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Peering Skeptically Into The Past: "SuperQuest" for the Apple][

Welcome everyone! For this blog entry, I decided to go back into my computer past a good ways--and drag you with me, kicking and screaming.

Part 1 - Where to Begin?

After having my interest in CRPG's re-ignited by the excellent discussions on Armchair Arcade, I started rummaging around in my memory-banks for the names of the old games that I used to play in study-hall. Yes, I'm going far back into the past; the early-to-mid-1980's to be "fuzzily precise". There were a number of games (mostly pirated) that I and my classmates played, but only two could be classified as CRPGs. And of those two, only one has taken on near-legendary status in my memory. And so with a blast of trumpeted fanfare, I give you!...

DUN-dun-dun-DAAHHHhhhh!!

*crickets chirping*

*...a tumbleweed blows by...*

Nope, nothing. I couldn't remember the name of the dumb thing. Dangit.

However, with some judicious Google-Fu, I was at last able to locate one of my "Green Phosphor Favorites". (Actually, that's not a half-bad title idea for another article. Hmmm...) The amazing CRPG in question for this Retro-Review?

DUN-dun-dun-DAAHHHhhhh!!

Super Quest, for the Apple][ series of computers!

Yeah, I know--stunning creativity in that title, isn't there? Anyway, a few years ago I had fiddled around with emulators for a bunch of the old 8-bit systems. This effort included building and installing an emulator for the Apple][ line. Although I never owned one myself, I was intimately familiar with the machines--they were the ones which populated my high school's "Computer Lab". (I'm being exceedingly kind here--calling it a "Lab" is a big stretch. It was really an old, dusty, hastily-converted janitorial storage room. At one end sat a humongous, ancient, very wheezy air-handler for that part of the building. Even with the little separator wall and door they built later, that thing was LOUD. Which was convenient, as the constant Whoosh! of air helped mask the beeps and boops of the computer games we weren't really supposed to be playing.) Anyway, after some initial futzing around with the LinApple2 emulator, and playing a bit of Aztec, I hadn't really touched the thing.

The LinApple2 EmulatorThe LinApple2 Emulator Aztec gameAztec game

Fast forward to two weeks ago. After finding Super Quest, I just had to try the game again--who cared if it was nearly midnight?!? What a rush! Merely booting up the game and seeing the title-screen sent an unexpectedly strong wave of nostalgia crashing through me. I found myself transported back to that loud, echo-laden room in junior high school, where I spent hour after hour staring at fuzzy green-phosphor monitors. With my mind's eye suitably dazzled, it took little effort to recall my earlier self in sharp detail; how I felt (mostly insecure and nerdy), what I thought about (computers and arcades and girls, in that order), and what I wanted most out of life (an Apple][, a TRS-80, a Commodore 64, my own Defender arcade game... and a hot, frisky girlfriend. Who liked Defender. Again, in that order.) Hey, I've always subscribed to the view, "If you're gonna dream, DREAM BIG."

For those who care to try Super Quest for yourself, the game is available in two forms. You can download the DSK disk-image file for any of the Apple][ emulator packages, or play it in your web browser! Thanks go to Bill Loguidice for providing an excellent summary article covering the major systems which can be played in a browser now.

Bill's Article:
Bill Loguidice's In-Browser Emulation Article

SuperQuest can be played online at:
http://www.virtualapple.org/superquestdisk.html

I personally have not tried playing it in a browser yet (I run Linux, so browser-plugins can sometimes be a pain), hence everything I write here is specific to "direct" emulation. I am playing it via the "LinApple2" emulator package. There are several accurate emulation equivalents for Macintosh and Windows machines. The game's ".DSK" disk-image can be downloaded in a ZIP file from that same Virtual Apple web-page.

