Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Questron: Game Change

I've made some unfortunate enemies since the last post.

The Dougherty line (Questron, Questron II, Legacy of the Ancients, and Legend of Blacksilver) isn't shy about changing the rules in the middle of the game. Take hit points. At the beginning of the game, you can only have between 500 and 600 at one time, and you can only reliably replenish them by buying holy water at 75 gold pieces a bottle. Later, you get promoted, your hit point cap simply disappears, and you can buy them directly at one of the temples.

Then, you reach the Land of Evil and find that hit points are sold in regular shops at a rate of 100 per 70 gold pieces. Moreover, when you start descending into dungeons, you can get thousands of them simply by opening coffins. In most games, hit points are a measure of a character's overall power, and increase incrementally; in Questron, they jump from 500 to 5,000 to 25,000 in a few major plot-driven lunges.

In the last post, I said that I hadn't discovered a magic system. Well, there is one. In the Land of Evil, you can buy five spells directly from shops: "Magic Missile," "Fireball," "Stone Spell," "Armor Enhance," and "Wall Pass." But, taking a page from Ultima and Ultima II, they only work in dungeons.

Every town on in the Land of Evil sells magic.
The Land of Evil is about the same size as Questron but more sparsely populated. I've only found 6 towns and 3 dungeons. Just like its sequel, you can't enter all of the dungeons right away. You first have to explore the Mountain Catacombs, which gets you an iron key to the Dungeon of Death. I assume in the Dungeon of Death I'll find whatever I need to get into Mantor's Mountain and the endgame.

The creatures on the Land of Evil are a lot harder than Questron. They're kind of a pain in the ass, really. It doesn't make sense to fight them, because I found I lose about 100 hit points for every 40-50 gold pieces I earn from killing them. But you could easily lose that much just trying to escape them, too. As I explored the land, I kept having to duck into the cities and replenish hit points, which of course diminishes all the gold I brought from Questron.

Wasting time.
As I visited the towns and their casinos, I settled comfortably in to a Martingale betting system. I'd set out to win about 200 gold pieces at a time. So I'd bet 100. If I lost, I bet 200. If I lost again, I bet 400. Eventually, I would win and end up 100 ahead of where I started. Then I'd scale back to 100 and start again. Such a system wouldn't sustain more than 4 or 5 losses in a row, but I didn't have that problem yet.

Unfortunately, you can't win too much. Not only do the guards attack you if you do, just like in Questron, but the moment you kill a guard, a gate comes crashing down around the city, preventing your escape. I don't know how this is lifted. The guards in Evil are harder than in Questron and I don't think it's worth fighting them for a couple thousand gold.

After I explored the cities and it became clear that no new weapons and armor were forthcoming, I decided to check out the Mountain Catacombs. The game uses quasi-wireframe dungeons, but with irregular lines made to look like caves. The levels were all 14 x 14 with thick walls, so I didn't see a huge need to map. The game continues the Ultima tradition of traps in the corridors, and you have to (X)amine each corridor before walking down to identify and avoid them. It's surprisingly easy to forget to do this.

Levels contain coffins, which boost your hit points (something about the ash), treasure chests with gold, food, and items, and urns with clues or special benefits like an increase in attributes. I had intended to only explore the first level, but it seemed remarkably easy. The enemies weren't too hard, a handful of coffins boosted my hit points by over 3,000. On the second and third levels, I also had a major net gain in hit points, and I had soon topped 10,000 gold. I didn't see any reason not to go all the way to the bottom--which turned out to be Level 8.

Don't question it. Just go with it.
This was a mistake. Chests and coffins respawn when you leave the dungeon and return, so I should have spent more time mucking about on Level 1, building up hit points and gold, and using the gold to buy spells. Instead, I kept pressing downward, and on Level 5, I started to encounter some unfortunate facts. Higher-level enemies can drain intelligence, drain stamina, steal gold, steal food, and destroy armor. And you can't save and reload in dungeons to avoid these fates.

