Sunday, February 28, 2010

Wizardry: Going Slow, Mapping

I'm really having trouble picturing this encounter.

I hope no one feared that my lack of posting this week signaled a waning interest in this project. It was, rather, a result of some unexpected business travel arriving right after some expected business travel. It's one thing to play games when you ought to be working on the quarterly report; it's another thing to do so when your colleagues are waiting for you in the bar.

One thing is certain: Wizardry isn't going to go as fast as Ultima I. I have finished mapping two of what I guess are 10 levels, which sounds like I'm about 20% done, but I have a feeling it's going to get harder as I press forward. A few things I've discovered:

  • My strategy of rotating my characters is working well. On the couple of occasions in which my entire party has been wiped out, it's been relatively easy (albeit slow and expensive) to rescue and resurrect them. Hopefully this deals with the permanent death problem through the rest of the game.
  • Getting poisoned gets old fast. My useless rogue seems to trip every poison needle trap, and there are several creatures that poison you. My priest hasn't acquired the cure poison spell yet, so every poisoning means a trip back up to the surface. Thankfully, paralysis wasn't the problem that it used to be.
  • Your characters age in this game, when they change classes or spend a week resting in the inn. I'm guessing there's a danger (if somewhat remote) if getting too old and dying. I remember that happening decades ago in Might and Magic. I can't think of other games where the characters get older.
  • When you embark from the castle, your spellcasters have a certain allotment of spells per level. As far as I can tell, the only way to refresh this allotment is to return to the castle. This forces you to "budget" your spells as you adventure because there's no "resting" in the dungeon.
  • Leveling is a bit odd. You have to rest in the inn to gain levels, and when you do your statistics change--not always for the better. Sometimes you gain strength but lose vitality, or gain agility but lose intelligence. I'm not sure how the game decides what you gain and lose. One theory is that it's based on what you used (e.g., someone who "(f)ights" a lot gains strength), but that seems awfully advanced for a CRPG of this era.
What I really want to talk about tonight is mapping, though. It's one of the things I enjoy the most about old CRPGs and one of the things I miss the most when playing new ones. It would of course be functionally impossible to map Oblivion or Baldur's Gate without the automap, but manual mapping works great in these older, "tile-based" games.

Wizardry levels are arranged on a 20 x 20 Cartesian grid and the DUMAPIC spell tells you where you are on the x- and y-axes. Games that I remember sharing these square, limited grids are the "gold box" Dungeons & Dragons games and the Might and Magic series through #5. This makes mapping them somewhat easy. As I posted before, I'm using Excel to draw the maps on the computer screen, although it's been hard to find a border style that makes a good door. I use letters to indicate special encounters.

Level 2 of the Wizardry dungeon.

If I recall correctly (and I could be wrong), the Might and Magic games used every square, so if you found yourself walling off an area, it was a sure sign of a secret door. Wizardry doesn't seem to use every square, although walled-off areas are sometimes signs of secret doors (I didn't have any on this level). If you have a walled-off area, you have to test it by (k)icking at every wall square around its perimeter (something I have fun picturing my characters doing). If, having done so, you can't find a way in, it's a good sign that those squares aren't used. I color them in at that point. But there's always a chance that some alternate staircase or teleporter will toss you into that area (perhaps with a one-way secret door for an exit).

The maps in Wizardry also have another odd characteristic: they double back on themselves. If you look at the one above, space 0,10 is theoretically at the westernmost extent of the map. But there's an opening to the west. Take it, and you find yourself at square 19,10. Without the DUMAPIC spell, this would all be a little tough to figure out.

I suspect I'm going to run out of things to say about the game long before I win it, but I don't want to wait too long between postings. So here's a discussion topic for the next post: coming up with character names. How do you do it? Probably some of you can figure out where the names of my party at the top of this post came from, but this isn't my usual modus operandi.

Later edit: I was getting cocky, apparently. Level 3, in addition to featuring numerous pit traps, plays host to legions of ninjas who can decapitate your characters with a single blow. I've run out of money to use for resurrection, and it will take hours of killing low-level monsters to build up my finances again. I'm going to sleep on it, but Telengard (the next game on my list) is starting to look really good right now.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Wizardry: Dead Means Dead

In my introductory post, speaking about the difficulties of balancing CRPGs with my busy schedule, I wrote, "If my problem was that CRPGs were competing with my to do list, they would become part of my to do list." My success in this area was made manifest over the last few days. Traveling on both pleasure and business, I didn't have any time to play, let alone blog, and (absurdly) I started to worry about how far beind in CRPG playing I was falling. I'm back, thankfully, and continuing to try my hand at Wizardry.

Through some experimentation, I figured out how the game's "save" works. Basically, every time you end your session and leave the game, it saves whatever has happened to your party through that point, including if your entire party is dead. You cannot choose when to save and, therefore, when to reload, so death is more-or-less permanent (more on that in a sec). The really odd thing: Wizardry saves the game even if I force DOSBox to quit instead of leaving through the normal method. How does it do this? Isn't forcing DOSBox to quit essentially like killing the power?

Whatever the mechanism, the only way to preserve your save game, apparently, is to make a copy of the save file before you go adventuring. That way you can restore it if things go ill. That would be cheating, though, and cheating is against my rules.

But here's the thing that makes Wizardry unique among role-playing games: when your characters die, their bodies remain in the dungeon, and another party can "find" them! I discovered this quite by accident when my third party wandered into the room where the second party had been killed, chose to (I)nspect (I thought it was for secret doors) and found their brutalized corpses.

"Let's just check over here and see if there's any treas--....oh, yuck."


Apparently, I can recover these dead characters, get their equipment, and take their bodies up to the temple for resurrection. Unfortunately, this only helps to the extent that your new characters can survive long enough to reach the dead ones. And by that time they're probably about the same level as the dead ones, so you don't need the dead ones anymore anyway.

