Archive for September, 2022

On to Wizardry II

As I’ve said before, Wizardry II: Knight of Diamonds would be treated as an expansion rather than a sequel today. You could easily imagine it as DLC. It’s not self-contained — it has no character creation system, so characters have to be imported from Wizardry I. It adds six new dungeon levels, and a whole bunch of new items and monster types (including wereameobas), but operates under exactly the same rules and magic system as the original. Where Wiz1 has a sizeable manual, the documentation for Wiz2 is a single page giving some new lore, a backstory concerning conflicts in the kingdom of Llylgamyn.

This lore is all but irrelevant. All you really need to know about your quest is this: You’re looking for the pieces of a very powerful outfit, and before you claim each piece, you have to subdue it. At the end of level 1, you have a boss fight against a suit of armor, and once you’ve beat it, one of your fighter-types can put it on. It’s extraordinarily good armor, and grants regeneration. Further levels will, if I recall correctly, involve fighting the helm, shield, and so forth. In other words, it’s the same basic idea as Kevin Wilson’s The Underoos That Ate New York!, but taken more seriously. Not entirely seriously, mind. Wizardry has always had a silly streak.

Unlike in Wizardry III, characters aren’t disempowered on import. You lose all your gear, which is a bit of a blow, but you keep all your experience levels and money — which means you can immediately go and buy the very best things available in the shop. Which aren’t the best things available in the game, of course. You can find better stuff in the dungeon. But still, it means my party is reasonably well-equipped and still just as overpowered as when they fought Werdna. So my progress through the dungeon is mainly limited not by the need to grind, but my desire to map the whole thing out. The dungeon levels are a great deal more satisfying than in Wiz1: more intricate and elaborate, and more pleasing to the eye when mapped out. It’s the usual effect in these older series: the first episode is made by people with no level design experience, the second by people with one released game under their belt.

Wizardry I: The Reluctant Victor

I’ve got a story for you. It starts with our hero in a state of inaction: the next step forward is to take on Werdna, the wizard at the end of dungeon level 10, but I don’t have the courage. “Am I ready? Am I sure I’m ready? I remember seeing my parties get torn apart by this guy and his vampire minions in my first pass at the game. Maybe I should do another few grinding passes, just until I have a ninja in the party, or at least more than one character who can cast TILTOWAIT (the most powerful direct-damage spell). Just to be sure.” And so I dilly-dallied for days.

So I’m at the point where I can do a complete circuit of level 9, hitting all the rooms, and still have enough health and magic left to go several rooms into level 10. Level 10 is a series of seven twisty but branchless corridors leading to seven guarded rooms, the seventh being Werdna’s lair, which is clearly marked with a message outside so you don’t stumble into it by accident. Each room comes with an opportunity to teleport back home, even if you’re out of teleport spells, so it’s not a bad place to hunt for rare items.

Now, the rare items I’m hunting for always come in chests, and nearly all chests have traps; this is why it’s important to have a thief in the party. But even high-level thieves have a chance to fumble and trigger the trap they’re trying to disarm. One of the most concerning traps is the Teleporter, which sends the party to a random location on the same level — mercifully, it never teleports you into solid rock, but if you’re on a level you haven’t fully mapped out, you can easily wind up teleporting to a place you have no idea how to get back from. Reader, I hit a teleporter on level 10.

A smarter, or more paranoid, player than me would have cast a teleport spell straight back to the surface at this point. But I figured it wasn’t so bad, right? You can’t really get lost on level 10. I was in a room, and I didn’t know which room of the chain it was, but it was bound to have the exit route that all the rooms have. I took a step forward. Suddenly I was in an encounter with Werdna. The trap had sent me straight into the last room, skipping over the warning message. I hadn’t even healed up from the encounter that gave me the chest with the teleporter.

Fortunately, all my worries meant that I had put off the encounter long enough to make it downright trivial. My priest and bishop successfully silenced Werdna before he got a single spell off, then dispelled vampires while my mage spammed TILTOWAIT. I barely suffered a scratch. And now I guess I’m moving on to Knight of Diamonds.

