Sunday, May 24, 2020

Game 46: Haunt (1979)

Haunt doesn't have a title screen

Well, I had a week off.  I've been pretty good about keeping to a schedule of late, but ever since I started playing Rogue my desire to blog has somewhat dimmed.  The problem is, I don't want to play anything else, but the blog cannot survive on Rogue alone.  It's a great game, but after a while it's hard to find things to say about it.  On top of that, I'm really into Dungeons & Dragons right now.  My interests run in cycles.  Sometimes I'm obsessed with D&D, sometimes with comics, and sometimes with video games.  At the moment, video games is near the bottom of the cycle.  Never fear, it'll get to the top again.

What all of the above means is that I'm cutting my posts back to once a week, for the most part.  On Sundays(ish) I'll post about whatever game is next on my chronology.   On Wednesdays(ish), I'll post about Rogue, if I have something new to say about it.  Once I'm done with Rogue I might pick up the pace again, but I'm not sure about that.  We'll see what happens.

For today's post, I'm tackling Haunt, which is another mainframe-based text adventure.  (It's often written as HAUNT, all caps, and I don't know why.)  I'm not sure why I get so trepidatious about the mainframe adventure games.  Zork was one, and it's undoubtedly the best game I've played for the blog so far.  Colossal Cave Adventure, Acheton and Battlestar have all rated well.  The mainframe games do tend to be better on average than their home computer equivalents, but they also tend to be longer.  Perhaps that's it.  I like making progress on the blog, and short games are great for that.  I'm at the point where I'd almost rather play a short but terrible game than one that's long and pretty good.  I have no idea how big Haunt is, and that makes me nervous.

Haunt was created starting in 1979 by John E. Laird, who is currently a computer science professor at the University of Michigan.  He would have been studying for his Ph.D at the time.  Laird worked at Xerox PARC for a bit before getting into academia, and he's significant enough to merit his own Wikipedia page, but I don't think he did anything else in gaming beyond creating Haunt.  The game was developed from 1979 to 1982, but as usual I'm playing it in the year that the game's development started.

Getting the game running was a bit of a nightmare.  It requires TOPS-20 emulation; I gather that TOPS-20 was the operating system for the DEC-20 mainframe.  To play the game, I had to go to and create a TOPS-20 login.  Then I needed to download a telnet client; I ended up going with PuTTY, which can be found here.  It was a lot of rigmarole, and not the sort of thing I'm used to, but I got there in the end.

The game kicks off with its backstory, and, well... it's weird.  Get a load of this.

This stuff is wild.

For those who don't want to squint at my screen caps, the gist is that there's a bloke whose wife got killed by a moose.  He bought the land where the incident happened, built a mansion called Chez Moose, and set about trying to return her to life.  He wasn't seen again for seven years, and was declared dead.

What also happened on the fateful day of that picnic was that the man's child was kidnapped by gypsies (which I'm aware isn't a word I should be using, but I'm going with what the game says. Apologies to any Romani people who may be reading.).  Only that child will apparently be able to enter the house and find the treasures inside without going mad and committing suicide.  So yes, it's a treasure hunt, but the story around it is bizarre enough that I can excuse it.

Also wrapped up in this story is an obscure hereditary disease called "Orkhisnoires sakioannes".  I've no idea what this is getting at.  Google just points back to articles about this game, so I gather that it's completely made up.  I guess it could be a pun or an anagram, but I'm not at the stage where I'm going to try and solve it just yet.

That's mighty nice of the government, who are always wonderful chaps.

The game began with me standing at a bus stop. My inventory contained a watch and a couple of bus tokens.  I tried moving off in various directions, but there's nowhere to go from the bus stop.  The only thing to do was to wait until a bus pulled up, get on board, and exit when it dropped me at the front gate of Chez Moose.

I could see the mansion from the front gate; it was dark, but there were lights coming from the windows.  There was seemingly no way to open the gate, so I did a lap of the perimeter wall.  I found a gate with a buzzer on the east wall, but decided to ignore it for now.  The wall was surrounded with a forest, which I'm pretty sure is only there for show.  I tried to explore it, but it very quickly became impenetrable.  The road to the south was bordered by a similarly impenetrable forest, but I discovered that if I went far enough east or west I'd end up back at the bus stop.  I could wait and catch the bus again, but only once.  After that, I had no tokens left, and being unable to catch the bus I sat down on the corner and starved to death.  Going home and living the rest of my life was not an option, I suppose.

Another weird thing happened while I was exploring the wilderness.  At the stroke of midnight, a ghostly moose appeared and charged right through me.  It didn't seem to have any negative effect, but I'm a little concerned about it.  I wonder if there's a way to avoid it somehow, or if it's tied into the whole going mad and committing suicide thing?

Yep. It's a ghost moose alright.

There's also a weird area just off the south-west corner of the wall that has no description at all.  It's just a blank space.  I'm not sure if this is significant or not, but I've learned not to dismiss this kind of thing.  I'll have to remember it when I'm thinking of ways to earn extra points.

With nothing else to do I approached the east gate and pressed the button.  There was a buzz, but nothing else happened.  At this point, I got really stuck, and I almost searched for a walkthrough, which would have been pretty shameful at this early stage.  It turned out that all I had to do was press the button a couple more times.  The buzzing woke up the person on the other end, and after a series of questions he let me through the gate.  Some of those questions were simple (name, quest, etc.) and some of them were weird trivia.  The most common one I've gotten is "What was the first production system with more than 1500 productions?"  The answer to this is "Haunt", which apparently has something to do with the language it was coded in; I only knew the answer to this by looking at  The other question I keep getting is "What is the capital of Assyria?"  I've tried Assur, and the alternate spelling Ashur, but it keeps telling me I'm wrong and I'm not sure why.  Google wouldn't lie to me.  (Actually, I've just realised that the answer is probably "A", which is the sort of dumb thing I would write on geography tests when I didn't know the answer.  I'll have to try that next time.)

