Tuesday, 1 June 2021

Missed Classic 96: Knight Orc (1987) - Introduction

By Ilmari

The time of early computer gaming industry seems a lot more romantic than what came afterwards. There’s still a wonder of a new frontier, where lone coders or small family companies could strike gold or at least make a living with their creations, without the constant fear of some huge corporate business swallowing up the majority of the game market.
When Bill Gates, Michael Cera and Harry Potter went in a bar...
...ahhh, no, it's Pete, Mike and Nick Austin

Level 9, the British adventure game company I’ve been following in my sideshow marathon, seems like a perfect example of these early years. The creative force behind their games were three brothers, Pete, Mike and Nick Austin. All of the three brothers had a special role in the whole: Pete did the design, Mike coded the game and Nick took care of transporting the base code to all the different machines in the computing ecosystem of the 80s. To top it all, the brothers hired their sister to do the marketing and their dad as a CEO - now there’s a true family business.

Of course, this golden age of computer gaming didn’t last that long, not even with Level 9, who eventually had to get some help outside their family. A small move towards that was that their fans started to suggest designs for their new games - this was a really small move, since Pete Austin, at least by his own words, had to make crucial redesigns to make the games playable. Another step was that they did some extra work for Mosaic Publishing, a company dedicated to buy licences for books and TV series and making other companies to develop games for them.

A more substantial step happened in 1986, when Level 9 finally realised that hitting it big outside Britain might require signing a deal with a big publisher. Their first choice was Rainbird, a part of larger telecommunications company, British Telecom, and founded and directed at the time by Tony Rainbird. Rainbird had already signed a deal with another British adventure gaming company, Magnetic Scrolls, so they seemed a natural associate also for Level 9. After a while Tony Rainbird left the company, while Austin brothers became unhappy with the too institutional direction of BT. Still, they didn’t return to selling their own games, but struck a deal with a new publisher, Mandarin Software.

A major thing happening during these years was a repackaging of their old adventure games as trilogies, first two of which were published by Rainbird, while the third was left for Mandarin Software. They were not very successful, but text adventures in the latter part of 1980s just weren’t the hit they used to be, even though the old adventures were upgraded to the latest system of Level 9 and the collections each came with a novella, written by Peter McBride, to add some background and context to the games.

Now, McBride’s novellas - well, there seem to be people who like them, as even Jimmy Maher, the Digital Antiquarian, praises them. As for my opinion - McBride’s obviously a professional writer, who can make up an easy-to-read yarn, when he’s given a setting and a word count to fill. But that’s also the problem, since filling up a word count is not that often a recipe for memorable stories, since it usually means bloating the story, when trimming would be in order.
A good example is his novella for Silicon Dreams - trilogy of Level 9 scifi games. McBride’s story is set during the time of the third game, which had clever satirical overtones of Thatcherian Britain. The novella loses this satire somewhere. Instead, McBride replaces it with a mundane adventure plot and fills the lack of engaging plot with simplistic farce, which tries to induce laughter with characters so stupid they could be straight out of Idiocracy, a humor droid that constantly goes “Arf! Arf!” while it tells bad jokes (“How do you cure water in brain? With a tap on the head!”), and an alien called Whiskas who has learned English by listening to radio transmissions of Archers. This silliness could work, if the story was, say, ten pages long, but it’s quite a struggle to go through 42 pages of it.
For Silicon Dreams the novella was especially useless, since it added nothing of interest to the games, which already had a detailed and intriguing backstory. With the Time and Magik -trilogy the case was rather different, since only the two latter games were originally intended as part of the same series, while the first one had a completely different setting. McBride’s novella or short story is then essentially an attempt to paste two fantasy settings with their own mythologies into a one coherent whole. The result is not very original and you can see the seams, but at least its lack of bad jokes makes it a less excruciating read.
The biggest changes were made to the first trilogy, Jewel of Darkness. Originally, Austin brothers had envisioned these games as sequels to Lord of the Rings. Indeed, they wanted to still call the three of them together the Middle Earth trilogy. In interviews they even admitted of having ambitions of turning Tolkien’s original book into an adventure game and were disdainful of Melbourne House’s official Tolkien games. Their publisher, Rainbird, was more cautious and insisted on removing the references to Tolkien’s works. McBride’s novella was meant as a sort of replacement background for the trilogy. This was an impossible task, and McBride manages to do little more than revolve around familiar fantasy tropes: there’s a dark lord, whom the player vanquishes in the second game of the trilogy, a kingdom with slightly too cautious ruler and a foolhardy prince, an old wizard and a rangerlike Woodsman.

