Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Adventures in Porting - US PC Game Developers and the FM Towns

Released in 1989, the Fujitsu Micro (FM) Towns home computer was an amazingly powerful gaming computer for its time.  It used a 386DX CPU running at 16MHz with 1MB of RAM (upgradeable to 2MB). It could display many resolutions like 640x480 with 256 colors and could support 15-bit color at 320x240 and lots of sprites.  It came with 1x CD-ROM drive, providing redbook audio support in addition to the 4-Operator FM Synthesis 6-channel YM-2612 chip (also used in the Sega Genesis) and 8-channel 8-bit Ricoh RF5c68 PCM chip.  It also came with 2 HD floppy drives and could be connected to an external hard drive.  The Operating System, FM Towns OS, was a Windows-like GUI operating system.  A bootable only version of the OS was freely available to applications developers so their software could boot in the CD drive without needing to load the OS.

Of course, this powerful machine was available only in Japan, where it competed with the Sharp X68000 and the NEC PC-9801 series.  Of all the three system lines, the FM Towns was the closest, hardware-wise, to the IBM PC compatible machines in the west.  Fujitsu came calling to US companies looking for software to showcase their new machine, and several companies were interested.  Most licensed their games to be ported in Japan, but a few put in something extra when it came to the FM Towns.


LucasArts was quite enthusiastic when it came to the FM Towns, porting many of its classic SCUMM adventure games to the system.  Unlike other companies, they did not ship their code off to Japan for a local company to convert their game.  Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders was their one game where none of the advanced features ever found their way back to the US.

Zak's FM Towns version featured a 256 color graphics update of the 320x200 Enhanced PC version.  There was a great deal more music, with the CD containing 23 CD audio tracks for background music throughout the game.  The original C64 version had music two tracks and none of the other versions had more than that until this FM Towns version.  Most of the tracks consist of ambient noise and sounds appropriate to the scene with new age music themes popping up from time to time.  The sound effects also received an upgrade thanks to the more capable sound hardware.

Zak is easily accessible to non-Japanese players because it kept the English language text.  Not all games would use Japanese text.  However, all of LucasArts' games had a Japanese text option, but in Zak the graphics for the player characters were altered to give their eyes a larger, more anime-style look.  The effect is more creepy than cute and the faces of the non player characters are not altered.

Next we turn to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure.  This game shares the graphics from the 256-color PC VGA version, which was floppy-disk sized.  There were a few 16-color graphics left over in the PC VGA version that were fixed in the FM Towns version.  However, there is an error in the FM Towns version where some of the tiny character sprites are in 16 colors instead of 256 colors as they were in the PC VGA version.

The audio in the PC 16 color or 256 color version supported nothing better than the Adlib, but the FM Towns version's music received a huge upgrade.  The music appears to be taken from the film's soundtrack, so it really cannot get much better, quality-wise.  Not every scene and area in the PC version used music, but there are 14 tracks on the CD devoted to John Williams' recordings.

 After Indy comes Loom.  Here the graphics were updated to 256 colors, except for the icons that appear when you click on objects.  Unlike the PC version, the graphic for the FM Towns' distaff uses a palette not strictly limited to the 16 color IBM CGA/EGA palette.

Whereas the PC CD version of Loom devotes its CD audio space to speech and sound effects, the FM Towns version of Loom devotes it to music.  There are two sets of eight tracks used for music in the game, and they correspond to the music in the PC floppy disk version.  The first set of tracks (1-8) sound like they were recorded with a real orchestra.  The second set of tracks (9-16) were clearly composed with a synthesizer.  When music starts to play, the track from the first set plays, then the second set plays.  Unfortunately, after that the inferior second set track loops.  Whoever thought that was a good idea?

Interestingly, of all the boxes, only Zak and Loom used artwork that was not found on LucasArts' own PC boxes.  Indy's box art and the rest essentially follow the LucasArts' PC boxes.  Zak included a translated version of The National Inquisitor and collectible cards featuring the playable characters.  Lucas or Fujitsu went the extra mile and had the Audio Drama from Loom done by Japanese voice actors.   Loom and Zak took much longer than the other games to be converted due to their 16-color origins.  Indy for the FM Towns had been completed within two months of the PC 256-color version, while Loom took a year to be released after its 16-color PC version.

Since all the dialogue is kept from the PC floppy version and the portraits have been redone in 256 colors, some consider this to be the definitive version of the game.  The cutscenes and animations lost in the PC CD version are kept here.

With the Secret of Monkey Island, the inventory item graphics were in 16 colors compared to the 256 color pictures of the PC CD VGA version?  They were not planning 320x200 EGA 16-color support for the CD version in 1991-1992.  So why bother to create 16-color versions of these graphics?  My theory is that they were in 16-colors because the lower part of the screen is using an overlay mode.

Essentially put, many PC ports to the FM Towns would use the nearest analogous mode, 320x240. However, kanji text requires a high resolution mode.  I believe the SCUMM engine games used 320x240 with 256 colors (the mode is capable of 15-bit color) for the main graphics window and a 640x480 overlay for the text on the submenu and the spoken dialogue. This gives the kanji 16x16 pixels for each character, but the mode only supports 16 colors on the screen.  This minimized the performance hit compared to everything being drawn in a 640x480 resolution.  An unfortunate side effect is that the inventory graphics in SoMI and the closeup graphics in Loom would have to be in 16 colors.

Zak takes advantage of the extra resolution compared to its PC versions.  It essentially uses 432 of its 480 lines for the text-based portions of the game.  This allows the player to select three additional rows of inventory objects over the PC versions.  The rest of these games do not use the extra space and just leave back letterbox-like bars there.  While Loom puts the bars on the bottom of the screen, the rest of the games center the game in between top and bottom bars.  This tends to suggest that these games were made with a 1.6:1 aspect ratio in mind when most PC games, including LucasArts, really were not.

The Secret of Monkey Island looks, sounds and plays like the PC CD version.  This is when LucasArts' ports no longer have substantial value over their corresponding PC versions.

LucasArts also released Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, but Fate corresponds to its PC CD version and MI2 to its PC version, which was not enhanced for CD. Fate's Japanese text option uses the English voice acting.  Neither CD has CD audio, making them rather uninteresting from a PC perspective.  There are some palette changes, but otherwise they play the same.  LucasArts's iMUSE music engine was too complex to be handled by CD Audio at the time.  The only addition FM Towns' MI2 has over the PC release is a Japanese language option.  These games boot to a language selection screen instead of the FM Towns OS. Compare Loom with Monkey Island 2's boot options :

Origin Systems

Another interesting FM Towns port is that of Ultima VI: The False Prophet.  The major CD enhancement for this port is the addition of voice acting.  There is both English and Japanese voice acting, each is used for the appropriate language choice.  For the English voice acting, employees from Origin Studios and their relatives were used. Richard Garriott voices Lord British and Shamino, for example.  The samples are stored on the CD in files, so the resulting quality is 8-bit.  The sound effects have taken a major improvement over the PC speaker sound effects in the PC version.  This particular port was overseen by Origin.  They were probably planning to use their efforts to release an Enhanced PC CD-ROM version, but that never happened.