Still, a strategy becomes clear. I must create double the number of characters as the party will accommodate (6). Every time I leave the dungeon, I'll rotate a few out and a few more in, keeping their experience levels as equal as possible. That way, if one party is slaughtered, the other can go rescue them. Unlike Rogue, I won't need to keep starting over at level 1.

I thought you might be curious what the gameplay looks like, so I took a movie of about 4.5 minutes. When you see the cursor moving around, I'm not actually clicking on anything, of course--the game is all keyboard-driven. I'm just trying to give you a sense of what options I'm choosing.



I'll keep playing away at Wizardry and let you know what other cool things I find.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Wizardry: This Is Going to Take a While

Yeah, so Wizardry is a bit of a bitch. Here's what I've discovered bumbling my way through the first level:

  • There's no real way to save the game. When you come out of the dungeon and return to the town, your characters are saved, but the dungeon itself is reset. There is no way to save your progress while in the dungeon. And here's the kicker: if your characters die, they die permanently. You cannot quit the game and reload to save them.
  • When you encounter monsters, only your front three characters can directly engage them. The back characters can use spells, but they only get a couple of spells each at the first level, and these run out quickly. There doesn't seem to be any missile weapons in the game.
  • Practically every chest is trapped, usually with a poison needle, and half the time my thief trips it and gets poisoned.
  • The magic system is interesting. To cast a spell, you must type its name. Luckily I found some spell cards online.
  • When you engage in combat, you tell the game what you want each of your characters to do in the next round, such as (f)ight, (p)arry, or cast a (s)pell. You then execute these actions all at once.
  • There are fixed encounters at certain points on the map. Sometimes these encounters turn out to be with "friendly" monsters, but otherwise there is no way to avoid them.
 
I must admit, though, I'm a sucker for games that allow me to map on graph paper. I just enjoy making these maps and annotating what I find in each square. Lacking any graph paper, and not really wanting to carry it around with me, I hit upon the solution of using Excel to create the maps. I'm making each worksheet a level, and using the border options to draw the walls and doors.

Modern-day graph paper

You can see I didn't get very far. First trip out, I mapped the bottom corridor and killed some kobolds. So far, so good. I went back up to the surface to save and identify a piece of armor at the store. Second trip, I went back to the same place, got ambushed by two groups of "small humanoids," and all of my characters were slaughtered.

Party 1 about to enjoy its first--and only--successful battle

I generated a second party and had a little more luck, winning about six battles.


 
But none of my characters had even leveled before the inevitable happened:


 
Damn. This is a little discouraging. Well, when I have time I'll generate a third set of characters and try again. Having to buy the same equipment over and over is getting a little old, though.

I shouldn't even be playing this. I should be practicing crosswords. No more posts this weekend, and I mean it this time.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Game 5: Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981)

And yet somehow I started playing without making a scenario disk.

At last: a multi-character game! First released in 1981, Wizardry would seem to be the precursor to all first-person multi-character games, like Bard's Tale and Might and Magic. I couldn't find an original manual for Wizardry, but this site gives a basic breakdown of the plot: Lord Trebor, the "mad overlord" of the title, has become obsessed with a powerful amulet that he briefly possessed, only to have it stolen by the evil wizard Werdna (one guess where those names came from). Werdna has fled to the depths of the dungeons beneath Trebor's castle. Trebor's heroes have managed to secure the first four levels of the dungeons but no one can survive below that; the first four levels, seeded with monsters and laced with traps, are the "proving grounds" of the title: a place where would-be heroes can demonstrate their worth to venture deeper into the dungeon and recover the amulet.

I spent a little time tonight making a party of six characters:

Yes, I know I could stand to be a little more clever with character names.

But this is as far as I got before sleep beckoned. When I return to the game, I may keep these characters or start over. I'm not sure I did it right.

Thanks to everyone who has followed my new blog during its first week. I will probably not post for a few days, as over the weekend I will be playing games of a different sort: I am going to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in New York City. Come next week, though, I'm back in the dungeons.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ultima: Won!

In the few hours since I've posted, I:

  • Finished six quests
  • Wielded a light saber
  • Flew a space shuttle
  • Shot 20 tie fighters and became a space ace
  • Slaughtered a jester and six guards in cold blood--three times
  • Rescued a princess--three times
  • Went back in time
  • Killed Mondain and shattered his gem
  • Chased a bat around hell for what seemed like forever
  • Won the game

Before I break it down, I want to point you all to a fun, if old, web document that I found after winning the game. I was curious what others had to say about the disappearance of dwarves, elves, and hobbits from the Sosaria/Britannia after Ultima I (or after Ultimas I-III, it turns out), and also the absurdities involved with starting in a medieval world as an elf wizard and ultimately journeying into space.


15 years old now, this FAQ was written by an Ultima apologist who tried to find logical consistency in the elements of the first few Ultimas. He or she tries to answer why the non-human player races disappeared (a combination of continental destruction and self-isolation), why space shuttles and air cars show up in Ultima I (Mondain, intent on world domination, altered dimensional doors to travel to the future and bring back technology), and why Ultima II takes place on Earth--but ah, we haven't gotten to Ultima II yet. Fun stuff, and I'm sure I'll refer to it again.

Anyway, I won a lot more quickly than I expected after my last post. First, I kept visiting the Pillar of the Argonauts and got, in succession, a triangle (no idea, but it did some serious damage to a few pirate ships), a pistol, a "light sword," a phazor, and a blaster. The last two turned out to do more damage than the lasers on my air car, but I have to confess I kept myself primarily armed (until the end) with my light sword, enjoying the thought of going all Luke Skywalker on orcs and evil rangers.

I next spelunked some dungeons and finished the quests that each of the kings gave me. For each king that wanted me to kill a monster, when I returned to him I found out something more about the main quest:

  • Rondarin: "The time machine must be used in order to win."
  • Lost King: "It requires four gems to launch the time machine" (each king gave me a gem, too).
  • Black Dragon: "The princess will help a Space Ace through time."
  • Shamino: mutley gives me a white gem.