A Few Notes on Legalities and Emulation:

  1. I am a programmer. I hate DRM. I think software patents are a blight on common-sense. But I do not endorse copyright infringement.
  2. Emulation projects are vital to preserving the growing pile of "digital culture", as well as being wicked cool programming projects in their own right.
  3. If you deal with emulation at all, you quickly get into the prickly situation of needing ROM or game/program "disk images" for a given emulation to work.
  4. I will not help you find ROMs or disk/game-images for your systems--YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN.
  5. Do NOT Email me nor Armchair Arcade asking for ROMs or links to ROMs. I repeat--YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN.
  6. Some games have been released as "freeware". It's up to you to determine which ones.
  7. Some games are well and truly "abandonware". The legal entities which released them still hold copyrights, but don't technically exist in any form. It's up to you to figure out "what's what" in that regard, and what applies to you legally, ethically, morally, etc.
  8. Playing Super Quest or downloading the DSK image is not copyright infringement! The game was released in full-form by the author in 1999. Per the Credits, the game is, "$3 Shareware".

Anyhow, back to my Retro-Review...


Part 2 - Some Background

Super Quest was most precious to me personally. (*Gollum!* :-) I valued it far above most of the other (mostly pirated) games I played during study-hall periods. The reason for that is quite easy to explain. At that time, I was very much into playing the tabletop Dungeons & Dragons RPG with some close friends/classmates. Sadly, because my family lived "out in the sticks", it wasn't very often that I would get an opportunity to play; perhaps once a month during the school year. So for me, Super Quest became a way to fire up my imagination; to explore all the exciting aspects of the Role-Playing Game on almost a daily basis. In short, I could "get my escapist, adolescent-power-trip D&D fix," avoiding the frustration I felt at not being able to play campaigns more often with my group of friends.

That isn't to say that I believed the game to be "perfect" or "wonderful" or even "very good". Even my "Rose-colored Helm of Nostalgia +7" can't obliterate my memories of sometimes being absolutely enraged by the game. There were (and still are) some serious limitations to it. Some points irritated me as a gamer; others specifically aggravated me as a then-budding programmer.

To begin with, the version I played in the early-to-mid-1980's was slightly different than the version available now. It was also significantly buggier. One of my greatest frustrations was playing screen after screen of the game, racking up treasure, vanquishing monsters, only to have the game crash horribly while I was making a run for the dungeon exit. As the game is written in Motorola-6502 assembly language, and having no assembler program nor even good references for the Apple]['s built-in debugger, hacking a home-brew fix was not possible. All you could do was seethe with rage, reboot the machine, and start another character. (The game usually ate the character disk-file when it crashed.)


Part 3 - The Gameplay Overview

What about the game proper? What is that like? How does it feel and play?

Super Quest is purely a hack 'N slash CRPG of the "dungeon crawler" variety. It offers a play style very similar to classic UNIX workstation ASCII-based games like Rogue, Moria, NetHack, Angband, and so forth. It provided what became a "standard feature set" for these games:

  1. Your basic dungeon (though not utterly randomized like the UNIX games listed) extending down several levels.
  2. An overhead "quasi-graphical" view when in the game dungeons.
  3. A "general store" sitting atop the dungeon, from which supplies can be bought.
  4. Text-based interface to the "general store" and for saving the game.
  5. Purely randomized monster encounters; though with a significantly more limited set of monster types than even other games of that time.
    Monster ListingMonster Listing
  6. Random "treasure finds" of stuff laying about. Denoted by a plus-sign '+', these chests are sometimes booby-trapped.
  7. A basic quest structure, in this case the search for the "MEGA-CROWN". While this naming seems ridiculous now and suitable for mocking, it is important to note something; this game was written so early on, that this might actually be the first use of the appellation "MEGA" in the entirety of video game history. In which case, it isn't silly or juvenile or mindlessly derivative; it's "Wholly Original." (But admittedly, still kinda dumb.)
  8. The ability to have ONE single game-save per character, and that must take place topside. No in-dungeon saving.
  9. Basic melee attacks. Essentially you have the option of "bashing" into monsters.
  10. Ranged weapon attacks. There are only 2 types of projectiles, essentially "normal" and "magical".
  11. The ability to run away from battle.
  12. The use of Health potions to restore sapped Strength.
  13. One pure magic attack; a type of "Insta-Death Powder" which is the only thing that will kill a few of the beasties you find in the dungeon rooms.
  14. The faintest possibility of completing the "Final Quest", and thus ultimately winning the game. (Please note that I have never even come close to this goal, even in the wild, twitch-finger days of my misspent youth.)

