Friday 21 December 2012

Christmas Break.

Just a quick note to inform you all that I'm not posting only because I'm out for my Christmas Holidays. I'll be back just before the end of the year with news about my digging activity. I'm just working on the third post on the Magdarr Series, an obscure and ancient dungeon crawler game done for PET in 1979 and much more.

See you all soon even if the 2013 will never happen.

Saturday 15 December 2012

The Hobbit, a quick unexpected videogame retroview.

Since The Hobbit movie had its consecrations on a new medium yesterday, why not having a look at its earlier videogaming roots? 

Videogame wise, The Hobbit has its own origins in 1982 as text adventure for ZX Spectrum (1) becoming the first ZX game ever to sell a million copies. The other interesting aspect was the addition of the actual book with game itself. Effectively the 48k Spectrum was a Software Pack: game and book together to reinforce the crossover of the two mediums. 

As far as I can remember, The Hobbit was probably the most advertised text adventure for its time. Melbourne House had the chance to advertise massively the game release, that campaign helped to attract people that didn't really know anything about Tolkien's imaginary. We should never forget that JRR Tolkien's World became massively popular just after the first movie trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, before that it was more a subject of interest for aficionados and academics. 

The one above is just a small selection of the massive campaign. I've probably found more than 50 ads published between 1982 and 1983; the game itself received a really good critics' acclamation: 2nd place in the C&VG 1983 Golden Joystick Awards (Game of the Year 1983) and Winner of the C&VG 1983 Golden Joystick Awards (Best Strategy Game). 

The Hobbit, ZX Spectrum Version

The Hobbit, ZX Spectrum Version
Opening many different version of the Hobbit game, you can't miss one distinctive visual element: the peculiar topos of the rounded door, which seems to be really common to almost every single representation of the Tolkien's Tale so far. It's easy to reconnect the door and its opening to the "leaving home" theme and in fact one of the main visuals of the Jackson's movie represents exactly that concept in all its strength. 

The Hobbit, ZX Spectrum

The Hobbit, Apple Mac

The Hobbit, Commodore 64 Disk Version

The Hobbit, 2012 Movie adaption. 

However it's curious to note that, despite the massive production around LOTR, The Hobbit never received particular attention from the videogaming world. Effectively, apart from the text adventure published in the early eighties and a modern arcade adventure reinvention on Playstation, disappointingly there's nothing else. 

(1) Then released for all the rest of 8bit platforms.

Images source from World of Spectrum and Gamebase64.

Sunday 9 December 2012

From Dungeons of Death to Magdarr (Vic-20 & Commodore 64, 1983), II (†)

In my previous post, I tried to follow the path of Dungeons of Death, an obscure CRPG published in 1983 by Aardvark for Vic-20 and announced for the Commodore 64 but never - apparently - released. 

Why I'm not really sure that Dungeons of Death was never released for Commodore 64? For a very simple reason. 

My initial theory was based on the idea that Aardvark advertised DoD for Vic-20 and Commodore 64 on their 1983 Catalogue but then changed plan deciding to abort the CBM porting. However I found a document some days ago which partially changed my theory. 

Following you'll find some images of a very rare Aardvark Games Catalogue from the 1984 where the software house advertised the availability of DoD for both Commodore platforms. (1)

Why then Aardvark decided to advertise a game for two years in a row never releasing it? Its presence on the second catalogue might open an interesting game-existence scenario; but again, why is impossible to find it? Unfortunately the original owner of the company Rodger Olsen doesn't want to answer any question about it, leaving the release of Dungeons of Death for Commodore 64 a mystery. 

What's the other theory so? 
Looking at the Catalogue above, you will see another similar title from the same company: Dungeons of Magdarr which was actually released for C64 and even really easy to find on the web. DoM is a quite interesting 3D dungeon crawler, D&D rule based with a decent character creation process as well. Apart from one detail anyway, DoD and DoM look exactly the same. 

Dungeons of Death, Vic-20
Dungeons of Magdarr, C64
Dungeons of Death, Vic-20

Dungeons of Magdarr, C64

Dungeons of Death, Vic-20
Dungeons of Magdarr, C64

 What's really different between the two games so?

Dungeons of Death, Vic-20

Dungeons of Magdarr, C64

The main difference, as far as I can see, is the user interface: Dungeons of Death is 2D while Dungeons of Magdarr runs an interesting 3D wireframe in style with Akalabeth. We have to note anyway, that because DoD is unplayable at the moment (2) I can't explore both games in parallel to check if Olsen even used the same dungeon structure for both games. 

The Dungeon of Dilemmas. 
It is possible that Aardvark just decided to release DoD as DoM for the C64 with a more interesting graphic interface and different features? Possible, but why then they kept both games in the same catalogue? 