For Ultima VI, the 640x480 mode's extra height allows for an extra box.  Typically, this has icons to allow the user to select the English or Japanese language language, save or load a game and return to the FM Towns OS. Uniquely of the games I have sampled, Ultima VI allows you to select the language by either an executable or in the game.  When in dialogue, this allows you to select any conversation choice revealed by the dialogue without typing. Of course you can still type anything into the box to ask the character.

Origin also ported Wing Commander to the FM Towns.  The FM Towns version includes both the expansion packs and you can select either expansion pack from the main menu, unlike the PC version.  The CD audio is used for the music, while the sound effects are substantially upgraded.  Unlike Ultima VI, there is no voice acting and selecting between English and Japanese is done via executables.  Interestingly, there are three executables for each language choice, one for each drive you could use to save your progress.  In the FM Towns, Drives A and B are floppies, Drive C is for the internal ROM and Drive D is for an external hard drive.

Wing Commander II requires an installation to a hard drive, and like its predecessor it uses the CD audio for music.  Ultima Underworld uses it for voice acting heard in the introduction in the PC version.  The samples are obviously of higher quality than what floppy disks could hold, but after you finish the intro, the PC and the FM Towns should play identically thereafter.  By this time, the early FM Towns with their 386D X/16 CPUs were not quite up to the task of running these games, so a faster system was recommended.

Origin also ported the first three games in the Ultima Series as the Ultima Trilogy.  The CD audio is used for fanfare.  Richard Garriott recorded a short introduction in his Lord British voice that also plays as an audio track.  Each game has an introduction with pictures accompanied by text and one of the tracks playing.  Character creation for each game is accompanied by another track.  There is in-game music for all three Ultimas, but it is completely original.  The sound effects are digitized as well.  The graphics are completely redone in high resolution and the games may feel a bit off compared to the Apple II or PC versions.  These conversions were not done in-house by Origin.

Additionally, Origin ported Ultima IV and Ultima V to the FM Towns, but they are much less remarkable.  Ultima IV uses Ultima V's PC tiles and has two CD audio tracks with renditions of Towns and Stones.  These are played during the special introduction and main menu, otherwise music is played through the internal FM chip.  Ultima V has CD audio tracks for the Ultima Theme and Greyson's Tale, played through the special introduction and the main menu.  Otherwise Ultima 5 uses the tiles from the PC and similarly plays music through the internal FM chip.  Again these conversions were not from Origin.

For the Ultima ports, Origin used the built-in YM-2612 for music.  LucasArts did the same for MI2 and Fate of Atlantis.  In these games, the Adlib music is roughly ported to the FM Towns chip.  When I mean rough, I mean in the sense that the results are inferior to the original despite the fact that the FM Towns' YM-2612 (which is also used in the Sega Genesis) is mostly superior to the Adlib's YM-3812.

Sierra Online

Sierra only just dipped its toe into FM Towns ports.  It released King's Quest V for the FM Towns apparently before it did for the PC.   It also released Roberta Williams Mixed-Up Mother Goose which also is cut from the same cloth as the PC CD version of the game.

King's Quest V for the FM Towns has Japanese and English voice acting.  The default voice selection is Japanese, you can change it to English by clicking on the mountain button in the settings menu after you start a game.  Unfortunately, you won't be able to hear the English dialog in the introduction in this version.  Restarting the game returns you to Crispin's house, not the Title Screen.  All in-game text in this version is in English, even when the Japanese language option is selected.  No version of the King's Quest V CD version contains text for the speech or a text option.

This game uses the YM-2612 sound chip for music but does have digital sound effects.  The music does sound like it was ported from the Adlib, so do not expect much.  While the PC CD versions play a low fidelity recording of the MT-32 music for the introduction and finale of the game mixed with the voice acting in the audio file, the FM Towns version plays the FM music and the speech is not mixed with anything until the FM Towns mixes the two audio sources.

There is an early and a late version of King's Quest V for the PC CD-ROM, the major difference between the two being the processing applied to the voice samples.  In the early (December 1991 file date) version, there is minimal processing, leading to crisper sample playback but it gives very pronounced sibilant sounds.  The later (April 1992 file date) version suppresses the sibilant sounds and some of the background noise, but the overall output of the samples is noticeably more muffled.  The voice samples for the English and Japanese voice options in the FM Towns version generally follows the later PC CD version, although NewRisingSun observed there is more reverb for the narrator's voice samples.

Interestingly, while the Icon Bar from the FM Towns version is identical to the PC version, the FM Towns uses the black and white mouse cursor icons from the floppy version.  The PC version uses multicolored mouse cursor icons when run in DOS and black and white mouse cursors when run in Windows. Unfortunately, another thing the FM Towns shares with the Windows version is the ugly stretching algorithm used to stretch 320x200 graphics into 640x480 graphics, leading to lines that have uneven heights.


FTL released Dungeon Master and Chaos Strikes Back.  Both have CD audio music, but Dungeon Master II does not appear to have an English language option.  All the tracks for Dungeon Master and some of the tracks for Chaos Strikes Back were released for Dungeon Master: The Album, which could be purchased via mail order as stated in an advertisement booklet in the PC release.  These pieces were done by Western musicians.  Otherwise they look and sound like their western originals.  I must note that Chaos Strikes Back was never released for the PC.

Dungeon Master II was also released for the FM Towns two years before it was released for the PC. Dungeon Master II came on CD and floppy for the PC, but the CD does not appear to offer any advantages over the floppy.  The same CD audio tracks on the FM Towns CD can also be found on the Sega CD version of the game.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Shareware Publishing Concept - Challenging the Big Box Publishers

Shareware grew out of the "disk magazine" concept popularized by Softdisk.  For the price of a monthly subscription, Softdisk would send you a magazine with a disk or two every month packed with articles and reviews, small applications, utilities and most relevant to our discussion, games.  Softdisk made these disk magazines available for most of the popular home computer systems of the day, including the Apple II, Commodore 64 and Macintosh.  The IBM disk magazine was called Big Blue Disk, which had its debut in 1986.

Apogee Software, at that time in the person of Scott Miller, began the genesis of the Shareware concept in his Kingdom of Kroz series.  He built an engine that relied on ANSI text-based graphics for a game series called Kingdom of Kroz.  He published the initial games in this series in Big Blue Disk in the following issues :

Kingdom of Kroz - Issue 20
Dungeons of Kroz - Issue 29
Caverns of Kroz - Issue 35
Return to Kroz - Issue 47

The cover price for the magazine was $9.95, and every few months if you bought the magazine or subscribed to it, another game in the series would be available to you.  Eventually, it appears that Miller got tired of distributing through Softdisk and decided to distribute on his own through Apogee.  He struck upon the model that the first game in a series should be free (over a BBS) or available at nominal cost (for packaging and media) and the other games should be sold for retail prices.  The idea began to bear serious fruit and Apogee replaced Softdisk as the dominant publisher of low-cost PC games.

