Friday, February 21, 2014

"A Dungeons & Dragons Adventure" part 5, 1981.

Another weekend, another instalment of the comic strip advertisements for the D&D pen and paper game... this one featuring the first episode of a new adventure for our crew!
OUR HEROS RELAX AT GAVIN'S INN AFTER RESCUING INDEL THE ELF FROM CERTAIN DEATH!
S: THAT WAS A CLOSE CALL EH VALERIUS?
V: NOT NEARLY AS CLOSE AS OUR FIRST ADVENTURE SAREN.
G: IT SEEMS LIKE ONLY YESTERDAY WHEN WE WERE INTRODUCED BY MY MENTOR, GRINDAL...
G: (... A HEALER, AN ELF AND A FIGHTER. THEY WILL BE YOUR COMPANIONS ON THIS QUEST GRIMSLADE.)
"WE HAD TO OVERCOME MANY PERILS TO FIND..."
"THE FABULOUS HEART OF MEKRON!"
G: (YOU HAVE ALL DONE WELL! YOU WILL MAKE A FINE WIZARD ONE DAY, GRIMSLADE!
JUST THEN AT THE INN!...
G: HELLLP MEEE!
V: WHO?
I: URK!
THUD!
G: IT IS I...
S: GRINDAL!
G: GASP!!
Sorry for the dip in activity this week ... I've got no lack of posts to make, but the sameness of my current backlog is proving somewhat numbing. I suspect I'll be dialing down the D&D theme for a while shortly. Cheers!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

"Shadow Sorcerer", 1991.

I gush over Westwood's Forgotten Realms AD&D games for SSI, but vomit all over U.S. Gold's Dragonlance AD&D games for them. Was it the companies' different corporate cultures that resulted in such a strong divergence of opinion? Is the problem just the subject matter -- as with Dragonstrike, could Westwood have made better Dragonlance games than U.S. Gold did? These and other questions... have no answer.

A whole new look!
A whole new way
to play!

SHADOW SORCERER
AN ANIMATED FANTASY ADVENTURE

SHADOW SORCERER combines elements of role-playing with strategy, exploration and animated action. It's an exciting new way to play computer AD&D fantasy gaming!

Control four characters at the same time -- even during fully-animated real-time combat! All in 3-D isometric perspective!

Select your party from 16 different heroes, each with pre-made attributes. You've got nothing but trouble ahead: hundreds of refugees who desperately need your help to find safe haven.

Strange monsters that inhabit the vast wilderness, caverns and dungeons. An army of Draconians led by a red dragon!

When the spells and weapons start flying, you'll love the simple "point-and-click" interface!

SHADOW SORCERER. It's a whole new experience in fantasy gaming!

[screenshot]
Control four characters at once even during real-time combat!
[screenshot]
Play in the DRAGONLANCE game world -- in 3-D isometric view!
[screenshot]
One of the many colorful characters who can help you on your quest.

The screenshots don't entirely sell me, and the captions just reiterate points made earlier in the copy. I see an isometric view reminiscent of Populous or (if you like) Knight Lore, but (I bet) less fun. The bottom screenshot tells me that this is a game for babies -- this game's Tom Bombadil moment, I suppose, a mismatch with its intended tone of refugee salvation.

They keep harping on its "animated" nature. "Animated action"? Is it possible to have an action game with no animation? Still Life: The Arcade Shooter. (I suppose you can have non-animated sprite movement, like eg. the textmode sprites in ZZT.) Touting a combination of role-playing, strategy, exploration and action concerns me, colouring with all the crayons but ending up with brown rather than rainbow. But no, they reassure me, "[i]t's an exciting new way to play computer AD&D fantasy gaming!" More fun than Pool of Radiance? The box isn't gold, to that's not a good sign. Here's the deal, U.S. Gold -- this is your third kick at the can, and your previous two were duds. Why should I trust you now? Well, they did change their approach -- this game is a plot sequel to Dragons of Flame, but the gameplay is very, very different.

Then we get this shopping list: control 4 characters simultaneously -- fun in Syndicate, but this is no Syndicate -- during fully-animated (there they go again) real-time (uh-oh) combat -- sounds like a headache to me! -- in 3-D isometric perspective ... wihch is a design decision, not a selling point. Congratulations, SSI, you've compounded my concern with more concern. I suppose they're just trying their hardest to talk up the game they have to sell, rather than coming up with misleading or deceptive claims about it.

Why would I want to select from a pool of characters with pre-made attributes? Then I can't cheat and give them all 18s! (Not such an egregious cheat, since the AD&D games are still quite difficult even with stat-pumped characters.) I suppose this gives the game more of a "turn on and play" feel without needing to go through tedious character generation? Here we have a third concern: hundreds of refugees desperately need my help. That tells me: "you will need to protect countless NPCs with no sense of self-preservation." Maybe it's more fun than it sounds, as broken "accompany and protect" missions weren't yet such an industry cliche at this point. Then I start getting more interested: strange monsters, caverns, dungeons. (Am I leading refugees through dungeons? Doesn't seem the most prudent...) The army of Draconians sounds like an un-fun pain in the ass, but I concede to interest in the encounter with the red dragon. I like that GUIs were sufficiently novel in 1991 that the simple "point-and-click" interface warrants mention and quotation marks rather than just being something gamers swim through like fish in water.

You know what I don't need, Larry Elmore? Dragons with fins for ears, spikes on their nose, and hipster beards. Feathers on dinosaurs I've come to terms with, but when you start making my dragons scruffy and shaggy, you cross a line! I do dig the chain mail over Kitiara's background helmet's mouth -- offering extra protection in an opposite fashion to Lord Soth's lackadaisical helm. I can see that the screenshots very deftly erase Tasslehoff Burrfoot the kender from the scene -- probably an improvement. Now can we get rid of Tanis Half-Elven's hipster First Nations feather earrings? Tika Waylan is looking like she just stumbled off the SnarfQuest backlot, and Laurana has about as much dignity as one can muster with slightly crossed eyes.

Monday, February 17, 2014

"Death Knights of Krynn", 1991.

Critical Dragonlance failure! This ad artwork contains no dragons nor any lances! This ad is actually for a game from the SkullyKnight campaign setting. (Soth was eventually relocated to Ravenloft, where he makes quite a bit more sense.)
DEATH KNIGHTS OF KRYNN
The incredible sequel to CHAMPIONS OF KRYNN!

LORD SOTH HAS THROWN DOWN THE GAUNTLET OF CHALLENGE!

It has been but one short year since the Champions of Krynn claimed victory over the massed forces of evil. Now, the Lord of the Death Knights, Soth himself, is preparing to wreak havoc in an eruption of evil such as Krynn has never witnessed!

As members of the Special Solamnic Order of the Champions of Krynn, you and your party stand as the only force capable of answering Soth's deadly challenge -- and living to tell of it!

DEATH KNIGHTS OF KRYNN takes the award-winning game system used in CHAMPIONS OF KRYNN to new heights! Now, characters transferred from CHAMPIONS OF KRYNN can keep their money and items. Higher character levels, new monsters, new spells and enhanced combat aiming make for AD&D fantasy role-playing beyond anything you've ever experienced!

It's nice for them to tell us precisely which variety of gauntlet has been thrown down; casting the gauntlet after all is such an open-ended phrase that it could imply just about anything.

The party is "the only force capable of answering Soth's deadly challenge -- and living to tell of it!", but there are plenty of other forces who could answer it and die in the process. It's a sign of the scrupulosity of the Solamnic Order that they wouldn't send in troubleshooters they didn't expect to fully survive, just to get them out of their bind.

