• magisterrex Retro Games


    I've been gaming since the days of Pong and still own a working Atari 2600. I tend to ramble on about retro games, whether they be board games, video games or PC games. Sometimes I digress. Decades after earning it, I'm finally putting the skills I learned while completing my history degree from the University of Victoria to good use. Or so I think. If you're into classic old school gaming, this blog is for you!

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Retrogaming Ruins: Descent to Undermountain

Back in the holiday season in 1997, Interplay Productions released Descent to Undermountain, a new Dungeons & Dragons PC game hotly anticipated not only because it was a new AD&D game, but because it promised to be a 3D roleplaying experience using the Descent 3D game engine.  Many gamers did not bother to wait for the magazine reviews, as the last true AD&D RPG had been Strategic Simulations, Inc.’s 1995 classic, Ravenloft: Stone Prophet, and the intervening years had seen only fighting and strategy games released based on TSR’s many game worlds.  They were to be sorely disappointed.

Descent to Undermountain splash page

Descent to Undermountain began well enough with a deep, multi-screen character generation program.  The player began the process by choosing one of six character races (human, elf, dwarf, half-elf, halfling, and drow) in either gender.  As this was AD&D 2nd Edition rules, each race had restrictions or benefits, with humans being the only race with unlimited advancement (but unable to gain racial bonuses or multi-classing).  Elves and Drow received +1 on their Dexterity score, but suffered -1 on their Constitution score, as well as near-immunity to sleep spells. Half-Elves received partial immunity to sleep spells, no special pluses or minuses to their ability scores, but the most possible class combinations.  Dwarfs gained +1 on their Constitution score, some resistance to magic, and -1 to their Charisma score.  Finally, halflings gain +1 to their Dexterity score, some resistance to magic, and -1 to their Strength score.

Choosing a Drow Elf in Descent to Undermountain

The player next chose which of the four character classes they wanted: Fighter, Priest, Mage, or Thief.  Multi-class characters were possible for all races (except humans), but there were also some class limitations: Elves and Drow could choose Fighter/Mage, Fighter/Thief, Mage/Thief or any of the stand-alone classes; Dwarfs could choose Fighter/Priest or Fighter/Thief (or simply a Fighter, Thief, or Priest), but not a Mage; Halflings could be a Fighter, Priest, Thief or a Fighter/Thief (but not a Fighter/Priest); and Half-Elves could be any class, as well as the Fighter/Priest, Fighter/Mage, Fighter/Thief, and Mage/Thief combinations.  Congratulations, you’ve got through the first two Character Generation screens!

Generating ability scores in Descent to Undermountain

After choosing the gender, race and class of their character, the player then worked up his or her ability scores (the standard Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma) on the third screen in the character generation process.  The stats were randomly generated (you could discard them and refresh for a new set as many times as you wished), and each individual score could be swapped out with another.  For instance, if you chose to play a Mage and your Wisdom score came up 18 and your Intelligence score came up a 10, you could switch them.  In addition, each character was given an extra 5 ability points to distribute as desired.  Once completed, the player moved on to the fourth and final character generation screen, where they were able to chose the Name, Portrait, and Alignment of their character.

Name, face and alignment in Descent to Undermountain

Besides a rich character generation process, Descent to Undermountain also had a decent storyline and pacing.  You began the game determining what in AO’s name are you supposed to be doing in Waterdeep.  As the game map only showed Khelben’s Tower as a clickable item, it was off to visit the Blackstaff to see if he could enlighten you.  It seemed that kobolds were bothering Waterdeep’s merchants, and had been spotted just outside the main entrance to Undermountain.  (Bear in mind that this entrance was guarded by one of the most powerful Lords of Waterdeep, but, hey, it’s an AD&D RPG, so you should suspend all disbelief at the splash screen.)  The Lord Mage of Waterdeep even passed you a quick couple of gold pieces to pay your way in and out of Undermountain, and sent you on your way to the Yawning Portal Inn.  (Tip for anyone daring to play this game: it”s a good idea to stop at the marketplace just prior to entering the inn.)

Khelben Blackstaff in Descent to Undermountain

Up to this point players were seeing some decent high-res screens, and some good voice acting. Khelben’s voice in particular, performed by either Jim Cummings (the voice of the Terror Mask in Splatterhouse, among many other things) or Frank Welker (the original voice of Megatron) – the credits are a bit unclear on who did the actual work – was very crisp.  (Actually, Khelben sounds more like Jim Cummings.) And with all the prior work done on establishing your character, you’d expect playing the game would be worth the effort.  Ha ha ha.  No.