Eventually Softdisk brought out a game-specific subscription service called Gamer's Edge where the games would be provided by id Software.  A three month subscription to this service could be had for $29.99, sixth months for $49.99 and twelve months for $89.99 in 1991 dollars.  id Software, consisting primarily of John Carmack, John Romero and Adrian Carmack in the beginning, would fulfill their contract to provide a game every other month for Gamer's Edge as well as develop and release Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons.  Keen was released as shareware and published by Apogee.

The shareware aesthetic initially went to the lowest common PC hardware denominator.  Early games supported CGA 4-color graphics or 80-column ASCII/ANSI text modes, just like many programs that were simply shared from user to user in the 1980s.  In 1990, John Carmack had discovered how to make EGA cards perform pixel-perfect horizontal and vertical scrolling without consuming a ton of CPU time.  The EGA hardware was far more advanced than the CGA hardware, even though the resolution stayed the same and the color palette did not increase for most people. When Softdisk did not want to publish Commander Keen for fear of alienating all its CGA customers, id went to Apogee, which was not.  EGA was already an old graphics standard, but in 1990 and 1991 it had a mini-renaissance due to games like Commander Keen, Duke Nukem, Crystal Caves, Major Stryker and Catacomb 3-D.

Eventually, the shareware market was dominated by three companies, Apogee Software (later 3D Realms), id Software and Epic MegaGames (later Epic Games), even though id Software was only a developer.  id Software is known for its milestones, Commander Keen, Catacomb 3-D, Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom and Quake.  Epic MegaGames had the well-known Jill of the Jungle, Jazz Jackrabbit, Epic Pinball and Xargon. Apogee continued with Duke Nukem, Monster Bash and Rise of the Triad.  Softdisk hardly bowed out, it continued to publish games in the Dangerous Dave and Catacomb series.  Apogee and Epic published some well-known shareware titles like One Must Fall 2097, Tyrian, Raptor and Blake Stone developed by third parties.  Even some big box publishers associated with shareware developers, Interplay released Descent despite its status as shareware.

Shareware games are typically broken down into Episodes or Chapters.  The first of these was made available "for free" to encourage the player to purchase the full game.  This encouraged the established companies to start releasing playable demos of their new games, nothing advertises a game like a free playable sample of the gameplay.  Previously, most demonstration programs were just trailers showing gameplay footage running in a loop not unlike the attract mode of an arcade machine.  They were usually intended for a PC being displayed by a store.  However, whereas the commercial demo usually offered an hors d'oeuvre, a shareware version of a game contained a full episode, a free continental breakfast.  When you look at any shareware release, you could typically be guaranteed several hours of playtime, depending on the difficulty of the game.  Typically the full game would contain three episodes of roughly equal length. The later episodes would typically be a bit more difficult, maybe a little longer and sometimes offer new enemies, weapons and items.

In the DOS days, almost nothing was specifically for free, there was always a cost for acquisition associated with software.  If you purchased a shareware title in a store, you may have had to pay $5.00 because the retailer expected a profit.  If you downloaded it over a BBS you typically had to pay long-distance charges.  Downloading 1.44MB over a 9600 baud modem takes a lot longer than you think.  Services like Prodigy and CompuServe were accessed by fee-subscription only if you were using them to obtain games.   If you wanted to send away to the company for a disk, you had to pay shipping and handling.  Even if you copied a game from a friend, you were still paying for the disk, which usually ran to $1 per disk in the first half of the 1990s.  The shareware versions of the game were freely distributable as far and wide as they could go.

While sometimes the full game could be bought in stores, more frequently you had to purchase the game from the company directly by mail order. In today's world, where 2-day shipping from Amazon is considered good service, having to wait 2-3 weeks for delivery must have been miserable.  In the 1980s and 1990s, mail order was a major means of acquiring computer software.  Sometimes you could get deals and othertime you had to use mail order because your local Babbages, Electronics Boutique, Software Etc. or Computerland just did not have a copy of that particular game or application in stock.

In the EGA shareware era, platform games dominated.  These games were in short supply from the big box retailers and frequently did not compare to games being released for the NES, the dominant home video game device of its day.  NES games were very expensive, retailing around $50 and big box PC games were often priced at $50 and sometimes more.  By offering a similar product to the NES at a far lower cost, shareware games became sufficiently successful to fund small development houses.  However, none of these games had quite the magnificence of Super Mario Bros. 3 or Kirby's Adventure.  The NES could display more colors than EGA cards in 200-line modes, but in some games like Commander Keen 4-6 and Keen Dreams, the graphical objects were colorful and well-drawn and animated, making for a lively game.

However, eventually EGA became long in the tooth and everyone had VGA graphics, and developers began to follow suit by almost exclusively supporting VGA only.  Around this time, the success of Wolfenstein 3-D meant that more and more shareware games were going to be first person shooters.  Wolfenstein and especially DOOM caught the attention of the world to the shareware distribution model.  Whether legally or illegally, Wolfenstein and DOOM became nearly ubiquitous.  Who doesn't like to kill Nazis with a Chaingun and hear their dying screams?  I bet when someone killed Hitler in Episode 3, they may have said something like "Take that you Fascist pig, that's for Auschwitz!"  Established companies had to bring out their own first person shooters to compete.

Shareware games frequently pushed technical limits of the hardware they intended to be run on.  Big box PC games of the early 90s were typically relying on VGA Mode 13h 320x200 and its single video page.  Shareware VGA games used unchained mode to provide for four video pages, tweaked Mode-X-style resolutions like 320x240 and high refresh rates.  Most shareware games preferred to work within the hardware capabilities of VGA cards, I cannot think of many that supported SVGA resolutions and color depths.  Eventually shareware games like Wolfenstein and DOOM were ported to home consoles with wildly varying degrees of success.

Another issue with shareware games is that they tended to avoid less-common graphics and sound hardware.  No shareware game using 16-color graphics supports Tandy Graphics, even though games that did support Tandy and EGA almost always looked identical.  If you were looking for support for audio devices other than Adlib like Tandy sound, Game Blaster or even Roland MT-32, look elsewhere.  Adlib music quality was frequently first rate compared to strictly retail games which tended to focus more on the dominant MIDI devices of the time, the MT-32 then the Roland Sound Canvas.  Games supporting digital sound typically did not support anything beyond the Sound Blaster series and clones at first.  Eventually, however, there was some support for the Gravis UltraSound (often buggy) and General MIDI devices.