I'd only purchased a handful of spells, and I wished I'd brought more. "Fireball" does about 2-3 times the damage of a normal attack, and with no chance of missing. Even more useful is "Stone Spell," which freezes all nearby enemies for about 10 rounds--more than enough to kill one or two. I don't see the purpose of "Magic Missile"; it does about as much as a regular attack. Spending more on "Fireball" is a better investment.

I'd be a lot more angry if I knew exactly what stamina did for me.
Eventually, I made it to Level 8, but by the time I found the iron key, my hit points were drained to almost nothing, my few spells were exhausted, my intelligence and stamina were drained to less than 10, and my armor was gone. I never would have made it back up to the surface, particularly without any more coffins to replenish my hit points.

Where is the "Kill Self" command when you really need it?
So I kissed a couple hours' of gameplay goodbye, reloaded, and did it smarter this time. I built up my money first, bought some spells, and descended with plenty of "Stone Spells," which freeze enemies. That way, if I saw an attribute-drainer or gold-stealer come along, I could petrify and kill them before they could attack. I brought a couple of extra suits of armor to replace the ones that got destroyed. On the second try, I managed to get out with everything intact, the iron key, and over 30,000 gold pieces.

When I returned to the surface, there were a couple of welcome new items in the shops: a short bow, which does allow ranged attacks (but you have to switch to a melee weapon when the enemy comes adjacent to you), and an eagle, which replaces both lamas and ships. Eagles fly over the landscape fast enough that you don't get attacked by random creatures unless you stop and wait for them. This is a nice benefit, because I was done with those random wilderness encounters.

With my riches from the Mountain Catacombs, I stocked up on more hit points and spells and headed for the Dungeon of Doom. It was pretty much the same as the Catacombs: 8 levels of 14 x 14 squares each, full of the same types of objects and monsters.

This bastard can steal thousands of gold pieces. He gets fireballed.

It took me about 3 hours to navigate, but it would have taken me longer if I'd tried to map every level. On the bottom level, I found a diamond ring that I assume I need to enter Mantor's Mountain.

When I got out, I found that lances and magic shields had become available in the weapon and armor shops.

A few other notes:

  • You need a rope & hooks to climb and descend the holes in the floors and ceilings. At least, you need them to climb safely. At one point in the Dungeon of Doom, I forgot to search a corridor and ended up falling through four consecutive levels.

And that's why you always search before walking down a corridor.
  • Early in my dungeon explorations, I found a compass. (H)olding it makes navigation a little easier.
  • Enemies don't drop gold in the dungeons.
  • I'm pretty sure enemies respawn in the dungeon levels. I was never able to clear them. They get stuck behind walls easily, but some of the more open dungeon levels were a nightmare. I might face stacks of 6-8 enemies at a time.
  • You can't flee from enemies by going up or down stairs and pits. They follow you.
  • (R)ob exists as a command in dungeons, but it doesn't seem to do anything different than "unlock."
  • When entering the towns on the Land of Evil, the game occasionally says, "Please wait. Entrance inspection" and loading takes longer. I have no idea what this is about.

I suppose the next step is to take on Mantor. At least, that's what Mesron says:

But I remember doing this prematurely in Questron II and finding that I didn't have enough hit points and other resources when I reached the endgame area, so I'm going to spend some time looting Level 1 of the dungeons for gold and hit points before heading off to face Mantor. I hope 50,000 hit points is enough; I'll set my target for that, and 99 of each spell.

My character at the end of this session.

Time so far: 11 hours
Reload count: 10

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Questron: Some Messed-Up Values

That's because I killed everyone else.
Well, given this was a Charles Dougherty game, the outcome was inevitable: at some point, I emerged from the royal castle, my mace dripping with the mangled blood and brain matter of several dozen castle guards...a hero. Knighted, even. It's a brutal world we inhabit, and only the strong survive.

As I closed from my first post, I was making my way around the island continent, visiting each city and cathedral, fighting monsters along the way. My fortunes waxed and waned as I won a hand of blackjack here, lost a spin of the roulette wheel there. If money got too low, I did my "Double or Nothing" trick until the guards attacked, and it turns out it's not very hard to kill them. I felt a little bad about that, but they were clearly in the wrong. I mean, we'd all be in an uproar if the Atlantic City Police Department tried to kill everyone who won a few keno hands at Harrah's, right?

