Game 359: Might & Magic: The Lava Pits Of Aznar (1983)

I feel like we've seen that dragon before. Interesting logo for Sanctum (bottom right).
Might & Magic: The Lava Pits of Aznar
United States
Sanctum Software (developer and publisher)
Released 1983 for Apple II
Date Started: 27 February 2020
Date Ended: 29 February 2020
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (To come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (To come later)
This is an interesting but frustrating game, created three years before its more famous namesake debuted. It's so obscure that I can't imagine Might and Magic creator Jon Van Caneghem ever heard of it. A search today finds a couple file hosting sites, a MobyGames entry, and a single ad from a 1983 issue of Creative Computing. Sanctum Software (of Springfield, Virginia) seems to have existed only for this game, and I can find no trace of author Rick Hoover.

Aznar was one of many early-1980s attempts to mimic the tabletop RPG experience in a text-based computer game. Its approach is similar to the better-known Eamon (1980): the player creates a character which is stored on a "hub" disk. Once loaded from that disk, he can then set out on adventures in any number of "module" disks. Hoover only ever created one Might & Magic "module," but he clearly intended to create more.

There are some ways in which he accomplished his goal admirably. Aznar is much larger and longer than an Eamon adventure or even any of the Maces and Magic titles. It takes place in an interesting setting: a ruined fortress sitting atop a volcano. I was never able to find any documentation for the game (there's a lot of in-game documentation, but it's all about the mechanics), but the goal seems to be to find and defeat the High Lord of the fortress and retrieve his magic amulet. The fortress is a sprawling place, but with logical clusters of rooms forming living areas, a dungeon, and guard quarters, as well as places where the man-made parts of the fortress transition memorably to caverns and underground hot springs.
My map of the game (click to enlarge).
The game is a proper RPG and makes use of its character elements. During character creation, players choose the character's race (human, elf, dwarf, hobbit), alignment (chaotic, neutral, good, evil), and class (warrior, wizard, and thief). Of these choices, the class is the most important. Each comes with a set of skills or (in the case of the wizard) spells that will see them through the adventure and must be used judiciously. Each class has its own way of navigating through the dungeon and solving puzzles, much like the later Quest for Glory series. So where a thief might pick a lock, a wizard will cast "Open Lock" and a warrior will just smash the door. But one thing I like is that warriors are not just unnuanced brutes. They have their own set of skills--"Power Leap," "Tower of Will," "Battle Lust," and "Death Blow" (as well as the aforementioned "Smash")--to employ at the right times.
Character creation.
The character's race matters less often, but it does matter. Elves and dwarves are alerted to some traps, for instance, and hobbits avoid damage that some other characters take. On studying the code, I don't think that alignment matters at all. Of the four attributes (strength, dexterity, wisdom, and charisma), I'm not sure charisma is ever called into play, but it's possible (I think) to create a character so dumb he can't even read, which blocks several parts of the dungeon and may even prevent winning.
The wizard gets across a lava pit in his own way.
The game also has a more advanced combat system than most text-based RPGs of the era. The game brings up your enemy's statistics along with your own and asks what type of attack you want to make. You either enter the name of a weapon or a special type of action like BACK STAB (for thieves), DEATH BLOW (for warriors), or BURNING HANDS (for wizards). Each class has to be careful about over-using skills during combat because they have a limited number of "class points" and need to save as many as possible for puzzles. You get experience for combat and solving puzzles, and you level up several times during the adventure. There are also (trivial) considerations of food and sleep.
Doing battle with an ogre.
Unfortunately, the game undoes itself with a horrible approach to its parser. I'm going to assume that it came with a document explaining the most common commands and thus forgive it for making me figure so much out on my own, but even then there are lots of problems. I'm no programmer, but my sense of most text-based games is that the commands are independent from the immediate situation. So if you're playing Zork, for instance, the game recognizes GET LAMP as a valid command even if there's no lamp in the area. It then feeds you back a context-specific error message like "there is no lamp here."

What Mr. Hoover seems to have done is to define the list of valid commands for each room at the moment that you're in the room. Thus, if you type OPEN DOOR in a room that has a door, no problem--the author anticipated that. But if you type OPEN DOOR anywhere else, the game has no idea what you're talking about, and you get a generic error message ("I do not understand this") as if you'd typed gibberish.
I'm in front of a golden door. I have a golden key. It shouldn't be this hard.
What makes this approach particularly infuriating is that the author wasn't consistent in his anticipation of commands. Sometimes the room is waiting for you to type LOOK, sometimes EXAMINE, and sometimes SEARCH. There are times that the verb is enough and other times where you have to specify a particular object. This is particularly annoying in places where the game didn't even bother to highlight the object in the description of the room, or even mention it. There's a hallway where, in order to get a password to a later room, you have to SEARCH WALL even though every room has walls and there's nothing special about this one's. There's a room where you have to SEARCH OGRE to get a set of keys, but the game didn't bother to tell you that the dead ogre is in front of you. There are a couple of rooms in which you have to intuit that LEAVE is the way out despite the command not being used anywhere else. I had to inspect the game's code when I was stuck in some of these situations.

Another oddity is that there is no sense of permanence. You can't drop objects, for instance, and the game just adds most items you find to your inventory automatically. It's common for the game to immediately transition you to the next room when you find a secret door or pick a lock, but when you return to the original room, the door is hidden and the lock locked again. Although it's generally good about remembering that you already killed certain monsters, there are a couple of rooms in which you can type ATTACK repeatedly to fight the same monsters indefinitely.