After answering the questions I was let inside, and informed that I wouldn't be getting back out through the gate.  The mansion grounds were mostly areas of lawn, with the mansion at the centre and an empty garage to the north-east.  I also found a grave in the north-east corner, which I dug up.  Inside was a bone from the Missing Link, which I took with me.  Taking it increased my score, so I gather that it's one of the treasures I'm seeking.  There's also a dry garden bed, which I'm thinking I need to water, but at the moment I don't have anything appropriate.

The mansion has two entrances.  On the north side is some ivy, which I was able to climb up to a balcony.  Inside was a master bedroom, and a bathroom.  I tried flushing the toilet, and it spun around so rapidly that I was knocked over and cracked my head open on the bathtub.  A "10th level cleric" came by and resurrected me, and I found myself back outside the wall with an empty inventory.  I was able to buzz myself back into the mansion grounds, and I tried climbing the ivy again.  This time I tried to test climbing back down, which was also fatal.

There's something very undignified about being resurrected
by a bus driver.

I wonder if maybe I can jump down?  I dismissed it at the time, but it's worth a shot.

On my next try I gave up on the ivy, and decided to go through the front door.  The only way to open it was to knock, and the game gave me a very unusual greeting.  I hadn't mentioned that the guy on the other end of the buzzer asked me about my sexual preference.  I'm not sure if it factors in elsewhere in the game, but it does get a mention here.

I've been called worse.

Once I was inside the house, the door slammed behind me and couldn't be opened.  This game just loves cutting off the path back to the start...  In the foyer was a bowl of candy, which I took with me and resisted the urge to eat.  Exploring west, I found a closet containing a wet suit with fully functioning scuba gear.  I was pretty skeptical about finding a place where this would come in handy, but I put it on anyway.

North of the foyer was the main hall, with passages heading east and west, and stairs leading upwards.  The game mentioned that there was a horrible noise coming from upstairs.  There was also an old chair, which I took with me.  It had a plaque on the back that said it was made by Louis XIV, so I figured it was another treasure.

I explored west, finding a dark hall with a safe.  The safe was shut, and had a combination lock with three two-digit numbers.  The game gave 10-10-10 as an example, and I tried it.  I wasn't surprised that it didn't work, but I was a little surprised that the game acknowledged that I was being a bit of a smart-arse by trying it in the first place.  Haunt responds to quite a lot of things I wouldn't expect, and generally has something amusing to say.

West of the safe was an art room, with a modern art painting inside.  I tried to take it, only to be told that it was worthless.  I held on to it anyway.

East of the main hall was a library, with a bust of Homer and shelves full of books.  I tried to read a book, only to be told that all of the pages were "virtual", and that the book disappeared.  I tried again, and found a book about vampires, and how to kill them.  Just the usual methods, nothing too revelatory here.  Trying another book, I was told that the rest were all made out of wood, so I left the library and headed upstairs.  (The stairs creaked ominously, and I started to think that I'd only get a few shots at using them before they'd collapse or something.  I went up and down them about a dozen times, with no trouble, so it's probably just there for spooky ambience.)

The upper hall had passages heading north, west, and south.  The stairs also continued up, but I decided to save those for later.  First I went south, into a dark room with a casket.  I'd already been warned by the book to expect vampires, but I went and stupidly opened the casket anyway.  Sure enough, I found Dracula inside.  He got up to try and bite me, but I quickly left the room, and he didn't follow.  When I went back in he was back in his casket.  I didn't have anything I could obviously use to kill him, so I left him where he was.  (Dracula's been in quite a number of adventure games that I've played for the blog.  He'd have to be a front-runner for the most frequently recurring character or monster.)

Exploring east, I was getting closer to the "horrible noise" I'd heard from downstairs.  Eventually, at a dead end, I recognised it as an Alice Cooper record.  Seriously, when it comes time for me to give this game its RADNESS Index, can I knock it down a couple of points for this?  Alice Cooper rules, particularly in the 1970s.  He sings about getting it on with skeletons.  Anyway, there was a wire running along the floor, so I pulled it and the noise stopped.  I'm not sure if this affected anything.

North of the upper hall was a "dull room", with a closet to the west.  Inside the closet was some gold (another treasure) and a ventilation shaft leading south.  Of more interest, though, was a skeleton and a note scrawled on the wall.

All of our dads are skeletons, deep down.

Plot development?  In a game from the 1970s?  I'd come into this game expecting another treasure hunt with arbitrary puzzles.  For the most part that's what Haunt has given me, but there are hints that it has deeper mysteries to unravel.  Who is Bas?  Is it me?  What's the deal with the illness, and the crop?  I'm intrigued by all of this, and I really hope that it plays out further and isn't just a bit of story detail thrown in at the beginning.

I explored the ventilation shaft heading south, which led into a maze of ducts.  The maze was small though, and the areas easily differentiated by their exits.  It didn't take me long to navigate, and I soon found myself in a ventilation shaft over the torture chamber. I couldn't open the grill to get down though, so there was nothing to do but retrace my steps back to the upper hall.

I decided to go upstairs, and found myself in a laboratory.  There was something under a sheet, and a lever on the wall.  First I tried looking under the sheet, but either the game wouldn't let me or I couldn't find the right verb-noun combination.  So I threw the lever, and was not entirely surprised when a monster emerged from under the sheet.

