Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Balrog Sampler: Near Victory

Yes, I know, it's taken me ages to get around to writing this post.  There hasn't been anything going on in my life to prevent me from writing it up, and I haven't been dealing with any particular personal problems that might affect my desire to write.  This delay has come down to one thing, and one thing only: I really didn't want to spend time replaying this game.

It's a problem of my own making, really. If I'd just taken some screenshots when I played through it the first time I might have been able to knock up a post from memory.  I say might, but that's debatable: my memory of this game is hazier than pretty much anything else I've played for the blog, and I only went through it about six months ago.  That's one of the benefits I've found with keeping the blog: the games I've written about stand out sharply in my memory.

Anyway, I've now replayed Balrog Sampler, and the pain is all in the past.  I'm very keen to knock this post out so that I can move on to something (literally anything) else.  Last time around I went through the basics of the game, and played through the wilderness area. This post will deal with the dungeon, which is the meat of the game, and where things get much more difficult (as you'd expect).

Early on, the thing that always stymied my progress was the combat, specifically the random encounters.  They're not overwhelmingly common, but they happen often enough to be annoying, and my starting characters invariably got killed by them.  There's supposedly a way to balance things by choosing the correct combination of weapons and armor based on your character's Strength and Dexterity scores, but I never figured it out. I didn't try every combination of course; there are far too many weapons for that. I tried quite a few though, and nothing seemed to work.

What I found was that the trick to surviving is in raising your character's Strength.  One way to do that is with the Personality Change Machine in a room to the north of the dungeon entrance.  When you use it, it rolls up completely new stats for your character.  It's a little random though, and doesn't really raise your Strength beyond the normal limits.  The better method is to head south and west from the entrance, and find the library.  There are a number of books to read, one of which is about physical fitness.  Reading it summons a drill instructor, who forces you to do push-ups that raise your Strength by two points.  Unlike many of the other stat boosts in the game this one can be done repeatedly, and the only limit to how high you can get your Strength score is your gold, as each reading costs 10gp.  Eventually you'll get it to a point where none of the monsters can threaten you, but the trick is to get there before a random encounter wipes you out.  I'd also recommend not boosting your Strength too high; this game is fragile, and any numbers outside of the usual range can cause it to cack itself.

There's a third method of getting through combat that I haven't mentioned yet, because it's definitely a bug.  After I played for a while, the monsters suddenly all had Strength ratings of 0, and were incapable of doing any damage.  Having suffered through the early stages of the game, being killed repeatedly by every random encounter that came along, I seized on this immediately when it happened.  Most of my exploration of the game was done with this glitch in effect.  Once I'd solved most of the puzzles playing this way I went back and fought my way through legitimately (or as legitimately as I could in my probably-cracked version of the game that starts me with 30,000+ gold pieces).

Fighting nothing in a bugged combat.

Adventure games like this are a little unfocused, so I sometimes struggle to figure out which areas to write about first.  This is why my adventure game posts often resort to point form, as it helps me to organise my thoughts.  The goal of Balrog Sampler is to find various treasures and take them back to the bank vault on the surface.  I'll break this one down by the treasures to be found, and hopefully that will cover everything important.

  • Necklace:
    • South of the dungeon entrance is a room with a dwarf, who tries to charge you for passage through doors to the south and east.  He'll let you go back to the north for free, though, and when you come back into the room he's gone. Quite a number of encounters in the game are like this: you get one crack at them, and then they disappear forever.
    • South of the dwarf is a room containing four boxes: one marked "poof", one marked "fizz", one marked "skull" and one marked "flower".  The "skull" box contains the necklace.  The "poof" box contains a genie, which can be asked for a number of wishes (none of which end up benefitting the player).  I think the "fizz" box has a strength potion, and I can't remember what the "flower" box has inside.  I also can't remember what happens if you try to open more than one box, I just know it's not good.