A mace appears on the list.

Weapons and armor slowly improved. Armor availability went from rawhide to shields to chain mail to plate mail. Weapons upgraded from a flail to a club to a mace to a cutlass. At each city, I talked to prisoners and slowly built a lore book of hits and tips. A sample:

  • There are keys for every door
  • Find the trumpet at all costs
  • The treasure room can make you wealthy
  • Cathedrals reward only the good. [If killing guards doesn't do it, I don't know how to be bad.]
  • Find the castle to find Mesron.
  • You must travel through the northern fog, but only when ready
  • You should put money in the bank in case of death
  • You can steal, but plan your exit carefully
  • The phazor spiders hate the whip
  • There is a leaden key in the castle. Steal it.
  • Only the club kills the piercing pungie easy
  • Give to the evil priest--or he will kill you

A prisoner imparts a bit from the lore database.

As I got stronger, I found myself getting attacked by multiple copies of the same monster at once, and their hit points seemed to increase, too. But despite this, combat slowly became easier and less deadly.

Eventually, I started getting the same message every time I bellied up to a shopkeeper's counter: "MESRON WANTS TO SEE YOU." Around the same time, Geraldtown was destroyed. All shops and people were completely wiped out.

I returned to the castle, explored a bit, and found Mesron in a place I'd missed during my first explorations. When I spoke to him, he promoted me to soldier, increased my strength and stamina by 5, and gave me 5 jars of magic powder. He said that "one use" of the powder was to slow down guards in the castle. I'm not sure what the other is. He also confirmed that Mantor had destroyed Geraldtown.

When I spoke to him again, he said, "You're missing one piece of the puzzle. Find it, and I'll help you continue."

Sigh. I knew what was next: looting and killing. I built up some more funds and returned to the Swamp Cathedral, trading everything I had for about 25 holy water potions. Each gives you 100 hit points, but the starting character has a cap between 500 and 600 hit points. 

Returning to the castle, I found my way to a random treasure chest and opened it. This put every guard in the castle on alert, and they all headed my way to attack. I learned quickly that I wanted to channel them to me one-by-one, and let them come to me so I could get the first attack. Sometimes, I got lucky and killed them in a single hit. Other times, I missed 4 or 5 times in a row and a single guard knocked more than 100 hit points off my total. I drank the holy water when I got low. I saved the magic powder for when my holy water ran out, but fortunately that never happened.

There must be a better way.

I lost track of how many guards I ended up killing. It was more than 50. Among the chests, I found ruby, silver, emerald, lead, and gold keys, and more than 8,000 gold pieces. The keys opened various doors to special encounters. Namely:

  • A doctor offered to increase my strength for 10 holy waters. I was reluctant to sacrifice that many, but I ultimately said yes and my strength went from 20 to 40. This made the rest of the guards a little easier.

  • A princess increased my charisma from 15 to 35 for 2,000 gold. Thanks to her father's coffers, I had plenty!

  • In a "map room," I paid 500 gold pieces for small images of Questron and what I assume is the Land of Evil. I used the Questron one to annotate the cities and cathedrals I'd found.

The Realm of Questron.

  • A treasure room held a couple thousand gold pieces but automatically spawned 8 more guards I had to kill.

They were particularly dutiful guards. They wouldn't cross the threshold into the treasure room.

When I was done looting, the gold key got me into the king's throne room, where I killed about 10 more guards to reach the king. He was understandably unhappy.

But I needed to be there. Behind his throne was a small room with a chest containing the Trumpet, an artifact that I needed to find "at all costs"--according to the word of some random prisoner in a jail.

It turned out to be true, though. This was the other "piece of the puzzle" Mesron wanted me to find. When I re-visited him, he told me that I was now "the most powerful soldier in Questron" and asked me to take on the quest to destroy Mantor. Since I had recently saved, I decided to see what would happen if I said "no." He told me that was wise, then called me a wimp, then petulantly took his magic powder back.