Apparently this game takes the system of its predecessor further. Now, they can keep their money and items. (Then, there was no prior game for them to inherit goods from. That's not a failure of the earlier game: that's just what it means to be the first in a trilogy.) "Higher character levels, new monsters, new spells" sum up the usual total of improvements, plus the curiously particular "enhanced combat aiming", which I guess reflects a concern that didn't crop up in the Realms-based Gold Box games. Unlike earlier ads, they're not boasting the incredible graphics of the game's 3-D adventuring environment, so I guess they learned something.

Cf. my horse question from the Silver Blades ad post: these are clearly demonic night-mares, and not just because they are so described in the bottom-left screenshot: their eyes glow red and their faces are sinisterly wrinkled. They only dine on Hell oats and apples of discord in their asbestos stable.

OK, undead dragon screenshot: I appreciate that with no flesh on your bones, you're considerably lighter than you were in life -- but with no membrane stretched between your wingbones, with what are you flying? A: magic. Superman's cape doesn't make him fly either, it just helps him to look good when he does.

I've always dug the way Soth's helmet design affords him no nose protection. No nose = no protection needed there! I guess his sinister red eyes are just floating in a giant collapsed sinus cavity. His companions appear to have cloned Darth Vader's lightsaber, but his own mace seems to be secreting some sinister incense like a really evil censer.

What do you think motivates a skeletal warrior in a fantasy realm? Hedonistic pursuits are right out, with the possible exception of pure sadism. What will a skeleton do with riches? (Far-right skelly is wearing a bangle around his upper arm-bone. Bet the bony ladies will be all over that. What? he is a bony lady? Awkward! I should have looked at the hips.) Then again, I suppose it's not like a dragon can take his hoard down to the corner store either: hi, I'd like a carton of smokes and the March issue of PlayDrake.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

"Champions of Krynn", 1990.

(Whoops, missed a 1990 D&D title!) OK, enough messing around. Pool of Radiance and Curse of the Azure Bonds had been moving more units than the rest of SSI's product line altogether (that's right: more than Battles of Napoleon and Germany Turns East combined), so it's time to cut their losses from the weird Dragonlance action-adventures and give the world a tactical Dragonlance Gold Box CRPG instead. I don't know for a fact that things were informed by those particular motivations, but this seems conspicuously follow-uppy.
CHAMPIONS OF KRYNN

The first fantasy role-playing epic set in the AD&D DRAGONLANCE game world!

CHAMPIONS OF KRYNN improves on the award-winning game system used in SSI's mega-hits POOL OF RADIANCE and CURSE OF THE AZURE BONDS. For the first time ever on your computer, you'll enjoy fantasy role-playing adventure in the legendary AD&D game world of Krynn! Your quest: Defeat a vile plot by the forces of evil to establish the Dark Queen, Takhisis, as undisputed ruler of Krynn!

Improves on the award-winning game system used in SSI's mega-hits? (Mega-hits? And which awards?) This game adds complexity: Dragonlance races and classes, plus tidal magic influence caused by the movements of Krynn's moons. Do those, however, make for a better game? As much richness as kender, gully dwarves and gnomes add to the novels, improvements they may lend the CRPG conversion remain unclear. "For the first time ever on your computer, you'll enjoy fantasy role-playing adventure in the legendary AD&D game world of Krynn!" Have they already so baldly conceded that the action-adventures were no fantasy role-playing adventures at all?

Free poster? Sign me up! Dragonlance's flying citadels seem painfully derived from surreal paintings by Magritte. You know what's truly pathetic? Riding away from a flying, dragon-swarming citadel on horseback. Looking at the screenshot we can see an artist's interpretation of Krynn's dragons hilariously conforming to breed characteristics spelled out in the campaign-agnostic Monster Manual of the prior edition, designating Gold Dragons as in the Asiatic vein.

Where is the light source in this painting, anyhow?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

"A Dungeons & Dragons Adventure" part 4, 1981.

My initial intention was to keep the D&D video game posts for the weekdays and these less labour-intensive related D&D comic-book-style ads for the weekends, but I think this is my first opportunity to actually make it happen this way. I don't have much qualifying context for these ads, merely transcriptions -- and lemme tell you, once Google Images has OCR capability, this blog is toast!
DEEP IN THE DUNGEON, INDEL THE ELF COMES FACE TO FACE WITH A HUGE DRAGON!
D: GREETINGS, MORTAL WORM!
I: ULP!

WHILE ELSEWHERE HIS COMPANIONS SEARCH FOR HIM...
S: MY POWERS TELL ME THAT HE'S BEHIND THIS DOOR.

V: THEN WE MUST GET THROUGH!

A MIGHTY BLOW FROM THE FIGHTER'S SHOULDER OPENS THE DOOR WITH A CRASH TO REVEAL...
G: -- INDEL!
G: GOOD WORK, VALERIUS!

V: NOW IT'S YOUR TURN, DRAGON!

D: THE GREAT SWORD NARIL!
D: STAY YOUR HAND, WARRIOR! YOU AND YOUR FRIENDS MAY LEAVE IN PEACE!

I: WHAT A DAY!
S: COME! GAVIN'S INN HAS A WARM FIRE TO RELAX BY.
THE END
WATCH FOR INDEL AND HIS FRIENDS IN UPCOMING DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS ADVENTURES--!

Did I mention GOG's D&D video game sale? For the next two days, you can get basically $100 worth of games for $20... the more you get, the steeper the savings. Times like this I wish I'd followed through on my inquiries about compensation for referral traffic to them, since now I'm just shilling pro bono! Still, it's acutely relevant and I like to think it's of interest to my, er, stonily silent readership.

Friday, February 14, 2014

"Dungeon Keeper", Windows, 1997.

OK, time for a dragon break... but we'll keep the dungeon, thank you. I never played this one back in the day (too busy graduating high school perhaps), but its legacy has stood the test of time, inspiring inheritors to its ideas such as Overlord, Evil Genius and War for the Overworld. "Play as the antagonist" just wasn't a concept that had popped yet in the '90s -- that halcyon, pre-GTA era.

Anyhow, I'm procrastinating here, and the clock is ticking: supposing my calculations are correct, until 2 am Sunday PST, GOG (aka Good Old Games) is offering Dungeon Keeper for free, including the expansion, and its sequel for a buck fifty. Also, steep discounts off of Interplay-era D&D games whose ads I'm still six print-years away from sharing with you. To make up for my getting the word out late, here you go, an unprecedented two posts in one day! But you may not see another until the weekend wraps up.

(And as a totally unrelated giveaway for hip-hop fans, until 8 am Saturday, De La Soul is giving away any and all of its albums for free. Though there are a couple of suitable games, I really didn't have any ads that fit that theme.)

I feel a bit bad announcing these here, since it's already taken quite a while for the information to trickle down to me and there isn't much time left -- if you're depending on my video game ad blog for current news, you're pretty hard up. All the same, free is free. (I'm growing a collection of redundant Steam codes which should also yield some giveaways down the road, if I can think of some kind of compelling contest to run.)

The word is out. Dungeon Keeper
is really bad.

"Fiendishly good"

    - Computer and Net Player, 10/10
"It brings bad things to life"
    - Computer Gaming World, ****.5
"Wonderfully evil and wickedly addictive"
    - PC Gamer, 90%
"Hell is bubbling out of your PC"
    - Happy Puppy
"The bad guys have more fun"
    - Newsweek
And we couldn't be more proud.
Look for the Deeper Dungeons evil add-on at your local retailer.
www.bullfrog.ea.com
It was only in 1987 that Michael Jackson released "Bad", making ofays like myself scratch their heads over the counterintuitive use of the term; 10 years later, I gather we'd come to terms with its use as abbreviation for "bad-ass". (And of course it is a nice play on the player controlling what amounts to an evil villain. Breakdown: the game is nasty, but not poorly-executed. But that's not catchy at all!)