  • Witch Protect Cross
    • This can be found a few areas south of the box room. It's sitting in an alcove, and there's nothing special that needs to be done to obtain it.
    • The cross, as the name says, will protect you from witches.  There's a witch in the secret room east of the dwarf, but there's not much of a reason to go and see her (although you can apparently get her to transform into Helen of Troy and have sex with her if you choose the right options; I never figured out how).
  • Silver Tiger
    • North from the entrance is a room guarded by a snake. To get past this snake, you need a stone mongoose.
    • The mongoose can be found in a room with six statues just north of where you find the cross.  The statues are of various historical, mythical and fictional warriors, ranging from Attila the Hun to Conan of Cimmeria.  Pressing the button on Alexander the Great's statue reveals a secret compartment containing the stone mongoose.

    • The Silver Tiger is just lying on the ground in a passage about a half-dozen-or-so rooms beyond the snake. There are some encounters along the way, including a crazed doctor and a mummy, but those can be easily avoided.
  • Ruby
    • Past the hallway with the Silver Tiger is an Oracle, who will give you some clues if you stick around to listen.  The oracle doesn't always oblige; I assume that your stats determine whether you get the clue or not, but I'm not sure how. It doesn't really matter, because you can just keep trying until it works.
    • Further along there's a fight with a thief, and after that the path splits in two. There's only one exit to the west, but it leads to two different locations. As far as I can tell, the place you end up is totally random.
    • One of those locations has a lion with a thorn in it's paw. Unlike the well-known story, if you take the thorn out the lion will kill you.
    • The other location has two doors, one marked "Lady" and the other marked "Tiger".  (I've heard the phrase "the lady or the tiger" before, it's apparently from a short story published in 1882.)  The door marked "lady" leads to a tiger named Lady, and the door marked "tiger" leads to a lady named Tiger. It's amusing enough, but neither this encounter or the one with the lion are important beyond your own survival.
    • The path then leads to a wizard's laboratory, where you can fight a wizard and take his wand.  I have vague memories that you can bribe this guy, or trick him somehow.
    • The room beyond the laboratory is dark, but you can light it with a torch. At the end of the room is an alcove with a keyhole.  The key from the shack will unlock it, but there are a number of lethal traps to avoid through trial-and-error. Inside is a ruby.
  • Emerald Orb
    • East of the entrance room is a "spaghetti maze".  There's no trick to this one, you just have to keep picking an exit until it randomly spits you out on the other side.  Once there you'll find the emerald orb.
  • Bag of Jewels
    • South of this and down a ravine is a river that leads to a lake, where there's a woman sleeping on the shore.  There's also an island in the middle of the lake. You can get her to show you where a boat is buried, and if you use it to get to the island you'll find a bag of jewels. If you try to swim, you'll be attacked by the island's "guardian".
  • Diamonds
    • South of the river is the "Monster Maze", which I had to map using the time-honoured method of dropping inventory items. It's a pretty big maze, but being able to drop different amounts of gold coins really helped to speed the process. The diamonds are found at a shrine deep in the maze.
  • Chalice
    • On the far size of the Monster Maze is a rusted door. To open this door you need to fill a jug with oil.  The jug is found really close to the dungeon entrance, but it's through a tight tunnel that can cause a lot of problems. If you try to get through with too much inventory, you'll get stuck and eventually die.  I've gotten stuck even with no inventory, so I think it might be based on a die roll of some sort.  You have to get through twice, and I've had more characters die to this tunnel than pretty much anything else in the game.

    • The oil is found in an area north of the spaghetti maze. It's past a bridge with a troll who demands treasure; I killed the troll rather than bother to find the right treasure to give to it. Beyond that is an oasis, with some stereotypical arabian trappings, and you can fill your jug with oil there.
    • With the oil you can open the rusted door, and the chalice is in an alcove on the other side.
  • God of Waterfalls
    • If you follow the river from the lake, you'll come to a waterfall. Climbing the waterfall can be difficult, but each time you fall you get a boost to IQ so it's actually pretty helpful.  If you keep trying you'll eventually make it to the top, where you'll find an idol called the God of Waterfalls.