I reloaded and said yes. He told me that I would have to go through the northern mists to find Hidden Port, and from there take a ship across the sea to the Land of Evil. Holy water would be useless there, he said, so I would have to find some way to buy hit points. He dramatically finished with, "Your quest: Seek out Mantor. Destroy Mantor!" He finished by increasing my dexterity from 20 to 40 and suggested I go get knighted.

After I spoke to Mesron, the guards (who had respawned) stopped attacking. I went back to the throne room where, unbelievably, the king called me a "worthy adversary" and said I deserved to be in his service. He knighted me, my stamina went up by 15, and my hit point cap was removed.

Is that your way of saying that you're scared of me?

On the way out, I noticed that guards still beat me and took my gold if I spoke to them. What is wrong with this place?

I had one more stop to make before heading off into the northern mists. The map from the map room showed an island in the middle of Questron, and sure enough I was able to buy a raft in Lake Centre. The island held the Island Cathedral, where I was able to buy hit points directly from the priest--no need for the holy water intermediary.

Having a character refer to them as "hit points" in-game kind of breaks the fourth wall.

Moreover, the cathedral had a fun minigame that increased my intelligence. It was a variation of Mastermind (a variant of which also appeared in Galactic Adventures, another SSI game) where you have to guess the placement of 4 squares of up to 4 colors among 8 slots. After each guess, the game tells you how many you got right in both color and placement and how many you got right by color alone. Slowly, you deduce the pattern--but you only have eight guesses. I'm pretty good at Mastermind, but I also got lucky with my first few guesses, and I was able to beat it in 6. My intelligence increased by 8 points.

After 4 guesses, I knew I was going to make it. The white squares indicate both correct color and placement; the gray squares indicate correct color only. If you use save states here, you lack the character to be reading my blog.
I was just about to head off to the Land of Evil when I got a message that Mesron wanted to see me again. I returned and learned that Mantor was currently attacking the city of Lagoon. I recalled that this exact same thing happened in Questron II, at Seaside. But unlike that game, where I drove Mantor away and saved the city, by the time I got to Lagoon, it was too late.

I'm sorry. I tried.

The "northern mists" are a series of squares that lead from the mainland along a narrow isthmus to the city of Hidden Port. Every step you take in the mists has a chance of moving you in a random direction instead of the one where you were going. After a period of frustrating bumbling about, it occurred to me that the Trumpet might have some use here. Sure enough, blowing it cleared the mists. I made my way to the city.

The trumpet clears the mists and allows me to pass.

There, I was dismayed to find that a clipper cost over 2,000 gold pieces, and I had spent so much on hit points that I only had 1,300 left. I briefly thought about wagering it on an all-or-nothing blackjack hand, but I first decided to see what happened if I tried to take just a raft across the ocean. It turned out to be no problem at all. I might have consumed some extra food, but that's all.

Fighting a whale from my raft.

There were lots of combats with water creatures along the way, but ultimately I arrived in the Land of Evil, where presumably the king will knight me for rescuing maidens and the guards will pat me on the back when I win at roulette.

In the Land of Evil!

This session, though brisk and fun, reminded me of some things I don't like about the Dougherty series. It's not so much the slaughter of castle guards--I can hand-wave that by pretending that they were traitors working for Mantor--but rather the intertwining of character and plot developments. Attributes and hit points increase more from achieving the next stage of the plot than from all the fighting and grinding you do in between. We also have the issue with weapons, armor, and transportation becoming available only after passage of time instead of when you can afford it. At the same time--and frankly just like in Ultima and Ultima II--hit points are all over the place. Their maximum isn't dependent on your overall character strength, but rather how many you can afford. It's a bizarre, slightly uncomfortable dynamic.

I look forward to seeing what the Land of Evil has to offer. I assume I'll find the first dungeons here, but I otherwise have no memory of this place.

