stories, but somehow I doubt it.

One! One anachronistic vampire! Ah Ah Ah!

With zwerf, xyller and yangst in hand, it should be a simple matter to return them to the Rep, shouldn't it? Well, no, there are still some obstacles to solve. The first is taking all three of the objects across the bridge one by one, which sounds easy enough but is complicated by the nature of the items: if any two of them are dropped in the same area, one will come alive and consume the other. This is signalled when you pick them up: one of the items will quiver in your hands.  Still, the solution here is just to drop them in separate locations, which requires a couple of loops back through the graveyard but is no real hassle.

The real problem is that if you ever drop your subway tokens, they will be almost immediately stolen, and you can't take them across the bridge because you need the keys to unlock the gate. Without fail, every time I've gone to unlock the gate my tokens have been stolen before I could get back.  And without tokens, there's no way to get into the subwalk station, and no way to return the art objects.

This is the puzzle that stumped me the longest, but the solution is quite clever, and well signposted. The clue is that in this sector you will occasionally see a message telling you that a speck of dust has landed on the hyper-clean streets, and vacuum cleaner pops out to suck it up.  The proper solution is to type DROP DIRT, which results in the cleaners sucking you up and spitting you out in the subwalk station.  That's not exactly how I did it though...

A valid solution.

Yes, I got frustrated, and as most people do when they get frustrated with a text adventure I started typing obscenities into the parser.  Wouldn't you know it, I typed SHIT and was promptly whisked to my desired destination. I'm not proud of it, but I chuckled for a good long while.  So yeah, I solved this game with vulgarity, but a win is a win.

From there it's no problem at all to head to the Government Sector, which only has two things of note: the hall from which the art objects were stolen, and the Rep's house. I marched into the Rep's house, and despite his extreme rudeness I handed him all three of the art objects as well as the credits. Getting the credits can be tricky if you spend all of them in the spaceport, but you can get the required amount by playing Go, or buying the cheap subwalk tokens.

"My Yangst!" he crows: the catchcry of the late-90s teen.

I beat the game, but unfortunately I haven't been able to get a screenshot of my victory because the stupid game dumps me back to Windows as soon as it's over.  This is the winning message:

"You Terries aren't so bad after all," admits the Rep as he flicks a
switch that cuts the power to all the androids that were leading the
uprising. "Why don't you stay for dinner?" Which, of course, you do."

Not exactly a gripping finale, is it? And too bad about all of the murder and destruction committed, when apparently this douche-nozzle I'm about to sit and have dinner with could have stopped it all with the press of a button.  Still, I can take a bad ending, or even an anticlimactic one. What I really hate is being unceremoniously booted from the game. I'd fix the code for it if I knew how to do it.

And now, for a Final Rating!

Story & Setting: This one starts off really strongly. Even though the setting and characters are taken from the Jame Retief stories, they're well-realised and entertainingly described, at least at the beginning. And there are a lot of clever touches, such as the explanation for the game's unwavering timescale.  Even the plot is original, at least for adventure games: a race riot orchestrated by an evil businessman looking to make a land-grab is the sort of thing that hadn't been seen to this point. Hell, just having a plot beyond "collect these treasures" is unique in 1978. Too bad it eventually does boil down to a scavenger hunt. Add in the incongruous elements such as Dracula and the Monopoly board puzzle, and it falls apart a bit. There's a lot to like here, but Langston and Howard couldn't quite move past the standard adventure game tropes. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The characters in this game actually have character, which is a novelty. From the condescending racism of the customs officer, to the rudeness of the Rep, everyone you meet in this game has at least one trait you can recognise. You can't interact with them much, though, and there aren't a lot characters you can meet. I'm not rating it very highly, but aside from Zork this is the first adventure game I've given a score higher than 1. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: There's no sound or graphics, but the writing is quite good, if a little clumsy in places. It also has a charming and quirky sense of humour. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: The parser is quite sophisticated for the time, able to recognise commands of up to five words. It has a few problems with word recognition, though (not recognising GET, for instance).  And then there's the matter of the code for the graveyard gate being bugged.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: This is a short game, but none of the puzzles were too challenging, and I thought that one of them was even quite cleverly done. Weirdly enough for an adventure game, the most challenging thing was probably resource management, in that you had to find ways to save your credits unless you figured out the Go puzzle. Probably a little too easy on the whole, though. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Innovation and Influence:  I would say that the influence of Aldebaran III is negligible, as the Wander games were never all that widely distributed.  It's innovations come on the story-telling side of things, as it's the earliest text adventure to have anything even vaguely resembling a plot and a deeper setting. (Actually, Zork has a bit more going on than a standard treasure hunt, now that I think of it.) Rating: 4 out of 7.

