Thursday, July 30, 2020

Game 204: Dunjonquest: Morloc's Tower

Read the manual here:

Is "Morloc" supposed to be a reference to  H.G. Wells? Is it a portmanteau of Merlin and Warlock? Or did Jon Freeman just think this would be a cool evil wizard name?

A second Microquest, once again features Brian Hammerhand in a streamlined, single-dungeon quest. Visiting a city in search of adventure, the townsfolk send him on a quest to kill the mad wizard Morloc, who's taken up residence in a nearby six-floor tower and has lately been flinging down fireballs at the city without provocation or reason. Morloc, he is warned, can teleport around the tower at will, and unless Hammerhand can find a way to interfere with this power, will certainly use it to evade his blade, leaving demonic servants in place to engage him.

The manual notes a few gameplay features unique to this game. Treasures are now usable as items, and are necessary in order to overcome certain obstacles and traps. The tower is also semi-randomized, with traps, items, treasures, and Morloc himself appearing in new places each playthrough.

Loading the game, for the first time there's a difficulty selector with three options. I picked the middle option, as per the manual's recommendation for first-time players with RPG experience.

Hammerhand's initial loadout includes magic armor and arrows from the townsfolk, who promise a better sword awaits in the tower.

The foyer.

During my first trip, I quickly mapped out the first floor, a six-room lobby with harmless vampire bats, nearly harmless hounds, and an intimidating "animated armor" guarding the stairs that ultimately didn't land a single blow on me. In the rooms I had found a hunting horn, a jeweled circlet, and a copper ring, and had noticed shortly after collecting the brass ring that my health had regenerated back to 100% after taking a light nibble from a hound.

Although the rooms are numbered, there are no corresponding room descriptions, which is too bad. As stereotypical as a wizard's tower setting might be, it isn't necessarily bland, and reading about the sights and sounds in each room would have only helped. In addition, it could have helped with the adventuring aspect - for instance, if a room was filled with trophies, then perhaps this would be a clue that blowing the horn might do something.

Each floor, though consisting of multiple rooms, fits entirely on a single screen. This cuts down on drawing times a lot, and makes navigation easy. There aren't very many secret doors, and since you'll never find rooms beyond the edge of the screen, there's no point in searching for doors right at the tower's outer boundaries. There is only one staircase, and it is located in the lower-right room on each floor, but you wouldn't know that without reading the manual.

On level 2, I found a treasure with this description:
A large boxlike device. Most of one face is opaque glass; below this are several knobs.

My carrying weight suddenly shot up by 190lbs! A historical note for any gen-Z'ers reading this, this is what televisions used to be like, but only really extravagant or really old ones weighed that much.

I tried using it, and its purpose was evident.

Room 29 would probably be on the top floor. I put the TV down for now.

In the large room to the north, a fire salamander blasted me with fireballs from afar - a new trick of the engine!

The dot in the upper-right is the salamander.

At 25% damage per blast, I had no chance of walking all the way over and beating it, so I retreated, waited for my health to regenerate, and went up to the third floor. Health seems to regenerate based on real time rather than action, healing about 6% every minute, so I waited with turbo on.

All I found on level 3 was a weak golem guarding a large empty room and a leather amulet filled with nasty-smelling herbs. "Using" it did nothing.

On the fourth floor, animated armor and an ogre did enough damage to cause some concern, but nothing I couldn't survive and heal with my regeneration ring and patience/turbo. On this floor, I found the magic sword, and in a closet in the northmost room, a "creeping crud" designated by a whole new symbol! This donut chewed me up.

Wizardry also had creeping cruds! Was this a D&D monster originally?

Note to self, avoid donut-shaped enemies.

Restarting, I found something surprising - that the treasures were in the exact places that I had found them before, contradicting the manual. A few rooms had different monsters, but these were mostly the same. Some rooms suddenly had traps that hadn't been trapped before, and other rooms no longer had traps, and the cube revealed room 24 instead of 29 as Morloc's location, but nothing was different that really mattered, with one exception. The salamander on floor 2 was close enough to the door that I could kill it with my sword without taking lethal fireball damage. Unfortunately, all it guarded was a very heavy gold statuette, which I left behind.

My next few attempts taught me that waiting to regenerate is always risky. Monsters can spawn while you wait, and eventually will. One time I got toasted by a fire elemental on the first level. But as I got to know the tower's layout better, I got more efficient. I would collect nothing but the regenerating ring on floor 1 and the sword on floor 4. The fifth floor had nothing but simple fights, another copper ring, and another gold statue.

In level 6, there is a secret door to the north of the stairwell - the first secret door I'd seen so far - and a not-so secret door to nowhere.

I didn't survive.

Once I got a chance to explore this area, without getting burned by randomly spawning fire elementals, I found a brass ring guarded by a golem in the second room. My sword flared as I entered the third room and killed another one. Before I could take the mysterious treasure here, a donut-icon "genie" appeared, indicating that I had discovered Morloc. Rather than engage, I took the treasure, which the manual described as this:
On one of a series of shelves cluttered with mysterious devices sits a black metal egg the size of your fist. It is covered with runes and has a button on the top.

Using it blew up the room.

In fact, it blew up the game.

One last run and I discovered the final room here, a large secret area with nothing but a donut-iconed creeping crud.

The manual has a hints section that I had been avoiding, but I felt this was the time to consult it.