I also discovered a White Dragon castle, which I'm again pretty sure (I'll bet you're sick of me saying this) returns in Ultima VII.

Becoming a Space Ace involved purchasing a space shuttle from Britain, launching it, docking with the International Space Station, and paying 500 coins to rent an X-wing with lasers. You think I'm kidding, but there it is on the bottom.



Alas, on my first trip, my elf wizard forgot some of the more elementary principles of astrophysics:



My second time, I remembered to purchase and wear a vacuum suit, but then I accidentally flew into the sun. My third trip, I didn't bring enough gold for more than one ship rental, which turned out to be too little. Success followed my fourth trip.

To become a "Space Ace," I had to shoot down 20 tie fighters. When I mentioned tie fighters in yesterday's posting, you probably thought I was kidding. Hell, I thought I was kidding. But there it is.



Killing them with cursor controls turned out to be a bit of a pain, but ultimately I got through it and returned to Sosaria. Of this space silliness, the manual says, "'Tis said that the Evil One [Mondain] has formed alliances with starwalking monsters of unparalleled savagery. These malicious creatures stand poised to swoop down upon our people and devastate them." With light swords, tie fighters, and X-wings, does anyone else want to venture the opinion that Mondain is a Sith lord? It really makes perfect sense. He even has an evil apprentice. And in Ultima VI it turns out that the gargoyles worship him; their three principles of virtue are control, diligence, and passion--which sounds an awful lot like the Code of the Sith presented in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Anyone with me?

Anyway, here's where the game gets ugly. The Black Dragon king said the princess would help me through time. The princess is locked in Lord British's castle (actually, every castle, but LB's is the one I went to). The jester--who, it also turns out, has been stealing my equipment--keeps yelling "I have the key!" Hence, I need to get the key from the jester. I can't talk to him, and (s)teal doesn't work. The only way I could determine to get it was to kill him.

This is going to hurt you more than it hurts me.

As you can see, I gunned him down right in front of Lord British. This caused the royal guards to attack me, and I had to massacre them, too. But in the end I unlocked the princess's cell and led her to safety.



This is great and all, but do you think maybe Lord British could have just given me the princess? I mean, I'm there at his behest to save the world and all. And the worst part is the jester was named "Gwino." Now it's a slightly different spelling, but I'm pretty sure I blasted Iolo's wife. Presumably Lord British resurrected her after I left.

After I got the princess to safety, she told me...well, I don't know. The screen only stayed up for a fraction of a second. I must have the frame rate set too high in DOSBox. Long story short, I had to repeat this gruesome process three times before I finally figured out she was telling me the time machine was to the northwest. As you'll soon see, I now had three time machines.

The end of the game was remarkably simple: enter the time machine, blast Mondain until he turns into a bat (yeah, the Sith Lord theory breaks down there), (g)et his gem to destroy it, and keep firing away until Mondain was dead. But don't rely on my banal description: you can watch it! I downloaded some video recording software so I can record the ends (and other notable moments) of all the CRPGs I win.


Lord British's accolades ring a bit hollow since he did absolutely zip to help me kill Mondain. All he did was send me off to a graveyard and give me some strength and watch passively while I mass-murdered his castle. It was all the other kings who gave me the tips I needed to win. Here's hoping you develop some virtues as you get older, young LB.

Verdict: Should you play Ultima I? Absolutely, without question, if you intend to play any of the later Ultima games. It introduces you to the lore of the land and the basic mythology of what will become Britannia. The dungeon crawls are fun and the space stuff is silly but inoffensive. Finally, as you've seen, it takes a mere few hours to win.

Next up: Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord.

*****

Posts on Ultima: One | Two | Three

Further reading: The story continues with Ultima II (1982), Ultima III (1983), Ultima IV (1985), Ultima V (1988), Ultima VI (1990), and somewhere in there we have the dreadful Ultima: Escape from Mount Drash (1983). For a British copy of the original Ultima, see The Ring of Darkness (1982).

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ultima I: Hit Points and Progress

There aren't many common elements that you find in every RPG, but hit points (or "life points," or "vitality," or whatever you call them) may be one of them (if there are any exceptions, let me know). You even find them in non-RPG first-person shooters, although you usually see something like a "health bar" instead of an actual number. This seems obvious to any modern gamer, but remember that to those of us who grew up with parlor video games, and then early console games, the basic unit of health was the "life." In Galaga, or Space Invaders, or Pac-Man, you got three "lives"--and every time the enemy scored a hit, you didn't just lose some portion of your health. You died. Die three times and game over.

Even the earliest CRPG-ish games were "life" focused. Ghosts 'n Goblins is a good example. (I'd have a mansion in Santa Barbara now if I had just invested the quarters I spent on that game as a kid.) You started the game with three lives, and each life started with a suit of armor. Get hit once, you lose your armor. Get hit a second time, you were dead. You basically had two hit points.

Real "hit points" came from pen-and-paper RPGs, of course. Hit points are the glue that holds all RPGs together. They turn action games into strategic games, allowing you to experiment and take risks. And within the game, they are the end-all be-all. When you think about it, almost everything else you acquire or do ultimately boils down to hit points. You buy the best armor to preserve your hit points as long as possible. You seek the best weapons and spells so you can reduce the enemies' hit points before they reduce yours. You quest for rings that protect you from fire, frost, paralysis, and poison--all to minimize your loss of hit points. You level up to increase your maximum hit points. In almost any RPG, if you didn't have to worry about hit points, there wouldn't be any reason not to stroll through the game with cloth armor and a dagger. If anyone ever makes a movie about CRPGs, they ought to call it Hit Points.

Last night I defended Ultima I's practice of awarding hit points, upon exiting a dungeon, for all the monsters you killed while in the dungeon. I rationalized that it "cuts out the middle man" of experience and levels, which hit points are based on. But I realized a flaw in my logic: experience and levels in other games change your maximum hit points, not the number you currently have. The latter is just absurd. And there are no healing spells or potions in Ultima I, making it the only game I know in which when you're low on hit points, you'd better head straight for the nearest dungeon and find some monsters to fight!

