Friday, December 19, 2014

Dragon Sword: Won!* (with Final Rating)

Oh, my...we'll just let it go, shall we?

Dragon Sword
Brian Tieman and Tim Musa (authors); PC-SIG (publisher)
Released 1990 for DOS
Date Started: 30 September 2014
Date Ended: 18 December 2014
Total Hours: 32
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

When I last wrote, I was bothered about whether to finish Dragon Sword given that it would take another 24-30 hours, at least, and I felt I'd already experienced all there was to experience about the game, with the exception of mapping 12 more levels. Yet I didn't want to leave the game unfinished, break my winning streak, and miss the opportunity to be the only one online with a winning screenshot. Most of you encouraged me to quit.

Fortunately, Santa Claus came early, in the form of a wonderful Belgian reader who chooses to remain anonymous. He studied the code on the data disks, figured out how it worked, and used it to automatically create the entire series of dungeon maps in Excel, with each square numerically coded to the type of encounter found there.

The final level of the game, courtesy of my own Sinterklaas.

Freed from having to map the rest of the levels, I simply walked--or, in many cases, cast "Open Wall" or "Teleport"--to get from fixed encounter to fixed encounter. The fourth dungeon ended up having 9 levels total. The primary purpose was to get the Staff of Stone, one of six artifacts needed (in some nebulous way) to defeat Oijngate. I had found three others--the Dark Wand, the Ebony Dagger, and the Ring of Mithral--in the other three dungeons. A final one, the Golden Armor, remained.

The chesspiece monsters encountered in the Tower o' Fun turned out to have a thematic purpose. One of the levels had a chessboard theme, with various statues speaking single-word messages that ultimately told me to seek out the black knight and ignore everyone else. I found him in the appropriate place on the chessboard, and he gave me a clue about a puzzle above involving keys and color-coded doors--a puzzle I skipped by just teleporting to the next message square. Yes, my last hours with this game were a little pathetic.

Thanks for trying.

The ladder to the final dungeon, The Lair, was found in the center of the city of Bralka, and I had to cheat to get to it. The game's own code indicated that my silver key should open a locked door, but the door wouldn't open despite having the key. I ultimately hex-edited my party to the other side of the door. I'm not sure if it's a bug or if I just overlooked something.

The Lair was another 9-level dungeon full of tough monsters like stone golems, bone devils, earth giants, evil mages, black unicorns, and margoyles. Without the map showing the locations of magic-regenerating squares, battles would have been a huge pain in the neck, but knowing the locations, I was able just to spam my best spells and teleport to healing at the end of the battle. A battle on Level 2 produced the golden armor, the last of the artfiacts. Level 3 or 4 had an amusing encounter in which I first received this message:

One wonders if developer Brian Tieman's future wife, who wrote the game music, inspired this sentiment.

While I admired the creators' wisdom, I figured this was just a bit of doggerel--until I found a man and woman fighting.

They demanded I pick a side. I chose WOMAN, and the woman gloated as the pair of them disappeared. I have no idea what this did for me. No future encounter referred to it.

Throughout the level, various encounters suggested that a paladin named Jodvar had previously tried to defeat Oijngate with the Dragon Sword but was converted to evil by the dragon. A tapestry depicted their battle, and a book told the paladin's tale. It became clear that I would have to defeat Jodvar to win the game. On Level 7, I entered the room containing the Dragon Sword...

 ...and was attacked by Jodvar and his minions: 2 stone guardians, 1 "flightstalker," and 1 quasit. I found the battle considerably easier than many of the random battles on the level, and in short order I whittled them down and killed Jodvar.

This text followed:

And finally, the mighty Dragon Sword shall be yours. You have defeated all of Oijngate's minions. A terrible blight has been lifted from the land. You look at the carnage about you and are amazed at how much you've been through just to get to this final moment of victory. With a confident, steady hand, you reach out for what victory has brought you.

Your hand fits smoothly around the handle. The sword's weight feels good in your hand. "Victory!" you scream. But your scream is cut short as the ground beneath your feet gives way to a long tunnel of darkness. Your victory is wretched firmly firmly from your grasp as you spiral down a chute of darkness. And then, suddenly, the ground smashes into you. You know not how long you've been falling, or where you are, or what to do, but you regain your composure and look about you. You will not have your victory stolen!

But I got the Dragon Sword, so that was something. Oddly enough, just like the Golden Armor, Ring of Mithral, and the other artifacts, the game wouldn't let me actually equip it. I guess just having it in my possession was enough to defeat Oijngate.

Then what's the point?!

It was two more levels to Oijngate, and the encounter was anticlimactic. He attacked me by himself, with no minions, and went down in the first round. I didn't even get a screen shot. There was some business at the beginning of battle in which each of my characters "resisted the effects," and I suspect that having the various artifacts in my possession protected them from some significant damage that otherwise would have made the battle tougher. Anyway, the endgame text:

Oijngate, knowing it is doomed, casts one final spell of destruction. A white ball of flame bursts from the dragon's hide, consuming it in the process. A gigantic explosion rocks the caverns and you see pieces of the roof caving in. Then all fades to black as you fall unconscious under the brunt force of the explosion.

You awake an indeterminate amount of time later. You are, miraculously, in the guild in Bralka. The dragon, Ojingate, lies dead many levels beneath the town. Bralka is still overrun by evil forces and you know your job here is not yet done, but you grasp the Dragon Sword firmly in your hand. The handle is still warm with power. You know you could not have won without it, and yet, you feel as though you've only scratched the surface of its mighty power--and only just begun a long and treacherous journey.

Everyone got 1 million experience points and the ability to keep wandering around Bralka fighting Level 1 thugs. I used the experience to level my party to the max, heal up, save, and quit. I was disappointed that there were never any endgame graphics. Even a poorly-drawn shot of Oinjgate would have been welcome.

So, obviously, I cheated to win, but it was a kind of cheating I'm comfortable with--one that mostly just saved time. I would have gone through the same encounters eventually, but it would have taken another 24 hours instead of 4.

Let's wrap it up with a GIMLET:

4 points for the game world, perhaps the one part that Dragon Sword does better than Wizardry. The basic structure of the world isn't bad, with five dungeons branching from a common town, and the frequent messages and bits of lore kept things mildly interesting.

