Apple II Adventures Fell in a Hole with Grues, is Now Back

2012 September 22
by JJ Sonick

So it’s been a long time since I updated, but even worse, this entire site has been down for almost three weeks. This is because of the implosion of its host, Nexpoint, which had been a reasonably dependable host for my sites for almost 10 years, but which this year changed to new and apparently calamitous management. Other people experienced serious problems with Nexpoint-hosted sites earlier this year, as evidenced on this webhost talk thread, but the rot didn’t spread to me til early this month, when nexpoint’s own site disappeared completely, and everyone’s hosted sites went dark. You can read what all of us Nexpoint-hosted folk went through on that thread.

We also discovered that if you had registered our domain with nexpoint, nexpoint had listed their info as the owner, and one of their tech people’s email address as the contact point. This meant it was impossible to transfer a domain you owned, because a confirmation email needed to be sent to and replied from the email address listed as the domain’s contact point. So our domains were basically held hostage while nexpoint maintained radio silence. I was finally able to get someone at nexpoint to change the contact info to mine, and thus was able to transfer the domain to my new host, Inmotion. But the server hosting all my site files is still not back on-line, 3 weeks in.

I did have my own recent backups of the site html, wordpress themes, etc for all my sites. Unfortunately, my backup exports of the wordpress databases were much older, ending mid 2009. Thank goodness Feedburner had a cache of the RSS feed, so I was able to manually re-add the missing posts one-by-one from the HTML feed. But all comments post mid-2009 are gone, which is a big bummer. :/

Anyway, the disaster is now over, please re-subscribe if I got kicked off for server not found messages, etc., and know I will be much more scrupulous with wordpress database backups from now on!

In Apple II-specific news, I definitely gave up on Star Saga, it was too taxing to play it solo the “real” way, switching between physical map, books and computer constantly – I’ll use the PC Game Kit (map + booklet entries) program when I try its massive Choose-Your-Own-Adventure narrative again.  In programming news, I’ve been happily messing around with Macrosoft, essentially a large collections of macros for Mindcraft’s Assembler that allows you to write assembly programs with almost BASIC-like ease, as well as investigating Beagle Graphics (again), Cat Graphics and St. John Morrison’s Saturday Morning Animation System for game engine integration.  I’ll share details on that stuff soon.

Star Saga: One, fourth session – Stop Shooting at Me!

2011 August 2
by JJ Sonick

Well, this weekend didn’t provide the marathon let’s-try-to-finish-this-thing session I’d planned, but I made a bit of progress nonetheless, and was violently attacked by aliens for my efforts.

First, while traveling to another one of Vanessa’s mystery planets on the map, I received a radio transmission from a creature on Girande who requested a Gradient Filter, which apparently can be found on the planet Gnarsh (although a Gradient Filter sounds like it should come from the planet of Adobe CS5000).

Next, that particular dot on the map turned out to be Firthe, a all-water world inhabited by an advanced amphibious race possessing a complex array of flailing appendages covering their bodies. I chose to visit one of their chemical laboratories — their knowledge of chemistry far outranks that of humans — and learned I can purchase a Particle Catalyst from them, for an particular assortment of goods I of course did not have on me.

Better Living Through Engineering

Sticking around a bit longer, I learned these Firthians have been evolving themselves through genetic engineering. Thousands upon thousands of years ago they were attacked by an alien race (perhaps the same one which made that warship Vanessa Chang rode on), and defending themselves led to their breakthrough advances in chemistry and biology. Eventually they adapted their bodies to withstand not only the deepest depths of their oceans but being out of the water as well. They plan to eventually perfect this to be able to live naturally in the void of space (they’ve avoided space travel so far, from fear of encountering the war-like aliens again). They could build a Super Space Suit for me that incorporates their advances into a human-adapted withstand-any-environment piece of high-tech fashion. So I have yet *another* built-it recipe for which I don’t have all the necessary components yet.

Next I traveled to another mystery dot, discovering the aforementioned Gnarsh. Gnarshians possess a melodious language (with many local variations) and a strong urge to kill Gnarshians of other clans (a centuries-long war is ravishing the planet). My ship computer suggested they would not be hostile to alien visitors however, so we attempted a landing (that decision is rail-roaded by the text, by the way.) I was promptly attacked by a Gnarshian ship!

I failed in both attack and defense. Fortunately, I was able to turn tail after the attack and the game represented the damage by having me waste turns repairing the ship, instead of by loss of cargo or life. Obviously, I’ll need some ship upgrades before I can visit Gnarsh properly (and find that Gradient Thingy).

Was It Something I Said?

Next I discovered Storage Station 7. Another unfriendly welcome! The asteroid-sized space station immediately started blasting at me. Once again, neither my ship’s attack nor defense was up to the battle. Also once again, damage is reckoned by phases burned up repairing the ship. Yet another subtle hint my wimpy ship needs better firepower.

That’s enough of being shot at for now. I can see that playing multiplayer would be big help with these construct-a-special-item recipes. I’m piling up recipes, but getting the right goods through wheeling-dealing at planetary marketplaces hasn’t really been possible because at I usually didn’t have the right good(s) to do a profitable exchange. I guess I’ll have to do some backtracking to previous marketplaces, but it’d be much nicer to meet up with a fellow player to do some goods exchanging.