Grey Star emerges from a session of dungeon crawling...healthier.

As I write tonight's blog entry, I have 2,556 hit points, up from the 100 I started the game with. Based on the counter, which only has four digits, I'm guessing you can get a maximum of 9,999 hit points. That's some serious health. And you can just buy them! When I was a kid, we had to earn our hit points. Oh...wait. Right.

Anyway, my plan last night was to buy a frigate, but when I got to Scooter's Super Duper Transport, Inc. in Brtiain I discovered they had both aircars and shuttles available. I had forgotten--probably "blocked"--the space-based element of Ultima I. It comes at you with no warning, really. One moment you're fighting orcs with a sword, and the next you're floating about in an air car, shooting your enemies with lasers. People who have never played Ultima I are assuming I'm drunk, but I swear I'm not making this up. After a few hours of play, I lost any need to attack outdoor enemies with regular weapons.

Eat pulses of electromagnetic radiation, thou knave!

So basically I've been flying around and exploring the map. The map--like all Ultimas until Ultima VI--is based on discrete tiles. There are about 250 north-south and 300 east-west, for a total of 75,000 in the game. Bigger than I remembered. Too many to map. I feel like I should also mention for those readers who have never played old CRPGs that all the moves are turn-based. If you just sit in place, the rest of the game world does not continue on around you.

The game consists of four main continents: the Lands of Lord British, the Lands of the Dark Unknown, the Lands of Danger and Despair, and the Lands of the Feudal Lords. Each land has at least one castle with a king who gives you a quest. I completed my quest for Lord British--to find the Grave of the Lost Soul--quite easily. He gave me +10 strength and sent me out again...to find the Grave of the Lost Soul. So much for finding answers. I'm still not clear how to progress in the main quest to kill Mondain, but perhaps once I finish all the various lords' quests once, I'll get some kind of hint. I remember that eventually I'm going to have to buy a space shuttle and head off to shoot some relfighters (again, not making this up).

Some other things:

  • I bought a wand but I can't figure out for the life of me how to use it. I can (r)eady it, but neither (a)ttack or (f)ire seems to work with it. In fact, the game asks me incredulously, "Attack with wand?!" like I'm some kind of idiot.
Screw you, Ultima. What else am I going to do with it?

  • Even squids and sea monsters give you money. I don't know if they carry it around or if the game is assuming I sell their ink and hides.
  • You cannot board pirate ships. That must be in a later Ultima. If you try, they just barrage you with cannons until you die.
  • In addition to air cars and space shuttles, you can buy vacuum suits and reflect suits. Just right over the counter.
  • If you try to (s)teal from the storerooms of a town or castle, you are swarmed by guards who pummel you to death.
  • I know I mentioned this yesterday, but I'm still tickled that Ultima VII's Montor and Fawn show up here in Ultima I. So does Paws from Ultima IV, and there's a city called Moon that I think appears in Ultima III. There are lots of other cities, people, and locations that I don't remember ever appearing again: the City of Wealth, the City of Poor, the City of Imagination, the Pillar of Ozymandais, the City of Snake, the Lost King, the Black Dragon (a king), the Castle of Olympus. But it's been years since I played an Ultima game, so maybe I'm wrong.
  • Shamino is here! And he's a king! (He wants me to kill a balron.) And suddenly yet another subplot of Ultima VII makes a lot more sense.
  • There are a bunch of signposts on small islands that give you bumps in stats when you (e)nter them (took me a while to figure that out). There's also one that gives you a weapon every time you visit. I think it gives the next best weapon that you don't have. So if you don't have a dagger, it gives you a dagger. If you have a dagger, it gives you an axe. It takes a while to reset. I kept leaving and coming back before I realized I could probably just buy all the lower weapons and see what it gives me at the high end. I did that, made my way back to the post, and it gave me...a dagger. Dammit! Turns out when thieves attack you, they steal all of the non-readied armor and weapons you have. I have to go buy them all again and try again (this time without popping in to a dungeon first).

I'm well past six hours, but I like the game too much to stop, and anyway, it's the first game in the Ultima series. I have to finish this one.

Can anyone else remember any references from an early game in an CRPG series to show up years later?

*****

Posts on UltimaOne | Two | Three


Further reading: The story continues with Ultima II (1982), Ultima III (1983), Ultima IV (1985), Ultima V (1988), Ultima VI (1990), and somewhere in there we have the dreadful Ultima: Escape from Mount Drash (1983). For a British copy of the original Ultima, see The Ring of Darkness (1982). 

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Game 4: Ultima I (1981)




My little project encompasses...I don't know...probably more than 500 games. I haven't counted them yet; I don't want to discourage myself. But considering the sheer number of games on the list, I was surprised how quickly I found myself playing a game I had already played. I assumed I would have to slog through dozens of unfamiliar titles before I got to something I remembered. But here I am, starting one of the best CRPG series of all time, replaying Ultima for the first time in over 10 years.

The original Ultima came out in 1981. I'm playing the 1986 re-release for DOS, downloaded (along with a suspiciously contemporary manual) from some abandonware site. From what I understand, the gameplay is the same, but the graphics were notably improved.

The manual follows the usual practice of explaining the somewhat limited game world in vivid and florid prose. Of orcs, it says: "Tribal by nature, they are sub-human at best, just a slight cut above true bestiality. They abhor all things human and cultured and will lay waste to anything fashioned by human hands. 'Tis said that they relish the taste of human flesh." In the real game, of course, orcs are little icons against which you hit (A)ttack over and over until they are dead, with no other interaction or depth. This isn't to say the manual isn't fun. If you're of a mind, whenever an orc approaches you can make up a little conversation to have with it. (It will end with the orc sniffing and shouting, "manflesh!", naturally.)

This one page has more text than the entire on-screen game. I'm not complaining; just saying.