Not all the treasures are magic; not all are helpful; not all are valuable. 

Ok, doesn't surprise me, not after finding some heavy gold statues with no obvious purpose.

There may be more than one example of a single treasure type; there may be more than one treasure with the same function. In such cases, the effects may (or may not) be cumulative.

Good to know. I had found two copper rings, but hadn't yet had the chance to find out if this meant double the healing power.

To avoid attack when discovered, Morloc may teleport around the room or out of it entirely. Since he can move about in the tower, he cannot always be found in the same.-room. There are some rooms, however, that Morloc never enters.

Yeah, I knew all that already.

There is no one best way to attack. If you insist on fighting the creeping crud, the best method is to fill it full of arrows from a safe distance. This may not ·always be possible, of course, and is less effective against monsters with armor or thick hides (the golems, for example). Parrying offers similar advantages and disadvantages: except as a  method of regaining energy lost through fatigue, it's utterly ineffective against a target as elusive as a vampire bat. Thrusting makes it easier for you to hit and damage agile or armored foes, but the fatigue cost (particularly if you are wounded and/or heavily laden with treasure) may be dramatic. Since it also makes you easier to hit,  thrusting can also be dangerous against monsters with particularly powerful (the larger golems, the ogres, the animated suits of armor) or multiple (the genie, the creeping crud) attacks. In some such cases, a simple" attack" may be a good compromise. Magic weapons are potent, but it may be best to save magic arrows for those creatures which can be slain only by magic (the genie and the fire elemental). Finally, sometimes the best tactic is to avoid fighting (one way or another).

Good advice, but not immediately useful in figuring out what to do next. This also doesn't help much with the creeping cruds, which rarely spawn far enough to fill with arrows, and even if they do, will certainly live long enough to close the gap and scoop you up.

There is a device which will prevent Morloc from leaving whatever room it is in. 

Already knew that from the manual's backstory.

There is a second device whose sole function is to counter the effects of the first.

Wait, how does that help me?

One (or more) treasure(s) grant the wearer/bearer some protection from fire and fireballs.

I'm guessing the brass ring?

"Not all that glitters is gold."

Hmm. On closer examination, the statuettes have the appearance of gold. Still, I'm not sure how this helps me.

"Some swords have two edges."

No idea what that's supposed to mean.

Below this was a Last Resort section that I read one note at a time.
  1. Although Morloc can appear in about half the rooms in the tower, he is most often found on the 5th or 6th floor.
  2.  There is a secret door in the top (north) wall of Room 6 (the top-floor staircase)
  3.  The TV-like device can be used to tell you Morloc's location at that moment
  4.  Besides aiding you in fighting, the magic sword glows whenever Morloc is in an adjoining room and flares whenever the bearer is in the same room as Morloc.

Yeah, I knew all that already.
  1. The glowing blue pyramid prevents Morloc from leaving any room that it is in.

Woah! I missed this one.

Reviewing my maps, I concluded there must be a secret room in either floor 1, 3, or 5, and sure enough, found one in previously-thought empty corner in floor 3, where an animated armor guarded... a brass amulet. Persistently searching the south wall of a small room in floor 5 eventually revealed a secret door to an utterly tiny room where a fire trap lightly singed me, and the glowing blue pyramid sat on the shelf. I picked up the second copper ring on this floor too, which did not double my regeneration after all.

Back on level 2 I got Morloc's location - room 21 on floor 5 this time, oddly enough the exact same room I had to search to find the closet where he stored the pyramid. His genie harassed me on the way, but I dispatched him with a magic arrow. Searching the room where it appeared, I spotted a trap, triggered it, and Morloc appeared and blasted me with another ineffective fireball. I then killed him with a single thrust of my sword.

Not quite the room the TV said he'd be in, but the same floor.

Then it ended abruptly.

Now that I knew the game solution, I tried the hardest difficulty. Combat did seem slightly harder, and I had fewer supplies - only three elixirs and one magic arrow this time. Nevertheless, I beat it on my first try, knowing exactly where I had to go, and what I had to take. This time, the TV was completely wrong about where Morloc was located. It said he'd be on the third floor, but he wasn't there, and I found him on the sixth floor, the tell-tale sign being when my sword started glow. Apparently, swords are more trustworthy than TV.

Morloc was a bit more difficult this time around. My magic arrow didn't kill his genie outright, but softened him up enough to finish him with a thrust. Morloc himself, who I found hiding in this room, survived my initial strike. Each round he would teleport somewhere and blast me with a fireball doing 10%-20% damage, which was quite aggravating as he never teleported within range of my sword, and only sometimes into my line of fire, but his fireballs always hit, from any angle. Nevertheless, he went down before I did, and I got a score of 1138. I don't know what that's based on.

GAB rating: Below Average. This is definitely a step up from Datestones of Ryn, with a game world that's somewhat interesting to explore, new gameplay mechanics including an adventure-lite inventory system, and a quest that feels less reliant on luck.

Morloc's Tower also has a sly subversion of that nearly-ubiquitous RPG trope of loot gathering, which had been taken to extremes in Temple of Apshai, where players search for and collect vast riches long past the point where it has any kind of use to them. Here, jewels and golden treasures do nothing but weigh you down, and the only jewelry of real value are the enchanted brass and copper rings. I believe it is no mistake that these useful rings are made of common metals, while anything made of gold has no use and is best discarded.

