Friday, July 28, 2017

Revisiting: Wizard's Crown (1985)

The title screen establishes Wizard's Crown as a game oriented towards numbers, not graphics.
Wizard's Crown
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released in 1985 or 1986* for Apple II, Commodore 64, and Atari 8-bit; 1987 for Atari ST and DOS
Date Started:  13 June 2010
Date Ended: 20 July 2017
Total Hours: 51 (includes 10 hours from 2010)
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5), although adjustable on the main screen.
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
*The copyright on the game is 1985 but the earliest ads I can find are from very early in 1986. MobyGames says 1986; Wikipedia says 1985. It seems likely it was released very close to the turn of the year. It's remaining on my list as a 1985 game until I find something conclusive.

By 1986, Strategic Simulations had already made a splash in the RPG market by publishing Charles Dougherty's Questron (1984) and Winston Wood's Phantasie (1985), but the company was far better known for its detailed wargames, some based on historical battles (e.g., The Battle of Shiloh, The Battle of the Bulge), some fantastical (e.g., The Warp Factor, The Cosmic Balance). Wizard's Crown was the first major effort to unite the two genres; "a role-playing game with tactical combat," as promised by the box.
(1983's Galactic Adventures technically precedes Wizard's Crown in offering detailed tactical combat in an RPG, but it was only published, not developed, by SSI.)

And, boy, was the combat tactical. RPG players used to Ultima or even Wizardry must have been a little baffled. "Enough options to give a migraine to Sun Tzu" is how one reviewer described it. With battles taking up to an hour--and, of course, no guarantee of victory for all that time--I suspect most players used "quick combat" most of the time. Eventually, SSI realized that while RPG players may want tactical combat, they probably don't want to micro-manage which parts of their bodies their shields are covering, and thus adopted a much simpler system for Shard of Spring (1986). It was this less complicated approach that, coupled with Dungeons & Dragons rules, gave us the superb combat systems in more than a dozen Gold Box titles. Wizard's Crown also directly influenced the excellent tactical combat of Disciples of Steel (1991).

Such an important step in RPG evolution deserved more attention than the three short posts I wrote on the game in 2010 (starting here) before giving up because it was too hard. (Honestly, how did I keep any readers back then?) I tried to revisit it last year but got frustrated when Blogger ate my draft. But I always knew I'd give it another shot before attempting its sequel, The Eternal Dagger (1987). This time, I played it on the Apple II, since Dagger was only published for that platform and the Commodore 64.

Wizard's Crown is far more attuned to its strategy/simulation sources than its RPG sources. (I gather from interviews that lead designers Keith Brors and Paul Murray--both of whom went on to Pool of Radiance--both loved tabeltop RPGs but came from more of a wargame programming background.) It is minimalist in graphics and sound and heavy on logistics and numbers. Even the title screen is text-only. Success is heavily dependent on developing a couple dozen magic, combat, and adventuring skills, on which you directly spend experience. Instead of just a pool of hit points, there's an injury system and a bleeding system. There's a morale system, an encumbrance system, an ambush system that is influenced by which character you have "on point." Armor doesn't just have an "armor class"; it has separate defensive ratings against each type of attach. This is, in short, a hard-statistics RPG.
The ability to spend experience directly on skills distinguishes Wizard's Crown from typical "level-based" games.
The backstory concerns the Crown of the Emperor, which grants power and wisdom to whoever wears it. For centuries, the Fellowship of Wizards governed the land of Arghan by passing the crown from wizard to wizard every so often--until Tarmon, Wizard of Thunder, refused to give it up. The resulting civil war left the land leaderless, the wizards exiled, and monsters roaming the land. Tarmon locked himself and the crown in his laboratories and was never seen again. Now, one of the old wizards, Kaitar, has convened a group of adventurers to recover the crown and return peace to the land.
Later in the game, you find that Tarmon has a different take on the backstory.
The party consists of 8 members drawn from 5 classes: fighter, ranger, thief, mage, and cleric. Each class requires a minimum intelligence between 3 (ranger and thief) and 11 (sorcerer). You can multi-class, but to do so, the character has to have the combined minimum intelligence for both classes; for instance, a sorcerer-thief would require 14. The manual suggests having a character of each class, that only 1 or 2 characters should be non-fighters (I assume it includes multi-class fighters, too), that you should have 2 priests, and that one of them should be a ranger-priest. I'm not sure what the rationale is for that last bit.
Allocating attributes during character creation.
I dumped the default party (I guess a lot of people loot them for their weapons first) and created a new one, using the long names the game allows to remind myself of the character's profession and chosen weapon:

  • 2 fighters: Marek the Slicer and Axe Thaxler
  • 2 fighter-priests: Lyria the Blunt and Florian the Flailer
  • 1 fighter-sorcerer: Paengo Closecutter
  • 1 ranger-priest: Talonias the Thrower
  • 1 thief: Laeu the Lifter
  • 1 sorcerer: Drachmar the Dark