I really want to know what he does for a trick.

The monster's "trick or treat" greeting was a little more unexpected.  Luckily I had a bowl of candy on me, and when I gave it to the monster he left, crashing through the west wall.  I followed through the hole, and found a bar.  There was no alcohol, but there was a bottle of turpentine (or "turps" as its known around these parts) which I took with me.

I had an instant brainstorm upon finding the turps, and decided to pour it on the modern art painting that I'd found.  The paint washed off to reveal a valuable Rembrandt underneath; I'd found another treasure.

I was somewhat stuck at this point, and did quite a bit of stumbling about achieving not much of anything.  Eventually I found myself back in the library, and on a whim I tried turning the bust of Homer.  This opened a secret door to the east.  I wasn't able to get through while wearing my wetsuit, so I took it off and slipped through the opening into a secret room with stairs leading down.

The stairs led down to a wine cellar, where I found a diamond corkscrew (another treasure, which brought my tally up to five, I think).  I went exploring among the empty wine racks, and was lost in a maze.  The racks apparently stretched on infinitely in all directions, and try as I might I couldn't find any way out.  Just as I was about to give up (and the game started mocking me) I found a trapdoor in the floor.  It was open, so I slipped through.

It led down into a room, where I found a drunk ghost.  Despite being drunk, the ghost blocked every single action I tried to make.  Even basic commands like INVENTORY and LOOK were unavailable to me.

This game has a lot of euphemisms for being drunk.

I figured that, whatever the solution was, it must be completely divorced from my inventory.  At least I hoped so, as I couldn't look to see what I had.  I tried all sorts of things, including various levels of invective and a quote from Thor: Ragnarok, before hitting on the amusingly simple solution: BOO.  The ghost disappeared, and I was able to continue on.

Beyond I found the torture chamber that I'd seen from the ventilation shaft earlier.  Someone rushed out and closed the door behind them.  Of more interest was the supposedly sexy female who was imprisoned there.  I set her free and, well, one thing led to another...

I am a female lover, after all.

I opened the duct and crawled my way back to the main house, but at that point I was really quite stuck as to what to do next.  I was also well overdue to write this post, so I decided to call it a day and switch off.  I don't think I have anywhere else left to explore inside the main area of the house, but I also don't know how to get back outside.  Well, I guess dying gets me back outside, but it also loses points, and dumps my inventory, so that's not a good solution.  And I'm pretty sure that I do need to get back outside to beat the game.

One thing I haven't mentioned is that while I was doing all of this exploring, my character was slowly going mad.  I'd occasionally get a message about how the house was getting to me.

On my next game I'm going to try STAY SANE or DON"T GO MAD.
You never know.

The messages gradually ramped up in intensity, until I went completely mad and killed myself.  (Oddly enough, this is the second game in a row that I've played with suicide as a theme; Space II had it as well.)  After I died I was resurrected by a passing cleric, and was able to continue playing, and had no more problems with going crazy.  I'm not sure what effect it has on the game, aside from a loss of points.

That's as far as I've gotten with Haunt.  It's quite fun so far, and has enough of its own style and quirks to stand out from a lot of its contemporaries.  If it actually follows through on its promise it could be a real stand-out, and a game that's well ahead of its time.  I suspect that it won't quite get there, but I'm still holding out hope.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Rogue: An Obligatory Mid-Week Post

It took me a bit longer to get Haunt up and running than I thought it would - I had to figure out how to use Telnet - and to be honest my blogging fervour has somewhat subsided from the insane level it was at back in April.  So I haven't been playing any games other than Rogue, which while still fun for me is death for the blog.  I'm determined to keep up my twice-a-week schedule, though, so I'll half-arse a quick post and hope that you're all satisfied.

I've lost another 17 characters since my last post.  This includes five deaths on the first dungeon level, 9 in the mid-levels, one to a Yeti while grinding for XP on level 15, and one to a hung game.  This is becoming a real problem:  I've had a few games that just became completely unresponsive to my keyboard commands.  I've taken some steps to fix it, but I might be violating Rogue etiquette.

Of those 17 games, I had one that was really promising.  I found a two-handed sword, and managed to enchant it a couple of times.  I was wearing plate mail armour.  I had a stash of potions of restore strength, and a Strength score of 18/78.  (Rogue uses the odd D&D rule where fighters with an 18 Strength get to roll percentile dice to see if they get any extra bonuses).  I had a scroll of scare monster, which I was pretty stoked about.  And I had a ring of slow digestion, among other things.  That's a pretty hard equipment list to beat.

By the time I got down to dungeon level 13, I'd also amassed nine portions of food, and between that and the ring I had plenty of time to grind for XP.  At this point - and this is what I meant about the breach of Rogue etiquette - I backed up my save file.  I gather that it's not the done thing among Rogue aficionados, but I wasn't doing it for the purpose of cheating.  This was a failsafe against the game hanging on me.  I'm happy enough to start over when I legitimately fail, but this was a character that I didn't want to lose to technical issues.

I spent a good long while on level 13, doing laps of the level and fighting Quasits, Centaurs, Yetis and other weaker monsters.  I was wearing bad armour so that my plate mail would be protected from Rust Monsters, but I didn't run into any problems.  Advancement is slow though - the strongest monster there is the Yeti, which is worth 50 XP.  I managed to advance to level 11, which requires 5,160 XP.  Getting to level 12 requires double that, which seems like a pretty tough ask.  You could do it quickly enough fighting monsters like Dragons and Purple Worms, but survival is no guaranteed thing against those.  By the time I reached level 11 I only had three meals left, so it was time to move on.