To give you an idea of how the game looks, here are some screenshots taken in-game, while adventuring:

ingame02ingame02 ingame01ingame01
ingame03ingame03 ingame04ingame04

TANGENT ALERT #1! Danger Will Robinson! Danger!

If you look closely at the screen captures, you'll notice that the dungeon "rooms" are actually numbered, which is a peculiar feature to offer in a graphical CRPG. It is not uncommon to find that feature in fully text-based adventure games of the period--those quite often came with manuals and maps and booklets with "Room Descriptions" in the box. Those additional physical materials acted as a direct supplement to the text-adventure gameplay.

In this case, I believe the room numbering is meant as an aid to manually mapping out the dungeon, as the room numbers do not change, nor do the room exit configurations. (Moria, Rogue, NetHack, and the rest all fully randomize each dungeon level, every single time you enter them. There's no point in creating a map.)

That the author included this feature in the game indicates two things to me:

  1. The game was written in a period when "home computer" games of all kinds were still struggling to define themselves; to clearly establish what they "could be". There was no "formulaic approach" or "standard" yet; not at that point in time anyway. This makes the feature an interesting sociological and cultural indicator/marker.
  2. The author was at least familiar with the party-based nature of Dungeons and Dragons, and other table-top RPGs. Usually you had a "party leader", another person who acted as the "map maker", and sometimes other breakdowns in overall role-playing responsibility.

    As Super Quest offers no pause feature, runs in "real time", and as the game spawns random monster encounters at a truly staggering rate, there is simply no way for a single player to hand-map the dungeon as they explore. I believe this indicates the game was meant to be "pair played"--indeed, we often paired up like this in those old study-hall gaming sessions.


Part 4 - Who Am I? Are We Not Men?

Typical of the CRPG form, Super Quest really begins with character creation. When building a new character, you type in a name, then pick one of the four available races. "Stats Management" is minimal to non-existant here, as you get a semi-random range of "Strength" scores based on which race you pick. And... well, that's about it. Your Strength/Health degrades as you take damage in the game, just as you would expect. Oddly though, this Strength/Helath is shown as a percentage on-screen, rather than an absolute number or ratio. Here's an example of my test character and an explanation of the available character races:

Got character?Got character? character racescharacter races

With that done, the game next lets you examine the "Hall of Heroes" if you so choose. This is merely a suitably pretentious, CRPG-ish name for a High-Score Table, with the names of past heroes, both currently living (saved to disk) and deceased. (The game is of the "Perma-Death" variety. One life, that's it. No chance for resurrections or reverting to the last save-point. It's very much a Hardcore, Old-school Game.)
Hall of HeroesHall of Heroes

TANGENT ALERT #2!

From a historical perspective, one fascinating point worth noting here is the inclusion of a weird little feature on that High-Score Table. I believe it is wholly unique to this game, among ALL the games for ALL the early 8-bit computer/gaming platforms. (If anyone has information to the contrary, please leave a comment below.)

To the right of the character's name (in my case "Derpster"), there is a 3-letter set of initials (I picked "BUB" to amuse myself.) An overly elaborate, and frankly dumb explanation for this is given in the game's "Information" screens; some babbling silliness about, "..nobles who sponsor heroes view the quest for the MEGA-CROWN as an opportunity for competition..."

Essentially it boils down to this--they are meant to be your own initials there. The point being that anyone who plays the game, who saves their character (or their character dies) can still "prove" which character is which, and who scored more points. The feature is there purely for bragging-rights. (Offering it, when you have a longer 'character name' available for bragging, always felt weird to me though.)

Why is this in any way significant? Two main reasons; both of which provide a subtle but powerful clue to the history, the sociology, and the cultural perceptions of the time period in which Super Quest was created.

  1. In 1982-1983, the video game industry was still essentially in it's infancy. Arcade games at malls and pizza joints were still "State of the Art" when it came to games. And that is the first key to understanding this feature. Upright, full-sized arcade cabinet video games had "High Score" tables. Nearly all of them at that time only provided the capability for entering 3-letters; usually the player's initials. That the "3-letter initial" feature is included here, demonstrates how home computer games were trying to define themselves, within the context of a world that still had few references, few norms, little to no market demographic data, and basically ZERO "accepted practices".
  2. The second point is a little more obscure, but gives us some indication of the economic expectations of the game-player. Namely, there is the assmption that several different people would be playing the game, using the same 5-1/4" floppy diskette. It wasn't that the game couldn't be copied to another diskette, it could. The implicit expectation was that people wouldn't copy the diskette, simply because they were so expensive.