Fun: I got some mild enjoyment out of quirky setting of this one, and some of the writing. The Imperium Worlds station puzzle tickled me, although that may just be the way I solved it.  I wasn't ever all that eager to sit down and play it, though. Rating: 2 out of 7.

It doesn't get the bonus point, as I'll probably never play it again.  The scores above total 19, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 38 for Aldebaran III.  That puts it dead level with Castle, which was more innovative, but weaker in the storytelling, and riddled with bugs.  It sounds like a fair assessment to me.


Next: It's The House of Seven Gables by child prodigy Greg Hassett.  And I've already finished it!!! I can't blog fast enough now that the games are so much shorter!

Friday, April 14, 2017

Oubliette: Defeat.

It's time to call it a day for Oubliette. This is something I need to do for my own sanity, because I very nearly decided to persevere with it and try to map all ten dungeon levels. I could probably do it if I applied for a few more cyber1 log-ins and used them to create multiple characters. It would take a long time, though, and it would also be setting a dangerous precedent for multiplayer games. I may have decided differently if the game had an end goal, but as far as I'm aware there's nothing to achieve in it beyond obtaining loot and more loot. So this is me dusting my hands of Oubliette, and PLATO in general for the time being, albeit reluctantly.

I had set myself two realistic goals when I started the game: try every character class, and map the first level. I managed to do both, so here's a map of Oubliette dungeon level 1.

Oubliette dungeon level 1
As you can see (and as I've mentioned before) this game pioneered a lot of the tricks that Wizardry and Bard's Tale (among others) will put to irritating use in the years to come. There are plenty of secret doors, which can only be found by bumping into walls (or using a light spell if you have one). There are pits, which damage you with no warning and no way to avoid them even if you know they are there (although there is a levitation spell for mages that I never got to try out, and a detect traps spell for clerics that might work). The teleporters move you to another location on the same level, and with no way to display your coordinates, mapping is the only method of figuring out where you are. Thankfully each teleporter sends you to a fixed location, so once you've worked out where they send you they become less of a nuisance; some of them are even helpful for getting quickly back to the castle. The darkness squares extinguish your light source, or blind you temporarily if you have infravision. Finally, the spinners turn you in a random direction when you enter the square, and are a nightmare for accurate mapping; the game doesn't display your coordinates or provide a means of telling what direction you're facing, so I only discovered some of the spinners when it became obvious that my map was incorrect.

I found the stairs to level 2, and did quite a bit of exploration there as well. Not only are the monsters stronger, but the pits are deeper as well. On level 1 the pits dealt roughly between 3 and 12 points of damage, whereas those on level 2 were routinely doing 20 points. My character at the time only had about 50 hit points, so my mapping of level 2 involved a lot of returning to Ligne Castle for healing. Some of the pits were positioned so that the area beyond was a dead end, leaving me with no choice but to suck up the damage on the way back as well. There's a level of deviousness to the dungeon designs that hasn't been seen in any CRPGs before this one.

I died before I was able to map the entirety of level 2 (poisoned by giant centipedes), but I found a fan-site that has all of the maps, and a lot of other useful information. This is their map of level 2.

Pits! Chutes! Stairs! Improbable Architecture!
As you can see, this level presents another first: walls that spell out words when the level is fully mapped. The other levels all have interesting and varied designs, some with lots of tiny rooms, and some with long winding passages. Level 4 is arranged similarly to a noughts-and-crosses board. Level 8 has a room that looks suspiciously like a hand giving the middle finger. They're easily the best level designs to this point, and I was really enjoying the process of mapping them until my character's unceremonious death.

I don't have many images in this post, so here's one of a random tunnel..

I probably ran through about 50 character, most with terribly short lifespans. There are fifteen classes in Oubliette, but playing them all was more difficult than you would think, because a good number of them have strict requirements based on ability scores, race and gender. Before I get into all of the classes, I need to mention something that I forgot in my last post: this is the first CRPG to fully implement a class system. Most of the previous PLATO games started you as a hybrid warrior/spellcaster (pedit5, dnd, Orthanc) or allowed you to join a guild (Moria). This is the first that lets you choose a class at the beginning, and it's a massive leap forward for character customisation.

I'm going to run through every class in the game below, and relay my meager experiences with them. There were a bunch that I was only able to play for about a minute, so I may not have much to say that's useful.

Peasant: This is the baseline class of the game: it has no requirements whatsoever, so it's a kind of fall-back option for when you roll terrible stats and can't be bothered re-rolling. They don't have any spells or special skills, and don't get many hit points. I think their only benefit is that they gain levels faster than any other class, but it hardly seems worth it. The only peasants I played never survived beyond their first battle.

