Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Game 100: The Demon's Forge

Read the manual here:
https://www.mocagh.org/loadpage.php?getgame=demonforgesaber

Wikipedia didn’t see fit to give this game its own page, and simply mentions it in Brian Fargo’s article under the “early life” heading, along with an earlier game Labyrinth of Martagon, which I couldn’t find any information about at all.

There are three versions of this game:
  • The 1981 original
  • 1983 re-release with mostly redone graphics
  • 1987 re-release with PC compatibility on the floppy's reverse side

1981, published by Saber Software


1983 Boone Corporation re-release


1987 Mastertronics PC version
(Apple II graphics are identical to 1983 edition)


So, yeesh, this amateurish stuff no matter what. The original graphics, crummy even by 1981 standards, were sketched by Fargo’s D&D buddy and Martagon collaborator Michael Cranford, and converted to digitized format by Fargo himself. I have no idea who drew the redone artwork, and can’t find any information about the re-releases (an effort confounded by the existence of a Bethesda title Hunted: The Demon’s Forge), but by the time of the Mastertronics release they are laughably bad by 1987 standards, even though they’re mostly an improvement from the original.

I played the 1981 version with Cranford & Fargo’s original high school doodles for authenticity’s sake. In some ways it’s a bit more atmospheric – for instance, why is the cave entrance in the 1983 re-release white?

The three-page manual sets up the plot. You are a royal mercenary (or maybe a gladiator, the manual is inconsistent on this point) sentenced to death for drunken brawling. You are stripped, given a pack of rations, and cast into an oubliette from which none have ever escaped, rumored to be the home of the demon Anarakull. Be the first to escape, and the king will pardon you.

So, as with Sierra’s adventures of the day, there’s no title screen (the re-release added one), and booting the disk drops us right into the starting area, with two guards at the entrance to the Forge. There’s no apparent way to interact with them; the game recognizes “KILL GUARDS” but retorts “THEY WOULD KILL YOU.” Inventory lists RATIONS and YOUR BIRTHDAY SUIT. With nothing else to do, I walked in, and started Trizborting.

One thing that stuck out to me about the graphics is just how fast the drawing routine is. The Wizard and the Princess could easily spend six seconds or more drawing out the scene, a virtual stylus etching outlines of buildings, cactuses, and rocks into your screen, followed by a paint bucket tool filling the outlines with color. The Demon’s Forge does the same thing, but does it much, much faster, taking no more than a second and a half to draw even the most complex scene.

In mapping out the dungeon, I found the layout pleasingly orthogonal, with rooms always connecting in consistent cardinal directions – heading through a corridor to the east always brought me to enter a new room from the west, and directions were never intercardinal. Room exit directions weren’t always indicated by the visuals or prose, and the prose was, as expected, terse, often leaving it up to the graphics to indicate what things are in a given room.

Some of the things I encountered early on included:
  • A discarded costume lying on the floor in the entryway (I thought prisoners were stripped before being thrown in!)
  • Someone’s sleeping quarters, with a footlocker containing bedclothes
  • A well, which will drown you if you try to go down it
  • A huge brazier
  • Locked wooden doors to the north
  • Anarakull’s laboratory
  • An armory with a “skinny man” (not pictured) who flees as soon as you enter
  • An empty alchemist’s room
  • A storage area

There was also a giant bird statue that had something inside, but I couldn’t figure out how to get the parser to cooperate in telling me what it actually was.



There’s a general problem here, with rooms not giving clear indications of what can and can’t be interacted with. The storage room, for instance, has a large number of cuboids that resemble lockers, but the game offers no verbal description of the room beyond “THIS IS A STORAGE AREA,” and my various attempts to open or inspect lockers all produced messages like “I SEE NO PURPOSE IN OPENING A LOCKER” and “YOU DON’T FIND A THING.”

I got stuck pretty quickly, unable to figure out a single possible interaction in the starting rooms except for collecting a few items, and turned to a guide.

The first thing I missed was that looking at the costume produces a vial (“SEARCH COSTUME” does nothing, you must LOOK). But I couldn’t find a use for it. Drinking it did not allow me to breathe underwater in the well, or have any other obvious effect, so I read ahead in the walkthrough.