    This point also demonstrates how nascent and un-formed the "home computer industry" was at that time. No one knew what customer expectations were. No one really knew precisely WHO the customer even was. So the author of the game, knowingly or not, included a key "cultural reference" here, in an attempt to make the game "more accessible" to players.

Next up, you are plonked into the "Bazaar" (general store) interface. All fresh characters come pre-equipped with a mix of "quarrels", both magical and muggle-style. You get some Health Potions. You are also given a goodly helping of "Tana Powder"; the wonderful, magical, "Insta-Kill" stuff you'll need for fending off certain undead beasties. The Bazaar is your opportunity to stock up on any additional things you think you might need. (HINT: Buy as many "Magic quarrels" and "Tana powders" as you can.) Worthy of note is the "price hagglng" system built into the game. You pick an item, pick how many to purchase, and then make an offer. The game will usually make a counter-offer, and allow you to continue haggling, or if it likes your price, it will accept and sell you the item(s) at the agreed-upon price.
Haggling For Fun + Profit!Haggling For Fun + Profit!

This option isn't particularly well done, as there doesn't seem to be a "Charisma" score or other character stat which affects haggling ability. Other games based off D&D used this to much better effect. But again, this game appeared so early in the CRPG development history, the feature merits mention if only because it was a novel concept at that time.


Part 5 - The Road Goes Ever On and On...

Playing Super Quest is not big on plot. Most folks, particularly anyone who hasn't played and loved the insanely hard "Old School" CRPGs and arcade-games, would certainly find that the game gets repetitive quickly. The one factor which maintains "interest" is actually the pure, adrenaline-soaked, twitch-key frenzy of the gameplay. You are constantly worrying about existing monsters, spawns of random monsters, trying to figure out what your health and inventory status are, WHERE the heck you are in the dungeon, and balance all of that with the often incomplete mental map of the dungeon rooms you'll have to traverse to get your character out intact. If this CRPG were turn-based (a hack which we often longed for in those bygone days...) it would honestly be much less fun to play.

Really, that's about it. You build your character, find loot, whack monsters, collect "Dragon's Ears" as a partial quest-fulfillment, and ultimately win the game by finding the MEGA-CROWN! (Maybe.)


Part 6 - A Modern Viewpoint

Frankly, even though I loved this thing in 1984, Super Quest can at best be described as "Pretty Damn Rough". And I mean ROUGH, in every sense of the word, and in every area--and that's being generous. It is rough-looking. It is rough sounding; limited to various "zzzoooops!" and "boops!" and so on. It is extremely rough to play. Like many of the old-school CRPGs, the game isn't merely content with being, "not so user-friendly". It actively and aggressively and unapologetically goes for your throat, screaming "I'M USER-HOSTILE! BOW DOWN BEFORE ME! I'LL BITE YOUR LEGS OFF!"

As the prior screenshots have shown, the game is pretty mediocre graphically, even when compared only to games produced at that time. This was not as big a problem then as it would be today, but honestly it was a very prominent detractor. Most of my classmates were put off by the meager ASCII graphics. The insane difficulty was probably the last-straw; nearly all of them lost interest in the game very quickly. I chalk it up to "meager imaginations" moreso than the "meager graphics". I'm not being mean when I state this; it's just that I doubt that many (or even any) of them had the powerful imagination it takes to envision the gameworld. Most of them hated the Zork text adventure games as well, which just adds support to my argument.

Again though, I'm perhaps being overly generous. Despite the MONTHS of time I poured into this misshapen thing in junior high-school, it was very hard to play, even by the vicious, rough, and oh-so-common "Perma-Death" standards of games produced during that era. This extreme difficulty stems from multiple factors in the game's design.

