Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Game of Dungeons v8: Of Course You Know, This Means War


I died.

Regular readers will be  aware that I've been playing this game since about August last year.  It's been humming along in the background while I polished off a bunch of shorter games.  In early January I started carefully grinding a new character, with the intention that I would level up to a point where I could quickly knock the game off my list.  I should have known it wouldn't be that simple.

Before I get into the ill-fated details, though, I should talk a bit about The Game of Dungeons, more commonly referred to by its filename of dnd.  The game was developed in 1975 by two students, Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood, for the PLATO mainframe.  Later on it was expanded by two more guys, the ultra-manly-sounding Dirk and Flint Pellett.  Two versions of the game are currently available to play at version 5.4 and version 8.  The former is a version of the original game, and the latter is the expansion by the Pellett brothers.

The Game of Dungeons version 5.4 is a hell of a game.  It's currently sitting at the top of my Final Ratings, and is by far the most enjoyable game I've played for the blog.  The goal of the game is to delve to the bottom of Whisenwood Dungeon - twenty levels deep - retrieve the Orb and return to the surface.  It's really well designed, and has an elegant system for increasing the difficulty: the more gold you carry, the tougher the monsters that attack you.  When you begin the game your carrying capacity is limited, so the difficulty is capped at a certain level.  Later you will find a Bag of Holding to increase the amount of gold you can carry, but this also makes the game harder.  Finding the Orb ramps it up again for the endgame.  It's really well done.
The halcyon days of version 5.4

The game also deletes your character permanently if you die, which can be frustrating.  But it's short enough that I regard this as a feature rather than a bug.  The tension of perma-death can be a beautiful thing.

Fast-forward to my gaming present, and The Game of Dungeons version 8.  The core of the game remains similar, but there's much more to it.  Rather than one dungeon of twenty levels, there are three dungeons of thirty levels each.  Not only do you have to retrieve the Orb to succeed, but you also have to find the Grail.  There are more monsters, more spells, more items.  Just more of everything.  At first glance, this looks like it should be better than the earlier version.  More stuff equals more good, right?

There are other changes, though.  The elegant difficulty levels I outlined above are gone, replaced by a more traditional system where the strength of the monsters is determined by dungeon level.  There are slimes everywhere, almost impossible to avoid, that eat your magic items.  There are magic runes, most of which are great but one of which can just kill you outright, with no chance to avoid it.


Worst of all, it has perma-death.  I know that I praised that very feature earlier, but like I said, version 5.4 isn't that long.  It has twenty dungeon levels.  Version 8 has ninety.  Ninety!  And if you die, it's back to square one.  Version 8 has removed almost everything that made the game great, added a bunch of things that are just frustrating, and made the game four times as long.  It's still a good game - the attention to detail paid to the interface is outstanding - and it's fun to play.  It's just not fun to play all the way from start to finish.

With the preliminaries done, I'll get to my recent travails, and my ill-fated attempt to take a short-cut to the finale.  My character, Strider, had reached the heady stratosphere of level 110, with close to 700 hit points (for the sake of comparison, my winning character in v5.4 had over 100,000; it really is a different game).  I felt confident that this was enough, as most of the characters sitting in the Hall of Fame are at about this level.

I also had a plan.  This plan involved the potion shop on Level 1 of each dungeon.  The shop sells every potion in the game, and my plan was to buy a Potion of Revival.  This would ensure that if I died while attempting to complete the game, my character would be whisked back to the surface alive and well.  This part of my plan worked, although there were some nasty, unforeseen side-effects that I was none-too-pleased with.

Buying a Potion of Revival.

The other part of my plan hinged on the ability to teleport quickly up and down between dungeon levels.  Getting to Level 30 of a dungeon is no problem in this game: the Excelsior Transporter found on level 1 of each dungeon will transport you to any level for the price of a small number of hit points.  As for getting back up, I figured that I'd use my teleport spells; by pressing Shift-PgUp and Shift-PgDn you can quickly move between levels.  It uses up spell slots, and sometimes moves you in the opposite direction you intended, but I've found it fairly reliable, and I thought I had enough slots to get me back up to familiar territory (I've mapped all three dungeons to level 12).