Am I missing something?

(1) British Intelligence was just another Aardvark label. I've compared the addresses and they match perfectly.
(2) The only dumped copy of Dungeons of Death available on the web has a major glitch probably caused by a bad dump or a damaged tape. See previous post.

Sunday 2 December 2012

Dungeons of Death (Vic-20 & Commodore 64, 1983), I (†)

Dungeons of Death, TRS Cover, Source Mocagh

This post has been delayed for a while for many reasons. Firstly I had to deal with an increasing pressure at work but mainly I wanted to wait for some (never arrived) answers from Dungeons of Death original creators. Anyway I had time to collect some interesting information about Aardvark and Dungeons of Death, which even if they don't solve the Crux Desperationis, allow us to consider new theories.

Rodger Olsen and Aardvark Games.
Aardvark was a small independent American Software House, founded by Rodger Olsen, which managed to publish between 1983 and 1985 some Fantasy, Strategy and Sci Fi games for various platforms. The first purpose of the earliest Aardvark's productions were just to entertain Rodger Olsen's children. After a while, Mr. Olsen realized that his own productions had some merit and he decided to commercialize some of them under the Aardvark label. 

When personal computers came out, I built one from an 8008 and a teletype machine. It was love at first sight, and I soon bought a commercial model and began writing games for my children. I decided to get back part of the money that I “wasted” on the computer by selling my games. Within two months, I had established Aardvark Software, and was writing computer games full time. I created and published many of the early adventures and shoot-em-up games for TRS-80, Commodore, and IBM. I wrote for computer magazines and published a small magazine of my own. I was surprised to find out that I was creative. Never expected that.

Checking one the first Aardvark's Catalogues (shared here from my documents) is easy to spot that the American label produced some really interesting CRPG and looking at their basic essence, back in the day, the effort was remarkable.

Dungeons of Death.
One of this titles, or better the first one I want to explore is Dungeons of Death, planned for TRS 80 16k, Vic-20 13k and Commodore 64. DoD is a 2D dungeon crawling game, based on D&D rules with a decent character creation section and a very detailed manual. 

Dungeons of Death, TRS 80 Tape, May 20th 1983 (?)

Dungeons of Death, Vic 20, September 15 1983 (?)

Looking at the tape shots above (taken from the incredible mocagh collection) we have a quite realistic proof of the Vic-20 and TRS version existence, with even the production date stamped on the actual tape.

Where's the Commodore 64 version? 
The C64 version was announced on either 1983 and 1984 Aardvark's Catalogue but apparently never released. After 1 year of personal researches, I can say that there is no evidence of a C64 version of this game, but I have a simple and basic theory which will be explained in the next coming post. 

If the we consider that C64 version doesn't exist and the Vic-20 one is very hard to find, you can figure out by yourself how this task has been hard for me. However I've managed to find the only existent digital dump of the game on the Vic-20 preservation project the Sleeping Elephant. One the members of the forum managed to find an original tape of DoD and shared the file with a lot of interesting indications.

When you optimistically think you've reached a good stage of your research, you can have terrible surprises. Like this one. 

Yes, advance. 

"Ready." that's all you get. 

I tried at least ten times and I had exactly the same problem: every time you attempt to open a door, the game stops working. Since this is the only existing dump we can't prove if there was a major glitch in the game or is a case of damaged tape or bad digital dump. I would personally rule out the first theory, mainly because I can't believe Aardvark published a completely unplayable version of the game. Perhaps it's more realistic to guess that the only existent dump has been made from a damaged tape or just got corrupted during the transfer process. 

As last resort to check any other tape was available, I tried to get some other info from Rodger Olsen and David Frederiksen, who is the original game coder. While the first one ignored every single question about Aardvark Games, the second one seems to be impossible to find, at least for me. 

In the same time, in the last weeks I tried to contact as many people I could, trying to find another dumped version of the game with anyway no luck and even if I have all the scanned manuals and almost all the officials Dungeon of Death's advertisement, I still never effectively seen a working version of DoD.  

Just in case your are curious, I've managed to convert the official Dungeons of Death manual here to text format. I'm not publishing the damaged Vic-20 to avoid the spreading of faulty versions of the game, but if you think you could try to fix it I'm happy to share it. 

What's next?
In the next days, a new post about the C64 version of Dungeons of Death will follow and if you have any relevant information about Dungeons of Death and Aardvark Games which might help, don't hesitate to contact me. I'm happy to credit any person involved in the research process.

Relevant Documents.
Aardvark Catalogue, 1983.
Dungeons of Death, Manual, text format.