Currently Playing : The Citadel of Chaos (1983)
Upcoming : Telengard (1983)
Recently Finished : Gateway to Apshai*, Dunzhin

Friday, July 8, 2016

Major update incoming!

  Hey guys and gals, sorry I have been away for so long. After a long move, some personal issues, and various other hiccups I am finally back on track. The blog is getting a major update very soon, and I am very excited to share the changes with you.

  Stay tuned over the next couple of days for the update!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Game 2 : Gateway to Apshai (1983) (**Finished)

Title :  Gateway to Apshai
Release Year : 1983
Publisher : Epyx

   Looking at my list of titles released in 1983, one series seems to stand out in terms of sheer quantity--the Dunjonquest series. According to MobyGames, 9 games appeared in the Dunjonquest series, excluding the Apshai trilogy release. Ironically, the Apshai games never really reached the notoriety of some other C64 RPG franchises, but nevertheless was a big financial success for publisher Epyx.

  Gateway to Apshai is actually the last game released in the series, but I didn't know that going in. I assumed with the title being "Gateway" to Apshai that this was the first game, a precursor to Temple of Apshai, but I was mistaken.

Title screen

  My biggest disappointment though was finding out that Gateway to Apshai has no true ending. I am glad I researched the game a little before playing it, because it saved me a lot of time of unnecessary grinding in an attempt to reach an ending that didn't exist.

  I figured a fair way to do this session would be to play for around 3 hours, see what the game has to offer, calculate up a score, and move on. If the game had an ending things would be different, but I figure I can see all the game has to offer within a 3 hour window.

Stat time

  Gateway to Apshai is a RPG technically, but focuses much more on action than other titles in the genre. The game uses the joystick as it's primary form of control, with the function keys on the C64 used to issue various commands. At it's core, it feels very much like an arcade game, with the only real goal to amass as many points as possible. I will get to that a little bit later, but for now let's get to the story.

  The main quest is told in the game manual, which describes our nameless hero being taken by force from his home, under the eyes of his screaming mother, and dropped outside of a cave. From here, we learn that our hero is....wait for it....part of an ancient prophecy!

  It seems that the lost Temple of Apshai is the key to solving all the problems in the lands, but only an heir to an ancient warrior's bloodline (who is now deceased) can enter the temple. Predictably, our avatar is that heir, and has now arrived at the Gateway to Apshai in hopes of finding the elusive temple.

The starting room

  My first step was starting up a new game. There is no character customization to speak of, but we are given a base set of stats including strength, agility, and luck. We are also given a health rating and "lives". Gateway has no save feature, so once your lives are gone the game is over. This gives the game a very distinct arcade feel, and dumbs down the game to what is essentially an action title. After being given some leather armor and a short sword we are off to the dungeon.

  This is where one of the oddest features of the game rears it's ugly head. Before starting, we are allowed to choose which dungeon to play in. There are a total of 16 dungeons with 8 levels in each one. In my 3 hours of playing I was able to reach level 8 easily. In the top right corner is a timer that goes downward from 99 to 0. Once at 0, you go to the next level...unless of course you choose to go to the next level on your own.

One big door.

  That's right, you can manually skip levels--so getting to the 8th level of any dungeon requires no skill at all. Yes, monsters are stronger the deeper you get and the items you can pick up are better, but what is the point? I can only kill so many spiders, rats and ghouls without purpose before I start getting annoyed that there really is no goal other than a high score.

  At the end of each level you are randomly given stat boosts or a health boost. I am not sure if your bonus is determined by how much you killed on the previous level, how much treasure you found, how long you survived the clock, or all three combined into some weird algorithm. Regardless, character development is completely out of your control, and is very restrictive.

  Many people have claimed Gateway to Apshai is a rogue-like, but that is not necessarily true. Gateway has pre-designed levels and set encounters, as well as hand placed treasure and items. Equipment is nice with shields, potions, armors and weapons to be found scattered throughout the dungeon, with the ability to equip, use and drop items.

  Combat is an arcade fare, as you can imagine, and is reduced to a button mashing affair. You can attack with a melee weapon, a ranged weapon or a spell scroll--all while taking advantage of the *horrid* monster AI. Yes, it's that bad. Pressing your button initiates the attack and, well, that's about it. The best tactic I found was to keep my distance and unload arrows at every opportunity.

A ghoul chasing me means one thing...I am about to die.

  It really is a shame that Gateway is such a shallow game. Graphically the game looks pretty good, and animations are top notch for a 1983 title. Overall, the game plays pretty smoothly and is programmed very well. It just strikes me way too much as an arcade game more than an RPG, so I think it is best to move on.