So I took the transporter down, and started exploring the bottom level of Whisenwood Dungeon.  The monsters were tough in battle, but my spells were able to kill them easily.  I didn't find what I was looking for, though, and it wasn't long before my spell slots started to deplete and I felt the urge to retreat to the surface.  So I started spamming Shift-PgUp, to see how close I could get.  It didn't go so well.  I had a bad run of luck with my teleport spells reversing, and by the time I had used up my spell slots I was on level 17 with no idea of how to escape.  I wandered around for a while looking for the exit, but my death was inevitable.

I wasn't overly worried: I had my Potion of Revival, and it did its job in resurrecting me and returning me to the surface.  What I didn't know is that I would lose all of my magic items, and also 1 point of Endurance.  I should have known, it's spelled out in the documentation, but I obviously hadn't read carefully enough.  Losing my magic items was a blow, but the Endurance loss was worse, as it dropped by hit points total by over 100, from about 670 to 530.

Needless to say, my plan was shot.  There was no way to reliably and safely short-cut to the end of this game.  I was going to have to map the whole thing, so that I'd have an escape route ready.  The potion hadn't been as useful as I'd hoped. but I still planned on using it; it had helped me escape perma-death, after all.

With my character over level 100 there was no more need for me to grind for XP, but there was a need for me to map.  I'd been grinding while watching copious hours of professional wrestling, because that sort of TV requires minimal attention.  I watch basically every WWE show, so I'd had plenty of hours to get my character strong.  I figured, hey, I did my grinding during wrestling hours, why not my mapping?

It was a terrible mistake.  With one window open for rasslin', one for the game, and one for Excel, I had minimal space to work with.  And my focus was split.  It was one thing to play the game on autopilot while wandering around on dungeon level 3, but for mapping I needed to be on level 12 and 13.  I needed my wits about me.

It went okay for a while, and I managed to map two levels during an episode of Raw.  Monsters weren't a problem, as I was strong enough to kill them automatically.  Disaster struck in the form of a slime.  The slimes on lower levels are tough, and were draining me for about 100 hit points at a time.  Every slime has its own specific weakness, but I have those memorised, so it was never a massive problem.

That is, until I walked into a puddle of Living Mercury that ate my sword.  Normally I would exit the dungeon when this happens, but my character was strong enough to kill monsters with his bare hands, so why would I leave?  What I hadn't taken into account were the slimes that can only be killed with a sword.  I stepped into a Roving Sludge, and with no sword I wasn't able to kill it.  I should have tried to break free by moving, but instead I just kept spamming ineffective Fire spells at it.  I think it was my split focus, and a bit of confusion from my sword not working, but soon enough I was staring dumbfounded at the Death Screen, while Ryback wrestled an interminable match against the Wyatt Family in the background.  Over a month's work, down the gurgler.

A few posts ago I had dramatically foreshadowed suicide if I lost my character.  Obviously I haven't taken that drastic action.  Instead, I am declaring war on The Game of Dungeons.  I'm back to grinding during wrestling, and I am going to grind the shit out of this game.  I'm going to map every damn square, and kill every damn monster, and take every damn treasure, and I am going to do it cautiously, methodically and spitefully.  Dirk and Flint Pellett: screw you both, and screw your game.  I'm going to beat all of you, no matter how long it takes.  The war of attrition begins anew.

This guy will definitely finish the game and not die at all I am certain of it.  Probably.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Arcade Interlude: Space Invaders (1978)

When I started this blog, my plan was to play through every CRPG and adventure game I could find, in chronological order  by year.  I'd found myself in a rut as far as gaming was concerned, and I just wasn;t getting enough of it into my schedule.  So I decided to make it a part of my schedule, by starting a blog.  That's been working pretty well so far, and I've been enjoying it a lot.  (I should also confess that I'm completely ripping of the format of  Go over there to see this done better.)

Somewhere along the way, though, I decided that I might branch out a little into other genres.  If I'm playing every CRPG and adventure game in 1978, for example, I might has well hit the other major games released in that year.  So that's where the first Arcade Interlude comes in.

