Retro-Computing

A hodgepodge of posts that are all about old computers and technology like Apple ][ and Atari and vintage gaming platforms.

Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire on MS-DOS (4/10)

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I was actually enjoying this game but, after twelve or so hours of play, I discovered that the GOG version is buggy to the point of being unbeatable. I reached a moment when I needed to find a Neanderthal chieftain only to discover that his sprite wouldn’t render on the map. Something was there and I could attack the empty space, but I was not allowed to trigger the necessary dialogue to complete my quest.

Savage Empire Waterfall
Once again using the Ultima VI engine with tilt-o-vision

Savage Empire uses the fantastic Ultima VI game engine. This, along with Martian Dreams, was the last group of Ultimas that still felt like the Apple ][ games. Unfortunately, the jungle setting does not lend itself to much topographical variety. Everything was the same two or three greens and I could never tell if I could walk through a tree or not. This becomes a source of endless frustration very quickly.

Love comes in many shapes and sizes.

The best part of the game are the various character headshots. These are visible during the many dialogue sequences that the game offers using its highlighted-word method of talking.

By this point in their history, the Ultima games were much more like large, open-world adventure games. Combat and character development are barely part of the game. My problems with this game are mostly with the bugs and the clunky mechanics. There is a great, original game here but it’s just to hard to get passed the technical flaws. This engine needs a video game “remastered” version.

Replacing the Battery on an Apple IIgs

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A pandemic ago I decided to heed the warnings on the Apple ][ Facebook group and remove the 30-year-old battery from my Apple IIgs computer. This is harder than it should be since Apple thought it was a good idea to permanently attach this ticking time bomb to the motherboard. My solution was to clip out the old battery and solder in a plastic battery holder instead. This is not that hard to do, but I am a complete klutz when it comes to soldering. Destroy the motherboard with a mountain of silvery metal was always a possible outcome. I documented the process and present it here. Originally I had intended to do a hilariously comic narration over the video but I eventually came to my senses. Enjoy the video, video enjoyers:

Crusader: No Regret on MS-DOS (7/10)

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The fake red Boba Fett is at it again in this sequel to Crusader: No Remorse and he just can’t stop murdering office workers! This is pretty much a straight up continuation of the first game with only a few improvements in controls and game play. Again, don’t bother with mouse controls and just force yourself to learn to use the keyboard with a heavy reliance on the shift and control keys to run and roll respectively. The best path to success is to shoot everything and take your time looking out for traps. Stealth, unfortunately, is not really an option.

There are still a bunch of bad FMV cutscenes but the story is irrelevant. One of the big improvements over the first game is the minimizing of the between mission base scenes. There still is a base to refresh your supplies, but you aren’t force to shop for items and talk to everybody.

The game looks great and plays pretty well once you get the controls, but this series is still begging for a modern remake.

Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny on Apple ][ (9/10)

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Ultima V is perhaps the pinnacle of gaming on the Apple ][ computer system. While I thought that Nox Archaist built on the basic mechanisms and presentation in a way that made this type of old school RPG more accessible to modern tastes (and is still a great game on top of that), Warriors of Destiny is unmatched in terms of scope, storytelling and core game play mechanics. Although the sprites are simple, the world of Britannia is filled with detail. This ranges from interactive world objects such as clocks, stockades, and harpsichords, to rich and evocative dialogue interactions. And even a set piece or two:

Blackthorne's torture chamber
Oops, you’re caught in Blackthorn’s torture chamber!

It has taken me quite some time to finish this game. I bought it on release some thirty-plus years ago and played it on my IIgs for hours upon hours. I never was able to beat the game though. I think I got about two-thirds the way through, having defeated the Shadowlords and only having that final quest to rescue Lord British remaining. Simple, just descend through an eight-level dungeon, make your way through a uncharted section of the underworld, avoid lava, make sure you have the correct item to pass the magical barrier, have that final word of power ready, descend through another eight levels of the game’s final dungeon, and did you remember to pick up that secret object which allows you to save Lord British because if not, too bad.

Ultima V battle screen in Doom
The final battle screen in the final dungeon.

Did I mention that this game is really hard? My teenaged self really had no idea how to play role-playing games with any skill. Level grinding and balancing a party were not concepts I understood very well. On top of these basic skills. The early Ultima games were brutal in the early phases of the game. Players needed to try not being killed by low-level monsters all while having to maintain a stock of food, spells, reagents, gold, torches, and gems. One wrong step or random trap and you are poisoned with only a couple dozen turns to find a cure before your HP dwindled to zero. You really had to have patience and take the time to build up your characters before attempting to finish the main quests.

This is rather difficult to do on actual hardware. I could have loaded the disk images on to my CFFA3000 and played on my IIgs but there is a ton of disk swapping in this game. Also, we had a Mockingboard sound card on our Apple ][+ but the card version we had was not compatible with the IIgs. We got rid of that card with the original Apple ][+. This always sucked because the music is one of the best parts of the Apple version. The Dos version (which I own via GOG.com) looks tons better but is missing these musical cues too.

