Thursday, March 2, 2017

Game 244: Wizard's Lair (1986) and Two Sequels

Perhaps the blandest title screen we've ever seen.

Wizard's Lair
United States
Rainbow Software (developer and publisher)
Released in 1986 for TI-99/4A
Date Started: 20 February 2017
Date Ended: 21 February 2017
Total Hours: 7
Difficulty: Hard (4/5)
Final Rating: 13
Ranking at Time of Posting: 18/242 (7%)
Checking out what was hot for the TI-99 in 1986 is like checking out what the poor kids got for Christmas. It just depresses you. If you had a C64 that year, you got to play The Bard's Tale II, Might & Magic, Phantasie II, Roadwar 2000, and Starflight. If you had a TI-99--with an extended BASIC cartridge--you got to play Wizard's Lair. Since it was one of only about five RPGs ever released for that platform, you probably cherished it with all your being. We'll hear from one such player shortly.

The game is essentially the TI-99's answer to Dungeons of Daggorath. It features similar commands, a similar main quest, and similar real-time gameplay and combat, but it lacks the audio and approach to health that make Daggorath so memorable. In some ways, Wizard's Lair is actually harder than Daggorath since you can't save the game and there's a time limit. (And I can't circumvent that approach in 2017 because the Classic99 emulator that I use does not offer save states.) But gameplay never rises quite to the level of frenzy and terror that Daggorath achieved.
A typical Wizard's Lair scenario. I'm on Level 3 of the dungeon with 7 constitution, 0 strength, and 3 luck. I'm wielding a sword and wearing leather armor, and facing a wee little ogre. Once I kill him, I'll be able to pick up the potion in this square and whatever treasure lies in the square ahead.
The concept is simple: an evil wizard has taken over the dungeons of Weymoor Castle, and you're there to destroy him. He waits for you on Level 4. You have to spend the previous 3 levels acquiring the inventory necessary to defeat him, while fighting off his minions.

It barely qualifies as an RPG. There's no character creation--you just start in the middle of a randomly-generated dungeon level. The character has three attributes: constitution, strength, and luck. Constitution is the same thing as hit points; it starts at 10 and can grow slightly between levels. Strength and luck both start at 2 and can never go higher than 4. They are weakened by traps and some monster attacks and strengthened by magic items that you find.

You start with a stick and no armor. (The game can't seem to make up its mind whether the armor slot is actual armor or a shield. The manual refers to it as a shield, but then you can find items called "plate armor" that go in that slot.) Each dungeon level is randomly generated (it takes about 5 minutes with the CPU at normal speed) and seeded with monsters and treasure. You immediately start exploring the first level, picking up spells, potions, weapon upgrades, and armor upgrades--anything you can find. As you do, you get attacked by creatures like elves, dwarves, ogres, and demons, all rendered as tiny little sprites that would be laughable if they didn't do so much damage.
An adorable little demon attacks me.
Luck plays a huge role in the game. If you start in the corridors of Level 1 with several monsters around and no weapons, that's the end of that game. If you're lucky, you'll find a leather shield and a dagger in the starting area, making it far more likely that you'll survive the initial batch of monsters. The order that you come across things makes a big difference. Monster } healing potion } monster } vanishing spell } monster works fine. Monster } healing potion } monster } monster } vanishing spell is tough to survive, and monster } monster } monster } healing potion } vanishing spell means you'll probably die before you get to the treasures.

You navigate with single-letter commands like (P)ick up, (M)ove, (L)eft, (R)ight, (U)se, and (A)ttack. Most of these commands have to be followed by ENTER. Attacking is a notable exception; you just hold it down. Whether you're waiting for the screen to refresh after a step or waiting for it to execute your last action, the game is excruciatingly slow. It tends to miss some of your keystrokes. A modern player can't solve this by cranking the emulation speed, for reasons I'll describe below.
"DM" brings up a level map. Note the timer.
I learned early not to try to conserve magic items. Those 10 hit points go fast. Late on Level 3, you want to start selectively saving things for the wizard, but until then, you use whatever you have--fireballs, death spells, vanishing spells, disarm spells--on the next monster you see, unless it's a simple one.
Monster variability also makes a big difference in the game. Level 1 predictably has easy monsters--mostly faeries, dwarves, and elves. Level 4 can have those same easy monsters. It can also have demons and trolls, too--it's all the luck of the draw.