This is a species of the "let the good reviews speak for us" style of ad, one which we haven't seen much of yet... it doesn't make for compelling transcription on my end, but you don't have to hire anyone to pen copy for your ad and besides, gives the ad an air of (curated) objectivity. "We think we're great, but don't just take our word for it... here are some other people who also think we're great, like the highly reputable 'Happy Puppy'!" (whose sound bite here could equally have been used to sell Doom!)

I like the play on GE's slogan, "We bring good things to life". And then there is the peek at the .ea.com URL, a sign of the beginning of the end. Bullfrog founder Peter Molyneux hadn't yet become a punchline to the gaming industry (and, well, inspiration to the indies), though this was his final game at the helm of his company before its vital juices were sucked out and the empty structure shuttered. I don't give EA a lot of love on this blog because it often comes up in association with the final chapters of many of the companies whose great games I report on here, notably the visionary titans of my beloved '90s: Kesmai, Origin, Bullfrog, Westwood, Maxis. A couple of them still live on as zombie labels, but none of them still have the spark of life behind their eyes.

"TWO GAMES THAT PUT YOU IN YOUR PLACE", NES, 1991.

In case you were wondering what the Hillsfar box art looked like, here's a peek at its incredibly generic art. (And here, an incredibly generic ad design: we are selling two games -- here is what their boxes will look like on store shelves.) Yes, three years down the line, these games found their way converted to the NES, for better or for worse. Hillsfar probably suffered less in the conversion, excepting of course that it could not realise its raison d'ĂȘtre, importing characters from Pool to buff for later export back to Pool. Here, as in most games, the grinding would just have to be an end unto itself.
TWO GAMES THAT PUT YOU IN YOUR PLACE
NOW YOU HAVE TWO OFFICIAL AD&D FORGOTTEN REALMS WORLDS TO CHALLENGE!
The Walled City of Hillsfar!


Ride your horse past the gates of Hillsfar and find that it's been conquered by Maalthir, who rules with his powerful magic and his ruthless guards. Stripped of your weapons, you must use your wits to overcome the obstacles in your path.
  • More than 2 megs of memory
  • Long-life lithium battery saves play positions
  • Game missions change depending on character selection
Find the Pool of Radiance!
The legendary pool, said to give warriors tremendous strength, may help your band of adventurers restore the ruined city of Phlan to its former glory. Drive out the terrifying armed guards who have taken over, destroying minotaurs and orcs along the way.
  • Over 4 megs of playing power
  • Long-life lithium battery saves play positions
  • Based on the internationally-known AD&D PC game


The ad copy is strange stuff. The headline suggests punishment, but where is my place? Is my place the Forgotten Realms? The blurbs emphasize the games' plot, something that the computer-version ads really skipped lightly over. But then you hit the virtually identical bullet lists of hardware features: long-life lithium batteries and 2 megs of memory (vs. 4 megs of playing power -- an important distinction that I cannot instinctively unravel.) My recollection of Pool is that the legendary pool gives powers to the game's antagonist, not to the party of heroes: also, how curious to present it as a game in which players destroy minotaurs and orcs, specifically. (Hillsfar is the one most closely associated with minotaurs, as we have seen, and yet it goes unmentioned here. Go figure.)
I do like the way Pool of Radiance's logo is outlined groovily, while Hillsfar gets stuck with a more conventional typography. How can we make these boxes consistent and distinctive?
I'll take a momentary break from AD&D tomorrow to talk up something topical!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

"DragonStrike", 1990.

Here's an ad I know I saw numerous times, but which somehow slipped the reach of my scanning campaign. So thanks to Benj Edwards for providing scans with little commentary -- I borrowed your scan, and provide extensive commentary!

I owned this one and played the heck out of it. Finally, at the threshold of the age of DooM and Quake, SSI sheds the dowdy tile-based graphics they've been falling back on as though it was still the early '80s, instead providing some filled-wireframe 3D with scaled sprites atop... all within a credit-card-sized play window on your screen! Of course, SSI weren't entirely innovators, and didn't have much to do with it -- this is Westwood trying another tack after Hillsfar, an intermediary foray before they get on their Eye of the Beholder kick.

DRAGONSTRIKE
The FIRST-EVER dragon combat simulator!

The air screams with the fury of enemy dragons and creatures -- even flying citadels!

This is DRAGONSTRIKE where the deadly skies above the AD&D DRAGONLANCE game world of Krynn explode before your very eyes. For the first time ever, experience the excitement of flying your very own dragon into fiery combat!

  • The first AD&D computer game to use AD&D 2nd Edition game rules.
  • Incredible animated graphics viewed from a realistic first-person perspective!
  • Dragons attack with talons, fangs and deadly breath weapons. Riders engage the enemy with dragonlances and magical items earned during successful missions.
  • Progress through three different orders of Solamnic Knighthood, gaining bigger, more powerful dragon mounts.
  • Master over 20 different missions.
So maybe it is the first dragon combat simulator. Is it the best? Your enemies don't just include dragons and flying citadels, but also "creatures" -- not just Draconians, but also manticores, if memory serves correct. (They didn't play a very large role in the Dragonlance books, did they? They passed up the excellent name "Manticorelance" for a reason, I suppose.) This really overstates the excitement of coping with flight sim mechanics (I remember wrestling with early versions of the MS flight sim, triumphantly taking off from the runway without crashing for the first time after weeks of dabbling), with the air screaming with fury, the skies being deadly and the game world exploding with the combat that is fiery. The reality is more along the lines of turning in circles a hundred times trying to shake an interceptor from your tail and line them up in your sights. (The combat is only fiery against red dragons; white dragons of course breathe frost, blue electricity, green acid and so forth. I don't remember what black dragons breathe - stinking cloud? For that matter, why does this art depict two different breeds of evil dragon fighting each other? Is this the discipline of Takhisis' renowned evil army? Could they just not find a good dragon to team up on? Is this a drill exercise? Are dragons more like the lawfully organized legions of evil devils or the chaotic evil demon ranks?)

Let's look at these bulleted items: Is the use of 2nd Edition rules such a selling point when the gameplay is so action-oriented? (This opens the wider can of worms: was 2nd edition worthwhile. I leave this debate as an exercise for the reader.) Are the animated graphics so incredible? Wireframe 3D was really more tolerated than celebrated. Westwood had excellent production values for a North American house, but it's not like they were French. Is the first-person perspective realistic? (This game didn't even have the player's throbbing muscled arm pulsing in the middle of the screen, DooM-like, wielding its weapon. The lance's tip was visible, and maneuvering it was painful and tedious in a manner reminiscent of jousting with the Black Knight in Conquetss of Camelot. Typically it was easier to keep the lance constant and just move the dragon.) The different kinds of attacks were interesting, giving an excuse for taking different kinds of damage depending on what end of the opponent you were approaching. I have a memory of actually landing my dragon in the battlefield and being divebombed by enemies -- they raked me with their talons, but I cleaved them with my sword, and in time, they all fell to my brilliant new strategy: beat the flight sim by sitting on the ground. When I took flight, I constantly found myself reaching the flight ceiling and "stalling". Guess dragons need oxygen to breathe!

Like Wing Commander, this game had different mission ladders, depending on whether you opted to ascend to more prestigious orders of knighthood (and commensurately more capable dragon mounts) when offered the opportunity. This means that it was impossible to play through all missions in a single campaign. Eventually I hit missions in all three campaigns that stymied me.

My earlier "credit-card-sized play window" remark isn't entirely fair when you consider that this game was designed to straddle the vast range of horsepower from an MS-DOS PC with VGA graphics all the way to a C64. 3D game graphics on a C64 (3D demo graphics is a different question) are like Samuel Johnson's metaphor of a dog walking on its hind legs, not noteworthy because it is done well, but rather because it is done at all.