I did peek at Dan’s map that has all the planets named, and I’m close to Cordethar, so next session should see me visiting that apparently plot-important place…

Star Saga: One, third session – Monkeys in flying cars

2011 July 20
by JJ Sonick

I’ve been neglecting Star Saga’s tale (and this blog) for *months* now, I know, I know. Setting aside a big block of time yesterday to finally return to it, I gave myself an unnecessary shock. Forgetting how the Star Saga Kit I made worked, I started it up and was instantly befuddled. All my planet name notes were gone! F12 (toggling the names on and off) did nothing. I tried several different save files and the autosave. Finally I decided it was a sign to move on. Because I have to admit, it wasn’t just other projects and the busyness of real life that has kept me from playing again — it was also the sheer work the game requires of constantly shifting between the Apple II monitor, the Game Kit map (on my PC laptop), and flipping through the 13 text booklets. I actually wrote a blog post about that issue, and warning of this anomalous bug (even though other users of the Kit have no reported), and then…

…I remembered that my notes were on the expanded version of the map, which you get to by pressing PageUp. Doh! The dangers of returning to a project after six months…

No Cthulhu Helmet for me

So now that I was back into text-booklet-flippin’ business (yes, it would be easier to use the DOS version + the Kit + the HTLM version of the passages, which would keep everything on 1 computer, but this is the Apple II blog, for frak’s sake). I reloaded my game and headed for Baphi, because I now had Mind Shield and figured I could take on the full vision that helmet in the abandoned colony could give (I was warned last time that its imparted knowledge would probably drive a human mad). Unfortunately once I got there, investigating the abandoned colony was no longer an option – it was a one-shot deal apparently. I was also unable to visit the nearby planet at 389-R, told I would need a Tri-Axis Drive Booster to venture that close to the edge of the galaxy. I’m guessing this Booster is another object you have to find a construction recipe for and assemble out of various items using a special action code.

I then travelled to/discovered Hemindore, whose sentient monkey inhabitants live in tree-villages AND drive flying cars (they have their scientific priorities straight). I learned some of their history, and gained some Phase Steel from investigating a underwater city ruin of theirs. Next on the discovery train was Fiara, yet another Darscian colony, this time on a planet with extreme gravity (Hal Clement is calling), which spurred them to invent their anti-grav tech. I also learned that explorer Vanessa Chang (whose map-data I’ve been using to head to all these ‘unknown planet’ locations):

a) Crash landed on Fiara in a ship seemingly and ominously built by large, war-like race
b) Headed for the planet Cordethar when she left Fiara
c) Buried a perished crew-member on Koursh

Regarding the last bit of Vanessa news, the game encourages me to be a grave-robber: if I’m ever on Koursh and find the burial place of Chang’s crew-member, I can enter the special action code B8YH9A to dig him/her/it up.

Quit Exploring So Much!

I headed to the next nearest un-named planet dot on the galactic map, and discovered Gen, suffering ominous vision-y nightmares on the way. Interestingly, as I mucked about on Gen, the game had me read a passage that reminded me I should go to the planet Cordethar. The game phrased it as “you are realizing you are forgetting something…” Hello, game, I don’t know where Cordethar is yet, discovering shit is the only way I’m going to make progress. I hope this is a nudge to keep players somewhat on track of the main plot, and not an indication of an actual time limit. I believe Star Saga: Two has some actual turn limit for completing the game, but I couldn’t find mention of any such thing in the Star Saga: One manual. Nevertheless, I may take a peek at the map Ben linked to it in a comment on the previous post, which has all the planets named, just to make sure I’m not too far way from Cordethar. Anyway, it’s interesting that the game has some kind of feedback for being on track of the major plot.

Beat the Teddy Bear, Join the Club

So there’s a spooky, cowled, medieval-ish order of mysterious monk/cult figures called the Brethren on Gen……and I’m gonna be one of them! Unfortunately, you need to know the correct answer to a certain question when you visit their temple. This is another case of computer-only interaction with the game, where you enter your answer directly via typing. I thought maybe “dream” or “dreams” might be it, since visions seem to be part of the uber-plot. I was wrong:

How does one know the way to truth

The examiner kicked me out after this.

Another element of Gen culture is ‘trundling’ which apparently boils down to treasure-hunting in a cave. I’m given the option to try this out in an ‘already cleaned-out’ Titanic Cave (suitable to noobs, natch). When I tried this, I encountered and must battle a giant Teddy Bear. Yes, a Teddy Bear.

Teddy Bear Battle

Fortunately, with my Exploder, Inertia Control Belt, and Mental Shield, I kicked his fuzzy ass (and learn that Mental Shield is a combat item – again I should checked for this on the Status Screen!). Defeated, he went away, pouting. He was guarding a message scrawled on the cave wall: “Tell the Brethren: ‘I do not know the answer.’”

OK, that’s helpful, but this is the first passage that has felt throwaway, and like the clumsy, surreal illogic of the sloppier of the era’s adventures and RPGs. Why would this helpful info be scrawled on a cave that’s been Trundled recently? And why guarded by a giant Teddy Bear? I’d be less judgemental if they’d played it for laughs or *something*.

Enlightenment through Audrey II

I returned to the temple, gave the answer, and was preliminarily accepted into the order! If I successfully “undergo an ordeal” I can truly enter the Brotherhood. Role-playing wise, Laran might balk at joining these people, even given his already being branded a heretic. But I said, “full anathema ahoy!” and accepted undergoing the ordeal.