I'm surprised at how many oddities I didn't remember. The character creation process allows you to choose from among elf, hobbit, and dwarf races in addition to humans--anyone remember any of these races in later Ultimas? I don't often play nonhuman spellcasting classes in single-player CRPGs, so I thought I'd go against type on this one. Oddly, it later appears my wizard character can still use any weapons and armor. I'm not sure what the downsides are to being a wizard.



The top-down game perspective starts you off in the middle of a plain on the continent of Sosaria, knowing only that your ultimate goal is to defeat the scourge of Sosaria: Mondain, an evil wizard who has unleashed unnatural monsters on the land. A few steps away are Lord British's castle and, right next to it...the City of Britain?! Really?! Was this something changed in the remake to make it more like Ultima IV-VII, or were these two locations always side-by-side? In any event, it's time to role play. You're a new adventurer seeking to rid Sosaria of an evil tyrant. First thing to do is to have a chat with the young benevolent sovereign that the manual has gone on about: Lord British. I wandered into his castle hoping to gain some insight into my quest, but I was immediately and tersely told by His Highness to go find the Grave of the Lost Soul and not return until I had. I guess a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

Lord British's castle and the City of Britain. Alas, no one's telling me anything about mantras and runes yet.

The interaction is pretty basic keyboard-only stuff. I failed to remember that you cannot talk to any characters except the king and some merchants. But even here there are fun little touches. Iolo the Bard, your stalwart companion from Ultima IV onward, shows up in every town singing "ho eyoh he hum" (it's an anagram; get it?) in the background. Here's the city of Paws, which I remember located south of Lord British's castle in Ultima IV, and here's Yew, the future home of the druids. And why does the City of Fawn sound a forgotten echo in my brain? Do we encounter that again in Ultima VII? (Edit: we do! And Montor, too! Now I know where those cities come from. I just got a little tingle.) (But I have to force myself not to mess around on that Ultima wiki; too many spoilers.) The shops, although they all sell essentially the same things at the same prices, distinguish themselves with colorful names: Li'L Karelia's Finnish Grocery, Cold Steel Creations, Fastest Freshest Food Market, Mystic Melinda's.

In the castle of the Lost King.

Almost immediately you begin starving. Why are all these early CRPGs so obssessed with food? Every two steps consumes a meal, so at the beginning, almost all the gold you have goes into food. Only when you have more than 1000 meals on hand do you start to feel comfortable buying better weapons, armor, and (in my case) spells. Fortunately, if you buy some method of transport like a horse, it cuts down on your food use.

I don't want to spoil how this battle turned out, but...

Looks like meat's back on the menu, boys!

Hit points are awarded the same way they were in Akalabeth: you descend into a dungeon, slay some monsters, and return to the surface. It seems a silly way to do it, but keep in mind that there are no experience points or levels in these early CRPGs. Hit points are your only measure of advancement. Since in later CRPGs, hit points are dependent upon your level, which is dependent upon your experience, which is dependent upon slaying monsters, this method actually makes sense--it just cuts out the middle man. You can also get hit points by bribing Lord British for them. In just the last post, I was lamenting how most games don't give you much to do with all the money you make. Already I find one that proves me wrong. Also, as a mage, I need to keep buying spells if I want to use them. You can never have too many "kill" spells!

Like Akalabeth, dungeons are first-person. Like the towns and shops, they have creative and forboding names: the Dungeon of Perinia, the Mines of Mt. Drash, the Unholy Hole. Monsters are more randomized than in Akalabeth, and there are fun add-ins like coffins, chests (which are usually trapped), and magic barriers. Monsters regenerate on levels so you're never truly safe--you never known when one is going to sneak up behind you and start walloping you. Stray too far in a dungeon and you won't be able to get out in time (although the mage spell "ladder up" seems to help a lot).

Rats again. Every game has rats.

I explored a bit, made a few forays into dungeons, died a couple of times and was resurrected with only 99 hit points and food, and got an additional quest from someone called "The Lost King" (does he ever show up again in a later Ultima?) to kill a gelatinous cube. In both castles I've visted, a mysterious princess is being held captive in a guarded prison, and I remember vaguely that I have to do something with her later, but I forget what. In any event, it's clear that the Grave of the Lost Soul isn't on this island, so I have a plan: screw around in the dungeons until I have at least 1000 hit points and 2000 gold; spend the latter on food and a frigate, and set out to explore the rest of this world. Already I'm having more fun than in Akalabeth, Rogue, and Temple of Apshai combined.

*****

Posts on Ultima: One | Two | Three

Further reading: The story continues with Ultima II (1982), Ultima III (1983), Ultima IV (1985), Ultima V (1988), Ultima VI (1990), and somewhere in there we have the dreadful Ultima: Escape from Mount Drash (1983). For a British copy of the original Ultima, see The Ring of Darkness (1982).

Monday, February 15, 2010

Game 3: Temple of Apshai Trilogy (1981)



Note from 19 February 2013: Three years after I first posted about the Temple of Apshai trilogy below, I re-visited it briefly in a posting that covers both the original Temple of Apshai and two other games using the same engine, all released in 1979. If you're reading my blog from the beginning and want to get a full picture of this series, I strongly recommend that you read the second posting as well. I don't know exactly why I listed 1981 as the date of this game; the original Temple of Apshai was released in 1979; The Upper Reaches of Apshai came out in 1981; and The Curse of Ra was a 1982 game. As you can see on the title screen, these were assembled into the "Trilogy" in 1985.

This was my first posting while playing a game specifically for this blog. I didn't have my "voice" yet. If you're a new reader, please stick with me until at least Ultima IV before you decide whether my blog is "good."

The rest of the text below is the original 15 February 2010 posting.

***

Temple of Apshai begins by inviting you to cheat in the worst possible way. When you first start, you can generate a character randomly or "enter thine own character." The manual helpfully explains that you might want to import a character from some other adventure. I don't know whether the creators really thought legions of pen-and-paper RPG players would import their characters to Temple of Apshai or whether they were just providing some easy way to cheat, but choosing this option allows you to give yourself the highest statistics, all the equipment, and as much money and experience as you want.