Wizardry I: What Changes and What Doesn’t

Now, there are many versions of Wizardry I, and the one I’m playing today is not the same one I played in my youth. They’re both PC versions, but the standalone box I had back then had a very different UI from the one in the Ultimate Wizardry Archives CD-ROM anthology, the former displaying the first-person view of the dungeon in one corner and filling the rest of the screen with stats and messages, the latter keeping the dungeon view full-screen and overlaying temporary windows on top of it. I understand the full-screen approach to have been originally created for Wizardry III. And neither is completely identical to the Apple II version that preceded it, or the console versions that followed it. Some versions change the content, too. There are entire maps that are completely different on Nintendo. I don’t know why. Names of items vary wildly by platform, as if they had been translated by different localization teams, except that they were originally written in English. (Maybe they got translated into Japanese and back? It’s not as wild a supposition as it sounds; somehow, the series has long been most popular in Japan.)

Still, the Ultimate Wizardry Archive port is completely faithful the original maps, even when they seem like they must be wrong. There are portions of the maze that are inaccessible without teleporting, including part of the tunnels forming Andrew Greenberg’s initials on level 9, as if they left out a door and didn’t notice. There’s a sort of quest chain on levels 1 and 2 where you find keys to access other keys, culminating in a gold key that has no use. Apparently in the Nintendo port, the gold key gives you access to the elevator from level 1 to 4, just as the blue ribbon lets you ride from 4 to 9. Maybe that was the intention all along. As a child, I always thought of Wizardry as a class act, with its sleek and elegant black boxes and its substance-over-style design. It tarnishes this impression somewhat to notice not just such slapdash QA, but that the apparent mistakes went without correction in a port made 17 years later.

The version I’m playing now makes one change that I find really significant: in porting to the Wizardry III engine, it inherited Wizardry III‘s alignment mechanics. In the original version, you chose each character to be Good, Evil, or Neutral on creation, and that was pretty much it for them — I’ve seen claims that picking fights with friendly monsters provided a miniscule chance of turning Good characters Evil, but it never happened to me. A character’s alignment limits both what classes they can be and who they can adventure with, so this effectively meant you couldn’t have a party containing both a Lord (Good only) and a Ninja (Evil only). 1Except by giving a Thief’s Dagger to a Neutral Thief, anyway. But Wizardry III made it so easy to switch alignments through your treatment of friendly monsters that the distinction became almost meaningless: anyone can adventure with anyone else, given enough time to arrange it. But at the same time, shifting alignment is randomized enough that it also became easy to split your party’s alignment, rendering them temporarily incapable of getting together again if they’re split up, either voluntarily, by quitting the game, or involuntarily, by getting someone killed and resurrecting them in town. This creates a pressure to keep acting your alignment all the time to avoid splitting the party. If you’re playing a Good party, you have reason to leave all friendly monsters alone, which is simple enough, but makes the Murphy-grinding slower; if Evil, you have reason to attack all friendlies, even the ones that are liable to cause problems. Wizardry I as originally released lacked such considerations.

1 Except by giving a Thief’s Dagger to a Neutral Thief, anyway.

Wizardry I: High-Level Tactics

I knew Wizardry I was grindy, but I had forgotten just how grindy. I’ve said before that the ideal balance in a CRPG is that if you just explore each area thoroughly, the encounters you have along the way give you enough experience (and/or loot) to keep going. The levels here fall miles short of that ideal. You run out of dungeon to explore long before you’re ready to face Werdna. I’ve been orbiting level 9 for a while now, waiting for rare equipment drops like it’s a gacha game. Those goodies are must-haves for the final encounter.

If it weren’t for that, I’m pretty sure that the Murphy’s Ghost back on dungeon level 1 is still a more efficient way to get XP, partly because there’s essentially no delay between encounters, but largely because of the complete lack of risk. The monsters in the lower levels of the dungeon have ways to undo hours of progress instantly: ninjas with decapitation attacks, level-draining undead. Your main counter to these things is to kill them before they can do anything, so high-level battles frequently come down to who goes first. And that’s affected by experience level. So it helps to grind Murphy for a while before you go loot hunting, but putting more time into your characters also raises the stakes.

