Thursday, September 29, 2022

Game 340: Dragon Slayer


Dragon Slayer, despite being called one by several sources, isn't really an action RPG, but rather a turn-based game on a timer, like Caverns of Freitag. Unlike its contemporaries Tower of Druaga and Hydlide, you could easily turn this game into something purely turn-based simply by removing the timer aspect, and nothing in its space of gameplay possibilities would be lost except for the possibility of failure to keep up with its frenetic pace. Dragon Slayer even provides the means to do this - unlike Freitag, you can pause any time with the Esc key, giving you unlimited time to think over your next move anyway. This is not, contrary to Wikipedia's description, remotely how arcade-style action mechanics work, and I can't really see it as a foundational to the eventual incorporation of action mechanics into RPG-like games either.

For that matter, it's also not much of an RPG. Even though it does feature stat-based character development, this serves more as an absolute gate on progress than a factor in combat success, and along with some rather obtuse gameplay mechanics, including Sokoban-like block pushing, lends more of a puzzle game feel.

Dragon Slayer is, nevertheless, an important proto-JRPG. Yoshio Kiya's first game as a fulltime employee, it helped solidify Falcom's identity (and its hit sequel Xanadu even more so).

There are four PC-8801 versions cataloged by Neo Kobe:

  • Level 1.1
  • Level 2.0
  • LOGiN version
  • Unlabeled "Dragon Slayer" file

I played the unlabeled one, assuming that this was a "Level 1.0" release, but in retrospect, this was the wrong choice. From what I can gather, "Level 2.0" version makes the monsters tougher and doubles the number of maps. LOGiN, a version distributed with a computing magazine, is an entirely new level set and replaces most of the sprites. The unlabeled version seems to be a hack which uses the "Level 2.0" maps and difficulty balance, but with the LOGiN sprites, and also dummies out the title screen logo and, as I realized far too late, the controls screen. The true "Level 1.0" release is buried deeper in the collection, hidden inside a disk image called "[Compilation] 88 Game.88."

You start outside what I'm going to assume is some kind of portable camping cabin that you set up in a dungeon, which serves as a free healing station as well as a drop-off point for stat-enhancing treasure. Without a sword, though, you can't even take on the weakest denizens, let alone slay any dragons. And although a sword is plainly visible to the east, there's a wall in the way.

Due south, you'll find a bunch of loose gold, some locked chests, a ring, which lets you push walls (and the house), and a cross, which makes you invulnerable! Annoyingly, the gold can't be collected while holding either item. The cross is great if you want to explore the dungeon and not die but be completely unable to meaningfully interact with any part of it while monsters keep spawning. You can't have both at once, so get the gold, then the ring, and go back home.


Drop the ring before cashing in your gold for HP, get it again, and then head west for a Sokoban-like puzzle where the monsters will leave you alone.

There's the sword! Collect it, and a ghost spawns and steals the chest-unlocking key, which is just as well because there's no way you can get it yourself, even with the ring. How do you know where the key goes? Here's the neat part - you don't.

With the sword equipped, now you can fight skeletons, and that's about it. And every time you kill a skeleton, a tougher vampire bat spawns somewhere nearby. Avoid the skeletons and eventually vampire bats and even swarms of bees will spawn anyway. And the XP gained from killing skeletons isn't going to help very much. You can outrun the enemies for the most part, but eventually the map will be so flooded with them that this is impossible, and narrow corridors with enemies blocking the way will be troublesome well before that.

What you need is a strength crystal. Unfortunately, they're all either inside chests or on the extreme far south of the map. Fortunately, the ghost loves randomly stealing them and dropping them off in random parts. Unfortunately, this can't be controlled or predicted. If you're lucky, you might find one before getting overwhelmed.

At this point, after repeatedly getting lost and/or overwhelmed and killed, I decided to use the cross to map out as much of the dungeon as I could, and it's huge; 80 columns wide (wrapping) and 100 tall (not wrapping).