I was left alone in a desert, told something about ‘facing my fears.’ When I took off my blindfold, I faced a huge, venus-fly-trap like plant. I was given several computer-only choices of action, one of which is climb inside the carnivorous-seeming plant. I did this, which turned out to be the right choice, as the plant protected me from the heat by gulping and not digesting me. The brothers returned, and I was further initiated into the Brethren. The whole sequence as pretty cool, and made up for the non-sequitur Teddy Bear.

OK, I’m out-of-town and away from the Apple II for the rest of the week, but I’m hoping when I return to finish up Star Saga: One.

Star Saga: One, second session – Curse You, Space Mutt

2011 February 11

Well, trying to play two characters at once was a mistake. The game’s cumbersome enough with switching between the computer Game Master, the game board, and the many booklets – also switching between characters was too much. So I dropped Professor Lee Dambroke, the xenobiologist whose goal was to “bring back undeniable proof of three alien abilities that seem like ‘magic’ to your colleagues.” Sorry, Prof.

Playing just Laran Darkwatch, I fell into a much more enjoyable groove with the game. Darkstar is a heretic “Reverend High Councilor of the Final Church of Man”. His heresy comes from believing, based on years of study, that the central religious text of his order, The Holy Text Files, is incomplete. His secret goal is to find the lost Seventh Holy Text File, somewhere beyond the Boundary (the Final Church also believes travel beyond the Boundary is sacrilege, so Darkwatch is *doubly* a heretic).

Before we start Darkwatch’s journey, I’d like to point out the great black-and-white illustrations by Will McLean that are sprinkled thoughout the instruction manual and portions of the booklets:

Take that!

Take that!

Also, I think I suggested in my last entry I suggested you type in the codes of your desired actions, but standard actions on a planet are listed in a menu you choose from, like this:

Take Your Pick

Choices, choices

Notice the “*) To enter an unlisted action” option — that’s where you’d actually type in an otherwise unknown action code. I’ll have more on that game mechanic later.

Darkwatch on the Move

So, the first five turns of the game are plotted out for you in the booklet entries, teaching you how to interact with the Game Master (henceforth the CGM) work. This had me traveling to the planet Medsun, where the natives have emotional telepathy. They don’t understand some forms of human thinking like mathematics, but they have a black magic-like power called Phrmm. I wanted to explore that further, but the first-turns walkthrough had me leave Medsun for Wellmet, where there’s a set-piece of all the players meeting in the same tavern (whether they’re played by humans or not), where a mysterious figure gives them star maps. These star maps expand the game board (you switch to the other, larger map) and show the locations of previously unknown planets (just their locations, they are unnamed). At this point, you are free to travel at will.

My character booklet suggested I check out Cathedral, a world connected to the finding of the Holy Text Files, so I set off there. Looking for clues in a promising-looking ruin, I was attacked by a hungry dog (kind of prosaic for a space adventure, eh?). I was able to scare the dog away with an Exploder weapon I bought at Wellmet, but he managed to seriously maul me first, I had to rest and heal for several turns. I then (doggedly?) went back to the ruins again, figuring the dog had had enough, but no! Once again I was viciously mauled before the Exploder scared the mutt away. The combat results each of these times showed my attack succeeding but my defense failing, so obviously I needed to upgrade my melee defense. There’s a force field for sale on Wellmet for just such a need, but to purchase it I needed some trade goods I didn’t have yet. I’d have to travel around and do more trading in order to get the goods that’d allow me to get the item that’d allow me to slip past the mutt.

Market goods

Market goods

I travelled to one of the suggestive ‘unknown planet’ dots on the expanded map and discovered the planet Jaquer. It was actually an asteroid belt instead of a planet, inhabited by a race called the Darscians. After spending some turns to learn their language, I found out their history. They were visited by the technologically superior ‘Mentor’ race, who genetically engineered the Darscians to be non-violent, and gave them the tech of space flight. I also learned the names, but alas not the locales, of the other Darscian planets and what goods they sell. It looks like I could get all the goods I need to buy the force field from Darscian worlds, if I can find the goods the Darscians want to trade for. I spent some additional turns studying Darscian tech and gained an item – an Inertia Control Belt – for my troubles, but wasn’t sure what the Belt was for. Additionally, I learned I could buy a ‘cargo drone ship’ that would allow me trade with any Darscian world no matter where my ship was – that could end up being very handy, but I couldn’t afford it yet.

Next I discovered the planet Withel, whose inhabitants have a class divide between those who are poor and those who can afford to have machine parts integrated with their bodies, all cyborg-like, by the planet-bound Constructor machine. There’s also a social stigma for not being able to have your shiny bits maintenanced yearly by the Constructor. Social worship of this planet-bound machine (I guess they haven’t figured out a way to move it?) has keep the Withelians from being a space-faring race. The Constructor was gifted to them by a superior alien race. Could this be the same advanced race that helped out the Darscians? My sci-fi trope sense says yes.

Gameplay Among the Text Passages

Additional time spent on Withel won me plans for a human-usable Universal Translator (I otherwise have to burn some turns learning the language of each new race I encounter). The plans are basically a recipe of what goods/items I would need, and a special action code to enter when I actually want to build it, once I have the needed components. This introduces the gameplay element of hidden info — unlisted actions you have to enter manually.

My time on Withel and Jaquer brings up another gameplay point. I’m usually exploring all options on each planet, but if I were playing multiplayer, I assume there would be a bit of time pressure from wanting to complete your quest before the others — and that this would keep me from dawdling at each planet when I really need to find an advantageous trade market (which I haven’t yet).