Generally, I don't regard it as "cheating" if you use features the game provides to you, but in this case to get the full challenge of the game, I chose a random character. Out of 18 maximum, I got 8 for intelligence and intuition, 13 for ego, 14 for strength, 11 for constitution, 12 for dexterity, and 43 silver pieces. Sounds like I'm a fighter, maybe a barbarian. I chose the name "Gnarge" 'cause it sounds like something a barbarian would say. The game has you purchase your equipment from an innkeeper via an all-text interface, and in short order you're in one of three temples, each with four levels.

Gnarge the Barbarian prepares to sally forth.


Almost immediately, I discovered something unique about Temple of Apshai. Each of the rooms and corridors, all numbered, have corresponding textual descriptions in the game manual. For instance, you start off in Room #1, of which the manual says: "The smooth stonework of the passageway floor shows that advanced methods were used in its creation. A skeleton sprawls on the floor just inside the door, a bony hand still clutching a rusty dagger, outstretched toward the door to safety. A faint roaring sound can be heard from the far end of the passage." Other descriptions even reference items that you find in the rooms and hint at the presence of certain monsters, treasures, or secret doors. For instance, a warning about hole in the floor and "a very long drop" prompted me to search for, and find, a trap, and a note that "the west wall of the cavern shows the marks of carving tools" clued me in to the presence of a secret door. It's vaguely fun trying to figure out of "the air smells of decaying vegetable matter" indicates something important or not.

The treasures have descriptions, too. "A beautiful cloak, wondrously light, yet tough as nails," the manual says of an early find. (Too bad I can't wear it.) The effect is to make Temple of Apshai like a graphics-enabled version of pen-and-paper RPGs. In some ways, it reminds me of the adventurers' journals that accompanied the "Gold Box" D&D games, which I still remember fondly. The rooms in TOA change quickly, though, and it's tough to keep up with all of them.

The gameplay essentially consists of wandering through the passages, fighting monsters, and gathering treasure from chests. When you leave the temple and return to the inn, the innkeeper automatically converts your treasure to silver, which you can then use to purchase better equipment or more healing salves. I've been playing for a few hours, and I think that's all there is to it. As you fight monsters (mostly mosquitos and rats on Level 1) and get hit, your health slowly decreases from 100%. Healing salves only bump it up by a few percentages, so eventually you have to make your way back to the entrance and return to the inn to rest and save. When you do, the dungeon completely resets. According to the manual, the innkeeper is supposed to be assigning me experience for the monsters I've slain in each sortie, but no matter how long I spend in the dungeon or how many monsters I kill, my experience points remain fixed at 0.

Gnarge fights the scourge of all first-level adventurers.


After but a few hours of game play, I have more silver than I need to buy all of the items the innkeeper sells. I don't know yet whether there are any other places to buy items in the game, but I suspect not. Having too much money is one of the things I can't stand about most CRPGs. There should always be something new to buy, some way to spend your money. But almost every CRPG I know reaches a point--often fairly early--in which it no longer makes any sense to accumulate wealth. The only exceptions I know off the top of my head are the Hordes of the Underdark expansion to Neverwinter Nights, in which you can keep upgrading your weapons with more money, and Might and Magic VI, in which you can convert your money to experience via a magic well.

Other oddities to Temple of Apshai: I bought a bow and arrows but I can't seem to hit anything no matter how many arrows I shoot (which is too bad because monsters don't seem to advance while you're shooting at them). Even with melee weapons, I seem to get into positions in which all of my strikes, even against the basest of monsters, miss. You can talk to monsters, even ones like bats and rats that shouldn't logically be able to speak. They generally say "ye may pass" but then attack you anyway. I've noticed that the rooms go in rough order, so if you suddenly skip from Room 3 to Room 9, that's a good sign there was a secret door back in Room 3 leading to Rooms 4-8. The game seems to often think I've pressed the "H" key even when I haven't, forcing me to use up a healing salve.

Our intrepid adventurer is about to be slain by Pedobear.

Already I'm suspecting that there is no way to "win" Temple of Apshai. The manual doesn't give any suggestion that there is an ultimate goal except to continue to gain experience (which I can't seem to do) and, I guess, explore every crevace of the three dungeons. My rules say I have to devote a minimum of six hours to a game, so I'll keep playing until I get sick of it or discover hidden depths. If there's any of the latter, I'll write a second posting on Apshai. Otherwise, it's on to the original Ultima.*

*Someone who responded to my original posting on Reddit suggested I would really enjoy Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Alas, there doesn't seem to have been a DOS port for that game.

*****

Further reading: An expanded post on Temple of Apshai (1979) and two spin-offs, Datestones of Ryn and Morloc's Tower where you can see the original version, not the DOS repackaging that we have here. The Apshai narrative continues with Hellfire Warrior (1980) and the disastrous Gateway to Apshai (1983). Relative to my last line above, I did eventually play Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1981).

Rogue: Story and Gameplay

There are many versions of Rogue floating about. The original was published in 1980; the one I ended up playing was a 1985 DOS-based re-release (I'm playing in order of original release, not in order of the particular edition I find). The instruction manual sets up the story: you are a rogue, plunging in to the Dungeon of Doom to retrieve the Amulet of Yendor, stolen in some distant times past from surface folk by the Dungeon Lord. I admit to a certain weakness for little stories like this at the beginning of instruction manuals. Always, in the beginning days of CRPGs, the written story in the manual promised drama, variety, and actual role-playing that the gameplay didn't really deliver.

There is no character creation per se. You give your rogue a name, and you find yourself in a randomly-generated Level 1 of the Dungeon of Doom, with the same statistics and equipment every time.

Entering the appropriately-named Dungeons of Doom.