Yet despite these issues and difficulties, I feel Super Quest is worthy of remembrance. It is possibly unique, in several ways. As pointed out above, it had the rather unusual High-Score hybrid feature. It may also be the very first example of a videogame which utilized the 'WASD' direction-of-travel key configuration. The game technically uses a slight variation:

ingame_statusingame_status

As you can see, it _actually_ specifies 'W-A-D-X' for movement direction of the character. The 'S' key isn't listed, but it actually DOES function in-game as a "STOP" command, making your character halt. This is a much-needed feature. Otherwise you continue moving in the last direction you pressed, whether or not you continue to hold down the key. This is problematic sometimes, as it will keep you moving towards monsters and closing the gap at an alarming rate. It's far better to pick them off from a distance than to try a brute-force melee attack.

Yet even counting this as "an innovation", I have to put in a caveat. There are some control/movement oddities of this game which help make gameplay frenetic (and often frustrating):

  1. You cannot move diagonally. This sucks, as monsters can--effectively allowing them to close the gap between you faster than you can flee.
  2. You only move 1 character space in the UP or DOWN directions each turn. (This means 1 move roughly every second.)
  3. You are "compensated" by moving TWO character spaces horizontally in one move/turn.

These peculiarities affect your game-play tactics tremendously. You very much want to enter rooms from the left- or right-side of the screen, as you get a movement advantage should you have to flee. You ALWAYS want to issue a STOP command upon entering a room, to give you at least a few fleeting moments to assess any danger. You would be wise to always keep corners and '+' treasure chests between you and enemies as much as possible. Everything in the dungeon is geared around "buying time" to think and hopefully act, before the denizens of the maze grind you up and spit out your well-gnawed corpse.

Pretty harsh description, I know. But like I said earlier, the Super Quest is ROUGH. Even something normally as simple as a title-screen is, in this instance, a bit of a train-wreck too. Here's how the game opens, after 'rebooting' the emulator with the game's DSK image selected:

  1. The "Title Screen", which one would expect to contain some kind of credits and/or a copyright notice, consists soley of rather shabby-looking, blocky graphics. No author, no publisher, no copyright date; nothing else shows. Even for an early 1980's game, this is exceedingly crude. Unbelievably, the game only utilizes the "Low Resolution" block-mode graphics for the Apple][ machine. Most Apple ][ games, even from that era, included _some_ kind of high-resolution title/splash screen.
    Green TitleGreen Title Color TitleColor Title
  2. The "Credits Screen" containing the copyright notice still doesn't appear yet. Instead, after being treated to the "Chunky Dragon of Pixelvania", you are presented an odd warning screen about "Turning ON Caps-Lock". Um, ok. Sure. Couldn't the author have just detected BOTH keypress types?
  3. You are next offered a chance to view an "Introduction" to the game. This provides a rather weird, confusing, and poorly written "back-story". (More on this oddity in a moment.)
  4. Only NOW do you get an actual "Credits" screen, with a copyright notice. Even more strangely, the game displays this screen _extremely_ briefly, even at "normal 100%" emulation speed of the Apple][.
  5. As if that weren't enough, yet another mystery appears: There are in truth, TWO versions of the "Credits" screen! The game shows the first one, then a split-second before clearing the screen, flashes the second version. I have screen-captured both of them.
    Credits #1Credits #1 Credits #2Credits #2

    Notice anything odd? Yeah, for some reason, the credit for "James Carmody", and the section title of "Original Game Idea" is blanked. I don't know whether this is intentional, or merely some kind of display bug (I've not had the patience to dig into the Assembly code to find out.)

    EDIT: Thanks go to 'Hammer' for pointing out a boo-boo here.... that name is "John Carmody". #@%*ing typos...

    As you can see from the screenshots, the rest of the title screen isn't the most obviously laid-out thing either. Which is odd in a way, since the introduction/back-story screens go on. And on. And ON. There are TEN of them, in point of fact. So you'd think with that much devotion to text, the author could have cleaned up the title-screen layout. Or scrolled it. Or something.

I didn't remember any of this clunky garbage from my misspent youth, and my curiosity was piqued. Since I love tangents, I decided to head off on one and investigate the game credits more thoroughly. Despite the confusing muddled layout of the Credits Screen, a little bit more Google-Fu cleared up parts of the mystery.