One hugely important development spurred by shareware was licensing game engines.  When id created Wolf3D, they licensed the technology out to Apogee to create Rise of the Triad, Capstone for Corridor 7 and Raven Software for ShadowCaster (published by Origin Systems).  Its DOOM engine found even more widespread support and id quickly became known for the quality of its 3D engines.  Of course, id had a secret weapon in John Carmack, who understood what was possible with hardware and graphics engines and has continually pushed boundaries for decades.  It was rare for big box companies to license their technology to its competitors, but eventually many of them would license the engines from id and Epic (Unreal) for their games.  One positive aspect from the shareware era was the policy of companies like id Software to release the source code to their hardware engines to allow others to make source ports of these games and design custom maps.  Many shareware games from this era have been made freeware compared to big box companies that will sit on their decades-old IPs.

Quake was the last great shareware game.  It may have been too successful because with the shareware release you could play multiplayer as you liked with anyone else.  DOOM had begun the process of players making custom multiplayer maps, but it was Quake where things began to explode.  Quake offered easy internet multiplayer through QuakeWorld, which was a Windows 95 executable with support for TCP/IP multiplayer.  It is no accident that Quake II and its successors were distributed on a strictly demo/retail basis.  However, where shareware began by catering to users or lower-end hardware, DOOM and Quake required 486s and Pentiums for any real playability, and those CPUs were still new and expensive at the time of those games' releases.

Windows 95 foretold of the impending doom of the shareware model.  Shareware games had to compete with a platform that was far more friendly to cheap, casual games than DOS ever was.  In addition, Windows games frequently came on multiple CDs and ran to hundreds of megabytes in size.  Most commercial versions of shareware games were not copy protected and were frequently pirated. Development costs had skyrocketed for quality products, as had support obligations to match.  In the end, the successful companies like id became a big developer with Quake II-4 and DOOM 3 and Epic a big publisher with its Unreal and Unreal Tournament series.

The closest thing to shareware today in terms of its distribution is the chapter/seasons releases from companies like Telltale Games.  In the Telltale Games commercial model, a complete story in a game was released as chapters or episodes over the course of several months.  One some platforms, now mainly mobile, you could usually obtain the first episode for free and then decide if you wanted to pay for later episodes.  If you knew you wanted the full game, you could buy a full season pass and receive chapters automatically as they were released.  On PC platforms, typically the season pass was the only option available and you just have to wait for the next episodes to be released.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Baldur's Gate: Character Creation and Party Choices

Apparently I have been somehow pushed or co-opted into writing a series about Baldur's Gate.  Hopefully this will be the last part, which gives my approach to character creation for this game.

Character Creation :

My main PC has always been a Human Fighter.  I get a good roll and set my Str, Dex and Con to 18 and my Int, Wis and Cha to no less than 9.  (Preferably 10 for Charisma, because 9 gives a -1 reaction adjustment).  This requires a total roll of 84, which make take a few dozen clicks of the reroll button. Judging by the Enhanced Edition, total rolling points range from 75-100, but are heavily weighted toward the low end of the scale.

When you choose a class, you are stuck with whatever exceptional strength roll you get when you increase your strength score to 18.  If you raise and lower the strength score, you will keep the first exceptional strength roll you make.  You have to reroll to get a different exceptional strength score.  However, you can raise your strength a point later in the game, and exceptional strength becomes irrelevant at that point.

With a Fighter, you have four weapon proficiency slots to use.  I set two slots for Swords and one for Blunt Weapons and one for Bows.  You will start out with 14 H.P.  I prefer Fighters to Rangers and Paladins because they can gain new levels faster than Rangers and Paladins can.  Also, Fighters have Weapon Specialization and the other two do not.  Put the points you can earn by leveling up to the Sword.  The best long sword in the game can be found at the Entrance to the Nahskel Mines in Chapter 2.

A dwarf or an elf make excellent fighters.  A dwarf has a +1 to Con for +5HP per level at Con 19.  If you raise your Con during the game, you can acquire regeneration.  However, a dwarf has a max Dex of 17, so his AC adjustment is only -3.  An elf has a max Dex of 19, making them superb archers.  But they also have a +1 to hit for Swords and Bows, sweetening the pot even more.  However, their Con maxes out at 17, giving them a benefit of only +3 HP per level.

Single Game Party Selection :

If you want to keep a harmonious party, you should pick NPCs close to your alignment.  By acting mercifully, honestly and selflessly, your reputation will increase, good party members will be happy and the shops will give you better prices.  Neutral party members will mutter but will not leave the party no matter how high your reputation becomes. Evil party members will leave if your reputation goes above 18.  Being cruel, dishonest and greedy will cause your reputation to not increase and evil characters will stay content.  Keep your reputation to no less than 10 to avoid higher prices, negative reaction adjustments and Flaming Fist posses and mercenary attacks.

I tend to favor characters you can acquire early over characters who are not obtainable until Chapter 4 or 5. You can pretty much clear out all the areas outside of Baldur's Gate (Chapter 5) before you have to go there to make progress with the plot.  If you want to stay strictly to the main plot, the Chapter 4 NPCs can be used as replacements without too much of a management headache.  None of the Chapter 5 NPCs are particularly impressive.

The Law-Neutrality-Chaos axis really has no importance in Baldur's Gate, only the Good-Neutral-Evil axis matters.  So if you want your reputation to start at the maximum, pick Lawful Good (12).  If you want take a path to the Dark Side, then pick Lawful or Neutral Evil (9) or Chaotic Evil (8).

Recommendations for a Good-Aligned Party :

Main Fighter PC

Imoen has two purposes.  First, you acquire her at level 1, so you can shape her thief abilities as you wish.  Second, you can and should Dual Class her to a Mage when she becomes a Level 6 Thief.  By the end of the game, you can get her to a Level 9 Mage.  She should advance to a Level 6 Thief very rapidly if you explore the world, and then she will be developed as a Mage until she reaches Level 7, when she reacquires her Thief abilities.

The Thief skills that should be improved are Hide in the Shadows and Find Traps.  Hide in Shadows is the most important skill because it allows her to scout out areas for monsters and encounters, especially at night.  The 2nd Level Mage Spell Invisibility can also allow you to scout around undetected and without chance of failure for a long time, but it costs a spell slot and ends when you attack a target.  Find Traps is also useful to find and disarm traps, which appear quite frequently in the ToSC Expansion and in some of the underground and even wilderness areas.  Open locks is not as important because fighters with high strength can usually force locks and a Mage can use a Knock spell.  You never really need to use the pick pocket skill (except for one instance at the Friendly Arm Inn) and you can save and reload if you fail.

Kivan makes a great archer and a pretty good front line warrior, and you can quickly pick him up at High Hedge east of Beregost.  Ajantis is also a defensible choice and can be found at the Fishing Village north of the Friendly Arm Inn.

Minsc makes a great tank and he is located right in Nashkel.  He will require you to rescue Dynaheir at the Gnoll's Stronghold, but she is worth it as is the trip to that area.

Dynaheir is an Invoker, so damage spells like Magic Missile, Melf's Acid Arrow, Lightning Bolt and Fireball are her specialty.  She cannot summon or enchant, but there are many wands that can summon monsters.  Weirdly there are no pure Mage NPCs in Baldur's Gate.  You can find Xan at the end of Chapter 2, but he is an Enchanter and cannot cast Invocation spells like the ones I just listed, essentially the opposite of Dynaheir.  Nothing clears out a horde of xvarts or gnolls like a well-placed Fireball spell.

Branwen will join the party for the price of a Stone to Flesh scroll and is located at the Naskel Carnival.  Buy it from the temple, not the huckster next to her.  She is the only good Cleric you will find early in the game, and you need a healer.  If you really want to wait until Chapter 4, you can pick up Faldorn who is a pure Druid or even Yeslick.

Recommendations for an Evil Party :

Main Fighter PC

Safana serves as Imoen's replacement for evil parties.  She is a quite a bit more closely aligned to the moral compass of this party, but she requires a bit of travel and risk to obtain.  If you can raise her Int you can dual class her to a Mage.

Viconia can be found in Peldvale, to the east of the Friendly Arm Inn and requires killing a Flaming Fist soldier.  There is no reputation loss for killing the soldier, but you will incur a -2 reputation hit whenever you add Viconia to the party.  She is a painless way to lower your reputation if it gets too high.  Even evil parties need a healer.

Kagain is in Beregost and keeping him only requires going back to the Coast Way.  He is not the best fighter but he regenerates HP and does not need your healer's attention after resting.

Shar-Teel is located in Mutamin's Garden, which is east of the Beregost Temple.  You must best her with your best male fighter before she will join.  She makes for a great front line fighter.  If your fighter is female, you should have someone with a higher strength score than Kagain to fight her.  If your main PC is a female fighter, you can use the Girdle of Masculinity/Femininity (found in the area south of the Friendly Arm Inn) to change your sex temporarily so you can best her.  Of course you may have to wait or pay for a Remove Curse spell to unequip the stupid belt.

Edwin is probably the best mage in the game and his Amulet doubles the number of first and second level spells available to him.  Magic Missile is always useful and will damage just about anything in the game.  Unfortunately, you have to kill Dynaheir at the Gnoll's Stronghold or bring him to her to keep him.  He is a Conjurer, so he cannot use Divination spells like Identify or Clairvoyance, which is only slightly annoying.  You really won't need a Mage immediately, so you can bypass the Xzar and Montaron duo.  Xzar is a decent second choice, but as a Necromancer he does not have access to Illusion spells, most notably defensive spells like Blur and Mirror Image.   In that case, Montaron should take care of your Thiefly duties.

With a multi player game, my basic recommendations remain the same.  You need three characters who are good in melee combat.  A character with good Thief skills will make the game a lot less challenging.  At least one Cleric/Druid character is a must, and two is better.  Finally, a good Mage is a must.

Multi Classing and Dual Classing :

Dual Classing has its benefits, but it is quite the investment as you build up your second class to the level of your first class.  In Imoen's example, to get the maximum Mage level, you cannot progress past level 6 as a Thief, otherwise you will hit the XP limit.  (Canonically for sequel purposes, she changes classes after Thief level 7).

Multi Classing has its benefits, but experience is split between the classes, and therefore the characters will be weaker at the end of the game than the single class characters.  Let's consider the combinations presented by the various NPCs in the game :


The game will allow a maximum of 80,500 XP to be split into each class.  That give a Fighter/Thief a maximum level of 7/8, a Fighter/Cleric a maximum level of 7/7, a Fighter/Druid 7/8, a Cleric/Illusionist 7/7 and a Cleric/Thief 7/8.  Single classed can achieve Level 8 for Fighters, Paladins, and Rangers, Level 9 Mages and Level 10 for Thieves, Bards and Druids.  Level 9 Druids can cast Level 5 Priest Spells and Level 9 Wizards can cast Level 5 Wizard Spells.

Also, know that each class gets half the HP of a single class.  A single classed Fighter can have 1-10 HP per level.  A Fighter/Thief will have 1-5 or 1-3 HP per level.  So while a Level 8 Fighter can have up to 80 HP by the end of the game, a Fighter/Thief will only have up to 53 HP.  A Fighter/Druid would only have up to 63 HP.

The Elephant in the Room :

The above advice focuses on playing a character through Baldur's Gate and its Expansion Pack, but what about its Sequel and its Expansion Pack?  You can import your character as developed in Baldur's Gate into Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn..  Only the PC gets transferred, any NPCs common to both games like Imoen and Viconia will have their own stats, items and spells for Baldur's Gate II.

Should you transfer your PC?  The benefits are that you can start your character a level above the starting level of BGII generated PCs, assuming you maxed out your XP in BG.  You also can carry over a few items from the previous game, most notably the Golden Pantaloons (or just use Cheats or a Character Editor).  You will be able to reassign your Weapon Proficiency slots and Thief Abilities.  You can keep the HP and spells you earned in BG.  You can even select a Class Kit for your character.

There are a few drawbacks to importing.  First, a character that has already Dual Classed in BG cannot select a Class Kit for his inactive class.  A Kensai to Mage in BGII is a combination that many swear by, but if you already Dual Classed in BG, it won't be available to you.  Nor can you be a Half-Orc, Sorcerer, Monk or Barbarian, races and classes that did not exist in BG.  BG was based on the basic 2nd Edition of the AD&D rules and came out in 1998.  By the year 2000, the 3rd Edition of the D&D rules had been introduced and these contributions to the tabletop game were added to BGII.  Because the Kits are not available to the low level characters in BG, they have distinct similarities to the Prestige Classes introduced in 3rd Edition.  The designers were willing to bend the rules in a 3rd Edition fashion, witness the almost-Paladin Halfling Mazzy.

Ultimately, BGII has so many opportunities to earn huge amounts of experience that you start getting achieving near godlike levels of power in Thone of Bhall.  Unless you make really poor choices in BG, whatever you do is not likely to matter much once you get into BGII.

One thing you should do is to use all the Manuals and Tomes you find in BG that raise your attribute points on yourself.  Why waste them on the NPCs?  They are not going to be transferred to BGII.  In fact, there will be some sacrifices to be made in BGII, so boosting the ability scores is a good idea.  You can't take these items with you, so use them to give yourself a permanent boost when you find them in BG.

Another thing you should do is to watch your HP increases.  Save before you level up, so if you only earn 1HP from a roll, not including Constitution bonuses, you should try again.  If you consistently get the upper end of the range of the die roll, you will be in good shape.  (Of course there is a mod that can always give you max HP on level up).  You won't have to be rolling many hit die in BGII, so you should make these early rolls count.

Avoid triple-multi classes like Fighter/Thief/Mage.  While I might not be the biggest fan of two class multi classes, a triple class multi classed character will spread out the XP too thinly.  Given a rough amount of XP available to an average party that has progressed through BG and BGII, say 4,000,000, your individual classes will still be hovering around level 12-13 by the end of Throne of Bhall.

Finally, I once brought a Fighter character through BG with an Int score of 3.  I paid for it with a great deal of frustration in BGII against a certain type of monster.  Try to keep every Ability Score in the double digits.

I do have a note of caution about the pure Fighter in BGII.  BGII notably decreased the value of Weapon Specialization.   Grand Master in BG gave you a bonus of +3 to Hit, +5 to Damage, and 3/2 extra attacks attacks per round.  Grand Master in BGII gives you a bonus of +2 to Hit, +4 to Damage, and 1/2 extra attacks attacks per round.  BGII encourages you to spread around the Weapon Proficiency points and there are so many great weapons you wish you could achieve Mastery in.  Don't overlook hammers for BGII.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The NES Zapper - How it Works, What it Works With and What is Worth Playing

NES Zapper - Original Gray Version
The NES Zapper is a nice piece of technology, consisting of a plastic housing containing a focusing lens, a photo sensor and a spring-loaded double action trigger. It was originally released as the Family Computer Gun on February 18, 1984.  It looked like a western-style six shooter and was in all black.  Nintendo even marketed a holster for it in Japan so you could simulate drawing the weapon.  Nintendo released three games in Japan for the gun, Wild Gunman, Duck Hunt and Hogan's Alley..  Only three games were released for the Famicom after that that had support for the Gun, and the support for all of them was optional : Gun Sight (a.k.a. Laser Invasion), Mad City (a.k.a. The Adventures of Bayou Billy) and Operation Wolf.

NES Zapper - Later Orange Version

In the United States, Nintendo redesigned the Zapper to have the look of a futuristic laser gun and bundled it with the initial launch NESes, then the Deluxe Set, the Action Set and finally the Power Set.  It was also sold in a standalone package for those people who only bought a Control Deck.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Baldur's Gate: Shady Multiplayer Privacy Practices

Two days ago, an Anonymous individual posted this comment to my blog regarding Baldur's Gate.  It does not show up in the comments section and only appeared in my email.  His comment was so thorough that I thought I should post it in full here:

"'While there was no central matchmaking service like integrated into the game, TCP/IP hosts were supported.'  [This is what I said in the previous blog entry, his or her comments follow]

Unfortunately, this is not correct. "Unfortunately" because Bioware integrated hidden GameSpy registration matchmaking functionality into the multiplayer module and enabled it by default for TCP/IP hosts. Yes, you read that right. If you hosted a TCP/IP game, BG would clandestinely register the game at the Gamespy servers - without your knowledge or consent. If you were hosting a TCP/IP session anyone could and would appear (unless you either disabled the functionality/otherwise blocked connections with your firewall or/password protected the game/disabled "listen to join requests").

This had to be disabled with a setting in baldur.ini (not documented, just like the hidden GameSpy functionality wasnt) as follows:


That's what the strange vague reference to the Gamespy "region" setting in the README.TXT file and the Baldur's Gate Config utility refer to - configuring which region to register the hidden in-game Gamespy multiplayer matchmaking functionality with (which is based on DirectPlay functionality) in the baldur.ini file.

So yeah any time you hosted a game all the details of it were listed and advertised (unbeknownst to you most likely unless you disabled it of course) at the GameSpy matchmaking servers for all the (GameSpy) gamingverse to see...and join, if they so chose.

In fact, BG even came with the GameSpyLite client (not documented and installed without consent along with the HEAT client) so that you could find these "undocumented hidden" multiplayer games (through Gamespy/HEAT).

So while its true there is no "in-game" CLIENT matchmaking service, there IS an "in-game" SERVER matching-making service - the undocumented hidden auto-enabled Gamespy server registration. And it was easy enough to find any/one of these games via the GameSpyLite client (or any other GameSpy client etc) which one could Alt-Tab to if needed to find a game.

In fact, when this clear violation of user privacy/connectivity control (not to mention lack of transparency and forced third party software install with no user knowledge or consent) was later made known to BioWare circa 1999/2000, they at first officially denied it, then later officially claimed that "privacy and security was not a concern when the game was first published back in 1998".

So there you have it, the scandalous sordid history of BG's in-game hidden undocumented Gamespy server registration for hosted TCP/IP games.

FWIW, some people find that disabling the (now useless due to GameSpy defunctness) hidden Gamespy server registration for hosts/servers fixes direct connection issues with clients

This is rather unusual for this time.  The days of TAGES and SecuROM and copy protection that would install rootkits on your PC without your knowledge or consent were not yet upon us.  Big Data in the form of Google services and all its competitors was still in the future.  Windows 10 is always sending some kind of data to Microsoft but what Baldur's Gate did is comparatively tame.  

I never used the multiplayer back in the day, I always assumed that you used it solely by typing in the IP address of the host computer if not trying to connect via a LAN.  That is what the manual says and that is how the interface works.  A GameSpy client could save you the trouble of finding IPs hosting games and typing the IP in.  But was it always present?  Consider the following version list for Baldur's Gate :

        1.0.4309  -  Full Release - Baldur's Gate
        1.1.4312  -  Beta Patch - Baldur's Gate
        1.1.4315  -  Release Patch and Product Revision - Baldur's Gate
        1.1.4320  -  DirectX 8.0 Multiplayer Fix - Baldur's Gate (executable only)

        1.3.5508  -  Full Release - Tales of the Sword Coast
        1.3.5512  -  Release Patch and Product Revision - Tales of the Sword Coast
        1.3.5521  -  DirectX 8.0 Multiplayer Fix - Tales of the Sword Coast (executable only)

The 1.1.4315 version's readme is where they first mention Gamespy.  My DVD-ROM has 1.1.4315 and it presumably installs the Gamespy service.  It contains the Gamespy Lite and HEAT applications.  The readme for 1.1.4315 states that "Gamespy software is automatically installed" and "Region:  This setting is used for Gamespy connections".  My Tales of the Sword Coast CD also has the Gamespy Lite and HEAT applications.

My original version, 1.0.4309, does not appear to have any Gamespy connection at first.  It isn't mentioned in the manual, the readme and the GameSpy Lite or HEAT applications are not present.   However, I have the UK release, not the US release, and the GameSpy logo is on the back of every US big box I have seen.  It does not appear to be on the UK big boxes.  When I do a straight 5CD install, no patches, no Expansion Pack, the Region setting is present in the configuration program and the is an entry for the Gamespy region is in the Baldur.ini file. Therefore, it appears to be present from the day the game went Gold.  I am not sure there are any software differences between the US and the UK launch versions outside the readme file.

Now, I am sure that someone must have wondered how strangers were joining their multiplayer servers when they had not advertised that they were hosting outside their chosen circle of friends.  When people said I saw your game on GameSpy, the next thing that the person running the server must have asked is "How does GameSpy know I am running a multiplayer BG game?"  A Yahoo Search later (remember, this is the late '90s) and I'm sure most people could figure out that their information was being communicated to GameSpy in some manner. Not that this should excuse Bioware of deceptive, security compromising practices.  Fortunately, you no longer have to worry about this since GameSpy has been shut down since 2013 and its Baldur's Gate matchmaking servers were probably shut down years earlier.  You can still host your own multiplayer game of Baldur's Gate with your friends and disable the GameSpy services using the ini entry above to ensure that you can receive your maximum performance and bandwidth.  

Saturday, September 12, 2015

AD&D Done Right : Baldur's Gate

Title Screen & Main Menu
In 1998, Bioware released Baldur's Gate, a PC RPG that would have tremendous impact on RPGs of the future.  PC RPGs were coming out of the doldrums of the mid-90s, and along with The Elder Scrolls - Daggerfall and Fallout, Baldur's Gate would forge new ways of playing RPGs.  The older CRPG series, Might and Magic, Wizardry and Ultima were no longer what they once were.  New blood was being pumped into the genre.

Character Creation
Interestingly, there is quite the technological progression at work here among these three games.  Daggerfall, released on August 31, 1996, was strictly a DOS game.  It only supported 320x200 VGA graphics with 8-bit color and separate choices for music and sound effects/speech.  Fallout, released on September 30, 1997, was a game that had separate DOS and Windows 95 executables.  It supported 640x480 SVGA graphics with 8-bit color and used all digital sound and music.  Inevitably it was ported to the Macintosh platform.  When Baldur's Gate was released on December 21, 1998, DOS was no longer receiving much support and the game ran only in Windows 95 and 98 and (unofficially) NT 4.0.  While Baldur's Gate is still using a 640x480 resolution, it requires 16/24/32-bit color support and even supports EAX extensions to DirectSound 3D.  Baldur's Gate also received the obligatory Mac port.

Starting Out in Candlekeep
Baldur's Gate was a huge game for its time.   It came on five CDs, and unlike the FMV games of the day, those CDs were packed with data you could interact with instead of just watch.  A full installation of the game with its Expansion Pack weighed in at 2.5GB.  This was during a time when many PCs had hard drives with sizes from 6-10GB.  Unless you had a substantial portion of your free space to devote to this game, you had to engage in disc swapping.  Since the game pretty much installed the contents of the first CD, that left you with four CDs to swap.  Fortunately, the content on the discs roughly mirrors the player's progression in the game.  Moreover, the content of the discs was modular.  Everything outside the first disc was optional, so you could save space by not installing the less-vital areas on your hard drive and letting the movies stream off the CDs.

Area Map
While Daggerfall's huge world was generated procedurally with 3-D graphics and Fallout's maps were primarily tile-designed based, Baldur's Gate's areas looked much more unique.  The game uses 2-D artwork throughout and the maps require a lot of memory to load.  Unless you are using a very marginal system, they do not take an unreasonable time to load. Like Fallout, Baldur's Gate uses a top down view but the perspective is not isometric (except in certain areas) but more of a bird's eye view like Ultima VII.  The game's engine will show your character even if he would otherwise be blocked by background objects.  It also utilizes the fog of war which hides portions of the area you have not explored and dims those areas where your characters are not present.

World Map (portion)
Aurally, the game has a terrific score.  The music changes from bombastic in the title screen and the city of Baldur's Gate, to softly domestic for the towns, alternately heroic and grand for the wilderness and subdued and ominous for dungeons.  Sound effects and ambient sounds like hawk cries and town chatter help sell the game world.  EAX, if supported by your hardware and software allows for effects, such as muffling in the mines and echoing in a grand hall.  When day transitions to night and vice versa, frequently the music will change to suit the time of day.

Character Journal
The game's world is taken from the Forgotten Realms AD&D setting.  The Forgotten Realms is essentially the most typical high fantasy AD&D 1st and 2nd campaign world.  It also has a very rich development since it was introduced in 1988 with sourcebooks, adventure modules and novels fleshing out the world.  The developers of Bioware decided to use this campaign setting to avoid having to construct a newly detailed world.  They did place their story in the lesser developed area of the Sword Coast in order that their stories would not be butting heads with ten years of continuous world-building and characters like Drizzt and Elminster at every step (even though both make cameos in the game).

Character Record
While some characterize the story as weak, I believe it is one of the more interesting of any AD&D game. Instead of presenting you with an Epic Quest right from the start, instead you are presented with a series of smaller quests.  This makes more sense for first level characters.  After you leave Candlekeep and find some companions, your first major quest in the storyline is to figure out what is going on in the Nashkel Mines and what is the cause of the iron plague.  Then you need to infiltrate the Bandit Camp.  Once the bandits have been pacified, you must then try to solve the mystery of the iron shortage.  Finally, you get to enter the City of Baldur's Gate to discover who is behind the Iron Throne.  Until you obtain magical weapons, the iron plague can cause your characters non-magical metal weapons to break randomly.  Parallel to these chapter goals, you are struggling to realize your true destiny and figure out why assassins keep dogging your trail.  Your main character acquires minor powers in connection to his ethical alignment (good, neutral, evil) as you learn about your true heritage.  The game is appropriately epic and sets you up for the sequel, into which you get to import your character.

The AD&D 2nd Edition ruleset is adhered to fairly strictly in this game.  The Gold Box games used the 1st Edition ruleset and they have been acknowledged as the highlight of AD&D CRPGs until Baldur's Gate came along.  Both rulesets are substantially similar and someone used to the 1st Edition rules will have no trouble adapting to the 2nd Edition rules used in this game.  The ability scores, character classes and weapons, spells and items, the basics are all here.  In some ways the game rules are simplified, there are no hirelings, coins other than gold and weapon specialization is simplified.  Unfortunately, healing your characters is a bit tedious because there is no healing spells between 1st level Cure Light Wounds and 4th level Cure Serious Wounds as a result of maintaining to canonical AD&D.  However, the 2nd level spell Slow Poison will cure rather than merely delay poison, a merciful boon to the players.

Attacked inside a house
By licensing the AD&D ruleset, the developers already had a tried and tested RPG system to use.  They could focus less on balancing some new system and concentrate more on content.  While there had been several AD&D games released between the Gold Box and Baldur's Gate, all were either forgettable (Blood & Magic), mediocre (Menzoberranzan) or just downright garbage (Descent to Undermountain).  Baldur's Gate did justice to the table top game and demonstrated that it could be adapted to a more real-time style of gameplay.

Chapter One Introduction
NPC development took a big stride in this game.  There are many good, neutral and evil NPCs and all have their strengths and weaknesses.  The NPCs have large character portraits, voice acting for various lines and can be encountered across the world.  Each has a little backstory and some are paired with other characters.  You can't have one without the other unless one dies (officially anyway).  Some NPCs have a minor quest or task you need to complete to obtain or keep them.  Good NPCs tend not to work well with Evil NPCs in the same party.  Some will fight to the death if both are kept too long in the party, especially if the main character does not have a high charisma.  While there are no PC-NPC romances or lengthy NPC quests in the official game, the developers were beginning to show that NPCs were more than just a list of stats and equipment. Unlike the Gold Box series or Fallout, you maintain complete control over all NPCs, unless charmed, confused or turned hostile.