After restarting and following a map to plan an efficient route to the gem cache, I happened to find the key stashed near a teleporter. So I grabbed it and made a mad dash back home, unlocking as many chests as I could along the way without engaging enemies.

No time to open these


Next, I dropped off the key and began the tedious process of fetching treasure, especially strength crystals, which must be brought back to the house to confer their benefits, and can only be carried one at a time. Even one crystal vastly improves your fighting ability, bringing your strength up from 500 to 3000 points, making the skeletons die in one shot and giving you a fair shot at the vampire bats. But experience quickly taught me not to fight too aggressively, as every monster you kill causes a stronger one to spawn.

Eventually, I found my key again - the ghost had moved it while I was retrieving treasure - and began opening the level's chests more thoroughly, now that the monster population wasn't quite the threat it was the first time.

Opening - but not yet collecting - tons of treasures in relative peace.

I kept combing the level for quite some time, going back to gathering strength crystals whenever I couldn't find more chests to open (or when the ghost stole my key), eventually getting bold enough to attack much more aggressively to earn experience, even chasing down fleeing opponents. In combat, two stats matter - strength and experience. Strength means raw damage, experience subtracts from it, and if your strength isn't greater than your opponent's experience, your damage is virtually nullified. That goes both ways too, but the monsters' experience curve is pretty chaotic, spiking seemingly at random. For instance, a moth enemy has 109,000 experience, while a caterpillar that comes immediately after has 270,000, so you may be able to easily kill the former, even able to make it run from you, and not even be close to being able to damage the latter, needing another 60+ crystals before you've got enough strength to land a scratch. Which, again have to be gathered one at a time.

With the ring, you can push the house into crystal-rich areas, but I found that with so many loose crystals in the level, the hyperactive ghost was quite busy juggling them around, and I could barely take a few steps in any direction without finding a couple.

I also noticed that, when I got about 30,000 experience, I could suddenly walk in diagonals. This let me gain access to even more treasure chests.

The farming continued for some time.

Several tough baddies


Eventually I discovered that, with a certain amount of XP, you can turn into a bird with magic and fly over walls, and found the dragon in an otherwise inaccessible spot of the map. With an attack power of 600,000, I knew I'd want close to that much XP before fighting it in earnest, so I continued farming the map for enemies until I gained a bit over 550,000 and returned.

One head went down easily, but the others had so much XP that even with 356,500 strength I couldn't scratch them. The tougher of the two had 400,000, though not enough strength to hurt me at this point, and besides, I could hit it diagonally without retaliation, if only I could hurt it. The body had 655,350 experience, which astute gamers and programmers will know is the upper value of a 16-bit integer with an extra 0 sharpied onto the end. The tail just thwacks you away if you try to attack it.

Strength crystals were getting scarce, too, and the ghosts constantly moving stuff was going back from a blessing in disguise to being a nuisance again.

Ultimately, through exhaustively searching the level with my bird spell, and using the return spell to rapidly retreat back to the house, I was able to amass 394,000 strength. Not enough - I'd need more than that just to start doing damage to the last head, and after that, I simply couldn't find even a single one more.

Trading blows with the second head. I do 14,000 damage per hit, it does 10.

Monsters surround my home after I return, but most can't hurt me. Except the one to the southwest.

I'm not sure what I'm supposed to do, or supposed to have done. Some monsters drain your strength, and I had been careful to avoid that, but sometimes it happens. Does the game really expect you to find every single crystal in this enormous level, tediously getting them and returning them to the house one at a time, while dealing with endlessly respawning monsters and not getting hit by a strength drainer even once? While ghosts are constantly moving them and other stuff around, including the key, which I'm pretty sure there's only one of, that you need to get most of them?

Reading CRPG Addict's account, which is based on the 1.1 release with easier monsters (including a dragon I could have beaten with my current stats), what comes next in store is a search through the entire level for four crowns, which can't possibly be more horrid to deal with than searching for every strength crystal. He also notes that you can break blocks at a certain point, which I really wish I had known. Once you get all the crowns, you go to the next map with your stats reset and do it all over again. Or in his case, and would certainly be mine had I also made it, you don't.