TSR liked the name DragonStrike: it was not only used for Westwood's thematically related 2D shmup on the NES (with shared assets), but also for a video-assisted boardgame.

Closing thoughts: is bursting through paper a recurring Dragonlance game ad motif? Yes: this magazine is made of paper. No, paper won't stop dragons.

I contend that this game was an excellent idea, but the technology wasn't quite there yet.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

"Secret of the Silver Blades", 1990.

Here's a blast from the past... I think there's a very good chance the box for this one is still kicking around my basement.
SECRET OF THE SILVER BLADES

The stunning sequel to
POOL OF RADIANCE and
CURSE OF THE AZURE BONDS!

FROZEN TERROR AWAKES!

The frigid valleys of the Dragonspine Mountains echo with the desperate plea of terrified miners: "Heroes of the Forgotten Realms, save us from evil!"

Unwittingly digging in unhallowed ground, they have disturbed an ancient vault and released its terrible content. Scores of horrific creatures now infest the mine shaft -- and threaten to escape into the world above!

You and your heroes must find the way to contain this scourge. All hope depends upon your ability to unravel the age-old mysteries surrounding this evil infestation.

SECRET OF THE SILVER BLADES improves on the award-winning game system used in POOL OF RADIANCE and CURSE OF THE AZURE BONDS. Continue your exciting saga in the FORGOTTEN REALMS game world -- transfer your characters from CURSE OF THE AZURE BONDS. Or create all-new characters. Either way, explore the largest 3-D adventuring expanse ever in an AD&D computer game. Battle monsters you've never before encountered. Use higher character levels, and invoke new, wondrous spells.

All this plus spectacular graphics add up to unequalled excitement in AD&D computer fantasy role-playing!

The what mountains? Eww. If the miners are lucky they might hit a rich vein of pink, throbbing draconian spinal cord. "Unwittingly digging in unhallowed ground"? Isn't most ground unhallowed? It is not customary to mine in the cellar of a rectory. "Released its terrible content" -- the use of the singular there is probably correct, but rings false in the way you might try to describe a single leg-clothing as a pant. Horrific creatures threatening to escape into the world above? We can solve this secret with a single strategically-placed cask of black powder, I think.

"Find the way to contain this scourge." OK, how about we burn fires at the mine opening until the mine fills up with carbon monoxide, asphyxiating its unspeakable inhabitants? Oh, that's right... science doesn't work in fantasyland. (I recall a similar solution to a related problem in one of Piers Anthony's Xanth books, the reading of which was probably near contemporary to the release of this game. Now let us never mention that again. Discussing having read Dragonlance novels is one thing, but some shameful indulgences are unredeemable.) "All hope depends... unravel the age-old mysteries..." Well, yes and no. Is it really necessary to understand an evil infestation in order to remedy it? Can't it suffice to merely ice all the monsters without getting to the bottom of the circmstances that delivered them here? Maybe that is the real engine behind the D&D alignment system: monsters attack because they are monstrous, while heroes slay in search of depeer knowledge. If you meet the Buddha in the cave... and any one of those 40 goblins might have Buddha nature.

Again, a claim that Pool's engine has been improved upon, which sounds a bit like claiming that a house whose extension has itself had an extension attached to it enjoys new architectural sophistication. No: the game designers have merely raised the level cap from the arbitrary and constraining level prior games had imposed on them, likely to cater to the somewhat limited calculating abilities of the positively primeval microcomputers the earlier games were intended to support. Here's a very specific claim: "explore the largest 3-D adventuring expanse ever in an AD&D computer game." Hey, Nimrod the hunter, your only competition in this category are your own previous efforts, which you've just been praising as "award-winning". So: game 3 in this series is "larger" than games 1 and 2 were. (One way I wouldn't think of these games is 3-D: there's this 2D grid, see, and you can go up and down staircases to other, different 2D grids. Ergo: 3-D. Well, yes and no. But what about the 1st-person view of the mine passages? Well yes, if a series of procedurally-generated still pictures of interior rooms drawn using single-point perspective means that we can call a game 3-D, then the descriptor is, technically, correct. I think they're just setting themselves up for player disappointment. This whole paragraph is usefully summed up in the final two sentences: "Battle monsters you've never before encountered. Use higher character levels, and invoke new, wondrous spells." Those are the improvements.

"All this plus spectacular graphics" aaand that's when I stopped reading. SSI, this game looks just like Pool of Radiance did two years earlier -- and it was no spring chicken. We understand that there are nails that your marketing department has explicitly demanded you hit on the head, but you need to find ways to more artfully work them in. Here you're just looking us straight in the eye and lying to our faces. Players do not expect spectacular graphics from a Gold Box game and they know they won't be getting any. "Unequalled excitement"? All I know is that I played through Pool and Curse, but never came out the other end of this game. Maybe its improvements were too extensive for me.

The box artwork is curiously repellent. The earlier Gold Box game boxes have obvious hooks: dragons, babes, etc. Here we are faced with an apparently-evil band of enemies so motley it doesn't look like the same type of monster appears twice: a mage (ooh, dark robe -- badass!) rides a death-sled (check those gnarly metal runners and the spikes on the side and back!) with a red-bearded barbarian at the reins and some sinister human remains (Secret of the Silver Blades: Weekend at Bernie's 3), while a pair of mangy demihumans patrol on horseback (c'mon, the ugly mug staring down the reader doesn't even have an intact helmet!), one more follows on foot as well as a giant and two human warriors. Oh, a couple more sinister heads can be seen behind the ridge the sled is traveling on. All told, a menacing dozen. We'll be sipping tea topside within 20 combat rounds! The only question is: whose living room wall is the sled's monster skull going to grace? "Oh, this? Yeah, we stole it from a handful of presumably evil opponents we ran into who were going sledding. I think we're going to make it the logo for our heavy metal band." I guess they needed art that telegraphed "Dragonspine Mountains", since art depicting the actual setting of the game -- inside a mine -- wouldn't be very exciting. Well, not until Peter Jackson's storyboard artists got ahold of it.

(Do evil creatures ride evil steeds? Does this goblinoid feed its horse the hearts of innocents or oats and apples like everyone else? Does he brush and groom it every day? Is the fantasy teamster profession a true neutral one, granting use of horses and tackle to all buyers, good and evil, provided they promise to treat the animals well and give the stableboys paid coffee breaks and health benefits? The economy of fantasy kingdoms has always been a rich field for speculation to me.)

(My next question was going to involve the attire of the skeleton and the giant, but this may be going off in a Seinfeld direction. "Skeletons in cloaks? What's the deal with skeletons in cloaks? Are they afraid of getting chilled to the bone?"

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

"Dragons of Flame", 1989.

"Gentlemen of the TSR board, we've been receiving letters of complaint from our customers that our game products are featuring too many dungeons and not enough dragons. To address this concern, we introduce: the Dragonlance campaign setting." (STANDING OVATION)
DRAGONS OF FLAME

CAN YOU STAND THE HEAT?

Set in the legendary DRAGONLANCE game world, DRAGONS OF FLAME explodes with red-hot action.

You control up to ten Companions, one at a time.

Your quest: rescue slaves held by the ravaging Dragonarmies in the foul fortress of Pax Tharkas.

Your wits and reflexes better be sharp. In this game, you're either quick... or you're dead.

Each Companion possesses specialized skills. Use these skills to evade evil Draconian patrols. Keep one step ahead of the Dragonarmies while battling scores of deadly monsters.

All the terrors of the journey, however, pale in comparison to the horror of your destination. The fortress of Pax Tharkas looms before you, crackling with vile energy.

Can you stand the heat?

[screenshot]
Tanis confronts a troll before the throne in the Hall of Ancients.
[screenshot]
Traveling through the wilderness, Sturm encounters a Draconian.