The game has a top-down perspective. Your character is represented by a little smiley face, treasures and items by various characters, and monsters by capital letters corresponding to their names--"V" for vampire, "H" for hobgoblin, and so on. There are some weird ones: what are (K)estrels and (E)mus doing in a dungeon, and why are they attacking me? There are also a few found, as far as I can tell, only in Rogue, like (A)quators (those armor-destroying sons of bitches) and (U)r-viles.

You interact with the world through simple keyboard commands: "t" to throw a weapon, "w" to wield a weapon, but "W" to wear armor, and so on. The goal is to navigate your way around, finding treasure (and especially food) until you find the stairs to the next level of the dungeon. As you descend, the monsters get progressively harder--while, oddly, the treasures don't seem to get much better; you can just as easily find a suit of plate mail on Level 1 as you can on Level 25. (This, incidentally, turns out to be the only real way to win the game.)

The simplicity of the commands and the turn-based nature of Rogue is what I think make it so addictive. It's a game that you can easily play for 10 or 15 minutes at a time while waiting for some code to compile or someone to show up for a meeting. There's even a "supervisor" key that changes the screen to what looks like a DOS prompt (although having a DOS window open at all would be suspicious now days!). The game isn't even designed as if you're expected to win. Instead, the purpose seems to be to get the highest score possible when you either win or die. The game records your score (defined by your level and gold pieces) every time you sleep the Big Sleep. One can easily envision a time when there were thousands of Rogue players each boasting their new high score.

I wanted to win, though, and so every time I bit the dust, I howled my frustration to the walls of my study and started over again at Level 1. I lost track of how many characters--many of them maddeningly close to the Amulet of Yendor--died on me, but it must have been 50 at least.

Gold, which in early games I was delighted to see accumulating so quickly, has no value except for points. Well in to my first week of Rogue, I kept thinking I'd find a merchant somewhere who would sell me better equipment or identify my items. No such luck. What you find is dependent upon what the map randomly generates. Sometimes you might find a two-handed sword +1 on the first level; other times, you'll find three poison potions and a cursed dagger.

Our hero takes a chance on an unidentified wand and ends up polymorphing a bat into one of the most difficult monsters in the game. Time to try again...

The luck of the draw turned out to be my salvation. On my umpteenth try, my character found both a ring and an ID scroll on Level 1. The ring turned out to be a Ring of Slow Digestion, which greatly decreased the need for constant food. With this need out of the way, I could linger on levels, slay more easy monsters, and increase my level (and hit points) faster. I could also afford to take the time to search for traps and secret doors where before my life had been a constant race to find the next bit of food. I was also extremely lucky on the next few levels finding Potions of Gain Strength, Scrolls of Increase Armor, and Scrolls of Increase Weapon which significantly boosted my stats. I learned to take off my armor at the first sight of an aquator, lest it destroy it, and I learned to throw anything I had (the game lets you throw swords and maces along with arrows and daggers) at rattlesnakes before they could bite me. But the Ring of Slow Digestion was the real winner: if I knew four months ago what I knew now, I would keep replaying Level 1 until I found one.

Once I found the Amulet of Yendor (on level 29), the game was embarrassingly easy. Once you find the amulet, you have to head back up the stairs on each level to get back to Level 1. Instead of exploring levels, you can just head up the moment you find the nearest stairs (and I had saved several Scrolls of Mapping just for that purpose). I figured the monsters would continue to be difficult all the way to the exit. But they actually decrease in difficulty as you ascend. In short order, I was in the teens and there was no real threat to me. By the time I actually got to Level 1 and there was only a snake standing between the exit and my 16th-level rogue with +4 plate mail and a +5 two-handed sword, I actually felt sorry for the poor bastard.

Never stand between a rogue with the Amulet of Yendor and the exit


The end game, I must admit, was a bit disappointing after four months of play. Would some kind of CGI cut-scene voiced by Ian McKellen have been so hard?

Insult to injury: my rogue is admitted to the fighter's guild


The good news: I've been exposed to a whole new type of CRPG. And no Bioware or SSI game--not even the dreadful Pool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor will ever seem long or repetitive again. On now to the Temple of Apshai Trilogy.

****

Posts on Rogue: One | Two

Further reading: My experience with roguelikes grows with postings on Moria, Omega, early NetHack, and NetHack 3.0.

Rogue: the most difficult CRPG I've played

The original version had even more primitive ASCII graphics. I played a 1984 update.

Rogue was the second game I played as part of this little project, and it nearly ended the project.

Computer games can up the difficulty--and, hence, much of the excitement--based on how often they allow you to save the game. If I recall correctly, the first few editions of Might and Magic only allow you to save at inns. Every time something good happened to your party out in the world, you'd pray that you could make it back to an inn to save your progress. Ultima IV, at least for the C64, wouldn't let you save inside dungeons. I can't remember how many times I entered the Stygian Abyss only to be killed on the seventh level. Modern CRPGs, I would argue, make it far too easy. Why carefully manage your resources and spells, use a thief to scout ahead, craft a plan of battle if you can just save and reload when the battle goes ill? When playing newer games, I force myself to save only once when I enter a new map and not again until I leave. That way, if my character dies, it actually has consequences.

Well. Someone should have told me about Rogue. In all my previous CRPG playing, I had never played it or any of the "Roguelike" games. Here's the key difference between Rogue and any other game you might play: permanent death. You see, while you can save your game for later play, every time you start up Rogue and choose to continue your progress, the game deletes the save file. If your character dies, he dies permanently. There's no reloading. You can't try to take on that dragon with only a mace "just to see what happens" or use an unidentified potion "just to test it." There is no testing, no trial runs, in Rogue.

Navigating the corridors of Rogue.

Okay, technically speaking, all of this is true only to the extent that you don't cheat and make backups of your save game files. But my rules include no cheating, so I didn't do that, tempted though I was.