Initially, I was content to move on, but I decided to try again, using the "Level 1.0" version. And this was indeed a much easier experience. I spent a lot less time being outclassed by monsters, even reaching the point where nearly everything on the board would flee and I had to even chase them down in order to gain the XP needed to unlock new abilities. Knowing about the break block ability, attained fairly early on, made a world of difference, allowing me to clear my own paths to push the house through to reach crystal-rich areas.

The early version is more difficult in one aspect. Sometimes, when opening treasure chests, a chest may be cursed, disabling your ability to cast spells (including brick breaking) and causing a skeleton to follow you around everywhere you go. This happens in later versions too, but I hadn't mentioned it as the curse can be broken by touching a cross, and clusters of treasure chests are all but guaranteed to leave a few, so it's no big deal. Not so in this version, where the only way to break a curse is to go back home, and even then, this causes the skeleton to hang around in the area, ready to re-curse you should you get too close to him a second time.

Ultimately, beating the dragon merely required me to attain 350,000 strength - experience doesn't matter, as you can hit the dragon heads from angles by breaking or pushing blocks out of the way - and if your strength exceeds that by any amount, then each dragon head goes down in one hit. There were plenty of crystals still scattered through the level even after I had gotten enough of them.

The final challenge, getting the crowns, isn't especially hard, but made annoying by a few things; they can be hidden anywhere, the ghosts keep moving them around, you can't use magic while holding a crown, and your house becomes surrounded by high level monster spawners, making the return almost as annoying as the search. And I just loved it when a ghost snatched a crown right out of my hands just as I was about to stash it.

GAB rating: Bad. Dragon Slayer is not challenging. It's obtuse, repetitive, frustrating, overengineered, unrewarding, and really boring. Version 1.x's easier difficulty balance eases the pain, but it isn't any more interesting.

Some notes on magic abilities:

  • (J)ump - Unlocked at 1,000XP, randomly teleports you.
  • (R)eturn - Unlocked at 2,000XP, teleports you to the house.
  • (M)ap - Unlocked at 3,000XP, shows a zoomed-out map view (not the whole map though)
  • (Shift+dir) - Unlocked at 5,000XP, breaks a wall at no MP cost.
  • (Space+dir) - Unlocked at 10,000XP. Kick a block at no MP cost. Useless when you can just break them instead, but also kind of amusing to see just how far they can slide.
  • Free(Z)e - Unlocked at 15,000XP. Stop an enemy in place for a few turns.
  • F(L)ash - Unlocked at 20,000XP, freezes enemies in place for a short duration.
  • (Diagonals) - Unlocked at 30,000XP, lets you move diagonally.
  • (F)ly - Unlocked at 60,000XP, turn into a bird for a time and fly over walls.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Game 339: The Caverns of Freitag

According to an article at, Yoshio Kiya himself tweeted that Dragon Slayer was based on an obscure Apple II RPG, Caverns of Freitag, making this otherwise minor title a rather important ancestor in the history of JRPGs.

Creator David Shapiro would eventually join Origin as a Commodore 64 programmer, and contribute to the design of Ultima VI and Underworld II, having a cameo in the former.


Not quite a Roguelike, but bearing the undeniable influence of Rogue, Freitag uses a quasi-realtime system akin to Telengard or Temple of Apshai where the action plays out in discrete turns, but there's a timer, and if it expires without input, then the action selected defaults to "do nothing."

A single-leveled, but fairly large maze houses swarms of monsters, caches of treasure, and one big "dwagon" whose death, as you might have guessed, is the game's objective.

Probably the ideal settings (easy and slow)

Even before play begins, Freitag commits a sin endemic of early, hobbyist-developed computer games - giving too much fine-grain customization to the player too soon. Difficulty levels are fine, but having nine doesn't grant much confidence that they've all been playtested for balance or even viability (see Akalabeth where they absolutely weren't). Playtesting for difficulty balance becomes the player's responsibility, and repeatedly replaying the game until you've found the right level for your skill is sure to take the excitement right out of it. Having 50 different speed settings is just silly.