Descent to Undermountain wall torch.

Sometimes it’s easier to show a few pictures rather than attempt to describe how bad something is with mere words. Yes, that’s a torch.  It flickered, but the closer you got, the more pixelicious it became.  And it got worse, much worse.  Although the box stated Pentium 90 MHz with 32 MB RAM were the minimum system requirements to run Descent to Undermountain, I remember using my Pentium 200 MHz system (that handled some sweet-looking games with aplomb) yet this game ran like a Descent-engine slug.   The problem was that Descent to Undermountain was a DOS game masquerading as a Windows game, with all the system resource management problems that entailed.  Worse, the 3D objects were being software rendered, not taking advantage of the then-existing technology of 3D graphics cards.  It seemed like an old game because it was: Windows 95 had already been on the market for years; the developers had no excuse for foisting a DOS game on their RPG audience.

Blockheads in Descent to Undermountain

Hidden within this morass of poor graphics was a fairly bland RPG.  The story was very similar to a standard AD&D adventure module from the Gary Gygax days: go gather the parts to re-create the Flamesword – an ultimate Drow weapon – to prevent Lolth, the evil Drow Goddess from enacting her master plan to enslave the world of Faerun.  Along the way, the player battled kobolds, skeletons, zombies, the Shadow Thieves, a mummy, orcs, ogres, a lich, drow fighters and priestesses, a beholder, and finally the avatar of Llolth herself.  Unfortunately, a terrible AI made the creatures ignore you or move in a bizarre fashion until you disposed of them, and then, due to programming glitch, they sometimes floated nearby.   As for the story, Descent to Undermountain used a fairly linear formula:  Khelben assigned you your task, and you went down into Undermountain to complete it.  Upon successful completion of said tasks, new parts of Undermountain would become accessible, although you could return to areas you already explored, too.

Look, it's a Flood Control Dam #3 Reference!

As you might infer from the overall tone of the previous paragraphs, critics crushed Descent to Undermountain like it was roadkill on the freeway.  Computer Games Magazine gave the game a whopping 1 out of 5 in its March 1998 review, while Adrenaline Vault thought the game marginally better with a 2.5 out of 5 score in its December 1997 review.  Gamespot gave the game a hardy 3.7 (out of 10), with an article subtitled, “How could the company that produced Fallout also be responsible for one of the lousiest games to come down the pike in quite a while?”  And that seems to be a good place to end this look back at one of the many Retrogaming Ruins to have graced my gaming systems.  Full disclosure: I finished the game twice, just to make certain I wasn’t being too unkind the first time I played it.  The things we do to ourselves in the pursuit of retrogaming!

What’s In That Game Box? – The New Easy To Master Dungeons and Dragons Game (1991)

Ever scoured the Internet looking for what exactly you were missing from the old board game you pulled from your closet, only to find no one who could give you the answer?  Well, stop that fruitless searching through endless google results, as this featured this week on What’s In That Game Box? is TSR, Inc.’s classic roleplaying game brought to board game life, The New Easy To Master Dungeons & Dragons Game.

The NEW Easy to Master Dungeons & Dragons Game

The contents of The New Easy To Master Dungeons & Dragons Game are as follows:

The game box (featuring the iconic image of  Jeff Easley’s Red Dragon painting- a red dragon doing battle with a man armed with a battle axe)

The game board (a fold-up 21″ x 31 1/2″ map with 34 “room” entries)

The D&D Game Instruction Sheet: Read This Sheet First!

The DM screen (with several tables and charts on a red background)

The Dragon Card Learning Pack (stored within the DM Screen, which contains 48 double-sided pages of information on play Dungeons & Dragons, as well as four 4-page pullout adventure module chapters to help new DMs run the Escape from Zanzer’s Dungeon adventure)

6 colored game dice (white 4-sided, blue 6-sided, white 8-sided, yellow 10-sided, white 12-sided, and red 20-sided)

2 sheets of fold-up counters, which comprise of the following:

  • Adelle
  • Axel
  • Blind Man
  • Bug Bear [x4]
  • Dwarf / Goblin [x4]
  • Dwarf / Guard
  • Dwarf / Kobold
  • Green Slime
  • Gnomes
  • Goblin / Guard
  • Jerj
  • Kamro
  • Minotaur
  • Ogre [x2]
  • Orc [x4]
  • Prisoner
  • Rock Python
  • Slave / Gnoll [x3]
  • Slave / Hobgoblin [x4]
  • Sprites
  • Wolf
  • Zanzer Tem
  • Zombie [x4]
  • Plus 7 un-named counters, each with a different portrait on both sides

A TSR, Inc. Spring/Summer 1991 product catalog.