  • Golden Eggs
    • There's a secret area behind the waterfall that can be accessed by pulling a lever. Whether it opens or not is random, and probably based on your stats (again, the game isn't great at letting you know when this is happening, and I don't have the motivation to go trawling through the code to find out).  Usually it takes me a few minutes of repeatedly pulling the lever until it opens, which can get really annoying.
    • Beyond is a room with two pits, reminiscent of the Twopit Room from Colossal Cave Adventure.  The east pit contains a rusty sword, and the west pit has a tiny beanstalk calling out for water.  You can collect water in a flask to make the plant grow, which allows you to climb up to another area.
  • Singing Harp
  • Clock
    • Both of the items above are found at the top of the beanstalk, but I can't remember the details.  The game I have currently saved shows that I have a flask filled with water in my inventory, but when I go to water the plant it doesn't acknowledge that I have the item.  My patience with Balrog Sampler is wearing really thin, so I'm not going to bother going to the effort of starting a new game so I can get back to this area.
  • Collar
    • I have a collar written down in my list of treasures, but it's not anywhere on my map, so I have no idea where it came from. Again, I'm leaving this one as a mystery (assuming it's actually there at all).
  • Pearls
    • North-east from the dungeon entrance is a large door. This door can only be opened with the correct password. There are a number of clues to this password scattered around the dungeon (one is in the library, one is deep in the Monster Maze, and I think the other is given by the oracle).

    • For some reason, I always have to say the password twice.  I'm not sure if this is deliberate, or a glitch.
    • North of the door is a room with an oyster in a pool of water. If you burn some coal the water will boil and the oyster will open, revealing the pearls.
  • Ruby Skull
  • Silver Pirate Ship
  • Chest of Jewels
    • The three treasures above are found past the door, but there are a lot of deadly obstacles in the way before you can reach them.
    • The first of these is a Fire Lizard, that will immediately attack if you enter its lair. A new Fire Lizard attacks every time you stumble into this room, but you can skirt around the lair once you know where it is.
    • Further along is the lair of a Phase Spider, which is similarly hostile. Again, you can avoid this lair if you know where you're going.
    • Next up is the final gauntlet of encounters, which begins with an unavoidable battle with a Baby Chromatic Dragon.  (For those who don't know, a Chromatic Dragon has five heads, one of each type from Dungeons & Dragons; it's one of the deadliest monsters in early D&D. For those who watched the D&D cartoon, think Tiamat.)

    • Deeper into the lair is the "Daddy Dragon", which is a Chromatic Dragon so large that you can't possible fight it.  The only way to defeat the dragon is to release a mouse in its presence.

    • After the battle you find a secret door, which leads to the lair of the Pirate.  I don't think I've mentioned him before: he shows up occasionally to knock you out with sleep powder and steal your treasure. He's pretty much an exact copy of the pirate from Colossal Cave Adventure, except that you have to fight and kill this guy in order to claim his treasures.  These treasures consist of the three listed above, plus anything else that he's stolen from you.

Finding the treasures above got me to 1871 points out of a possible 1951. Those missing points will haunt me, but not enough to ever want to go back and try this game again (unless I find a complete walkthrough, or someone just tells me what I'm missing).  I think I know where the missing points might be: there's a high alcove in the library that can be reached with a ladder, but lurking in the alcove is a creature that bites my arm off or eats my weapon when I try to reach inside.  I've tried all sorts of things: throwing pretty much my entire inventory, waving a magic wand at it, trying to wedge its jaws open with an iron bar.  I'd have tried more, but the game frustratingly tells you that you're wasting time after a few ineffective usages of your inventory. You then have to leave the area and go back, which isn't that bad, but it's pretty grating when you add it to the many other inconveniences that the game piles on you.

