Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Retrospective: Telengard

I didn't own a computer until I was well into the start of my third decade of life. Nevertheless, from my elementary school days on, I had ready access to them, thanks to friends and classmates whose families were more technophilic than my own. For example, my best friend in the latter years of grade school (and who shared my love of D&D) owned a TRS-80 on which I spent endless hours playing a primitive Star Trek game. Similarly, a high school buddy of mine had an Apple IIc, making it possible for me to play Wizardry. So, while I didn't have a computer of my own, I was quite familiar with many of the primitive models available in my youth and used them when I was able.

Of all these, the one I remember most is the Atari 400 8-bit computer. A neighborhood friend, whose older brother was a gaming mentor, owned one – or, rather, his father did – and our little circle of boys used to gather round it in his living room to goggle at this marvel of modern technology. We also played games, as we were able, most of them quite forgettable. Of course, we didn't care at the time. The mere existence of a computer game was usually enough to hold our attention, resulting in a lot of wasted time.

Looking back on those days, one game continues to stand out in my memory as being better than the rest: Telengard, released by Avalon Hill in 1982. Telengard was what would nowadays be called a "dungeon crawler" in that the focus of play was navigating one's randomly generated character through an immense, 50-level dungeon filled with all manner of monsters, traps, and treasures. Like most computer games of that era, it was exceedingly limited, both in terms of options and presentation, but that didn't matter. To a thirteen year-old in the early '80s, Telengard was unbelievably cool – and about as close as you could get to digitizing the experience of playing Dungeons & Dragons.

That's because Telengard pretty much was D&D. I'm honestly surprised that TSR didn't sue or at least legally threaten Avalon Hill over the game. Characters in the game had the exact same ability scores as in D&D and the purpose of the game was to amass experience points through defeating monsters and finding treasure, thereby achieving higher levels of power, just like D&D. The selection of monsters (36 in all) included a number obviously derived from D&D, such as the gnoll and experience point-draining wraiths and spectres. Spells and magic items were likewise derivative of Gygax and Arneson's creation, with elven cloaks and boots, magic missile, and cure light wounds available, among others. As I said, I'm startled that TSR let this slide.

The primary difference between Telengard and D&D is that the computer game had no character classes. Instead, every character was equally adept at casting spells and engaging in combat. Spellcasting was handled through the use of a spell point (or "spell unit") system, but was otherwise reminiscent of the way D&D handled magic. Interestingly, turn undead was a spell; indeed, the spell list is a mixture of those available to clerics and magic-users in D&D. This gave your character a bit more versatility than in D&D, but that's understandable as Telengard provided neither an option for multiplayer nor for the acquisition of henchmen. Instead, your character was left to his own devices in facing off against the dangers of the dungeon.

To call Telengard unforgiving is an understatement. Not only were the contents of dungeon rooms random (though, like D&D, scaled to level), the entire game was played in real time. In fact, the game manual, as I recall, takes great pains to point this out to the player. There are no safe areas except outside the dungeon itself. Further, you cannot save your progress within the dungeon. The combination of these factors meant that caution was advisable, just as in D&D. Of course, the computer was even more merciless than a living referee; no amount of whining or wheedling could convince it to keep your character alive after a foolhardy decision or a bad throw of the virtual dice.

And yet, we loved it. Some of that love was no doubt a function of neopohilia. The very idea of playing a fantasy game on a computer was simply so captivating in itself that we didn't care how hard it was to survive. At the same time, I also think that its difficulty appealed to our competitive instincts and desire for genuine challenge. Being able to escape the dungeon with enough gold to gain a new level felt like a genuine accomplishment, especially when we knew just how easy it was to turn the wrong corner and run into a dragon or a vampire, not to mention a teleporter trap that sent us to some unknown lower level. The very unfairness of Telengard was part of its attraction, I think – but then the minds of teenage boys are strange things.

I don't know that I'd enjoy Telengard or a game like it anymore. At the time, though, it was genuinely engrossing and I can still remember how much fun we all had facing off against the program. There are days when I wish I could have these kinds of experiences again.

19 comments:

  1. Loved it when I got it back in 83, and I still play it today via the Internet Archive.

    The game is a real bitch and I never get very far. But it brings back fun memories and is a fun diversion even today.

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  2. Ah, I loved Telengard! My favorite thing to do was take a low level character deep in the dungeon and try to get a pile of gold or some awesome magic item - then return to the upper levels and destroy wimpy monsters!

    I loved this game so much that years ago I made a website with complete scans of the Commodore 64 box contents and manual. If you are interested you can check it out at http://www.c64sets.com/telengard.html I even uploaded my box image to Wikipedia - and it looks like you are using that image! Great to see this game getting some of the love it deserved!