Despite the good ideas, the execution leaves something to be desired. Morloc's Tower is short indeed, well earning the "micro" part of its microquest label, and is padded with trial and error gameplay. Room descriptions are a missed opportunity. Luck still plays more of a role than it ought to - you can tangle with just about any enemy with the right tactics, but there's no way to avoid taking serious damage except being lucky, and you're dead if a creeping crud or fire elemental spawns in your path.

Still, I got some enjoyment out of this, and would have liked to see the Microquest series developed further in this direction. Sadly, there would only be one more game in this vein, Sorcerer of Siva, which technically dropped the Microquest label, and by the account of CRPG Addict just seems torturous to play. My very brief exposure to Starquest: Rescue at Rigel seems a bit more in this vein, but we'll see when we get there. First, I'm going to play the true sequel to Temple of Apshai - Hellfire Warrior.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Game 203: Dunjonquest: The Datestones of Ryn

Read the manual here:

Released just a few months after Temple of Apshai, Datestones of Ryn was the first "Microquest" a spinoff of Dunjonquest aimed at beginners by offering a smaller game world, streamlined design, and a lower price. This time, we are assigned the role of Brian Hammerhand, whose adventures were chronicled in Temple of Apshai's manual, and there is no option to create or import a different character. Good old mercenary B.H., now part of the cavalry of Ryn, and having just tracked a band of notorious thieves to their hideout, your first job is to storm the stronghold in search of the stolen datestones before they can escape by their secret exit. You have 20 minutes to recover as many as possible, and may receive a special bounty for killing their leader Rex the Reaver.

The cavern's entrance

Apart from removing the character creation and thin development mechanics, this plays almost exactly the same as Temple of Apshai, but condensed into a single session and with a twenty minute time limit, which sadly is subject to the achingly long room draw times. You explore a dungeon, search for treasure, and kill monsters and thieves. There are no room numbers this time, and no textual room descriptions, but the dungeon here is both tiny and simple. The manual claims there are 20-30 rooms. I count 16, and had exhaustively searched every side of every room for secret doors, finding only one, which was really just a shortcut.

I made about a dozen attempts, most of them getting me killed. This really is a luck-based mission. Sometimes you enter a corridor and an enemy spawns so far away that you can just pluck arrows at him safely.

Other times, especially in the stone-storing rooms, you'll start with someone right in swatting range and then take a severe hit even if you parry, which seems to be the safest action in most circumstances.

Getting my face kicked in as I pass through the secret door.

The game engine is still quite slow. This slowness can lead to dropped inputs, or even worse yet, to making you think an input was dropped, causing you to press it again, only to realize that the input merely lagged, and now you are performing the same action twice. In a game with a strict time limit and limited healing, you really, really don't want to make any mistakes.

Your only method of healing is a single elixir, and the amount restored is random. Sometimes it restores 50%. Sometimes it only restores 20%. Either way, you can't afford to take many hits. Thankfully the robbers are mostly crummy fighters, but with up to two per room, the odds of totally avoiding damage are against you.

Rex himself hides in one of the stone rooms and will ambush you as soon as you try to grab the treasure, which consists of seven datestones and a magic sword, which kills robbers in one hit usually.

This room also has the only secret door in the game.

After about ten attempts I managed to collect all 36 datestones, only to run out of time. And I realized that if you want to "win" by getting them all, you've got to avoid fighting as much as possible, especially in the stone rooms. Better to rush in, grab the stones, rush out, and hope they don't hit you for any damage. If they do, well, fighting them would have been a crapshoot too. Like I said, luck-based mission.

I managed to get in, get all the stones, and get out in 15 minutes, giving me a score of over 4,000 points, well beating out the 3,000 points scored by the highest-performing players of the day, but this was a run where things went remarkably well for me. I haven't got a strategy that consistently scores even half that much.

GAB rating: Bad. One one hand, the Microquest format fixes a lot of the problems with Temple of Apshai. The vast majority of its bugs are either fixed or made non-issues due to the streamlined gameplay, and most of the limitations on character development and such are irrelevant when the entire game is reduced to a single dungeon run with a fixed character.

On the other hand, the gameplay also streamlines away nearly everything that made Temple of Apshai interesting. The dungeon is tiny, kind of dull, and there aren't any of those atmospheric room description paragraphs. The tactical combat isn't deep or complex enough to make up for the complete lack of character growth and development, and any strategies' success or failure ultimately comes down to sheer luck.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Temple of Apshai: Plunder and destruction

One level of Apshai remained. The lowest sanctum, accessed through submerged tunnels, from which none had ever returned, was therefore where the richest treasures must remain.

I would not be the first to return. Right away, I got wrecked by a solitary ant man guard, and for the first time, my body eaten by the denizen's monsters.

I allowed myself to cheat and boost my stats a bit through abusing the character importing program. By increasing my strength from 12 to 15 and dexterity from 15 to 16, I found I stood a chance against these level 4 guards while still leaving them a challenge. Anything less than this and I was ant food. With 18 strength, 18 constitution, and 15 dexterity, I just got hit too often and too hard. With 14 strength, 18 dexterity, and 18 constitution, the fight dragged on too long, I got worn out, and finished off. 15 strength and 16 dexterity seems to be the minimum viable build here.

I also found that with this strength boost, I could finally tramp through the halls in full plate without tiring myself so quickly, though I still could not wield a hand-and-a-half sword, and to wield a two-handed greatsword without a shield would mean death for certain.