You start with 20 experience points to spend on skills. At the outset, knowing which skills to prize and which are completely useless is difficult. Since there are separate skills for each weapon type, it makes sense to have each character specialize in only one weapon, or perhaps two if you want to fight a lot of tactical combat and switch between melee and missile weapons. (I basically ignored missile weapons for my playthrough.) The game is frank that "Hunt" isn't used in Wizard's Crown, but it doesn't bother to tell you that neither is "Track" or "Treat Disease." I don't think I ever found more than two traps for "Disarm Trap." I was never quite sure what "Combat Awareness" was doing for me. "Shield" seems like an important skill, but later you find that the best weapons are two-handed. And while I understood the uses of "Scan," "Stealth," and "Alchemy" in tactical combat, I was never sure if they made a difference in quick combat.
One of about 5 places were "Read Ancient Writings" is important.
The game starts off easy enough as you try to clear the town itself. There is one side-quest involving rescuing a maiden from some brigands, after which you can visit her family mansion and get some gold and a broadsword +2. Wandering around the town at night continues to provide battles against brigands and thieves for a while, but eventually you clear all of them and get a gold reward from the mayor. From then on, the town is safe to wander around in, and you only have to enter the small wilderness north of town or the ruins south of town to find enemies to fight.
The town offers a temple, an inn, a tavern, and various shops.
From my experience 7 years ago with the DOS version, I remember an extremely sharp difficulty curve once the characters leave town and start exploring the ruins. It was so hard, in fact, that I stopped playing. I was sick of having to reload after 5 out of 6 combats. I didn't encounter that at all with the Apple II version, making me wonder what the difference is.

The game is quite small geographically. The ruins south of town (about 60 x 90 squares) hold exactly three "dungeons": the old thieves' guild, Gozaroth's Mansion, and Tarmon's castle, which are two, three, and six levels respectively. There's also a "dungeon" of sorts inside the city--the Rusty Nail tavern--but there isn't much to do there unless you want to attack people for no reason. If you just explored the dungeons and hit the quest points, you could complete the game in only a few hours.
Approaching Tarmon's Palace in the outdoor ruins.
But the dungeons--particularly the final one--hold nigh-impossible combats that you have to prepare for, which means a lot of grinding. I'd say that at least 80% of the game is grinding. You spend it running back and forth within the ruins, fighting monsters, gaining experience, collecting gold and items, and returning to town to sell your loot and improve your characters. I spread this process out over several months or I would have gone crazy. Every time I thought my characters were pretty damned powerful, I'd head into the ruins, which get more difficult the further south you travel, and get slaughtered by half a dozen gargoyles or a couple of ancient vampires, and realize I still had a long way to go.
My party, who I thought was powerful, meets a group of dragons who show them what "powerful" is.
Given that grinding is so vital to the game, at least it grinds very well. Character development is constant and rewarding. Every battle imparts a dozen or so experience points that you spend directly on your skills--no need to wait for "leveling" as in most RPGs. If you can save 100 of them, you can increase strength, dexterity, or life points by 1. When I first started the game, I thought I'd never even get my primary skills to their maximums, let alone save enough experience to increase attributes. I was wrong about that. By the end of the game, everyone had hit 250 in their primary weapons, 250 in their spellcasting abilities, even 250 in tertiary skills like "luck," and a couple of them hit the dexterity maximum of 30.
Looting items after a battle. A strong "Evaluate Magic" skill helps identify the important stuff.
The equipment and economy systems also play a vital role in character development. You can't buy most of the best equipment: you have to loot it from slain high-level enemies. Magic armor starts at +1 and goes to +5 and occasionally comes in rare "elven," "dwarven," or "reinforcing" varieties. There are also necklaces, bracelets, crowns, rings, and cloaks at various "+" levels that impart various types of protection. Magic weapons come in three varieties: those that have a "+" (up to +5), those that do extra magic damage (proceeding in order through magic, frost, flaming, lightning, and storm), and those with a draining effect (dark, doom, soul, demon, and death). There's even a rank of non-magic but still-cool weapons that goes fine, very fine, sharp, very sharp. And any item can have some extra random enchantment on it that raises a skill or offers special protection. Almost every expedition brought me a new and useful piece of equipment.
A "flaming" weapon does a lot of magic damage in addition to its normal thrusting damage.
Meanwhile, the economy remains relevant throughout the game for two reasons. (Most of your money comes from sale of looted magic items, and the "Haggling" skill is vital.) First, you can spend money on training skills, up to 100. It's a good way to build lesser-used skills to a minimum baseline. More important, a series of mages' shops will increase the level of your magic gear for 50 gold pieces. This will, for example, take your +3 mace to a +4, or increase your flaming sword to a lightning sword. 50 gold pieces is about as much as you can raise in one day of fighting and looting from random enemies, and with so many inventory slots for 8 characters, you really never run out of things to improve.
50 gold pieces turns a +1 great axe into a +2 great axe.
Still, it gets pretty boring after a while, and I'm glad I spread out the gameplay. If I had played this in my normal sequence, instead of over a few months getting ready for this entry, you would have had a succession of about 14 entries describing how I had done a bunch of grinding, improved my characters a little more, and found a chain mail +3. Most of the 40 hours it took me to win the game involved the same sequence of activity: leave the inn for the ruins; wander around fighting random combats and picking up treasures until my priests' karma was all gone or until my inventory slots were full; return to town and visit the temple to restore karma and get everyone healed; visit the tavern to restore morale; equip new items and sell excess items in the market; visit the magic shop and increase the "+" of one or two items; return to the inn, spend my experience, and rest.

The tactical combat system is both a highlight and key problem with Wizard's Crown. Given all the fighting that you have to do, only an utter lunatic would fight every combat on the tactical screen. Even fairly ordinary battles against half a dozen enemies can easily take 20-30 minutes. I would say that a true master of the tactical combat system is more likely to succeed in a given combat than someone using "quick combat"; among other things, you have to use tactical combat if you want to cast particular spells, use potions, swap weapons, or change fighting styles.

