|The front cover art. Someone got the set square out for this one.|
Beneath Apple Manor is probably the first commercial CRPG, so I've decided to play it early on in my list of games from 1978. (Besides. I really wanted to play the first commercial adventure game and CRPG back-to-back). It was programmed by Don Worth, and published by The Software Factory. Worth is a significant figure in the history of Apple computers: he wrote the book Beneath Apple DOS, which exposed the inner workings of Apple's operating system, and became an essential tool for programmers and hackers. The Software Factory is less significant, it seems. I can't find any information about them, possibly because they have a name that is almost impossible to google effectively.
The manual gives a short backstory to set up the game. For three centuries the Apple family had ruled in Apple Manor, sending monsters out to terrorise the people and steal their wealth. Now the family is dead, and the manor lies abandoned and gutted by fire. Rumours abound that the source of the family's power was a golden apple. Many have sought it in the tunnels below the manor, but few have survived the attempt, and none have succeeded. (I'm not actually certain that this backstory was present in the original documentation. The only manual I've been able to find is for the Special Edition rerelease.)
The first impression given by this game is impossible to avoid (at least in retrospect): it's very similar to Rogue, a massively influential game that it predates by two years. It has the same randomly generated dungeon levels, the same macguffin-at-the-bottom-of-the-dungeon plot, and similarly - shall we say - "functional" graphics. I'd hesitate to call it a true Rogue-like, though, as it doesn't have perma-death. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Rogue doesn't come out until 1980, and there'll be plenty of time for me to discuss that game when the time comes (probably because it's going to take me a hell of a long time to beat it).
Your character in Beneath Apple Manor has four stats: Strength, Intelligence, Dexterity and Body. There is no character generation, as every character begins with a score of 20 in each stat. Your Strength determines how much damage you deal in combat, and how much gold you can carry. Intelligence determines the effectiveness of your spells. Dexterity is used to determine how accurate you are when attacking. Body is simply your hit points, and when these reach zero you're dead.
There are various activities in the game that deplete these scores. Strength is depleted by attacking monsters in melee, and if your Strength drops to zero you can't attack at all. Your Intelligence drops whenever you use the Zap spell in combat. I'm not certain, but I believe the amount of damage you deal affects the amount of Intelligence lost, and much like Strength if your Intelligence gets too low you can't cast spells until you rest. Dexterity is depleted simply by moving around. These scores can be restored by resting, which has a novel mechanic. You use the number keys to rest, and the number chosen determines how many rounds you want to rest for. The longer the rest the more your scores are restored, but the greater the chance you'll be attacked by a monster. You can also press 0, which restores all of your scores to their maximum (except for Body), but runs a similar risk of monster attack.
Advancement comes via the accumulation of gold and experience points. You gain a small amount of experience from defeating monsters, but most of it is awarded by finding gold. Whenever you leave the dungeon you can choose to spend experience points to increase your four stats, at a rate of 10-to-1 (i.e. if you spend 1000 experience you can raise a stat by 100). You'll need to increase your stats significantly to win the game, as the dungeon levels are generated based on how strong your character is, and the Golden Apple doesn't appear until you reach a certain power level.
The dungeon levels, as mentioned above, are randomly generated. At the beginning of the game you can set the number of rooms per level, and also assign a difficulty rating of 1 to 10. The levels contain monsters, of course, and chests that contain traps and treasure. Once a level has been generated, though, it remains static, so you can continue to leave and return, making yourself stronger in the process, and the level doesn't scale up with you. It just means that the next level will be that much tougher when it gets generated... The square you start on contains the stairs back to town, where you can buy equipment, increase your stats, save your game, or head to a deeper dungeon level.
The levels are navigated by using the NESW keys, for North, South, East and West (you get used to it). Doors can be bashed open by pressing B (another activity that drains Strength), and you can even (L)isten at a door to hear if there are monsters lurking behind. There are also secret doors, which are discovered by pressing I for Inspect.
|The game in Colour mode. I'm the blue square. Right next to me is a light purple Worm. On the other side is a brown door, and the dark purple block beyond that is a Dragon. This is not a good place to be.|
There are five monsters in the game. Originally I had some trouble identifying them, because when you play in Colour mode the monsters are represented by coloured blocks. It was easy enough to figure that the green block was a slime, and the white block was a Ghost. The red block was probably a Troll. But what about the light purple block, and the dark purple one? Matters were further complicated because I only had the manual for the Special Edition, which adds a few new monsters. Eventually I figured out that if I play the game in black & white the monsters are represented by letters instead of colours, and the two mystery monsters were revealed: W for Purple Worm, and D for Dragon. The Special Edition (which I'll do a post on eventually) adds Vampires and Invisible Stalkers, but thankfully I didn't have to deal with those in the original game.
|The game in B&W mode. The Y is me, the T is a Troll and the W is a Purple Worm.|
The slimes are weak, with few hit points and a low damage range. Ghosts can only be affected by a magic sword or the Zap spell, and their attacks permanently drain your Strength score. They only drain 1 or 2 points at a time, and you can easily replenish your Strength by spending experience, but it is a nuisance. Trolls, Worms and Dragons are all just big piles of hit points, each progressively stronger. There's not a lot of variety to be had in fighting them, and combat is largely a matter of deciding between (A)ttacking with a melee weapon, or using your (Z)ap spell. You can also (R)un away, but that causes you to drop your gold. (Dropped gold instantly returns to the chest you found it in, so it can always be reclaimed.)
|Having my Strength drained by a Ghost.|
In addition to Zap the game has a small selection of spells, each of which costs Intelligence points to cast. Heal restores your Body points (which aren't replenished by resting). XRay reveals everything in a three-square radius, which is good for scouting. Teleport moves you to a random spot in the dungeon. It's good for escaping a tight spot, but like running it makes you lose all of the gold you're carrying.