  I couldn't really live with myself if I didn't see all the game had to offer. I decided to start up my character and play down to level 8 and try to survive until the timer ran out on each level, exploring as much as I could. I died quite a bit, but before long I found surviving to not be too difficult.

  Published by Epyx, I couldn't find any information on the designers of the game other than "The Connelley Group". Apparently, Gateway is far more action oriented than the previous Apshai games, and I am much more anxious to try those games out now. There is a basis for a really good RPG here, but with no ending...I can't stick with this one.

Bugs. I hate bugs.

  Let's wrap this one up.

  •   3.5 points for graphics and sounds. The game looks pretty good, and animates beautifully. Sound effects are pretty well done too, although there is no music to speak of.
  •   1 point for character development. You cannot create your character and have no control of their growth. Although there are some stats, they are very basic at best.
  •   1 point for combat and encounters. Combat is like an arcade game, and there is no creativity or consistency with the encounters. Monsters are very generic and have no special abilities--defeating them doesn't feel rewarding enough.
  •   0.5 points for story and writing. There are no NPCs at all, no mention of the main quest once the game starts and no descriptions or text to add flavor to the gameworld. Worst of ending.
  •   0.5 points for the gameworld. There is no atmosphere, and the repetitive nature of the dungeons gets old quick. The ability to go to any dungeon level is a ridiculous idea, and there really is no depth or lore to the world.
  •   3 points for items and equipment. There is a pretty good selection of items to obtain, and it's fun to use them in various ways to figure out their purpose. Items never drop on monsters though, and there are no shops or places to sell your goods.
  Overall, this gives Gateway to Apshai a total of 9.5, which is slightly higher than my previous played game Dunzhin. Admittedly, I am a little shocked by that one, as I felt Dunzhin was more enjoyable that Gateway, but the score stands. I couldn't fathom giving Gateway any bonus points for anything, so on we move.

  I am looking forward to my next title, The Citadel of Chaos, based on the Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks by Steve Jackson. Thankfully, I know that game has an ending. I will probably jump into the game in the next couple of days.

  Total Session Time : 3 hours and 1 minute

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Dunzhin - Finished!! (With rating)

  On my last posting for Dunzhin, I mentioned that I needed to consult the manual. I wanted to research several things, including some of the uses of my attributes and some of the other commands in the game.

  I was able to find a copy of the manual online, beautifully scanned, and was able to retrieve a lot of useful information.

A command sheet insert.

  The manual started with a simple introduction detailing our hero approaching the entrance to the dungeon, meeting an old beggar, then befriending him and learning some of the secrets to use within. There isn't much more story than that, we still do not really know why we are entering the dungeon--except for maybe the possibility of wealth--but it does serve a nice purpose in setting up the manual in a first-person narrative.

  Other juicy tidbits included an experience point chart, several new commands I had not discovered (bribe,force,wand,hide) and a list of monsters divided into groups of low-rank, middle-rank, and high-rank foes.

  I found that "movement" actually affected how many attacks I got in one combat round, attack value determines hit/miss ratio,while the fight value actually helps in determining how much experience you get from a combat encounter.

My nameless hero is perfecting his craft

  With my newly discovered information, it was time to load up my saved game and finish up mapping out level 3.

  It didn't take too long to discover the stairs and head down to level 4, which I was able to map out completely within about an hour.

Level 4

  You can see from the screenshot above how the level layouts work. I mentioned in my previous post about how each level consisted of rooms and corridors, and here you can see how each room is labelled alphabetically. Almost every room holds "treasure" but some of the rooms hold other interesting things. Some examples:
  • An armor repair station. This was sorely needed and without it, I would have never finished my quest this session.
  • A room of regeneration, which heals you.
  • A forge where you can repair your weapon.
  I found all of these locations on the third and fourth dungeon levels, thanks to exploring everything in-depth, but by the time I reached level five I was ready to simply find my goal and finish up the game.

Destination confirmed

   It didn't take long to finally reach a room that held my prize--The Crying Scarab of Murak--which was guarded my 3 trolls. I saved my game before the battle and it took quite a bit of reloading before I finally was able to take all 3 of the creatures down.

I saw this screen a lot during the final battle.

  After the battle, I was given a message stating : "YOU DID IT!!".

  I thought that this was possibly the ending of the game, but it seemed very anti-climatic. I decided to backtrack to the entrance of the dungeon and exit the stairs on level 1. Once I did this, I got the actual ending for the game...which wasn't much better.

Epic ending unfolding before our eyes...

  Exiting gave me a black background with the following message: "CONGRATULATIONS!!! YOU HAVE OBTAINED THE ITEM!"

  From this point I was taken back to the main menu, where I could start another game. After winning I made a few notes:
  • I finished the game at level 10, half of the maximum level of 20. Apparently, your character can be transferred to the sequel, Kaiv. You could in theory grind to level 20, but it would take a long, long time and I am not sure why anyone would be interested in doing so that has an ounce of sanity.
  • You are never told what your weapon actually *is*. Your weapon breaks, but it is never revealed what class of weaponry you are actually using.
  • There are no items at all. You have treasure, and that's it. I found no use for the treasure--there were no shops or places to spend what you had earned. Maybe this is something added into the sequel.
  • It would take some of the most amazing luck to finish Dunzhin without the "save anywhere" feature. Thankfully, this was included--I couldn't imagine being a young kid in the 80's, grinding for hours only to lose all my progress to the game's unpredictable randomness.
Dunzhin magazine insert

  Dunzhin was released by ScreenPlay, and designed by Randall Don Masteller. I couldn't find any information on ScreenPlay at all, but it appears that Mr. Masteller went on to do some productive things in the industry. His credits include programming work on Pirates!, Airborne Ranger, and Barbarian...all very popular games in the Commodore 64 library.

  I found a great quote about Randall on MobyGames:
From James Hague:
Defunct game company Screenplay apparently had its share of insane programmers. I've heard stories about the co-author of Pogo Joe, W.F. Denman, and now the other half of that game, Steven Baumrucker, spills the beans about a third Screenplay programmer, Randall Don Masteller:
Randall was an interesting character. A true genius. He wrote a programming language in two weeks once...wrote it in machine code. W. Denman and I were visiting him in his house and we saw the disk. "What's this?" we asked. "Ahhh, that's some programming language I wrote to help with adventure games". It had a parser and all kinds of crud built into it. We were like "SHIT! Randall, people get PhD's for less than this!!!" It impacted him not in the slightest.
   So, lets get on to the final rating for Dunzhin:

  • 2 points for graphics and sounds. The artwork is very simple, with crude sprites and bland dungeon graphics. There are some slight animations when your character is walking or in combat, but they are very limited. Sound is basic, with a few simple tunes playing at the game over screen and on the intro screen, but it is nothing to write home about.
  • 1.5 points for character development. There is no creation or customization of your avatar, and gaining levels assigns automatic updates to your adventurer. While there are some interesting attributes, their function is often times cloudy and raising levels really doesn't affect your character in rewarding ways. My level 10 character didn't feel much more powerful than my level 1 rookie.
  • 3 points for combat and encounters. There were some really good ideas here : hit locations, armor ratings for different body parts, hiding, bribing monsters, and unique monster attacks--but also a lot of frustrating things too like ridiculous hit/miss ratios, overabundance of random encounters, and the tedious parser system. This had the potential to be much better, but is still the strong point of the game.
  • 1 point for story and writing. There simply is not much to see here. The manual gives us a nice little intro between our hero and a nameless beggar, but the story never develops much beyond that point. It would have nice to have known why were were in the dungeon, why we needed the item we obtained, or maybe a better ending telling us a little more.
  • 1 point for gameworld. Nothing much is fleshed out here, and the randomness that accompanies each new game makes it hard to get any stability with the world. There isn't much in the way of lore or atmosphere, and other than an old hermit wandering the dungeon, we meet no NPCs.
  • 0 points for items and equipment. Other than treasure, there are no items to gain. Although our weapon has durability and can break, it is more of a hassle than anything. By far the weakest aspect of the game.
  This gives Dunzhin a final score of 8.5. I couldn't find any reason to award any bonus points, so this is where my final score will stay. I know it seems ridiculously low, but keep in mind I plan on judging games pretty harshly. 

  Maybe things will improve when I get to the sequel, Kaiv, but overall Dunzhin serves as a very crude and basic CRPG in the early stages of the C64 life cycle. With my "master list" now updated, it is time to move on.

  Now, onward to Apshai.

Session Time : 3 hours 18 minutes

Friday, April 8, 2016

Game 1 : Dunzhin (1983)

Title :  Dunzhin (Warrior of Ras Vol. I)
Release Year : 1983
Publisher : Screenplay

  The Commodore 64 had it's first wave of RPGs released in 1983. This was a time when the genre was in it's infancy, with designers and gamers alike amazed simply with being able to have archaic graphics, simple audio, and crude gameplay mechanics blended together for the most basic of CRPG experiences.

  According to MobyGames, a total of 14 RPGs were released for the Commodore 64 in 1983. Dunzhin may have not been the first that year, but I decided to start with it simply for my complete lack of knowledge about the game.

  Apparently, many early C64 RPGs were "rogue-likes", which are basically RPGs that feature permanent death of your character, randomized game environments, tile-based movement, and typically turn-based combat.

  I have never been a big fan of this sub-genre, but I also don't hate it either. I prefer a more static gameworld, and often times rogue-likes seem far too punishing to my tastes, but I realized rather quickly I better get used to them fast. Over half of the RPGs I will be playing from 1983 are rogue-likes, so things could get interesting.

The Pleasure Sapphire of Jolay? Um...ok...

  Starting off in Dunzhin generates a new character, as well as a completely randomized gameworld. At the start of the game you are given a goal of a treasure to find, in the lowest level of the dungeon, which serves as the main quest of the game. Dunzhin allows you to start a new game with a character that cannot be named or modified. There are no races, classes or skills and the player has no control over how the character develops.

  It only took me around 15 minutes of playing to realize Dunzhin is not as punishing or volatile as some of the rogue-likes I had played previously. For starters, you can save the game anywhere. This feature makes the game much more forgiving--but similar to other rogue-likes, dying means having to restart with a brand new character. The save anywhere feature promotes some save scumming (reloading from a saved game again and again to get the best results) but in the end makes for a more manageable experience.

  The randomly generated dungeon consists of 5 total levels, and on my initial session I died several times on the first level while trying to get the hang of the game. The dungeon consists of two types of areas--corridors and rooms, with each area being revealed as you explore. Typically, you can only see a few squares beyond your character's current position, and some of the levels can be fairly large in size.

   This brings me to an odd feature of the game, character control. Dunzhin features one of the most awkward movement systems I have seen in a CRPG, and requires a bit of patience. You move by using the arrow keys, advancing your avatar 1 square at a time, but random encounters are so persistent with this method it becomes very frustrating, very quickly.

Taking a chance.

  A safer alternative, and a far less maddening one, is to enter how many steps you want to move in any given direction. Doing so allows you to avoid encounters along the way, although you still have a chance to run into something at the end destination.

  A sample would be to type : "MOVE SOUTH 3". As long as there are no barriers in the way, this action will be executed. Move too far though, into an oncoming wall, and your armor or character will take damage. This process becomes tedious after a while, and makes for a cumbersome experience.

A thief caught in the act.

  Speaking of typing in commands---every action in Dunzhin requires the player to type in a command, and depending on if the parser understands the input, the action is executed. There are some "hotkeys", like pressing F1 to see character stats, and some commands can be abbreviated, like typing N for North, but overall the system is archaic and tedious.

  This brings me to combat, which is the most interesting part of the game--and also the most frustrating. Let me summarize my first encounter with 2 skeletons:
  • I run into two skeletons. The game informs me that no fight is desired, do I wish to fight anyways? I say yes.
  • I am given a command prompt. I type kill skeleton. Nothing. Attack skeleton. Nope. Hmm.
  • Consult a manual online. I find I need to type hit <area I want to aim for>. Ok, let's try hit chest.
  • You missed.
  • The skeleton is going for the head.
  • The skeleton misses.
  • I type hit chest.
  • You missed..
  • The skeleton is going for the left-arm.
  • The skeleton hits for 3 points of damage. That area is protected for 3.
  My first few encounters went like this, with me missing *80 percent of the time*, and when I finally did hit it was for such minimal damage, the armor rating of my foe absorbed the blow. I found that using the command AIM guaranteed I would hit almost every time, but costs you a turn in the process. I simply cannot see how anyone would be able to *not* use the AIM command and have any long term success. My hit percentage went from missing 80% of the time to hitting 80% of the time. It's that drastic.

Getting there.

  Speaking of armor, the game uses a very unique feature for it's time. Looking at my "fact sheet" I noticed all the normal CRPG categories of level, experience,and so forth---but also a list of detailed armor ratings for different parts of the body. From what I can tell, each piece of armor can reflect 4 points of damage, called protection and any damage above that directly lowers the defense.

  So, if an ogre hits my avatar in the chest for 8 points of damage, based on the screenshot above I would absorb 4, take the other 4 damage to my chest defense, which would lower it to 24. Once any part of the body has a defense get to 0, you die. I think.

  It took me several restarts to realize that I should only fight foes in low numbers, be patient, and advance slowly.

You can search for individual monsters.