"Set in the legendary DRAGONLANCE world" -- are you sure you aren't confusing "legendary" with "fantastical"? "... explodes with red-hot action." Translation: the box artwork depicts a red dragon, whose breath weapon is fire. "... up to ten Companions, one at a time." But don't you think it would be an exciting, bold new gambit to publish a game wherein players control ten characters simultaneously? One per finger! "rescue slaves" In a world of magic and magical animal labour, what's the case for coerced human labour again? Pure cruelty? "Your wits and reflexes better be sharp. In this game, you're either quick... or you're dead." Is this a Western with dragons? That would be kind of cool, or at the least, novel. But what about the wits?

"... battling scores of deadly monsters." Dragons are just about a guaranteed party-killer. Draconians only slightly less so: these pain-in-the-neck opponents, depending on their particular breed, do charming tricks like explode or turn to weapon-entraping stone upon dying. You thought losing a combat was no fun, now we've found a way to make winning it also onerous. "The fortress of Pax Tharkas looms before you, crackling with vile energy." This is the first time that the word "Pax" (Latin: peace) has ever been conflated with "vile energy". (I have no idea what "Tharkas" means.) "Can you stand the heat?" See our initial remarks re: red dragon.

For a fire-breathing monster, that dragon sure has a lot of fluid in its mouth. Due to some regrettable foreshortening, the cruel dragon's master appears to have a stubby arm emerging from his armpit. (Just who does he use that whip on, anyhow? Surely not his mount! Whip a dragon at your peril.)

Just why did Dragonlance end up with the action-adventures while the Forgotten Realms setting got the tactical RPGs? (And why, for that matter, did Greyhawk get left in the dust?) The full answers may never be known for sure, but the outcome is that they are still making computer games set in the Realms today, while it's been a dog's age since Dragonlance appeared on a computer. Coincidence?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

"A Dungeons & Dragons Adventure" part 3, 1981.

I don't know if I mentioned: this blog has surpassed 20 thousand views! The themed posting sprees seem to contribute a lot to the readership's development, so I will continue along this Dungeons & Dragons death march for a time. But as time off for good behavior over the weekend, here's another instalment in the series of comic-book ads for the original pen-and-paper version of the RPG:
GRIMSLADE, VALERIUS, AND THE MYSTERIOUS SAREN SEARCH THE DUNGEON FOR THEIR LOST COMPANION, INDEL.
G, S: INDEL!
INDEL?!

SUDDENLY A BAND OF EVIL GOBLINS JUMPS FROM THE SHADOWS!!
V: GET THEM!
TAKE THEIR TREASURE

G: STAND BACK! I'LL TAKE CARE OF THEM!

G: A SIMPLE SLEEP SPELL STOPPED THEM!
V: COME--! WE MUST FIND INDEL!

MEANWHILE--

I: OH, MY HEAD!

I: A LIGHT FROM AROUND THAT CORNER. PERHAPS IT'S A WAY OUT!

DRAGON: GREETINGS, MORTAL WORM!
I: OH, MY! I THINK I'M IN TROUBLE!

It's my bedtime, so no analysis this time around. This piece pretty much speaks for itself, anyhow.

Friday, February 7, 2014

"Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: The Real Stuff", 1989.

What if our company's three games all took place in the same world? What do you mean, "they do"?! For goodness' sakes, let's mash them all up and show off with some gestalt artwork that's more than the sum of its parts! Which brings us to another Extralives ad scan, featuring two of those games we've already seen, and also Curse of the Azure Bonds, which you can consider a species of Pool of Radiance on steroids. On the left, an anonymous hero of Hillsfar (one of its renowned Red Plume mercenaries perhaps?) is seen facing off against the minotaur who acts as the champion of its arena (you may recall him from the Hillsfar ad in all his pixelated glory); in the middle, the class-confused protagonist of the Pool of Radiance box and novel cover artwork smiting some gnolls; and on the right, Alias -- the character eligible to attain the highest level yet in her game -- mows down the weakest opponents in the ads, some woefully generic demihumans (goblins? hobgoblins?) Meanwhile, a red dragon not found in two of the three games cruises in a holding pattern around the fracas at ground level. OK, the ad artwork gets a passing mark, and its thematic conceit proves true in a sense -- a character from Pool can be exported and "trained" in Hillsfar before returning to wrap things up and go into temporary hibernation before being called back into action in Curse. There's a certain chronological progression that this "all three games, simultaneously" presentation glosses over, but admittedly the passage of time is difficult to depict in a still image. (AD&D still lives? Fruit decaying next to a sundial, a broken rod of cancellation and a rust monster?)
When it comes to fantasy games, the ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS system is the real stuff. In fact, AD&D designed fantasy role-playing gaming as we know it today!
Only AD&D games provide the incredible richness of detail that makes vast and mysterious worlds come alive, filled with characters, monsters, weapons, spells and encounters of incredible diversity and depth.
Now SSI uses this legendary system to take fantasy gaming one step beyond: A line of AD&D computer games set in the immense world known as the Forgotten Realms.
Every game in this exciting series can be enjoyed by itself. However, the beauty of SSI's FORGOTTEN REALMS epics is that they are intricately woven together. The more you play, the more you'll discover the glorious wonders of this mystical domain.

POOL OF RADIANCE: the first and now classic AD&D computer role-playing game. In the fabled ruins of Phlan and around the northern shore of the Moonsea, your band of six Player Characters fight an unending wave of monsters and strive to unlock their mysterious leader.

HILLSFAR: An action-adventure game that is a crucial stopping point in your travels. Hillsfar serves sa the training grounds for all your heroes. Transfer your characters from Pool of Radiance or Curse of the Azure Bonds and increase their skills through vigorous workouts that include combat, maze-running, lock-picking, archery and horseback riding. Succeed in Hillsfar and some of your characters' statistics will actually improve. They will emerge from Hillsfar more prepared than ever to survive your dangerous journey.

CURSE OF THE AZURE BONDS: the sequel to Pool of Radiance, with deadlier monsters, more powerful spells and new Player-Character types. In this game, you find your characters' arms mysterious imprinted with azure blue symbols. When they glow, they ensnare your will -- you must do as they command! Search the realms for members of the New Alliance who forged these chains of enslavement and remove the Curse of the Azure Bonds.

Look for AD&D games from SSI at your favorite retailer. A wondrous universe awaits you.

So what's from what, here? How come the only part of his anatomy the Minotaur is interested in protecting is his precious abdomen? (Alias, in the meantime, telegraphs: aim for my sternum, my vulnerable heart beats beneath! And don't ask just how I have employed rare earth magnets to compel my mail to lie so form-fittingly.) What are the little donuts on the demihumans' hoods? If one of the side-by-side heroes was left-handed, would they inadvertently hack into each other on the backswing?

OK, these concerns are entirely secondary. The slogan is the main question: what is this "Real stuff" distinguishing itself from? Other successful fantasy CRPGs such as Ultima and Wizardry? (Admittedly, this is looking pretty much like a reskinned D&D.) But you're too late in the game, SSI -- these beloved clone brands have had a lot of time and opportunity to grow entrenched in their fans' hearts while TSR was busy trying to sell needlecraft sets and games based on Bullwinkle & Rocky and the All My Children soap opera. Those clones are almost-real, while in fact they greatly surpass the "real", authentic, licensed AD&D games that had appeared on Intellivision carts. But by 1989 it's a bit late to put the genie back in the bottle, guys.

In fact, AD&D designed fantasy role-playing gaming as we know it today! Yeah, and Xerox designed GUIs as we knew them in 1989 also, but you didn't see them entering the PC market. It's a weird kind of claim: obviously true, but invoked somewhat neurotically: just because we were the last to market we still want cred for being the initial innovators. Well sure, but what have you done lately? Not many other pen and paper RPGs would successfully get licensed to computers -- like D&D, Traveller found itself much-copied in the early days, but without any official licensing going on; there would be one Tunnels & Trolls CRPG; and of course FASA started its life as a tactical minifig wargaming company and ended its life as a studio developing Xbox games.