As you kill monsters, you gain experience, and you also find gold, silver, lead, and diamonds to increase your "treasure" score. I don't think that either statistic matters except for the final score. More experienced characters don't seem to do better in combat, for instance. Far more important are the weapons, shields, and magic items, all of which can be trapped in ways that deplete any of your attributes. (A "disarm" spell can forestall these traps.) If your strength gets to 0, there's a chance each combat round that your weapon or armor will be destroyed.
Using a "Disarm" spell on a chest.
Adding a twist to all of the above is something not usually found in an RPG: time limits. Each level "times out" after somewhere between 3 and 5 minutes, and no matter what you're doing, you get sent to the next level. Fortunately, your hit points are reset and increased slightly during this process. You can force a move to the next level at any time with the "N" key, and sometimes it's the best option. But even if you use your maximum time on each level, no single game takes more than about 16 minutes.

The time limit means, unfortunately, you can't just crank the CPU speed in the emulator. The Classic99 emulator that I use only supports three speeds: normal, "CPU Overdrive," and "System Maximum." "Overdrive" seems to be around 5 times the normal speed--useful for when the random dungeon is being created, but if you leave it on when you start playing, it turns your 3-minute level clock to a 35-second one. Even with the enhanced movement speed, you can't get much done in that time.
I pick up a treasure in the hallway.
The time limit and lack of save states created a difficult situation for a CRPG addict trying to document the game. Stopping to take a screenshot in the middle of battle, for instance, almost guaranteed losing that battle. You won't see a lot of screenshots here from Levels 3 and 4, because by the time I made it there, I was trying to win the game and didn't want to risk leaving the emulator. If I'd  noticed the "Pause When Window Inactive" option sooner, it would have made my life a lot easier.

My first 4 or 5 characters all died on Level 1, and I assumed I simply wouldn't be able to win the game in a reasonable time frame. But for the sake of an enthusiastic commenter, I decided to settle in and give it the full 6 hours. Before long, I was routinely making it to Level 2 before I died, and then to Level 3. I tried alternating strategies, such as immediately zipping to Level 3 and hoping to find good weapons and armor before I got attacked, followed by an exhaustive exploration of each level (or as much as my time limit allowed) before proceeding down. Neither seems to me the "better" strategy--it all comes down to what equipment you find.
Death on Level 3.
The Wizard, as I mentioned, is on Level 4. He has the same goofy icon as everything else. He has a ton of hit points, but he's the only enemy in the game that doesn't regenerate when you leave his square. He's also the only enemy you can just blow past without defeating in combat first. These two factors allow you to adopt hit and run tactics against him. If you could only reach him without running into a bunch of monsters first, you could probably defeat him with just a decent weapon and a couple of healing potions. Again, it's all the luck of the random generation. You could zip down to Level 4, find a magic sword in the first room, two healing potions in an adjacent corridor, and the wizard a little further along.
On this trip to Level 4, my equipment is good but my attributes have been drained.
I was just crossing the 6-hour mark when I finally beat him, perhaps my 5th time encountering him. I had 3 healing potions, plate mail, and an axe. Killing him took me about 20 hits in 3 groups (gulping healing potions in between) plus a "fireball" spell. The screen below is all I got for a reward.
Wizard's Lair was created by New York-based Rainbow Software. This and its sequel seem to be the only games produced by the company (a minor UK developer of the same name confuses search results). Neither I nor Adamantyr (below) have been able to find a name behind the company. Its business address is a residence in Brooklyn that has been sold several times since the game was published. Perhaps the most notable thing about the titles is the unique style of the cover art from the manuals. The interiors, alas, lack any production values.

[Edit: About a month after this entry posted, I was contacted by a Robert Pellegrino, the author of this game and owner of Rainbow Software. He says he programmed a number of games for the TI-99, Commodore 64, and Commodore 128, sold mostly as shareware or published in Loadstar. I'm glad we ere able to put an author to these titles!]
An interesting cover graphic distinguishes an otherwise bland manual.
The very same year as Wizard's Lair, the company came out with Wizard's Revenge. Although it has a continuing backstory--the wizard has reconstituted himself and now moved to Bleylock Castle--it's really more of a remake than a sequel. The graphics are slightly better. Hit points now count down from 100 instead of 10, and strength and agility now start at 25. There are now 5 levels, and the level timers are gone. I would think that these various factors would create an easier game, but I didn't get far enough into it to verify. Half a dozen hours on the first game was enough.
On the one hand, they actually drew a separate graphic for each enemy in this one. On the other hand, that's supposed to be a troll?
As I mentioned above, if you had a TI-99 in the era, and you liked RPGs, you probably cherished Wizard's Lair. Such was the case with frequent CRPG Addict commenter Adamantyr--perhaps the only reader I have who's commented at least once per year of this blog's existence. A vintage computer programmer, Adamantyr remembered Wizard's Lair fondly from his youth--the first game he bought with his own money, he says--and decided to make a fan sequel for the TI-99 in TI Extended BASIC. It's called Wizard's Doom.

