Saturday, September 5, 2009

Temple of Apshai - Version 1.0

The 8-bit generation hosted a number of dungeon crawl RPG games, with Epyx's Apshai series being among the most popular.

I'd only ever played Temple of Apshai on the Commodore 64 and Atari computers, but I had heard rumors back in the day that the game originated on the TRS-80 Model I under Epyx' predecessor, Automated Simulations.  Today I managed to track that original 1979 version down online, created by Jon Freeman, Jeff Johnson and J.W. Connelley.  This early edition is quite a bit different from the later, better-known versions -- it's much closer to the mainframe Rogue games, and not exactly action-packed.

The Dungeons & Dragons inspiration is clear -- the game opens with a character generation and equipment dialogue with the inn/shopkeeper, rendered with text prompts and typos:

The game chains from one module to another -- treating character management and dungeon exploration as separate functions allows reuse of the precious, limited RAM.  Memory is also conserved by putting all of the descriptive text in the game's manual -- so rooms and treasures are referred to only by number within the game, and the player is expected to go read the details offline.

Of course, it's 1979, before thorough QA testing became standard, and this is written in BASIC, so it suffers the vulnerabilities common to the era.  There are nine playtesters credited in the game's manual, but even so the game can be crashed rather easily at certain junctions -- after equipping my character, I tried starting the game at Level 0 in answer to the prompt, and inadvertently destroyed the universe:

So I reset the machine, started again, and was glad to find my character stats had been saved.  Unfortunately, once the "action" starts (on Level 1 this time), it's clear that the game's BASIC implementation just isn't up to the task.  Screen redraws are painfully slow -- individual pixels can actually be seen turning on and off -- so while the player/monster movement and battle system is meant to be "real-time", it feels turn-based, and sluggish at that.  The graphics are very primitive, even by TRS-80 standards, using only half of the available resolution.  The player is represented as a blocky V pointing in one of the four cardinal directions, treasures are unidentified rectangles, and the monsters are generic cross shapes, identified only by the descriptive text on the right.  It's not much to look at, and unlike many TRS-80 games it doesn't look any more impressive in motion:

(That's me on the left, facing north.  The crosshair on the right is reportedly a SWAMP RAT, guarding a treasure that, if experience up to this point has been any indication, will be the fabled TREASURE #20.)

So while the spirit is willing, the technology is lame. I probably would have enjoyed this back in 1979, or at least been interested enough to put up with its limitations, but so many better games have followed in its footsteps that it's hard to appreciate it now.  Even with my nostalgia goggles on, I think I'll stick with the later versions for my semi-annual Apshai fix.  But there's a germ of a great idea here, and it's always interesting to see where a successful series began.


  1. I've actually been following along your "Great Scott" series, but had to stick my nose in here. As far as I could tell back in the day, "Temple of Apshai" is still the same game in the later incarnations: the maps are the same, the monsters are the same, the underlying RPG system is the same. It's simply that the games are a lot faster, prettier -- and, at least on the Amiga version I remember, they have (usually short) textual room descriptions to go along with the overhead view. Actually, all the rooms in the TRS-80 version were also described... in the manual. That's why it's telling you the room number.

    While the technology was primitive even for a TRS-80 game, I'd actually submit that the game mechanics were ahead of their time for computer RPGs. It kept track of encumbrance, fatigue, armor and weapon decay; armor was actually armor (as opposed to weapon repellent, the way it still is in D&D itself 30 years later!); it took into account distance between foes in combat, allowed for minor variations in combat styles, and -- sadly, only if you actually had the room descriptions available -- the "dungeon" had a good sense of atmosphere and character. In some ways, it took well over a decade for bigger-name computer dungeon crawls to actually surpass those bars.

    IIRC, I actually "hacked" my copy of either Apshai or its sequel, Hellfire Warrior, to use a machine-language line drawing routine for the room redraws, which brought the speed up to... deathly slow as opposed to excruciating. It was remarkable how sophisticated the calculations actually going on there were -- it didn't just redraw the room in the same place on the screen, but readjusted things dynamically, taking into account line of sight and what the player had already seen before, so you might see other rooms, or just parts of other rooms, drawn. It's just unfortunate that the authors didn't learn how to do all of that in assembly code until later iterations of the game.

  2. Thanks for the comments! Another perspective is always welcome.

    I think the game's design was definitely aiming at the right goals -- but the implementation and quality control in this early version really weren't up to commercial standards (which, granted, were rapidly evolving at the time as the industry was just moving out of the hobbyist phase.)

    I'm glad that "Temple of Apshai" sold well enough to survive into its later incarnations; I agree with you that it was ahead of its time in many ways, and was an ambitious attempt to bring pencil-and-paper RPG gaming into the computer age.

    But IMO, this is a rare case where the "classic" original is clearly a great idea in need of improvement. Misspellings and crashes may have been par for the course at the time, but they make this version of the game harder to appreciate today. If I were to sit down and play it seriously, I'd likely go for one of the later Epyx releases.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Temple of Apshai! Now that was a great game in its time....I remember playing this on my trs-80 and I believe they also made a version on the Apple II but I cannot be sure (it was a while ago). I will have to read your other posts to see if your great scott comments are the scott adams adventure games....great memories here!

    1. Yes, Temple was available for the Apple II. I still have my copy and must try and fire up my machine (actually an ITT2020) to see if it still runs.

  4. I Played TOA time and time again on my dads TRS-80 over and over. I loaded the game via a cassette deck and had the dos sheet in case it didn't load properly (you had to make software corrections). This game is a first of its kind and i have been searching for it as it seems to be a part of me even to this day.
    So simple, So primitive, so one-color and so much fun. i prefer this version over the newer versions that came out. By the way...when you die... you better hope Benedict the Cleric finds you. The Dwarf steals your goodies and yes you can be errr... eaten by a monster as well. Gotta love the variables!

  5. This is up on Ebay right now. Ending 3 hours from this comment. Sorry for the short notice.