However, the edge offered by tactical combat isn't that high. In the time it takes to fight one battle, you could reload and try "quick combat" about 20 times. Given that, it's hard to justify spending the time on tactical combat unless you just really like it. These same considerations govern Roadwar 2000, released the following year.
Tactical combat outdoors. It's tough to keep all the icons straight.
I'm quite curious what's happening behind that "quick combat" screen. I assume it's not simulating the terrain on the tactical map. I have no idea if it really simulates casting spells or just uses your magic ability as a force multiplier. Similarly, I have no idea if it ever simulates actions like "Fall Prone" or "Shield Bash" or sneaking. It does seem to make effective use of skills like "Turn Undead," but it never has priests heal injured characters. As noted before, it never changes weapons or attack styles even if the defaults are ineffective.
"Quick combat" gives you the results much faster.
It would have been nice to have more defaults and quick-key options. Every time you leave camp, for instance (which includes after every battle), you have to specify who takes point and how far away from the party he'll scout. It's almost enraging that you can't just set this as a default. Post-combat healing could also have really benefited from a Gold Box-style "Fix" command.
Post-combat healing. The game uses a complex system of basic and severe bleeding and injuries, in addition to hit points, with a variety of priest "prayers" that cure different conditions.
I never got used to the movement system, which has you press "1" to go north, "2" for northeast, "3" for east, and so on. I realize the Apple II didn't have a keypad or a full set of arrow keys, so there weren't necessarily any better options. It still sucks.

The movement system becomes more of a problem when characters enter dungeons and become individual icons. You can set each character to act independently or to follow a lead character. But "follow" means "crowd around" more than literally "follow," and I found when I tried to move the party en masse, the active character would routinely get blocked and everyone got hopelessly hung up on corners and in narrow corridors.
Half my party failed to round the corner and ended up getting stuck in the water. Meanwhile, when my thief wants to turn around and head back, he's going to have to get those two fighters out of the way first.
The temptation, then, is to leave everyone behind and just roam around with a single active character. But I found that no one character had all the skills I needed. My thief, with his "search" capabilities, was the obvious choice, but inevitably he'd run into a lock he couldn't pick, and I'd have to call up a sorcerer to cast "Unlock" or to make sense of some ancient writing.

Keeping the party split also makes tactical combat nearly impossible, since everyone starts at his or her actual position in the dungeon level. "Quick combat" seems to assume the party is all together when combat begins, although I was never 100% sure about that.
Tactical combat is tough in a dungeon if one character has been doing all the scouting. Most of my party is trapped in an earlier hallway.
One interesting thing about dungeon exploration is that it all occurs on Disk 2, and the game saves your progress there, yet you can only save the party on Disk 1. The odd result is that you might trigger an encounter on Disk 2, lose, reload from Disk 1, and find the encounter not present when you return to the same area. This is positive if the encounter was a difficult battle you didn't want to fight, but it's negative if you were supposed to get an item or a piece of intelligence. Fortunately, the game's main screen allows you to "reset" a dungeon level. This could be abused to reclaim a nice piece of treasure again and again, except that I never found treasure in dungeons that was notably better than the random stuff I got outside.

The dungeon levels tend to be small and easy to explore without mapping. They have frequent textual descriptions of rooms and textual encounters, possibly inspired by SSI's own experiences with Phantasie.
The game mimics a tabletop session with detailed room descriptions as you enter.
A variety of hints, including some ramblings of an old man in a party and/or an encounter with the thieve's guild master, leads the party first to the old thieves' guild. The dungeon is two levels--you have to use a rope to climb from one to the other--and there isn't much to do there except to find an Emerald Key that you need for the rest of the game. You also find a clue where to find a secret area in the next dungeon.
This thief searches a lot more thoroughly than I would.
Gozaroth's Mansion is opened with the Emerald Key and consists of two regular levels and one small one. You follow clues overheard from ghosts to find the three pieces of the Golem Staff, which I carried for the rest of the game but never found out what it did. Ultimately you find the undead Gozaroth, who tells you the password needed to enter Tarmon's Palace (ROBIN) in exchange for one of your priests praying to release his soul.
Meeting Gozaroth in his library.
Tarmon's Palace is six levels and extraordinarily difficult. I kept thinking I was strong enough to make it this time, only to die repeatedly at one of the mandatory combats with various types of demons. It has one type of enemy--"wardpact demons"--who are immune to all but one attack type (bash, cut, and thrust), determined at random for each group. "Quick combat" doesn't cycle these options, so you have to fight them in tactical combat to survive them.
A typical message in Tarmon's fortress.
Level 3 of the palace has a maze of invisible walls and traps, but you can find a map to navigate it on Level 1.
A map helps you figure out where it's safe to walk on an otherwise-blank screen.
Level 4 has a central room with doors in each cardinal direction. Various combinations of opening and closing these doors allow you to progress through the level; fortunately, there's a code key on a pillar on the previous level, but it takes a while to interpret what it's telling you.