Exercise Does a Body Good

Next I discovered Baphi, a world on which some abandoned industrial waste, I mean, helpful leaking chemicals allowed me to scoop up some Fluid trade goods for free. I also discovered another recipe for a special item — a Ship Shield Generator, which would protect my lowly craft the way the Force Field could protect my lowly body. Unfortunately, its list of required components was quite long, so it’ll be a while before I can construct it.

Investigating the wreckage of an old colony, I bumbled into and activated an alien exercise machine that pummeled me a tad but also gave me Superhuman Speed – this is the first Ability I’ve earned in the game, a small bit of RPG-like character development showing up. I wondered if this would help me in combat against the dog, and checking my Status Display with “Show Combat Category Information” on (something I hadn’t done yet), found my newfound Speed Ability *and* my Intertia Control Built listed as giving a Mobility bonus to Hand-to-Hand combat:

You're in for it now, dawg.

You're in for it now, dog.

I was excited to try out my leveled-up self on Cathedral, but there was more thing to investigate on Baphi, a mysterious space helmet in the wreckage. Putting it on gave me a strange but incomplete vision as I initiated consciousness-melding with the planet (!). It was exhausting, but I was told I could try again, in order to see more of the vision, at risk of my mental health. This was the first time I was offered a choice directly by the program only, instead of by booklet and program:

Helmet Choice

Hm, this seems a Lovecraftian kind of bargain…

I decided to forgo the extra knowledge and keep my fragile sanity, and return to the helmet later if I could.

Yo Ho Ho

On the way back to Cathedral to see if I’d have better luck vs. that jerk dog, I was stopped by Silverbeard the Pirate who politely demanded I give up 3 trade goods or be attacked! Seeing as I hadn’t bought any ship weapons nor built by Ship Shield, I guessed it was better to give into the bastard’s demands at this point.

3 trade goods lighter, I landed on Cathedral and headed back to the ruins. The dog attacked again, and this time I succeeded – the Inertia Control Belt alone giving me the Mobility I needed to successfully defend as well as attack. Sadly, the ruin’s bounty was totally anti-climatic – plaques that told the history of the Final Church of Man which I, as Laran, already knew (from my Character Booklet). I’m guessing this is a quest that’s more useful to the other player-characters, but I still feel like there’s something I missed on Cathedral. I decided to hit one more planet for this session.

Hey, Don’t Touch That

This planet was called Ascension, and its pastoral, insectoid inhabitants are OCD about keeping maintaining its integrity, they “clean up” after any action I take that disturbs things in anyway. I learned that an advanced ‘Other’ race visited the Ascendants (yesss, I’m seeing a pattern here), giving them a Tech Nullifier to save them from self-extinction (competing Ascendant factions were locked in a deadly tech-race). I was given my third construct-an-item recipe, for my very own Tech Nullifier (sounds fun to use!), once again with components out of my current reach.

Studying further with them, I gained a Mental Shield Skill! That sure sounds like something that could allow to me wear the Baphi helmet without turning into a drooling loon. Something to investigate for the next session.

Is it a Game?

CRPGAddict, on his excellent blog, has an entry on the PC version of Star Saga: One (which I believe is identical to the Apple version outside of the platform it runs on). He found the world intriguing and loved the goofy but well-done prose in the booklets, but ultimately decided not to play it saying, “great stuff, but it’s a book. I play CRPGs.”

I’d agree that if falls outside all but the widest definition of a CRPG — it’s much more of an adventure game. As for being a book instead of a game, there’s something to that — you probably could reproduce the whole thing in a book-only format, making the reader keep track of what the CGM does, using otherwise never-mentioned page numbers for ‘hidden actions’ and other tactics used by 80′s books that combined the choose-your-own-adventure format with basic RPG elements, like the Lone Wolf or Sorcery! books.

But it would certainly be even more cumbersome than its existing format, and I think there’s some elements of Star Saga that make it more game-like anyway. Being able to go anywhere you want on the map in any order allows a greater freedom of action available to you than in, as far as I know, any of those CYOA-RPG hybrids. There’s also some true gameplay involved in the juggling of priorities, mostly emerging from deciding how to pursue trade — do I pursue goods for weapons? Or pursue goods to allow me to build the Translator? etc. When I encountered the angry dog obstacle, that sent me on a mini-quest for goods (so I could buy a defense item), but I ended up gaining a different defense item *and* an ability that helped me overcome that obstacle. The combat results suggested that the Inertia Belt alone was enough to help me defend against the dog, so it looks any of the three — Force Shield, Belt or Speed Ability — would have helped me — that’s a good sign of a flexible design allowing multiple solutions. The gaining of an Ability (like a skill) gave a little dash of RPG-ish character development (leveling up) as well. There’s also hidden, use-when-ready actions like the building of special items. And, as mentioned, against multiple players I suspect there would be even more gameplay decisions of how best to spend your time (fully explore a planet for a possible bonus item/ability, or hurry to a new planet that might have goods you most need).

In all, it is *largely* a computerized CYOA, but with enough dashes of gameplay mixed in to push it into being more than that — an actual adventure game, with some light resource management/trading elements. Now, if only the angry, hungry space mutts were guarding valuable things…

Introducing Star Saga: One

2011 January 25

Star Saga: One’s box proudly proclaims, “There’s not another game like it on earth.” For once, a hyperbolic-seeming catchphrase might be absolutely true. Published for the Apple II in 1988, the game combines a board game, a mammoth choose-your-own-adventure book and a computer referee to serve up a truly unique science-fiction role-playing-gaming experience. And it can be played multiplayer (1-6 players) to boot.