A TRS, Inc. product brochure on the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia

A full-sized fold-out poster of Jeff Easley’s Red Dragon painting

A special offer card for a subscription to Amazing Stories

The Customer Response Card

The 64-page Rule Book

Aside from a very well-laid out inner cardboard separator piece  which keeps the box intact, that’s it!  Hopefully this helps you find your way into enjoying “hours of high adventure in the world of cunning wizards, mighty warriors, and ferocious dragons!”

Game board for the New Dungeons & Dragons Game

Counter sheets for the New Dungeons & Dragons Game

DM Screen and Dragon Card Learning Pack for the New Dungeons & Dragons Game

Rule book and sheet for the New Dungeons & Dragons Game

Dice and miscellaneous papers for the New Dungeons & Dragons Game

Giant fold-out poster for the New Dungeons & Dragons Game

Catalog Cavalcade: Gateway to Adventure – 1981 TSR Hobbies

Once upon a time the RPG universe was filled with names like Top Secret, Boot Hill, Gamma World, and Dungeons & Dragons – both Basic and Advanced.  TSR Hobbies were The Game Wizards, and their creations were craved by masses of roleplayers worldwide.  Now they’re just another part of the Hasbro empire.  So, take a moment to peel back the pages of time, and peer into a different era of roleplaying with TSR Hobbies, Inc.’s 1981 product catalog, apply named: Gateway to Adventure!

Click to open the catalog!

magisterrex Retro Game of the Week: Twilight 2000 (1991)

When you ask a retro gamer about who their favorite game companies, names like Sierra On-Line, LucasArts Entertainment, or Origin Systems often come up.  Less likely, but deserving of a look is the little known Paragon Software, the company that brought The Amazing Spider-Man, MegaTraveller 1: The Zhodani Conspiracy, The Punisher, Space: 1889, and X-MEN: Madness in Murderworld, among others.  Paragon Software was also responsible for bringing one of my personal cult RPG favorites to the PC in 1991’s Twilight 2000.

Box front for the 1991 PC Game Twilight 2000.

First, some background story.  Twilight 2000 was set in a future wherein the border tensions between China and the U.S.S.R. escalate and events unfold in Europe which draws NATO and the Warsaw Pact into direct conflict.  Conventional warfare is followed by the use of chemical weapons, which leads to tactical nuclear strikes, and finally a “limited” nuclear war engulfing the globe.  The result is widespread catastrophe and the near-collapse of civilization.  Resources are scarce and enemies are around every corner.  Warlords rule individual city-states, and the countryside is ruled by whoever has the most armament.  Your team finds themselves in what used to be western Poland, under the thumb of Baron Czarny, a despot who finds no atrocity to atrocious to commit.  Having enough to deal with without a nutbar making life even more difficult for them, a consensus is reached that the mad Baron needs to be dethroned – and that’s where the game begins.

Boris Yeltsin to the rescue!

The Twilight 2000 PC game was based on the pen-and-paper RPG of the same name, first published in 1984 by the Game Designer’s Workshop (GDW).  It was a game of its time, with the Cold War raging and fears of nuclear Armageddon permeating the international consciousness.  Players assumed the role of soldiers trapped in Europe after the final offensive and counter-offensive between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The game had a cult following, but with the close of the Cold War, the appeal of the game began to wane.  A modified history was presented in the 1993 version of the game that attempted use the attempted coup against Boris Yeltsin, then President of the Russian Federation, as the focal point of an alternate history, but never quite caught on.

Isometric exploration screen for Twilight 2000.

Twilight 2000 combines tactical gameplay with RPG elements.  Your task is to complete missions with up to 20 soldiers.  Each of your team has different attributes, languages that they speak, and special abilities, all of which you set to make their unique personality.  Each personality will determine how your soldiers respond to your orders, so it’s important to choose wisely to avoid messy situations (not unlike the pen & paper version!).