Cleric: Clerics need a Wisdom of 12, and have to be of Lawful alignment. (I'm not sure what effect alignment has on the game, but I suspect that it might determine what other characters you can team up with.) They can cast spells, dispel the undead, and the best weapon they can use is a mace. It's all very Dungeons & Dragons. The clerics I played did quite well, although I never did advance one to 2nd level.  I made a lot of use of their light spell (MORPIC), as it has a permanent duration and reveals secret doors.  I tried to dispel some undead - skeletons and zombies, mostly - but never had any success.

Demondim: This class was no doubt inspired by The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant novel series, in which the demondim were an ancient race that spawned various nasties in that world. In Oubliette, they're exactly like Clerics, except that they are restricted to Chaotic alignment.  It seems that the creators of Oubliette just took the name, and nothing else. (I wouldn't be surprised if this class was a later addition to the game; the first Thomas Covenant book was published in 1978, and it should always be remembered that PLATO games were in constant development. The game that I'm playing is probably not the same as it was when first developed.)

Courtesan: Courtesans need a really high Charisma (19+), can't be Lawful, and must be female. I found the class reasonably easy to qualify for as an Elf, but I didn't survive long once I'd done so; they can't wear armour better than leather, and don't get many hit points. They can disarm the traps found on chests, but their main ability seems to be that they can "seduce" their foes. The documentation is unclear what this achieves, and the few times I tried it it didn't work.

Hirebrand: Your basic fighter, and the only class that I had any success with. My best character (the unoriginally named "Habgab", who succeeded his brothers Hobgob and Hubgub) was a 6th level Hobgoblin Hirebrand. They don't get any special abilities, but they get loads of hit points and can use the best weapons and armour.  I managed to advance two Hirebrand characters to 6th level, but both died from poison.

Mage: They have low hit points, but can cast magic spells. I tried a couple of mages, but the sleep spells I cast (NARGOR) were ineffective. Needless to say, these characters died quickly.

Minstrel: Minstrels have requirements in every ability score, and it took me about half an hour of rerolling to qualify for the class. They can cast mage spells and wear chain mail armour, and they also have the ability to charm enemies with their music. Alas, as with many other classes in this game, I never got this ability to work, and I died quickly. I probably spent ten times as long rolling the character as I did playing him.

Ninja: Man, I was excited to play a Ninja, and it took me a looooong time to meet the requirements - every stat except for Charisma needs to be high. They can disarm traps and are immune to poison, but unfortunately they're not that strong in combat. My Elf Ninja, despite sounding like a super-badass thing to play, was not long for the world.

Paladin: Paladins are super-difficult to qualify for: they must be Lawful, they must be male, and they require high scores in every stat except Dexterity. They can dispel undead like Clerics, and cast Cleric spells once they hit 9th level; they also get to use the best weapons and armour. My Paladin lasted a little while, but he didn't have enough hit points to survive for long.

Ranger: I was stoked to try the Ranger, as they can cast both Cleric and Mage spells. I spent a good hour trying to qualify for the class, a task made more difficult by the requirement that they must be Human. Of course, what I didn't realise was that Rangers don't get spells until they're 7th level, so I kind of wasted all that time. Do I even need to say that my Elf Ranger died quickly?

Raver: In the Thomas Covenant books, the Ravers are a trio of evil entities that can take possession of any creature. In Oubliette, they're Paladins with a Chaotic alignment. This may be significant, because evil Paladins weren't introduced to D&D until 1980. There's always the caveat that PLATO games were in constant development, but it's possible that the concept was introduced here first.

Thief: Thieves can disarm traps, and they can hide in combat. What they can't do is fight very well, so my thief didn't last long. I got through one fight by hiding while the Ninja companion I bought from the store killed everything, but in the next fight my hide skill failed and I was slaughtered by Undead Bears.

Sage: Sages are super-cool, in that they're not all that hard to qualify for and they can cast both Mage spells and Cleric spells. I suspect that a high-level one would be really good to have in a party, but the one I created wasn't viable as a solo adventurer. He died.

Samurai: Although this class is called a Samurai, it's more like the traditional Monk class that you'll find in later games: it can't wear armour or use weapons, but its Armour Class drops every level, and its bare-handed damage is better than that of other classes. The best thing about them is that they get two attacks per round; killing two monsters at once is very satisfying whenever it happens. The class is hard to qualify for though, so I only played one. I enjoyed it for the short time the character was alive, though.