The level also has a key textual encounter with the mummy of Melos the Seer, who magically recorded his voice as he died, to be replayed when someone opened the door. He warned me that attacking Tarmon with any magical weapon would result in that weapon being destroyed, and he suggested that I find non-magic versions of my favorite weapons to use against him. (Fortunately, regular weapons drop frequently from most combats.) He also gave me the password (DORVAL) to the demon who guards the Wizard's Crown, and he told me that I could find it in a secret compartment on the floor of Tarmon's laboratory.
The game doesn't have a lot of text, but it occasionally goes overboard.
Level 5 looks like a maze, and I spent an embarrassingly long time running into dead ends before I realized that you can just walk over the ruined walls. It culminates in a huge battle against demons that I kept failing, resulting in yet another few hours spent on grinding.
Level 6 starts with another huge demon battle, followed by a stream that fully heals the party, followed by a block-and-tackle puzzle where you need at least 150 feet of rope (three individual items) to open a secret door. I must have traipsed back and forth between the entrance to the palace and this level 15 times, at first because I couldn't defeat the demons and needed to go back and grind, and then because I had to get more rope.
At least Tarmon does pretend that we "fell into his trap" or something.
Beyond this door is the big fight with Tarmon and a host of demons. First, Tarmon gives you the opportunity to join him, but if you do, he just immediately poisons you.
You know, I think my characters would have been smarter than to drink that wine.
I figured I'd need to fight the battle tactically, since I'd want my magic weapons to kill the demons and my non-magic ones to attack Tarmon. But I couldn't do it. I spent over two hours on a couple of tactical battles that ended in full-party death.
I aim a "Fireball" at a pack of demons in one of my ill-fated attempts to win the battle tactically.
On a lark, I tried "quick combat," and I won on the first try, albeit with 2/3 of my characters' magic weapons destroyed and most of the characters dead. I assume what happened was that my characters broke their weapons against Tarmon and ended up killing him with their fists.

I was able to raise and heal everyone but I hardly had any karma (priest spell points) left when I was finished. I retrieved the Crown from the next room and had my sorcerer wear it (it has some pretty good stats), and began the long process of retracing my steps through the fortress and to the exit.
My thief finds the crown.
All was fine until I reached the entryway on Level 1, and demons burst out of statues and attacked. Although I was victorious, I didn't have enough karma left to heal everyone. I had to use bandages and my ranger's "First Aid" skill just to stop the bleeding (if you leave camp with characters still bleeding, they automatically die). I hoped my party would be unmolested returning to town.
This was not a nice surprise.
Ha. In fact, once you have the wizard's crown in your possession, there's about a 50/50 chance of a random combat every step through the ruins. I didn't stand a chance. I ultimately had to adopt the strategy of saving with every step that didn't result in a combat and reloading when it did. I eventually made my way to a temple about 40 steps away. (Resting at temples restores karma points to priests.) There, I was able to get everyone healed and mince my way through vampires, dragons, skeletons, demons, hell hounds, goblins, scorpions, bandits, giant spiders, adventurers, and so forth to the exit.

Upon reaching the end, I got a series of screens imparting the following in text only:
As you walk through the gate, Kaitar meets you with a wide smile and watery eyes. He speaks to you with eloquent pride: "You have fared well, mighty adventurers. You have returned with the treasure we have so long awaited."

Kaitar turns and shouts to the air. "Behold! The crown has returned, bought through the skill and courage of these adventurers!" From nowhere, the wizards of the fellowship appear and gather in a circle about Kaitar. The crystal in the crown glows brightly. "These gallant souls have rescued the crown from evil and chaos. Its power will once again guide the fellowship in wisdom and truth. Such a gift cannot be matched, but we must attempt to show our gratitude to these honored friends. Therefore, let us join hands and cast the enchantment of champions!"

With that, the wizards form a circle around your party. As they link hands, they begin to chant. The light from the crown pulses with the rhythm. Almost, you can understand the words. Visions of great deeds fill your mind and you see yourself performing these deeds. A sense of power comes to you. Nothing can stop you! Finally the chant stops and the visions fade...but the sense of power remains.

Kaitar takes the crown from you and gently, slowly places it on his head. As he rejoins the circle, he looks at you and says, "I see many more adventures for you and your companions. For myself and the fellowship, we thank you once more. Now we must begin the rebuilding of Arghan."