I haven’t done this yet in the current go-round, but: Part of making an ultra-powerful party is changing everyone’s class at least once. This is an option you don’t see in a lot of CRPGs, even ones modeled on Wizardry. Changing class puts you back at level 1 and resets your stats to their racial defaults and reduces your spell slots to just enough to cast every spell you know once, but leaves your hit points alone. Mages have very low hit points for their level, making them a point of vulnerability for your party, but if you take a fighter with over 100 hit points and convert them into a mage, the result is a mage that can actually take some damage. Or, contrariwise, a high-level mage turned into a fighter becomes a front-row combatant that can do a few powerful spells in an emergency. There are two classes, the Lord and the Ninja, that can only be made by converting a character into their class.

Trying to make a Ninja the by-the-book way is an exercise in frustration, though. It requires a minimum of 17 in every stat, and your stats go up and down at random whenever you gain a level. What the manual doesn’t tell you is that there’s an easier way: with an item called a Thief’s Dagger, you can turn a thief directly into a ninja of the same level, circumventing the usual class-change process. That’s largely why I’m still cycling through dungeon level 9. I’m waiting for a Thief’s Dagger to show up.

Changing class the normal way has one other effect: it ages the character, presumably from the time spent training. Age is one of the basic character stats, albeit one that I don’t pay much attention to most of the time, and it has the peculiar property that different characters can age at different rates: send someone to rest off his injuries at the inn for a few weeks, and he’ll come back weeks older, while everyone else stays the same. (In practice, this never happens, because it’s both cheaper and more efficient to go into the dungeon where you can use healing magic.) Apparently characters will start spontaneously retiring once they hit their fifties, but this isn’t a serious limitation — characters age very slowly as long as you don’t waste time at that inn, and new characters can start as young as 14, which is a little horrible when you think about it. I mean, okay, that’s a pretty common age for a character JRPG, but JRPG characters basically never die. They just have their progress reset a little. Whereas first-level Wizardry characters are basically fed into a meat grinder by the mad overlord in large quantities while they’re still children.

Wizardry I: The Control Center

The player’s mission in Wizardry I is to slay the wizard Werdna and obtain the amulet he stole from the mad overlord Trebor1The names Werdna and Trebor are the reversed first names of Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead, the game’s authors. Greenberg and Woodhead’s initials also form the basis of the layout of dungeon levels 8 and 9., but the game only announces this after a major battle on dungeon level 4 (out of 10). Before that point, you’re just dungeon-delving for its own sake. It’s a little like how Final Fantasy 1 only starts its main plot after the first dungeon, and in both cases it’s probably based on how tabletop D&D tends to go: only after the first few sessions does anyone think of turning it into a campaign.

But here in Wizardry, the mission start comes unusually far into the thing. In fact, in a sense, it’s right at the end. Here’s the thing: Dungeon levels 5 through 8 are useless for the actual mission, except to the extent that you can use them to grind levels and loot. There are no stairs down from level 8. The only way to reach the last two levels and Werdna (other than by teleportation magic) is via the elevator on level 4, which you can only access if you have the blue ribbon you’re awarded at the same time you’re told of the mission. So there’s no obstacle to going straight down from the mission assignment to the endgame, if you’re arrogant enough to think you’re up to it.

I’ve always found the whole situation a little confusing. The upper parts of the dungeon, at least, are the titular “proving ground” that Trebor uses to find heroes worth sending after Werdna. But to prove yourself worthy, you have to ignore a number of signs telling you that certain areas are off-limits and break into a section marked “Testing Grounds control center” and “Authorized personnel only”, where alarms go off, summoning monsters. A mention of “the remains of crystal balls and other magical artifacts all now broken” makes the place seem abandoned and overrun, but it’s still functional enough to dispense elevator keys on Trebor’s behalf. Just what’s going on here? We’re told that that Werdna is hiding in the depths of the maze, but the maze is apparently right underneath Trebor’s castle and features an elevator leading straight to Werdna’s lair. We’re probably supposed to chalk a lot of this up to the mad overlord’s madness.

One other thing about the battle of the control center: It yields significant loot, including a Ring of Death, a cursed item that drains the hit points of its wearer at an alarming rate. That might not sound good, but you have to bear in mind that it also costs a fortune to uncurse it — so much that you should probably give up on the character who put it on and roll up a new one. OK, that also doesn’t sound good. The good part is that the cost to remove a cursed object is proportional to what you can sell it for if you identify it without triggering the curse. There’s a certain risk in identifying cursed objects — the character doing the identifying can accidentally become cursed while identifying it — but successfully identifying and selling a Ring of Death is basically the point in the game where you stop worrying about money and start lamenting that there’s so little to spend it on.

1 The names Werdna and Trebor are the reversed first names of Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead, the game’s authors. Greenberg and Woodhead’s initials also form the basis of the layout of dungeon levels 8 and 9.

Wizardry I: Architectural Surrealism

This time around, I’m really noticing just how weird the entire dungeon is, viewed as anything other than an abstraction. This is a place that just doesn’t make sense. And I’m not even just talking about the physically unrealistic aspects, like wraparound. I mean that it doesn’t make sense that anyone would build it this way, even bearing in mind that it’s a labyrinth created by a wizard.

I think of my recent experiences with Litil Divil. That was a completely artificial labyrinth, with tunnels meandering this way and that for no reason other than to be circuitous, punctuated with rooms containing challenges of various sorts. There’s a senselessness to that, but it’s a top-down senselessness, a senselessness of purpose. The details of the maze and its rooms make perfect sense as an execution of a strange and pointless intention. The dungeon in Wizardry I has rooms too, and hallways leading to rooms, and corridors with rows of doors leading to rooms on either side. What’s in these rooms? In most cases, absolutely nothing. They’re not rooms that serve a purpose. It’s as if the whole thing was built by an alien intelligence that knows that human buildings have rooms in them, but doesn’t understand why.

Alternately, I guess you could decide that the minimalism of the graphics is just hiding implied details. But that just leaves you in the position of trying to imagine details that make sense of rings of tiny rooms or cycles of one-way doors. Level 5 is particularly chaotic. I recall the short-lived Leslie Nielsen comedy series Police Squad! had a recurring gag involving a door that one character goes through while another just goes around the wall of the set it’s in. There’s a door like that near the beginning of level 5, and even worse, it’s a one-way door.

I think that when I played this game for the first time, I wasn’t really taking it seriously as a place. It was as fake as a carnival funhouse, and similarly intended solely for entertainment. You get that in a lot of older games, like how the endgame in Colossal Cave takes you through the warehouse that stocks the caves.

Restarting Wizardry

My craving for making maps on a grid unsatisfied, I turn back to the game that taught it to me in the first place. I left off Wizardry III in the middle more than a decade ago on this blog; I think it’s time I got back to it. But first, it’s been so long now since I played the first two Wizardries that I feel like I should start over from the very beginning. So last night I created a new party of adventurers to explore the Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. Just like when I started over Wizardry III, I still have some old characters around — I’m not using the same machine as 12 years ago, but I still have the files — but I intend to only use them for emergencies like dragging characters’ carcasses out of the dungeon for attempted resurrection after a TPK. (Recall that resurrection is not guaranteed to work in this game.)

My writeup of Wizardry III describes generating lots of level 1 characters and getting most of them killed immediately, a cycle that repeats until I finally, painstakingly get someone to survive to level 2, which provides the leverage I needed to get more characters over that hump. Strikingly, that didn’t happen at all in my replay of Wizardry I. I just took some simple precautions, like pooling my party’s gold to buy the front-line fighters decent armor, and heading for the exit before I ran out of healing spells, and that was sufficient to get my entire party up to level 2 without any deaths at all. By the end of the evening, they were level 10-ish with only one replacement. I remember the game being a lot harder than this. Of course, when I first played it, I had no idea what I was doing, and this time around, I’m very familiar with both CRPGS in general and Wizardry in particular. The opening hallways and chambers of level 1 are engraved in my memory, and instantly recognizable — moreso than the rest of the dungeon, because this is the part you see at the start of every delve.

But to be honest, the main reason I’ve been able to advance so quickly is the Murphy’s Ghost. Hidden away in a secret area of level 1 where you won’t find it easily, it may have been initially intended as a kind of trap. You enter a room and get some text describing an altar, and a prompt asking if you want to search it. Say yes, and a Murphy’s Ghost appears — or sometimes two; I think the name must not mean “the ghost of Murphy” but rather, something like “a species of ghost identified by Murphy”, like “Thomson’s Gazelle” or “Pallas’s Cat”. At any rate, the Murphy’s Ghost is a great deal tougher than other monsters you encounter on level 1, but once you’re advanced enough to beat it, it offers an unparalleled reward-to-risk ratio. And since you can just enter the altar room and summon it again as many times as you like, it’s the ideal grinding spot. And grind I did.

All this ease inevitably led to overconfidence and a TPK on level 4 when I prematurely took on the game’s first real boss encounter. I’ve more or less recovered from that, but my party has been almost entirely Ship-of-Theseused, with only one of the initial roster remaining. The Murphy’s Ghost helps a lot with that, too: it doesn’t have any ranged attacks, so if you’re training up a fragile new level-1 character, you can just park them in the back row and let them earn XP by watching the big guys slaughter ghosts for a while.

Litil Divil: Surfaced

After the trampoline room, I decided to keep moving forward rather than make the long trek back to the save room. There was a substantial chunk of maze on the other side, but also a great many healing items to make continued exploration feasible.

The sole challenge remaining turned out to not be the usual end-of-level bridge fight, but one last arena fight, and I found it to be the most satisfying combat scene in the whole game. It pits Mutt with a halberd against a tall fire-breathing demon with a flaming sword, and beating him is all about figuring out a combo: a thrust to the gut makes him bend double, at which point his head is low enough for you to smack it, and then follow up with a jump to evade his fire breath just before he straightens up. I suppose it’s a fairly pedestrian boss fight puzzle, really, but in this game, where the combat is generally just monotonous thrust-and-dodge stuff, it stands out.

It’s worth noting that the final maze doesn’t have a toll-taker. The final passages have loads of gold, but there’s no in-game reason to take the time to collect it, not even a high score list. Not knowing this, I of course collected it all.

The whole thing ends not with a credits roll, but with an outro animation that simply loops until you press a button. It’s an unusual choice, even for that brief period when games had cinematic endings but showing credits wasn’t yet normal, which it surely was by 1993 anyway. Recall that Mutt’s ostensible goal through this whole thing has been a pizza. The ending includes some pizza imagery, but Mutt isn’t shown actually obtaining the pizza, probably to help enable a sequel about Mutt’s adventures on the surface world. I think by now we all understand that hooks of this sort aren’t really necessary. You can provide a satisfying conclusion where the protagonist achieves all their goals, and then trivially make up new ones later without being beholden to what you left unresolved.

At any rate, now that I’ve been through this game with fresh eyes, I can definitely say that I wouldn’t recommend it to new players. For me personally, the experience was enhanced by the fact that I was coming back to something I gave up on nearly thirty years ago, with the intent of seeing it through to completion this time. That is a powerful experience, mixing triumph, relief, and nostalgia, but it’s an experience that is mine alone. Litil Divil is, however, a game that’s interesting just because of its unusual structure, sundry minigames embedded in a maze. It occupies an otherwise-unpopulated point on a continuum that I hadn’t thought about as a continuum before, with puzzles-in-a-context games like Professor Layton and Puzzle Agent at one extreme and real-time dungeon crawls at the other. Could a game like that work today? I’m not sure. You’d have to make the maze more interesting, I think, but then you’re moving it around on the continuum and might lose what makes it different.

Litil Divil: The Terrible Trampoline

I’ve finally reached the trampoline room.

I haven’t gotten through it yet, but it really does seem likely to be the last challenge in the whole game, apart from the customary unvarying end-of-level fight. By numbers, it should be. But also, the architecture leading up to it seems suitably climactic. The meandering tunnels narrow to a focused point, and the final approach is a straightaway coupled with a serpentine path filled with gold — not a maze to get lost in, but one to get rich in. If you can spare the time, anyway — this is far enough from the save room that just getting there leaves you low on health.

The interior of the room is just as I remember. We stand on the ribcage of a huge skeletal demon. The room’s only other feature is a small round trampoline. If you walk into the trampoline, you just kind of trip and fall over and flip the trampoline in the air briefly. If you press one of the action buttons just before walking into the trampoline, the exact same thing happens. But I remember seeking help back in the day, and being told that this was basically the right approach, that it’s tricky to pull off but you should be able to jump onto the trampoline with the right timing. But once I was able to play with it again, I quickly convinced myself that this is malarkey. There had to be some secret, something I wasn’t doing. But what?

I’m not too proud to seek help again. Alarmingly, when I searched for “litil divil trampoline”, two of my own blog posts were in the first page of results, a good sign of a game too obscure for me to hope for much help. But there was, at least, a two-post thread on the GOG forums that seemed to give an answer: you have to start in a specific place, down along the spine as far as you can go, and hold down the primary action button (the Z key) to break into a run. Now, I’m fairly sure that I had tried each of these two things individually, not just to no success but to no apparent effect at all. Does Z only make you run if you’re in the right place, and aimed in the right direction? That seems like bad puzzle design to me. There have been other puzzles with location-specific actions, and sometimes they’ve been excessively difficult because the area where the action can be performed is smaller than it should be, but this one seems particularly egregious.

I’m reminded a little of an experience I had in Final Doom, a level pack for Doom II. This has a bit in an early level where you’re on a ledge above a lava moat, and the only way to get past the lava is to run off the ledge by holding down the shift key. When I played this, I didn’t know that running was an option — perhaps I had forgotten about it, or perhaps I had simply managed to get through the entirety of Doom and Doom II without ever knowing you could run. I mean, as far as I’m aware, there had never before been a place where running is absolutely necessary, the way it was here. At any rate, I was stuck, and wound up looking for hints. The hints I found simply said to run off the ledge to clear the lava. Not knowing what this really meant, I just tried walking off the ledge and into the lava repeatedly, wondering what I was doing wrong.

Perhaps the first trampoline hint I got back in the day had a similar problem: perhaps it said to run, but didn’t specify how. If so, that’s worse here than in Final Doom. At least there, the controls were documented. The hint’s assumption that players already know how to run was basically reasonable, and I have only myself to blame for my own stupidity.

Litil Divil: The Bull

I found the save room in maze 5! It turns out to not far from the entrance. I think my first attempt at mapping the level covered every branch of the early part of the maze except the one leading to the save room. Ah well. At least I have it now, and being able to bank my progress in clearing challenges has accelerated things. Still no sign of the trampoline room, my white whale from olden days, though. And I’ve been through enough challenges that, if the patterns of the earlier levels still hold, I only have two remaining, one of which will be a combat arena. Maybe the trampoline room will turn out to be the very last one.

For once, the challenges I’ve been encountering have been ones I recognize — “Hey, it’s the plant room!” I say to myself, or “Oh, wow, the mechanical bull challenge. I haven’t thought about that in ages.” That mechanical bull gave me some difficulty, though — just because I recognize the problem doesn’t mean I remember the solution. Basically, it bucks and spins and you’re expected to react with the up and down buttons. A sort of bar graph made of in-game horseshoes heats up, shoe by shoe, as you fail, but cools down if you do things right. There have been other reaction mini-games like this — in particular, the arena room in level 4 is themed as a tennis match, where you’re served four types of balls and have to lunge in the correct direction with the arrow keys to hit them back. The thing that makes the mechanical bull so much harder is the lack of feedback: your button presses have no effect on Mutt’s actions, and that makes it difficult to tell if you’re doing things right. Even if you know what button to press, are you supposed to hold it down, or tap it with the right timing, or what? Eventually I realized that it wasn’t penalizing me for incorrect button presses, just for the absence of the right ones — and if Mutt isn’t playing any animations, there’s no dead time where my presses don’t register. So I could pass the challenge by just jiggling both the up and down buttons all the time, regardless of what happens.

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