An image on the title screen? Blasphemy!
Wizard's Doom is a decent game on its own, but it compares particularly well to its two predecessors. Adamantyr compensated for many of the titles' weaknesses while adding a lot more RPG features. Yet it is still clearly derived from Wizard's Lair. In other words, he successfully walks a fine line between paying homage to Rainbow Software and showing them up.

Character creation offers a choice between warrior, magic user, and adventurer classes. Wisdom is added to the attributes as an arbiter of magic power and trap disarming. Instead of just picking up individual spells, the character now has a spellbook to which spell scrolls can be inscribed. There are more items to find and equip--including potions, rings, gemstones, and both armor and shields--and an identification system. An expanded pack can hold 15 items instead of just 6.
An expanded equipment list and a better font are just two of many improvements in Wizard's Doom.
Pairs of keys cycle through available items and spells, and all commands execute immediately--no need for the ENTER key. He took the time to develop a unique monster portrait for each creature rather than just using the same troll-looking thing over and over, but he still made them tiny. Drawing is still quite slow--I'm not sure that was avoidable on the equipment--but since there are no level timers, you can happily play this one in "overdrive" with no ill effects. There are 6 levels to Wizard's Doom, and apparently you have to suss out a particular way to defeat the wizard.
My character is about to die at the claws of a tiny beast.
I haven't made it that far, but overall I suspect Wizard's Doom is easier than the other games--you can save, for instance. I made it to Level 3 on my first try and wasn't really playing hard-core even then. I'm determined to win it, but if you're still reading this text, then I wasn't able to do so in time for this entry to be published.
The map also looks nicer.
Adamantyr's dedication goes beyond creating a game in the same style. He also duplicated the manual right down to naming Rainbow Software as the developer and stamping its Brooklyn address on the back. He wrote a backstory--the wizard has now shown up in Maldred Castle--that could easily have been written by the original authors.

Because I rarely get to talk from this perspective, it's worth reading about the development process on Adamantyr's blog. If anyone is interested in trying the game, you can download it from the Atari Age forums. You'll need a TI-99 emulator with an Extended BASIC cartridge.

As for the original Wizard's Lair, you can't expect much from a GIMLET, not when it starts out with 0s in NPC interaction and economy and barely rises above 1 in areas like the game world, character creation and development, combat, and graphics and interface. It totaled at 13. I gave it 2s in equipment and quests and was generous with a 4 in "gameplay." That last category--which encompasses things like linearity, replayability, length, and difficulty--really comes down to self-awareness. Does the developer understand what kind of game he's created, and does he tailor the scope, length, and difficulty accordingly? Does it deliver what it promises? How is the ratio between breadth and depth? Wizard's Lair, for all its faults as a traditional RPG, at least knows what it's about and provided one session's worth of challenging gameplay.


  1. That's really nifty, getting to play three games in one sequence, one of them an intelligently done fan remake. Kudos to Adamantyr for the hard work and thoughtful improvements. It can be a lonely and difficult process putting something like that together, and it looks like you did it well.

    Chet, you seem to find ways of making even the most throwaway of games come out interesting. That's one of many reasons why we keep coming back.

    1. Thanks. I didn't think I put a lot of effort into Tallyron, so I tried to make up for it here.

  2. Excellent write up! As a TI-99 enthusiast and CRPG lover, I am passionate about the newest game, Wizard's Doom. Exceptionally well done and a true tribute to the history and past of our beloved computer.

  3. That's quite a coincidence, since I was watching yesterday "Halt and Catch Fire", and saw the scene where Texas Instruments decided to ditch TI-99.

    I didn't even knew that Texas Instruments had made a computer!

  4. Why would any adventurer be collecting lead as a treasure?

    1. Hoping to find a philosopher's stone later on?

    2. It's not worth much. I think it's deliberately supposed to be a "junk" treasure. You get all excited to see the chest and then get deflated when it's a couple of gold pieces' worth of lead.

    3. Somewhere on the Internet I read about a knight in the 14th century who commissioned a blacksmith to forge him a mace made of lead for a tournament. Apparently the incredible mass of the weapon offset its disadvantages and it took him pretty far, though I don't remember if he won. I do recall the nameless medieval chronicler noting that the knight aimed exclusively for his opponents' head, "smiting them left and right".

    4. I'm not sure about knights but I'm pretty darn sure that he only need to smite me ONCE to do me in, let alone bopping left and right.

  5. This is a nitpick, but the Commodore 64 port of Starflight didn't come out until 1989 or so. Those of us without PC clones could only salivate over it until then.

    1. Duly noted. Doesn't blunt the overall point, though.

  6. Do you happen to use any software programs for screenshots? I ask because I happen to use a freeware one called fraps;in particular, I set it up to take automatic screenshots at whatever interval I think is useful (usually ever 300 or 500 seconds). Clearly less specific than manual screenshots (though it can let you do that too), but I've found it handy to create a "scrapbook" of my progress in a game, at times when I didn't want to get bogged down with doing it myself.