Valkyrie: Super-difficult to qualify for, with high stat restrictions and a requirement to be female (your gender is randomly determined along with your stats, which makes it even harder). They have good fighting ability, can cast Cleric spells at high level, and also get the same "seduce" ability of courtesans. It's weird enough that the two female-only classes have seduction as a special ability, but the best armour that a Valkyrie can wear is a breast plate - let's just say that the CRPG scene in the early days was not exactly the most mature. Anyway, the Valkyrie that I played lived for about five minutes, so I can't say much else about it.

As you can see above, survival in this game is far from assured. I found that the best bet was to create a character with a high Constitution and Dexterity, and choose the Hirebrand class. A lot of hit points are essential, as is a high Dexterity for avoiding surprise. I liked to play as Hobgoblins; they had a high bonus to Strength, Dexterity and Constitution, as well as the ability to see in the dark.

Perhaps this character would be best served by returning to his farm.

Reading over the documentation (and some other notes on the fan-site I mentioned above) I've come across a bunch of other interesting things about the game that I never got to experience first-hand. I'll run through some of them below, as well as some things I noticed myself while playing.

  • Apparently when you form a party your arrangement of characters makes a big difference, as only the first three characters can fight in melee. Monsters can even attack from the rear, which makes things potentially deadly for any mages and thieves in the back rank. It's suggested that large parties have fighters at the front and back, which is a level of tactics far in excess of anything in CRPGs prior to this.
  • If you buy a companion that is a Mage or a Cleric, said companion will cast spells in battle. Apparently some Mage spells can catch you in their area of effect, so those companions aren't really recommended.
  • I didn't mention it above, but the last character I played was killed when an enemy hit him with a sleep spell. This was the point when I realised that there was nothing I could do to guarantee survival for a solo character, and quit the game for good.
  • The Patriarch's Temple in Ligne Castle can be used to remove curses or identify magic items, but it requires a hefty donation before the Patriarch will see you. I tried it once, donating 12,000 gold pieces, and the bugger was still "too busy" to grant an audience. It didn't stop the temple from pocketing my gold, though.
  • Higher-level characters spend a lot of time resting in hotels to regain hit points and spells. You can restore hit points at the House of Healing, but it costs a lot of gold. It wasn't unusual for my 6th-level character to rest for over 200 days between dungeon forays. Characters in Oubliette age as well, and can presumably die when they get old enough. (And yes, different races have differing lifespans. This game thinks of everything.)
  • When you die, you can opt to either abandon your character or leave its body in the dungeon for others to find. You can pick those bodies up and return them to the Castle, or loot their gear, but I never found any. I suspect that, if there are any still there, they'll be on the lower dungeon levels.
  • There is a large variety of magic items to be found in the dungeon, or bought at the magic shop. I found a scroll and a sword, but wasn't able to identify either. The sword must have been cursed, because my character died as soon as I equipped it.
  • The dungeons don't have any fixed encounters as such, but every level has a special room where the fights are tougher and the rewards greater. I found one of these on Level 1; that's where I got the scroll mentioned above.
I feel like I've only scratched the surface of this game; there's obviously much more to it than I've experienced. As such, I'm not entirely comfortable giving it a Final Rating, because there's no way that I can do so accurately. Still, in the interests of comprehensiveness I'll do so, and note that my experience of the game was incomplete.

Story & Setting: Oubliette has no story, beyond the presence of the dungeon and your character's desire to loot it for treasure. Like most other PLATO games, it takes place entirely inside the dungeon, but I'm tempted to mark this higher because the levels are well-designed and full of tricks and traps. The lack of special encounters hurts it though, as does the absence of backstory. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: There are no NPCs in the game, although I suspect that lack was made up for by interacting with the other players. The monsters, on the other hand, are numerous, with a wide array of special abilities. Yes, they're plucked straight out of the AD&D Monster Manual, but they're well implemented, with lots of different weaknesses, resistances and special abilities. I'm disappointed that I never got to encounter more, but the ones I did find were consistent with their D&D counterparts: mages cast spells, centipedes can poison you, shadows are immune to normal weapons, etc. There's no doubt that the monster selection and variety here is better than anything in any other PLATO CRPG. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Aesthetics: Oubliette's dungeon is depicted from a first-person perspective, with wireframe walls and doors. The viewing window is - as it was in Moria - ridiculously small. The screen isn't cluttered with character info like it was in Moria though, and the expanses of black on the screen make it feel suitably claustrophobic. And I do love that PLATO orange... Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: This might be the hardest category for me judge fairly. On the one hand there's just so much stuff in the game: loads of monsters, an extensive selection of spells, tricks, traps, guilds, multiplayer options, the list goes on and I only saw a fraction of it. On the other hand, I found a lot of it frustratingly opaque. Combat was especially irritating, because the messages flash by almost too quickly to read. There were a number of occasions in which I died while just walking around, with no indication of what killed me. (Pits, as I later discovered.) So there's a lot in the game, and much of it is well implemented, but there are things about it that annoyed me a lot. I'm going to split the middle here. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Challenge: This game is lethal to the point of unplayability, but then again I wasn't playing it as intended by the creators. If it were a solo game I'd give it the minimum rating and leave it at that, but I'm going to bump it up a point in acknowledgement that it's really a multiplayer game. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: The number of things appearing for the first time in a CRPG is staggering, and it would be impossible for me to name them all. There's a definite debt that the game owes to Moria, but there's plenty of originality on display as well. Oubliette was also massively influential on Wizardry, to the point where some have called Wizardry a rip-off. I wouldn't go that far, but that's a debate for another time. Wizardry is an influential CRPG in its own right, which makes Oubliette one of the most important games of the PLATO era. Rating: 7 out of 7.

Fun: This is the most purely subjective category in my rating system, and unfortunately, despite all of the innovative things about Oubliette, I didn't have a great time with it. Most of the enjoyment I derived came from mapping. This would be a far different score if I'd been able to survive with any reliability, but as it is I have to mark the game low even though I know it's probably unfair. Rating: 1 out of 7.

I'm going to award the bonus point to Oubliette, both because I recognise that I should have played it with other people, and because I'd like to go back to it at some point. The score above totals 22, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 44. That's a respectable total, and puts it just below pedit5 and Orthanc, and well above Moria. I've no doubt it would have scored higher had I been able to experience more of it.

Next: It's on to Aldebaran III (more well-known by its filename of A3 to those who know it at all), a text adventure created using the Wander system by the system's originator Peter Langston. Langston's first effort, Castle, involved the exploration of a castle, the rescuing of a prince and princess, and an awkwardly sexual ending. A3 is a sci-fi game, and from what I've played it really ups the ante as far as story-telling in adventures games goes. It's also going to be a welcome change of pace to play something that's not a stupidly large mainframe CRPG; I'm looking forward to it.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Moria: Victory!

I've been re-reading the early days of The CRPG Addict lately, and it's made me realise two things. The first is that Chester had the right idea at the beginning. I suspect that he wouldn't agree, but the rules he started with meant that he was able to kick off his blog with a run of solid classics: Wizardry, Ultima, Rogue, Bard's Tale, pretty much all of the staples of the 1980s CRPG scene. All told, it seems like a very pleasant way to ease into a years-long project, and I'm very envious.

I, on the other hand - using the fruits of Chester's research, I'll admit - started from the beginning, with The Dungeon from 1975. "I'll get through the 1970s quickly," I had thought. "All of the games will be really short, and I'll knock them out with no trouble." What a naive soul I was. Here I am three years later, and I've just beaten Moria, the fourth game on my list. The Game of Dungeons v5 took me about three months to complete. Orthanc took twice that. The Game of Dungeons v8 took up a whole year. Moria took me eight months, in addition to the several months I spent on it back in 2015. What I'm saying is, these games are much longer than I was expecting them to be, and have occupied me for far longer than I wanted them to.

Which brings me to my second realisation: I want to get to the 1980s really badly. As far as RPGs and adventure games go, the 80s and early 90s are my sweet spot, and if I can cover those periods with some semblance of completeness I'll be happy. I had this realisation last Thursday, and it was then that I made my resolution: I was going to play Moria at every spare moment, and get the bloody thing off my schedule. I would do no reading, no writing, no blogging, play no other video games, and watch no TV that would require more than minimal attention: Moria would be my life until I beat it or died trying. A little under a week later, I emerged victorious, though perhaps no more enriched from the experience.

Since my last post on Moria I had lost at least one character, and as of my resolution I was playing as Tarret, a member of the Union of Knights. Before Tarret I had been exclusively playing wizards, due to their ability to teleport back to the City from anywhere else in the game. I would have continued playing wizards, because the game is just too big to be going back and forth from the dungeons all the time, but my previous character had found a particular magic item that made the other guilds a viable choice: an Amulet of Home. Using the amulet worked exactly like the wizard's teleport ability, so when I found it I stashed it in my character's guild locker, ready to be passed down to my next character upon my death. Said death inevitably occurred, and Tarret inherited the amulet (along with the best weapon in the game and loads of good armour). Having failed numerous times as a member of the Guild of Wizards, it was time to try something else, and I went with the Union of Knights.