Even with these artificially boosted stats, I wasn't guaranteed a fair shot. During one trip, a giant amoeba spawned right at the entrance and one-shotted me. At this point I was past caring about fair play and just re-imported my character whenever he died if he was eaten or "rescued" by the body-looting dwarf.

This final area seemed to be a barracks of sorts. Many of the halls and tunnels were vanilla-scented, indicating presence of ant-men, but not nearly as strong as the ones encountered in the first two rooms. In fact, two large rooms in the west end, overpoweringly vanilla-scented and full of cots and footlockers (but nothing of value), had seemingly endless respawns of ant-men who collectively gave me no trouble at all as I killed 32 of them in one room before retreating to restock my arrow supply. In the northwest corner, a solitary cobweb-infested bedroom was infested with giant spiders that I knew better than to engage. An armory near these rooms contained a mithril-fused sword protected by a spear trap, but either this sword was a worthless non-enchanted broadsword, or else a bug just caused me to lose my magic enchantments.

The manual also cautioned me that traps here were deadlier than ever. That spear trap I mentioned? It's described as three spears thrusting out at waist level. The needle trap that once protected chests and closets is replaced by a stiletto with a dark stain at the tip. The pit trap that went from a ten foot drop to a ten foot drop with spikes at the bottom is now a twenty foot drop with spikes at the bottom. There's also a new flame trap here for good measure.

Most of the halls and rooms between them were strewn with junk, but one large room not far from the entrance, filled with hieroglyphics and braziers, had a mantis statue with large rubies for eyes, worth $3000 each. Taking them woke up the statue, which killed me in a somewhat drawn out fight where it hit me infrequently but hit hard.

The one monster not mentioned in the manual.

The doorway to the east opened to a closet with a far more lavish (and considerably more massive) treasure of platinum crosses, candelabras, and offering trays, worth $21,500 total and only guarded by weak skeleton bats. Further down a corridor, a door south led to a rotting library with a single good book on a trapped shelf, which I took and discovered upon my return that my constitution had risen by one point.

At this point there were still 20 rooms remaining to be discovered, and I had explored every passageway except for a secret door east of the level entrance. Behind this lay a particularly nasty ant-man guard, who I couldn't beat even with my inflated stats.

In fact, I tried completely maxing out my stats, and it still killed me. Parlaying never seemed to work either, which at 8 intelligence I hadn't bothered trying previously, but even with 18 intelligence it still didn't work against any of the ant-men patrolling this level. And if you can't parlay with ant-men, who are the closest thing you'll find to human beings, who would you? The spiders?

I pulled out all the stops for these last few rooms.

Cheatey #1 had +5 sword & +5 plate but that wasn't quite enough.

After fighting more overpowered ant-men, a southern alcove with an obviously false wall led to a tiny closet with yet another opulent treasure; 60 gold coins, 15 emeralds, two diamond stickpins, two gold chains, in total worth $12,600, and a pair of magic boots that the manual said would let me run faster, but I couldn't discern any effect. Beyond the alcove were a series of stone back-passages running through the north end of the level with a bunch of secret doors leading to places I had already explored. Junk and loose gold coins were littered throughout, and at the very end of this series of passages was one last room in the far north-east where some giant spiders guarded a bag (of holding apparently) containing 10,000 silver coins.

My final mop-up found that in the northwest spider-infested bedroom there was a corpse with 65 gold coins, and a secret door to a much smaller bedroom with giant amoebas and a trapped chest containing 84 platinum pieces and 55 small diamonds worth a total of $13,900 and a magic cloak. One final hidden room, its position made clear by the mostly-filled map, had nothing but a gold plaque.

The very last thing I did before leaving was to lift the rubies from the mantis statue and kill it.

Eat it, you chitinous, cabalistic, cricket-munching creep!

My final haul. You figure it out.

Map of level 4

GAB rating: Below Average. There's a lot that I like about this game. The best part is the exploration, which is far better than the likes of Akalabeth, better in some ways than Wizardry, and the room descriptions are a big part of this, but even without them, the dungeon design and layout is clever, interesting, and feels lived-in - it's kind of incredible that Freeman & Connelley managed to pull this off with such primitive building blocks! Combat is pleasingly tactical, and demands mastery of both a nuanced fatigue system and a tileless movement & position system unlike anything else you'd see in the CRPG canon for years to come. There's a consistent atmosphere of dread, again helped by the manual's room descriptions, and it suits the sparse, abstract visuals well.

But let's be real. Dunjonquest is a technical nightmare. From the slooow screen updating routines that bring everything to a halt for half a minute whenever you enter a new room, to the bugs, the limitations, and gameplay mechanics that simply don't work, it will try anyone's patience. I don't mind having to keep the manual handy to read room and treasure descriptions. I don't mind having to manually re-type a character sheet to "resume" a saved game. I don't mind being given free reign over my character's stats and trusted not to cheat. I don't even mind having to keep track of my own silver (granted, I didn't bother doing this for long). But I do mind it when my shield just disappears for no reason and the innkeeper won't even sell me another, or when the game outright crashes. The various aspects of the game that obviously just don't work correctly also gives me little faith that any of the invisible mechanics were working as intended as well.