So let me just say that in retrospect, the easiest difficulty level was sufficiently difficult, and nothing is gained by the timed rounds, making the slowest setting as close to ideal as possible. The fastest setting is utterly unplayable.

...but also kind of funny.


I initially had some trouble getting far out of the first screen even at the easiest settings. You start off weak as a kitten, barely able to injure the snakes and moths that pester you from the start. But I soon realized that the inn at the start offers free and instant healing when you step onto it, and monsters can't block you from it if you're adjacent. Fighting the initial pack within an arm's length of the inn and keeping tabs on your health (more on this in a bit) to retreat and heal when necessary works well, and you may gain a level once the starting screen is clear.

Once you can clear the starting screen, which may first require a bit of maneuvering to funnel the enemies into it so they can be dealt with sooner rather than later (you really don't want your way back to the inn blocked by anything when you're hurting for HP if it can be helped), the caverns can be explored in earnest. The monster and treasure locations are random, but the maze itself is the same every time. You earn new ranks, awarded at the inn, rather quickly, and though the monsters also get tougher quickly and even respawn, most aren't horrible by the time they show up as long as you're cautious about making sure you fight them one-on-one, and also careful to retreat to the inn before your HP gets critical.

Not great odds of tanking this, but the terrain offers ample tactical retreat options

Wizards are high damaging ranged attackers that you might need to use arrows on.

Sometimes something nasty blocks your way to the inn. This is why you retreat before your HP gets critical.

Almost there. Best to just run for it.

Made it! All of these monsters are now worm food.

Freitag offers two alternate view modes, none of which tell you everything you want to know.

Mode 2 is probably the most useful, but boring to look at.

Mode 3 shows a zoomed-out map view but no monsters except healers. Navigating in this mode is risky.

Freitag's lair is in the southeast corner of the map, and can be reached fairly directly from the start. It might take several trips back and forth to thin out all the monsters, which may include annoying invisoids who could be anywhere in the openness, but you should max out your level easily. This doesn't guarantee you can steamroll everything, but eventually, the monsters will be sparse enough that you can enter it.

Hey, I must be getting close.

Freitag awaits.

Freitag isn't actually that hard. He breathes fire every other turn, but timing your moves to reach his soft underbelly is no Crypt of the Necrodancer-grade challenge, and then goes down in ten or so hits, doing only a bit more damage to you in return than an average baddy. Then you just have to return to the inn - hopefully not encountering too much trouble on the way back - to win the game.

 Notes on the enemies:
  • Serpent - Basic enemy.
  • Electric Moth - Weaker than serpents, but one of the few enemies that can hit diagonally.
  • Mad Robot - Average opponents, you can go toe-to-toe with one at level 1, but don't push it.
  • Coldcrystal - Very durable foes, but they don't do much damage.
  • Invisoid - Annoying invisible enemies, but actually pretty weak.
  • Burbleblort - Scary enemies at low levels, fodder after level 5 or so.
  • Flamebat - Weaker than they look.
  • Griffin - Stronger than they look, better kite these.
  • Thunderbug - Glass cannons that move fast and hit quite hard but go down in one hit.
  • Phoenix - The strongest normal enemy in the game. Half as tough as the dwagon and hits even harder. Kite them whenever possible.
  • Mimic - Chests that kill. Their attack hurts bad and traps you until you kill them.
  • Wizard - The only enemy with a ranged attack apart from the dragon. If you can hit them at an angle, great. Otherwise, this is the best use for arrows, and you might want to go back to the inn after fighting even one.


I wondered after this, can the game be beaten on the hardest skill setting without resorting to savescumming? So I tried. And after several false starts, I found it turns out you can.

But not if you start off like this.

There's a few differences on the harder levels.