You can upgrade your equipment, and there are magic items to be found in the dungeon chests. You begin the game armed with a dagger, but you can spend gold to upgrade to an Axe or a Sword. The best weapon is the Magic Sword, which you'll find in a chest eventually. You can also buy armor, with Leather, Chain Mail and Plate available. Again, there's Magic Armour to be found in the dungeon, which is the best defense available. The chests also contain wands and potions. Some of them will double one of your stats, but there are also cursed items that reduce a stat by half.
|This is always welcome.|
One of the best items is the Zap Wand, which allows you to cast Zap without losing any Intelligence. There's also a wand that lets you open doors without losing Strength, and a potion that causes you to lose your memory. The memory loss is represented by the disappearance of your dungeon map, which I thought was very clever. There could be more items, but those are all the ones I discovered.
|I had a lot more of the screen filled in before I drank this potion. I think there might have been whiskey in it?|
Death in the game is not permanent: whenever your character dies you are reincarnated at the entry stairs of the current level, and you can keep retrying as often as you want. Your stats will be reset to the last time you had a Brain Scan, which is the equivalent of a saved game. When you're in town you can pay gold to have a Brain Scan, which saves your current stats. The higher your stats, the more expensive it is to have a scan done. If you haven't had a Brain Scan done your stats reset to the beginning (all 20) which is pretty much a death sentence on the deeper levels. After so long playing PLATO CRPGs, which all delete your characters permanently when you die, using the Brain Scan almost felt like cheating. I got over it quickly though. It's a feature of the game, and I feel no shame in using it.
|Getting drained to death by a Ghost.|
With a decent amount of saving it's not difficult at all to win this game. The toughest monsters (Worms and Dragons) start appearing when your stats get to approximately 100. I had a habit of keeping my stats on an even footing, but there's nothing stopping you from pushing one stat sky-high and ignoring the rest; in that case I don't know when the endgame would begin. But for me, the Golden Apple started to appear when my stats got to about 120. I've encountered a fake Golden Apple, which blew up and killed me instantly. Luckily, I had saved just minutes before. Finding the real Golden Apple is something of an underwhelming experience.
|Hitting enter takes you to the command prompt. How I laughed!|
Basically, it's a big old terrible pun. The Golden Apple... is a computer! Geddit? An Apple computer! I don't know what it is about vintage games, but they love getting self-referential. The Game of Dungeons had monsters that were programmers. Colossal Cave Adventure had a final area that was a storeroom for the various elements of the game. In Adventureland you could wander inside a computer chip. It's weird, but I suppose it's an accurate reflection of what the creators of these games were obsessed with..
I completed the game on difficulty level 1, and on level 5. I had a crack at level 10, but I wasn't able to get too far. Maybe one day, but for the moment I have too many other games to tackle.
So that's that: a one-post game! A few more of these wouldn't go astray. Time for the final rating.
Story & Setting: The backstory described above is evocative enough, but like other CRPGs of this vintage it doesn't factor into the gameplay in any way. The dungeon is just a collection of featureless rooms and corridors, and randomly generated at that. It's functional, but it's not all that interesting. Rating: 1.
Characters & Monsters: With just five monsters in the game, and nothing else to interact with, I can't rate this category highly. The monsters aren't even particularly varied. Rating: 1.
Aesthetics: The graphics are primitive, and not all that appealing. It's either coloured blocks, or black & white ASCII characters, and neither looks very good. I forgot to mention that the game has sound, and that's probably because I spent most of my time playing it with the sound turned off while listening to Turbonegro. It's just beeps from the PC speaker every time you move or attack, and they got irritating after a minute or so. Rating: 1.
Mechanics: It's a tight, simple game where everything serves a purpose, and every feature does what it's supposed to do. Combat is a little simplistic, but the way that stat depletion ties into the gameplay is excellent, and I liked being able to choose which stats to advance when spending experience. Rating: 5.
Challenge: I have to rate this game highly for its varying levels of difficulty. It's dead simple on level 1, mildly challenging on level 5, and balls-hard on level 10, which feels exactly right. Rating: 6.
Innovation: It's the first commercial CRPG, the first CRPG with a save game feature, and the stat depletion system is novel as well. There's no doubt that this is going to score high. Rating: 6.
Fun: Beneath Apple Manor is an enjoyable way to pass an hour or so if you happen to have a taste for prehistoric CRPGs. It never wore out it's welcome for me, and to be honest I'd quite happily fire it up now and have a game right now. Rating: 4.
I'm awarding this game the special bonus point, because I still want to play it; I never did beat it on difficulty level 10, after all. With the scores above added up, and the bonus point as well, that gives a total of 25 out of 50. Doubling that (because I'm anal and want my rating system to give a score out of 100) gives me a final rating of 50 out of 100.
Final Rating: 50 out of 100.
The next game on my list is Space, a sci-fi game for the Apple II that is heavily based on the tabletop RPG Traveller. I've already been tinkering with it, and I'm pretty sure that this will be another single post job. Progress!