The game's attempts to build a history and lore are welcome breaks from endless combat.

  • 3 points for character creation and development. There's nothing beyond the Wizardry template here. Moreover, characters level a bit too fast, achieving maximum spell levels before the game is halfway over and thus giving a sense of limited progression for the rest of the game. Starting attributes end up being irrelevant since, thanks to the practice of awarding 1 attribute point per level but capping all attributes at 18, everyone ends up with 18 in everything before long.
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 5 points for encounters and foes. The sheer number of enemies offered in the game is a bit ridiculous, and the game tells you nothing about them--but in some ways, figuring out each enemy's special attacks and defenses is part of the challenge. I give some credit for the various navigation, logic, and password puzzles in the game. None of them were terribly challenging or interesting, but they were more than the typical wireframe dungeon-crawler.

One of the "boss" battles with an incomprehensible selection of monsters.

  • 4 points for magic and combat. Dragon Sword evokes the letter but not the spirit of Wizardry, and although the combat options seem very similar, the nature of the game--particularly the frequent magic-recharging squares--makes the combat less nail-biting and tactical. The sheer number of battles is annoying beyond belief, but I'm punishing the game for that in the last category. The spell selection was interesting and in some cases original.

My cleric casts "Protection from Breath" in the first round of the battle with Oinjgate.

  • 3 points for equipment. It started out good, but the game stopped providing upgrades about halfway through. The artifact items were unequippable, and in general there just wasn't enough variety here.
  • 1 point for economy. It started out good, but after you have enough healing spells and have bought everything of interest in the stores (about 5% through the game), there's no point to collecting gold. There's no point to the game's vault at all.
  • 2 points for a standard main quest with various steps along the way. No side-quests, no role-playing.

The penultimate moment.

  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface, both of which got to "interface." The wireframe graphics, with no monster portraits or any other graphic feedback, don't deserve even a single point, and the occasional beeps and horridly-rendered music (from an original composition that I'm sure was beautiful on a real instrument) don't do anything for me.
  • 1 point for gameplay, and that's for its moderately-pitched difficulty level. The game is entirely linear, non-replayable, and way, way, way, way, way, way, a thousand "ways" too large and too long. It's like all five of the first Wizardry games at once, with quadruple the frequency of random encounters.

The sum is 25, but I have to subtract 2 points for the many bugs, including one that constantly brought up the "game over" screen in the middle of combat and exploration, forcing me to reload and re-cast all my buffing spells. This final score of 23 is well below what I would recommend and well below the 37 I gave to Wizardry, the game Dragon Sword seeks to emulate. I admire what Mr. Tieman and Mr. Musa accomplished programmatically--particularly the dedication to create and populate 30 levels and so many different encounters monster types--but making the game so big and long also made it boring and unbalanced.

But let's not be too harsh. It was a shareware title, and not even a very expensive one. The developers weren't intending to create great art. In a long e-mail to me, Brian Tieman said that the path to creating Dragon Sword started when they hacked data files for The Bard's Tale so they could give characters 256 strength and such. Later they did the same to Wizardry. They started to understand the code and adapted it to their own game, patching and jury-rigging when they had to, learning code as they went along. (Tieman thinks many of the freezes and crashes I experienced are due to the interrupts he used to keep the music playing at a steady tempo.) "We were bored," he says. "We didn't party, we programmed--at a time when programming wasn't cool." He denies, in fact, that they even "set out to make a consumable product," and he's a bit baffled by its persistence. "Why the hell is this piece of s****** software two people wrote in obscurity 24 years ago still out there someplace today? How the hell did it even get ONTO the Internet? We didn't put it there!"

As my master list goes forward, we are seeing an increasing number of independent games. In the last year alone, we've looked at Stone of Telnyr, Fallthru, and Vampyr: Talisman of Invocation, and we still have Quest for the Unicorn, Angband, Wraith: The Devil's Demise, and Dungeon coming up before the year is out. The typical independent RPG of the era is scoring around 20-25, so Dragon Sword is an average representative of a nascent subgenre that I expect to get better as the 1990s progress.

I'm glad to have found a middle path through the end of Dragon Sword, and now I can move on to MegaTraveller with a clear conscience. Next!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Game 170: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin Cartridge (1983)

Despite the copyright date, all evidence points to the game having been released in 1983. This is one of the few times I'm going to go against the opening screen for the game's official title. The manual has the title as listed as in this post title, and word from some sites is that TSR's contract mandated "ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS" in capitals, the word "cartridge" as part of the title, and the copyright dates, leaving no room for the subtitle.

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin Cartridge
APh Consulting (developer), Mattel Electronics (publisher)
Tom Loughry (programmer)
Released 1983 for Intellivision and Mattel Aquarius
Date Started: 13 December 2014
Date Ended: 14 December 2014
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Variable (player choice)
Final Rating: 19
Ranking at Time of Posting: 33/166 (20%)

Treasure of Tarmin seems to be the first RPG ported from a console to a PC. It is, admittedly, a fairly lame example of the conversion process, having been ported from Mattel's Intellivision console, a platform that might charitably be called "second rate," to Mattel's own Aquarius personal computer, a 1983 platform whose own developers called "the system for the 70s." For gaming, the Aquarius had the same clumsy dial-below-keypad controller as the Intellivision, so it's not like the port was a lot of legwork. Nonetheless, it is technically a "first."

Tarmin is also the first Dungeons & Dragons-licensed game of any platform that can reasonably be considered an RPG. Its predecessor, later called Cloudy Mountain (link to my review) to avoid confusion with this one, is best described as an action game with some RPG elements. After this, Mattel lost its license to produce Dungeons & Dragons products, and we didn't see another D&D computer title until 1988, when Pool of Radiance finally did it right. That said, just like Cloudy Mountain, Tarmin has absolutely no conmection with D&D other than the title. It uses no D&D rules, no D&D-specific monsters, and no D&D mechanics. Other RPGs of the time, like Wizardry and Ultima, had more in common with D&D than either of Mattel's officially-licensed titles.