I was extremely confident about my chances, and the first few levels below 13 went by like a breeze.  Unfortunately, it all came unstuck on level 16.  I looked at the list of monsters to see which was introduced on that level: Invisible Stalkers.  I scoffed, feeling that I could handle them without trouble.  Of course, when I did meet one it was nothing but trouble.  I noticed I was getting hit, and started flailing about at random trying to find my assailant.  I finally got a hit in, but by then it had reduced me to about 15 hit points.  I was getting desperate at that point, so I dropped my scroll of scare monster on the ground.  I had wanted to save it for the Xorns, Umber Hulks and worse monsters lower down, but I wasn't going to reach those depths unless I did something now.

With the scroll at my feet, I knew that I couldn't be damaged, so I made my attack.  The thing is, you attack in Rogue by moving.  And the Invisible Stalker wasn't in the square where it had previously been.  So I moved off of my protective scroll, breaking the magic, and promptly got killed.  Chalk up another dumb way to die in Rogue.

I was really banking on that scroll, I must admit.  I've found plenty of them before, but never more than one in a game, and I have a tendency to read scrolls before identifying them.  With the scroll of scare monster, that's a complete waste.  On this game I encountered a Zombie with the scroll on the ground between us, and I noticed the Zombie move around it to get to me.  That's not normal monster behaviour in Rogue, and I quickly realised to save that scroll rather than use it.  Sure enough, it was what I thought it was.  Not that it helped me much, but I'll be keeping an eye out for more such scrolls.

I don't have any other images from the above game for this post, so here one of me fleeing from an absurdly powerful cadre of monsters on dungeon level 3.  I'd tested out a polymorph wand on a Kobold in the bottom left room, turning it into a series of monsters that were far too strong for me.  The last monster I turned it into before running out of wand charges was the worst possible: a Purple Worm.  So I fled all the way across the dungeon, avoiding monsters and luckily finding the stairs.  It was a narrow escape, not that the character got much further.

The sort of tension that only a roguelike can create.

I expect to post about Haunt on Sunday, but I wouldn't bank on it.  I run D&D on Saturday nights now, which leaves me pretty knackered the next day.  Plus I'm determined to beat Rogue, and it's been monopolising all of my gaming time.  I'm not sure how much more content I can eke out of it before winning, and winning seems a long way off.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Rogue: Death, Genocide, and Data Compilation

I've just recently started up a new D&D campaign using video chat, so that's eaten up a decent amount of my time in the last few days.  As such, I haven't done much gaming aside from the odd bit of Rogue.  I'd like to be able to say that I've gotten better at it, but I'm not all that sure that Rogue is a game that you can get better at.  Sure, eventually you learn to stop doing a bunch of dumb things, but eventually that plateaus and you're pretty much at the mercy of the game's RNG and the inventory that it bestows upon you.

Since my last post, I've lost another 23 adventurers, for a grand total of 53.  Of those 23, nine have been lost on the 1st level before leveling up.  Five have been lost in the mid-levels, usually to Centaurs.  Four of those failures happened in the teen levels.  Twice I've had the game freeze up, and been forced to reboot; on one of those I was on level 19, which was particularly tooth-gnashing.  Once I died on level 3 because I forgot to eat, and a Giant Ant killed me after I had fainted from hunger.  My best game so far saw me descending all the way to level 20, but I was predictably killed after being confused by an Umber Hulk.  On the last game I had, I was about to be killed by a Centaur, so in desperation I used a polymorph wand on it.  It turned into a Purple Worm, which killed me even faster.

I haven't discovered much else in the way of magic items, except for this one amazing find:

Ah yes, genocide.  That well known boon.

A Scroll of Genocide!  With this item, you can wipe any one type of monster completely from the dungeon for that game.  I knew these scrolls existed in later roguelikes, but I had no idea that they were in Rogue itself.  They must be a pretty rare drop, I've only ever found one of them in 53 games.  Anyway, I didn't hesitate too much to nominate Umber Hulks as my target of genocide.  Unfortunately, I didn't manage to progress much deeper than level 10 in that game, so I never got to reap the benefit of my mass-killing.  It was still pretty satisfying though.

One thing I've continued to do is collect data on what levels the various monsters appear on.  Today I compared my data to that extracted from the code by Ahab over at Data Driven Gamer, and filled in the gaps for the monsters I hadn't encountered yet.  The ranges I came up with matched those posted by Ahab almost exactly.  I took those numbers, and made a list that goes level by level, showing what monsters can appear.  It's a little bit like cheating, but from earlier games of Rogue I already had a fair idea of what the monsters were.