I'm convinced that this decision is the main reason that I'm able to write this victory post. Knights supposedly have two special abilities: they take less damage from enemies in combat, and they can occasionally behead their foes and score an instant kill. I say supposedly, because I never saw any messages telling me that I had beheaded a monster; it may have been happening in the background, but I have no way of knowing. Knights definitely do take less damage in combat, though; I would estimate about half of what other characters suffer. This made it a lot easier for me to survive on lower levels, and allowed me to explore a lot faster than I'd been doing previously.

In addition to the Amulet of Home, I also had a Life Ring, which might just be the most valuable item in the whole game. I've described it before, but I'll reiterate here that it effectively grants your character the ability to regenerate its Vitality. That, coupled with the Knight's ability to take less damage, made Tarret exceptionally difficult to kill.

I was still exploring the Forest dungeon, as I had been doing for eight months beforehand.  One of my characters had descended to Level 52 before, so I was pretty much done with mapping, I just needed to build a character that could survive.  My goal - the Reaper's Ring - was on Level 50 of one of the four dungeons. I knew this because it had last been discovered on Level 49, and every time that the Ring is found it teleports to the next level down. The trick is that, although you can find out what level it will be on, there's no way of knowing which dungeon it will be in. If it was in the Forest, I would only need to traverse 50 dungeon levels; if not, I might need to go through 100, or 150, or 200, depending on whether I guessed correctly. I was either very close to my goal, or nowhere near it.  (If you're wondering why said character was on Level 52 when I should have stopped on level 50, it's because I found stairs that skipped multiple levels. Then I died before I could find a way back up.)

I became Guild Master while grinding on Level 20 of the Forest, and decided that it was time to head to level 50 with reasonable haste.  I could have gone faster, but I made a point of fighting every battle along the way to get my stats as high as possible. By Friday night I had reached dungeon level 50 for the first time ever, and it was time to start searching for the Ring.

The search was a long one, as I made a point of fighting every battle and walking through every square. The map was a whopping 54x42 squares, for a total of 2,268. It was time-consuming, but it was also exciting for a while; after all, every square I searched had the potential to hold the Reaper's Ring. But as I filled in more and more of the map I started to get nervous. Not because of any danger: Tarret was a killing machine, and it was rare that he would lose more than half of his Vitality in any combat. No, I was nervous because I suspected that the Reaper's Ring was in another dungeon. It was a suspicion that grew, until I filled in the very last square of Forest level 50. No Ring. I would have to do it all over again.

Obviously it was disappointing, but it wasn't long before I got excited about starting a new dungeon. Firstly, I really liked the idea of being able to slaughter my way through some weaker monsters. Secondly, I had found an item while exploring Forest level 50 that would make my progress much quicker: the Map of Stairs. Normally, finding stairs up or down involved exploring every square of every Room in the dungeon, but the Map of Stairs made that easier. I've explained in earlier posts that Moria's dungeon levels are organised into alternating blocks of Rooms and Corridors (each comprised of 6x6 squares); the Corridors are usually empty, while in the Rooms you can find stairs and water holes. The Map of Stairs will alert you to the presence of a set of stairs as soon as you enter a Room, which is a godsend. I was freed from exploring every square, and could blast through the levels as quickly as possible.

Bless you, Map of Stairs.

Having done with the Forest, I moved on the the Desert (mostly because it was the next-closest dungeon to the City).  The division of the levels into blocks meant that I could explore them without mapping; I would head north, blasting through with Passwall spells, until I hit solid rock, then head a block west and start blasting my way south, systematically moving through the level until I found stairs down. At first I was fighting monsters, but eventually I just started running from them to save time. At most I was spending about twenty minutes on a level, and there were some that I was done with in only one minute. It probably took me about two hours to get down to level 50, whereas without the Map of Stairs it probably would have taken weeks.

The Desert had some different monsters to the Forest (Earth Elementals, Scorpions, Empresses), not that it made much difference in combat. Desert level 50 was quite a bit smaller than Forest 50 - a mere 1,296 squares. I was back to mapping for this level, but I was getting impatient, so I decided not to bother fully exploring the Corridors as I'd never found anything in them besides random encounters. Obviously it didn't take as long to search, but once again I came up empty-handed. I was less disappointed this time, as I now knew that reaching Level 50 of the next dungeon would take a few hours at most, and that the worst case scenario was that I only had two more dungeons to go. The end was in sight.

The next dungeon I chose was the Cave. This one took me longer to get to level 50, and it was around this time that I started to get frustrated. For whatever reason it felt like I was getting more random encounters in the Cave, and it also seemed like it was taking longer to find the stairs. I will admit that I lost my temper a time or two, which I find odd. I didn't get angry when I was losing, or when my characters died. I didn't even get angry when I lost a powerful character to an internet dropout. But now I was getting super-pissed, because I was close to winning. It seems to happen in games a lot; I'm fine with setbacks early in the game, but by the end I get really tense, because I just want it to be over.

