Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Boners’ 1981 Revenge of the Balrog

I did end up completing Don and Freda Boners’ The Deadly Dungeon.  It turned out that I didn’t have to disable the combat to play it.  In fact, the combat was the most interesting puzzle of the game.  I really ruined it by analyzing the code first.  I guess that’s the trick with adventure games: if you find yourself getting frustrated it’s either because there’s a bug in the game, the author’s design is completely stupid, or… you’re getting to the good part.  If you go to a hint book or peek at the code every time you’re annoyed you’re going to ruin the whole point of the exercise.  I was surprised to get to the end and actually get all 500 points for all of the treasures.  I thought for sure there was something left in the game to irritate me, but no… I’d managed to accomplish everything.

Moving on to The Revenge of the Balrog, you can really see some growth in the Boners’ creative skills.  There is a much stronger sense of setting and the sparse description text is remarkable evocative: there’s much more cohesion to the ‘rooms.’  The game is set in “Graylockland”– a thinly veiled recycling of the venerable World of Greyhawk campaign setting.  The premise of the game is a bit hackneyed, however, as can be seen in the screen shot below:

Completing the game was not terribly difficult: making a map and examining everything is sufficient to make it through the game.  This makes the game more about exploring… but navigating through each phase of the game is strangely satisfying.  The Boners’ are very far from the level of Scott Adams mastery of the form.  There’s hardly any real puzzles at all beyond that of mapping out what is essentially a large maze and avoiding a half dozen ways to die instantly.  While mapping is essential to solving the game, dropping items to mark the “twisty passages” is unnecessary.  Technically the game has two mazes, but again, there’s no tricks or thief/pirate types to outsmart.  In spite of this dryness, the second maze is probably the most exciting and memorable moment of the game.

The authors included a few cryptic hints that make little sense to me, some things were clearly ‘borrowed’ from Zork 1, and the unusual combat system Dungeon is replaced with either sure success (if you have the right equipment), sure death (if you mess with the wrong foes), or what appears to be a 60/40 chance of victory.  The program retains the inventory bug that I noticed in Deadly Dungeon and there are some things (like the Deformed Notman) that make no sense at all.  Of all these things, the most frustrating thing would be the “one-way” nature of the map in many places: if you miss an essential item there’s often no way to go back and get it.

Balrog is notable for demonstrating that playable games with a consistent theme could be created by amateurs and even sold for money as early as 1981.  Games such as Scott Adams’ Pirate Adventure and Strange Odyssey and even J. D. Casten’s Advent X-5 have a great deal more depth and strength of design even though they follow similar constraints in size and form.  On the other hand… this game demonstrates that, like Brian Moriarity’s Adventure in the Fifth Dimension, a game can be satisfying even when it is restricted to using only the simplest techniques of text adventure design.

In our next Adventure Gaming post, we’ll take a look at the sequel to Revenge of the Balrog.  The Fortress at Times End was actually intended to be the B side of the cassette and was sold with Balrog from the beginning.  Will it have even one unusual puzzle in it, or will it be another giant maze?  Something tells me there will have to be more to the final confrontation with the Balrog than just more exploration, but we’ll see.  Stay tuned!


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