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OkändOnsdag 12/2017: There and back again


OkändOnsdag has been a series of old, less-known titles that I've tried covering to some extent. This is the last blog of that series.

There's no denying that J.R.R. Tolkien's books The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (George Allen & Unwin, 1937) and The Lord of the Rings (Allen & Unwin, 1954-1955) were a major influence on fantasy in the 20th century. It should also be no surprise that there were multiple games based on those books even before Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (2001-2003).

With luck, Shadow of War's hype is a shadow of its former self, so this doesn't come off as unintentional advertisement. That was also why I pushed this theme from October to December.

On with the last installment of old games, then. Of the games discussed in this blog, Nethack, Rings of Power, Mordor and Wizball are the only ones I've played enough to warrant a mention.

Moria (Several people, 1983-) -- various platforms

(Youtube gameplay by BitSeizure)

The roguelikes drew a lot of content from Tolkien's work. Rogue (which wasn't even the first roguelike) was first released in 1980, then Hack (precursor to Nethack) was released in 1982 and Moria in 1983. 

I'm a stickler for accurate definitions, and Moria is a proper roguelike in terms of the Berlin definition.

It is an open-source game, which leads to it being ported to multiple platforms. It also has successors like Angband (1990), ZAngband (1994) and eventually Tales of Middle-Earth... and the fourth ToME is known as Tales of Maj'Eyal, available also on Steam.

The goal in Moria is to go to the deepest level of the random-generated dungeon and slay the Balrog. Both names are familiar for anyone who has seen the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. Angband, however, may not ring a bell. That was a fortress mined under the Iron Mountains by Morgoth, Sauron's boss and the first Dark Lord.

I installed Umoria (one of the branches of Moria) just this week to try it out. Previously, of old-school roguelikes I had played only Nethack and Ancient Domains of Mystery or ADOM (1994). I was surprised by how different Umoria felt at start. Even having to use a torch to plot the corridors was a difference to Nethack, in addition to how the corridors were lined with walls instead of being rendered to just as floor.

While I think it was eye-opening to try out a different roguelike, it's probably not enough to make me want to learn how to play the game. So many games, so little time.

War in Middle Earth (Melbourne House, 1988) - Amiga, Atari ST, MS-DOS, various 8-bit systems

(Youtube Amiga retrospective video by SuperBitsandBob)

Mike Singleton (1951 - 2012) was one of the big names in video gaming, and was one of the lead candidates to be in my August update of past great game devs.

The games best-known with his name are perhaps Lords of Midnight (Mike Singleton/Beyond, 1984) and Midwinter (Maelstrom Games/Firebird, 1989), but he worked on games even in the 2000s. Those games, though, typically aren't as well-remembered, like Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb (The Collective/LucasArts, 2003) (credited under 'Technology') and Race Driver: The Grid (Codemasters, 2008) (credited under 'Programmers').

I've never really played any of his games. In the early 2010s, when I read of Singleton's death and how the iOS port of Lords of Midnight was being made, I tried some version of that.

I couldn't get into it -- I didn't understand what was going on and I think I barely even tried.

Reading what Eurogamer said of Lords of Midnight in their retro review, the end of the first paragraph is very telling:

Placing the fate of an entire realm in the hands of the player, Mike Singleton's gigantic roleplaying-strategy-wargame-adventure hybrid unfolded across 4,000 locations and featured scores of characters - all controlled through keyboard shortcuts.

Indeed, having to read a manual for keyboard shortcuts had become a bother by the time I tried the game. With luck, games had the letters either capitalized or drawn in a different colour. That's also the bigger reason I said I prefer the Megadrive ports of some PC RPGs.

It doesn't help that Lords of Midnight sounds like it might have a steeper learning curve than Moria or Nethack: at least those permit failing fast by, say, attacking a cockatrice without wearing a blindfold. It probably would've also helped to have a map (but I wasn't so interested in playing it that I tried looking for it).