Here’s the box contents unpacked:

Players use the colored tokens to track their travels across the boardgame-like map:

Moves on this map and plotted via the Star Saga computer program (called the Computer Game Master), which also keeps track of the players’ stats, inventory, and handles combat and trade. After you’ve entered in your movement for the turn, the program evaluates your actions, tells you if you reached your destination, and likely gives you a paragraph number or two to look up in the Text Booklets. Now, a computer game telling you to look up paragraphs of prose in a physical booklet was not unknown in this era – text ate up precious amounts of disk space and RAM, so this was one way to deal with that. The famous 8-bit post-apocalypse CRPG Wasteland had text paragraphs to look up in its printed manual, as did the fantasy CRPG Dragon Wars and the earlier example Temple of Apashi. But in those games you were taking occassional breaks to look up some descriptive text or a cut-scene type of event. Star Saga, on the other hand, has you reading paragraphs as a core game mechanic – it’s the way the entire game world and story is revealed. Some paragraphs end with several possible actions you can take – each choice with a code next to it — that’s the choose-your-own-adventure-book similarity. Instead of “If you approach the spam asteroid, turn to page 167″, it’s “(GXYBVT) (2 phases) Approach the spam asteroid.” You enter in the code for your choice during your next turn, and the program responds with info or another paragraph number.

There are thirteen of these text booklets (labeled Book A – M), each around 60-70 pages long:

One hopes this allows a truly epic story to be told, but it certainly makes playing cumbersome, especially if you don’t have a good place for the map near your computer. In the early 2000′ s I made a “Star Saga Game Kit” for the original Home of the Underdogs site. Made using the 2000 version of Clickteam’s The Game Factory program, it has a scan of the map you scroll around, allows you to drag and drop the player pieces, write notes, and save the current state of the map (so theoretically, you could trade the save file back and forth with someone via email for long-distance multiplayer). It was going to include all the paragraphs (which the owner of Home of the Underdogs, Sarinee Achavanuntakul, had laboriously scanned) as well, but stuffing all those scans into one program turned out to be too much for the little Games Factory program, which become sad and buggy under all that textual weight. Fortunately, Ranger55, another contributor to the Home of the Underdogs site, took the paragraph scans and made them into a stack of HTML files, accessible by a Finder page where you just enter the desired paragraph number.

Amazingly, the Star Saga Game Kit still works in Windows Vista. I’ll have my Windows laptop running the Kit right by the Apple IIe running the Star Saga Game Master — I will actually flip through the text booklets, though. You can download the Kit at this clone of HOTU (the original site is sadly defunct) – you will also likely need to put this dll in same directory that holds the Kit.

(The irony of my preservation work for this game is that I’ve never gotten round to playing more than a few turns – thanks to this blog, I’m making time to give a true try.)

The Scenario

The year is 2815 AD. People have been zipping about the stars and colonizing strage new worlds since the invention of the hyperdrive in 2257. All this space exploration ground to a halt in 2490, however, the year of the Space Plague. Of alien origin, brought back by some unknown explorer, the Space Plague and wiped out half of humankind. A scared humanity constructed the Boundary, a border protecting the Nine Worlds inhabited by humans. A person can leave the Boundary if they wish, but they will not be allowed back in (so says the Space Patrol).

You play one of six characters who want to cross the Boundary, each for a different reason.

Let’s Go a-Saga-ing

The game manual encourages you to jump right in, providing some quick steps for setting up the map and Computer Game Master (CGM for short – I’ll use that from now on), and then pointing you towards the individual character booklets, each of which has a step-by-step tutorial for playing your first turn.

Player interaction in the game is somewhat limited – if two or more players are in the same trisector, they can choose to have Meeting in they can exchange items and/or trade goods, moderated by the CGM. That’s it, direct gameplay-wise. But the manual encourages a meta-game level of deciding what info players want to share with each other. When a new planet is found, all players must be told its location, but other than that, anything a player has learned can be kept secret or shared at the player’s discretion.

Hidden info comes into play immediately, as once you choose a character, you read the individual’s Character Booklet that other players are not meant to see. This gives the player’s background and their secret goal in the wilds beyond the Boundary.

Now I’m playing solo, but I also want to see how the game differs for two different characters, so if I come across a conflict of info (character B has found out something advantegous for character A that character A shouldn’t know about), I’ll just have to role-play it or randomize some otherwise loaded choices.

OK, the next post will deal with the initial turns of the two characters I’ve chosen, heretic Laran Darkwatch and xenobiologist Professor Lee Dambroke…

The Magic Candle, Part 2 – Dwarves Have No Welcome Mats

2011 January 25
by JJ Sonick

I realized I neglected to mention the game’s main quest/whole rationale in my first Magic Candle post. Here’s the gist of it. In the semi-distant past the Forces of Darkness’s favorite big badass, the archdemon Dreax, was poised to unleash some Sauron-like destruction on the world. Badass Dreax could not be killed, but he could be captured. A band of heroes died as demon-fodder to allow the mage Zirva close enough to Dreax to trap him within a candle’s flame. An ingenious use of magic, sure, but the candle was just an ordinary piddly candle, sure to burn away and release the demon again. So a giant candle was crafted in the fortress Berbezza, and Dreax was transferred to the Magic Candle’s flickering flame. A host of 44 Guardians of the Candle have the duty of chanting to keep the flame burning and thus keep grumpy Dreax trapped.