Dungeon Level Monsters Encountered
1 Kobold, Jackal, Bat, Snake, Hobgoblin
2 Kobold, Jackal, Bat, Snake, Hobgoblin, Floating Eye
3 Kobold, Jackal, Bat, Snake, Hobgoblin, Floating Eye, Giant Ant
4 Kobold, Jackal, Bat, Snake, Hobgoblin, Floating Eye, Giant Ant, Orc
5 Kobold, Jackal, Bat, Snake, Hobgoblin, Floating Eye, Giant Ant, Orc, Zombie
6 Kobold, Jackal, Bat, Snake, Hobgoblin, Floating Eye, Giant Ant, Orc, Zombie, Gnome
7 Jackal, Bat, Snake, Hobgoblin, Floating Eye, Giant Ant, Orc, Zombie, Gnome, Leprechaun
8 Bat, Snake, Hobgoblin, Floating Eye, Giant Ant, Orc, Zombie, Gnome, Leprechaun, Centaur
9 Snake, Hobgoblin, Floating Eye, Giant Ant, Orc, Zombie, Gnome, Leprechaun, Centaur, Rust Monster
10 Hobgoblin, Floating Eye, Giant Ant, Orc, Zombie, Gnome, Leprechaun, Centaur, Rust Monster, Quasit
11 Floating Eye, Giant Ant, Orc, Zombie, Gnome, Leprechaun, Centaur, Rust Monster, Quasit, Nymph
12 Giant Ant, Orc, Zombie, Gnome, Leprechaun, Centaur, Rust Monster, Quasit, Nymph, Yeti
13 Orc, Zombie, Gnome, Leprechaun, Centaur, Rust Monster, Quasit, Nymph, Yeti, Troll
14 Zombie, Gnome, Leprechaun, Centaur, Rust Monster, Quasit, Nymph, Yeti, Troll, Wraith
15 Gnome, Leprechaun, Centaur, Rust Monster, Quasit, Nymph, Yeti, Troll, Wraith, Violet Fungus
16 Leprechaun, Centaur, Rust Monster, Quasit, Nymph, Yeti, Troll, Wraith, Violet Fungus, Invisible Stalker
17 Centaur, Rust Monster, Quasit, Nymph, Yeti, Troll, Wraith, Violet Fungus, Invisible Stalker, Xorn
18 Rust Monster, Quasit, Nymph, Yeti, Troll, Wraith, Violet Fungus, Invisible Stalker, Xorn, Umber Hulk
19 Quasit, Nymph, Yeti, Troll, Wraith, Violet Fungus, Invisible Stalker, Xorn, Umber Hulk, Mimic
20 Nymph, Yeti, Troll, Wraith, Violet Fungus, Invisible Stalker, Xorn, Umber Hulk, Mimic, Vampire
21 Yeti, Troll, Wraith, Violet Fungus, Invisible Stalker, Xorn, Umber Hulk, Mimic, Vampire, Dragon
22 Troll, Wraith, Violet Fungus, Invisible Stalker, Xorn, Umber Hulk, Mimic, Vampire, Dragon, Purple Worm
23 Wraith, Violet Fungus, Invisible Stalker, Xorn, Umber Hulk, Mimic, Vampire, Dragon, Purple Worm
24 Violet Fungus, Invisible Stalker, Xorn, Umber Hulk, Mimic, Vampire, Dragon, Purple Worm
25 Invisible Stalker, Xorn, Umber Hulk, Mimic, Vampire, Dragon, Purple Worm

I'm hoping that the information above can help me to plan out my runs a bit better.  Already I can see that the strength-draining Giant Ants are gone at level 13, and the armour-draining Rust Monsters are gone at level 19.  Looking at that list, it appears to me that level 13 is the safest place to grind for experience.  It's after the Giant Ants, but before the level-draining Wraiths, which can make advancement almost impossible.  The major nuisances on level 13 are Rust Monsters, but even when wearing no armour you have a good chance of surviving against the monsters there.  Next time I find a Ring of Slow Digestion I'm going to park on that level and earn as much XP as possible until my food reserves run low.  Hopefully, that will be my key to victory, or at least a run that gets me deeper than level 20.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Game 45: Space II (1979)

Space II: The Even More Final Frontier

It's another first for the blog today, as I reach what I believe is the first commercial sequel to a game that I've played before.  I played the original Space back in 2015, and didn't much care for it.  I even somewhat question its credentials as a CRPG: most of the game is spent trading on the stock market and mining planets, and while you generate a lot of stats in character creation, it's not really apparent what effect they have on anything.  It feels more like a loose collection of minigames than anything else.

The original Space was created by Steve Pederson and distributed by Edu-Ware.  Space II, on the other hand, seems to have had no input from the first game's creator.  It was apparently created by a student named David Mullich while he was still studying at California State University.  Mullich will go on to have a pretty decent career in the games industry, creating The Prisoner from 1980, and working on a bunch of games in the Heroes of Might and Magic series.  He also helped create the Empire series, which was a replacement for Space and Space II when they got sued off the shelves by Game Designers' Workshop for infringing on the copyright of the Traveller tabletop RPG.

The original Space offered five scenarios that you could take your character through: "Explore", in which you explore alien planets for resources; "First Blood", in which you can engage another character in one-on-one arena combat; "Trader", in which you fly back and forth transporting passengers and cargo between planets; "Defend", in which you defend a colony from alien invaders; and "High Finance", in which you play the galactic stock market.  None of those are as exciting as they sound.

Space II adds two new scenarios: "Psychodelia" and "Shaman".  It also has the character creation program, just in case you bought Space II without already owning Space.

Choosing a scenario.
Character creation is exactly the same as it was in Space.  You begin as an 18-year-old who is drafted into the military, and you must play through at least four years of training, choosing your various fields of study.  Stats are generated (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Education, and Social Standing), and you also get a physical and psychological evaluation.  The game will tell you pretty quickly if your character isn't good enough, and gives you the option of starting over.  I must have created over a dozen character before I got one that wasn't hopeless: all of my others were legally blind, deaf, suffering from terminal heart conditions or completely psychotic.  I swear, the Space universe is possessed of the unhealthiest populace I've ever seen in a video game.  Eventually I created a character who was hale and hearty. Sure, he was a pervert who should apparently be kept away from natives and animals, but everyone has their flaws.  I set about training him up in gun combat, brawling and knife fighting, because a sex creep with a knowledge of guns never did anything bad for society.  It was time for Maximus Rocker to be unleashed on the galaxy.

Did you have to highlight it?