The setup for Tarmin is basic: a single unnamed player descends into a system of mazes beneath the Island of Tarmin, defeats the minotaur, and recovers the Great Treasure. (The original title for the game was Minotaur.) On the way, you fight monsters and find items that improve your hit points, defense statistics, and weapon ratings. Eventually, you come up against the minotaur, defeat him, and collect his treasure to end the game. There are no frills like NPCs, stores, or even character creation, but the game is fast-paced and continually rewarding, and I was surprised to find myself having fun with it despite its primitive nature.

A typical Treasure of Tarmin screen. My backpack, to the left, contains a knife, a key, two bows (of two different levels), a spell scroll, and a locked pack. I'm carrying that around hoping to find the next level key to open it. The bottom of the screen shows that I'm on Level 6 and I have a shield in my left hand and a "Fireball" spell in my right. The numbers on the right indicate that my physical strength (hit points) is 27, my spiritual strength is 9, my physical defense is 19, and my spiritual defense is 17. Because I have a "spiritual weapon" equipped, my physical attack rating is currently 0, but my spiritual attack rating is 17.

As the player begins the game, he selects from four difficulty levels, which affects the starting health, starting food, starting arrows, "vulnerability," and the number of levels before you first encounter the minotaur (from 2 to 12) and therefore the length of the game, which can be as short as a few minutes on easy difficulty to many hours on the hardest difficulty. With no way to save the game, harder levels must have been difficult on the bladders and time-management abilities of 1983 players. I can just envision 10-year-old me arguing with my mother that if she makes me shut off the game now and go to bed, go outside, come have dinner, etc., I'll lose three hours of playing time. (The argument would have gone nowhere because mothers just don't get it.)

The castle map on "Easy" mode. Two tiers of Level 1/2 funnel to one tier each of Levels 3 and 4. The minotaur and treasure is guaranteed on Level 4. I can keep descending after Level 4, but I won't appear on the map.

The castle map on "Hard" level.

Each maze level is 12 x 12, and on harder level there might be multiple tiers (up to six) of them funneling down to Level 12. You can move down via ladders (there are no up ladders) and between tiers via teleportation gates that scramble your war and spiritual strength scores. No matter what setting, it is possible to descend lower than the lowest level on the map--the game supports up to 255 levels, after which you return to a new Level 1--and even face multiple minotaurs. Regardless, you win when you first pick up the treasure after a successful minotaur kill, whether it's on the level designated by the map or a lower one. Players who are really enjoying themselves may want to delay picking up the treasure indefinitely.

Facing the minotaur.

Neither sound nor graphics are fantastic in the game, but both play a significant role, just like with Cloudy Mountain. Sound is important because it's the only way to tell how many arrows and how much food you have remaining. Pressing a button returns a series of clicks that you have to count.

As you traverse the exterior corridors of levels, "eyeball murals" of various colors mark the entrances to the interior mazes, with the eyeballs color-coded to indicate whether the player is likely to find a physical challenge (dark green), a spiritual challenge (blue), or a mixed challenge (tan). Equipment and treasure are color-coded to indicate their quality, and monsters are color-coded to indicate their difficulty. Potions and some spellbooks are color-coded to indicate their effects. To someone with multiple types of color blindness, of course, the system is a disaster. I do okay with the silver/gold/platinum system used by treasures, but some of the monster color ramps (yellow/tan/orange) I can't distinguish at all, and the blue/pink/purple system used by spellbooks and portions also cause me no end of trouble. I basically figured it out through trial and error.

The "eyeball mural" indicates more magic-oriented encounters and items down that corridor.
Of each level's 144 squares, probably 12-15 hold some bit of equipment and 12-15 hold some monster. Nothing respawns, so once you clear a level the only way to proceed is down (though as before, you can do that essentially indefinitely). Equipment consists of:

  • War weapons, of which curiously all are missile weapons. Bows and crossbows fire arrows, of which you have a limited supply, and bows can break randomly. Other weapons--axes, spears, darts, and knives--are one-use only. Every weapon exists at one of six levels of power, indicated by color, from tan ("regular") to white ("super").
  • Spiritual weapons, consisting of one-shot fireball and lightning bolt spells, or multi-shot scrolls (I think they're unlimited but they can break), and unlimited-use spellbooks at six levels of power.
  • Armor, including hauberks, helmets, gauntlets, and shields, which exist at six levels of power. You hold shields in your left hand, but other armor items you simply "use," and if the item you used is better than the last one you used of the same time, your physical defense rating increases.

Encountering my first hauberk on the ninth level.

  • Rings, which increase spiritual defense power. You "use" them the same way as armor items.
  • Keys, which allow you to unlock...
  • Containers, including money belts, boxes, and bags, some of which must be unlocked by keys. They can contain bombs (which damage you) but usually contain...

Putting a key in the active slot so I can unlock a box.
  • Treasures, including coins, ingots, chalices, and crowns. These simply contribute to your final score.
  • War books and spiritual books, which are one-use items that increase your maximum war strength (physical hit points) and spiritual strength (spiritual hit points) accordingly.
  • Potions that restore your max strength value or raise your maximum strength values.
  • Special permanent spell books that aid in navigation by allowing you to see or move through walls. These never go away.
  • Re-stocks of arrows.
  • Bags of food. When you have at least one bag, you can rest, which recovers 5 "strength" points, including increasing your maximum strength if you've defeated some enemies since the last time you rested.

With so many different options, you receive some kind of upgrade every few minutes at the most. It's addictive to keep pressing forward and seeing your strength and defense values increase.

An equipment drop in this corridor. A pair of gauntlets followed by a money belt. The manual shows what icons represent what items of equipment.

Every square in the 12 x 12 grid is visitable. Every level has an outer ring of squares in which there are no enemies or items. The various sub-mazes branch off this circumference corridor. There are a lot of secret doors--found by simply pressing "Open" while standing in front of them. Since doors close behind you (and secret doors vanish behind you), it's often tough to figure out where you've already been without mapping. Things get very easy, however, once you find a spell book with the "Teleport" spell, which moves you forward one square, wall or no wall, and never runs out. Once you have this, you can basically just lawn-mow each level as if the entire thing was open. "Vision" books are also handy navigation aids that let you see through nearby walls, allowing you to easily scope for enemies and treasure.