  Before I wrap this session up, I wanted to bring up some of the other things I have discovered about the game mechanics:
  • You can "search" for a monster. This was a great way for me to slowly build up to level 6 fighting safe encounters like skeletons, elves, dwarves, and fighters.
  • The manual states that you can hit F5 to view your inventory, but this has yet to work for me. Apparently there is no items other than "treasure" which I have yet to find a use for.
  • Weapons can break. My weapon broke on two different play sessions, and once it did, I found every time I tried to attack something, the game would give me a message that my weapon was broken and I couldn't attack. This basically led to me having to restart the game each time.
  • There are traps throughout the dungeon, and running into one requires the player to press any key quickly. If you don't, the player takes damage. 
  • One interesting trap was a web that required me to "hack" out of it. Typing hack gave me the message of "O K ! ! ! !", but I was never able to actually get free. Not sure if this was a possible bug.
  • Levelling up raises your stats slightly. I am still trying to figure out what a few of them actually do. My movement is currently 14, and I'm not sure if this means I can move up to 14 squares at once, if it affects me running away from encounters, or something different.  The same goes for things like attack value and fight value, not sure of the difference between the two. I will have to read up in the manual for an explanation before my next session.
  Currently, I have my game saved on level three of the dungeon. On my next session I will try to wrap up, get Dunzhin rated, and move on to Gateway to Apshai.

  Session time: 3 hours and 52 minutes.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The beginning....

  I should probably start all of this off by introducing myself. My name is Chip Chattingham, which isn't my real name, but it will work well enough for my presence on this blog. I started playing computer role-playing games (CRPGs) back in 1987, at the tender age of thirteen. I started with the Commodore 64, upgraded to an Amiga 500, then went into the world of DOS and Windows based machines. With that, you can probably guess my age and realize that I have been doing this gaming thing for a long time.

  I have played a lot of CRPGs in that span, finishing a majority of them. I have never got tired of it, have never really gotten bored or jaded, and with each passing year I seem to become more passionate over my gaming hobby.

  Recently, I have been thinking about the computer that started it all for me---the Commodore 64. Although I admit that the times have changed, and going back to playing games on 64k of memory and graphics built around 16 base colors is challenging, there is something special about RPGs on the C64 that keep me coming back to them. As a kid there were so many games I wanted to play, but never could afford, and now thanks to emulation I have been able to uncover so many gems I missed in my childhood.

This machine....oh yeah...

  Recently, I have been reading a lot from the blog of The CRPG Addict. If you have never visited his blog, and love CRPGs, do so now. Essentially, he is covering every CRPG ever made for personal computers, in chronological order. It is quite a daunting task, and at the time of this posting he is currently in the year of 1991.

  I decided to do something similar, yet different at the same time. The Commodore 64 CRPG Project will focus on every role-playing game released for the C64---I will be playing, finishing, and then rating every title I play. Every RPG released for the C64 will be covered in great detail.

  This "project" is the first of my 3 stage process to cover CRPGs. If I finally manage to cover every C64 role-playing game, I will then be moving on to the Commodore Amiga, then possibly to DOS based RPGs, but that is way down the road.

  There is going to be some "ground rules" for the blog, which I will detail below:

  • I will only be playing English versions of Commodore 64 RPGs. Unfortunately, I am not fluent in other languages, and trying to play these games would be way too much work, and frankly, not fun.  For this reason, I will be covering North American releases only.
  • No cheating. This means no trainers, hacks, or exploits. I will try to play each title as faithfully as I can, to re-create the experience of their initial release. If I get stuck, I may consult a hint guide, and in the worse case scenario a walkthrough, but I will do everything in my power to prevent this.
  • Only Commodore 64 RPGs at this time, no exceptions.
  • I am using this list to filter through the games for the C64. If there is an English based RPG not listed there, let me know. I will add it in.
  • All games will be rated in my scoring system. To see how I will be doing my scoring, click here.
  • For a game to be played, I must qualify it as an RPG. To see my qualifications, click here.
  • I will be playing titles in chronological order, to the best of my ability.

The game that started it all for me.

  You are probably thinking : "Do we *really* need another CRPG blog?

  My best answer is that I don't think we can ever have enough blogs about games, of any type. Hopefully, this blog will open some eyes to the wonderful world of C64 RPGs, and help some readers discover some hidden gems, re-live their gaming memories, or just get informed about retro gaming.

  As for myself, I am very excited to get things going. There are so many games I missed that I cannot wait to try, and many others that I completed that I am excited to visit again, to see how they stack uo against the test of time.

I totally missed out on this one. With a great box like that, how could I?

   So with all that being said, I am done rambling. It's officially the beginning of the Commodore 64 CRPG Project. I hope you come with me on this journey!