From what I can read on War in Middle-Earth, it sounds like a conceptual distant cousin of Lords of Midnight where the events on the grand scale emerge as the outcome of events on a smaller scale and how the game can be played both as a strategy game but also an adventure game... but I may very well be mistaken here. The game also appears to have less replayability as Sauron's forces reportedly don't use as varied strategies as Doomdark in Lords of Midnight. Looking at the user reviews on GameFAQs, though, the player can successfully use different strategies to reach the same end goals.

The goal, as is typical for Lord of the Rings games, is about defeating Sauron by destroying the ring or by "military victory"; I think it's fair to not consider that a spoiler this many decades after the book was published.

Given how this is not a review or even impressions, I'm not going into depth of how the game plays. Going by the reviews of the time, it sounds like the 8-bit versions weren't as good as the 16-bit ones.

Usually, I'd first question if such observations are valid in the present. Remembering how in the late 1990s games that weren't in 3D were easily thrown under the bus, or in Wii's early years I remember hearing "no online multiplayer, no buy." Today, 2D games of the time tend to look better than the early 3D games and online multiplayer servers are shutting down.

Yet, the shift from 8- to 16-bit systems permitted more memory and processing power that could be put to the "business logic" of the game, and not only for better graphics and sound.

In the end, War in Middle-Earth is forgotten, but Lords of Midnight is cherished. But what game based on Tolkien's book has actually been a success even by today's standards -- Shadow of Mordor, maybe?

Rings of Power (Naughty Dog/Electronic Arts, 1991) - Megadrive/Genesis

(YT gameplay video by 10min Gameplay)

Rings of Power was Naughty Dog's first console game. It is so far also the only Naughty Dog game I've ever played.

Searching the WWW with the game's name typically brings up the rings in Tolkien's works. Beyond the name, there's nothing to connect the game to Middle-Earth.

The game is an open-world RPG viewed from an isometric perspective. The player character is a sorcerer, starting near the sorcerers' Academy. There, your teacher orders you and all the other students to go find the rings that, when merged, will form the Rod of Creation and vanquish the evil Void. As it happens, one student decides to kill the teacher. The teacher's final act is to transport all of you elsewhere to begin on the quest he gave you.

While the player really can go (almost) everywhere from the start, it's not recommended: the game has hunger and thirst mechanic and getting money for that purpose isn't that easy. Doing trade runs between towns was possible, but I don't remember if it was actually useful (looking at GameFAQs, it definitely was). Or maybe I tried making a shortcut through the desert, which cost more rations than moving along a road that went around the said desert.

The game's narrative is in two pieces. At first, the player is guided on a rather linear path to recruit one member from each school of magic to their team. Once that is done, the rest is just unstructured exploration with the goal of finding clues for where to find the rings and the various side quests that can be found in the world.

The actual game mechanics aren't good. Battles are very simple, just about choosing which spell to cast - not even the target - and that's it.

Moving in the world is slow and the lag in the controls is quite bothersome. Thankfully, the game isn't about action (outside of possibly the location of one of the necromantic rings).

I have a soft spot for Rings of Power for one reason: I figured out how to cheat in it by myself. Once I got myself to a bottomless treasure chest that let me get all the items I could ever need to sell to fund the rations and such (or maybe that was an intended feature?). The other was finding a place where I could just repeat the same button presses to get XP and get to the max level very quickly. If it weren't for those, I doubt I would've ever beaten the game.

Unfortunately, I don't remember how I got to the former and doing the latter means I'd need so many rations to heal my characters to full strength that they'd eventually just starve to death when I made beeline to that spot early in the game.

There's actually some more interesting trivia relating to Rings of Power that isn't an easter egg: one of the game's developers was Vijay Pande.

In the early 2000s, my friends were very interested in the [email protected] program. That involved using a program to automatically download data packages of radio telescope data and run automated analysis on them as a background task in the hopes of finding a sign of extraterrestial life. Even I tried that.