The plan here is not to do a whole series of posts on these sidebar games.  I certainly don't want to give them a Final Rating.  I just want to play them for a bit, do a single post acknowledging that I did so, and move on.

So rather than writing up a lengthy review, I'm going to do a short spiel on the game in question, and then provide two videos.  The first video will show my first attempt to play the game; for some games it will be my first attempt ever, and for others it will simply be the first time I've played it in a good long while.

The second video will show my final attempt at the game.  I'm going to play it solidly for an hour or so, then record the last game.  I guess it will show how good I can become in an hour.

So, Space Invaders.  It wasn't the earliest arcade game, but it may have been the first video game craze.  The game was designed by Tomohiro Nishikado, and released by Taito.  It's easy to see why it caught on: it's easy to play, very intuitive, and the difficulty ramps up in waves as you progress.  Indeed, by 1982 it had earned $2 billion in quarters.  So how good at it was I able to get in an hour?

My first attempt:


My final attempt:


Not very good, I'm afraid, but at least I was able to make it through an entire screen.  And I'm pretty happy that my final attempt was also my best.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Voyage to Atlantis: Victory!

I tell you what, I'm loving these one- and two-post games.  The PLATO games (which I'm still mired in, I might add) were becoming a real drag, and sapping my will to keep going with the blog.  Now that I'm plowing through games in the TRS-80/Apple era, it feels really good.

So, Voyage to Atlantis.  When I last posted, I had located seven treasures and secured them in my submarine: a Platinum Pick, a pair of Gold Scissors, a Silver Key, a Golden Apple, a Jade Medallion, a Pearl, and some Coins.  There were two more treasures that I had found, but I had yet to defeat their guardians: a Platinum Plaque guarded by a Black Manta, and a Golden Fleece guarded by a Minotaur.

I defeated the Black Manta first, but doing so involved some accidental cheating.  I really wanted to find out how many treasures there were in the game, so I decided to open a walkthrough and skim the first paragraph or two.  I should have known better, because I've besmirched my honour as far as this game goes.  I didn't read anything too major in the way of spoilers: all I saw was that I needed to feed my Peanut Butter Cup to the Piranhas, which I had previously thought to be pointless.  I'll accept the tag of cheater, but I'm pretty sure I would have tried this eventually without being prompted.

The peanut butter causes the piranhas' teeth to fall out, and it turns out that the teeth are rare and valuable.  I stashed them in my sub, and after returning to the room I noticed that the Piranhas were still there, now described as "harmless".  I tried adding them to my inventory, and somewhat implausibly it worked.  As the last puzzle solution had involved feeding the peanut butter to the piranhas, I got the idea to feed the piranhas to the manta.  This worked as well, and the manta swam away with a full stomach.  I was able to take the Plaque, but I was careful not to read it this time; it contains an ad for Greg Hassett's other games, but it also causes the game to crash.

Getting the Golden Fleece from the Minotaur sounded like a more dangerous task, but it proved to be not difficult at all.  I took the long trek through the Hall of Mirrors and the Labyrinth (neither of which are all that difficult to navigate), and when I made it to the Minotaur he was guarding not just the Golden Fleece, but the Spear that I had previously used to kill the Octopus.  When you kill the Octopus the Spear vanishes, and I had assumed that it was gone from the game completely.  But no, it appears at the Minotaur's feet, right where you need it, and the Minotaur makes no attempt to stop you from picking it up and killing him with it.  (This is another instance of the somewhat sterile nature of the game.  It's almost like - dare I say it? - visiting the aquarium: full of dangerous creatures that can't do anything to you.)

After you kill the Minotaur, the Spear transforms into platinum, and becomes another treasure.  Together with the Golden Fleece, that meant I had found eleven treasures.  That still wasn't enough to grant me the full 200 points needed for victory, so I needed to find one more.