The second thing I missed was that the chest in the bedroom can be pushed, revealing a bag of ashes. Burning the bag in the brazier room unleashes a fire elemental which kills you. Back to the walkthrough.

The third thing I missed was the most unfair. In the armory, you have to type “FOLLOW MAN” immediately, or he will be gone forever. This takes you north to the junction, but now a door to the skinny man’s chambers, which didn’t exist before, is now open.



It’s the door to the right, but if this is your first time in this junction, then you don’t know that, and if you enter another door, the right-hand door will close forever. The only way you could know the right door is new is if you had already been here from a previous playthrough, and rendered the game unwinnable since you only have one chance to FOLLOW MAN.

The skinny man didn’t have much to say, but gladly accepted my gift of rations, and offered a rod in exchange.



Once again, I couldn’t figure out what to do with the rod. The guide said to insert it into the bird statue’s beak, which produced a red gem. This has got to be an Adventure reference, with its early nonsensical puzzle involving a rod, a snake, and a bird.

Typing “GET GEM” produced the message “TRY GET ‘RED’.” Gee, Brian, if you went to the trouble of getting the parser to recognizing the more obvious syntax, would it have been so hard to just let me get the damned gem?

Anyway, possessing the red gem was enough to survive burning the bag of ashes.



I tried getting Joe to burn the wooden doors to the north of the well, but the game replied “THERE IS NOTHING TO BURN HERE.”

Given that it was now established that this game will behave differently to the same commands for completely arbitrary reasons, I tried going into the well, and Joe jumped in, evaporating the water.

The bottom of the well had a locked door, I couldn’t get back up, and the well was slowly refilling. I couldn’t figure out any way to avoid drowning, so I consulted the walkthrough again.

You are supposed to burn down the doors, it’s just that you need to walk north right into them, at which point Joe just burns them for you. Behind it, an assassin shot me with a poisoned bolt, but I drank the vial which neutralized the poison, and then I killed him with my bare hands.



In another bit of the verbal inconsistency that plagues this game, “LOOK MAN” does nothing, but “SEARCH MAN” turned up a chime. Naturally, I wasn’t allowed to take his crossbow. Ringing the chime at the bottom of the well opened the door to the next area.


 
It’s a maze, and one wrong turn will kill you, but the directions are correct. It will, at one point, appear to repeat itself, but just keep going right and ignore the signs until you eventually escape.



Past the sign room is a magician’s room with a hat, wand, and a rabbit which will naturally kill you if you try to touch it, or do anything else for that matter. Several tries later, I looked up the answer, which was to fill the vial with water before entering the well, and then give it to the rabbit.

The rooms ahead included:
  • An unnavigable mirror maze
  • A rubber door
  • A room with a waterfall and a sword stuck in an anvil



Messing around with my stuff, I found that “USE WAND” (I tried several other verbs without success) casts a fireball spell, good for just one charge. So I reloaded and melted down the rubber door, and smothered the flames with my blanket (“SMOTHER” was the right verb here, to my mild surprise). This led to the smithy, where I was allowed to take an axe, but nothing else.

Shattering the mirrors with the axe made the maze navigable. Past the maze was a barracks, and some rooms beyond including:
  • A garden
  • A library, with 78 books, all but one containing “nothing interesting”
  • A room with a trapdoor
  • A room with a Roman statue and four staves, one glowing,
  • A very long hallway, with an arched door leading to a toilet bowl-shaped room, and another hallway, with an old man at a desk at the end who says “come back later.”

Book #51


In the room with the staves, the glowing one turns into a shovel when taken. The rest kill you.
Past the trapdoor, which can be returned from upward, was an “elemental intersection” leading to four more rooms:
  • A mine entrance and ore hopper that looks ridable, but I couldn’t figure out how
  • An old well
  • A room with a glass table and bottle
  • A room with a torch

I figured out that the shovel can dig up a carrot in the garden, but had to turn to the guide to see what to do next. It said to climb the ladder in the sleeping quarters. I didn’t see any ladder, and neither did the game.



But “CLIMB WALL” instead worked. Up the wall were some boots, which when worn caused me to levitate (only once!), and a pendant which said “DIG WHERE X’S AREN’T.”