Time so far: 6 hours
Reload count: 9

Friday, August 28, 2015

Game 200: Questron (1984)

There's an entire generation out there--maybe even two generations, depending on how you define it--who have always had computer games and have always had RPGs. People who were born the same year Fallout was released are eligible to vote; those born the same year The Elder Scrolls came into existence can now drink. You could have no original memories of Gold Box games and yet have children of your own, on purpose. It's hard for me to imagine what it must be like to always remember a computer in the house, a live Internet connection, and as many games as you had time to play.
I'm not old enough to remember a time before Pong existed, but I am old enough to remember a time before arcade parlors and widespread ownership of consoles. I remember playing Galaga and Pac-Man at mall arcades and fantasizing about the day that I would be wealthy enough to bring an actual bucketful of quarters to the place and play as long as I wanted--and it turned out those weren't even the kind of games I liked!

Try to imagine being that kid, in an era where all video games were new, whose video game experience was primarily arcade shoot-'em-ups where getting the "high score" was the goal, encountering a role-playing game for the first time. Think of discovering, all in one afternoon, that a game doesn't have to be about "lives," points, increasing difficulty, and inevitable death. It can have a story. It can have a persistent hero who gets stronger as the game goes along. You can get richer, better equipped. Success is less about reflexes than strategy. If you screw up, you can reload, and if you don't screw up, you can actually win!

This is what I learned one day, probably in 1985, on my friend's Commodore 64. The game was Questron. I didn't know the term "role-playing game" at the time. I hadn't played my first tabletop D&D session yet, so I wasn't even familiar with the basic conventions of fantasy gaming. Among other things, I thought my character was acquiring a chemical spray when he bought a "mace." I didn't know Questron's enemies were made up for this game. When I played other games, I kept wondering where the "dirt weirds" were. But despite my deficiencies, I was addicted immediately.

A typical Questron screen. My character stands between a cathedral to the northeast and a city to the southwest. I'm being attacked by a bandit.
I think I can remember the specific day--although it's possible, 30 years later, that I might be conflating more than one occasion. I was grooving on my friend's sister's friend at the time (he was a bit older than me; she was my age), and during a planned sleepover at his house, I had it on my agenda to make some kind of move. But he showed me the game, and those plans went out the window. I spent all day and night playing the game--I remember he got pissed at me at one point--and it would be six more years before I kissed a girl.

It was probably on the strength of this game alone that I pressured my mother to buy me a C64 and disk drive, and I guess I must have copied Questron from my friend. Things that happened when we were younger tend to loom larger and longer in our minds. In reality, I might have only played Questron for a week or two before winning, but in my memory, the game seems to have been around for years. I remember the same thing with Ultima IV, which I would have acquired around the same time. There was no pressure to "win" the game--heck, I'm not sure I even knew, in those early days, that the goal was to win. I was just happy to wander the lands, fight, buy better equipment, and level up. It seems to have taken forever before I discovered the Land of Evil, and even longer before I experienced the awesome winning sequences, which still stand out in my mind as better than 99% of the games I've played since.

I have no excuse for waiting this long to re-visit it as part of this blog except for my own pathology. When I first started the blog, I was afraid of non-DOS emulators and refused to make an exception, not even for the first RPG I ever played, not even for superior versions of other RPGs. Later, when I changed my rules, I insisted on reaching the game naturally instead of prioritizing it. However, I did engineer things so that it would be my 200th game.

Starting the game a few days ago, for the first time in 30 years, was a surreal experience. I hardly remembered anything substantive about it, just random things like the basic placement of the castle, the way my friend and I used to laugh at a monster called a "flesh feeler," the use of "rawhide" as the most basic armor, and the "rope and hooks" that serve as both a weapon and a tool.

Questron was written by Charles W. Dougherty of Michigan and published by SSI. At the bottom of the first menu screen, we have a note that "game structure and style used under license of Richard Garriott." In Dungeons & Desktops, Matt Barton says "to their credit, SSI took the precaution of securing a license from Garriott," which is how I always understood it. A couple of sites, however, including Wikipedia, suggest that the licensing was a result of a lawsuit from Garriott's end. None of these latter claims are particularly well-cited, on the other hand, so I'm afraid I still don't know what the real story is. Given how blatantly other games copy elements from each other without such licensing agreements, it's certainly an unusual credit to find in a game.

The main menu with the odd legal notice.