Playing the game in AppleWin made everything much better. I had all the music, could speed up the game during my many grinding sessions, and I had the ability to save the state of the emulator at any time. I guess that last item is almost cheating as I often would save a state before resting and reload it if I got ambushed at night. But that is not as bad as the extent of my cheating back when I originally played the game and would sector edit my stats. Believe me, I was tempted to edit my food levels during this play-through but resisted (Track $03 Sector $04, bytes #80 & #81). Also, there’s a point after delving into your first major dungeon when gold and food are thankfully no longer an issue. I tried importing my original character disks into my PC, but the disks were corrupted after years sitting in my basement. I just started the game from scratch. I was in this for the long haul.

Buying rations in Yew
Buying overpriced rations in the early parts of the game.

The core of the Ultima games has always been its innovative dialogue system. By using a simple text parser and giving the player control of the exact topic being discussed you are able to return to characters you met previously and glean new information on new topics. These clues emerge as chains of conversations between many NPCs, forcing you to pay attention and immerse yourself in the story. This system would be perfected in Ultima VI a few years later. As with that game, detailed note taking is essential.

Characters and story are icing on the cake but Ultima V was the last of the games in the series to remain true to the combat-oriented design of the original. The tactical turn-based battles work very well considering how simple they are. Magic is useful but not the be all and end all as it is in the Infinity Engine games. A dummy like me can just chop and slice my way through fights. The skirmishes really take shape when you start venturing into the dungeons. We still have a wonderful first-person shift in the dungeons that is punctuated by various custom chambers which switch back to tile-based view. The rooms are filled with treasure and secret switches that made dungeon delving much more fun than I remembered.

Roaming the halls of an Ultima V dungeon
Roaming the halls of an Ultima V dungeon. Egads, a gazer!

My final assessment of the game is that it ranks up there as one of the best installments in the series. It surely is the best one on the Apple ][ series and would recommend to anyone wanting to play a game on that system to start here. The brutal difficulty and old-school quirks keep me from giving it a 10, but it’s well-worth the effort. And now here are some cool screenshots:

Nox Archaist on Apple ][ (8/10)

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Nox Archaist (no relation to Nox) has come up several times before on this site as it was a Kickstarter that I supported. As part of the project, they asked contributors to submit artworks for the game’s manual and several of my images were used in the finished book. You can see some of that art here and here and I will probably post more drawings in the future.

The game doesn’t just look like an old Apple ][ RPG, it is an actual Apple ][ game playable on real hardware. A custom version of the MicroM8 emulator is also included for playing the game on a PC or Mac. For the most part I used AppleWin as it is much easier to switch between system speeds.

Nox Archaist’s design is mostly inspired by Ultima (featuring an important cameo from Lord British), but makes several advancements in terms of interface and gameplay. This is especially evident in the inventory/stats management screens and the large, animation-filled tiled maps. The dialogs retain the excellent parser-based system with highlighted keywords alá Ultima VI. Note taking is still essential, but there is a simple quest log to keep you on track. Many NPC interactions feature lovely character portraits and there is a bit of Mockingboard music that plays as you enter new locales. It still feels like an Ultima game enough to make me almost forget just how tedious those old games were. I’m am thankful I didn’t have to avoid being poisoned every three seconds, manage stores of food, or endlessly mix spell reagents.

Even beyond the nostalgia, I enjoyed the game quite a bit. The combination of the dialogue system and the need for careful note taking helped me to immerse myself into the story and the world. I even kept a journal of my progress from session to session. Conversations and in-game books always lead to more exploration and more areas of the world opening up.

The other half of the game is combat and leveling up your party. This can get to be a little grind-y at time. You will find yourself being slaughtered without much warning and it’s at those points that I would switch to grind mode in order to make progress. That’s when it helps to throttle the emulator to full speed and just blast through minor enemies collecting XP and gold. Then parts of the map that seemed impossible all the sudden are a piece of cake. It didn’t really pay off to try and build well-balanced characters. Just dump all your points into the relevant stat for your class and don’t think much about it. Other character traits are skill-based meaning, for example, the more you pick locks the better at picking locks you become. Over time, the characters begin to excel at the play style you push on them.

With the grinding and limited resources the game can feel a bit repetitive at times. Usually, just when I thought it was a bit much, a new means of travel would be discovered and/or a new area would open up piquing my interest once again. Overall, I enjoyed Nox Archaist and was glad to have played a miniscule part in its creation. I’m hopeful that something may grow out of this project to see more tile-based RPG games of this style released. I would love to have a game like this with an integrated noted taking and map making system built in (like a Steam overlay).

