Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Game 161: The Stone of Telnyr (1990)

The game is called Telnyr I - The Stone of Telnyr or Telnyr Part I in most online databases, but on all screens in the game, it's just The Stone of Telnyr.

The Stone of Telnyr
Peter R. Boothman (developer); Brunswick Publications (publisher)
Released 1990 for Commodore 64
Date Started: 24 August 2014
Date Ended: 24 August 2014
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

The Stone of Telnyr, an independent title from an Australian developer, published in a disk magazine, may be the most obscure game I've played since beginning this blog. Except for its appearance in the GameBase64 database (whence I downloaded it), all references to it online are placeholders on gaming sites awaiting content (which I hate, by the way). I cannot find any information about the author, Peter R. Boothman. The publisher, Brunswick Publications, seems to have existed only for this game. And yet someone found it valuable enough to "crack" it--my download starts with an obnoxious splash screen from the team that accomplished this bold feat--and Boothman kept working on the series, churning out two or three sequels, each more obscure than the first one. It's odd to find such a mystery, even among independent games, so deep in the Golden Age.

The game begins. I guess the land's major problem is an inability to cross those mountains.
The back story, told in a file on the disk, is relatively goofy. I found it after winning the game (I autoloaded the program at first and didn't think to check the disk file for documents). In-game, the world appears to be just a high fantasy kingdom whose denizens want you to recover a magic stone from a dungeon. No fuss, no frills. The actual back story, however, presents Telnyr as a hidden island in the southwest Pacific Ocean, where a "freak combination of magnetic forces has created a virtually impenetrable area," keeping ships and planes from approaching it or even seeing it. (One wonders if J. J. Abrams played this game before creating Lost.) The mages of the island have an ability to suck in individuals from the real world to help with problems--much like Lord British does in Ultima--and they have recently done so as part of a quest to find the Stone of Telnyr and restore peace to an island overrun by monsters.

In basic gameplay and look and feel, Telnyr takes obvious inspiration from Ultima, but with far fewer features and a much smaller game world. Character creation consists only of assigning a name, after which the character appears in the wilderness, just north of the city of Telnyr, with 250 hit points, 30 gold, and 50 food. Food decreases by 10 every 100 steps, so just like Ultima, an early game goal is to get food stores up to a sustainable level.
I approach the island's one dungeon. I have a good complement of hit points, gold, and food, and I have the best weapon int he game.

The game is tiny, consisting of a relatively small island with one menu city (Telnyr), a mage's tower, and a dungeon. The dungeon is itself very small and completely linear. You could walk from the starting position to the endgame in something like 200 steps. Despite the size, it takes considerable time to actually win Telnyr, as the dungeon is extremely deadly and you have to grind your character to appropriate strength on wilderness creatures before braving its depths.

The only city is just a "menu town."

There are no levels in the game, and killing creatures does not reward you with experience. Everything depends on gold, which you use to buy progressively better weapons, to buy a stock of spells, and to rest at the inn--the only mechanism for increasing hit points, which increase of 5-15 for a 10-gold-piece stay.

Spells--which can only be cast in combat--are sold at the nearby mage's tower. There are four of them: "Confuse," "Strength," "Healing," and "Banish." "Banish" completely kills an enemy party, so it's naturally the most expensive, going for 100 gold a pop. "Strength" doubles your attack damage for the duration of combat. The other two have questionable value. "Healing," like all the other spells, can only be cast in combat, and you often lose more hit points during the round than you heal. I never saw the effects of "Confuse."

Casting a spell in combat. Spells serve as the game's only real "inventory."

The mage's tower also offers the ability to talk to the mage, where you learn about the main quest to recover the Stone of Telnyr from the dungeon.

The main quest.
Monsters are mostly unoriginal: orcs, rogues, robbers in the outdoors and ghosts, demons, giant bats, and giant spiders in the dungeon. They vary only in how hard they hit; there are no special attacks and enemies don't have spells.
Combat lies somewhere between Ultima and Phantasie in sophistication. You're taken to a separate screen with your enemies arrayed in front of you. You have options to (M)anually attack them one at a time, (A)uto attack repeatedly until one of you is dead, (C)ast a spell, (R)un away, or (G)ive gold to bribe them into leaving you alone.

Fighting some orcs.

Slain enemies drop gold, food, and spells, with an average value of around 20 gold pieces per combat, at least in the outdoor area. It takes a while to amass the 2000-3000 gold pieces you need to get a good complement of hit points, spells, food, and the best weapon (a crossbow) for the endgame.

The game's one interesting innovation is in the "library" in Telnyr, where you can read three tomes for 10, 100, and 200 gold pieces. The tomes reveal the coordinates of buried treasure that you can find with the sextant (40 gold pieces in the weapon shop). These treasure caches consist of various gold and spells that help propel you to the next level in your development.

Learning about the location of buried treasure . . .

. . . and finding it!

Once you can survive at least a couple of battles in the dungeon, character development becomes a little easier, as you find gold, spells, and food randomly on the dungeon floor. But whether in the dungeon or outdoors, it is easy to occasionally find yourself "backsliding"--losing more hit points in combat than the gold from the combat will replenish.

Inside the dungeon. Those yellow circles are caches of gold.