  1. The game of Super Quest is "inspired by" a game called Quest 1. This in turn, was written originally for the TRS-80 line of computers by Brian Reynolds, and published in 1981 by SoftSide, a "type-it-in" style of programming magazine that was common in the late 1970's and early-to-mid 1980's. An Apple][ version of Quest 1 was created/ported by Rich Bouchard, presumably in 1982. According to Wikipedia, an Atari 800 port was also done by Alan Z. Jeff, presumably in that same timeframe. Sadly, I was not able to locate a version of Quest 1 to try on any of my emulators. If anyone locates a copy or is aware of one, please leave a comment below, or send me an Email.
  2. My actual beloved Super Quest game was written by Jeff Hurlburt, a long-time reviewer and contributor to SoftSide magazine, as well as to other small and "regional" types of 8-bit and Apple][-centric computing/programming publications. Super Quest first appeared in SoftSide Magazine, Issue #38 in 1983. Oddly, the "Credits" screen for the game lists a starting copyright date of 1982. As I mentioned previously, and per the "Credits" screen, the final version 5.5 of the game was released as "Shareware" in 1999.
  3. All this may seem to clear the mystery up a bit, but wait! There's more! Now we get to the really strange part. As mentioned previously, when the game starts, you get the option of reading an informational back-story. This backstory is confusing, almost to the point of being nonsensical. Worse, the tale unfolds via a lengthy sequence of (thankfully skippable) introductory text screens. I won't torture you with all of them, but here is a sampling of the first few:
    backstory01backstory01
    backstory02backstory02

    Um, yeah. That face you're making right now? Same as mine when I read through that mess. And there are 8 more screens of it...

    My initial suspicion upon re-playing the game was that the narrative might have been badly translated out of another language, perhaps by a non-native English speaker. It turns out that assumption was wholly incorrect--what we have here is just a terrific example of some really dreadful writing. There is a more coherent summation of the introductory story available on the Web, should you care to read further:

    http://www.apple2.org.za/gswv/a2zine/Sel/sqx5.htm

So my confusion was cleared up--I think. I'm still not too sure about the bizarre storyline presented in the game's "Introduction". I've read it four or five times now, and I still feel as though I'll need to smoke some weird little mushrooms for it to make sense.


Part 7 - A Fond Adieu

Before we close, a good question to ask me is, "Why on Earth did you like this game?" The truth is, I didn't like this game. I had a deep, intense, LOVE/HATE relationship with this game.

  • I loved it because it felt and played like some of the D&D sessions which I had gotten into, beginning in 1979.
  • I loved it because I could play "any time", when the D&D group only got together about once a month during the school year.
  • I loved it because it stoked my imagination. (I was reading a boatload of Sci-Fi and Fantasy fiction novels at that time, discovering the greats like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Greg Bear, Rose Estes, Michael Moorcock, and so on.)
  • I loved it because it showed me what Assembly Language could do. This inspired me in my own self-directed programming studies and efforts.
  • I hated the game because it was so stinking hard.
  • I hated it because there was no pause, and just "yanking out the disk because the class bell rang" might corrupt your character or the whole game.
  • I hated it because you couldn't save "anywhere", except after working your way out of the dungeon alive.
  • I especially hated it because i couldn't fix the annoying crash bugs that plagued the game. (The latest v5.5 has not crashed on me yet.)

Looking back on it with sharp hindsight, I can honestly say that even my list of "Hate It Because" items proved useful. Those irritations stuck with me, through the decades. Thanks to the lessons learned playing Super Quest, I always made sure to put more user-friendly features into not just the arcade ripoff games I wrote, but all the other types of software I was working on; the utility programs and bitmap converters/exporters and data-gathering daemons. Further, the game DID ignite and fuel my imagination. It helped foster my desire to create similar worlds myself. As such it has served as one of the key inspirations for me, egging me on in my lifelong pursuit of programming.

Although it practically defined the word "ROUGH"; I shall always have fond memories of this game. And thanks to the wonderful efforts of emulation coders, I'll even be able fire it up every now and again when I feel the urge. Which probably won't be often.



I hope all of you enjoyed the trip into my computing and gaming past. Keep your blades sharp, and your witticisms sharper! Until next time...

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