Dr Pande was not involved in that. Instead, he had got his PhD at MIT in 1995, and in 2000, he was there to launch [email protected]. Whereas [email protected] was about finding aliens from data, [email protected] is about predicting the shape of proteins and the mechanics of that.

Let's see how badly I can mangle basic biology, eh? Cells produce proteins. These are chains of amino acid residues, built based on what the DNA sequence contained. Or if you like, imagine wooden beads of various colours in a string. The thing is, these beads behave differently. For example, some prefer water. Some avoid water. And for these reasons among others, the string takes a shape that often has those hydrophobic beads towards the center and the hydrophilic beads on the outside.

It's more complex than that. Far, far more complex. But this process of the chain finding its shape in the three-dimensional space is called folding.

The shape the proteins assume is very important to what the protein's function is. Remember prions, the proteins that cause Creutzfeldt-Jakob's disease? Those are proteins which have folded in a "wrong" way and cause other proteins of the same sort to fold the same way, even if their "beads" were what they should've been. There are also other diseases associated with proteins behaving badly, such as Alzheimer's.

So [email protected] distributes the task of predicting how a protein would fold to computers participating in the program. And instead of being malware that mine virtual currency for a random person on the other end of the net, this is doing medicine research and science.

Today, Prof. Vijay Pande has a lab at Stanford University. While the game he was a part of making may be forgotten, his other work is not.

Mordor: The Depths of Dejenol (David Allen?/IPC Software?, 1995) - Windows 3.x

(Youtube gameplay video by MythrilZenith)

The name of this game is another red herring, since the game is not set in the world created by Tolkien. Wikipedia says the game was published by IPC Software, but Mobygames says the publisher is MakeItSo Software. What I am sure about is that David Allen was the creator, but I don't know if the development studio had a separate name. Hence the question marks.

Mordor is mostly set in the mines underneath a typical fantasy town of Dejenol. The player with or without other custom characters will go down, defeat enemies and find loot, return back up to heal and level up. Sounds simple, doesn't it?

For people who don't like games that have autoattacking, such as the Xenoblade series, should stay far away from this one. The fighting is very hands-off: the enemies don't even show up in the 3D dungeon crawler view. If they're peaceful, the player can just walk through the room or press a key to start the fight. If a combat ensues, the battle is moving at a rapid clip in the background while the player can still move about or even try retreating back the way they came from.

To add some extra flavour, the player can join multiple guilds, each with their own levels and requirements, but can go down the dungeon while being a member in only one. That multiplies the level of grinding to expect by a rather large factor.

I was fond of playing Mordor around that time, or rather, its shareware version that had only a limited number of floors if I remember correctly. A few years later, the sequel was being made. It was to be called Mordor II, but as it happened, the game's name changed to Demise: Rise of the Ku'tan (Artifact Entertainment/IPC Software, 1999). GameSpot gave it 3.7, which is representative of how the game was received.

The studio also started their next project, an MMORPG called Horizons: Empire of Istaria (Artifact Entertainment/Atari, 2003; Metascore 72). No relation to Horizon: Zero Dawn (Guerrilla Games/Sony, 2017; Metascore far higher). The main apparent hook of that game were the playable dragons. In the end, the game failed to gain major traction (honestly, how many of you remember even hearing of it before now), and after being sold about a few times, was finally named Istaria: Chronicles of the Gifted. It's apparently still around today in some form.

And that's all, folks! / Series retrospective

This blog is my last OkändOnsdag blog. Back in the summer of 2017, I decided I'd keep writing these for the rest of the year even if I ran out of steam to show myself that I could stay committed to a project. And I did run out of steam at least twice.

If logic is the art of being wrong with confidence, then perseverance and stubborness is being wrong with stupidity on top of it. I certainly was the wrong person to write these blogs; please let me elaborate why.