I suspected that the final treasure was the Iron Statuette that I had pried out of the inside of a giant clam.  As it turned out I was correct, but it took me a while to figure out what I needed to do.  I tried carrying the statue around to different areas, and I tried dropping it in various places that seemed otherwise superfluous.  I tried shooting it with the cannon.  I even tried mapping the game on a grid and looking for secret doors.  None of these worked, and I was getting frustrated.  That walkthrough was looking mighty tempting...

The key to solving this puzzle was the clue I had found in a book in the library: "WHAT IS THOUGHT TO BE ISN'T WHAT YOU SEE! NORI".  NORI is IRON backwards, so I was pretty sure that I was on the right track with the Statue.  I tried cutting it with the Gold Scissors, throwing the Spear at it, throwing Piranha Teeth at it, typing swear words.  You know, the usual adventure game solutions.  Eventually I hit on the solution, which didn't involve any other items: SCRAPE STATUE.  Scraping away the outer layer revealed that it was really gold, and I had found the twelfth and final treasure.

The C64 has a good sound chip.  Write some bloody music!  Get Martin Galway on it!

Unfortunately, the version of the game that I have ends with a syntax error, so I didn't get the full ending.  I tracked down the source code of a TRS-80 version (labelled as Mod. I, Level II, so probably a revision of the original), and got the full text:  "Tum tum-tum tum...tum te tum te dum de tum... A real Adventurer Grandmaster...Boy oh Boy! Can I shake your hand?"  Totally worth it.

There are a few other things I discovered about the game through play, reading walkthroughs, and the source code:

  • In my last post, I had thought that there wasn't an Electric Eel in the Electric Eel Room.  There was, but I had killed it with the cannon.  That seems to be the cannon's only purpose: to kill the Eel so that you can reclaim any equipment sucked away by the whirlpool.
  • You can get killed by the Minotaur if you attempt to feed it.  It eats you instead.
  • In the TRS-80 version of the game, the Plaque didn't have an ad for Hassett's other games.  Instead it had a clue that said "SCRAPE IRON. NORI".  Seriously, I could have used this.
  • The game does have an inventory limit, I just hadn't reached it at the time of my last post.  You can carry up to seven items before the game starts making you drop things.
  • You can't kill anything with the spear other than the Octopus and the Minotaur.  It's not logical, but allowing it would break the rest of the puzzles in the game.  It's a design flaw.


Story & Setting: This is just a treasure hunt, so story isn't really a focus of the game.  The Roman trappings of undersea Atlantis make for a cohesive setting, but as with the other text adventures I've played on PC the space limitations mean that descriptions are sparse.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: It's just you, some fish and a Minotaur, I'm afraid.  Once again, the creatures in this game are more obstacles than living things. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: Despite the heady buzz of nostalgia I got from playing this on a Commodore 64 emulator, I can't in good conscience give this any more than the minimum rating.  It's a text adventure, innit?  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: Although this game cribs a lot from the work of Scott Adams, it hasn't kept the split-window interface that keeps the room description on screen at all times.  It's possible that it was there in the TRS-80 version, but I can only rate the game I played.  The loss of this feature knocks Voyage to Atlantis down a point.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: There was only one puzzle that gave me any difficulty, so I can't rate this too highly.  It didn't give me any serious frustrations, either.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence:  I'm tempted to give this game the minimum score here, because it cribs so heavily from the work of Scott Adams, whose games are much more famous and influential.  I can't do it, though.  It gets one bonus point for being super-old, and another for being programmed by a twelve-year-old.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Fun: I didn't hate playing this, but it didn't really fire me up either.  Like a lot of games of this era, it's probably being scored leniently because it's so short.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

This game has nothing more to offer me, so it doesn't earn the bonus point.  The scores above add up to 15, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 30.  That puts it as the lowest text adventure on the list, just under Pirate Adventure, and the lowest game on the list.  That seems a little harsh, but it lost a lot of points for being derivative.

Final Rating: 30 out of 100.

DND v8 Update!!!  I just cracked level 90, so I'm on the home stretch.  One episode of Raw and one episode of Smackdown should do it.  If this character dies, I may just end it all.  The game, the blog, my life, everything.