And then we have the spelling. While most of the text is well-written, it is peppered with the occasional howler of an error, as when in the instructions the author seems to think the singular form of THIEVES is THIEVE. Even worse is when you have to deliberately misspell what you want to do. A thief has to SNEEK throughout the game, and if you want to find the 300 gold pieces hidden at the bottom of the COULDRON, you'd better spell it that way.
A misspelling mars an otherwise decent description of a torture chamber.
The game begins at the locked door to the fortress, where right away the character has to use his skills or spells to get in. A bridge crosses a moat of lava on the other side, and a dexterity check determines if the character makes it across (with a loss of hit points) or dies immediately in molten rock. A trap must be disarmed on the next door or else the player experiences another instant death. In the fourth room, he has a limited amount of time to search it (for an orc sword and a note) and to reach the attic (for some gold, a battle with a stirge, and a golden key necessary to exit the fortress later) before the room collapses. If he gets out before it collapses, he finds himself in a hallway with no way to get back to the entrance, and things are quite a bit less deadly from then on. There are only a few instant deaths and the player can save anywhere.
An early room.
The main part of the fortress has some memorable encounters:
  • A group of half-orc guards drunk on ale in a storeroom. One of them is sober enough to fight and must be defeated. In an alcove of the room, the player discovers a troll feasting on one of the half-orcs and must kill it, too.
  • A watery cave with a broken sword in the water. If the player tries to investigate the sword, a slime drops on him from above and must be defeated.
  • A waste room with a plank crossing it. Careful players must find a quiet way to cross; otherwise, an otyugh erupts from the water and does battle.
  • There's a magic sword called "Ewansil" and a suit of leather armor hidden among a pile of bones in a fountain room.
  • If the player enters a kitchen, the terrified staff jumps down a trash "shoot" to escape him. If the player follows them down the "shoot," he finds (fatally) that it goes directly into a lake of lava. I guess he was so scary that the staff was willing to commit suicide.
  • Entering a small cave, the player finds a bunch of statues of previous adventurers in realistic, lifelike poses. He has only a moment to think "uh-oh" before he's attacked by a basilisk. The creature gets very favorable rolls with its gaze attack and is tough to defeat.
That's never a good sign.
In a "great hall" upstairs, the player finds a secret door in a fireplace. This goes to a series of tunnels that end in a cell in the dungeon. (There are prisoners, but they're all mute and insane from torture.) Searching the other cells results in getting surprised by an ogre and tossed back into jail, so after it happens for the first time, you have to pre-emptively ATTACK the ogre the next time, get his cell keys, open up the sixth cell, and get a hint to use the magic word ELWENTHRAL when stuck on the water.

Later, in a lower area, some stones cross a boiling underground lake and lead to the treasure chamber, where the player loots 500 gold pieces. (There are other opportunities to get smaller amounts throughout the fortress, but no place to spend it.) Using the magic word produces the boat, which the player can then sail downriver to a hydra's lair. I think this was supposed to produce a hydra, but the game was bugged and no command worked while in the lair, so I just left. You then have to climb down a well, and go through some other passages.
Summoning a magic boat.
There's a secret door that only opens with a password; a set of runes only tells you to "speak the word" to open the door. You can spend a frustrating hour trying to figure out what the word could possibly be, or you can remember your "obvious clues" in cryptic crosswords and realize that what you want to say is literally THE WORD.

Later, there's another room where you're asked a password, and you've had to search a wall to find that the "gambler's password is look backwards." But it's not LOOK BACKWARDS; it's LOOK, backwards, or KOOL.

You pass through a room with a genie by just giving him your real name and defeat a two-headed troll in a "shaft room." Climbing down the shaft puts you in a cool cavern, and this is where my game ends. There's something bugged in the program that prevents the command prompt from loading in the cavern, so the game just hangs.
The last screen that I can experience.
However, I can tell from the game file that I'm very near the end. I'm supposed to search the cavern to find a wight, kill it, then search again to find a trap door in the floor. This leads to an encounter with the High Lord. Killing him lets you take his amulet, and the gold key found very early in the game (pity the player who didn't think to type SEARCH in the attic) opens the doorway out. The fortress rumbles and crumbles behind the player as he switches back to the "genesis" disk to save his progress. I was so close I'm going to call it a win, though if someone who knows more about what they're doing wants to fiddle with the code, I wouldn't mind seeing if there was a final graphic or something.

My character aged six years in the dungeon, and judging by the code, it's possible for you to spend so long trying to solve the game that the character literally dies of old age.
My character towards the end of the game.
Without the ability to at least scan the text in the code, I wouldn't have gotten very far in the game--the parser would have defeated me--and in the day, I would have felt that the game's advertised price of $39.95 was absurd. I presume other players felt the same way, which is why we never saw a second adventure.
The game has an okay combat system, but the "most advanced combat system" might be pushing things.
Aznar gets a 18 on my GIMLET, doing best in "gameplay" (4) for its modest length and replayability, "character development" (3) for the way it actually uses the character during the game, and "magic and combat" (3) primarily for the use of magic in puzzle-solving as well as a few combat tactics. It has no NPCs and no economy, and I set "graphics, sound, and interface" to 0 since it has no graphics or sound and the interface is punishing. (I normally wouldn't punish a text-based game for a lack of graphics and would have given it at least a 1 if the text hadn't been full of errors and the parser hadn't been a nightmare.)
My final battle, against a two-headed troll.

This is certainly one of the last text-RPG hybrids that we'll see. It's interesting how so many of these games didn't quite come out right despite (presumably) the greater ease in programming a non-graphic game. I think a truly excellent text-RPG hybrid, fully evoking the experience of a tabletop gaming session, is possible, but I suspect we'll never see it.


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