Once more, the fellowship begins to chant. Slowly, the circle fades. The last thing seen is the crown of the emperor, then all is gone. You and your friends turn and enter the inn.
The "enchantment of champions" raised everyone's strength and dexterity by 6 and life by 30. The game saved the party for use with The Eternal Dagger and allowed me to continue playing. I feel like the party members are so overpowered at this point that I can only expect that the sequel will find a way to take them down a notch.
You don't have many screens in the typical RPG where the developers speak directly to the players.
In 2010, not having played much beyond the town, I gave it a GIMLET of 32. Let's see how it does today:
  • 3 points for the game world. The setup is decent enough and the world, though small, shows an internal consistency. There just isn't much in it.
  • 6 points for character creation and development. This is clearly the high point of the game. The game gives you a lot of leeway with party composition and the way you develop their skills and abilities.
  • 2 points for NPC interaction. There are only a handful of them, and they're more "encounters" than NPCs, but they do tell you important things about the game world. 
An old man who tells hint-filled stories in the park sort-of serves as an NPC.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The game's bestiary is just D&D standard, but it still does a good job with their special attacks and defenses. One of my criteria here is "areas respawn," allowing for grinding, and that's certainly true. Unfortunately, there are only a couple of puzzles and no role-playing encounters.
  • 5 points for magic and combat. Wizard's Crown errs on the side of making tactical combat too complicated, while quick combat is mostly just boring. The spell list isn't very long or impressive, with almost nothing except light spells and "Unlock" useful out of combat.
Fighting tactical combat as rarely as I did, I didn't really explore the nuances of all these spells.
  • 6 points for equipment. With so many characters and so many different options per character (weapons, shields, armor, headgear, bracelets, necklaces, cloaks, potions), you're constantly finding item upgrades. The best stuff is randomly distributed, and you can pay to improve it.
My fighter's equipment list towards the end of the game.
  • 6 points for economy. It's not very complicated, but there's an extraordinarily useful money sink.
  • 3 points for the quest. There's one main quest and a quasi-side quest early in the game. No options or role-playing choices, though.
An early "side quest." It's too bad there aren't more of these.
  • 1 point for graphics, sound, and interface. Easily the lowest point of the game. They didn't even try on graphics--no title screen graphic, no winning graphic, and bland icons and environments along the way. The Apple II version doesn't even have sound. And I covered issues with the interface above. (The Atari ST version, released in 1987, does have a title graphic, better iconography, and some in-game sound effects and would get another 2 points here.)
  • 2 points for gameplay. Despite its strengths, in the end the game is a bit too long, too linear, and too hard, requiring far too much grinding. I should add, though, that I didn't experiment with the difficulty slider on the main screen. Perhaps "4" or "5" would have produced a shorter, less grindy game.
This gives us a final score of 38, 6 points higher than I rated it in 2010. This feels better. It still ranks lower than Phantasie, which it should, but a notch above The Bard's Tale. It would be a nominee for "Game of the Year," but this was the same year as Ultima IV, so it didn't really stand a chance there. I did, however, correct a longstanding deficiency by adding Wizard's Crown to my "must play" list. You absolutely need to experience this game to understand the SSI games that followed, including the Gold Box series.
An early promotion advertises Wizard's Crown next to Rings of Zilfin (1986). The two games couldn't be more different in their approaches to role-playing, character development, and combat.
Scorpia's review from the September-October 1986 Computer Gaming World concludes that it is "recommended, although a little less hack and a little more puzzle would have been better." She also notes the lack of meaningful NPC interaction, and she has some of the same comments that I do about tactical combat versus "quick combat." Still, I was surprised that she didn't make more of the sheer complexity of the tactical combat; then again, she does mention the earlier Galactic Adventures (1983), and perhaps she was more versed than I am in the strategy side of SSI's portfolio.

The August 1986 Compute! called Wizard's Crown "the most unusual fantasy game to hit the market in some time," and warned that it was much more difficult than SSI's other offerings, coming "very close in flavor to the actual Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game." You couldn't imagine a better review for SSI to have in hand when, hoping to acquire the license to design D&D games, they pitched themselves to TSR the following year.
Resting at the inn, my party prepares to enter the sequel.
I'm glad to finally convert this to a "Y" in the "Won?" column, but I mostly did all this to set the stage for the sequel, The Eternal Dagger, which I understand plays mostly the same but keeps the party to one icon, even in dungeons. I was going to jump right to it, but I probably need a few days off from this kind of gameplay, so let's get started on MegaTraveller II first.


Further reading: Read about the titles directly influenced by Wizard's Crown, including Shard of Spring (1986), Pool of Radiance (1988; the first Gold Box game), and Disciples of Steel (1991).

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Conan: The Summarian

The box features artwork by the incomparable Boris Vallejo. I had two books of his paintings before my mother found them and threw them away.
Conan: The Cimmerian
United States
Synergistic Software (developer); Vigin Games (publisher)
Released in 1991 for Amiga and DOS
Date Started:  9 June 2017
Date Ended: 14 July 2017
Total Hours: 24
Difficulty: Easy-Moderate (2.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)

If nothing else, the Conan game has interested me in Conan mythology. Prior to this week, I had never read any of Robert Howard's original stories. I had seen the Arnold Schwarzenegger films, but about 30 years ago and in bit and pieces as I caught them on UHF stations. 

I was surprised to find Conan already King of Aquilonia in Howard's first Conan story, "The Phoenix on the Sword." He is restless in the position, particularly since the populace has begun to romanticize the tyrant that Conan killed to get the throne in the first place. The plot concerns a conspiracy of nobles, an assassin, and a minstrel to sneak into Conan's chambers at nighttime and kill him. Conan is alerted to the threat by the spirit of a long-dead sage named Epemitreus, who brands Conan's sword with the symbol of the phoenix.

Thoth-Amon is long-fallen from power, ever since he lost his Serpent Ring to a thief, and now serving as the slave to the assassin Ascalante, who is working with the conspirators but secretly plans to kill them and take the throne for himself. On the fateful night, Thoth-Amon finds that a fellow servant of Ascalante's actually has his Serpent Ring. Thoth-Amon kills him, reclaims his ring and his power, and summons a demon to kill Ascalante.
This plot point also plays a role in the game.
The climax takes place in Conan's chambers, where he stands armored and waiting for the 20 assassins as they burst in. As he slays them one-by-one--reluctantly in the case of Rinaldo the Minstrel, as Conan admired his music--Thoth Amon's demon shows up and enters the fray, killing Ascalante. The story ends with the wounded-but-victorious Conan convincing the priests of Mitra that he really was visited by Epemitreus.