Permanent death in some games might be a challenge, but not necessarily an impassable one. In many of them, your character is magically resurrected (albiet with less gold or experience) anyway. You just have to be careful, right? Well, permanent death wouldn't be so bad if Rogue wasn't punishingly difficult in so many other ways. Let's review some of them:

  • All the items you find are unidentified unless you have a scroll of identification or have identified a like item before. Wield an unidentified weapon, read an unidentified scroll, drink an unidentified potion and you may (in fact, usually will) find yourself cursed, paralyzed, or poisoned.
  • Monsters include aquators, which hit by hit rust your armor class down to 0; rattlesnakes, which bite by bite reduce your strength to 0 (unless you find a rare "restore strength" potion); wraiths and vampires, which sap all of your hard-earned experience points; venus flytraps, which hold you in place when you desperately, desperately need to flee; nymphs, who steal the magic items you spent hours accumulating; and medusas, which have a reasonably good chance of confusing you the moment you touch them and thus making it impossible to fight them.
  • Almost all of the rooms after Level 3 are darkened, so you never know when you're steps away from a medusa, griffin, or dragon--all of which can kill you nearly instantaneously.
  • Monsters match your pace. You can't even really run away from them. (There are some exceptions but you can't rely on them when permanent death is on the line.)
  • Monsters regenerate constantly. You can't "clear" a level. Treasures, on the other hand, do not regenerate. Once you've cleared an level of items, you have to go downwards to find more.
  • Feel like lurking about on the early, easy levels, slaying monsters just to build up experience and hit points? Sorry! You see, your character is slowly starving to death and needs constant input of food which, as in the previous point, does not regenerate. You must keep pressing downward to find food, thus encountering progressively more difficult monsters, whether you're ready or not. Oh, and if you happen to find a cool magic item like a Ring of Regeneration or a Ring of Protection, don't bother putting it on, because it just makes you consume more food!
  • You can't go backwards from difficult levels up to easy ones until you have found the Amulet of Yendor, by which time the need to go backwards has long passed.
  • Traps dog you constantly, some of them tossing you down to the next level before you've finished exploring this one. Sure, you can search for them, but you'd have to search every other square, and thus double the number of movements, and thus increase the speed by which you need your next hard-to-find meal.

Ouch. Balancing these difficulties is one "pro": your health regenerates fairly quickly. If you can survive one battle, chances are you can heal up before the next one. But, like everything in Rogue, you can't count on this.

Our intrepid hero is about to die. Again.

The end result is that although the game would probably take only a few hours to complete if you could constantly save and reload, it took me four months to complete playing it "fair." And let's be clear: for three months and 28 days of those four months, I was playing with different characters than the one that ultimately won the game. Most of the time it takes to win Rogue involves playing, dying, screaming, and restarting at Level 1.

In the next post, I'll talk about gameplay mechanics and how I finally won.

****

Posts on Rogue: One | Two

Further reading: My experience with roguelikes grows with postings on Moria, Omega, early NetHack, and NetHack 3.0.

Akalabeth and Skipped Games

This main screen is from a later DOS re-make, by which time the game had become known as Ultima 0.
 
[Edit from 2 March 2013: Over three years after I hurriedly wrote about Akalabeth at the beginning of my blogging experience, I revisited the game in much more detail, playing the original Apple II version. I strongly recommend reading the updated posting for a more thorough understanding of the game and its mechanics. I also visited some of the PLATO games discussed here in a December 2011 posting on "The Earliest CRPGs" and further entries on each of the PLATO games that you can read by following my Index of Games Played by Year. This posting is preserved for historical reasons, but there's really no reason to read it.]

Wikipedia's chronology of CRPGs starts in 1974 and 1975 with dnd and Dungeon, two games that never received a DOS port. I would have liked to try them out, and indeed the article notes that dnd "continues to be played this day on the NovaNET system and Cyber1." But frankly, if it's not downloadable and installable on my laptop within a reasonable time frame, it's off the list.

The first DOS-based game we come to is Origin's 1979 Akalabeth: World of Doom, also known as Ultima 0, because it features Lord British and several gameplay mechanics that I remember from Ultima I. In this game, we first find the outdoors top-down perspective contrasting with the 3D dungeon-crawl perspective that would remain part of the series, if I recall correctly, all the way through Ultima V (I haven't played any of the Ultimas in about 10 years, so I might be misremembering).

I played Akalabeth more than four months ago now (the idea of a blog not having occurred to me back then), and I was surprised by how quick it went. There really isn't much to it; it's more of a demonstration project than a game. After you create your initial character and buy a few supplies (your weapons are limited to a rapier, an axe, a bow, and a magic amulet), you head over to Lord British's castle to get your first monster-killing quest, and then start plumbing the dungeons.

Akalabeth shares what I remember as Ultima I's odd trait of awarding hit points based on the time you spend in the dungeon. If you descend with 25 hit points, go down two levels, kill five or six monsters, and head back up to the surface, the game might up you to 30 or 40 hit points. Descend again, try another level, and re-emerge and find yourself with 50. You essentially keep doing this until you have enough to brave the lower reaches and kill the monsters you've been quested to kill. Monsters appear predictably on their levels. Level 1 always has one skeleton and one thief. Level 2 will have a skeleton, a thief, and an orc. Level 3: a skeleton, a thief, and orc, and a snake, and so on down the line. The dungeons are generated every time you start a new game, but within that game, all the dungeons look the same.

You gain gold in Akalabeth, but after you make your initial equipment buys, it's really only good for food. In the early stages, starving to death is a real danger, but after you've made a couple of dungeon trips, you have a few thousand meals in your backpack and gold ceases to be very useful. So do weapons, for that matter, once you learn that repeated use of the magic amulet will increase your net statistics to the point that you can kill the toughest creature with one strike from your bare hands.

Wikipedia's next titles on the list were two 1979 games in the Dunjonquest series, then Space and Space II, also both 1979. If these were ever available for DOS, I couldn't find them. Temple of Apshai was next but the only version I found was the trilogy released in 1985. Based on my rules, I should have played it next anyway, but I didn't have a clear plan back then so I moved on to Rogue. That's where my blog really begins.