Saturday, April 3, 2021

Game 53: Maces & Magic - Balrog Sampler (1979)

Nothing this rad appears in the game.

Of all the games I've played for the blog, this has been one of the most difficult.  Not difficult in terms of completion: that nod probably goes to The Game of Dungeons v8, Moria, or Rogue. But in terms of getting the game running, and researching the history? Balrog Sampler has caused me all sorts of problems in those regards, and refreshing myself on the game - which I played through back in November - has been somewhat less than pleasant.

Balrog Sampler was originally called Dungeon (undoubtedly the most over-used word in titles in the CRPG genre so far), and published by Adventure International for the TRS-80. For an early game by such a famous developer there's surprisingly little written about it: I got pretty much all of this history from the CRPG Addict, who interviewed one of the creators a while back. That creator was one Richard Bumgarner, an x-ray technician who was one of three medical professionals that formed Chameleon Software to create CRPGs in their spare time. We still don't know who the other two were, as far as I know. Poor sales and some legal threats from TSR, the highly litigious publisher of Dungeons & Dragons, forced them out of the gaming industry after a few years.

Despite the short tenure and the obscurity of their creation, there is some historical significance to what they did.  Balrog Sampler is the first installment in the Maces & Magic series, one of the earliest attempts at a CRPG franchise.  It's also possible that it might be the first true text adventure/CRPG hybrid: to the best of my knowledge it seems that Eamon was released around the same time, but it's not known which of them came first.  There are sources that place both games in 1980 rather than 1979, so really it's all very uncertain.

Before I get started, I'm going to give some instructions on how to get this thing running. I don't normally bother with this sort of thing, but if any of you want to play this game I'd like to save you the arse-ache that I had to go through. Here it is, step-by-step:

  1. First, download the trs80gp emulator. You can find it here.  Normally I use trs32, but that one wasn't cutting it for this game.
  2. You also need to download trsdos13 to run the emulator. You can find it at this link, as When you run the emulator, set the trsdos13 file to drive 0 (under the Diskette menu at the top). That should get it going, but I am a little rusty on this early TRS-80 set-up, so I can't guarantee that there won't be some extra steps required.
  3. Set the emulator to run as a Model III in the File menu. (It might be set as that by default, I'm not sure.)
  4. Download these Balrog Sampler disks that I made. I had to split the files across two disks, because I noticed that the versions of the game that I was finding didn't include all of the required files. In fact, the size of all those files was too large to fit on one side of a TRS-80 disk, so I downloaded them all separately and split them in two. They can be found here.
  5. Load up the emulator. Put Balrog Sampler A in disk drive 1.
  6. Type BASIC at the prompt.
  7. You should see a prompt asking "How Many Files?" Type 8.
  8. When prompted for Memory Size, don't type anything. Just hit enter.
  9. At the Ready prompt, type RUN"START"
  10. You'll get a prompt that says "INTRODUCTION (Y/N)?" Hit whichever you like, though I do recommend watching the intro at least once.
  11. After the intro, you'll be told to put Disk B in Drive 0. Do exactly that, by putting the Balrog Sampler B file in disk drive 0 (replacing trsdos13.dsk.
  12. Hit enter after replacing the disk, and you should be good to go.
This title screen is relatively impressive in motion.

The first notable thing about this game is the Adventure International intro, which is a real production. It includes a rotating globe of the Earth, the AI logo turning into a train, and a little guy running after the train trying to catch up. It's fairly impressive for a system that technically doesn't have any graphics capabilities, but it does seem a bit wasteful. How much memory is this thing eating up?  All of the relevant files probably would have fit on one disk without it, which would have made things a lot easier for me.

The Woody Allen quote at the start points towards the
humourous tone that parts of the game display.

After the title screen, some stats are given for how many adventurers have died in this adventure. You're then asked if you want to load a saved game or use an experienced adventurer; I technically have a character that's finished the game already, and it's pretty tempting to use him to make going back through the game easier, but I can't remember things well enough to skip over them. If I'm going to write about this stuff, I'm going to have to slog my way through it all over again.

If you're making a new character, you get the option of buying some weapons.  The game actually asks if you want to see the list or not, which seems like an odd question until you get a look at how many weapons there are in the game.  The complete list of weapons comes to 80, with a lot of the usual selections as well as really odd stuff like war fans, crowbars and arbalests, and things I've never heard of like the oxtongue, jambiya, bich'hwa and bagh nakh. Every weapon has numbers indicating damage dealt, as well as a minimum Strength and Dexterity score required to effectively wield it. Unfortunately, you have to choose your weapons before you know what your stats will be, which seems like something of an oversight.

This might be the first CRPG that's gone beyond the
AD&D Player's Handbook for its weapon list.

After that you are asked to buy some armor, which doesn't have stat limitations, but each piece comes with a limit as to how many you can wear at a time. Every item has a weight score as well, so the amount of stuff you can carry is limited by your Strength score.

I'm not sure how much gold a character is meant to start with in this game, but on the version I have you are given well over 30,000 gold pieces to play with. I suspect that it's been cracked somewhere along the way, but given how much trouble I had getting it running I'm not going out and looking for a more authentic version. It's not actually that much of a help, to be honest, as you're only allowed a few weapons, and the armor you can use is limited as well.

A suspiciously large amount of gold for a starting character.

After you've bought your gear, you get a look at your character's attributes. The character is always called Ceron, and as far as I can tell there's no way to change it or select a different name. The six attributes are Strength, Intelligence, Luck, Constitution, Dexterity, and Charisma.

  • Strength determines how much stuff you can carry, and which weapons you can use without getting tired. If your Strength ever drops below 5 due to fatigue, you'll pass out and be easy pickings for whichever monsters are nearby.
  • Intelligence apparently determines whether you find secret doors, correctly identify potions, or notice other warning signs.
  • Luck is simply used to determine if certain situations go in your favour, which mostly happens in the background without you noticing.
  • Constitution functions like hit points.
  • Dexterity is used for things like climbing and balancing, and also determines which weapons you can use effectively. If you use a weapon for which you lack the required Dexterity, there's a chance you'll hurt yourself.
  • Charisma affects how some NPCs will react to you.

In addition there are experience points, which I'm pretty sure are awarded for solving puzzles and finding treasures, just like the points in loads of other adventure games. Language Level is also something I'm not sure about, though it may factor into NPC interaction and whether you can read certain messages.

The game proper begins with the exaggerated creaking of a door as you exit the general store (represented by large text), followed by a bit of set-up. Apparently the protagonist is an adventurer who has come to this place following a map, without any particular goal in mind (except, presumably, the accumulation of treasure).  With nothing better to do, the adventurer decides to head off in the direction of a castle in the distance, and the game begins.

Very little of this is relevant to the adventure to come.

I described the game above as a CRPG/text adventure hybrid, but the text adventure part is rather simplified. Rather than using a full parser, it works more like a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book, presenting a number of options for you to pick from. There are a number of commands you can execute at any time: you can (g)et or (l)eave objects, use an item from your (p)ack, look at your (s)tatus, (w)ait, or look at your (i)nventory.  Looking at your status at this point reveals that there are 1951 points required to fully complete the game.

The initial area is a forest that's bisected by a turbulent river. Trying to swim across the river at any point results in an instant death, There's not a lot to find on the west side where you start, just a cave where you can find some junk (a shackle chain, some mice, an iron rod), and a hill where you can meet a hermit. Sometimes you can't get anything out of him (presumably based on your Charisma), but if you're able to talk to him he'll tell you there's an entrance to "the underground world" on the other side of the river.

There are two ways across the river: a toll bridge and a fallen tree. Crossing the bridge is safe, but will cost you 5 gold pieces. You can try to cross by force, but the young man who collects the toll is apparently the "dungeon master's" nephew, and will blast you with lightning. The fallen tree is free to cross, but requires a roll against your Dexterity. Failure means you fall in the river to your death. It's risky, but in the dozens of times I tried it, it only happened once, so it's worth a shot if you happen to be poor.

There's a shack on the east side of the river that contains a ladder, some keys, a torch, a wooden wheel, and a shovel.  Further east is a building marked as the "Woodland Hills Bank". Inside, you can deposit gold pieces, or make a withdrawal. You can also do the same for inventory items, which - in the grand tradition of Colossal Cave Adventure and almost all of its offspring - is what you need to do with the treasures you'll find.  As in those games, you get points for finding treasures, and points for depositing them. The bank also has the game exit, which you can use when you're done playing.

I'm pretty sure trying to rob the bank is an instant death,
but I didn't try it this time.

Just north of the bank is an area of redwood forest. A gap in one of the trees leads down into the main dungeon, which is where the bulk of the game takes place. So much for that castle on the horizon...

I could probably knock this out in one very long post, but I think I'll take a break here.  The next post will cover the dungeon, and if I'm lucky I might be able to figure out the stuff I missed last time and finish the game with full points.