The rest of the copy is pretty defensible. I don't know if Pool would be quite as fun to play if the wave of monsters really was unending (well, what with random encounters, I suppose you can grind as long as you like, but what with the player level caps it kind of defies the point of so doing.) Hillsfar is undeniably a neat idea, but I don't know if anyone would go so far as to describe it as "crucial". And as for Curse? As Extralives notes, it's odd that Curse never got a print ad of its own, just somewhat mashed into this one with the others. It's odd to see the sobriquet "New Alliance" as the name for the group of monstrous enemies -- it has an upbeat, optimistic ring to it... I suppose, much like Canada's own much-lamented and dearly-departed "Progressive Conservatives". Along with Deathtrack, Sword of Aragon, and Maniac Mansion, Curse was one of the first games I got to enjoy at home in grey-market form, and let me tell you: between its code wheel and the Adventurer's Journal, pirating that game involved a great deal of creative photocopier use.

This trifecta of Forgotten Realms games was a handy grouping for the time being, but soon Hillsfar would find itself redacted from the official history, replaced by the new Secret of the Silver Blades, unifying SSI's march of glory as an all-Gold Box end run... at least, until Eye of the Beholder hit the scene, Westwood's second and more successful bid to capture the heart and soul of AD&D CRPGers with their lush production values. But I keep having to tell you about that one, endlessly -- eventually we will get to it!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

"Hillsfar", 1989.

Now we're talking! I don't believe I ever played this game, but looking at the ad, I regret missing out on it! Hillsfar is a real dark horse outsider product: a collection of mini-games used to train the parties from other AD&D games before re-exporting them. The locale is a black box of sorts, near the milieu of the other Forgotten Realms computer games at this time but hermetically insulated from them, with the exception of regular strategic mention of the location in the other games, like a kind of optional in-app purchase NPCs mention on a regular basis in one of today's AAA casual games. It is in the Forgotten Realms but at the same time apart from them. Westwood was the developer behind this one, still developing its reputation behind the scenes while polishing their portfolio with practice games published under the Infocom, SSI and later Virgin Games labels, before becoming a big enough fish to be swallowed up, digested and excreted by Electronic Arts. I don't believe this game was an especial success, though whether that is due to any deficiency on its part or just the internally competing Gold Box system being the right format for the time being up for debate. Westwood would return to shake up SSI's AD&D games with their trademark classy production values in Eye of the Beholder, but I'll say more about that one when it comes.
NO PAIN, NO GAIN. The Forgotten Realms is no place for wimps.

To survive our AD&D computer role-playing games, you need characters that are smart, strong, fast and experienced. These kind of heroes don't just grow on trees.

You get them by having your characters go through some serious training.

Send them to HILLSFAR, a magical city in the FORGOTTEN REALMS game world.

Transfer any character from POOL OF RADIANCE into HILLSFAR (or create one from scratch), and play a game that's one vigorous workout.

Each time you play HILLSFAR, your character will stumble upon a quest. To fulfill this mission, your hero must engage in different exercises, but nothing quite as simple as weight-lifting.

For honing combat skills, there's fighting in the arena against ill-tempered minotaurs like the one you see above (which incidentally is an actual IBM screen display). Other activities include maze-running, lock-picking, archery, and horseback-riding.

Every game inside HILLSFAR is a different experience: The quest and options available will change each time to suit your character's specialty (thief, mage, cleric or fighter).

When you're done with HILLSFAR, your character will emerge with more potent skills and a wealth of experience that will serve you in good stead in our AD&D computer role-playing games.

HILLSFAR. The training grounds for all FORGOTTEN REALMS heroes.

Lots of ad copy, but not much to say about it. Is 1989 about the last time we talked about "wimps"? When did Bush Sr. take office again? They tabulate a list of mini-game types ("Other activities include...") but I bet that that's actually a complete enumeration of everything the umbrella game has to offer. "Our ice cream parlour offers diverse flavours including chocolate, vanilla and strawberry." "Oh really, what other flavours do you have?" "Oh, just the choc, vanilla and strawb" -- a real stretch of what "include" is intended to indicate.

In a perfect world, these games could all be plugged together allowing players to go from Pool in and out of Hillsfar and thence to Curse seamlessly, all mere modules in a wider system. Practically I appreciate that such decisions pin developers down to lowest common denominators and interfere with their ability to learn and grow; in some way that it's hard for me to articulate at this moment, being locked into such a system would be like iD Software's chafing beneath Softdisk and its stipulation that all its diskmag games have a CGA graphics mode. If you absolutely have to support CGA, Catacomb 3-D is as close as you're going to get to DooM. And, I suppose, if you absolutely need to be backwards-compatible with Pool of Radiance on the Apple 2 in 1988, you're never going to get to Eye of the Beholder on the Amiga in 1991. Hold up here, I'm saying something profound, I'm just unable to articulate it as my post-composing time is currently 5:53 am. Maybe further glimpses of my brilliant thoughts will shine through in subsequent posts.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Computer Products", 1989.

Why blow a full-page ad on a single product when you can use it to shill three distinct but related works? This is a step up from previous shovelware advertising we've seen before (all these games have one thing in common: we make them!) where these are all different takes on the same "brand", with genre and thematic similarity that are necessarily entailed there.

Advanced
Dungeons & Dragons

COMPUTER PRODUCTS

Role-Playing

POOL OF RADIANCE fulfills all your gaming fantasies. The legendary ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS role-playing system springs to life on your computer! Embark on dangerous quests in the magical FORGOTTEN REALMS game world -- made incredibly real by advanced computer animation and combat that adheres strictly to AD&D game standards. Prepare yourself for the ultimate fantasy role-playing experience!

Action

HEROES OF THE LANCE gives you non-stop excitement and fully animated action on the mystical DRAGONLANCE game world. Guide eight Companions, each with different skills, deep into the treacherous ruins of the temple Xak Tsaroth. They will need all of your skills to help them survive the attacks of giant spiders, demons, dragons and countless other terrors. Retrieve the precious Disks of Mishakal if you can!

Utility

DUNGEON MASTERS ASSISTANT, VOLUME I: ENCOUNTERS is a utility program designed to help Dungeon Masters generate encounters for AD&D campaigns. It provides more than 1000 encounters, and over 1500 monsters and characters, including all of the monsters found in AD&D Monster Manuals I & II. DMs can modify the existing data and add original monsters and encounters to the database.

We've seen the first two titles before; the interesting bit for me here is the game-related tool SSI briefly considered having as part of its product line before cutting and running after volume 2. Applications and utility software is by and large far less documented than old games because, well, who goes around opening old word processors for kicks? But I've always been intrigued by these grey-area products, non-game (or merely game-related) programs developed, marketed and sold by game companies. A couple of years ago I parted ways from the motherlode of Amiga software packaging, with an unbelievable number of multimedia tools (hello, Deluxe Paint!) made by Electronic Arts to sagely plant the seeds for the next round of hires. I've always thought that products such as those are worth documenting alongside their contemporary games, to help get a better idea of the company's product line-up at a given point in time and the impact of the focus and priorities on the company (hello, Infocom and Cornerstone), to help fill in blanks in game developers' CVs, and to explain the appearance of new and robust systems incorporated into game engines -- eg. whether Jill of the Jungle got a free ride, sound-wise, on the back of Drum Blaster. Many (perhaps all?) games could be considered just gamified ways of interacting with the contents of asset databases.