Again, the Cave had new monsters. The most notable of these was the Horta, which might be the earliest Star Trek influence in a CRPG. Level 50 of the Cave was the same size as Forest level 50, but as I was still ignoring the Corridors it didn't take as long to finish. Once again, I came up empty, and I started to have doubts about ever finding the Ring.

The last dungeon was the Mountains, which was odd and temporarily disorienting in that it didn't display whether I was in a Room or a Corridor (normally it's written just above the viewpoint window). This might have been because I was playing the colour version, but I never bothered to check if this was different in the classic PLATO black-and-orange. The levels in the Mountains seemed smaller than the rest of the dungeons, and I made a quick descent. Level 50 was a mere 900 squares; once I'd determined its size I was elated, because I knew that I'd be claiming the Ring before too long. After all, there was nowhere else it could be.

It took me little over an hour to explore Mountains level 50, by ignoring the Corridors. With every block I cleared my fears mounted, until I hit the very last square. There was no Ring. It was nowhere to be found.

I had a momentary panic, thinking that perhaps I'd misread the documentation, and that the Ring would be on a even deeper level. I wondered if the Ring existed at all, thinking that perhaps it was part of an elaborate hoax played by the developers. The one thing I didn't consider was giving up. After a short break, I came back and took the only logical next step: I had to fully explore the Corridors.

I didn't find the Ring in the Mountains, so it was time to backtrack to the dungeons I had already explored.  Luckily I had last set up camp on level 50 of the Cave, so I was able to get back there almost instantly.  I was dutifully hitting every square, getting into a zen state of rote mapping and fleeing from enemies, and then out of nowhere it happened.

Like water to a man dying of thirst.

I found the Ring in one of the Corridors, tucked away in an area only accessible by using a Passwall spell. I feel as though perhaps the developers weren't quite playing fair here; at no other point in the game will you find anything of interest in a Corridor, Then again, it's not like finding the Reaper's Ring is a necessity. It's the closest thing the game has to an end goal, but players can ignore it if they want, so I don't feel too bad about it being difficult to find.

The final battle was against 16 Reapers, 16 Wondarks, and 16 Iconoclasts. All three of these are among the toughest monsters in the game, even if Reapers are easily killed with a Holy Word prayer. I had to run from the battle once, and was surprised to find that when I returned the monsters I had killed remained dead. (This is normal for the game, but I had thought that this battle might work differently.) On the second try I was able to kill all if the monsters with little difficulty, and claim my prize.

The Final Battle!

To be honest, the Reaper's Ring is a disappointment. All it does is add 100,000 points to your Score and reduce your Age by 5 years. Then it disappears, presumably to the next lower level of one of the dungeons. Certainly I gained some satisfaction in finding it, and quite a lot of relief, but I expected more. And just think of my poor character, who spent 41 years of his life looking for the thing. Sure, it made him five years younger, but he'd have been better off retiring as the Guild Master at age 32 and living off his millions of gold pieces.

Worth every second I spent looking for it.

Before I get into the Final Rating, here are a few more things I discovered about Moria while playing:

  • In addition to the four dungeons mentioned above (Forest, Desert, Cave and Mountains), there's  a secret fifth dungeon called the Ocean. To find it you need to go to the absolute upper left corner of the Wilderness map and cast a Passwall spell. The whole dungeon is underwater, and you will slowly drown in it unless you have some Magic Gills (which can only be found as a random drop after combat). I did a small amount of exploration, but other than being underwater it's not much different from the other dungeons. Even the monsters are much the same; I fought some Mermen and Stingrays, but I also fought Reapers, High Priests and a bunch of other things that didn't really belong in an aquatic setting.  (Thanks to the readers who e-mailed me to let me know about the existence of the Ocean.  I do wonder why you guys are sending me e-mails though; I'd really prefer you to drop your comments in the tumbleweed infested barrens that are my comments section.)

Fighting in the Ocean.

  • I also descended all the way to Level 60 of the Cave, just to see how tough the battles would be. I was encountering monsters in groups of up to 25, but they weren't significantly stronger than those on Level 50. The fights were longer, but they weren't any deadlier.

An average battle on Level 60.