Next: I'll probably focus on finishing The Game of Dungeons v8, since I'm getting so close to level 100.  In the meantime I should have a single post up for Space Invaders, which will break the format a little, and won't take me more than an hour or so to do.  Then it's back to the wonderful world of Greg Hassett, with Journey to the Centre of the Earth Adventure.  I probably could have scheduled that better.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Voyage to Atlantis (1978)

It's difficult to find any information about Voyage to Atlantis.  What's out there is sparse, but it had me eager to play it.  After all, how many commercial games were designed by a twelve-year-old boy?  Yes, apparently designer Greg Hassett was twelve when he wrote this game, and there are a bunch more by him to come in the next few years.  I'd love to learn more about Hassett, but a Google didn't turn up very much.

Released through Mad Hatter Software (which I'm pretty sure was set up just to publish Hassett's games), Voyage to Atlantis was originally on the TRS-80.  I wasn't able to find that version of the game, so I've had to settle for the Commodore 64 version released in 1983.  It's far from ideal, and I can't shake the nagging fear that I'm playing a version that's different to the original.  Nevertheless, there's a lot of nostalgia for me in firing up a C64, even as an emulator.  My very first computer was a Commodore, and it was on that machine that I had my formative gaming experiences.  I still have it, but I don't have a copy of Voyage to Atlantis, so there's no point in firing it up just yet.  Perhaps later.

But, I digress.  Voyage to Atlantis is yet another treasure-hunting text adventure, much in the vein of Colossal Cave Adventure, Adventureland and Pirate Adventure.  Indeed, one would be forgiven for mistaking this for a Scott Adams game: the instructions on the intro screen are almost identical to Adams' games.  Not only that, but the opening area features a sign that instructs the player to bring any treasures back there and say "score".  I doubt that Hassett ever saw Colossal Cave Adventure, but there's no doubting that he played at least one of Adams' adventures.

Is that you, Scott?

The game begins with the player in his submarine, having docked in the sunken city of Atlantis.  The goal is to find all of the treasures, and bring them back to the sub.  I wasn't able to find a copy of the manual, so I've got no idea how many treasures there.  I've located nine so far (some of which I haven't yet been able to take), but I'm certain there are more.

Having explored all of the areas that are open to me, I have to say that I'm a little disappointed.  Not with the game itself; it's perfectly well-designed.  But there's a certain expectation that comes with a game created by a twelve-year-old.  I was hoping it would be a little crazier, you know?

The version of Atlantis presented here is in the vein of Ancient Rome, and quite a few of the locations draw on Roman mythology: the Pillars of Hercules, Prometheus' Chamber in Olympia, and so on.  This is mixed with a bit of Jules Verne (the sub, some mentions of Captain Ahab).  It's thematically tight, with the only real incongruity being the presence of a rail station.  Admittedly that's a big one, but in this era of adventure games you expect at least one area that makes no sense.  At least I haven't wandered into the insides of a computer yet.

As the city of Atlantis is underwater, you have to carry an air tank around at all times in order to survive.  Drowning without the tank is the only way of dying that I've discovered so far.  I live in constant fear that the tank is going to run out, but so far that hasn't been a problem.  I also thought it might be annoying to have an inventory slot constantly taken up, but I've yet to hit a limit on the number of items that I can carry.

I do love a game that insults me when I die.

I've found a few treasures lying around unguarded, and returned them to the sub: a Platinum Pick, a pair of Gold Scissors, a Silver Key, a Golden Apple, and a Jade Medallion.  Treasures are denoted by asterisks, so there's no mistaking them.  Some are needed to solve various puzzles, as you'll see below.