The 80 points that will haunt me until I die.

I think that's about where I'm going to wrap things up with Balrog Sampler.  There's some interesting stuff in it, even if the adventure game elements are a bit simplistic.  None of the good elements are able to get past how horrible this game is to play, though.  Just getting the thing running is nightmare enough, but once that's done there's no shortage of errors and bugs.  Sometimes the game won't let me buy weapons when I start a new character.  Sometimes it doesn't acknowledge items in my inventory. There's the bug with the monsters in combat that I mentioned above (a blessing in disguise, really).  And to top it all off, the save game system doesn't always work, so I was constantly having to restart.  I really wasn't kidding when I said that I didn't want to play this game ever again.  I dread the sequels.


Story & Setting: The story is yet another treasure hunt, with little to distinguish it's plot from the multitude of other games inspired by Colossal Cave Adventure.  The dungeon setting has no rhyme or reason, with nothing to connect its various areas.  And now that I think of it, it doesn't contain a balrog of any sort, which makes the name quite nonsensical.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: Although there's not much in the way of interaction, there are a number of characters scattered through the dungeon, and a good variety of monsters.  The monsters aren't differentiated by anything more than their strength, but at least some effort has been made.  Rating 2 out of 7.

Puzzles: I wavered on whether to use the Puzzles or Combat category here, and ultimately I went with puzzles because I spent most of my time playing the game with the combat horribly bugged.  The puzzles are rudimentary, and almost entirely inventory-based. Those that aren't rely heavily on random chance, or multiple choice options with little in the way of clues to guide you.  What puzzles are there are either simple or frustrating, with nothing in-between. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The writing for this text adventure is good for the time, and it often displays a warped sense of humour that is by far the game's best feature.  It's not enough to elevate it very far, though. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Mechanics: As an RPG/adventure hybrid there are some interesting things going on in this game: the multiple-choice interface might be simplistic, but the inventory system is quite involved, and the combat seems to be trying to emulate the tabletop RPG Tunnels & Trolls.  Unfortunately, this is probably the most broken game I've played for the blog, not counting those that are incomplete, such as Library.  Between the effort it took me to get running, the many crashes and bugs, the unreliable saves, and the general clunkiness of the interface, I can't give it anything but the minimum score. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Challenge: Although the puzzle aspect is not too hard, I never was able to reach a balance where I could survive the combat without ramping up my Strength score to absurd levels.  I found this game difficult, and not at all in an enjoyable way. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Fun: This is easily the most painful game to play in the history of the blog. It would be nice to find a stable version that works the way it's supposed to, but the version I played was very far from that ideal scenario. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 0.

The above scores total 9, which doubled gives a RADNESS Index of 18.  If the game worked the way it was supposed to it would have scored a lot higher, perhaps somewhere around a 30, but the sheer volume of technical problems has placed it as my lowest-rated game so far.  That's the curse of playing games chronologically: you have to take the terrible games alongside the gems.

NEXT: It's back to the priority list for a CRPG classic: Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord.  I've never played any Wizardry games for any great length of time, so I'm looking forward to ticking this one off my bucket list.


  1. Good luck on Wizardry! How hardcore are you going (are you making backups of disks, that is?)

    If you're playing Apple II, make sure you snag the special version Ahab made, there's a particular part that's busted on a lot of copies. (I played DOS version off Wizardry Collection back in the day.)

    1. I have Ahab's version, so it's all good.

      I'm going to try to do it legit, without backups. I'm crazy like that.

    2. A) Glad to see you are back! Needed my fix for the week...

      B) Hard core Wizardry ain't for the faint of heart!

  2. If you want to achieve all the points in this game some day, I have done a complete guide (including how to make it work properly and avoid bugs).

    I think you missed the diamond in the witch's fruit, and maybe the optional points for climbing the ladder and pulling the rope for the clue... and by your screenshot I think you are not exiting the game by the bank, which gives you another 50 points.