The most interesting personalities of this otherwise rather humdrum fantasy piece are three minor characters, living in the caverns under the dark lord’s lair. Two of them are the dwarf Brandon and the dragon. Brandon is a professional adventurer - thief, some would call him - who is after the dragon’s treasure. Unfortunately he is also a captive of the dragon and has to spend his time in polishing and cataloguing the treasure. The constant bickering of the two and Brandon’s unsuccessful attempts to leave with the valuables are the highlights of the novella, even if the story is not really about them. The third interesting character is orc commander Grok, who dreams of a time without any dark lord as a master of orcs and therefore starts a rebellion.
This is a perfect segue to the next new game of Level 9, Knight Orc, which they published also through Rainbird. The backstory is once again told in a novella by McBride, and it’s easily the best one so far, with just the right amount of whimsical comedy (and again, an obligatory Archers reference). The novella is a sequel to the one McBride did for the Jewels of Darkness, but now the three background characters are in the center spot. Dark lord has been gone for thirty years, and Grok has been living quietly with his band of orcs in the caverns, enjoying the simple pleasures of orc life, such as rotten rat pie and fighting one another. The dragon and Brandon are also down there, their love/hate-relationship culminating in the dragon promising that Brandon will inherit his fortune, only to remind the dwarf that dragons live forever.

The main plot of the novella follows the conflict of the orcs with the outside world. The neighbourhood has become a vacation spot for all the would-be-knights and glory-seeking-adventurers, who invade also the orc caverns and create mayhem with their teleport spells. In the climax of the story, the orc band escapes from the clutches of knights by leaving behind their most drunken member, Grindleguts, to joust as their champion, and destroy the bridge leading to their home.
Game itself begins with Grindleguts - the hero I am meant to control - waking and finding himself being tied to a horse. There’s nothing to do for a couple of turns, as Grindleguts is forced to ride against a knight and gets clobbered and buried under a garbage heap.

The manual is quite forward in telling me what to expect. The game apparently has three sections, two of which are intricately connected. In the first one, my task is to find my way back to the orc lair. In order to do that, I need a rope to get past the ravine where the bridge used to be.

I’ve also learned from the manual that I’ve not meant to make any map of my surroundings - a novelty in Level 9 games. Instead, I can just write down where I want to go, and Grindleguts will go there. In addition to places, I can do this with characters and objects I want to find, as long as I know what they are called. With locations, I found out some of them in McBride’s novella, while others I’ve managed to see at the top of a nearby castle.

Getting in and out of the castle already required some puzzle solving. The castle drawbridge was closed, and knocking just made it come down on Grindleguts. The trick was to throw something at the drawbridge to lower it, get in and do what you were going to do before the drawbridge rose up again. The trip to the top of the castle was also hindered by a knight, who really didn’t like orcs. Luckily, a cloak found in the garbage heap was enough to fool him.

Wearing the cloak was a good idea generally, because of the adventurers. You can hear them talking - nothing really interesting, but things you might hear in some MUD: “where’s treasure”, “I want to kill orcs” etc. MUD likeness is increased by the adventurers roving around the game world randomly, collecting valuables and fighting one another. Sometimes they even strike Grindleguts, especially if they see that he is an orc or if he pisses them of, for instance, by stealing valuables from them. I’ve found it best to just ignore both the adventurers and the valuables, especially as collecting latter has no relation to your score.