With the "Vision" spell active, I can see a wraith hiding behind a nearby wall. That's a pair of gauntlets on the floor in front of me.

Tarmin features a small selection of monsters, each at three different color-coded levels: giant ants, dwarfs, giant scorpions, giant snakes, alligators, dragons, skeletons, cloaked skeletons, giants, ghouls, wraiths, and minotaurs. Some of these are distinguished between shield-bearing and non-shield-bearing varieties. Each monster does either war damage or spiritual damage, so it's important to keep both types of strength up. As you defeat them with war weapons or spiritual weapons, your maximum strength values in the respective areas increase.

A giant scorpion attacks while a dwarf-with-shield waits nearby. I must have just thrown my active weapon, so I have to select one of the scrolls or bows from my inventory (to the left) to continue. When combat is over, I'll pick up that bag of food.

The one huge advantage to the player is that monsters don't roam--they stand in fixed squares--so you can often see them in the distance and either attack or avoid depending on whether you feel you have enough equipment. Even if you walk right up to one, there's a chance of using "retreat" successfully to get one square away, if he turns out to be too hard.

Trading axe attacks with a cloaked skeleton with a shield.

Combat proceeds in turn-based fashion. You act, the enemy acts, and so forth. Only actual attacks count as "actions," so you can bumble your way through cycling inventory, picking up and dropping things, and swapping things without penalty, which is good for someone trying to get used to the controls. When you first face the enemy, the number at the bottom of the screen which normally shows the dungeon level changes to show the enemy's strength. You assess this number against your own strength and weapon skill before deciding whether to stand your ground or retreat. I've rarely had to retreat. If you die in combat, there's a chance of being reincarnated with no equipment on the same level.

Tarmin has one thing I've never seen: "evil doors." These are like mimics, but for doors instead of chests. You turn to face what looks like a regular door, but it suddenly changes color and starts shooting magic damage at you. They're very difficult to kill, but there's always some major treasure behind them.

Trading fireballs with an "evil door." It currently has 23 hit points.

I spent a long time bumbling around getting used to the game and the way the Intellivision controller maps to the PC keyboard in the Nostalgia emulator. The original controller had a movement disk for navigation (mapped to the arrows on the keyboard), 12 buttons in the upper keypad (mapped to the PC keypad), and two buttons on each side (mapped to HOME, DELETE, PAGE DOWN, and ENTER). I guess every game came with some kind of overlay that you slid over the controller so that the game could put specific words on top of the corresponding buttons. I'm curious if these overlays made gameplay clumsier, or if players actually used them.

The Treasure of Tarmin "overlay" for the Intellivision controller.

The Intellivision controller, for all its clumsiness, does address one of my common complaints about early console RPGs: there aren't enough controls to offer the same depth of gameplay as the keyboard. With 16 buttons plus the dial, it has almost as many options as modern controllers, and Tarmin uses most of them. A lot of them have to do with inventory management; there are separate buttons for picking up items, swapping the left and right hand, swapping the right-hand item with the right-most item in the pack, and rotating the items in the pack. I was constantly getting confused and accidentally dropping things I wanted to store or accidentally moving my shield to my right hand, where it can do nothing. Fortunately, the game is forgiving about such mistakes by not counting such actions against your turn.

One slight innovation involves separate buttons for "look left" and "look right" which allow you a quick glance in adjacent squares without making a full turn in either direction.

After I had the controls down, I started a game at "Easy" level to see if I could win it quickly. On "easy" level, the minotaur appears at dungeon Level 4, but when I got to that level and faced him, my character hadn't developed enough in strength or equipment to defeat him. With no other recourse, I continued moving downwards, slowly improving as I went. Various sites I consulted indicated that the minotaur can appear on any level after the "official" one, but I suspect he doesn't appear again until after the maximum official one, or Level 12. In any event, I didn't find him until Level 16.

The down ladder from Level 5 to Level 6. A spell scroll waits beyond.

For all the build-up, he's not much more difficult than most other monsters at that level. I had plenty of hit points by then, and he died in a few hits. Once he dies, the Treasure of Tarmin appears behind him. You take it and are rewarded with a shot of the castle map, this time with the sun shining brightly in the background instead of the dark of night.

The winning screen.

In a quick GIMLET, I give it:

  • 1 point for a bare-bones game world.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. There's no "creation" but development is quick and satisfying, and the game has an intriguing idea with the dual war/spirit path. I suppose some players could focus entirely on one or the other (my winning game was almost all "war"-based) or try to achieve a balance.
  • 0 points for no NPCs.
  • 3 points for its small list of foes, split between physical types and spirit types. I give some credit for lots of grinding opportunities plus the original "evil doors." Several sites also said that there's a way to distract enemies by "throwing treasure." This doesn't make sense to me because a) treasure never appears in your inventory; it just gets added to your score when you pick it up; and b) there's no command to throw things. Nonetheless, if it's true it adds some more credit to this score.

Encountering a giant on the other side of a stairway. During this attempt, I found an awful lot of bows.

  • 2 points for magic and combat, again with the war/spirit dichotomy. There isn't that much strategy, though.
  • 3 points for equipment, probably the game's best feature, including some effects we rarely see in RPGs--in particular seeing through walls and a spell that improves the quality of equipment.
  • 1 point for the economy, which unfortunately just increases the score.
  • 1 point for an adequate main quest.

The fabled Treasure of Tarmin appears after slaying the minotaur. Picking it up ends the game.

  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. I didn't like any of them, but at least the game made graphics and sound an integral part of the mechanics.
  • 4 points for gameplay, a high score that recognizes its replayability (on different difficulty levels), its challenging-but-fair difficulty at the medium level, and its quick pacing. This is one game (ahem) that understands it's not a 40-hour epic.

The final score of 19 isn't a great one--it is still a console RPG, after all--but it reflects how far things had come in the one year since Cloudy Mountain, which I gave a 9.

The box cover is notable for not featuring a minotaur.