The text is a bit thickly-written for my tastes, although there are some memorable lines, such as this explanation for Rinaldo's involvement in the plot: "Poets always hate those in power. To them perfection is always just behind the last corner, or beyond the next." Of Conan's style, we learn: "He was no defensive fighter; even in the teeth of overwhelming odds he always carried the war to the enemy." And of course the text that opens the story is wonderfully evocative:
KNOW, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.
The game's abbreviated version misses a lot of the poetry.
I didn't realize until looking at summaries of Howard's other stories that Conan's adventures jump around in time, and that "The Phoenix on the Sword" is one of his last tales in Conan's internal chronology. Howard wrote it at the same time as "The Frost-Giant's Daughter," one of the stories earliest in Conan's life. I read it and found it a little less compelling than "Phoenix"; it's basically about Conan chasing a woman through the tundra so he can have his way with her.

As for the movie--it wasn't what I remembered or expected. It replaces Howard's over-wrought prose with equally over-wrought music and set pieces, far more pompous and stylized than other sword-and-sorcery films of the era, like The Beastmaster or The Sword and the Sorcerer. (Oliver Stone is credited on the script and part of the directing.) The film re-writes Conan's history, turning him into a survivor of a massacred village, a slave, and a gladiator before beginning his adventures. (Side question: Why does his master free him? There's no explanation in the film for it.) He is far less intelligent and articulate than in Howard's stories--perhaps inevitable with early Schwarzenegger. Everyone's hair is ridiculous, and man has cinema come a long way in the realism of fight scenes.
I remembered the line about Conan being "destined to wear the jeweled crown of Aquilonia on a troubled brow," and I assumed he was "troubled" because he was too intellectually inferior to properly grasp statecraft. Howard's original stories make it clear that the trouble is more a case of wanderlust, and Conan is actually quite smart.
There are some highlights. I somehow remembered Sandahl Bergman as being unattractive; either I was thinking of someone else or I had really bad taste as a kid. Bergman, James Earl Jones, and a scenery-chewing Max von Sydow are the only ones who actually seem to be "acting" in the film (which must top out at less than 50 lines of actual dialogue). Schwarzenegger only seems mildly annoyed at being crucified. Mako is . . . Mako.

But it was useful, because it helped me understand how much of the game is based on the film rather than the original stories. Conan's origin story is virtually the same, with Thoth-Amon destroying Conan's village in the game, in place of the film's Thulsa Doom. (In the original stories, Thoth-Amon is a sorcerer of Set but not the leader of a horde, and he barely crosses paths with Conan. Conan is a blacksmith's son who just decides to start adventuring.) The use of giant snakes as enemies, and the importance of stealing the Eye of the Serpent, also seem to be inspired from the film, and there are a lot of stylistic similarities between the game's and film's versions of Conan's visit to the ancient king's tomb and retrieval of his sword.

I guess Bergman's character, named "Valeria" in the credits but never in the movie itself, appears in Howard's "Red Nails," but has attributes more in line with Belit, "Queen of the Black Coast."
I think the "riddle of steel" from the game's copy protection only appears in the film.
Returning to the game: I liked the wide open first chapter amidst the large city, where despite my exhaustive explorations I managed to miss several side quests. The rest of the game's episodes were a bit too linear and short, although if they'd all been as broad as the opening, I'd still be playing the game until October. Character development and combat remain weak until the end--a theme that goes all the way back to Robert Clardy's earliest titles--but the economy is quite strong. I expect it to GIMLET higher than the two Excalibur games, and slightly in "recommended" territory. Let's see.

1. Game World. Given the richness of the setting, you can't possibly go wrong with an RPG set in the Hyborian Age. The backstory and ongoing narrative are both quite fun, and the map of Shadizar with its temples and quarters evinces much of the compelling nature of Howard's introduction. How do you look at a map with labels like "Thieves' Quarter" and "Bazaar" and "Inn of the Veils" and not get a tingle? I talked in an earlier post about how there are almost too many buildings in the city to visit every one, which is nice. It's just too bad that the game world didn't adapt much to the plot. NPCs still dismiss Conan with, "You insult me, barbarian!" long after Conan should have been famous. Score: 6.
The final game world consisted of 6 locations.
2. Character Creation and Development. A low point. Conan starts the same for everyone. There is no reward for combat, only for completing each stage, and even then it's just a measly +5 to his "defense" score. The only way you really develop is by spending money on training, and you can only afford to do that a couple of times during the game. Why the developers didn't award a point or two of combat skill for each victory is anyone's guess, but it would have made several aspects of the game much better. Score: 1.

3. NPC Interaction. You learn a lot about the backstory and about available quests by speaking to and bribing the various NPCs, and I like that NPCs can shift between NPCs and enemies depending on their dispositions. There are no real role-playing or dialogue options, but no one is really offering those yet. Score: 4.

4. Encounters and Foes. The game has a simple but effective stable of enemies, many with special attacks or defenses that need a particular approach to defeat. Non-combat encounters are frequent and informative although lacking in any choices or role-playing. The few puzzles are on the easy side, but still offer some welcome variety instead of making everything about raw combat. Score: 4.