In any event, whether SSI should have been legally and financially obligated to Garriott, Questron is clearly inspired by Ultima. From it, the game takes its basic look and feel: iconographic exploration transitioning to 3D dungeons, little enterable towns and temples, various NPCs to speak with (some in jail), guards to contend with, a constantly-dwindling food supply, and purchases made at little countertops. It takes the same approach to single-letter commands (though it also supports a joystick). And like Ultima, its combat system is a pretty rote affair in which you stand right next to enemies and slug it out with the "fight" command.

But I think it would still be unfair to call Questron an "Ultima clone," because it makes a number of modifications and additions to the Ultima template. Some of them work and some don't, but all are relatively creative. Some examples:

  • Monsters are mostly original creations rather than deriving from Tolkien or D&D.
  • Monsters are resistant to some weapons and particularly vulnerable to others.
  • There's an extensive gambling system with three different kinds of games.
  • Not all weapons and armor are available at the outset of the game; higher-order items become slowly available over time.
  • Character development is largely based on plot developments rather than traditional experience and leveling. 

For the most part, these features carry to all four of the games in this little sub-series: Questron, Legacy of the Ancients (1987), Questron II (1988), and The Legend of Blacksilver (1988). I'll have more thoughts on the series in a later post.

The backstory is well-told via a series of letters and testimonies found in the nicely-produced game manual. The game takes place in the Realm of Questron, in the aftermath of a bloody coup d'etat known as the Baron Rebellion. It began when Baron John of Blind Pass killed King Gerald during a spring pageant. [He is likely named after Gerald Wieczorek, credited with "game theory" and artwork.] Years of fighting followed, in which Gerald's queen, Kristene, was also assassinated. But the traitors and their armies were suppressed through the magic of Mesron and Mantor, two court wizards (and half-brothers), and eventually Prince Aaron ascended peacefully to the throne.

Rumors swirled in the subsequent years that Mantor had actually supported the rebels. Over two decades later, Mantor suddenly disappeared. Shortly thereafter, dangerous monsters started appearing in the countryside, attacking travelers, towns, and castles. It soon became clear that Mantor was directing them. Somehow, he had traveled to another world (perhaps another time) and returned with an evil book of magic, which he used to take over another continent called the Land of Evil (one assumes it had another name before Mantor) and then start harrying Questron. One night, he stormed the castle throne room and challenged the king himself, killing the queen and one of the princesses before Mesron drove him off.

A bit of the backstory as the game begins.

King Aaron has sent knight after knight to the Land of Evil on quests to kill Mantor, but all have failed, and monsters still roam the land. You play a serf from Geraldtown who, sick of all the carnage, sold his ox, bought a suit of rawhide armor, and embarked on a quest to bring Mantor down.

Character creation consists solely of providing a name. Each character starts at 15 in 5 attributes: strength, stamina, dexterity, intelligence, and charisma.

All there is to character creation.

The opening act of the game takes place throughout the continent of Questron, a twisting, irregular landscape of peninsulas, mountains, lakes, and isthmuses. Maybe a dozen cities, one castle, and a handful of cathedrals dot the landscape. As you explore, you get attacked at regular intervals (every 10 steps, roughly) by one of the game's many monsters, all described in some detail in the manual. Almost all of them have two-word names, usually a regular word preceded by an adjective: Wrention Warrior, Bloodhound Ghoul, Leopard Yeti, Phazor Spider, Faun Nymph, Strangler Fiend, Woods Ogre. (My favorite is "Irish Stalker," which sounds like a drink.) Unlike in Ultima, you don't see them until they appear in the square next to you. If you try to flee, they sometimes move to block you, but you can usually get away after a few attempts.

Fighting a Woods Ogre. Different monsters appear depending on what terrain you're standing on.

In a tradition that carries through the rest of the games in the Dougherty series, the monsters don't really have a lot of special attacks. Grassland creatures tend to be easier than jungle creatures which are easier than mountain creatures, but overall not a lot differentiates them except their names. Some of them do have defenses against most weapons, and NPC dialogue helps determine what weapon works best against what creatures. All of them, even the animals, carry gold pieces. Because you don't get experience from killing monsters, accumulation of gold seems to be the only real reason to fight them.