Manual suggests that at some point I might be able to command the adventurers. At least the parser allows giving a long list of tasks to the game characters, and even more, I might have to synchronise the actions of several characters. For now, I can only command Denzyl, the local dimwit, and I’ve really not found anything useful for him to do - or at least nothing Grindleguts couldn’t do himself. If I try to command anyone else, I just manage to piss them off and sometimes get Grindleguts killed in the process.
Death is more of a nuisance than a show stopper. Once Grindleguts has kicked the bucket, a valkyrie comes to take him to heaven. After a few turns, he is kicked out to the world of the living, because he is deemed not worthy to live in heaven. All you need to do then, is to collect your inventory items from the place where you died - unless someone else has appropriated them.

I’ll leave the discussion of the puzzles to my next post. Suffice to say that I’ve managed to find some of the pieces of the rope - probably the easy ones, since I’m now a bit stuck. Hopefully I’ll manage to move forward without looking at any hints.


  1. I feel like I'm speaking to an empty hall, but I am going to predict 38 for this one? Seems decent enough if a bit plain.

  2. If the game runs in a 640x200 resolution, it's not meant to use square pixels like our modern displays have. The easiest fix is to stretch each image to double height with nearest-neighbor scaling, although it's probably not exactly how the game used to look. But it would be closer to correct.

    Discussion on this: http://www.cpcwiki.eu/forum/amstrad-cpc-hardware/pixel-aspect-ratio-for-cpcplus-on-different-monitors/

    1. Yeah, I'm pretty sure the game isn't supposed to look like that. :)

      One neat trick that later Level 9 games supported was running older games on newer games' interpreters. Their last game, Scapeghost, supported VGA graphics, and from its README.TXT file:

      "COMPATIBILITY. The adventure interpreter on this disc also works with
      our previous games. For Knight Orc, Gnome Ranger and Time & Magik, copy
      your original, delete AINT.EXE and replace MENU.EXE, MENU.TXT and
      PALETTE.PIC by the new ones. For Lancelot and Ingrid's Back! copy your
      original, delete AINT.EXE and replace MENU.EXE and MENU.TXT by the new
      ones. (This allows previous games to be upgraded for screen modes not
      available when those games were released.)"

      So you should be able to play Knight Orc in VGA. :)

    2. I apologize for the images. I've been using an Atari ST -emulator I'm not used to and getting screenshots at all has been surprisingly difficult. I've now scaled the images to 4:3-ratio, which is hopefully nearer to what they should look like.

    3. No need to apologize. :) I admit the first versions of the images made me think you were playing the DOS version in some weird graphical mode (much like Kirinn did, above), but the Atari ST version (using the correct aspect ratio) is as good as it gets -- indeed, the DOS version couldn't look as good as it unless you did the "newer interpreter" trick above. :)

  3. Yeah, the pictures doesn't look as usual on this blog. Also, the writing in the game seems better than their previous games and the graphics should score better, so I guess a high 42 for this one

    1. Graphics have truly improved, but it seems to have its detriments, since there are now less images in the game. Only few of the rooms have images attached to them, which makes moving around a bit disorienting, when the game shows, for instance, the same image of a castle, even when I have long moved away from the castle. It also makes it difficult to choose screenshots for the game, since so many of them tend to look alike.

    2. Suddenly my 42 bet seems rather high.....

  4. I'm going to vote for 40, because I've heard good things about this one.

  5. Yay, Level 9 is back!! I like "Knight Orc". I'll say 45.

  6. I'll lowball a 37 for this, but I really hope that it will be better.

  7. I'll go for 36, it sounds like an interesting game at least, but I doubt it'll score too well. It's always good to read a bit of gaming history also, great post Ilmari!

  8. I remember it pretty fondly, but back in the day even it seemed kinda janky.


  9. Replies
    1. Oops. Ignore this, I posted to late and shouldn’t do those things without sleep.