The first of the scenarios that I chose was "Psychodelia", in which you go to the Zintarean colony to experiment with various recreational drugs.  The end goal here is to increase your stats, but there are plenty of risks involved.  Here's a warning: this section gets into drug use and suicide attempts.

The sales pitch and the disclaimer.

There are six drugs to choose from: spice (the obligatory Dune reference), quack, OJ, Pepsi, nag and surge.  Every time I've played it I had to start with spice, as you need to build up your experience to try the drugs further down the list.  They don't seem to provide much in the way of a different experience, but it's likely that they have more of a statistical effect on your character.

What's a duck's favourite drug? Quack cocaine!

You choose your drug and a dosage in milligrams, and then your character has a trip which is represented by odd phrases that pop up all over the screen.  Occasionally you get a warning that "something is after you", and are asked if you want to fight back.  Sometimes it's just the DTs, and in that case it's best not to fight.  Once, it was space pirates, and they made off with half of my life savings while I was tripping balls.  Other times I've fought back, and beaten the space pirates up, but as you'll see below fighting back isn't always advisable.

At least it was only half.

Sometimes the things that are after you are the police, who will arrest you in a drug bust, and drag you to court.  Given that the Zingarean colony is the "homeworld of the galaxy's supply of recreational drugs", the narcs must have a really easy job of finding people to bust.  Normally you just get charged for possession of drugs, but if you fight back you'll also get charged with resisting arrest.  The fine is usually a few thousand credits, but you can lower that by bribing the judge.  If a bribe attempt fails, though, your fine will be greatly increased, and for me it seemed to fail more often than not.  I wonder if the Social Standing score has an effect on that?

Receiving my sentence.

The game says that doing drugs has a chance of increasing your stats, but I never experienced it.    Occasionally good aliens come down, and it says that they "increase your memory", but it didn't make any of my scores go up.  Mostly I just saw my physical stats gradually deteriorating.  If my character made a suicide attempt, they would drop drastically, and suicide attempts are pretty frequent.  I think they happen more often if you try to fight when you have the DTs.  Most of the time they're unsuccessful, but once my character did kill himself and it dumped me right out of the game.  I don't know if I've ever played a game where that's happened before, and I'm sure that I care to do so again.

Your mind begins in a normal state, and as you get into stronger drugs it advances to "self-transcendent" and "cosmic consciousness".  Some weird things start happening at that stage.  I'll list some of the outcomes I've had below.

  • Sometimes you spend a night in social services, which costs a few hundred credits.
  • Once my character flipped out and killed everybody around me, after which the screen filled up with words like "axe" and "Manson".  I got off with a massive fine, which seems pretty lenient.
  • I've had my character get delusions of being the messiah, which resulted in him receiving a few hundred credits worth of offerings.
  • At one point I was contacted by the "lord of many of your worlds", and asked to commune with him.  I answered "yes", and spent ten years talking to a figment of my imagination.

Another week of lockdown and this will be me.

I suspect that there may be some positive outcomes to be found, but after many attempts at this scenario my character had very little to show for it except for much lower stats and an empty bank balance.  There are some interesting results, but I suspect that there's no victory to be achieved here, and it's not worth playing if you actually want your character to improve.

The "Shaman" scenario sees you going to an alien planet to do some missionary work, not that you'd know it at first.  When it begins you're in an ATV, cruising through a forest landscape as trees whiz past you.

Cruising in my ATV.

You can't control the ATV as far as I can tell; all you can do is press a key to stop it and get out.  Once out of the ATV, you're in the wilderness, which is laid out in a grid of 10x10 sectors, with each sector being made up of 10x10 squares.  The entire wilderness is 100x100, which at first seems pretty daunting to explore.  It's not so bad once you realise that the game tells you what's in each sector as soon as you enter.  You just need to explore the sectors in a lawnmower fashion, and soon enough you'll find all of the towns, shrines, and other areas of interest.

Of course, that would be a lot easier without all of the hostile natives.  As you explore you're likely to be attacked by peasants, warriors, shamans and sorcerers.  Maximus Rocker had good physical stats, and was able to take care of the first three without much trouble, but those sorcerers were tough.  At the start of battle you'll be asked whether you want to fight physically, or with magic.  I had a magic score of 0 at the beginning, so I had to fight my early battles with my fists.  Combat is completely automated; there's nothing to do except watch the scores of each opponent go down, and occasionally answer yes or no when asked if you want to continue.  There's no consequence for leaving a battle, or even for being defeated.  I suspect that it might lower your stats, as winning battles sees them gradually increase.

Fighting a shaman.

I spent much of my time early on in this scenario stumbling through the forest, getting into fights, and wondering what the point of it all was.  Eventually though, I found a town, and the options given there led me to the conclusion that I was some sort of galactic missionary.  The goal in town is to minister to your flock, and increase the number of your disciples (which begins at 0).

The town menu.

The towns have different types of societies: I encountered military, horticultural and agricultural.  I'm not sure what difference it makes, but I'd guess that the societies react differently to the various religious practices you can perform.  The stats underneath tell you how well you're doing.  At one point I had a popularity of 6%, and the natives would stone me every time I stepped outside.

Attending the seminary allows you to increase various skills such as healing, astrology, and alchemy.  At the market you can buy charms and idols, some different types of drugs, and even an ATV and fuel.  You can also donate money to build temples.  I don't know what increasing the number of temples in town does, although I think it might increase the amount of credits you earn every turn.

Something tells me most missionaries would not approve of these options.

There are numerous ways to administer the faith, and grow your number of disciples.  Doing so takes you from the rank of Witch Doctor to Medicine Man to Priest to High Priest, and increases your score in magic.  I'll go through the options below.