In an innovation new to this game, you occasionally meet someone in the wilderness who doesn't want to fight you, such as a high elf, monk, or merchant. (S)peaking to these NPCs might give you the ability to buy a weapon or piece of armor, some information, or some hit points.

The cities have names like Wimp Cave, Blind Pass, Lake Centre, and Gamblers Grotto, and each features a different layout, a different number and positioning of guards, and a different selection of shops and services. These include weapons, armor, transportation, food, banking, and gambling. As the game begins, only "rawhide" armor is available, and the only weapons are slings and whips. After you've played for a while, "rope and hooks" become available--which also allow you to cross mountain ranges in the wilderness--and then flails. That's as far as I've gotten so far. I don't know if the availability of weapons is purely based on the passage of time, or if there are other factors at work such as enemies slain or areas visited.

Transportation is important because food depletes very quickly on foot. Horses are the first to appear, then "Wam Lamas." I assume I'll eventually get watercraft options.

I thought I once heard that a one-l lama is a priest.

A few of the cities have prisoners in little barred cells. If you talk to the nearest guard, you can bribe him for one or two chats with the prisoners, who might provide some one-line intelligence. If you try to talk to the prisoners without bribing the guards first, an alarm goes off and all the guard converge on you and attack. This isn't really survivable in the game's opening stages. You also generally don't want to talk to other guards because there's a decent chance they'll hit you and/or steal some of your money. Guards in this game are real bastards.

Bribing a guard to talk to his prisoners.

Gambling is a big part of the game, and I spent a while trying to find exploits in the system, since fighting enemies is both boring and risky. Also, I remembered that Questron II had a game with ridiculously favorable odds. The first game here, blackjack, uses standard Vegas rules (dealer has to hit on 16, must stand on 17), which means your odds are about 50/50 if you know what you're doing.

Actually, with no "split" or "double down" options, the odds might be worse than 50/50.

The second game, "Double or Nothing," has literal 50-50 odds. You bet a certain amount of money and watch a cursor jump quickly (too quickly to time) between "win" and "lose." You hit a button to make it stop and have a 50% chance of either.

The third game, roulette, offers the best odds. Basically, you pick one number that pays 25-to-1 if the ball lands on it. But you also make an even/odd bet and get paid 2-to-1 if you win that. Like any good roulette wheel, this one has a 0 that is a "lose" no matter what you bet. But, weirdly, there are 16 odds and 15 evens among the other numbers (1-31). With 32 numbers, including the 0, your chances of winning if you bet "odd" is literally 16/32 or 50-50. But if you place your 25-1 bet on an even number at the same time, your average payout ends up being 1.78-to-1.

Roulette offers the best odds.

I tried this out by betting 5 gold pieces per round and recording the results of 100 spins. I ended up winning 58 times and losing 42, a bit higher than the 53/47 the odds would have predicted, but the ball landed on my chosen number only twice instead of three times. Thus, from 500 gold pieces bet, I walked out with 815 in winnings. Not bad. It took me about 15 minutes, and I could arguably have made the same amount fighting creatures during the same time, but I would have lost hit points and food during that process.

But let's go back to "Double or Nothing," because something was tickling my memory. I remember a time, after I got my C64, that I figured out a pattern to the game. I thought it went like this: the "win/lose" selection always starts on "win," so although you can't time the selection, if you hit the button immediately after the game starts, it will never leave "win" and you'll double your money. I have a fairly vivid memory of running out of my room after figuring this out, encountering my mother, and saying something like, "Mom! I'm playing this game where you hardly ever have more than 500 gold pieces, but I figured out how to cheat the gambling game, and now I have like 5,000!" My mother, as you might imagine, was unimpressed.

Double-or-nothing is the easiest way to build your finances, but it comes at a price.

Anyway, my strategy didn't work the way I remembered. The cursor moves off "win" too quickly to hit the button before it leaves. BUT you can still time it so that if you wait just a split second before hitting the button, it will return to "win" in just the right time. After a few practices, I found I could get it right about 7/10 of the time. That is, of course, more than enough to return big winnings.