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  3. I have tried to play some of the old games from my youth, and invariably the experience is like pulling teeth. Game design back then never included any kind of fairness, and the games are often punishingly hard. Now, I just can't take it.

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  4. Been playing this game off and on since the late 80's. It never holds me for long because there's only so much punishment a person can take, but it pulls me back when the scars heal :)

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  5. Never played the game, but a lovely piece of art on the cover.

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  6. Some of the best memories of my life are staying up all night long playing Wizardry with my older brother.

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  7. I had a Commodore 64. I never got this one, but saw it in the Avalon Hill catalog and always wondered about if: love, love, love that cover art.

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  8. I remember ads for it in gaming mags and the AvHill catalog but that's teh sum total of my experience with it. IIRC the only early PC dungeoncrawler I ever played was Temple of Apshai, which was not very good even to kid me.

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  9. There was a hack where if you started your character's name with the letters "Sv", it would save your progress even if you died. I still remember my main characters, Svaltec and Svenric.

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  10. You can do a search here and find it for C64 and play all you want. Even takes a while to load ;) You can also search other old platforms (IBM DOS, Apple, etc)

    https://archive.org/details/softwarelibrary_c64_games

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  11. Hmm, I never saw this one. In high school I started playing the Scott Adams text adventures and got hooked on those and trying to write my own and typing some in from magazines. In high school we had Apple II computers (the "special made for schools" "Black Apple" - it was actually slate gray - sold by Bell and Howell). I also got into Ultima later on the IBM PC (but actually I think first on the Apple II). I saw and played Zork at Boskone (a Boston SF convention) and I remember playing the original Colossal Cave Adventure somewhere.

    These days I don't have the time or patience for computer games, not even to kill time (I have Zork installed on my phone using Frotz the open source ZIL interpreter).

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  12. My friends and I played Telengard for hours, gathered around my friend's Apple IIe and calling out recommendations to whoever was in the hotseat and actually playing. Good times!

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  13. There's some great discussion of this game on the CRPG Addict's blog http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2010/03/game-6-telengard.html?m=1

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  14. Wow! The memories! I had, and still have, Telengard for the Commodore 64. It came not on a floppy disk, but was on a cassette tape, played on C64's "datasette," the peripheral that ran software saved to cassette tapes.

    Cassette tapes take a while to load, a long while most would probably get frustrated and impatient with today and abandon playing the game. But here was the fun/interesting/crazy thing...you could interrupt the loading process from the tape at anytime by hitting the Run/Stop key, and then if you typed the word "list" the entire code for the game would come up on the screen.

    Yes, the entire computer program for the game would be displayed on the screen at this point. After many plays, I discovered this and changed the stats for all of the monsters, making them easy to kill. I could advance quickly in levels but when meeting a level-draining monster, a wraith, maybe the vampire, too, they would hit you with such rapidity, in the blink of an eye, before you could choose one of the multiple choice options that, despite my hacking their strength to low levels, they could wind-up killing my PC or knocking him down multiple levels.

    That was the frustrating thing about Telengard, the real time aspect, that gave you no fair chance to defeat those types of monsters. Of course, my changing their stats, making the monsters much weaker doesn't fall into this fairness category--instead, this is called competitive advantage :P

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    1. That is awesome that you changed their stats! I never thought to do that, but I was using the disk version and it was more difficult to time the Run/Stop key to get a listing. I did hack Jumpman though, and gave myself unlimited lives! :-)

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    2. "Of course, my changing their stats, making the monsters much weaker doesn't fall into this fairness category--instead, this is called competitive advantage :P"

      At least it had the virtue of never having been tried.

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    3. That reminds me of how I hacked Ultima II (or III I forget which). I decoded the map and all the creatures. I figured out how to make Lord British wander around instead of staying fixed. I gave myself super-PCs to see if you could defeat Lord British (you couldn't...). I put a ship in Lord British's moat (you could sail around and shoot the cannon - that still didn't kill Lord British if I recall...). All of this was done by hacking the data files, no source code to hack...

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  15. I played Telengard on my Atari 800 via a cassette drive, and I still have the tape and box. What computer games offered me then was immersion without my riotous gaggle of friends, and because the experience was new and I was only in middle school I never found it rote or predictable.

    Ultima I already existed and was superior in several important ways, but I still remember the feeling of going very deep in Telengard late at night.

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  16. "You encounter a Level 99 dragon. The dragon likes you! He gives you Elven Boots."

    I loved this game. I used to keep an emulator copy on my work computer and would jump in and play for breaks. The absurdity was a delight.

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