I've located a bunch of other treasures that are guarded by various forms of hostile undersea life.  I'll run through these below:

  • A chest guarded by an Octopus.  The octopus can be killed with a spear that's found nearby, but you also need a spear-thrower that's a found a little further afield.  This was the first puzzle I solved (not that it was exactly a head-scratcher).  The chest contained a pearl (one of the treasures) and a note.  More on the note later, when I outline the various clues I've located.
  • A platinum plaque guarded by a Black Manta.  I don't have any ideas on getting rid of the Manta, but I haven't put much thought towards it yet.  The Manta doesn't let you take the plaque, but you can read it, and doing so gives you an ad for Hassett's other games.  Presumably this wasn't in the original version, as it mentions games designed well after 1978.  It also caused a syntax error that crashed the game, so I won't be trying this again.
  • A Giant Squid guarding a pile of coins.  There's a hint elsewhere in the game that the Squid doesn't like loud noises, and I was able to scare it away by typing YELL.
  • A Minotaur guarding the golden fleece.  I suppose the Minotaur isn't aquatic life, but it does fit the mythological theme.  The Minotaur lives at the heart of a maze, which is mercifully easy to navigate compared to those found in Colossal Cave Adventure

So I've returned seven treasures to the sub, and there are two more that are still guarded by nasties that I've yet to defeat.  I could be close to finishing the game, but honestly I have no idea.

The city is strewn with various papers, books and journals that provide clues.  Here are all the ones I've found to date:

  • There's an area designated as "Captain Ahab's Quarters", and his journal is found there.  It contains this cryptic note: "LEE SAID POW AND DIED".  So far this is meaningless to me.
  • Inside the chest there is a note, as I mentioned above.  It says "PUT SHOT IN GUN".  This is easy to figure out.  There's an old cannon in an Atlantean fort, and elsewhere on an Olympic Field there's a shot put.  I've been able to load the shot put into the cannon, and I've even fired the cannon, but it had no discernible effect.
  • An old newspaper found in a dark cave had a number of cryptic messages for me: "USE CRUST TOOTHPASTE FOR SHARPER TEETH (SNAP!)  SQUIDS HATE LOUD NOISES (W O P T O N).  The bit about squids and loud noises helped me obtain one of the treasures, but I don't know what the rest is about.  Toothpaste?  W O P T O N?  I'm baffled.
  • A book in the library contained the following: "WHAT IS THOUGHT TO BE ISN'T WHAT YOU SEE! NORI".  Again, baffled.

There are a few other mysteries and things of note that I want to point out as well.

  • I found a giant clam, and I was able to prise it open with my platinum pick.  Inside was an iron statuette that I've yet to find a use for.
  • One room contains some Fierce Piranhas (and kudos to Greg Hassett for getting the spelling correct; old text adventures are usually terrible for this).  They don't do anything, and are seemingly pointless.
  • There's a gate between the Rail Station and the Jail that can be unlocked with the silver key.
  • I've found an area that's at the top of a cliff, and the text indicates that there are signs of life below.  I haven't been able to figure out a way down yet.
  • One room has walls with figures on them that look as though they've come to life.  I'm not sure if this is important, or just flavour.  It's right next to an area with mirrored walls, so it could just be foreshadowing.
  • There's a street with a post in the middle of it, and I can climb to the top of the post.  There's nothing up there, though, and the view doesn't reveal anything useful.
  • As well as the air tank, the submarine also contains a peanut butter cup.  I haven't found a use for it, and the thought of eating peanut butter is too horrible to contemplate.  I may not have the necessary cruelty to force even my digital alter ego to consume it.  Perhaps if I pretend that it's Vegemite.
  • One area is a whirlpool, and if you enter it all of your inventory items are sucked away, except for the air tank.  The items are thankfully not gone forever, and you can find them in the "Electric Eel's Room".  Curiously, this room doesn't have an electric eel in it, and you can just take your gear back with no trouble.  It does only have one exit, though, and that leads to the Jail.  And if you end up here without the key, and the gate still locked, there's no way out.  Unless I haven't found it yet.

I guess I can do this underwater?

So that's my progress through Voyage to Atlantis.  I've enjoyed the initial exploration phase, but I am finding the game to be a bit sterile.  The descriptions  are very sparse, and none of the creatures interact with you outside of preventing you from taking the items they guard.  It's all well and good to describe the octopus as "fierce", but it doesn't come through when all it does is sit there.  I'm hoping that I can have this one done by next week.

DND v8 UPDATE!!!  I've been grinding diligently while WWE programming plays in the background, and my character Strider is riding high at Level 70.  Not long to go now...