  • White Magic: This gives you the option of either healing the sick or making a prediction.  If you choose healing, you'll be presented with someone who has the black plague, or "the dribbles", among other diseases.  You either succeed or fail based on your healing skill, and success will increase your disciples.  Sometimes you will be called on to exorcise a demon, If you choose prediction, you have to predict which of the four cardinal directions will bring the best farming, mining, or looting.  You're presented with a range of percentages, but I never did figure out what they meant.  Usually I would just pick a direction at random and hope for the best.
  • Black Magic; You'll be asked to "liquidate" a peasant, warrior, shaman or sorcerer.  The combats here are no more or less difficult than those in the wilderness.  After attaining the rank of High Priest I was able to deal with the sorcerers with little trouble.
  • Drug Usage: Here you can take any of the drugs available at the market: Charisma Drugs, Trance Drugs, and Demon Drugs.  None of them seemed to benefit me in any way.
  • Sacrifices: You can sacrifice either food or people.  Every time I tried to sacrifice food, Maximus Rocker would insist on sacrificing people (probably due to his psychological problems).  Usually the natives are horrified by this, but every time I had them agree to do it the game crashed, so I avoided this option.
  • Preaching: You can preach fire and brimstone, serenity, and family worship.  I spammed fire and brimstone to get my followers up, and I think that's how I ended up with a 6% popularity.
  • Calendric Rituals: You can hold services for harvest, midwinter, or midsummer, depending on the time of year.  You can also hold an astrological service at any time.  Doing all of these were pretty harmless, and I used them a lot to get my numbers up.
  • Consulting Oracles: Every time I tried this I got a message telling me that the oracle was a no show.

Maximus Rocker has a mind of his own.

It didn't take me long to figure out how to succeed in gaining disciples: you just need to spend plenty of time in the seminary advancing your skills.  It takes a few years of your character's life, but in real world time it's pretty quick.  I advanced each of the skills available there twenty times, and after that my religious ministrations were very successful, and I was able to become a high priest in no time.  I couldn't really see the point of doing so, though; you don't get to keep any of the money that's earned, and I don't think your increased magic stat can affect anything in the other scenarios.  Much like "Psychodelia", it didn't seem to me that "Shaman" was a worthwhile way to advance my characters.

I decided to "lawnmow" the game world, just to see if I could find anything else.  I came across my ATV, where I'd left it.  I found a bunch of other towns.  I found a spaceport, which you can use to leave the planet and save your character's status.  Finally, just as I was thinking there was nothing left to do, I found a shrine.  Later on I discovered that you can't enter until you've reached the rank of Priest, but at this point I was able to go in.  Inside I was confronted by a demon.  It's stats were higher than mine, but fighting it with my magic I was still able to defeat it.

About to fight a demon in a shrine.

After the battle I found a key, and the shrine disappeared.  Well, if there was a key there had to be a lock somewhere, so I kept on searching.  Soon enough I found another shrine, and another key.  And not long after that, in sector 8-5, I came to the foot of the Holy Mountain.

Finding the Holy Mountain.

I tried to enter, but I was told that I needed three keys.  I figured there'd be one more shrine for me to find, but there were another three, for five shrines in total.  I entered them all, and killed all of the demons before returning to the Holy Mountain and getting my victory message.

Eternal life without shoes?

It's not the most verbose ending, but it's somewhat gratifying to find that the Space series does have some sort of an end goal beyond amassing more and more wealth.  I wasn't able to access Maximus Rocker after this, unfortunately, so I didn't get to take that eternal life into the other scenarios.  I guess he spends all that time on a mountain, or in the presence of god, or whatever it is religious people do when they achieve transcendence.

Taken as a whole, there's a definite theme to Space II, which is something I'm not used to dealing with in games of this vintage.  Both scenarios see you achieving transcendence of a sort, or at least attempting to do so.  In one the means is via drugs, and in the other religion.  One leads to debt, potential suicide, murder, and other nasty repercussions.  The other leads to eternal life.  It strikes me as something of a backlash to the drug culture of the late 60s and early 70s, although I'm not sure how deliberate it was on David Mullich's part.  Regardless of his intentions, it gives Space II more complexity than the other games in this blog so far, at least thematically speaking.  As a game it's not quite such a success, but I should save that for the RADNESS Index.


Story & Setting: The story of a retired military person out to take drugs or become a missionary is certainly novel, and it earns a little bit extra due to the minor thematic depth I mentioned above.  The setting is quite piecemeal, but there are amusing little snippets and suggestions here and there that hint at something more.  Ultimately it doesn't cohere, though.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: There are plenty of characters in these two scenarios: the police, Judge Quentin Qualude, the space pirates, the various natives both hostile and friendly.  There's very little that can be done in the way of interaction though, and none of them display much in the way of personality. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: It's a mostly text-based game, with some odd beeps here and there (the drug bust siren is particularly startling).  The writing raised a smile now and then, but not enough for me to give it an extra point. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Combat: The combat in both scenarios plays out automatically, and there's not much you can do about it.  It also has a curious lack of consequences, which does make it feel fairly pointless.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: In terms of your statistics and how they affect things, the game keeps things fairly opaque, so it's hard to know how well they're being implemented.  The controls for the game are mostly a series of menu options and yes/no questions, but it performs adequately enough. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: "Psychodelia" doesn't have any sort of end goal that I'm aware of, and if it does the random nature of the scenario makes it very difficult to achieve.  "Shaman" has some minor challenge at the beginning, but once I figured out what I was doing it was very easy to complete.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Fun: If I'd stopped playing this on the first day, I'd definitely be giving this one a minimum score.  The randomness of "Psychodelia" doesn't make for enjoyable gameplay, and I had no idea what I was doing in "Shaman".  Finding the end-game of "Shaman" gave me a small amount of fun though.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 0.