Well, as the game starts, the Guardians of the Candle have gone missing, the Candle has begun to burn down, and lesser minions of the Forces of Darkness gleefully mill about the land, expectant of Dreax’s return. You have to prevent this return. Interestingly, the game allows you to set the difficulty level by choosing how many days you have before the Candle burns down. By all accounts, this is a pretty long game to complete, so I chose the Easy setting – 999 days – because I can’t imagine anything more annoying than having invested 50 hours in a 8-bit game and then seeing ‘oops – the Candle burns down. Game over’ pop-up. Even in my youthful Apple II days of almost unlimited free time, I don’t know if I would have started a game over after an event like that. I’m not saying I will actually get that far in this game, but if I do, I don’t want to be chopped off at the knees by a time limit. I wonder if any CRPG masochists of the day actually chose the Tough setting of 600 days?

The game continues to be engaging. For one thing, the game encourages multiple approaches to making progress. In fact, the manual’s own ‘starting out’ advice points out the game’s non-linearity:

That gives you an idea of the options available even this early in the game. I have also been relying on additional staring guidance from Jason Spangler’s great Magic Candle page, as well as the Magic Candle entry in Shay Addams’ Quest for Clues III book (I have pledged to only look at the first of the five MC pages in that Quest for Clues book, unless I get *really* stuck at some point).

Points of interest:

  • Sleeping – this is handled in an interesting way. When a party sleeps in a hotel or makes camp in the overland map, you can choose what each character will do for that sleep period. Plain ol’ sleeping will restore energy, but you can keep some members awake to perform tasks. The most common of these is to have your mages memorize spells. Whenever a mage casts a spell, it first must be Recalled from the stack of pre-memorized spells. Learning spells is effectively stocking up on your spell-casting ammo. Another task is fixing weapons, as they wear down from combat use. Another possible duty is standing guard when you’re camping in the wild, because otherwise you may endure a surprise attack from wandering baddies. All this may sound annoying, but it actually makes what could be just perfunctory down-time instead a phase where you consider trade-offs – do you keep your mages up to learn more spells while everyone else sleeps? But they need to restore energy too. Do you have them pop some sermin mushrooms to make up for it then? You might need those ‘shrooms during combat. OK, let them sleep extra long — but that eats in to the game’s overall time limit, etc.

  • Extra keywords – I initially thought the only conversation keywords you could ask NPCs were the ones obviously highlighted by quote marks in conversation. But it turns out some of them do respond to logical but non-quoted keywords from other bits of conversation they give (like the name of an NPC or town they mentioned). It’s cool that there’s more keywords (making it a bit more Ultima IV-like) but it’s unfortunately not consistent – sometimes (more often actually) they won’t respond to obvious words from sentences they’ve just uttered. It really would have been better to have consistently highlighted keywords, so you wouldn’t waste time guessing.
  • Mountain passes – They are some parts of mountain passes that are not friendly to foot traffic:

But if you have a rope, you can Use it to make your own bridge:

And if instructed to Cross, your party shimmies across it Lode Runner style, which is charming.

  • Dwarves Have No Welcome Mats – I was crossing the above-mentioned mountains to get to the Dwarven town of Soldain. Once there, I discovered dwarves were not particularly open to visitors. When you knock on their doors, you have to declare exactly who you’re looking for or be rebuffed. Actually, this is much more realistic than the 8-bit era’s convention of being able to enter any NPC’s house wily-nily. Anyway, from prior NPC conversations I did have some names to try out, one of which led to this scholar opening his door:

    He taught me some dwarvish, which I thought would be treated as a behind-the-scenes skill I’d acquired, but instead involved several screens of dwarvish words and their meanings. More note-taking!

    It’s been hinted dwarvish messages needing translating will lie in some dungeons or mines.

  • Speaking of dungeons, I’ve visited two, the first being Dermagud. Its doors could only be opened by a chant (yes, all Tolkien/Moria like – and it’s a mine) taught to me by an NPC.

    Inside, you can see the game’s use of a true isometric view, as opposed to its usual top-down or side view:

    You can also see a bunch of slimes who ambushed my party. Things didn’t go too well:

    The cleric with the Resurrection spell was among the casualties, thus Lucas could not be resurrected, thus that was game over. I restored a save, rested more, made better tactical reactions in my re-match with the slimes, and was able to scramble off to the dungeon’s teleportation room before being attacked by anyone else. Teleportation rooms only work when you use the right 3-part sequence of spheres, cubes and/or pyramids – these all being items you can purchase from merchants wandering the overland roads.

    I teleported way over to the southeast corner of the continent, and was following Shay Addams’ advice of making a beeline for the Crystal Castle when all but 3 characters were slain on the way. This was less tragic that it might seem, as the Crystal Castle’s appeal is having some stronger characters you can swap into your party. I dismissed the remaining survivors and hired Addams’ suggestions. This new, tougher party was still not cut out for the general skill of the roaming badguys of that region, however, as I discovered when I tried to travel south to the city of Kharin. I could not make it, and returned to the Crystal Castle, which fortunately has its own dungeon with a teleportation room that takes you back to the area around the King’s Castle, where the party initially started out.