Both Advanced Dungeons & Dragons titles were the work of the same programmer, Tom Loughry, famous among Intellivision aficionados for Sub Hunt (1981), Worm Whomper (1983), The Dreadnaught Factor (1983), and these two cartridges. After the heyday of the Intellivision, he moved to Accolade and developed a number of vehicle simulation games for the Commodore 64 and DOS, including Steel Thunder (1988), Gunboat (1990), and Grand Prix Unlimited (1992). The last credit I can find for him is in 1998, on Electronic Arts' Need for Speed III: Hot Pursuit.

I haven't been able to track him down, but the hosts of the "Intellivisionaries Podcast" (every platform is someone's favorite) interviewed him in conjunction with Treasure of Tarmin just this past June. (The podcast is very long, but highly recommended if you're really into the game.) In the interview, Loughry says he was inspired in part by a game called something like Krozair that he played on "a university computer somewhere" (no one can seem to be able to identify it) and felt he could improve. He programmed the game in just a few months. The original subtitle was Minotaur, but there was some concern about a conflict with a Parker Brothers game called Minotaur Maze, so "Tarmin" was an alliterative compromise using two of the three syllables from the original. Like many developers of the period, Loughry highly prized the ability to randomize the mazes and placement of monsters and treasure, to ensure that every new game would be unique for the player, and even the developer could enjoy playing it. (This is something I also heard from Randall Masteller in conjunction with his Warrior of Ras titles.)

While he seems satisfied with his creation, calling it "extraordinarily complex" for an early 1980s Intellivision game, he was still disappointed with features that he couldn't offer, including saving, more complex combat, and an overland exploration ability. He planned to offer such features in a third Advanced Dungeons & Dragons title, but the project died during development. (He says it would have been "kind of like Zelda.") Later, other Mattel developers began working on a third AD&D game, but they lost the license in the meantime, so the game was ultimately published as Tower of Doom (1987) without the AD&D connection.

Me, I think I'm done with the Intellivision. I know of two other RPGs developed for it, Tower of Doom and Swords & Serpents (1982), but neither had a PC port, and I've got to draw the line somewhere. This was an interesting diversion, though, and I'm glad someone insisted it belonged on my list because of the Aquarius conversion. Onward we go to MegaTraveller!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Dragon Sword: A Crossroads

Navigating Dragon Sword's interminable dungeons is complicated by "jumper squares."

For nearly three months, Dragon Sword has been at the center of a ludicrous amount of angst. At first, I decided I was going to quit it early, after I experienced all it had to offer, because the purpose of my blog is to have fun. Then I decided I needed to win it, no matter how many endless hours of mapping it took, because the purpose of my blog is (at least in part) to catalog moments in RPG history that everyone else has overlooked. I wrote a post about the next dungeon, then shelved it. I wrote a "final rating" post, then shelved that. I kept playing. I wrote an absurdly long post explaining the core dilemma in the context of the history of my blog, which has evolved from a fairly trivial review of games that I was always ready to quit, to a more in-depth review of games I generally force myself to play to the end.

The simple fact is that if I quit Dragon Sword, it will be the first time I've deliberately quit a game in almost two and a half years. There were a couple others that I thought I quit when I couldn't make any more progress (Drakkhen, Expedition Amazon), only to come back with a "won!" posting after the final rating. There was one for which I didn't technically see the winning screen (Dragonflight) but got one step away before a game-breaking bug prevented me, and there was one that I was forced to quit mid-game because of a bug. (That was Legend of Faerghail, and we are going to have to come back to it eventually because I had a fantastic correspondence with one of the authors over the summer, and I promised him I'd do something with all the information he gave me.)

It actually gets a bit worse than that. Bloodwych may be the last game I deliberately quit, but plenty of other people have won it, and I was still able to show the end-of-game screenshot from someone else's video. Even if I didn't win, I could still discuss winning. To find a game that I quit without even being able to talk about the ending, we have to go all the way back to Scavengers of the Mutant World in June 2011. Thus, the decision about whether to quit Dragon Sword is non-trivial. It is, in many ways, a decision about the soul of The CRPG Addict.

Hell would be another 30 dungeon levels.

I summarized my core dilemma with Bloodwych in August 2012:

Continuing to play Bloodwych is a bit like eating something abominable--circus  peanuts, say, or those awful wasabi snack mixes they have at some bars--for no other reason than a bowl of it is sitting in front of you. In a meta-cognitive way, I'm fascinated by my refusal to give up on it.
The same statement could apply equally well to this game. Both are simply too long, too slow, and too repetitive. Dragon Sword does a great job replicating the Wizardry aesthetic, but with bigger dungeon levels, three times the number of dungeon levels, and three to four times the number of random encounters, it vastly overstays its welcome.

As a refresher, Dragon Sword is a shareware Wizardry clone from 1990 in which a group of 6 adventurers (I have a fighter, barbarian, monk, thief, cleric, and magic user) seek to stop the tyranny of the dragon Oijngate. They start out in the town of Bralka, from which at least four separate dungeons are available. You have to explore them in a specific order, with passwords to each found in the previous dungeons. Perion's Place had five levels, followed by Galt's Domain with seven, followed by the "s**t hole" with four, followed by the Tower O' Fun with at least three. That's 19 out of 30. I assume the Tower has at least a few more. Throughout the explorations, I've been finding keys, and I suspect when I have the right set, it will open the area in the center of Bralka, and there will be a final large dungeon leading to the dragon.

The rare fixed encounter. Each dungeon has a boss. This one was named "Frank."

There are very, very few fixed encounters in the dungeon levels--maybe two or three per dungeon. Random encounters happen with maddening frequency. The game introduces dozens of new monsters per dungeon and only keeps them around for a couple levels before abandoning them for harder varieties. I'm mildly interested in seeing how the developers are going to keep this up. They've already burned through most of the D&D monster manual and classic mythology. In the current dungeon, I'm encountering playing cards (e.g., jack o'clubs, ace o'spades), chess pieces (black pawns, white bishops), and completely nonsensical creatures (tic-tac-toes, stupid steps). Pretty soon, they're just going to have to start drawing last names at random from the Naperville phone directory.

A typical enemy party in current exploration.

Combat is almost exactly like Wizardry except that the spells are original to the game. For a while, character development and spell acquisition were enough to keep things mildly interesting, but my mage and cleric acquired their final spell levels several dungeon levels ago, leaving only increases in hit points and spell points to look forward to. The "s**t hole" had so many undead capable of draining levels that I actually went backwards for a while, but I've caught back up since then. At this point, "Protection from Spells" from the cleric and some mass damage spell from the mage are necessary in almost every combat, meaning that it's important to know the way back to the nearest set of recharging squares.

Early in the game, attributes increase randomly by 1 at each level-up, but by now, all my attributes are 18.

I've taken to only saving the game in those squares. Almost nothing in the game is dependent on actually visiting squares; rather, almost everything is dependent on mapping and finding the cryptic messages. Even if I lose a lot of experience upon party death, I still have the maps. I can just reload from the safe zone and stake off in an unmapped direction. The game essentially forces you to take this attitude because it frequently freezes or brings the party to the "game over" screen randomly.

Like most Wizardry derivatives, Dragon Sword confounds navigation with dark squares, spinners, teleporters, and "jumper" squares. The difference between the last two is that the latter notifies you that you've been teleported and the former doesn't. In some dungeons, like the one below, teleporters are so common that you pretty much have to check your coordinates with the "Locate" spell after every step. This level was also insidious in that a message frequently came up that said, "You've been teleported!" when I had not, in fact, been teleported. "A trickster tried and true will sometimes lie to you," another message explained.

"TP#" indicates that it's a teleportation square; "#TP" is the destination square.

Here's another one. Notice all those "Js"? Those are jumper squares. Imagine how much of a pain it was to map this level when the "J" squares randomly teleport you every time you step on them.

The game has secret doors, but it also has a lot of squares that are inaccessible without the "Open Wall" spell. Some of these areas hide key encounters and messages. This is one of the few games in which that type of spell is a necessity rather than just a navigation aid.

Most of the levels feature riddles of some sort, usually just an obvious password, like this one:

In case you can't figure out, the password it's hinting is "MAP."

A lot of them seem to set up things that never materialize. For instance, on Level 2 of the "s**t hole," there were two areas shaped like temples. The first held a message that read, "Death, it is true, will soon come to you, but you can stay its falling hand, by issuing a curt, staying command." The other temple had a message that simply read "ENVRE." I assume the latter is supposed to be the "staying command," but either way I never found any encounter that required the use of the password. Another message suggested that there was something called a "no jumper ring" to be found--presumably something that keeps the jump squares from activating--but I never encountered such a thing. It's possible, of course, that I missed something in both cases.

Then we have this one. I don't know if it's trying some reverse psychology or what.

And this was just a blatant lie:

On my current level, there are a couple of dozen rows of alcoves, each with a single word that makes up a longer sentence, promising to set up some kind of chess piece-related riddle. The level also has an annoying gimmick by which you can see through (but not walk through) walls, making navigation very difficult because it's hard to tell what's an open wall, what's a closed wall, and what's a door. I may just let the "Light" spell expire and map if it was all dark, because it's giving me a headache.

The "Fun" part must be meant sarcastically.

By completing a level or two per week while I was dithering about whether to continue the game, I guess I made the decision. I'm two-thirds finished with it at this point, so I might as well go the distance (though don't expect me to do it all at once). I just wish the authors had tweaked it a bit: fewer levels, encounters less often, and leveling better paced throughout the game. If I could just skip to the endgame, even by cheating, I would, but I can't see a way to do that.

I probably won't post again on Dragon Sword until I've won, but if my other posts seem to be slow, it's because this game is still taking up some background time. MegaTraveller or Treasure of Tarmin next, depending on my mood tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Fountain of Dreams: Won! (with Final Rating)

Fountain of Dreams
Electronic Arts (developer and publisher)
David Albert and Robert Hardy (design and programming)
Released 1990 for DOS
Date Started: 5 December 2014
Date Ended: 8 December 2014
Total Hours: 15
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 35
Ranking at Time of Posting: 110/165 (67%)

Well, Fountain of Dreams got measurably worse before the end. Or maybe it was always really bad, and I was just so desperate for the CRPG experience again that I viewed my first session more charitably than normal.

The plot dissolved into something so nonsensical that even a day after finishing, I can barely recall what happened. Stymied by the lack of anything else to do in Miami and unable to survive the mortar-filled steps to the Killer Clown Kollege, I decided to roam around through the Everglades,  figuring that there must be something there. Eventually, amid razor grass that sliced up my characters every step and occasioned a lot of reloading, I found an intelligent frog named "Roger Ribbet." (This momentarily confused me, as I could have sworn Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was in theaters like 10 years ago at most, but apparently it's over 25 years old. The relentless, unforgiving nature of time's arrow makes itself known once again.) He was accompanied by an Obeah Orders man named "Wilfred" who joined my party and insisted I take him to see "Big Daddy."

An NPC who skirts the edge of the culturally-sensitive.

I brought him to the OhOh temple, where Big Daddy was overjoyed to see him. Wilfred related that he'd been kidnapped by the Beachcombers and traded to the mutant frogs in exchange for Dream Water. Apparently, since the Dream Water temporarily reverses the effects of mutation, the mutants need human slaves to bottle it (if they touch it, they forget how to talk or something). Meanwhile, the humans in Miami want it to prevent their own mutations, so they buy it up. Why the two groups just don't trade places is unexplained. Apparently, the mutants contracted with the Beachcombers to kidnap OhOhs specifically, because, and I'm quoting Wilfred here, "dey no can use Bahia punk or dey no can use General Store." Wilfred's solution was to convince the local healer, Docotor Brewhoe, to sell Dream Water directly to the Beachcombers if they'd agree to end their deal with the mutants. This worked, I guess, and I kept getting screens where instead of getting attacked by OhOhs or Beachcombers, they gave me high-fives and thank-yous.

In the meantime, however, was a bizarre sequence in which Big Daddy put my party through an obstacle course, for no reason that I could understand. This was one of two obstacle courses used by the game--the second was in the Clown Kollege--and both were just frustrating excuses for trial, error, and reloading. I don't know if there was supposed to be some way to suss out what objects, doors, and floor panels were trapped and which were not, but I never figured it out and I simply got through with a lot of save-scumming.

After this episode, there seemed to be nothing left to do but to assault the Clown Kollege, although I didn't have any particular quest that would take me there. Entering the Kollege requires getting pounded by artillery at least three times, for up to 30 hit points' damage per hit, so my 60-HP characters couldn't survive. (Seriously, if there was some way around this, someone please tell me because it drove me crazy.) This is normally where I'd settle in for a bit of grinding, but grinding is complicated in this game by a few factors. First, leveling slows to a near-standstill after Level 8 or so, no matter how much fighting you do. I suspect this is because the experience point requirements double between levels, but this brings me to the second problem: there's no way to tell how many experience points you need for the next level, or indeed how many you've already earned. It simply doesn't show up as a statistic.

Third, there really aren't any good enemies to grind against. The Clowns are too hard. Everything else is the same enemy you've been fighting since Level 1. Fighting mutated animals brings the risk of getting exposed to mutagens (and you get no money, which is as important to grind as experience), but there aren't many groups of human enemies to fight--especially after you mend fences between the OhOhs and the Beachcombers. Eventually, I found a part of town that would reliably deliver large Beachcomber fights (some nonsense about the people in the area not liking people who peer into windows), but combat is slow and boring in the game at the best of times, and I only rose a couple of levels.

Improving "evasion" in a battle against Beachcombers.

During this process, I did find something interesting, however: the "evasion" skill levels rapidly as large groups of enemies miss you. After a couple dozen battles with Beachcombers, I reached a point at which they stopped hitting me. Ever. This proved vital for the endgame, as high "evasion" is the only thing protecting you against Killer Clown attacks that can wipe out even a high-level party in a few hits.

Failing my evasion check.

Eventually, my characters had hit point totals closer to the 80-100 range, and I decided it was time to try the Kollege again. It still wasn't easy. I had to reload a few times before the damage rolls were low enough to get me through the door alive.

This whole area of the Kollege had no purpose that I could discern.

The Kollege was large and nonsensical, as you might expect. It was full of areas in which I was sure I was missing some kind of encounter or opportunity, including an entire garage full of cars that seemed to have no purpose, and numerous locked chests that no amount of lockpicking would open. For the first time, I encountered chests trapped with bombs, only to realize that no one had the "disarm" skill, forcing me to ignore them. Occasionally, I'd get unlucky with the hit rolls in a random Clown attack and have to reload. Sometimes, I'd just reload to avoid going through a random encounter at all. I was basically scumming my way through the game at this point. (Later, I was amused to read Scorpia's review and see that she did the same thing.) Even with high evasion, I found that the only way to reliably survive Clown attacks was to lob explosives (which damage every enemy) every round. These are pretty expensive, though.

At one point, I freed a Clown from a cage, and he told me about the Kollege's leaders, including the seemingly-immortal Kermit Eli, the founder, and his second in command, Kiwi.

Towards the end of my experience, I wandered into a house where I got captured by some Clowns (the alternative was to fight 2 dozen of them) and relieved of all my weapons except some .45 pistols. This triggered the next obstacle course, which had things like an electrified floor, an exploding phone, an alarm clock so loud it damaged eardrums, and a giant eight-ball that went crashing through numerous walls and opened up the exit. Again, a lot of trial, error, and reloading.

Honestly, what kind of choice is this? When the results of such decisions just have random effects, it simply annoys the player.

I got out and made my way upstairs to something called "Kermit's Big Top," a ring where the Clown's founder first sent two tigers at me (they were easy), then attacked me himself, only he turned out to be a robot, then attacked me for real. None of the combats were terribly difficult.

Later, wandering through a house, I discovered "Granny Astor" imprisoned. My guess is I was supposed to get a quest to rescue her from Gramps Astor back in Miami, but I never did because he refused to speak to me after BL Astor died in my party. Anyway, Granny joined and I returned to Miami to bring her back to her husband. This triggered the endgame sequence.

I assume "N" makes the game unwinnable.

Gramps had me take Granny to the Miami Police (the building stopped giving me quests and just became an NPC dropoff point about midway through the game) and told me to make room for him and Doc Brewhoe. This meant that I had to also get rid of longtime NPC Enrique Ochoa. When my party, Gramps in tow, got to Doc Brewhoe's house, they said it was time to go see the mutants in the Everglades and "put an end to this mutation business."

Through more razor grass we trekked, back to Roger Ribbet and his intelligent animals. Ribbet claimed that Gramps "betrayed" him and threatened to detonate a nuclear bomb, but Gramps relayed how our party wiped out the Clowns and brought law and order to Miami. He offered the same peace to the mutants, saying, "We'll forget about your slavin' if'n you but forsake doin' it and join up with us. We wont' try to make you drink the Water and be voiceless again. But you got to show us where the water comes from so's we can save our race."

Why does the mutated frog appear to be wearing a police uniform and riding a bicycle?

The frog relented and told us that the Fountain was two paces to the north. Of course there was a final battle, against Kiwi Eli and some of the remaining Clowns. It was bloody impossible. Even with my high evasion skills, they wiped us out in the first two rounds every single time. It didn't help that the razor grass had sliced my characters to half hit points before the battle even started. I don't think there's a way to avoid this.

Fountain of Dreams is probably the only RPG where the final battle is against a clown. Let's give credit where it's due.

Eventually, I reloaded, went back to Miami, and stocked up on grenades and plastic explosives. I had to swap out NPCs and sell all the equipment from the extra NPCs to even be able to afford it. Back in the Glades, I finally won the battle on the fourth or fifth attempt by having every character throw explosives every single round.

An earlier version of the battle equipped with "Clown Mega-Uzis" and melee weapons went poorly.

Here's the endgame text:

Before your eyes is an astounding sight. Out of the sheer rock a strea of bright water pours into a pond. The healthiest creatures you have ever seen frolic on the shore. Brewhoe wades into the water and drinks deeply. When he emerges, he is a young man. Gramps grins and says, "I always suspected it was the Fountain of Youth. The bombs must have brought it to the surface. My friends, there may just be some hope for the human race after all." His smile is as warm as the clear, tropical water itself.

Cue the image at the top of this post, a quick "See you later....!," and the DOS prompt.

The smile of a minor, barely-explained NPC is all the reward I need.