Looking back at the games I covered, I can see not having one of the common gaming platforms of the 1980s turned out to be an issue. I never had an Amiga, a C64 or a ZX Spectrum, yet many games I covered were released on those systems, the big computer platforms in Europe. In particular, I was limited to what I remember reading of the one single microcomputer magazine I had access to in the late 1980s.

The whole "PC master race" was a thing already then -- if PC referred to any microcomputer and not just IBM PCs and their clones. Consoles were looked at disdainfully at least in that magazine -- ridiculously expensive games and you couldn't write your own games for them either. This also meant that 8-bit home consoles were very much underrepresented in my blogs, but that might have been a welcome change of pace for North American readers.

By having a view this limited of the 8-bit microcomputer scene of the 1980s, I can now see how the games I picked were of a very limited scope. When I wrote about Parallax, I had written a paragraph about Andrew Braybrook's Uridium -- one of the people I mentioned in the August blogs. Mike Singleton's Midwinter I referred to already with Hunter in the first blog in the series. There should've been more than just the same few names repeated and deified. The lack of personal experience stunted this aspect badly.

Limiting myself to a theme per month made it easier to stretch the series longer, at the cost of personal interest in the project. I haven't covered Wizball -- the acclaimed Sensible Software title where the first powerups you can get help you control your character and the game that was built for the feature of having multiple colours available --  for more on Wizball, see Sensible Software's Jon Hare himself speak about it. This video is also worth watching for extra background on Parallax. I also didn't show Hudson Soft's Cannonball -- a game that looks poor, plays poorly but is from 1983 and is very much like Pang! (Mitchell/Capcom, 1989) or Buster Bros. as it was known in the US.

Having a month dedicated to famous game composers would've been nice as well. Jeroen Tel, who appears to be pretty active on YouTube, saying things like he wrote the C64 version of Golden Axe's Wilderness theme overnight (and how his teacher at school that morning probably wasn't impressed). Chris Huelsbeck and his music for Amiga and C64. Fred Gray I already covered, although he's probably not on par with Hubbard, Whittaker, Galway and Tel. Still, these people wrote their music for Amiga and C64 -- which I never had.

Can you spot who are missing? Japanese game composers and developers. I mentioned only a few titles by Taito, Namco and Konami, but nothing by Nintendo, Sega, Irem or Capcom.

So how would I rate this project in the end and would I do it again?

These blogs were a mistaken addition from the start as I bit more than I could chew. I would've been competent to post gameplay videos by other people in qtoid and give as much information as can be crammed into a qtoid post, but incompetent when it came to writing longer stories on them. Just look at War in Middle-Earth in this blog: I'm trying to do a comparison between two games, one of which I have tried for five minutes or less, and one I've never seen outside reviews or Youtube videos. If I left you, the reader, in the impression I am confident of what I am saying, I did it wrong.

The blogs also had several other problems: I didn't give proper sources anywhere near as often as I should and I tended to use Wikipedia as a source, which is a big no-no. (At least I just checked that Prof. Pande's profile on LinkedIn says he did work on Rings of Power when he was at Naughty Dog, and I'm pretty confident his lab has been involved with [email protected] from the start.) Using images taken from other people's Youtube videos also made me uneasy towards the end.

In summary, if I did this project again, I would stick to just qtoid posts and choose a tag that isn't broken by the letter "ä". And no, I wouldn't do it again, because my final score for the total cblog series is:


on Destructoid's review scale. While the intention was good, the resulting blogs are mostly useless as the conveyed information is unreliable due to lacking personal experience and poor sourcing of information. As a result, the blogs' value is found only in the little entertainment they provide and not in information, which is counter to the original intent.

Links to the past blogs: mixed bag 1, controversies, legendary game developers part 1 and part 2year 1981, mixed bag 2, games and devs sharing names

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About Flegmaone of us since 11:34 PM on 01.17.2015

Very much unprofessional writer, don't take anything I write without a truckload of salt.

On a hopefully long-term break from saying anything.