And here's the kicker for me: as with Old Economy Steve, here's a little sidebar ad I uncovered in my delvings indicating just how low the bar to entry for the early computer game industry was. (Of course, you could easily get in over your neck very quickly: new Infocom implementators, some of whom had never written a program before, were parked at a dumb terminal with emacs to write in. After the first week, they might have been able to figure out how to advance to the next line.)

PROGRAMMERS!

SSI is actively seeking experienced programmers who would be interested in working on a computerized AD&D Dungeon Master Assist program. This work would be done on a contract basis. Interested parties are asked to write a letter in which they outline their applicable experience and send it to:

    Strategic Simulations, Inc.
    1046 North Rengstorff Avenue
    Mountain View CA 94043-1716
    Attention: Victor Penman
SSI is also interested in hearing from AD&D game players and receiving their comments on what they would like to see in the computerized versions of the game. These comments should be sent to the address given above.
(By this point, SSI is keeping it real, rocking it in Mountain View, California. SSI is gone now, but probably the best-known computer company in the area now is Google!)

Anyhow, enough regret at being born into the wrong generation. What does this ad tell us? Let's run backwards here: the DM's assistant is boldly promoted under the sexy tag-line Utility. Well, let's be fair: a database including all the monsters of the first two volumes on the Monster Manual (what, no Fiend Folio? With "over 1300 monsters and characters", that sounds like the contents of all three books with plenty of room to spare. Just how many NPCs are folded in?) sounds like an awesome resource to have while generating encounters. My only concern is that the main hold-up in playing through encounters isn't generating them -- which can be done as quickly as rolling dice twice -- but actually playing through them. This tremendous utility streamlines the most already-streamlined part of the process. And who DMs with a computer at the table, anyhow? We'll see further spins off from this utility's concept later on with Unlimited Adventures and Dungeon Hack, but only in a limited sense: entering 1300 monsters' worth of names and stats is easy, but commissioning sprite illustrations for 1300 monsters is a whole 'nother can of worms.

So: action. Twitchy arcade gameplay isn't fundamentally at odds from a good CRPG: Westwood pulled it off apeing Dungeon Master's model with Eye of the Beholder (and later, Lands of Lore), and Capcom took it far in the arcades with Shadow over Mystara. But it has to be treated carefully. Later AD&D adaptations like the Baldur's Gate era games offer basically real-time combat with the option to suspend proceedings and micromanage, a good middle ground from the desperately tactical Gold Box melees. This game looked more like a Nintendo platform game, and the flattened 2D perspective, however "fully animated", hammers home that the game is essentially on rails: players can go forwards, or backwards. (Or refuse to move, always an endlessly entertaining exersizing of Hobson's Choice.) At least top-down compass rose navigation doubles the number of possible avenues. Boasting eight Companions results in anxiety to me, as I anticipate two or perhaps three characters good at running, jumping and fighting -- the core gameplay mechanics -- and then five others who are basically dead weight but need to somehow be kept alive in order to cast spells or pick locks at critical junctures. "Retrieve the precious Disks of Mishakal if you can!" That's almost tautological. "If you can do x, then do it, and if you can't, well then... try to enjoy the failed attempt regardless."

And here we are, back at Pool of Radiance, still claiming to be an epitome of Role-Playing -- fulfilling "all [my] gaming fantasies". (That's a bit presumptuous, SSI. Some of us might fantasize a way to play through campaigns that wouldn't have us spending hours trying, failing, and retrying mass combats. Some of us might just fantasize about Tyranthraxus wearing something red and slinky. But I digress.) "Dangerous quests"? The stakes would be pretty low were they not dangerous: Save the princess! ... or... not. It's your call, bro. She's actually not in peril, she just accidentally locked herself in the bathroom. While this game was a sea change from the AD&D video games that came before, I don't know how fair it is to call it "incredibly real"; its "advanced computer animation" typically demonstrates a a kingly two frames for its sprites, and the bureaucrats will be glad to read the ad's testimony of the game's strict adherence to AD&D game standards. Is it fun? Who cares -- the important question is: does it adhere?

Two of these "computer products" (a strangely sterile term that didn't last long in SSI marketing) represented what were essentially dead ends: the third however kept being basically reskinned on an annual basis for the better part of a decade. One outta three ain't terrible...

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

"Heroes of the Lance", 1989.

I know, I kind of went overboard with my Pool of Radiance post. To make up for it, I don't have all that much to say about this ad, scan also borrowed from World 1-1 at Extralives.

The AD&D computer action-adventures were found to be basically unplayable, so surely no one has that much to say about the games. Here goes: Is there a stupider portmanteau to be found in fantasy literature than "Dragonlance"? Let me just get this straight: you're on a dragon, and you want to joust. With a lance. Frankly Joust with ostriches makes about as much sense and is cooler on account of its bold Jeff Minter-calibre absurdity. You're not going to be able to fight a dragon with your lance better than your dragon is going to be able to fight another dragon with its dragonly resources: a dragon is not just a horse with wings. AD&D, how is it that terminally unhip Anne McCaffery is lapping you on this crucial dragonriding issue? Will you use your lance to unseat another rider on another dragon? No. That would be wasting the time of all dragons involved. Basically, situating an ancient and powerful beast such as a dragon as subservient beneath a human rider is a humiliating sham. Get these humans out of the picture altogether and let the dragons really open up.

On the plus side, points to the whimsical artist for portraying what happens when a dragon suffers a neck wound while firing off its breath weapon. But then negative points for the hyper-muscular presentation of the foreground dragon like a tough plucked chicken with an uncomfortably phallic neck. And those wings aren't propelling anything upward nor were they ever. Three dragons portrayed, and the one suffering "I refuse to suspend my disbelief that such a creature could fly" syndrome is put front and centre. They are falling. Perhaps they are in fact traveling backwards (though the rider's ridiculous cape suggests otherwise), propelled by the fire breath like a Saturn rocket booster, in which case the punctured-neck dragon should be twirling like a pinwheel firework on the 4th of July.

OFFICIAL
Advanced
Dungeons & Dragons

COMPUTER PRODUCT

HEROES OF THE LANCE

The legendary DRAGONLANCE game world
comes alive in this exciting action game!

OK, but do I have anything to say about the ad? Well, I only have one sentence to work with, and the only destination it's leading me towards is smack-talking the Dragonlance campaign setting. The best you can say is that it provided an elegant set-up for a finely-crafted soap opera. Reading the Dragonlance books, I could never shake the feeling that the authors were just getting their jollies reporting the brilliant (just ask them!) role-playing going on down at their weekly sessions. What happens next? Well, the players do some genius improvisation. The campaign world feels like a Potemkin vlilage erected just on either side of wherever The Author's Party decided to go next. The setting should have some potential, but it occupies a dangerous place in both having new and questionable ideas atop stale genre cliches, not new enough to be refreshing, nor conservative enough to be comfortably familiar. It's the uncanny valley of fantasy settings.

Do I have any positive memories of my time spent in the Dragonlance ghettos? At the time I seemed to be enjoying myself, but perhaps I was just too ignorant to know any better. I have a memory of my father taking an unusual interest in my reading material and vetoing a Dragonlance book whose back blurb recounted a tortured dream of Raistlin Majere. "But Dad," I protested, "the whole point is that the character is messed up." He's a tragic hero, right? I should thank my father retroactively for doing the right thing -- quashing this nonsense -- albeit for the wrong reason. (He was also deeply disturbed by the instructions in Fighting Fantasy gamebooks -- specifically number 9, Caverns of the Snow Witch -- stressing how YOU are the HERO, encouraging players to personally identify as the characters. He was working through a psychology degree at the time and I guess felt he ought to put it to use at least once.)