At first, I thought I'd be grinding for many hours to develop the character enough to take on the dungeon, but since the game offers no save feature, I figured it must be winnable in a smaller time frame than I was anticipating. It turns out that the stone is just sitting there at the end of the (short) dungeon maze, with no final battle in front of it, so you really just have to survive the 8-12 random battles that appear in the maze before the stone. This can be achieved with the right combination of "Banish" spells--which kill every enemy instantly at the beginning of combat--running away, and bribing. This is the only game in which I've considered those latter two options as viable role-playing decisions, but sometimes you just have to keep your eyes on the prize.

320 gold would allow me to rest and heal about 320 hit points. Each of these enemies is capable of doing about 75 hit points of damage to me before the end of the combat. Since 75 x 6 = 450 > 320, it makes sense mathematically.

When you grab the Stone of Telnyr, the game world dissolves:

The final screen recounts that you've been teleported back to the mage's castle and that the Stone's "teleporting powers will enable us to cross the mountains and trade with our neighbours." Isn't that the cutest main quest you've ever heard of? There's no Armageddon imminent, no evil wizard looking to rule the world--just a desire to stop being so isolated.

Approaching the end of my quest.

Anyway, the endgame screen seems to suggest that Telnyr I is just a prologue/demonstration project for a more extended game with a "huge playing area, sound effects, more spells, etc." More on this below.

The "winning" screen/second game announcement.

The best I can do on the GIMLET is a 15. It earns something in every category except NPCs, but the game really offers the minimal amount necessary in each category to be considered an RPG at all: character development consisting only of increased hit points; a selection of a few weapons and spells in the "equipment" category; less than 10 monster types and fairly rote combat. It does best (3) in the "economy" category, since everything is dependent on gold.

Still, it's a promising start for an independent developer. I fired up Telnyr II for a few minutes just to see if it lives up to the author's promises, and it does have a couple more spells ("Kill," "Teleport," "Revive"), multiple dungeons (some of which require keys to enter), potions, the ability to cast spells outside of combat, and other more advanced RPG features. Unfortunately, it looks like the one character creation option--the name--has been taken away, with every PC called "Nova."

Telnyr II has more elements and a different look and feel.

Let's talk a little about the sequels. The same database where I downloaded this game also has Telnyr II - The Golden Chalice and Telnyr III - The Four Runes. A file dated 1995 and inserted by the "crack team" on the first disk also alludes to a Telnyr IV. A throwaway line in one instruction file suggests that the games may have been offered via Loadstar, a Commodore 64 disk magazine based out of Louisiana.

The copyright date on the main screen of I is 1990 and the date on the main screen of III is 2000. Even though the C64 was essentially dead by 2000, the latter date is possible, as Loadstar continued to be published well into the 2000s. But the game is referenced in the 1995 file, and it seems unlikely that it would have been announced 5 years before its release, so I suspect the 2000 date on III is an aberration or an update. As for II, I can't find a whit of information about when it was published. There is no date on the copyright screen, in the disk documents, or on any online site that I can find. I've tentatively listed it as 1995--halfway between I and III--but since I suspect the III date is wrong, I think this is probably too late. As for IV, I can't find a single mention of it except on the "want list" of a Hungarian web site.

(The GameBase64 site indicates that Telnyr I was published in Loadstar #191 and the two sequels followed in 192 and 193. I haven't been able to find a full magazine index, but based on the few issue numbers and dates that I can find, it would appear that issues 191-193 wouldn't have been out until 2002, so something is wrong there.)

Given the relative sophistication of this game and the third one, I suspect Mr. Boothman released Telnyr just to prove that he could do it and see if there was any interest before tackling a more complex game. I look forward to trying his other offerings, and I hope I can eventually track him down and clear up some of these issues.

Speaking of series with promising sequels, the next game on the list is Warriors of Ras, Vol. 2: Kaiv. I thought the first game was promising, but lacking in a lot of RPG elements that apparently make an appearance in Vol. 2.

And I am still working on Captive. I've destroyed two more bases since my last post, but there just isn't a lot to blog about. I'll try to get another post out soon.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Game 160: Ultima: Escape from Mount Drash (1983)

The game title is abbreviated "Mt." everywhere but the title screen.

Ultima: Escape from Mount Drash
Keith Zabalaoui (developer); Sierra On-Line (publisher)
Released 1983 for Commodore VIC-20; ported to Windows in 2003
Date Started: 23 August 2014
Date Ended: 23 August 2014
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

This is the story as it's been told in plenty of places elsewhere: In 1983, Keith Zabalaoui wrote a 3-D dungeon run for the Commodore VIC-20 and had it published through Sierra. (Sources vary as to whether Zabalaoui wrote the game independently and then offered it to Sierra, or whether Sierra approached Zabalaoui with the basic idea of the game already in mind.) Zabalaoui was a friend and colleague of Richard Garriott (he has credits on Akalabeth, Ultima, and Ultima II), and Sierra had been Garriott's publisher for Ultima II. Garriott thus granted permission to slap the Ultima label on the otherwise-unrelated game. (Some sources say it was done without Garriott's consent, but this seems to have been debunked by Garriott himself.) For the subtitle, the publisher chose one of the random dungeons in the first Ultima: Mt. Drash.

Technically, the Ultima dungeon is the Mines of Mt. Drash.