    1. DOSBox has its own screenshot key combination, Steam has a configurable one. I'm sure whatever emulators he uses also can take screen captures. FRAPS will be useful when he hits the 95/98 era, if he can get an older copy somehow.

    2. I basically use the internal DOSBox capture for DOS games and the Windows Snipping Tool for others. I prefer the Snipping Tool to the internal capturing options in most programs because it always takes a PNG and I can define the borders. The internal tool for WinUAE takes bitmaps, for instance, and always has a huge border around them. I don't want to have to spend a lot of time editing my images.

      Auto-logging screenshots would be an interesting approach. Thusfar, I haven't encountered many scenarios in which I feel like I missed the important shot, but it wouldn't hurt to take more. People from my generation often find it hard to shake the scarcity mentality when it comes to storage space.

  7. Back in the early 1980s I had an Atari 800 XL. It played some BASIC games. Many games were made originally for the 800 and to use them in the XL you needed a translation disc. You would put it into the disc drive first and then the game. "M.U.L.E", "Legionarie", and "Journey to the Planets" were like that.

  8. Wow a TI99 review! I had a 99/4a in junior high because we couldn't afford an Apple //e. I remember playing a different dungeon crawler called Tunnels of Doom. The neat dynamic of this game was that you had a party of 4 characters. I'd play this game cooperatively with friends. My friend would control 2 characters and I would control the other 2 by sharing the keyboard and taking turns. A lot of great memories playing this game. Alas, I sold the TI99/4a in 1984 and bought a gently used Apple ][+ but at least I got the Apple in time to play Ultima IV when it came out! Longtime fan of the blog. Cheers!

    1. Tunnels of Doom was my first CRPG! Even before we discovered Wizardry. I'd say Tunnels is a better game than this one easily.

      I'm somewhat surprised that the TI was still seeing new software releases in 1986. I think they were pulled after Christmas 1983 due to the price wars with the VIC-20. By 1986 we had moved on to our Tandy 1000. Lots of Starflight and the Ultimas for me after that.

    2. The TI community survived after 1983 on mail order catalogs. There were three of them until the end of the 80's: Texcomp, Tenex, and Triton. Triton was the catalog I ordered Wizard's Lair from. There was also a monthly magazine, MICROpendium, that was printed on newsprint and went into the mid 90's.

      This meant there was an outlet, albeit a small one, for software enthusiasts to publish their work for the TI and still reach an audience.

    3. I missed that... interesting times. I've not had much time for eumulators over the past couple of decades, but I did get one running around 2006 and spent a while playing Tunnels for a while!

  9. After the Age of Fate, during which civilisations rose and fell, it is somewhat satisfying to see you zipping through some quick one-and-done games. :-)

    1. Alas, that streak seems destined to end after Les Templiers d'Orven.

  10. This is very interesting, but please turn off these "image enhancements" (is that "super eagle"?) as they distort the picture, making it different from the original output of the machine. Thanks!

    1. Classic99 has a "TV mode" which does a pretty decent rendition of the original NTSC graphics.

      It's still a bit TOO clean though. :) I'm surprised my eyesight managed to survive that era, the color and signal strength were so variant.

    2. You overestimate my interest in preserving the integrity of the original image versus my preference in playing it today. It's a moot issue, in any event, as there are no more TI-99 RPGs.

    3. Just Legends and Living Tomb. I wasn't suggesting you change the graphics mode, just that it has options. Believe me, I wish the original had looked sharper and clearer.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Aww! That "troll" looks like an adorable sad ant.

  12. Those tiny demons and ogres are so kawaii!

    1. "Dawww! Look at that titchy little demon. Ow. Quit it. Ooww... That hurts! Bad demon! Gahhh! Aiiieeee! Run away!"

  13. Drat, I guess I did take a whole year of commenting on your blog didn't I?

    1. No, you didn't take a year off. I didn't think you showed up until 2011, but it turns out that you made your first comment on 12/23/2010, so I was wrong. My apologies. I dissed Helm and probably several others with that aside, too.

    2. Ok, I thought I'd missed most of my second year of grad school as I started playing games and reading longform essays instead of blogs about CRPGs. ;)

    3. Also: That makes sense. I thought I'd started later as well, when I was in Vancouver the first time. That date would be on Christmas break the year before, which would line up to when I finished off watching all the Chrontendo episodes available at the time, and went looking for similar series via the links of his blog, of which yours was the best. I'm not sure I became a regular reader right away, I mostly started doing that when I was in Vancouver summer of 2011.


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