I also wish the RPG elements were a bit better developed. I wasn't expecting Wizardry, but here, once you roll a character, there's almost no meaningful way to improve it. Silver is worthless once you have enough to buy full plate, and the only useful items I ever found in the dungeon were a +2 magic sword, a few magic arrows, some healing elixirs, and a constitution-increasing grimoire, all of which except the book I had found in the first level. Experience points don't even do anything, as far as I can tell. The endgame content seems to be made for cheaters, as even with maxed-out stats, and weapons and armor enchanted far beyond fair means, I was unable to survive it. At the very least, this doesn't bode well for Upper Reaches of Apshai, which as a data tape uses the exact same engine, with presumably the same limitations.

An Atari 400 port in 1982 runs a whole lot faster, offers tiled graphics and sprites, and from a cursory look improves on several of its interface problems. I estimate that my appraisal of this version could have been bumped up to average, assuming it fixes the most serious bugs.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Temple of Apshai: Not satisfied with silver

I began my session on level 2 with an unpleasant lesson about the battle mechanics, when my +2 weapon was ineffective against a colony of vampire bats guarding a cedar cabinet.

The quickest sortie by far. It took me almost an hour to kill 12 of them.

When I last played, my character sheet listed my weapon as a "MAGIC SWORD +2." When you import a character, you are asked what kind of weapon you have. "MAGIC SWORD" wasn't accepted, and the innkeeper said I'd have to buy something from the shop, but later asked if I had a magic weapon. I said yes, and it prompted me for the point value, which was 2.

Turns out that even though my character sheet listed "MAGIC SWORD +2" as a weapon, the magic sword doesn't replace your basic weapon - it enhances it! I had effectively given myself +2 fists.

I re-imported, made sure to specify that I had a broadsword before declaring my magic weapon, and this time utterly broke the bats. Even my arrows clearly did more damage than before. The treasure here was a set of candelabras and trays worth 1800 pointless SP and a skull ring of unexplained power.

The main junction in level 2

This floor of the temple gave me little trouble overall. It seemed to be a campus, with workshops, smithies, textile mills, and living quarters, most of which contained nothing but useless garbage, but the rooms further from the entrance had valuables such as precious metal ingots and rubies, which were also useless to me.

Exploring a carpenter's shop and tannery.

A few hidden passageways led to other, less savory looking rooms, such as an alchemist's lab with shelves of nasty ingredients, where I found a few healing potions, and behind a hidden door, a study room where I found a magical talisman granting powers of perception, though ironically I couldn't perceive any difference it made.

I had to be careful of traps, which did much more damage than in the previous level, and had nastier descriptions to go with this. For instance, a trap described in level one as a ten foot pit that suddenly opens up at your feet, has a counterpart here described as a ten foot pit with spikes at the bottom. Oddly, my shield protected me from that one.

To the east were some large storage rooms with finitely respawning enemies, no valuable treasure, and a hidden door leading to an entire second dungeon segment - a secret prison.

There wasn't much in the cells - just a bunch of skeletons, zombies, garbage, and a few loose silver coins, but the central dividing hall concealed a passageway leading to a torture chamber, where moaning and clanking could be heard, but the source unseen.

The torture chamber. No monsters, no treasure, just a trap.

Level 2 map

Onto level 3 - the mines beneath the temple!

Combat started off rough - an ant-man hit me twice knocking me down to 26% health, forcing my retreat. My second attempt got me much farther in - the enemies still hit infrequently, and when they did, not nearly as hard. At a junction I went west, finding several caves full of gold nuggets. Many of these rooms were trapped too - the manual states that level 3 lacks man-made traps, but cave-ins are a common hazard.

Searching for traps reveals a cave-in spot near the north door.

Avoiding traps is handled strangely in Temple of Apshai. When you search for them, there's a good chance that a pixel on the screen will start blinking for a few seconds. You'll have to remember this spot and avoid it, or else you trigger the trap, and may suffer large amounts of damage or outright die. But because of the way movement works, you can also walk right through them safely. Pressing "9" translates to "walk in the direction you face nine steps," but it's really more like "teleport forward nine steps." As long as the ninth step doesn't land on the trap, you'll be fine.

In a large, web-filled cavern in the north part of the dungeon, a giant spider one-shotted me to death through my shield and full plate armor. The wizard revived me (and despite the manual's warning did not take away my magic sword or arrows) and I tried again, to the same results. So I avoided this section.

In the eastmost section, a bone-filled passage with diamonds, emeralds, and rubies scattered throughout led to a quadrangle of rooms filled with carrion crawlers, which in spite of their ferocity were unable to harm me. One such room contained a backpack full of gold coins and jewelry including another magic skull ring.

The rest of this section was mostly uneventful, with many skeletons and bats to fight, and a lot of simple corridors with loose gems to pick up, though one large room in the east section had an interesting description:
Room Ten - is a large natural cavern. Tracks lead into the chamber that suggest something heavy being dragged. The floor is covered with slimy red muck. A pile of body parts and gnawed bones occupies the northwest corner and the air reeks of decay and death.

In turn, it had an interesting treasure:
In the corner you find a small sack with two small diamonds, a small sapphire, a small ruby and a diamond goblet inside.

Going by the numbers, one room remained undiscovered, and I had noticed that so far there didn't appear to be any secret doors in this level. So I began searching walls, and thankfully found a secret door not far from the level entrance. Within, a room bore this description:
Room Sixty - is a huge vault with stonework walls and floor and a native rock ceiling. Rude statues and carved pillars picture men and half-men. As the figures become more bestial, the workmanship becomes more primitive. Ancient tools and artifacts lie all about the chamber. Small stone doors of cunning device line the east and south walls. Several of these are open, revealing three by three by six foot openings into the rock. A shroud hangs from one of the open cavities. Glyphs of unknown symbology cover the walls. The dust of the floor is thick and undisturbed. The air smells of musty antiquity and death. Several urns and coffers in the southeast corner gleam with jeweled brilliance.

Wights, which inflicted "a chill" on successful hits, guarded this room's treasure:
A search of the chests and coffers reveals forty-five small diamonds, ten small emeralds, seven small sapphires* and four small rubies.
But the wights apparently sapped my strength - a very bad thing given there's no honest way to restore it - and eventually the game just crashed.

I did go back to the spider's nest after this, using the character importing system to cheat by temporarily setting my stats higher than what they really were. I found that with all of my stats set to 16 and a bit of kiting I could beat the spiders, but with my stats at 15 I couldn't. I suspect dexterity was key, as every single time I got hit, I took at least 50% damage (even when my shield blocked), but with 16 they usually outright missed. The reward was 200 gold nuggets worth $10,000, nearly as much as the treasure in the secret mausoleum.

Level 3 map

Exploring and mapping out the temple is compelling, but the sense of RPG development has been underwhelming. A big part of the RPG experience is seeing character growth, and that just isn't happening here. My stats remain unchanged, except for experience points which lack clear purpose, and my equipment is no better now than it was at the end of level 1. I'm just waiting for the challenge level to catch up with me, though in the case of two of the optional rooms here, it already surpassed my abilities. One more level to go.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Game 202: Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai

Read the manuals here:

To this day, it still amazes me a little bit that so many of the earliest commercial computer games were distributed on cassette tapes, where the entire program, often written in BASIC too, would be loaded into 16KB of RAM or less of the computer's RAM, and vanish as soon as the computer was switched off. As recently as five years ago, I associated the earliest computer games with floppy disks, which had higher capacities than the computer's memory, and were designed to load specific portions of the game into memory at the time they were needed, much as hard drives work today. BASIC was, in my eyes, a toy language appropriate for teaching young children how to program, or for goofing around on the computer, inappropriate for developing a commercial product.

Indeed, for whatever reason, at least in the U.S., cassette games are much more obscure than the floppy disk games of just a few years later. Adventureland is forgotten, but Zork is the most famous text adventure of all time. The BASIC strategy games of Avalon Hill are all but unrecognized, but M.U.L.E. frequently shows up on GOAT candidate shortlists. Castle Wolfenstein is somewhat well known as both the original Wolfenstein and a forerunner to the stealth action genre, but few discuss the earlier titles by Muse Software. Ultima and Wizardry went on to spawn popular, decades-running franchises of immense influence, but the Dunjonquest franchise effectively died in 1986, when Westwood's 16-bit remake of the original Temple of Apshai and its expansions failed to rejuvenate the series.

I hadn't played it yet, but I knew a little bit beforehand about Temple of Apshai, the first game in the Dunjonquest series. I knew it's a 16KB BASIC title, that it was distributed on cassette tapes originally, and was divided into two separate programs; the "innkeeper" and "dungeon" programs. Even then, the 16KB RAM limit must have been overly restrictive. I knew that the game is a simple dungeon crawler with no real goals or ending, and that in order to capture the feeling of playing a D&D campaign with a dungeon master, each room has a corresponding paragraph in the manual describing the sights and sounds. Most strangely of all, I knew that rather than offering any sort of file saving functionality, the game simply displayed your character sheet at the end of each successful dungeon expedition, which you were expected to copy down onto paper and re-enter when you resume, inviting abuse of the system (oh yes, I did conclude my last session with 18/00 strength, 20,000 pieces of silver, and a +5 vorpal blade!).

Reading the manual beforehand gleaned more information. The Dunjonquest system has no capacity for magic or stealth, but instead has a greater emphasis on tactical physical combat than the D&D rules of the time, utilizing the computer's natural ability to quickly and accurately perform tedious calculations. Fatigue levels are central to this, as fighting with a heavy weapon and shield will drain your stamina quickly, as will just walking around while wearing heavy armor or carrying large amounts of treasure. Battle tactics include swings, thrusts,firing arrows (which curiously drain no stamina), and parries (which actually restore stamina). Out of battle, you may also inspect rooms for traps or hidden doors, listen for monsters in adjacent rooms, and parlay with ones in the current room.

Sandwiched between the rules and room descriptions is a four-page framing vignette called The Adventures of Brian Hammerhand, about a sailor who, while bar-hopping on shore leave, learns of a recently excavated temple to the insect god Apshai. The foul rituals performed long ago have blighted the land, and the efforts of the priests of Geb to loot its upper levels and discover its dark secrets had only brought temporary prosperity back to the city. Few have dared to enter the passages beneath, accessible only with the ebb of the tides, and those who did never returned. It's left ambiguous whether we are playing as Brian Hammerhand, or as one of the many other adventurers foolhardy enough to enter in search of the untold riches within.

Getting the series to run at all was a challenge. All of the Dunjonquest games from 1979 to 1982, as well as the MicroQuest and StarQuest spinoffs, were developed primarily for the TRS-80, and I wanted to play these versions. Finding copies wasn't a problem, but the CAS-file tape images didn't work! I don't know if I was doing something wrong, but I tried both MAME and SDLTRS, where I'd play them with CLOAD, the virtual tapes would play to the very end, and nothing at all would happen. Other copies were distributed as DSK disk images, not quite authentic, but some of them wouldn't be read by MAME, some would be read by MAME but the files were corrupt, and others were mislabeled, containing completely different games on them. Most of the available copies, though, were distributed as loose BASIC files.

I ultimately used these loose files to make my own MAME-friendly package, which you can download here if interested. If not, just search for the next instance of the phrase "and then, we can play."

This package is meant for MAMEUI, which can be downloaded here:

Extract my package into the MAMEUI, overwriting the folders there.

Launch MAMEUI.

On the left-hand side of the window is a list of categories, such as “All Systems” and “Available.” Right click the one called “Computer” and click “Audit.” Wait for this process to finish.

Locate the machine “TRS-80 Model I (Level II Basic).” Right click->Properties.

Under Display, you want “Run in a window” checked. If you haven’t spent much time emulating a TRS-80 through MAME before, trust me on this.

Under Miscellaneous, you want “Show Menu” checked.

OK out. With the TRS-80 Model I level II icon selected, click the "Media View" tab. Set the flop1 to your "NEWDOS_80sssd_jv1.DSK" file, and flop2 to a disk image containing the game you want to play. The file "temple-of-apshai-v1-microquests-starquests.DSK" contains all of them except for Hellfire Warrior and the expansions Upper Reaches and Keys of Acheron, each of which exist on their own dedicated floppies.

Double-click the TRS-80 Model I Level II icon.

If it doesn't boot into NEWDOS, then you'll need to go into Options->Configuration to enable floppy disks. Then do a hard reset.

You'll also want to go to Options->Keyboard and enable Natural keyboard input. This is because MAME's TRS-80 emulation module supports lowercase input, but Temple of Apshai only recognizes upper-case input. Be aware that in this mode, the left arrow key is used to backspace.

To play Temple of Apshai, type this command:

To play one of the Microquests or StarQuests, use one of these commands:
  • BASIC,45000,RUN "RESCUE"

Upper Reaches of Apshai has a dedicated floppy disk, which I've prepared as a standalone image, and needs this command:

Hellfire Warrior and Keys of Acheron also have dedicated, separate floppy disks. Both use this command:

And then, we can play.

Lacking any prior play experience, I had the innkeeper program generate a new character for me.

This seemed like a pretty good roll. Temple of Apshai has no magic system, and according to the manual, intelligence is used only to bargain with the innkeeper or to parlay with monsters. Intuition helps spot traps and secret doors. Ego does the same as intelligence, but also helps a wounded character press on and fight. The physical attributes are straightforward, and the manual states that constitution, which I rolled pretty high on, is the most important stat of all.

I bought a broadsword and shield for a bit less than their asking prices, and spent the last of my remaining coin on a ring tunic.

I descended to level 1, which loaded sloooowly, taking almost two minutes, and then another 30 seconds to draw the first room. Thank heaven for MAME's turbo key. The tape version would have been even worse, as on later levels it would have to "play" the data files for all of the previous levels before reaching the selected one for loading!

As the room drew, I read its description:
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.

Movement isn't tile-based, but instead you "step" forward between 1 and 9 footsteps at a time, causing your character sprite to jump that many pixels ahead of where he's facing, which in this case is to the right. The lump of pixels overlapping your sprite is called "Treasure #20," which is listed in the manual and described as "nothing of value." These treasures are distressingly common in the temple, and serve only to weigh you down.

I allowed the skeleton in the room to approach me as I swung at it, killing it without much sweat.

The only exit was to the north, leading to a hall with a mural on the east wall and a ransacked backpack underneath it. This backpack was another treasure #20, nothing of value, but inspecting the mural revealed a secret door, which I entered.

I explored a few watery rooms past this secret door. To the south, a suit of plate armor lay in a three foot pool of water. To the east, worthless lilies and moss floated in the pool. To the north, more lilies triggered a "dust trap" as I brushed against them.


Fortunately, Olias the Dwarf found me. Unfortunately, Olias is greedy and will take away all of your treasures. Fortunately, I didn't have any, as far as I know. So I was able to re-enter the dungeon and continue exploring.

North of the start, I followed a roaring sound through a corridor, finding a treasure hidden behind a pyramid of stones. This continued for some time - I'd travel some, enter a new room, and read the description in the manual. The description was usually just flavor text, but would occasionally describe some gameplay event or treasure found within, or hint at the existence of a secret wall or trap. Treasures, like rooms, are indicated by numbers, and have corresponding descriptions in the manual. After killing a few dozen monsters with my broad sword and picking up several treasures, I noticed that my fatigue levels were dropping quite quickly, at 18 points per 9-step stride. I foolishly pressed on, until my wounds reduced to 50%, at which point I retreated, running from monsters as much as possible, and resting whenever fatigue got low, which was constantly.

Eventually I returned to the temple entrance, where the game offered to identify my items.

The manual is needed here. My haul was:
  1. A beautiful cloak, wondrously light, yet tough as nails. (no value after being removed from the temple)
  2. The aroma of the plant overcomes your better judgement and you taste a bit of it. It is delicious and builds strong bodies twelve ways. (2*5 SP)
  3. In a pocket of the deceased you find four gold pieces.
  4. Inside the cabinet you find five arrows with mithril worked into the points. (magic arrows, though the game gave me eight)
  5. Nothing of value

Then, I returned to the inn.

Tallying up the loot is your responsibility. Honor system.

With my newfound silver, I bought some healing salves and entered the dungeon again, this time a little stronger and with a lot more understanding of how things work here. Contrary to what I'd expected from earlier reading on the subject, Temple of Apshai (or this version of it, at least) does keep track of the dungeon state and your character stats and inventory as long as the computer is kept on, with the exception of your silver. Turn the computer off, though, and the dungeon resets, your character is gone, and you will need to re-type your character sheet if you want to keep playing as him.

I went further in, mapped things out a little better, and made heavy use of MAME's turbo key while going through familiar grounds.

I did die through my own carelessness, but nothing bad came of it. The manual outlines four possibilities - getting eaten by monsters, being rescued by the dwarf who will take all of your treasures and magic items, being rescued by the wizard who will take your magic weapons and armor but allow you to keep your treasures, and being rescued by the cleric who will take nothing but request a donation to the (non-Apshai) temple.

Eventually I found my first decent treasure. At the end of a vanilla-scented passage, I emerged into a partly caved-in room swarming with giant ants. This room killed me a few times - again, thank heaven for MAME's turbo key, which I used liberally to return here - but once I survived, I found eight diamonds worth 100 SP each laying in the earth. Battered and bruised down to 20% of my health, I ran back to the entrance with my treasure, jumping past monsters whenever possible, and stopping to rest with practically every step when I could.

I started to wonder if my character might not be viable. At only 12 strength, he could wield nothing better than a broadsword, and after being weighed down with a plate cuirass and extra healing salves, merely walking through the first corridor tired him out. Nevertheless, I pressed on to see how far I could get. The armor did stop the majority of attacks, though the powerful giant ants in the cluster of vanilla-scented rooms did as much as 40% damage when they landed a blow. I managed to clear out all of the rooms in this cluster, and each of them contained a few respawning giant ants and a some more small diamonds, 34 in total.

Returning to the inn, another problem became clear. This was just the treasure of the first level, but there's already nothing you can spend the money on! I had 3,847 pieces of silver, but even the most extravagant shopping spree would barely touch that.
  • A great sword, which I couldn't even use, costs 70 SP.
  • A large shield costs 15 SP.
  • Full plate costs 1000 SP.
  • A full quiver of 60 arrows costs 30 SP.
  • A maximum allotment of 10 healing salves costs 100 SP.

That's 1,215 SP to buy out the shop, and 130 SP to totally replenish your salves and arrows. There are better items - I had already found some magic arrows, some healing lilies, and magic armor and weapons exist somewhere, but they're not for sale. At this point I stopped bothering to keep track of silver and just gave myself 130 on each return to the inn so I could buy more arrows and healing salves.

Going back in, I intuited the locations of two hidden rooms I missed before, helped by my map and the room numbers (it seemed odd that 9 and 10 were missing, so I searched the walls of room 8), where I found a copper ingot and some valuable moss. The weight of full plate made everything drain my stamina hard. I could barely trudge across the width of a single room without stopping to rest, and just swinging my sword drained dozens of points, but in turn it protected me from nearly everything. I eventually mapped out the rest of the level, finding the level's best treasure - a magic sword - in a central room guarded by giant bombardier beetles.

One last, particularly well hidden room concealed a lavish treasure of 200 silver pieces and a diamond ring worth 300, guarded by a few weak but ferocious spiders.

My map of level 1:

I noted some bugs and limitations of the program:

The innkeeper program fails to remember how much silver you have. If you leave the inn with 100 SP and immediately return, it will show 0 silver on your character sheet. Given that the first thing it asks you is how much silver you've got (because the game can't calculate the value of the treasures you find), you can just enter this value in yourself, and in the long run this isn't a real problem as you soon get more silver than you could possibly spend.

The bow doesn't seem to really exist. After creating or importing a character, you have the option of buying a bow, and are only given the option to buy arrows if you buy a bow first (or if you declared a bow when importing your character). But the bow doesn't appear on the character sheet, and if you return to the inn and continue with your active character, you won't get the option to buy a bow, but you will be allowed to buy arrows. And as long as you have arrows, you can fire them, whether you bought a bow or not.

Shields are often lost - presumably they get destroyed in battle - but you can't buy a shield without buying a sword first! And if you have a magic sword, it will be replaced when you do this. The only way to replace your shield and keep your magic sword is to import a character and declare both.

There's no way to check your stock of healing items. Not a bug per se, but this would have been useful.

After identifying your treasures, you are asked "art thou ready for more," and it doesn't seem to matter how you answer. Either way you return to the inn, where you are asked if you are going to continue with your current character or not.

Death and resurrection by the wizard or cleric resets your carrying weight, even though they do not take your treasures away from you.

Whenever you leave the dungeon, the program offers to save the dungeon state, but this doesn't seem to do anything, even though it does write a file to the disk called "LEVEL." The dungeon state is persisted across continuous play sessions whether you save or not, and is lost when you hard-reset the machine whether you save or not.

When entering a dungeon level, typing anything but 1, 2, 3, or 4, will either crash the game, or load a level comprised of garbage data and then crash the game.

Overall I am enjoying Temple of Apshai, but the experience is already beginning to wear thin, and I know that if I didn't have the turbo key button, I'd have given up by now, or perhaps switched to a speedier version like the Atari port.

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