There’s a number of leads to follow. From various conversations, I’ve learned that the Zirvand — instructions on how to re-seal Dreax — has been placed in a stone vault that can only be opened by a star-shaped key. A white wolf that lives by the ‘wolf rock’ in Phaleng carries this key around its neck, and can by lured by the rare plant hoyam. The dwarves of Soldain have hoyam, but are only going to let me at that good stuff if I prove worthy of being a ‘dwarf-friend’, which looks like will involve recovering Thorin’s hammer, which some jerk Orcs have buried in one of the dungeons. I’ve also been told there’s a god sleeping in each dungeon, and ‘two above ground’, all of whom must be prayed to and eventually, apparently, awoken. (If I get to wake some gods, I hope the game doesn’t just portray that with a single ‘The god X is now awake’ line.) The first thing I’m going to do, however, is sail to Bondell where I can get Lukas’ charisma raised, so I can pump info out of the cads who still won’t talk to us.

I’m definitely interested in continuing The Magic Candle, despite some annoyances and some generic elements, there’s something compelling about it that makes me want to see more of its world. I do fear that combat could become tedious, as the variety of foes and especially the variety of spells available to you are less than Ultima IV, and it could end up being endless recombinations of the same-old. But I’m not at that point yet, and maybe the game has both foes and spells up its sleeve that aren’t detailed in the manual.

However, before going deeper into The Magic Candle, I’ll be taking a detour in the next several posts to cover a unique game that’s set in outer spaaaaaaace…

The Magic Candle – Party Swappin’ & Orc Stabbin’

2011 January 5
by JJ Sonick

The Magic Candle, published in 1989, was programmer Ali N. Atabek’s second computer role playing game creation. His first was Rings of Zilfin (1986), about which the consensus seems to be: nifty but somewhat slight compared the likes of the Ultima and Wizardry CRPGs of the era (let me know if you’ve played it and feel otherwise). The Magic Candle feels like Atabek’s attempt to make a sprawling game equal to the 8-bit Ultimas in size, complexity and perhaps even richness.

Things start off well with a charming title screen, of which I’ve made a YouTube video:

In the 8-bit era as today, a good title screen does not guarantee a good game, but I like it nonetheless. The Magic Candle is sometimes written off as an Ultima clone, and it does bear many resemblances to Ultima IV/V – it’s set in a high fantasy medieval world, the graphics are tiles shown in a top-down view, you have a multi-character party, you travel in large steps on an overland map of the world – then have more fine-grained movement when you enter a town or dungeon, combat is a turn-based tactical affair on a battlefield the size of a single screen, and there are *many* NPCs you need to talk to.

But it has unique elements as well. Like Wasteland (1988), you can split your usual 6-character party into multiple smaller parties, and switch between them for independent exploration (it’s pretty useful to split off your highest-charisma character to run around towns/castles alone talking to people — some NPCs won’t talk to you unless the current lead character’s charisma is above a certain level). But going even further than Wasteland, MC (I’ll use that abbreviation from now on) allows characters that have been split off to take up odds jobs or training while the rest of the party adventures about. When the party picks up that individual later, the re-joining character will bring hard-earned gold or a boosted skill or stat to the mix.

MC also does some clever things with its tile set. Not only are things seen in the Ultima-standard top-down view, but they are also used for crude isometric feels and some side views — you can see this in the following video, which shows my party bumbling around Port Avur, asking the librarian monk some questions (based on keyword clues given by previous NPCs), and also demonstrating party-splitting and leaving-a-character-to-do-training and leaving-a-character-to-do-wage-slavery.

Note: One can navigate the menus quicker than is seen here – my slowness was caused from bouncing between the Apple IIc and the laptop I was capturing the video on.

Another note, on the manual transferring of gold to an individual character seen in the video – you can also Pool or Divide items & gold, which is much handier than the way I did it above.

There are tons of NPCs to talk to in each locale, and almost all of them have something useful to say. This is a game requiring copious note-taking.

What I like about the game is that the lore is not just “in the manual” – all the NPC conversations do a good job of revealing world details within the game and spinning a pretty good web of things to pursue right from the get-go. Also, a la Ultima V, NPCs will appear at different places at different times of the day – a member of the King’s court asks you to meet him in his chambers at midnight to tell you a secret (no, not a naughty secret), bards and ship captains only appear in the tavern at night (this might just be a night/day switch, though, in which case I think it’s less complicated than Ultima V’s NPC schedules). What I don’t like about conversation is that after you choose one of the main conversational options (Advice, Rumors, or Other (Other is for entering specific keywords)), you are dumped out of the conversation, and if you want to try a different option you have to choose Ask and then the direction the NPC is in all over again to continue the conversation. Other aspects of the UI are relatively smooth for an 8-bit game, so it’s odd there’s no loop back to all the conversation options after you’ve chosen one – seems like it would have been very simple to implement.

Now an example video of combat. You’ll see how you’re first allowed to place your characters on one side of the battlefield screen, draw weapons, Recall spells (basically readying a spell you’ve memorized at a time of rest) and then Begin the fray when you’re set up. One of my magic users has an analyze-type spell already recalled, so you’ll see the casting of that pull up the stats of the stinky Orc enemies (and again when I accidentally re-cast it). You’ll also notice one of my magic users not having enough energy to cast a spell (energy is important for all characters – you must rest regularly or they become tired and pass out, refusing to move). To solve this he pops a Sermin mushroom to boost his energy back up (there’s also other mushrooms for combat bonuses, defense, etc). I think all the characters will be Sermin addicts before this game is through, energy is so central to gameplay.

You might also have noticed how when an attack misses, the defending character/enemy is actually shown dodging to a different location and then returning to their initial one, which is cute and an departure from Ultima IV – V combat. The game’s default speed for displaying these combat animations, however, reduced combat to a painfully slow 8-bit ballet that made me dispair of getting very far in the game. Fortunately the game allows you to change the combat result speed, and you’re seeing a much more reasonable pace in the above video.