Captain Goodnight and the Islands of Fear on Apple ][ (8/10)

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Along with Karateka and Prince of Persia this may be one of the most solid story-oriented action games on the Apple ][. It’s a run and gun side-scroller in which most of one’s time is spent running to the right blasting robots with a pea-shooter of a gun. But, Captain Goodnight tries to give the player a variety of things to do in the form of piloting various vehicles on land, air and sea. You’ll start the game by hopping in a jet and flying over a landscape dotted with radar dishes and missile launchers. It’s almost a complete rip-off of another Apple ][ title, Star Blazer. There is no goal target to shoot or arcade-style point incentive. Just dodge bullets and oncoming aircraft for a long enough to move on to the next stage of the game. The only penalty for crashing is time ticking off the game clock. Run out of time, and the doomsday bomb goes off and you lose.

Eventually, you’ll land your plane and then move on to the robot shooting phase. To be honest, the game play here really isn’t that great. It’s rather primitive considering games from around the same time, like Contra or Rush’n Attack, would have a similar feel but be exponentially more fun to play.

Hey, this was the Apple ][! We were happy that we could see lines on the screen without them becoming a jagged purple and green mess. For what it’s worth, Captain Goodnight’s graphics are very impressive. Just look at the size of some of those vehicle sprites. Surprisingly, they move across the screen without bringing the machine to a grinding halt. Everything’s smoothly animated and filled with little details that help bring to life the simple story of stopping Dr. Maybe’s Doomsday Machine.

Oh, and about that doomsday machine: you’d better have a game manual handy. The game uses a lookup table for deciphering incoming doomsday machine codes (and thwart would be software pirates). That most likely stopped me from ever finishing the game as a teenager. But now in 2020, the Island of Fear is no match for me with the power of emulation and save states:

Captain Goodnight final scene! VICTORY!

Spare Change on Apple ][ (9/10)

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Although I am very nostalgic for many a game on the system, the Apple ][ was never the ideal platform for action games. Spare Change is one of the very few that has actually held up after all these years. Yes, the graphics are crude and the sound is mostly restricted to clicks, beeps and a single square wave tone at a time, but it makes very good use of these limited resources.

You play as the manager of a video arcade where a pair of characters from one of the popular games have come to life. The Zerks’ goal is to steal tokens from your arcade. Enough so that they can retire. How dare they! Your job is to grab the tokens before they do and thwart their retirement plans.

You will mainly grab tokens from the change machines scattered about the level, but occasionally you’ll find one in a public telephone’s change slot or after a lucky spin of a slot machine. Fill the collection boxes with ten or more tokens the Zerk Show door will slide open and you can live to battle Zerks on the next level. The game plays a bit like Pac-man: run around the maze, collect coins, and avoid the random movements of the Zerks. There are even between level intermission animations.

Much of the fun of the game is triggering the various Zerk distractions which include a jukebox, a pair of phones, and a popcorn machine. Each distraction costs a coin and then provides about ten seconds in which the Zerks are dancing around rather than stealing away your progress.

The whole game is an appealing, lighthearted affair that retains its charm even after all these years and still provides a pretty intense arcade game challenge.

P.S. If you want to change the game’s difficulty, you can hit CTRL-Z to open the settings screen. There you have precise control over the Zerk’s behavior settings. I discovered this only today, some forty years after having first played the game.

Hexen: Shadow of the Serpent Riders on MS-DOS (8/10)

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Hexen was another mid-nineties FPS that, I swear, I played the demo of several times but never played the full game. I only seemed to remember that first level with its stained glass windows and melee combat. It takes quite some time before you get a ranged weapon and that’s probably why I never felt the incentive to continue much farther than the initial levels. You need to give this one some time before it starts to click.

The level design is pretty great. Each section of the game is organized around a hub world. You can then move between the various sub levels in search of keys, switches, etc. that open up other sections of the hub. In some cases this involves revisiting levels over and over. This can be a pain in the early stages of the game when I was expecting run-and-gun Doom-style gameplay. Eventually, I got in the groove (still needed a walkthrough here and there).

The major ding against the game is the lack of variety. You only have a total of four weapons and it seems like you are fighting the same monsters over and over. The monsters will respawn so there is no incentive to kill ’em all. If you can, run past and pull that switch! Overall, I liked it and it seemed to hold up rather well (using gzDoom to run the game).

Haunted House: Remastered

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Followers of this site (ed. yeah like that’s a thing) will remember a few years ago I created a in-browser playable version of the Applesoft BASIC game Haunted House for this site. Over the past month or so I got it in my head to push my skills as a programmer and make a much more fully realized version of the game. Today I am releasing my new version of the game, Haunted House: Remastered! It’s a vast improvement on the original in almost every way possible. In other words, it’s actually fun to play.

While it’s nowhere near the level of sophistication of an Infocom game, I think it does some pretty impressive stuff (for my skill level as a programmer). It’s still a two word parser, but the vocabulary is increased. There are full-page help screens, triggered story events, a retro-styled monochrome monitor look, and a bunch of scary sound effects! Please take a few minutes and give the game a try. It’s not too long and I try to keep the puzzle reasonably fair.