  • On the easiest setting, the initial monster population is limited to moths and serpents, and tougher ones start spawning later. On the hardest, anything goes right from the start.
  • XP requirements are way higher on the hardest setting, but so are the XP gains.
  • The direct path to Freitag is blocked off, requiring a much more roundabout one.

With some patient monster farming near the inn, with pathfinding manipulation to lure them out one at a time whenever possible, and some luck in avoiding spawns that can one-shot you, you'll eventually reach levels high enough that the first point no longer matters at all, and the second one is already partly offset by the fact that the more powerful monsters give more XP.

The much longer path to Freitag, though, means you have to be extra careful keeping tabs on your HP. Kiting monsters gets you a lot of mileage, as most can't hit you at diagonals, making it sometimes possible to avoid damage completely, depending on the terrain and the monster types.


Can't touch this.
An efficient kill-tunnel.

But every monster you kill causes another to spawn in a random space, and statistically, some of them are going to spawn on the path behind you. You do not want to be backpedaling from a dangerous phoenix only to to bump into a deadlier wizard and get sandwiched between them, but the more you kill without re-clearing the path behind you, the more likely this is to happen. Constantly going back and forth is quite tedious, but can save your life.

You want to be cautious about treasure chests too, as while you need some gold for buying arrows, you don't need that many, and while chests may contain precious sword or shield upgrades, they are just as likely to have teleporter traps, which amount to near certain death on any difficulty setting. Make it far enough and you might as well just avoid them completely. And if you see a treasure chest where you don't remember there being one before, that is a mimic.

Exploring is a bad idea too. Even though monsters respawn randomly, some of them will respawn in parts of the map where they can't reach the critical path. Those monsters are effectively out of the game and out of your way forever as long as you don't go looking for them. Find the path to Freitag (hint, go south at Dr. Cat's signature), stick to that path, and the total number of monsters on that path will gradually go down as they start being redistributed elsewhere.

All of these monsters are effectively out of the game, if you don't go looking for them.


It took me almost two hours of tedious back-and-forthing, but I eventually made it to Freitag and killed him like I had on the easiest setting. I hadn't even maxed out my level or gained any weapon upgrades.

And then I replayed on the easiest setting and had a lot more fun, using the lessons learned to utterly dominate Freitag and his minions.

Some miscellaneous notes:

  • You can turn into a bird at any time, which doubles your movement speed and in theory lets you escape from a bad situation, but I found that in practice, you more often than not just retreat into a corridor blocked by another bad monster, and you can't attack it for multiple turns. So I didn't use this.
  • "Healers," which look like computer chips, can be consumed for a partial heal, but I rarely did this unless desperate, as they spawn like monsters and no doubt count toward the spawn limit. Each healer that you don't use therefore represents a monster that won't spawn.
  • Wizards are very dangerous foes that retreat while throwing lighting bolts at you from a distance, but are kind of stupid and tend to get caught on complex terrain. I could sometimes kill them by standing on their diagonal and just hitting them, unable to retreat or attack.
  • There's no pausing, which sucks.


GAB rating: Average.  The Caverns of Freitag isn't very substantial, or polished, or all that well designed, but it grew on me after coming to grips with it. It's just a shame that, thanks to the endlessly respawning enemies and low level cap, exploring isn't viable.

Friday, September 23, 2022

Game 338: Panorama Toh

An English splash screen gets my hopes up that I might be able to play this one through.

Title screen, undithered


Panorama Toh, the second game published by Nihon Falcom (programmed once again by Yoshio Kiya), is the earliest JRPG I've seen yet, even predating The Black Onyx by a year.

Sadly, I knew quite early on that I wasn't going to be able to finish this thanks to the language barrier. But I gave it a try, just to find out how much of it I could see, in anticipation of the more widely covered Dragon Slayer.


We have a very Ultima-like interface and game world, though the world is hex-based and fits on one screen. I have no idea why I'm here, or what my goal is.

I went exploring, and promptly fell into a pit.