I soon found out the downside to winning too much money: the casino closes and all the guards swarm you and kill you. Actually, the guards might swarm you and attack even if you don't break the casino. You just have to win a certain amount. That's bogus. Different towns have different numbers and configurations of guards, and in some of them it might be possible to reach the exit before they can kill you. I haven't studied them all yet.

It would not be a good idea to annoy the guards in this town.

I'm spending all this time talking about money because money is power in Questron. With no experience points or leveling, the only way you develop is purchasing more gear and purchasing hit points (in the form of holy water potions) in the various cathedrals that dot the landscape. You get one potion for every 75 gold pieces that you donate, but you have to drink one right away in order to leave the temple.

Visiting a cathedral. Donating money at the altar gets me holy water in the room to the northwest.

There is one other way to develop, but it also costs money. In a cathedral near the starting point, Swamp Cathedral, you can play a skeet-shooting game for 50 gold pieces. You get a certain number of pulls, and then you aim a gun and hit the button to shoot a volley at the 1-3 clay pigeons that appear. If you do well enough, your dexterity goes up a few points. On subsequent visits, you have to beat your previous score to see any increase. I haven't encountered them yet, but I assume there are similar minigames for the other attributes.

Playing the skeet-shooting minigame.

And reaping the rewards!

After I figured out the basic gameplay mechanics, I started exploring the island in a counter-clockwise pattern and ultimately came across the land's castle--a large, maze-like fortress full of guards, trapped chests, and locked doors.

This was right where I remembered it.

I couldn't find anything useful on the first visit, and I assume, just like in Questron II and Legacy of the Ancients, I'll eventually have to pillage all those chests and kill all those guards looking for keys. (Opening any chest causes the guards to attack.) A careless disregard for the lives of castle guards is something that this series regrettably inherited from the first Ultima.

I guess I shouldn't have opened that chest.

Anyway, I'm still a bit too weak to take on castle guards, so my current plan is to finish circling the island, create a crude map, re-visit all the cities, increase my funds, talk to more prisoners for intelligence, buy new weapons and armor as they become available, and build up my stock of holy water potions.

My character at the end of this session.

A few other notes:

  • When you enter the altar room of a cathedral, it warns you that "sinners" aren't welcome. I'm not sure how the game determines that you're a "sinner." I hope killing guards isn't considered a sin, because that seems almost inevitable.
  • "Rob" is another command that you have while in cities. Maybe that's how you sin. I haven't explored it yet because it seems easy enough to make money other ways.
  • If you die, Mesron resurrects you in a random place with 15 gold, 200 hit points, and a small amount of food. Your weapons are gone but your armor remains. Better to just reload.
  • The game is a lot more colorful than I remember. Were there versions that were more monochrome? Probably not. I tend to remember Ultima V with drab colors, too, and it's quite the opposite.
  • In Ocean Cathedral, I found an enchanted flute that said "play me but thrice!" I saved and played it to see what would happen: it causes a pilgrim to appear who offers food, medicine or gold. I reloaded so I wouldn't waste one of three chances. Anyway, the flute seems to be a way to get out of a bad situation in an emergency, at least three times.
  • I haven't seen a hint of a magic system yet, and there isn't a keyboard option that has anything to do with magic. It's possible that spells show up as inventory items later that you (H)old and (O)perate.
  • "Vacate" is a useful menu option while in towns. It allows you to immediately leave when you've concluded your business. (It doesn't work if the guards are aroused, alas.) "Kill self," on the other hand, has questionable utility.

To answer the obvious question, no, the game isn't quite as good as I remember. But that's to be expected, since I had no basis for comparison back then. Many of the conventions it introduces are silly and contrary to what I generally like about RPGs. However, I do admire the things it built on the Ultima template, and even though I'm not having as much fun as I do playing, say, Ultima IV, I can certainly see how this game addicted me to the genre.

Time so far: 2 hours
Reload count: 7 (elevated because I did a lot of messing around and experimenting)