And with this clue, I solved what was, in my opinion, the first good puzzle in this game.



That’s the only place that even had any X’s. So I wore the boots to levitate, and dug the ceiling. Now, what do you do with a mound of dirt? All I could think of was loading the ore hopper with it. “FILL HOPPER” worked, and I was magically teleported back to the staff room, where the second staff was glowing, but didn’t transform into anything when I took it.

Given that there were four staves, and four elements, and one staff clearly had to do with earth, I tried returning to the elemental intersection and burning it in the torch. This teleported me back to the staves room, where the third glowed.

I dropped the staff in the well, and the water disappeared, and the game said something was written on the bottom, but the parser wouldn’t recognize my attempts to read it. The guide said to type “READ FOUNTAIN.”

The “fountain.”


It doesn’t look like a fountain, it isn’t described as a fountain, and no, typing “READ WELL” doesn’t work here. I tried it.

Anyway, the words said:
TO AVOID ETERNAL STRIFE
YOU MUST GIVE THE BREATH OF LIFE
DO THIS DEED FIRST
PAY NOTHING ELSE HEED
OR THESE WORDS MAY BE
THE LAST THAT YOU READ


And I was returned to the staves room, where the final one was glowing. But taking it killed me.

I had solved puzzles relating to earth, fire, and water, leaving air, and the puzzles were solved in rooms north, west, and east of the elemental junction, leaving the south one, with the bottle and the glass table. I filled the bottle with my breath, and then took the staff, and the statue told me I could drop the staff and leave, which I did.

The next room had a fatal-looking dropoff, but by throwing my pillow down the shaft first, I could survive the fall.



Next rooms:
  • A torture chamber
  • The temple of Anarakull (in the back of the torture chamber, of course)
  • An underground river, that you can swim across to reach a crypt, but can’t swim back from
  • A bridge over lava, which leads to a treasure room (and collapses behind you on the return)

The treasure room really screws up the drawing routine.



Here is a classic brain teaser, with a physically dubious solution. As soon as you leave this room, the bridge collapses behind you (but you can still return to the ice room). But if you’re carrying all three spheres, then it collapses while you cross it. The solution? Juggling!

I tried looking at the altar in Anarakull’s temple, and the game suggested pushing it. Doing so opened a passageway to a few more rooms; an antechamber, the slaves’ quarters, and an outdoor area with a distant sign. Trying to read the sign told me my eyes weren’t good enough, so I ate the carrot.



Stuck again, the guide said to close the door in the antechamber, which revealed a secret passage behind it.



The passageway led to a jail containing a key, which I expected would unlock the door in the crypt. It didn’t; the key was rusty. The solution, which for the first time I’m ashamed I had to look up, is to throw the key across the river. Then I could unlock the door in the crypt.



The final challenge! The final passage of the distant sign suggests tossing valuable balls at the demon, but they must be tossed in order – silver, gold, and platinum, or else they do nothing and he kills you. I don’t know if the game has any clues to suggest this order, but even if this is just a trial and error puzzle, it’s an easy one compared to the utterly ridiculous ones that preceded it.





Oh yeah, I was naked the whole game, wasn’t I?

Where’s Brian Fargo?

There’s just one unsolved mystery here. The signpost has three passages. The first, which concludes “SPIN WISE THE BALLS INTO A WHEEL,” refers to the solution of juggling balls to cross the bridge. The third refers to throwing the balls at Anarakull. But what about the second? The sage confers a secret rhyme, if he can but find the time. What sage? There’s an old man at the end of a long, useless hallway, but all he ever says is “come back later,” and by the time you’ve read the signpost, there’s no way back up.

