Friday, April 17, 2020

Back-Tracking: Beneath Apple Manor (1978)

Some years ago I played through Beneath Apple Manor, one of the earliest commercially available CRPGs (and possibly the first ever).  It's something of a proto-Roguelike, and as I recall it was a tight, replayable game that I enjoyed quite a bit.  It scored a 41 on the RADNESS Index, and it's still the third-highest ranked CRPG on the blog so far, so it must have been doing something right.

At the time, in my hurry to move on, I didn't bother trying very hard to complete it on the highest difficulty level.  At the time I was just allowing myself some respite from the endless labour of the PLATO CRPGs, and the prospect of moving forward with my list was too enticing. I had no time to waste on perfecting the games I played, I had to move on to, uhhhh, Space.  Well, they weren't all winners.

Leaving that difficulty level unbeaten has been just one of the things bothering me about the blog, so I decided to go back and have a proper crack at it.  After all, I have the time right now.  My first thought upon firing up Beneath Apple Manor was that I had vastly overrated it.  It's the sort of thing that tends to happen in the early days of a project, before things are nailed down. But gradually I figured out the systems again, and I'm pleased to say that I think I got it right the first time. It's still fun, and it only took me a few tries to beat difficulty level 5 as a practice run.

I'm lazy, so I recycled this screen shot from five years ago.

Difficulty level 10 is another story altogether.  The goal of Beneath Apple Manor is to delve into the dungeons beneath Apple Manor and find the fabled golden apple.  You fight monsters along the way and build your stats, as in most CRPGs.  The apple doesn't appear until your stats are high enough, and balancing the activities that drain your stats (like fighting monsters) with raising them through spending XP is a big part of the game.  Level 10 makes that really hard by making the monsters very, very difficult to defeat.

The original version of the game has five monsters.  It starts with slimes,  that are pretty weak but can damage your armour, and ghosts, which drain your strength score and can only be hurt with magic.  From there it moves up to Trolls (with the ability to regenerate their hit points), Purple Worms (high hit points and high damage) and Dragons (really high damage, but lower in hit points).  On most difficulty levels it's not that hard to beat the starting monsters, but on level 10 even a fight with one lowly slime is no guaranteed thing.

On easier difficulty levels it had been my standard practice to clear out every level, find every treasure chest, and kill every monster.  I had to change that for level 10, and instead of clearing everything I started using hit and run tactics.  If I found a chest, I'd hightail it back to the stairs.  If I encountered a monster, I'd also run back to the stairs and descend to the next level; the levels descend infinitely so it doesn't matter if you skip one entirely.  They generate based on your stats as well, so they don't get any harder until you've grown stronger.  There are ways to avoid combat, by listening at doors, using the X-Ray spell to reveal your surroundings, and using the teleport spell in real emergencies.  It was slow going.

Much like tabletop D&D, you gain experience points from finding gold as well as winning fights, so I was still able to use these hit and run tactics to build my character's stats.  And eventually, after nearly two hours of painstaking advancement, I reached my goal.

You'll have to take my word for it that I didn't just recycle this
screenshot from five years ago.

While I was still in the zone with this game, I decided that I'd quickly cover the special edition, because checking out ports and alternate versions of games is something I do now.  So here's another "Port of Call", which I guess has become a regular feature.


The Apple II version of the special edition was released in 1982, but for some reason the version that I found didn't work properly.  I can't remember why, and now that I'm testing it, it seems to work fine.  But anyway, it's a cracked version, so it's probably inauthentic in some way.  I went with the DOS port from 1983.  (Actually, according to mobygames this loaded as a boot disk, and didn't run through DOS at all. How that works with current-day DOSBox, I haven't the faintest idea.)

Are IBM-PC games allowed to look this good in 1983?

This one has a proper title screen, and even a nice rendition of Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King".  (I'm the sort of philistine that has more appreciation for a PC speaker version of this than a fully orchestral one; in many ways I'm like the anti-Chester.)  The graphics are greatly improved: instead of ASCII characters or coloured blocks, the characters are represented with icons, and the whole thing is much more pleasant to look at.

The game plays pretty much exactly as it did before, except for the inclusion of two new monsters: Invisible Stalkers and Vampires.  Invisible Stalkers have no icons, and their only special ability is that you can't see them; you have to figure out which direction they're attacking you from through trial-and-error.  Vampires have an icon with a cool Dracula cape-and-collar, and when they attack they drain your Intelligence.  Neither of these additions do much to make the game more difficult: they don't appear until around the same time as Purple Worms and Dragons, and they dish out far less damage than those two monsters.  The added variety is welcome though.

This level has a dragon, a vampire, and one chest. It's probably not
worth taking on that dragon, though.

It also has two new magic items.  The original game had magic swords and armour, a wand that cast the Zap spell at no cost to your intelligence, a wand that opened doors at no cost to your strength, potions that affected your stats, and a potion that wiped your memory (and your map).  The special edition adds magic boots that make it easier to sneak past monsters, and a potion of clairvoyance that makes it so you can see the entire dungeon level.  That potion's a good one, because it's permanent; once you get it, you can see every dungeon level from the start and plan your path out accordingly.  I had that potion for the screenshot above.

Using the same hit and run tactics, I was able to beat this version on difficulty level 10 as well.  The new additions didn't require me to change my tactics, and to be honest the potion of clairvoyance actually made it a little easier.

Accurate for the time.

The ending of this one uses the same pun as the original, by making the "fabled golden apple" an Apple computer.  Then it pulls a swerve, and tells you it's something even better: a golden IBM PC!  A little bit of my tribalistic, Apple-hating heart was warmed by this.  (Don't worry, I'm being cured of my irrational anti-Apple bias by this blog; the Apple II is obviously the best games machine of its era.)

Hold your horses mate, you've got a decade or so before you can brag
about anything.

As far as the RADNESS Index goes, I'd give this an extra point in Aesthetics, and also give it an extra point for the new monsters.  (I think I rated it too low in that category originally anyway.)  Taking away the bonus point, because this version lacks the historical significance of the original, it ends up with a RADNESS Index of 44.  It's the version to play, for sure.

NEXT: I'll play Greg Hassett's Enchanted Island over the weekend (a probable one-post game) and on Monday I may have a quick back-tracking post up on the graphic adventure versions of Scott Adams' first three games: Adventureland, Pirate Adventure and Mission Impossible.


  1. "Actually, according to mobygames this loaded as a boot disk, and didn't run through DOS at all. How that works with current-day DOSBox, I haven't the faintest idea."

    There are two possibilities. The first is that DOSBox can be set to mount self-booting disk images through the config file (or through the UI in some derivatives).

    The second and more likely one is that you got a pirate DOS conversion, which were pretty common in the 80's. Self-booting PC game disk images are very rare, and ones with intact copy protection don't exist as far as I know. The original disks usually did not have any "files" in the sense that you wouldn't see anything if you typed a dir command in DOS, so if you see a copy of a booting game distributed as a ZIP file containing a com/exe, it means somebody extracted the binary off the disk and turned it into a DOS-compatible executable.

    1. Thanks Ahab, I was pretty sure that if anyone could answer that it would be you.

  2. Ahh yes... we had a self-booting game for our Tandy 1000 that was a 1000 specific version of Touchdown Football. Nothing would copy that sucker.

    I'm personally glad to see some CGA graphics there! Suffered through that for years before they finally starting using the TGA adapter for Ultima IV and Starflight.

    1. There's something uniquely ugly about CGA graphics - I don't think games get as ugly again until the early days of 3D. This game looked pretty good though.