The above scores total 12, which doubled gives a RADNESS Index of 24.  That puts it one point higher than Space, surprisingly, but I do generally enjoy games that have an ending more than those that don't.  Overall, Space II is sitting equal 39th out of 51 games, and equal 16th out of 21 CRPGs.  As for the question of whether it truly qualifies as a CRPG, the "Shaman" scenario puts that to bed.  It has level advancement and stat-based combat, so I'd say it definitely makes the cut.

NEXT: I'm still playing Rogue, obviously.  Next on my chronological list is Haunt, another mainframe text adventure that sounds pretty wacky.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Back-Tracking: Dunjonquest: The Temple of Aphai (1979)

Temple of Apshai's TRS-80 title screen.

I don't have much of interest to write about Rogue right now (unless you'd like to read yet another list of my failures), and I haven't gotten around to starting Space II yet, so for today's post I'll be back-tracking, I'm afraid.  The game I'm returning to is Dunjonquest: The Temple of Apshai, which I initially covered back here.  I wasn't able to find a source for the TRS-80 version, so I played the port for Apple II.  The Digital Antiquarian made a copy available, though, so I went back to play the game in its original form.

The most obvious difference between the two versions is in the visuals.  The TRS-80 had very little in the way of graphics capabilities, and the Apple II port was a significant upgrade on that score.  On the TRS-80 the game is in black and white, and the character is represented by a symbol rather than the image of a person.  Likewise, all of the monsters are represented as + symbols, with no differentiation between them.  You need to keep an eye on the sidebar so that you know what you're fighting.

Combat remains the same, with a focus on balancing your attacks and fatigue.  One thing the TRS-80 version has that wasn't on the Apple II is a quick jolt of the screen when you take a hit, which is a nice visceral touch.

The only other mechanical difference I noticed between the two games is that the Apple II game saved your character between sessions.  That's not the case on the TRS-80: you need to keep a record of your stats somewhere, and enter them in every you time you start.  It also requires you to look in the manual to see the value of the treasures you found, but that's no different across ports.  The game crashed on TRS-80 when I tried to input more than 30,000 silver pieces as my total though (legitimately earned, might I add!).

Another reason that I wanted to back-track on Temple of Apshai is that I completely cheesed it the first time around, by abusing the character creation and making a super-strong character.  You might recall that I painstakingly took my first character through level 1 of the temple, only to find myself blocked at the entrance to level 2 by an Ant-Man that I was unable to defeat.  I must have tried to kill that Ant-Man twenty times before I finally lost that character.  I declared that the balance of the Apple II version was broken, and promptly blasted through the game with a character who had maximum stats, a magical sword and armour, and an absurd amount of experience.

I was determined not to do that on the TRS-80 version, if possible.  My one concession - for time-saving purposes - was that I considered my character to be "saved" once I left the dungeon.  I didn't want to have to go back and grind a character up again, at least not for the purposes of back-tracking.  I was pleased to discover that I had a lot less trouble this time around.  The Giant Ants that took me so long to kill on Apple II went down in a few hits.  The Ant-Men on level 2 were a pushover.  I didn't die at all on the first level of the dungeon, and on level 2 I was killed twice by traps.  Temple of Apshai has permadeath, but it's quite forgiving about it: when you die you might be eaten by monsters, but it's much more likely that one of three NPCs will find you and resurrect you at the cost of some treasure or magic items.

Fighting a skeleton on level 1 of the temple.

Things started to ramp up on level 3, where I died about half a dozen times.  None of those were permanent deaths, though, so I was feeling pretty good about the game difficulty.  On level 4, though, it got nasty, courtesy of my old friends the Ant-Men.

There are Ant-Men all over the Temple of Apshai; it is insect-themed after all.  They appear on every dungeon level, and I'm pretty sure that they're the only monster that scales in difficulty.  So on level 2 they get a little bit stronger, and they get stronger still on level 3.  On level 4, they become incredibly deadly, with multiple attacks that hit very hard.  More than once I had a character on full health go down in a single round to a level 4 Ant-Man.  I died dozens of times trying to fully explore that level.  I get that the game should be harder in its final stages, but this was a little too much.

Eventually I got through it though, even though my character properly died three or four times.  The contents of the dungeons remains identical across versions, except for one thing: the mantis statue with the emeralds in its eyes doesn't come to life and attack you.  On the TRS-80, you can just waltz up to it and take those emeralds no problem.  I'm not sure when the mantis trap was added to the game, but the Apple II port - released in 1980 - seems early enough in the game's life to be a good candidate.

At that point I decided to do a quick return to the Apple II version, to check if it really did have balance issues.  I keyed in my character's starting stats from the TRS-80, and entered the first dungeon.  Sure enough, the monsters went down pretty easily.  I progressed to level 2, and the Ant-Men there presented little difficulty.  I suspect that my initial foray on the Apple II was with a character who had a really low Strength score, and that the two versions are balanced pretty much identically.  The game being too hard for low-stat characters is a problem in itself, but it's a problem that seems to be universal to every version of the game.

In terms of the RADNESS Index, the Apple II version has better graphics, so I'm downgrading the Aesthetics score for the TRS-80 version to 1.  That gives it a still-respectable RADNESS Index of 38.  It's rated 6th overall for CRPGs, but if you're going to play a  version of that's not Temple of Apshai Trilogy, the Apple II port is a little better.

NEXT: I promise I'll have a post up on Space II in the middle of the week.