This game is, hands down, the worst adventure I’ve ever played. I’m sure there are even worse ones out there – the early 80’s must have been full of Apple II-owning teenagers who incompetently tried to imitate popular adventures with self-taught BASIC, but I’d be surprised if any of them played an important role in computer game history like this one did. Mapping is pleasant enough, and there are a few good puzzles, but like so many other early adventures, it suffers from an unsophisticated engine that doesn’t lend itself to puzzles with much substance, and what you get is either trivially simple or hopelessly obscure. Between those I’d prefer the trivially simple, but I’d estimate that more than half of the actions you have to take, not counting movement and taking objects, sent me checking a walkthrough, and then wondering just how anyone was ever supposed to ever figure that out on their own. So often, it was due to the arbitrary parser, which expects you to type “READ FOUNTAIN” in a room with a well that is consistently described as a well and looks like a well, and accepts “SEARCH BODY” and “LOOK COSTUME” but not “LOOK BODY” or “SEARCH COSTUME,” and other times it was due to obtuse puzzle design. The graphics, bad as they were, weren’t as much of a factor in unplayability, though they could have been. Most of the time, as it turned out, if I had trouble telling what an object was actually supposed to be (which was frequent), then I didn’t actually need to interact with it. But I didn’t know that until after finishing the game, had spent a lot of time fumbling with the parser trying to interact with mysterious unidentifiable kludges of pixels in useless rooms, and in at least one case (the climbable wall in the barracks), the bad graphics actually did get in the way of gameplay.

It could have been decent. I don’t terribly mind the constant death and dead-end situations – that’s what saving and loading is for. The thing it most desperately needed was a more flexible parser, not necessarily one as high quality as Infocom’s, but both Scott Adams and Roberta Williams put an ample amount of synonyms into their games’ vocabularies, and I rarely had the kind of guess-the-verb/noun struggles that sent me switching to the walkthrough so often here. The Demon’s Forge does at times show understanding of signposting, but should have employed it more.

Fargo would go on to found Interplay in 1983, where his earliest credits would be more graphical text adventures, produced with a budget and a more professional veneer. These games fall within the scope of Data Driven Gamer, but are probably years away. For now, I’m including the Interplay tag on this post, simply because of the importance of this game to the eventual formation of the company.

My Trizbort map:

7 comments:

  1. The best thing about Hunted:the Demon's Forge? InXile, the company that created that game was founded by Brian Fargo too!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Congratulations on your century mark!

    Very interesting... I don't think I'd really heard of this one before. It did remind me somewhat of a game we used to play in elementary school on our Franklin Ace 1000s c 1983-85 called "Dungeon of the Gods."

    Here's to seeing you through to the millennial game!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Heh - game 1000 will bring us somewhere between 1988 and 1993, depending on how many non-whale ancestors I wind up playing.

      Delete
  3. This was one of the first PC games I ever played, along with a lawnmower game and Tetris. It was on my aunt's computer, as she's always been a bit of a techie, but I'm pretty sure it was the '87 edition, the graphics were a little different. Anyway, I never got any further than the assassin (unless you count the times I swore into the input and got myself tossed in the hall of mirrors), and frankly, I'm surprised I ever made it that far. It really was a different era. Now, you expect to progress through a game at speed, back then, spending a few days or even weeks figuring out what to do with the next puzzle seemed fine.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Woz-a-day just released a previously unknown (to me) version copyrighted 1983 by Boone Corporation. Surprise - its graphics are identical to the 1987 Mastertronic version! This means the graphics were re-done much earlier than I thought - likely before Interplay was founded.

    Will revise the beginning of this post.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I finished, and while I'll be writing it up at some point (maybe next week) I wanted to point out that parser in the DOS version is *much* better. For example

    - CLOSE actually works in other places -- the 1981 version gives the impression the CLOSE verb doesn't work at all, so I had it crossed off my list, making one of the later puzzles impossible

    - You can BURN DOORS instead of just trying to walk through them.

    - EXAMINE and LOOK now are treated the same.

    - Some of the red herrings have been removed or reduced (the closet says "what are you doing in the closet?", the room full of empty boxes got cut entirely).

    - WAVE is understood so you don't have to USE the WAND.

    I haven't checked out the 1983 version to see if any of the improvements are in already. This is definitely a case where only the hardcore historians should try the initial release, though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Cool! I checked out the 1983 version briefly, and observed these details:

      -CLOSE is generally recognized, but it won't let you use it in places where it would make sense (CLOSING THE CHEST DOES NO GOOD).

      -SEARCH COSTUME tells you "you don't find a thing." But "LOOK COSTUME" produces the vial.

      -EXAMINE and WAVE are not recognized as verbs.

      -GET GEM works.

      -BURN DOORS works.

      That's about as much patience as I had for this game.

      Delete

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