  • When I was playing as a member of the Guild of Wizards, my number of attacks had gone up every time I increased my rank. As a Guild Master I was able to kill five enemies a round with my spells. I had thought that the other guilds might be the same, but I can say that, at least for Knights, this is not the case. I was stuck with a single melee attack every round, and I really did miss the ability to wipe out large groups quickly.
  • I eventually got the 'Pray for a Miracle' ability to work. When you use it, it wipes out an entire group of monsters at once. Handy, but the manual warns that the gods "tire of helping" if it's done too often. After I found the Reaper's Ring I want around spamming Miracles in every battle just to see what would happen, but there were no ill effects. I was hoping I might get struck by lightning or something.
  • I found a number of new magic items. I've already mentioned the Amulet of Home, the Magic Gills and the Map of Stairs. I also found a Water Wand, which lets you know when water is nearby. There was a Healing Wand, which instantly raised my Vitality to 100 when used; I suspect it would run out eventually, but it never did for me. I found a Teleport Rod that worked exactly like the Amulet of Home. I'm sure there are others I'm forgetting.
  • In the Forest dungeon, there were magic apples that could be found randomly, that had a variety of effects when eaten. The other dungeons each have their own object that functions exactly like the apple. The Desert has mushrooms, the Cave has crystal crocuses, and the Mountains has wildflowers. I didn't explore the Ocean long enough to find out what's there.
  • Monster icons in Moria are weird. Bears are depicted with swords and shields. Lions have wings. Giant Ants and Spiders use an icon that looks like a bat. Even the Hydra uses the bat icon, when there is a multi-headed lizard that would have been perfect. Some of them really are baffling.

Moria has a problem with monster icons. Also, plurals.

So, I say with much relief, that's it for Moria. Let's give this one a Final Rating and be done with it forever.

Story & Setting: Both are practically non-existent. Pretty much all the manual says is that the land of Moria is a "world of underground rooms and corridors". There's some mildly intriguing business about everything in Moria being comprised of the four elements, but it never factors into the game. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters and Monsters: There aren't any characters you can interact with in Moria, unless you count haggling with the shopkeeper. The game has a lot of monsters, but they're functionally very similar. Some of them have resistances and vulnerabilities to certain attacks, but ultimately combat is the same regardless of what you're fighting. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: I do love that orange-and-black PLATO colour scheme, but I spent the vast majority of my time with Moria playing the multi-coloured version. Even if I hadn't, this game would get docked for the teeny-tiny viewpoint window. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: Everything in this game seems to function well, but it's so good at obscuring its mechanics that it's difficult to say for sure. Combat has a lot of options, but ultimately it boils down to repetitively going over the same routines. I should probably bump this game up for its multiplayer features, but I didn't get to experience them, and ultimately I have to rate Moria on its single player experience. Rating: 4 out of 7.

Challenge: This is a difficult one. The game isn't exactly hard, it's just long. The trickiest part is learning to wait between battles so that you can heal back to maximum Vitality. It also doesn't have an end goal, really, as the Reaper's Ring is more of an optional quest you can undertake if you want. I lost a lot of characters in this game, and there were quite a few times that I couldn't explain why; suddenly I just wasn't able to run from a battle, or a monster would be inexplicably hard to kill. As I've said before, the game obscures its mechanics very well.  So while much of the game feels easy, these sudden moments of death and the sheer length of time it takes to find the Ring make it feel just a little too difficult. So I'll go with my gut here. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: It's the first 3-D first-person perspective RPG, the first RPG where you could form parties with other players, the first with hunger and thirst mechanics, the first where you could join a guild, the first with haggling, and so on and so on. It's also an influence on Oubliette, which later spawned such games as Wizardry and Bard's Tale. There's no doubt that Moria has an important place in CRPG history. Rating: 7 out of 7.

Fun: You would think, given that I played this game for eight months, that I had fun with it.  After all, who would be crazy enough to devote so much time to a game that they weren't enjoying? Well, you're looking at him. While I wouldn't say that I outright hated the game, I did find it fairly tedious. The act of playing it was highly repetitive, and not all that rewarding. And while I like mapping dungeons, it's not much fun if there's nothing in them to discover. In the end, it was a mindless activity to do while I was watching TV, and I was rarely looking forward to it. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Moria does not get the bonus point, because I am never laying eyes on it again as long as I live. The scores above total 18, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 36. That is perhaps a bit low, but the sheer length of time it took to find the Reaper's Ring, as well as the large, empty dungeons really hurt this one. I'm certain it would have scored higher if there had been some active players around while I was logged in, as the multiplayer options seemed intriguing, but in the end I prefer single-player games, and that's how I experienced Moria.

And with that, I'm almost done with the PLATO era of CRPGs. I only have another posting or two to do for Oubliette, and then I won't encounter another mainframe CRPG until Avatar in 1979. What that means is that I can finally start making some headway through my list; I don't anticipate encountering any games that I'll be stuck on for close to a year, at least until I reach the early 1990s.  Short games, how I have missed you.