5. Magic and Combat. There's no magic system, and the combat system--when it works at all--involves selecting a combat style and swinging away until you or the enemy is dead. It's boring and predictable. Score: 1.
Only the visuals redeem the game's approach to combat.
6. Equipment. A strong point. You can find and buy a nice variety of items, including sword upgrades, magic items, potions, and typical adventuring gear like ropes and torches. A generous but not-infinite number of inventory slots makes prioritization important. It's too bad there isn't any armor, but I guess maybe it would go against Conan's raison d'etre to wear any. I like that most of the items you can buy, you can also find, and most useful quest items (like the Gem of Sight) have duplicates elsewhere. Score: 4.

7. Economy. Another strong point. There's a real incentive to burgle as much wealth as possible, because even after you've purchased all the required equipment, you can always sink money into training. Conan is explicitly named as a thief, and thus plundering treasure chambers is both rewarding and keeping with Conan's mythos. I just wish slain enemies had offered a few gold pieces. Score: 7.
Spending money on some late-game character development.
8. Quests. A clear main quest paired with rewarding side quests and optional areas. There are no choices (except, I suppose, whether to keep some of the quest items or turn them in) nor role-playing, but in general this game does as well in this category as any game in the era. Score: 5.

9. Graphics, Sound, and Interface. No complaints. To me, the graphics are excellent, with each of the interior "scenes" well-composed and detailed. Sounds are sparse but realistic. The game supports redundant mouse and keyboard controls, which is all I ask for. Score: 5.

10. Gameplay. It starts nonlinear and becomes linear, but even in the later chapters, you can break off and spend some time exploring the city. I just chose to do most of my wandering during the first chapter. Unfortunately, I don't see it as very replayable, but the level of difficulty was moderate, and the overall length of the game was perfect for its content. Score: 5.

Our final score is 42, making Conan a rare game that manages to top 40 (which marks roughly the top 20% of the list) while scoring miserably in the two categories I prize the most in RPGs. Nonetheless, it reflects the overall fun I had with the game despite its flaws, and it out-performs Spirit of Excalibur (33) and Vengeance of Excalibur (34).
Charles Ardai's review in the February 1992 Computer Gaming World is oddly fixated on the fact that you're role-playing Conan's origin story, instead of a mature, skilled Conan. He has the same complaints that I do about limited character development and lame combat. "It is perhaps the most rudimentary role-playing game ever made," he says, a sentiment that echoes my scores of 1 in the two most vital RPG categories. But like me, he praises the game's aesthetics and concludes that it's relatively uncomplicated, undemanding, and fun.

The aesthetic attention, I should add, goes beyond the game. The manual has 7 full-page illustrations of Conan rescuing maidens and fighting monsters and whatnot. Since they're uncredited, I assume they're original to the manual rather than adapted from classic sources.
Conan must still be Level 1 in this image.
I'm a little jazzed about Conan now, which is too bad, since we won't encounter him again on my blog until Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures (2008), an MMORPG which I guess has a single-player campaign. A handful of other licensed titles from 2004-2017 are action-only. Maybe I'll honor him by being better-predisposed to playing a barbarian in other games.

This won't be our last experience with this engine, which Synergistic called "World Builder." They adapted it for multiple characters in Warriors of Legend (1993), as well as for the non-RPG The Beverly Hillbillies (1993). I love the fact that Lancelot, Conan, and Jethro can all go on adventures in the same game engine.

Going all the way back to the "Campaign" series, Synergistic doesn't do things quite the same way as any other RPG developer. This has produced both bad and good results, and Conan fortunately balanced on the "good" side.


Further Reading: Check out the other games made with Synergistic's "World Builder" engine: War in Middle Earth (1988),  Spirit of Excalibur (1990), and Vengeance of Excalibur (1991).

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Game 255: Quest for Tanda (1991)

There is no title screen for the game.
Quest for Tanda
United States
Independently developed and published
Released in 1991 for Atari ST
Date Started:  17 July 2017
Date Ended: 17 July 2017
Total Hours: 2
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
The unlikely story of Quest for Tanda's survival is more interesting than the game itself. I originally drafted a relatively scathing posting on the brief adventure and its horrible sense of spelling, but then I heard from the author, Jonah Schwartz, who said he was only 13 when he wrote it on his school's Atari ST. It was just an exercise to teach himself GFA BASIC, uploaded as a lark to several San Francisco Bay-area BBS sites. He never received a single envelope with the requested $5.00 shareware fee. And yet, somehow, 17 years later, a programmer in Sweden decided it was worth cataloging on MobyGames. I wish I could fill in the blanks in between, but I wrote to the contributor and he doesn't even remember listing the game.
A ransom note puts the brief plot in motion.
The setup is that you are the lover of Princess Tanda of Khlad. One day, Tanda is kidnapped by the evil Istvan. He leaves a ransom note promising to torture and kill Tanda, but he frankly acknowledges that the requested ransom (1 million gold pieces) exceeds the total wealth of the kingdom. King Aahz, Tanda's father, promises her hand in marriage if you can rescue her from Istvan.
The proper names are drawn from Robert Lynn Asprin's MythAdventures novels (1978-2002), which I've never read but gather are humorous, almost satirical fantasies in the same vein as Terry Pratchett. The game doesn't go beyond the names themselves, as in the novels Aahz is a reptilian magician and not a king, and Tanda is an assassin and not Aahz's daughter.