The game prompts you for a command, but unfortunately I have no list of valid ones. Through brute force exhaustion I found these ones got responses:

  • U - No obvious effect but the game beeped and produced a non-generic message (and cleared it faster than I could have read it even if I could read Japanese)
  • F - Eat food. Prompts you for how many rations to eat, and you regain 10 stamina each, but if you hit 200 stamina then the game beeps and you go down to 30, presumably having barfed.
  • J - Jumps. Futilely.
  • C - Call, maybe? Produces a message, but repeat actions result in a native coming to your rescue.


To the north, a tree bore bananas which I knocked down in a minigame whose rules I didn't really understand.

Further up north, the hexes surrounding the pyramid turned out to be a river. My attempt to walk on water didn't quite work.

Thankfully, a boat fished me out.

Inside the pyramid. The dots in front are loose gold.


I wandered around the pyramid, mapping as I went.

Here and there, I'd find what looked like trapdoors. The 'K' key allowed me to smash and grab something.

'U', 'H', 'J', 'L', and 'C' also give responses.

Natives occasionally attack, taking gold but not doing damage.

'A' kills them easily, but they will spawn and attack when you're idle, making mapping annoying.

Further in, I ran into Dracula, who ate me.

Restarting, and exploring the overworld some more, some other encounters I found included:

  • Getting bit by a snake in the woods. This leaves you immobile, but you can call for help, and a native will eventually come by and cure you in exchange for food. If you don't have enough, you're screwed, as far as I can tell.
  • Trees that bear not just bananas, but sometimes cherries, or even roast meat! Sometimes the food falls on your head, causing damage (and you don't get the food).
  • Packs of tigers, who can be bypassed by giving them food. Attacking is risky.
  • Caves, sometimes guarded by a troll, but always too dark to explore.


Entering a town in the middle of Panorama Toh. '@' signs are thieves who take your gold.

Here's a stock JRPG visual grammar - the shopkeeper's face while you buy stuff


I tried to translate what I could here, using Google Translate and my feeble attempts to distinguish the various angled, curved, and squiggly lines in the low-res katakana soup. (updated - corrected my errors from a commenter below)

  1. Ladder
  2. Rope
  3. Katana
  4. Drugs
  5. Translator
  6. Key
  7. Shovel
  8. Hammer
  9. Radar
  10. Light
  11. Battery
  12. Rosary
  13. Powered suit
  14. [Leave store]

Incredibly, this guy pays you to take his stuff! Buy the powered suit, though, and it's game over.

This also happens if you buy too many things.


I made a few more discoveries, many of them only possible because of the commenter's translation.

A guard rebukes me at the castle in the southwest.

The town in the west can be entered by bribing the guard. I think you need a translator to do this.

Entering the porno shop gets you a glimpse at some ASCII muff... and a night in jail with a pickpocket.

The northwest town.

The bar. This was the last thing I saw before another game over happened.

A torch and some batteries let you see inside the caves, and the radar, I'm assuming, gives an automap.

Some monsters are easily killed with your gun.

Keys open chests. I'm not sure what's going on here - my gold counter did not change.

Other monsters shrug off your attacks.

The ladder lets you escape pit traps.

Drugs cure snake bites.

You can lasso food trees with the rope, but this didn't ever seem to get me the food.

This is as far as I expect to get without a manual or a translation. I didn't find anything in the caves except for monsters, minor treasures, and exits to other caves on the island. I thought that the rosary item might let me get past Dracula in the pyramid, but it did not. Either that or I failed to discover the correct way of using it.

As we can see here, this is more than just an Ultima clone, even if things aren't terribly polished or sophisticated (but then neither was Ultima). Despite the primitiveness, we can already see the JRPG identity starting to take rudimentary form, and that made it worth the effort of playing. No GAB rating today - it wouldn't make much sense to rate a game that I couldn't play properly.

The next game isn't going to be Dragon Slayer as originally planned. We've got one more ancestor to cover first.

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