In conclusion, I apparently really don't like Dragonlance or anything associated with it. This is not to say that I love the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk (I will explicitly confess to fondness for Spelljammer, Darksun and Planescape, and liking the idea of Ravenloft) ... I suppose they just exert less of a drag factor on eg. games that happen to be set therein. It doesn't help, again, that nearly (?) all of the Dragonlance games are a waste of good floppies. I will have to revisit this turf again for subsequent DL games, and I have no idea what I will say about them, having totally vented my spleen here. Hopefully their ads give me a bit more to work with. This game was made by an outside developer, U.S. Gold, and then just published by SSI (soo.... you want to make an AD&D game? You can make any kind of game you want, as long as you agree to publish it through us, exclusive holders of the license.) That fragile compartmentalization allows me to trash this game without challenging my glowing mental picture of SSI.

Monday, February 3, 2014

"Pool of Radiance", 1988.

All right gang, after the initial burst of "it's January! The 40th anniversary of D&D is this month!" posts from people, the trail went cold... until the closing days of the month, when people began piping up again: "Waitasec, we got the year and the month, but does anyone know the date of the anniversary?" I knew my opportunity to resume this golden thread of posts was at hand, after a disrupted month of moving house and internetlessness (that's... quite a word), but despite fragmentarily preparing a dozen posts, only now -- in early February -- am I in a position to begin posting them. The month after D&D's 40th anniversary. But I have all these D&D-related game ads to share! What am I supposed to do, wait for its 50th anniversary? Well, maybe. I will share at least a few more of them... there's just so much other interesting and worthwhile material that's been waiting ever so patiently in the queue (admittedly it's difficult for an ad scan to demonstrate impatience). We'll see. In the meantime, go grab a character sheet and your 20-sided die!
Prepare for the ultimate fantasy when the first official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Game Product comes alive on your computer!
SSI proudly presents POOL OF RADIANCE, the culmination of its collaboration with TSR to bring the legendary ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS fantasy role-playing system to your home computer.

POOL OF RADIANCE is set in the huge, complex world of the Forgotten Realms. Its game system adheres faithfully to AD&D standards. Its state-of-art graphics push the very limits of the computer's capabilities.
The only way to believe it is to experience it for yourself -- wherever game software is sold.
Look for the entire line of AD&D computer products coming soon from SSI.
[screenshot]
Roll up your characters and see their portraits and characteristics. (C-64/128 screen display.)
[screenshot]
Every single monster type is individually drawn by superb computer graphics. (IBM PC screen display.)

This ad is very proud of itself (first scan provided by World 1-1 at Extralives) and there is a later variation on it, which needlessly reformats much of the text while mixing up the screen shots a bit, as well as promoting a new and complete platform line (from a mere roster of the PC and C64 with Apple "in the works" to those two plus Apple 2, Mac and Atari ST... and now, AMIGA!), plus hypes its follow-up: "Curse of the Azure Bonds (sequel to Pool of Radiance)" -- apparently dropping the Apple 2 and C64 in what could be described as a period of rapid market reorganization.
So, where to begin? "First official AD&D Game"? So we're just pretending that the Intellivision business never happened at all, then? "Well, that wasn't a Game Product... it was a Cartridge." (And just how does a Game Product differ from a Game? Is this TSR still wanting to ensure that no one got mixed up and thought that the entire AD&D system had been computerized, rather just one module or adventure? You think this formal descriptor is clunky, wait for Curse!)

"[T]he culmination of its collaboration with TSR" ... meaning that, what, of its three initial licensed products, this, Heroes of the Lance, and the Dungeon Masters Assistant utility, they were proudest of this? You can't start off a relationship with a culmination! Well, you can, but doing so isn't usually a great sign...

"[S]et in the huge, complex world of the Forgotten Realms" -- and yet eschewing much of that complexity by, over and over again, choosing to set the computer games in relatively "here be dragons" underexplored blank areas on the map, so as not to run into conflict with existing published canon. That's what the Moonsea signifies, as much as Neverwinter -- though admittedly that latter much be less uncharted territory the third time around. (But then they tied in these games with contemporary novel and module products, so they instantly became shackled with new canon. Or is that instead "instantly became legitimized by supporting published materials"?)

"[A]dheres faithfully to AD&D standards." What The CRPG Addict has discovered is that by making minor tweaks to the tactical combat systems they introduced in their Questron and Phantasie computer game series, they yielded a very satisfying engine for AD&D tactical combat -- one that basically goes years without being topped, even by Pool's own sequels. But that emphasis, more Chainmail than D&D, resulted in more roll-playing than role-playing. These Gold Box games (as they would come to be known -- the other evolutionary dead-end experiments of SSI's licensing forays had different box margin colours, as with the silver-tinted game boxes for their two Dragonlance action-adventures... but nobody, and I mean nobody, refers to those as the Silver Box games. Really, nobody refers to them at all. We wouldn't be seeing a good run of new box-colours until the Eye of the Beholder games, about which more said later) boasted some open world sandboxiness by featuring hub areas and different wings to be completed in a sequence of the player's choosing, but typically there was an optimal sequence (take on the wrong dungeon and you'll find your party drastically underpowered and unable to succeed) but typically there weren't multiple solutions to problems. What this engine adheres to most faithfully is running a red-hot spreadsheet under the hood, automatically keeping track on all kinds of tedious numerical details that would bog down (were they not entirely ignored) a tabletop campaign -- boring simulationist numbers such as encumbrance, range, line-of-sight, conversions between a half-dozen redundant forms of coinage, and shops offering a super-redundantly complete array of indistinguishable pole arms for sale, for the player who insists on using a glaive rather than a guisarme. Here at last was the DM who would never throw up his hands at the hopelessly detail-obsessed player, intoning "FFS..."

"[S]tate-of-the-art graphics push the very limits of the computer's capabilities" -- while they were nice enough by 1988 standards, any game engine with the Apple 2 as its lowest common denominator would have a hard time staying on the bleeding edge. (It was handy, however, for running the games on the Hercules monochrome graphics card on my household's PC.) Compounding this overstatement, SSI continued using the engine until it had well overstayed its welcome ... by the end of its run in '93 (was it only five years?) with FRUA, in the wake of D&D-licensed developments such as Eye of the Beholder or Darksun, it would be pretty much unthinkable to imagine that the ... let's be frank: adequate and sufficient, but no further... Gold Box presentation had ever been described as state-of-the-art. Even the TRS-80 and Apple 2 eventually worked out how to used mixed-case text, but the Gold Box games were YELLING AT THE PLAYER IN THE SAME YE OLDE TRASHY FAUX-MEDIEVAL TYPEFACE TO THE VERY END. (Barring a brief excursion to YELLING AT PLAYERS IN A CHEESY SCI-FI FONT IN THE BUCK ROGERS GAMES.)

Back to the hopelessly detail-obsessed player, here's my parting 2 cents: it's been a very long time since I read any AD&D novels (a chapter in my life that I would be very surprised to find revisited... the last D&D novel I read was a game called Planescape: Torment. Hey, actually that game does have a novelization, and I own it -- but have not read it!) but I have a very vague recollection of an inconsistency rendered in the cover art -- and then enshrined in follow-ups like another ad you will see, as well as the cover to the POR novel's direct sequel, Pool of Darkness (but not, as you will see, the POD game. It's a tangled web.) In AD&D there are class conduct limitations, meaning that for example a cleric cannot use edged weapons, or that a mage cannot wear armour heavier than leather. (They can, but in so doing they lose the ability to make the most of their class' specialty powers like casting spells.) My very distinct memory is that the warrior character depicted in this artwork is an impossible amalgam of the novel's main male characters -- something like boasting the hair colour and magical yellow gloves of one character, but captured here wielding the arms and armour of an entirely differently-classed character. It's the kind of cognitive dissonance nerds experience when shown a photograph of Spock with the caption "Use the Force, Luke."