Overall, Magic Candle seems worth digging into further at this point. I noticed when making these videos that Min has a higher charisma stat than Lukas, and I’d been using Lukas to talk to everyone. Time to make Min talk to those stuck-up townpeople and knights who wouldn’t talk to me yet!….

Henry Spragens’ Music, The Lost LOST Project

2010 December 4
by JJ Sonick

Wow, way too long since I last posted! I haven’t been neglecting my Apple II in all the time that’s past, though – there’s a number of Apple II shenanigans I have to report here and in upcoming posts.

First, thanks to Henry Spragens for leaving a comment on the Boxy’s Lament post, pointing to his site where he has samples of various fascinating 8-bit Apple II music experiments he did. Lots of pics/info on sound hardware of the time and a bunch of great music demos, be sure to check it out!

Second, I wanted to feature an abandoned Apple II project of mine. As has been noted in Apple II retro-dom, The TV series LOST featured an Apple II (with the Apple logo replaced by a Dharma one and, apparently, an Apple III monitor being used?) as the “Dharma Initiative computer” — most prominently in Season 2.

Between Season 5 & 6, I had an idea to make an actual Apple II program that would simulate connecting to the Dharma Initiative’s DharmaTel network. After connecting, the user would recieve a report, from the DI’s perspective, on the cataclysmic Incident that served as the climax of Season 5 and a focal plot point of much of the show. The user would type out various keywords (highlighted in all caps in the report) to navigate to various parts of the report. It would include images from the show, translated into Apple II hi-res screens via the jpeg-to-HGR-screen routine I posted about earlier, and use the Beagle Brother’s Pronto DOS to allow somewhat speedy loading of those images.

I made a VERY short demo of the idea, and embedded the disk image in an AppleIIGo java applet. Here’s a screenshot:

Dharmatel Report Demo screenshot

Dharmatel Report Demo screenshot

You can try it out by clicking the link below. Enter anything you want as the username. Caveats: Requires java to run in your browser, which your browser might block by default, and you may have to click on the applet’s screen to gain focus before typing. AND the applet seems to hang in Mac Chrome sometimes. Other browsers seem OK.

>> DharmaTel Report DEMO

(Really, I should have AppleIIGo set to monochrome monitor mode for more fidelity to the show’s computer.)

I was going to collaborate on the report entries with a friend of mine who was even more of an obsessed LOST fan, but I wanted to wait to see how Season 6 was going to treat the post-Incident world. Well, the way Season 6 unfolded made the Dharma Initiative’s view of the Incident not so very important anymore, at least to my eyes, and I lost enthusiasm for completing the project.

I still enjoy the image of Desmond messing with the Dharma Apple II with the lid off, though.

Another Apple II instrumental – Boxy’s Lament

2009 November 3
by JJ Sonick

New Apple II song for the Mozomedia Music Podcast. The drum loop is one of the default patterns available with the DX-1 Sound Sampler Card. The melody, such as it is, was me playing the Soundchaser keyboard which interfaces with the Mountain Computer MusicSystem cards to produce the dirty sound synthesis. Finally, I added some various bleeps and bloops recorded from messing around with the Sound Effect editor of Activision’s ‘Game Maker’ program (Game Maker’s sound editor is pretty fun to play with and has a decent UI – I recommend it!). Here’s the music:

Boxy’s Lament

- download

New Apple II song, Jpegs to HGR screens

2009 August 31
by JJ Sonick

So I did finally record a new piece of Apple II music, ‘The Green Sheen’, using DX-1 samples triggered in real time via the Soundchaser keyboard. Take a listen:

The Green Sheen

- download

It appeared on the latest Mozomedia Music podcast ep, and I hope to stick to the plan of one new bit of Apple II music with each new podcast. As well as recording The Green Sheen, I also finally got the various audio cables I properly needed for the audio cards sorted out, so now I can make good on my promise to share a stereo recording (the former one was mono) of the Ultima IV title music being played through the Apple II’s Mockingboard:

Ultima IV title music

- download

Getting the cables set up properly also means I now have a mic in for the DX-1 sampler, and can record my own samples! I did a little test run of this, recording 4 sounds into a new ‘sound bank’ and saving them to disk. Here you can hear me playing back the samples using the Soundchaser keyboard to trigger them again. The sounds I sampled are an ’oh’, a vocalized ‘boop’, a click noise, and a quack noise.

DX-1 custom sound samples test

- download

I hope to improve the sound quality with more careful, cleaner recordings of future samples, but overall I’m really impressed with DX-1. I’ll probably ending using it much more for music than the harsher synthesized sounds from the Mountain Systems cards (but I am still interested in experimenting with custom synthesized sounds one can create with the Soundchaser software).

On the graphics front, part of this usenet thread pointed out that a jpeg-to-Apple-II-HGR-screen routine written in Java is part of the Apple II Game Server package (I still need to try out the Game Server!), and I recently compiled that routine as a standalone .jar file (currently it just looks for the jpg in a hard-coded location – if I figure out enough java to add a file selector dialogue, etc., I’ll upload the improved jar to this site).

Here was the jpg I fed into it:

And here was the HGR result:

Not too bad – actually the photo makes some the artifacts not as noticeable, but even on the real screen’s still pretty nifty.

EDIT: I think I really lucked out with the pallete of that particular image – NONE of my subsequent tests with this converter turned out that nice.

I may end up converting more jpegs to HGR screens for a project inspired by this intersection of pop culture and the Apple II: