Revenge of Balrog (1981)   1 comment

The evil Balrog of Triad has kidnapped Princess Celeste, Granddaughter of the Great White Wizard Wilgus, and took the ancient magical ruby necklace. You must find them!

This is a double-feature, the final pair of games from Don and Freda Boner; the plot ends at a halfway point and continues directly with The Fortress at Time’s End. Both games showed up in The Captain 80 Book of Basic Adventures, a mysterious tapezine called Micro-Fantasy Magazine (*), and a later book of games for C64 called Castles & Kingdoms.

From Castles & Kingdoms.

The Castles & Kingdoms version includes an introduction of a nature I’ve never seen before. Here’s an excerpt; note it is calling the protagonist “Seerson”:

She [Spirit-of-the-Sky] saw Balrog, a dark and evil apparition, looming overhead like a great scavenger bird. She saw the youth collecting the things he would need for his journey. She even saw a glimpse of his destination, a great Fortress in the valley of Time-Stands-Still. But no matter how she stirred the smoke, or how intently she muttered the incantations, she could not cajole the Crystal into revealing the outcome of the battle she knew was inevitable. She could not know if Balrog would slay her child.

The Spirit-of-the-Sky hovered above the Northern Steppes, alien to this world, yet knowing the Law. It would not intercede in combat or change the course of events, even though it possessed absolute power. But it would make the Sword easier for Seerson to find, as he struggled for success on the grass below. The Spirit-of-the-Sky had no vested interest in Seerson’s quest, only a curiosity in events as they unfolded and a distaste for Balrog’s advantage.

In the end, a cosmic dice roll decided Seerson’ s fate. The Spirit-of-the-Sky watched as the battle drew the last ounce of strength from both combatants. Balrog had superior strength, but Seerson had greater agility. Balrog was the most fearsome looking of the Notmen, but Seerson was not intimidated for he had the Sword. Balrog had raw ferocity, Seerson had cunning. The dice rolled.

Seerson slew Balrog and his mother breathed relief over the Crystal, which unfolded the events as they occurred.

This is not a preface exactly as much as a description of what will happen. The only analogy I can think of is with operas, which generally print the plot which is intended to be read before the show starts. I mean, it’s good to know we win eventually? We’ll find the sword, but the Balrog doesn’t actually appear yet, so the preface for this game is also explaining events in the next game. (Even opera plot descriptions in programs tend to only cover the current opera being watched, not any follow-ups!)

This game has what I’d call scene-to-scene navigation rather than standard geography. This opening screen cannot be revisted: if you go north, it is a one-way trip, with the way back is not blocked for any physical reason; it’s just the game doesn’t allow it.

I think one reasonable way to think about it — although the game never makes it explicit — is that various parts of the journey elide a long passage of travel. That is, between heading north and arriving at the sign, maybe an hour passes. This is the sort of structure more common in gamebooks, where a choice of paths is presented with the assumption the location one is at in the book will not be revisited. Here’s an example from Flight from the Dark, the first of the Lone Wolf series:

Just ahead through the tall trees you can see clumps of dark-red gallowbrush, a thorny briar with sharp crimson barbs. The common name for this forest weed is ‘Sleeptooth’, for the thorns are very sharp and can make you feel weak and sleepy if they scratch your skin.

If you have the Kai Discipline of Tracking, turn to 69.

You can avoid the Sleeptooth by returning to the track. Turn to 272.

Or you can push on through the briars, deeper into the forest, by turning to 119.

The plot of Flight from the Dark involves escaping from a massacre to warn the King in the capital city; as the entire trip is an overland trek making forwards progress to that goal, there’s no reason to loop back. The obstacle here also involves a choice with a trade-off (stay hidden and risk the briars, or travel in a more exposed position on the track?) where it really wouldn’t make sense to repeat the same event twice.

Revenge of Balrog has a similar feel at points, although the choice is almost always “which direction do I go?” It’s just sometimes that direction is death with no warning. Here, there’s a bit of warning: you can examine the stream and find a rock, which kill you if you try to touch it…

…a dragon near some gold nuggets, where you die if you linger and try to get the treasure…

The treasure is purely a trap. You aren’t collecting treasures in this game.

…and somewhat obtusely, a north/south path near some trees where proceeding farther south kills you.

So for these obstacles, there’s at least a bit of interest in that careful play can avoid death (“Beware trees, the dragon, and the stream” from the earlier screenshot), but later deaths are just random. You find a knife and a hat in a nearby tent, face off against a storm-giant (who just dies when you FIGHT GIANT as long as you picked up the knife) and then encounter a cave. There’s no warning sign; going in the cave seems the right adventurer thing to do.

Except, the right thing to do is pass and move on. Also problematic is the fact it is impossible to distinguish between direction moves that are one-way and moves that are reversible until you try them; some “ordinary geography” is mixed in with the scene-to-scene navigation. (Analogy: Modern link-based games which have links that show descriptions of things and links that advance plot, but no clear difference between the two.)

The first part of the map, to illustrate.

Eventually, the player arrives at a “Dark Forest” which is a very simple maze (all the rooms are easily distinguishable) followed by a fight with an orc (which you automatically win if you’re holding a letter from earlier reading “To let nature lead you out” — I am not certain what’s going on because the game just says “You seem to have some magic power and killed the orc”). The orc is followed by the somewhat under-described “edge of Time”.

Then there’s yet another bland maze…

…followed by the niftiest scene in the game.

As prophesized by the introduction in the book.

There’s some more insta-death directions, a fight with an “evil soldier” using the sword…

…followed by finding a princess who is tied up (UNTIE PRINCESS) and an abrupt end.

Honestly, not terrible so far? I feel like the authors are on to something; there’s certainly been scene-to-scene games before and since, but this one leans in with a gamebook sensibility a little closer. I think something approaching skills (like the Lone Wolf excerpt above) or at least a more interesting collection of items might make the game work better; I’d also put less instant death in but rather have mistakes punished through some stat-based mechanism (perhaps losing some health points). Infocom’s Journey does run along similar lines and wasn’t successful, but for reasons I think other than the general structural concept. In Journey you need to use exactly the right resources in that game to have the “good ending”; more details here from the CRPG Addict who mentions

Maybe this is par for the course in “adventure games,” but I’m not an Adventure Game Addict.

(Well, I am an Adventure Game Addict, and I can safely assure The CRPG Addict that the ludicrous optimization needed for Journey is not normal.)

Let’s see where this goes! As the plot is unfinished I’ll be playing Fortress at Time’s End next.

(*) The only reference I’ve found is from Don Boner’s IMDB page; he mentions being published by the Programmer’s Guild and Micro-Fantasy Magazine which I had previously never heard of but looks to be another Programmer’s Guild spin-off. It looks like it came from an issue of 80-U.S. Journal but I haven’t worked out which one; the text has been mashed onto what I assume is a spam site.

ADD: Found them. 80-US Journal has ads in both the February and March 1982 issues.

Features as selection one ARCTIC ADVENTURE by fifteen-year-old Harry McCracken, his debut magnetically. Selection two is a classic of early pro-adventure, Teri Li’s SPIDER MOUNTAIN. Selection three, a TRAPMAZE, Charles Forsythe’s GAUNTLET OF DEATH. Finally, as a Micro-Fantasy Bonus, Jake Commander’s acclaimed STAR TREK 4.0.

At commercial prices these programs alone would easily top $60.00 but they are all included as the first installment of MICRO-FANTASY ™ MAGAZINE.



Posted January 31, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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One response to “Revenge of Balrog (1981)

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  1. Interesting that Balrog seems to be getting used as a personal name, rather than a designation of a type of creature, by omitting the article: “She saw Balrog”, “Seerson slew Balrog”.

    A “foul smell in the air” that is actually visible must be quite a smell indeed!

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