Let's get on with my first GIMLET for a long time:

  • 4 points for the game world. Absurd, sure, but you can't say that it's not original. It's the only RPG I know that's set in Florida (I'm sure there are others; I just don't know what they are), and it clumsily attempts to blend elements of Florida history, legend, and culture. It all would have worked in the hands of better story-tellers. I also give the game a little credit for how the world evolves in response to the players' actions, though it's not big enough to really take advantage of this.

I love the idea that a nuclear apocalypse somehow made Miami more ordered and lawful. The game could have done a better job with this theme.

  • 4 points for character creation and development. The skills system is probably the best part of the game, but just like everything else, the creators bungled it a bit. Leveling was badly balanced and skill development was horribly uneven. My "gunsmith" skill increased every single time I used it to unjam a rifle, but "lockpick" and "medic" stubbornly refused to increase, and I ended the game at Level 3 in both. The system of mutations is at least interesting, though I confess I kept forgetting about them. They might have helped in the final battle.

Towards the end of the game, this was a rare but welcome message.

  • 4 points for NPC interaction. Again, they're dumb caricatures, but the system isn't so bad. You learn a lot from NPC conversations, there are cross-NPC relationships that affect the gameplay, and you can enlist a surprising number of them into the party.

I give the game credit for NPCs who respond in various ways to the party's actions.

  • 3 points for encounters and foes. There really aren't enough types of enemies. Most are uninteresting. The non-combat encounters sometimes call skill and inventory use into play, but most are illogical and don't offer any role-playing opportunities the way they did in Wasteland.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. I have never found Interplay's approach to Wizardry-style combat--used in The Bard's Tale, Wasteland, and Dragon Wars--to be very good, and this game copies it exactly. It's slow, boring, and mostly bereft of tactics except deciding whether to expend an entire clip or just a burst. Games that don't feature magic need more weapon and defense options to compensate, but neither Wasteland nor this game went far enough.

I don't think I've had many pictures of non-human enemies, so here's one.

  • 4 points for equipment. Decent selection of arms, armor, explosives, and such. Much like in Wasteland, I ended up carrying a bunch of items around that never seemed to have any purpose, like canteens, empty bottles, ropes, and various toolkits.
  • 4 points for the economy, which was surprisingly strong. Cash disappears quickly enough that I was grinding even towards the end of the game to afford an extra grenade or two. It would have even been tighter if the game had let me purchase some of the skills offered by NPCs, but every time I tried, I was told that it was "unavailable to you at this time."

  • 3 points for quests, which consist of a main quest with several steps, although generally I was confused most of the time as to what they were, and I made my way through the game just by bumbling around until something happened.

The PCs' home gets destroyed at some point during the game. I forgot to mention it along the way.

  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and inputs. The graphics are just okay, stuck in that awkward phase between decent abstract graphics of the mid-1980s and decent realistic graphics of the mid-1990s. There is virtually no sound except an occasional random beep. The controls were intuitive enough.
  • 3 points for gameplay. I give it one for being somewhat nonlinear, though in a game world too small for that to matter. I also give it one for being a bit "replayable" in the sense that I think I missed a lot of stuff and it would be interesting to try again with a walkthrough. It gets one final point for not taking forever to finish. But I can't give it anything on the difficulty scale. It's way too hard--and in a completely random, unpredictable way.

The sum is 35, the score that I generally consider the cutoff between recommended and not recommended. That reflects how I feel. The particularly annoying thing about Fountain of Dreams is that there's a nucleus of a good game here. The story is mostly nonsensical, but it has some decent elements, and it could have been turned into a compelling and interesting plot. The Wasteland-inspired engine and skill system is mostly solid, just poorly used. As such, I must concur with Scorpia's comment in her January 1991 review: "It is the perfect example of grasping the form, but not the substance, of a superior product, and coming up a loser."

I'm having trouble finding an original advertisement for Fountain of Dreams, and I'm very curious how EA marketed it. If they intended the public to see it as a sequel to Wasteland, they were certainly quiet about it, as there's no reference to the previous game in the Fountain manual, on the box, or in the gameplay. My understanding (and this comes from poorly-referenced online sources) is that EA held the copyright for Wasteland--that's why Interplay named its sequel-in-everything-but-name Fallout--so why wouldn't EA have slapped a bit sticker saying "sequel to the #1 hit of 1988!" right on the box?

The game is credited to David Albert and "Banjo" Bob Hardy. Albert has some solid RPG creds. He's listed as the "producer" of Wasteland, so it's not like he had no connection with the previous game, and he was apparently on staff at Origin in the 1990s, with minor credits on Autoduel, the re-release of Ultima I, and Ring Quest. Most important, he wrote the Book of Wisdom for Ultima IV, so it's not like he didn't know how to tell a decent story. I can't find him credited as a programmer or designer on many games, however. Penguin Software's 1982 Transylvania is the first (and he was just one of three); Fountain of Dreams is the second; and there are only a handful after it, none of them RPGs. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, he moves to a more executive/management role, with credits all the way through 2007, though never another RPG.

"Banjo Bob" has a shorter c.v., with conversion credits for a series of Penguin Software and Origin games before Fountain of Dreams appears as the first project on which he seems to have taken a lead. Afterwards, he shows up as one of the programmers on the Sega version of Doom, and that's it. In both cases, a lack of strong RPG design experience plus a lack of strong experience as a primary developer or programmer suggests that both developers might have been slightly out of their league when it came to crafting a Wasteland sequel. But this is all just speculation, and I'd love to see a source that describes the design process in more detail.

Between the two of them, do you agree that it's more likely the one nicknamed "Banjo" who came up with this?

It's not going to be long before we see a second attempt to make money on the Wasteland engine: EA's Escape from Hell will be coming up within a few months, designed by a completely different team (although with Albert as a producer). It will, alas, be a long time before we come to an actual sequel--either Fallout (1997) or Wasteland 2 (2014), depending on how technical you want to get.

For now, we're going to have a one-shot on Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Treasures of Tarmin (1983) before moving on to another low-rated RPG of 1990, MegaTraveller I. Is there any light on the rest of the 1990 list? I guess we'll just have to wait and see.