Thunderscape

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Thunderscape

First, a little gaming history. The AD&D gold box PC game series was a huge hit for SSI back in the day, but eventually technology outpaced the game engine, regardless of how many tweaks they could add to it. This meant a new game engine needed to be developed, which is exactly what SSI did for its next release, Dark Sun: Shattered Lands.

Thunderscape PC Cover

Of course, this kind of effort is expensive, and a company needs to either have a large cash cushion to absorb it, or a high sales payoff in the first game release using the new engine. Unfortunately, SSI had neither, and the company was bought out by Mindscape, Inc., ending an era.

The World of Aden: Thunderscape was the newly sold company’s effort to mirror the success of the Ultima series in the RPG market: an in-house game engine and concept that did not require 3rd party licensing. No fees paid to TSR for the right to use the AD&D worlds meant higher profits for the company. It all sounded so elegantly simple. So why don’t we still adventure in Aden today?

Thunderscape PC

The answer lies in the gaming experience. Thunderscape was a world highly influenced by steampunk. Muskets were an option (albeit an expensive one) for adventurers. Steam golems, archaic-appearing robots, could appear to threaten the party, and other steam-related technology, such as steam engines, could be found in the game. Most other RPGs were classic medievalesque fare; because of its steampunk leanings, Thunderscape was something different.

In some ways, Thunderscape played like a standard SSI-produced RPG, which made the game world even more jarring. Character development followed a familiar pattern: the player forms a party of adventurers based on race (Human, Elf, Faerkin, Jurak, Rapacian, Goreaux, Dwarf, or Ferran), establishes their individual attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Willpower), decides on their skills (fencing, sword, axe/mace, bow, shield, martial arts, polearm, knife, firearms, stealth, acrobatics, lockpicking, fast talk, see secrets, merchant, xenology, and cast spells), decide which spells any spellcasting characters may use, equip the character with weapons and/or armor, choose the portrait and name your character. Once the party is ready, off they go, looking for monsters to kill, treasure to covet, and quests to complete.

Thunderscape PC

The game played out in a first-person perspective, attempting to give the “you are there” feel. There are 20 levels of fun, including caverns, cities, mines, castles, sewers, and the great outdoors. Movement is controlled using the mouse, with right-click accessing the directional arrows. Combat is also controlled by the mouse, with a special combat menu appearing when hostilities begin. And since many RPGs seem to be a scavenger hunt, accumulating inventory is also controlled by the mouse, with a hand icon appearing when you get close enough to something that your magpie-like characters want to add to their inventory slots.

Thunderscape PC

Thunderscape wasn’t all hack ‘n’ slash, though. Puzzles needed to be solved to progress through the storyline. Clues were distributed throughout the gameworld that needed to be collected and used. Even combat required more than the standard, send in the walking tank while launching fireballs from the rear, as some enemies would not fall without discovering their weaknesses during gameplay. All in all,Thunderscape was a thinking person’s RPG, not a clickfest.

For all its good features, Thunderscape had some play issues. It followed in the time-honored path of releasing before all the bugs could be squished, but that’s what version 1.1 patches are for. Even so, the game did well enough to warrant a somewhat mediocre sequel, World of Aden: Entomorph Plague of the Darkfall. However, the sequel was not a huge seller, and became the final game in the World of Aden series.

Thunderscape PC

Thunderscape remains a game that some recall with fond memories of many hours of deep gameplay, and others recall as a stopover between Menzoberranzan andRavenloft titles. It’s a game that got lost in the shuffle, but a good enough gaming experience to warrant inclusion as a Forgotten Classic. For a little steampunk action that predates Sierra’s Arcanum by several years, give The World of Aden: Thunderscape a try!

Descent to Undermountain

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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

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.

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!

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.

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.)

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

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.

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.

Descent to Undermountain

As you might infer from the overall tone of the previous paragraphs, critics crushedDescent 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, whileAdrenaline 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!

RPG Sex

(Disclaimer: This is a naughty post. Not explicit but naughty. If, by any chance, you happen to be a minor, I advise you to not read it. Better click here. Or google words like porn, bouncy and boobs.)

RPGs and sex. They go together like bicycles and fish. Like unwashed teenage boys and 19th century architecture. Like the police and democracy.

Despite this, RPG sex is definitely lacking. The real problem seems to be a distinct lack of sex rules, that would seamlessly integrate the whole carnal experience into the game world. Rules that would intrigue the average Game or Dungeon Master. Rules covering such topics as Inter-Species Fertility, The Wild Thing or Sexual Psionic Powers. Rules that would be free.

Thankfully, another nonexistent problem has been solved. Just download The Complete Guide to Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (a.k.a. the AD&D Book of Sex), retrieve your trusted Advanced Dungeons and Dragons manuals and have a bath. A drink too. (Download link)

OR (and that’s an apparently big or) try the BBSW Roleplaying Game, widely recognized (by me and a few mates) as the premier Hentai RPG. Download it here. Oh, and in case you were wondering, this is a full-fledged stand-alone freeware RPG. And BBSW stands for Big Breasts Small Waist. Quite a shock, that.