The castle graphic that leads this entry is shown during the backstory and when the player visits either of the other two castles in the game. The image is not original to the game, but Schwartz doesn't remember where he got it. A reverse image search finds it on a few web sites (and one jigsaw puzzle box) without conclusively answering the question of its origin.
The extent of character creation.
Character creation consists of choosing from three names. The player does not know until after making the choice that "Skeeve" is a Level 2 fighter/Level 4 wizard; "Garkin" is a Level 0 fighter/Level 5 wizard; and "Frumple" is a Level 3 fighter/Level 2 wizard. Each character begins with 40 or 50 hit points, water and food, 20 or 40 magic points, and some basic weapons and armor. I don't think there's a mechanism for the characters to gain levels during gameplay (I suppose making it not an RPG under my rules), but it's hard to tell since you only fight a handful of combats.
The "character screen."
The only other choice during character creation is whether to play on easy or hard mode. Easy-mode characters start with a boat and can go anywhere. ("I know that it is not possible to carry a boat around," Schwartz apologies in the "readme" file.) Hard-mode characters have to visit the towns and learn where they can obtain a boat. The more important difference, though, is that easy characters start with 200 gold and hard characters start with only 10. It's nearly impossible for those latter characters to make enough money from the game's few random combats to remain healed, watered, and fed and pay for the NPC clues and items necessary to win the game.
This master screen appears between every move.
Gameplay takes place on a small 8 x 7 map. After every move, the screen reverts to a kind of "master control panel" where the player can eat, drink, cast a spell, view statistics, sleep, or refresh himself as to the nature of the main quest. You click an image of a directional pad to move, but the master screen appears again after the move is completed.
The entirety of the game world.
Each of the five towns is laid out the same, consisting of a weapon shop, an armor shop, a food shop, and two houses with NPCs who will give you hints for a price.
One of the NPCs gives you a summary of the entire game world.
Three of the houses in the game are locked and require you to find a sequence of keys to open them. None of that is necessary on "easy" mode, as the game simply tells you where to go for instructions on how to defeat Istvan. 
Visiting the "wepons shop" in a town.
It makes little sense to spend money at the weapon and armor shops. The game's best weapon is available from winning a battle (see below), and it's tough to buy armor because the game warns you that you'll be replacing the armor you already own, but it never bothers to tell you what armor the character starts with.     
Options in the weapons shop.
Each of the empty grass squares has a chance of an encounter with a ghost, a wizard, or a spider. These three enemies, plus a zombie who only seems to attack while you're sleeping, and a couple of enemies you fight at fixed encounters, seem to be the extent of the game's menagerie.

In combat, you specify whether to attack or cast a spell. If you attack, you then specify your weapon and watch the results. That's it. If you cast a spell, you choose between wizard spells ("Fireball," "Disrupt," "Turn Undead") and cleric spells (heal, create food or water) and put a designated number of points into them. I never found that the offensive spells worked even once. "Turn Undead" explicitly doesn't work on ghosts, the only undead that you regularly encounter.

"Combat options." You can't even use the 1-3 keys. You have to click on the answer.
There is one optional side area in the game: Badaxe's castle, where you can fight an ogre and get Badaxe's axe as a reward.
I'm always down for a tryst.
By now, you will have noted the numerous spelling mistakes that populate every screen. I originally wrote that the game featured "spelling that would appall you even if you discovered the developer was a toddler," along with unnecessary capitalization and frequent but inconsistent use of pseudo-"olde English." Schwartz actually apologized in the "readme" file for "mixing medieval and modern language" and for being "a bad speler." Knowing that he was 13 dilutes my venom a bit, although I'm not sure why he didn't just grab a dictionary or a playtester.
As small and short as the game is, it's a struggle to get to the end before your pools of money, food, water, and hit points deplete, leaving you with no way to regain them. "Easy" mode characters really just need to visit two towns--one to get the instructions from an NPC, and one to buy the missile spell that she recommends. "Hard" mode characters have to find the boat first and earn enough money to pay the NPCs.
Explicit instructions on how to win. This costs 40 gold pieces.
For both characters, the quest path is the same. You go to the square with the bridge and fight the "Halk" guarding it; he is vulnerable only to a bow and arrows or the "Magic Missile" spell (which, confusingly, appears as a weapon instead of a spell). Once you kill him, you loot the key to Istvan's castle.
Once you make it to Istvan's island, the plot resolves itself on three text screens with no player input. And the game is over. It takes about 15 minutes on "easy" mode and perhaps 2-3 times as long on "hard" mode, if indeed you're able to survive the latter. There's no way to save the game, so the brief play time is an advantage.
The game earns a 13 on my GIMLET, which is close to the minimum a game could possibly earn and still be considered an RPG. In doing so, it has spawned a new rule in my sidebar: If the game is independent or shareware but won no awards, garnered no positive reviews, has no fan pages--and if I fire it up, play a few minutes, and find nothing charming or original about it--I have the option to reject it. I mean no offense to Mr. Schwartz, who accomplished something relatively remarkable at a young age, but there's no reason other than pure luck that this game found its way to MobyGames and thousands of similar efforts from young students of computer programming did not.

Mr. Schwartz was understandably startled when I wrote to him about this 26-year-old project and said I was going to blog about it: "It's a bit like finding out your 8th grade science project is being reviewed by a scientific journal." While it leaves something wanting as an RPG, it did accomplish its purpose. Schwartz went on to a long and prosperous career as a software developer and entrepreneur. Among many others, was the co-founder and CTO of Rumpus, a San Francisco-based company that made games for iOS and Android, including Mo' Monsters, a Pokémon-inspired game that is, ironically, not cataloged on MobyGames.