Driving screen from Twilight 2000.

The game unfolds in a variety of styles: there is a top-down map display; isometric tactical screens; front-on inventory screens; even a first-person 3-D driving mode (which was a bit ahead of its day, with polygon graphics and lighting effects based on time of day).  One of the more frustrating limits of the isometric display is that the game world, although continuous, requires new screen loads when changing locations.  This leads to frustration as you can miss an important item as it’s not on the current screen, but in gameworld terms, is only a few feet away.

Equipment screen from Twilight 2000.

The equipment screen shows off an impressive array of weaponry, armor, and general use items available to your soldiers.   Everything from Kevlar vests, various types of grenades, flashlights, thermal goggles, M-16s, Uzi’s, M9 pistols, even M203 grenade launchers!  This was the Diablo of the post-apocalyptic game genre, with something for everyone.  Yee-haw!

Map screen from Twilight 2000.

All in all, Twilight 2000 is a good PC game.  It’s certainly not perfect (and needed a few patches after its initial release), but it provides some decent gameplay in a well-crafted gameworld.  Pick up a copy and let the post-Apocalyptic good times roll!

magisterrex Retro Game of the Week: Planescape: Torment (1998)

There are few words that can describe the wonder that is Planescape: Torment.  A few that come to mind: amazing, deep, glorious, immersive.  This game is worth every accolade sent its way and more.

Planescape: Torment 1998 RPG Classic

Planescape: Torment 1998 RPG Classic

Released by Interplay in 1998, Planescape: Torment was developed by Black Isle Studios, the RPG masters who also worked on Icewind Dale, Fallout, and Baldur’s Gate.  The game is set in the Planescape universe, part of the Dungeons & Dragons setting.  You are in the City of Sigil, the center of the universe – a place where any creature from any place in the multiverse can visit, as long as they do not disrupt the eternal rule of the Lady of Pain.  The game mechanics follow the 2nd Edition rules set, so no Feats or other munchkin bells & whistles.

The graphics are in 2D isolinear, a standard for RPGs of the late 1990’s.  Though not as detailed when compared to today’s near photorealistic graphics, the characters and backgrounds are still quite detailed, and do not distract from enjoyable gameplay.  The music sounds a bit other-worldly, which is par for the course for a game set in the Outer Planes of the D&D cosmos.  Unlike some games, where the music is either repetitive or annoyingly out-of-place,  the music in Planescape: Torment does what it’s supposed to do: add atmosphere to the gameplay and stay in the background.  By the way, the sound effects and spoken dialogue are spectacular, too.

Waking up in the Mortuary!

Waking up in the Mortuary!

You begin the game waking up from a marble slab in the middle of the mortuary.  You don’t know who you are.  You don’t know anyone you meet.  You’re covered with scars that seem too numerous to be received in just one lifetime, which is to be expected, as it seems you have a curious immortality: although you can die, you cannot stay dead.   This isn’t a standard RPG; your goal isn’t to find a treasure or defeat an ultimate villain.  All you need to do is to discover exactly who you are, and why is it that you suffer so.  As you progress through the game, you will gain new insights to who you’ve been, the friends and enemies you’ve made, and the feats you’ve accomplished.

Character generation in Planescape: Torment

Character generation in Planescape: Torment

Since your memory is gone, you choose what class you want to level up in as you gain experience, and you are not limited to that class each time you reach the next experience plateau.  More importantly, experience is rewarded for more than just combat.  How you speak to NPCs can result in a bonanza of experience points, as can completing tasks.  The choices you face in every encounter can adjust your alignment depending on what approach you take.  In short, everything about Planescape: Torment is open-ended, the hallmark of an excellent RPG.

As you gain experience, you also gain ability points.  Which attributes you put those points towards makes a difference in how the game progresses.  New dialogue options might open up for you.  Certain NPCs may treat you differently.  Quests might have different parameters.  Your choices impact how the game plays!

Chatting with the locals in Avernus.

Chatting with the locals in Avernus.

I cannot remember a game that I have enjoyed more than Planescape: Torment.  In fact, it became my favorite game I ever played back when it was released, and no game since has been able to knock it from that position.  The only weakness I can think of for this game is that eventually it ends.  If Black Isle made another Planescape game I would buy it in a heartbeat.  If you haven’t played Planescape: Torment, you’ve missed out on something BIG.  Get yourself a copy. STAT!!

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