By 1983, the VIC-20 market was in serious decline, and Drash couldn't even be played on a vanilla machine: it required an 8K memory expansion and a cassette reader (most VIC-20 games were sold on cartridge). Sierra never had any faith in the game, only advertised it once, in the July 1983 Compute!, and only produced about 3000 copies on cassette. Sales were low, unsold copies were destroyed, and for years Sierra denied that the game ever existed.

The game didn't even merit its own ad.
(For a longer summary debunking common myths, I highly recommend Jimmy Maher's May 2013 article at The Digital Antiquarian. Keith Zabalaoui went on to have a productive career, founding Atomic Games and serving as lead developer for well-received strategy games like the V for Victory series and the Close Combat series, the latter of which was apparently so realistic that the U.S. Marine Corps contracted with Atomic to produce tactical training games.)

Naming the game Ultima had been a cheap attempt to cash in on the growing fame of Garriott's series, and while this didn't work in the way Sierra intended, it ironically worked decades later. Over the years--particularly as Ultima fame grew--Drash became known as a famous "lost" game. When copies first started to emerge in the early 2000s--one famously discovered at the bottom of a cliff in Vancouver, where some retailer had dumped unsold games--they sold at auction for thousands of dollars. Only about a dozen or so original copies are currently known to exist. For most games, we don't even bother to tally the number of known physical copies, but the Ultima title has made Drash undeservedly famous.

The Museum of Computer Adventure Game History has this box, famously recovered from a trash heap at the bottom of a cliff in Vancouver.

The box image was taken from an ad for Ultima's Sierra re-release.
The consequences of this undeserved fame extend to my blog, where, for the sake of its Ultima pseudo-history, I am offering an entry on it despite it being 1) not an Ultima game and 2) not an RPG. It is specifically lacking all three of my core RPG elements: there is no character development, there is no inventory, and combat is entirely action-based. Your character has no attributes, never finds anything, never gets any stronger, and doesn't even have a name. To play, I took time to find a VIC-20 copy rather than the PC remake everyone else seems to play. This VIC-20 version was presumably copied off one of the recovered tapes, though I haven't yet found anyone taking credit for that.

The back story, which is not referenced in-game and has no impact on gameplay, is that you are the prisoner of "the evil, wretched Garrintrots" (an obvious and weird play on "Garriott") and must escape 15 levels of timed mazes. The levels get progressively harder as you make your escape. Starting on Level 5, for instance, you have to find one of two gems before you find the exit. Starting on Level 7, the maze's corridors no longer appear on the automap. Starting on Level 9, monsters no longer appear on the automap. On level 11, you lose your compass and position on the automap, and Levels 13 and 14 require you to find both gems.

Level 6 in Mount Drash. You can see the revealed part of the automap in the upper-right. The X's on the map are monsters and the diamonds are gems (I've retrieved the one in the upper-right corner). My character is the blue circle, and the exit is ahead of him in the upper-left corner.

By Level 8, you can still see the monsters and gems, but the corridors themselves no longer appear on the automap.
All 15 mazes have you start in the bottom-right and exit in the upper-left, with the two gems in the other two corners. You have only 99 seconds to complete the levels, which are randomly-generated for each new game. Because of the nature of the random generation, some of the levels are remarkably quick and easy--at least until the penultimate two levels, when the need to collect both gems means you're running around the entire dungeon and fighting the timer.

This gameplay could have been exciting as an action game, but the lack of any other features makes it fall flat. You don't even see monsters or gems in the 3D view--only on the automap (at least until Level 9). The game could have strengthened its ties to Ultima by using the same monsters, but alas the two games share only "gremlins." There are only four other monsters in Drash, and they are unique to the game: floating orbs, dancing demons, phantoms, and purple slimes. Functionally, the different monster "types" make no difference, as they either die in a single hit or kill you in a single hit.

Lunging at some kind of beholder thing. I'm on Level 10 here--note the absence of monster features on the automap.

Monsters move to intercept you as you near them in the maze. On levels after 9, when you stop seeing them on the map, you have to keep a finger on "C," ready to use a timed thrust the moment you abruptly switch to the combat screen. Mercifully, the timer pauses during combat.

Combat is blunt and dumb, slightly reminiscent of Crown of Arthain from a couple years prior. You face off against the foe in a side-view. He minces towards you, the speed increasing as the levels get higher. Your three moves are thrust, "counterthrust," and return to the "ready position." If there are any tactics associated with this--such as the need to ever return to the "ready position"--I don't see it. The trick to combat is more to do with timing than anything else: if you thrust right when the monster has closed about 4 or 5 steps, he'll immediately die. I found that if I missed this shot the first time, it was virtually impossible to kill him after that. He'd keep encroaching on me, and none of the flailing I did ever killed him. I understand the PC version is much easier.

You start the game with three "lives," and if a monster kills you, you lose one. Fortunately, this also removes the monster from the maze. If you lose all three lives, you get a quick message that you've failed, followed by a new maze on Level 1.

Losing a life.

Beyond this, the only tactics you have are in the form of three spells: "Blast" destroys the wall in front of you; "Sleep" puts all monsters to sleep for three turns (allowing you to walk over them); and "Teleport" moves you to a new location within the level. You can cast three spells per level and "Blast" only three times in the entire game. You don't really need any of them until the last three levels, when they become vital.

When monsters aren't on the screen, the game displays your current rank, from "Qwimby" to "Questor," with a "Cadet" somehow outranking a "Corporal" on the way. I have no idea what a "Qwimby" is supposed to be; The Simpsons hadn't aired yet, so no help there.

Level 15, the last one, has no gems and no maze--just a long, winding corridor with about 10 combats, culminating in a flashing screen and a message that you've achieved "Questor" level. The game then resets and starts a new maze. A winning game takes less than 20 minutes, but it takes considerable luck to win, particularly given the mindless and unpredictable nature of combat. You have to get lucky with the maze designs, avoid as many monsters as possible, run past some with "Sleep," and get lucky in your hits with the others. Despite all of this, I was able to win "mostly honestly" in a couple of hours. I say "mostly honestly" because I used save states just before I wanted to capture particular screen shots, and I reloaded if a monster attacked and killed me while I was taking the screen shots.

The victory screen leaves me feeling nothing. Nothing.

I've seen some sources praise the music, which plays on a constant loop in the background. Among the selections are bits of Camille Saint-Saƫns "Danse Macabre" (1874), Johann Sebastian Bach's "March in D Major" (c. 1722), and--during combat--Robert Schumann's "Knecht Ruprecht" (c. 1854). These are not in any way commonly-known pieces, especially (and sorry to trade in stereotypes here) by the average Texas teenager in the early 1980s. That he included them instead of something trite and obvious like "In the Hall of the Mountain King" is remarkable, although I can't say the VIC-20's sound capabilities do the music justice or sound good to modern ears. Still, if you're interested in the music, it's a good reason to play the VIC-20 version, as the PC port doesn't have any.
Lacking any RPG credentials, I expect Drash to provide one of the lowest GIMLET scores on record. Let's see:
  • 1 point for the pitiful attempt at a back story that makes up the game world.
  • 0 points for no character creation and development.
  • 0 points for no NPCs.
  • 1 point for the tactically-indistinguishable foes.

Of all the monsters to keep from Ultima . . .

  • 1 point for the strategically-bereft combat system
  • 0 points for no equipment.
  • 0 points for no economy.
  • 1 point for a quest that technically has an ending, but no actual plot.
  • 2 points for the graphics, sound, and inputs. The automap works reasonably well and the music is an original touch. But the controls are sometimes unresponsive and the blank corridors don't deserve any credit.
  • 2 points for gameplay. Too much is based on luck and I can't imagine wanting to replay it. It has the virtue of being short.

The final score of 8 puts it at the second-lowest rating I've given. To be fair, it never claims to be an RPG--it's much more an action/arcade game--and as a erstwhile VIC-20 owner, I think I might have had a modicum of fun with it when I was 10.

Because of its limited release, there are few contemporary reviews. A single paragraph in the July-August 1983 Computer Gaming World calls it "an intriguing adventure game because of its unique graphics and marvelous musical score," but it's not clear from the article (which is a long summary of available games) that the writers were doing anything other than parroting the press materials. Reviews from the post-rediscovery period have been far less kind, with Hardcore Gaming 101 calling it "absolutely, horribly unplayable," Ophidian Dragon calling it "truly, truly awful" in his "Blogging Ultima" series, and the one review available on MobyGames summarizing it thusly: "Without the Ultima brand on it, this game would be justly long forgotten."
Nonetheless, decades of Ultima fans have fallen for Sierra's cynical marketing gimmick and continue to fuel its legend. Despite his disdain for the game, Ophidian Dragon worked the story into a non-canonical history of Ultima in which clearing the monsters from Drash was the final quest of the hero of Akalabeth. Game programmer Kasper Fauerby produced a PC version in 2003. In 2006, Santiago Zapata (aka "Slash") created Mt. Drash: The Roguelike as part of the annual "Seven Day Roguelike Challenge." And now, look, I've gone and added to the unnecessary and unproductive perpetuation of the game's memory on a blog that's supposed to be about games that Drash is the opposite of.

Ironically, I'm leaving this faux Ultima for an Ultima clone. Let's see how Telnyr performs in comparison.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Keys to Maramon: Won! (with Final Rating)

I think this is the first game to end with the PC giving a speech.
The Keys to Maramon
Mindcraft Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS; 1991 for Commodore 64 and Amiga
Date Started: 18 August 2014
Date Ended: 21 August 2014
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
I have a friend who thinks he's funny. When you take him out for a meal, and later ask him how it was, he'll often say, "It satisfied its core mission of providing base nutrients to my organs and fending off starvation." This is his obnoxious way of saying that it wasn't very good. If he played The Keys to Maramon, I suspect he'd say, "it satisfied its core mission of preventing me from being unamused for about five hours." It did for me, anyway. I spent most of those hours waiting for a delayed flight in an airport, so I'm not ungrateful, but I don't think my life will be any different now that I've finished it.

The game is excruciatingly linear. You encounter monsters in a multi-level dungeon. The various parts of the dungeon are separated by doors requiring various types of keys; you find the key to the next area just as you finish killing all the monsters in the previous area. A few monsters require special weapons to kill; you find those weapons just before encountering those monsters. Eventually, you reach the final encounter and the game is over. There really isn't a single role-playing choice--or even much of a character-development choice--along the way.

Finding the final key to Maramon.
As I covered in the first post, the core quest of the game is to save the denizens of Maramon from the monsters that keep swarming out of the city's towers at night. Monsters appear every night at 20:00, and you want to try to kill them all before the morning, leaving dungeon exploration and character development for the daytime. For a while, I was afraid of the consequences if I didn't return to the city at 20:00 to deal with the latest assault, but eventually it took so long to get to the last-explored dungeon level and back that I stopped going back to the town. It didn't seem to have any consequences.

Occasionally, I could anticipate what tower they would emerge from, and just kill them as they came out. Otherwise, I had to chase them around town all night.
The monsters progressed in difficulty throughout the game, using the same creatures introduced in The Magic Candle: orcs, goblins, wolvingas, gnolls, trolls, barges, fermigons, zorlims, darkwolves, and so forth. Towards the end of the game, the most difficult creatures were packs of darkwolves and "tigrets," often led by someone called a "wolflord" who invariably had the next key.

The RPG elements were weak and provided little challenge. Every 1,000 experience points, I could level up and choose to increase one of my attributes by one point, but this only happened 15 times throughout the game against a collective base attribute total of 135. Thus, my character only improved by 11% throughout the game. I'm reasonably sure that you could win the game without ever leveling up.

The NPCs had little of value to contribute. The weapon shop and armor shop provided a few upgrades throughout the game, but these were quickly overshadowed by special weapons and armor found in the dungeon (which mercifully never break).

The library offered tomes (at 200 gold pieces per reading) on the major challenges in the dungeon, indicating that I'd need "Kalb's Mace" to kill demons called "Bazards," a "Star Axe" to slay dragons, and a "Brightsword" to defeat an evil magician--all of which were somewhat unnecessary to read, as these weapon upgrades all occurred immediately before the enemies that I needed to kill with them. It would have been impossible to miss them. [Edit: apparently, the weapons don't show up in their storerooms until after you've read the relevant books, so the tomes are necessary.]

Fortunately, I found a Brightsword moments before needing it.

Combat remained a blunt, SPACE bar-mashing process throughout. The only "tactics" were in the use of the environment to avoid letting enemies attack from multiple sides. Dropped gold also served this purpose--for whatever reason, enemies won't walk on it. There was also some minor strategy associated with when to use missile weapons and wands, both of which were too expensive to rely on exclusively.

Melee combat remained absurdly deadly: even average enemies are capable of killing even the best-armored character in a few seconds, especially if the character is accidentally facing the wrong direction. Mushrooms mitigate this danger, and before particularly difficult combats, I would load up on nifts, migrets, luffins, and gonshis. These are so plentiful throughout the game that I never had to buy any from the herbalist.

I thought the numbers were how many she had in stock, but they turn out to be how many you're purchasing at a time.

Late in the game, I started finding more "potion jars," which instantly heal the character to full hit points. Once I had read all of the rare books in the library and stopped having to save money for that, I used that money to load up on these potions. When I first went to buy them and saw that the price was 50 gold pieces, I thought this was expensive but fair. Then I discovered that the 50 GP charge includes eight of them. This is absurdly cheap for what they do, and I ended the game with dozens of them still in my inventory. The ability to instantly regenerate all hit points for $6.25 makes the late game far too easy.

The end of the game featured a series of quasi-bosses, starting with "Bazards," requiring Kalb's Axe to kill, then followed by dragons, requiring the "Star Axe" to kill. Again, both weapons were found in storage rooms immediately preceding these encounters.

A dragon breathes fire at me as I charge him with the Star Axe.

The library had given me the impression that the final encounter would be with an evil wizard, and that I'd need a "Brightsword" to defeat him. Reading the tome about wizards actually damaged my character, leaving him with only one hit point and permanently reducing his hit point total by one.

Eneri finds the ultimate weapon, which I never actually got to use.

When I found the Brightsword in the dungeon, I knew the end was near--in fact, it was on the very next screen. Disappointingly, it played out entirely as text:

Eneri has found the lair of the evil wizard Alvirex! Eneri recognizes Alvirex from a picture in the book in the library! Eneri remembers when bargs and gnolls were her biggest worries. She gathers her courage. She demands: "What is the meaning of this!!"

"Ahh! The hero!" says Alvirex. "Eneri, is it not? I must congratulate you. You have been quite annoying. Shortly, however, you will cease to be a problem."

"I am delighted that the Hero of Maramon takes an interest in my work," says Alvirex. (Eneri detects a subtle hint of sarcasm.) "I have come to Maramon to experiment with . . . you might call them portable teleportals. With them, I have brought the minions of Darkness to Maramon from all over the continent of Gurtex."

Eneri is furious. "You have treated Maramon as your playpen and its people as your toys!"

"I have no time for childish oratory," sneers Alvirex. Eneri can wait no more. She must destroy this monster of monsters!

Eneri crashes into an invisible energy shield! Even her Brightsword cannot penetrate the shield. Alvirex lifts his staff. A ball of dark energy speeds towards Eneri! Eneri raises her Brightsword. The ball of energy flows into the blade of the magic weapon. The sword blazes bright.

Alvirex scowls. "We seem to have reached a standoff. Perhaps you should leave." Eneri refuses.

"Perhaps we can settle our dispute another way," says Alvirex. "What say you to a foot race? Name the distance."

For a moment, I thought the game really was going to end with a foot race. That would have been a unique, if stupid, RPG ending.

Eneri is tempted. She has never met her match in such a contest. She would have jumped at the challenge a month ago. Yet Eneri has learned something in Maramon. Humility? Maybe. Caution? Surely. Wisdom? Who knows?

The air beyond Alvirex begins to shimmer. "My studies here are complete," says Alvirex. Alvirex turns. As he steps through the shimmering portal, Alvirex lifts his staff. The walls shake. Alvirex vanishes! As Eneri leaves the chamber, the waters of the Sea of Oshmar pour into the cave!

Fleeing the deluge.

What follows is a sequence in which I had to flee the caverns across the tops of rocks as they flooded with water. I'm not sure if there was a time limit to the thing, but if so, I got out in time.

It's about time NPCs started treating me like this.

I reached the surface to meet cheering townsfolk. After a quick parade through the streets, Mayor Andello gave me a set of blue pearls and the key to the city. I delivered a "short but inspiring" speech, concluding with me trying to decide whether to return to Deruvia or "travel onward to Castle Oshcrun and Gurtex." The game concludes by letting me save Eneri for use in The Magic Candle II.

Hence, the game's title.

The footrace thing was a bit weird, and I was slightly disappointed that the final confrontation didn't involve any actual playing or decision-making, but overall not a terrible ending. It suggests that the entire game is something of a prologue to The Magic Candle II. I have a feeling we'll run into Alvirex again, and perhaps even his teleportals.

Here's the GIMLET:

  • 4 points for the game world. In this, I'm not giving it credit for the overall Magic Candle universe, but it's little piece of the game world is still reasonably-well outlined, and the back story fits well with the gameplay.

The "pay to study" system was an interesting, if ultimately unnecessary, way of introducing the game's lore.

  • 3 points for character creation and development. Creation offers only two options: class and name. Leveling up is a matter of studying a tome in the library, which raises a chosen statistic by one and your hit point total by two. Neither really has the effect of making you feel stronger or more capable.
  • 3 points for NPCs. The game offers them but makes them mostly inconsequential. Most of them hang out in the two taverns, and every day you can talk with a different selection of them, but most of what they tell you is either obvious or red herrings.
  • 4 points for encounters. Enemies come in three varieties: those that hit, those that hit harder, and those that shoot things. The dynamic by which they swarm the city at night--forcing you to track them down and wipe them out--is reasonably original. Theoretically, you could grind against them indefinitely, postponing visits to the dungeon, but the nightly attacks get old after a while. There really aren't any other puzzles and special encounters in the game.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. Combat is a bunch of action RPG key-mashing, and there isn't any magic aside from magic wands.

Taking on a bunch of darkwolves.

  • 5 points for equipment. The character can have one type of armor at any given time but can carry a large number of melee weapons, ranged weapons, and wands. There's nothing special here, but just as with The Magic Candle, I give the game credit for creative use of mushrooms to increase abilities. The game also deserves some credit for the "fire globe" mines.

"Pearl plate" was the best armor in the game. Maramon has a thing with pearls.

  • 5 points for economy. With money needed for studying, buying weapons and armor, buying and recharging wands, buying arrows, fixing weapons, and (theoretically) buying mushrooms, gold has value through most of the game, and you don't find very much of it. Only towards the end of the game does the character get too rich.

Considering that a new longsword only costs 50 gold, I think I'm going to pass.

  • 3 points for quests. The main quest is clear, and the nightly attacks form something of a "side quest." There are no choices or alternate outcomes, and the endgame is a little lame.
  • 4 points for graphics, sound, and interface. I found the graphics and sound tolerable--nothing particularly creative, nor anything particularly bad. The keyboard interface mostly worked, but I found the directional keys unresponsive in the worst place: combat. The game is incapable of registering more than one key at a time, so you cannot effectively turn while also hitting the SPACE bar to swing your weapon, and it takes more discipline than I have to calmly stop swinging in the middle of combat, pause, turn to face a specific enemy, and start swinging again.
  • 3 points for gameplay. Not very challenging and extremely linear, the primary virtue of the game is that it doesn't drag on. I guess you could consider it mildly replayable in that the different classes face slightly different levels of difficulty. I suspect a scholar faces the most difficult game, as his primary strength is in the use of magic wands, and they cost quite a bit to recharge.

This gives us a total of 36, just on the cusp of what I call "recommended." It certainly doesn't hurt to play it for the few hours that it takes to win, and when you're done, you have a character for use in The Magic Candle II. But like Hillsfar--another game weirdly sandwiched between bigger titles--it's not really worthy of its franchise.

This won't be the last time Mindcraft does this. We'll return to Deruvia in The Magic Candle II: The Four and Forty (1991). In between that and The Magic Candle III (1992), Mindcraft published Siege, set on Gurtex. Then, between Magic Candle III and Bloodstone: An Epic Dwarven Tale (1993), we got Ambush at Sorinor. (Both Siege and Sorinor are strategy games that don't appear on my list.)

In the September 1990 Computer Gaming World, Alan Emrich praises Maramon specifically for its simplicity and brevity and seems to like all of its mechanics. However, he also notes that he is not an RPG fan in general ("I am not Scorpia," he says), and he admits that "some might consider [Maramon] a cheese puff when they really wanted a steak." I'm fine with an occasional cheese puff, but I don't think Maramon works particularly well even as that. MobyGames's round up of reviews finds mostly middling ratings, with even the easily-impressed Dragon giving it only 3 out of 5 stars.

At best, the game serves up a preview of themes to come in The Magic Candle II, and I look forward to playing this true sequel next year. Next up, we'll be toggling Captive with Ultima: Escape from Mt. Drash.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Captive: Determinate Sentencing

Does this look like a ladder to you?

Since my last post, I have completed the rest of Base 2, Base 3, and maybe half of Base 4. I've gotten to the point where I guess I "get" the game. I still don't like it much, though I recognize that it's a decent representative of its particular genre. If Dungeon Master is your kind of game, I can't see why you wouldn't enjoy Captive.

The bases have progressively increased both navigation difficulty and combat difficulty. Base 2 introduced me to my first ladder, which I didn't recognize as such, leading me to plea for help last time. Once I had that straightened out, the rest of the base wasn't terribly difficult to navigate.

Base 3 introduced a lot more levels, with parts of each level not necessarily connected to each other, but accessible by a maze of ladders and an elevator. There were also several computer-controlled laser-beam barriers for which I needed to find the passwords elsewhere in the base. As with doors, it turned out that you can turn these on (by re-entering the password) when an enemy is standing in them to cause significant damage.

Slicing difficult "tornado-demons" with the laser.
Also starting on Base 3, I encountered floor pressure plates that automatically close the walls behind you. For each one, there's a switch that re-opens the wall. Sometimes the switch is near the pressure plate, but in many cases, it's levels away. It's always slightly unnerving when you don't know how to find the exit, the closest shop, a power outlet, or other places of relative safety.

These plates (or whatever they are) close the wall behind you. It might take a while to find your way back.
Base 4 introduced me to water areas that I need to cross with the anti-gravity device, flipping around and walking across the ceiling. This is also necessary to fight some enemies who float off the ground--although I was able to fire electricity at them from a normal position. Using the anti-gravity device consumes a lot of power, so it's important to tag the locations of power sockets so you can re-charge afterwards.

Fighting upside-down.

Base 4 also has some areas blocked off by fire. I'm not sure how to cross it; the game won't even let me step into it and suck up the damage. The anti-gravity device doesn't work for crossing fire, and the "fire shield" only seems to minimize damage caused by trying to walk into it.

Fire blocks a shop.
Monsters also became a lot more difficult in Bases 3 and 4. The game follows Dungeon Master's convention of not telling you their names, so you have to mentally make some up. Some examples:

"Two-headed dogs."

"Slurpees." (These guys suck.) I think I'm smashing them in this door.
"Langoliers." I hate these guys, too.
A lot of them were resistant to my thrown electricity (and there were fewer sockets in later bases anyway). My party died a lot, and I had to resort to tactics like ladder-scumming, trapping them in doors, trapping them in laser-beams, and the old "DM two-step." Such tricks seem more "mandatory" in this game than in Dungeon Master (and unlike Dungeon Master, killing enemies with doors does give you the associated experience). Even with these tactics, visits to shops for repairs were frequent.

Smashing "tornado demons" in an elevator door.
The enemies provided a decent dollop of experience. Skills require wildly different values to increase to the next level; moving from Level 4 to 5 in "robotics" might take 500 points, while Level 4 to 5 in "brawling" might only be 50. When every skill hits Level 9, a new skill becomes available; in order, these have been "swords," "handguns," "rifles," and finally "automatics"--and there's space for up to three more.

Zeam's skills about halfway through this session.
I've been continuing to invest in "brawling" and "swords" because my found equipment has lagged behind the acquisition of the skills. I found a bunch of brass knuckles and gauntlets on the early levels. Later, I started to encounter little things that look like daggers; I assume they use the "sword" skill. I've kept my lead characters equipped with these items. They frequently break, but I've found enough that I almost always have a backup.

Only in the fourth base did I finally found a shop selling handguns; I've yet to find any rifles or automatic weapons. I bought two magnums for my rear characters, but the game tells me their skill with handguns (currently 21) still isn't high enough to use them yet. I guess I shouldn't have wasted so many points on "brawling" and "swords" for the two rear guys.

I bought the best pistol and found that no one was skilled enough to use it. I guess I should have bought the Colt. Nice to know the manufacturer is still around in the 26th century. Also, "Colt" and "magnum" aren't mutually exclusive.
A commenter helped me understand the uses of "super balls" for my rear characters--thrown missile weapons that do a reasonable amount of damage, but if you accidentally miss the enemy, they'll likely come back and hit the party. Picking them up post-combat is about as annoying as picking up thrown missile weapons in Dungeon Master, but I guess they're worth it. Only late in the session did I discover that if a character has multiple superballs in his inventory, the game automatically re-equips them after you throw one. Handy.

The droids can purchase and outfit themselves with a variety of "optics" and "dev-scapes." Both types of devices are mounted on the droid's "computer," and each droid can only have one active at a time. Each device consumes power while on, so it's best to leave them off unless you need them at the time.

I turned on all four droids' devices for this shot. From left to right, we have the shield, the anti-gravity device, the auto map, and the "visor."
They're sold by number (e.g., dev-scape I, dev-scape II), and for a while I thought the higher-numbered ones were just better versions of the lower-numbered ones. Now I realize they do entirely different things. By the end of this session, I'd bought several of them. Some of them, I can't quite figure out.

  • The shield seems to help reduce damage in combat.
  • The root finder provides some sort of compass. It's not very consistent in its directionality, though, so I think I'm missing something.
  • The anti-grav turns you upside down and has the droids walk on the ceiling. This is important for several reasons, and I doubt you can win the game without this device. The way it works is a bit weird, because it doesn't really invert the world. While you see everything upside down, the position of corridors and objects relative to your right and left remain the same as when you were right-side up. It's quite confusing.
  • The radar is another one I can't quite understand. It seems to always show me the same image.
  • The mapper provides a little automap of the current level. Thanks to an anonymous commenter, I know how to use it (I'm not sure I would have figured on my own that right-clicking centers on your position). It doesn't really show enough squares at a time to be a truly good auto-map; it doesn't move with you--you have to keep re-centering--and it constantly re-orients itself to show your facing direction on top. But does help you figure out where there are major unexplored areas.
  • The fire shield presumably minimizes fire damage, something I haven't really encountered much. It doesn't allow you to walk through fire, which is one problem I had towards the end of this session.
  • The visor turns everything reddish and gives me a bunch of scanlines. I'm not sure what it's for.

What is this showing me?

I should probably buy more stuff. I have about 25,000 gold pieces, but I'm paranoid about needing it for repairs, so I've been reluctant to spend it--especially since the amount of gold available in the game seems mostly fixed.

The basic mission seems to be the same from base to base: find the combination to enter, buy some explosives, kill the scientist with the password to the computer containing the probe, get the probe from the computer, find the generator, plant the explosives, make your getaway. Base 3 varied a little by having two probes, which in turn found two new bases. I'm not sure how that is going to work if it keeps happening, since supposedly there's only 10 bases to explore before the end of the first mission. Are the other ones extras? Or do they eventually duplicate each other?

Getting a probe from Base 3. Where does the probe actually come from? It just appears next to the computer.
I've learned that it make sense to get fully repaired and powered as the last act before leaving the base, so you start the next one in top form. While getting repaired, it also makes sense to sell any maps, passwords, and other messages since they disappear anyway and (for whatever reason) the shopkeepers pay a lot for them.

Yes, pay me lots of money for a worthless piece of paper. You can't take it with you.
A lot of miscellaneous notes:

  • Even when my droids are fully healed, they're down 2 hit points.
  • Most levels have maps that you can view to get a sense of the entire level. I haven't had to create my own maps--yet.

The current level, with the local automap turned on above it.

  • When enemies die, they explode into a red mist--even the robots. If you step forward quickly after they die, you see the mist around you, which is kind of disgusting. The interesting thing is that a couple times, I've come up a ladder into red mist. I suspect this game is like Chaos Strikes Back in that two entities can't occupy the same space, and if any enemy happens to be in the square above when you ascend a ladder, he automatically dies.
  • The outdoor areas on the planets are getting larger, making it harder to find the base entrance after landing--and harder to find the landing craft when running out of the exploding base at the end. There isn't much else to do in the outdoor areas except fight occasional dinosaurs and lizards.

Local denizens block my flight back to my lander.

  • What I took for "fire" in the outdoor areas turns out to be harmless grass that you can walk through just fine.

My color-blindness hurts me again.

  • The combination doors are just stupid. Yes, I found some dice that help me with the internal ones. The external ones are just trial and error. What's the point?
  • The sound in the game is pretty good. Combat sound effects vary depending on the type of weapon used and damage inflicted. There are decent environmental sounds for things like doors and elevators. I don't turn it off.
  • What good is the "sleep" button? I haven't run into any time-sensitive events yet, and sleeping doesn't cause the droids to heal.

I keep making three annoying mistakes:

  • Walking into walls. Sometimes it's because I'm panicking while fleeing enemies, but a lot of the time I just--I don't know--hit the "forward" key one time too many when strolling down a corridor. Running into the wall does a couple points of damage.
  • Buying or repairing stuff in shops means putting your stack of gold in the shopkeeper's hand so he can deduct the costs from it. I keep accidentally leaving it there. Fortunately, he still has it when you return later.

Fixing a droid. There's a better-than-average chance I'll forget to take that pile of gold before I leave.

  • Many of the walls have little cubicles that, when opened, reveal gold or other goodies. But many of them also open nearby walls and release enemies to attack. I keep opening the panels and getting into fights with the released enemies, then forgetting to take the goodies after the enemies are dead.

One thing that I particularly don't like about Captive is that it seems to be determinate--a closed system--when it comes to both the economy and experience. None of the bases, unlike Dungeon Master, seem to have areas where creatures respawn, meaning that both the amount of experience and gold are fixed. I guess technically you could land on random planets and fight outdoor enemies for both experience and gold, but you don't get very much for this. I rather prefer games where I can grind if it turns out I made a mistake with my finances or my allocation of skill points.

In determinate games, it's hard to feel like leveling and character development aren't something of an illusion. In reality, you get just enough skill and equipment in each base to have a modest chance of successfully completing the next one. You're not growing in any real sense.

Anyway, I'm about one-third done, so I guess I'll try to see it to the end. ROT-13'd hints on anything I have wrong, or anything I haven't been doing, are welcome.