Aftermath of an ambush and a new party member
The interface in this game is easy to grasp.  The mouse can control everything, but most actions can be executed with hotkeys and most hotkeys can be reassigned.  Every spell can be assigned to its own hotkey if you wish.  There is a very useful Quick Save and Quick Load function, but be careful when you use the latter (see below).  Inventory management is drag and drop. The action occurs in the main window surrounded on three sides by borders.  This was necessary considering the game was targeting fast Pentium MMX processors.  The interface is very responsive with buttons and sliders that give an audible click. Helpful popups are available.  You can set the game to automatically pause when an event like a character death occurs.  You can also make the game show the hit and damage rolls, so if you are constantly missing your target you know why.  The main window scrolling speed should be increased to make for a faster experience.  Additionally, except for automatic cutscenes, the A.I. speed should be updated to 35 or 40.  The speed at which the characters react is so much more fluid at the faster speed.  While inventory management is a bit of a chore due to the lack of containers and some items that should be stackable, it is nothing compared to the cumbersome management system of Pool of Radiance and other Gold Box games.  The game can be played in a Window with the Windows desktop in the background, but I prefer full screen.  A lot of thought was put into this interface and it shows.

Aftermath of a battle, don't let this happen to you
Combat is another area which received some needed attention.  When you fight, your characters attack automatically how you indicate.  You can click on the enemy they wish to attack or leave it up to the A.I., which can be customized, to attack as it thinks it should.  You don't have to direct every swing of your character's sword.  Spells are easy to cast and target.  Fireball is a particular Godsend in this game, it can clear out packs of enemies.  Lighning Bolt, however, is usually as much of a danger to your party as to the enemy because of how it ricochets off walls.  Tactics, positioning and scouting out areas with a hidden thief are very important.  You can direct summoned monsters as you would NPCs.  Potions and wands can be used via the quick items bar.  You can pause the game to direct your characters' actions, but the game will not stay paused if you enter the inventory screen.  While this may take liberties with the AD&D combat rules, it is a welcome change from the Gold Box games where every battle requires your constant attention or Temple of Elemental Evil where the fighting looks unnatural because characters act only when you tell them to act.

Baldur's Gate supported cooperative multiplayer.  While there was no central matchmaking service like integrated into the game, TCP/IP hosts were supported.  This allows the game to be played over the modern Internet today with comparative ease over games that just supported a serial null-modem, modem or IPX network connection.  Baldur's Gate allows the players to go through the game with each player controlling his or her own character, up to six characters can join a game at a time.  The first player would act as the leader and would be the central character in the game.  If he died, you would have to reload.  Because the game had to pause for dialogue and gold was always pooled in the party, the leader could control who could do what with a permissions control.  If you do not like the NPCs available in the single player game, by playing multiplayer alone you can generate all six characters to your liking.

One of the more praiseworthy elements of Baldur's Gate is the amount of customization offered.  For any created character, you can assign a portrait and voice samples to him or her from any jpg and wav file that meets the engine's specifications.  You can also generate A.I. scripts to control the character in combat or use the ones the game provides.  However, when creating a new character, you cannot simply set all your ability scores to 18s as you can with the Gold Box and Eye of the Beholder series.  You have to add and subtract points, and it is easy to spend half an hour trying to a high total number and exceptional strength at the character creation screen.  While the game does roll for your gold, it starts you off with maximum HP for the first level characters you create, but leveling up will give a random HP increase according to the class hit die.  You can import and export characters, and they will come with their experience and equipment intact.  There is also a built-in cheat system.

The game world is fleshed out in a variety of ways.  The first way is with the material included in the box.  The game comes with a large bound book called Volo's Guide to the Realms.  This book acts as the game manual, gives an overview of the Forgotten Realms and the Sword Coast and describes the relevant AD&D rules.  The book itself is 156 pages and bound with glue and uses a parchment style of printing, brown text on cream-colored paper.  There is also a double-sided poster.  The first side gives you a map of the Sword Coast, similar to the in-game map but with more detail and color.  The reverse side gives you a map of Baldur's Gate indicating where various locations are within the city.  This was very useful in the days before sites like GameBanshee laid them out using screenshots from the game itself.  The City of Baldur's Gate itself is absolutely huge, with nine full areas and teeming with quests.

In addition to the material in the box, you can read books and item descriptions.  There is a good amount of dialog and some encounters can be solved without violence.  Your character keeps a journal describing what was said and what he or she did.  The entries will be different depending on the moral alignment of your character.  All this helps to bring life to the game world.  Enemies are standard early AD&D fare.  You have kobolds, xvarts and gibberlings, Hobgoblins, Flinds  and Gnolls, Bandits and Mercenaries, Green Slimes, Gray Oozes and Ochre Jellies, Skeletons, Zombies, Ghouls and Ghasts, Ogres and Half-Ogres, Sirens and Basiliks, Skeleton Warriors and Battle Horrors, Spiders, Wolves and Bears, and others.  This gives a sufficient variety of enemies to fight, although strangely enough Orcs are absent.  You will encounter plenty of assassins and evil NPC parties to kill.  Do not expect enemies which would be inappropriate for characters at level 7 by the end of the game.

Baldur's Gate is not beyond criticism.  Most of the wilderness areas are vast but comparatively empty of set encounters.  Many of the NPC quests are simple fetch and return or kill the foozle quests.  Unlike later games, your journal does not list the assigned quests and identifies completed quests, so it can be a bit of a chore to figure out which ones you have completed if your memory is lacking.  There is a lot of combat in this game, but the variety of the combat is a bit limited.  Bows feel very overpowered, especially when Hobgoblins employ them against your party as they are wont to do early in the game.  When you travel across areas on the map, you may be ambushed.  If your party is still at the lower levels and you have Hobgoblins or Black Talon Mercenaries shooting fire arrows at you, be prepared to reload your game.  Charm and confusion spells are incredibly annoying if your party gets hit by one and they always seem to work when cast against you.

Traveling across non-Town land areas is very tedious due to the fog of war and the number of random encounters you can trigger.  Every map has trigger points where monsters will spawn.  You have to carefully send out a scout because a single character can easily be overwhelmed.  Resurrecting characters is an expense because no PC or NPC will ever be able to cast the Raise Dead spell without a scroll except for a Druid.  Also, if characters (or enemies) get killed with a critical hit, they will explode into chunks and that character is dead permanently at the default difficulty level.  But before you think you can get away with reloading, the developers devised a way to discourage that.  If you reload in an area with spawning enemies, more and more enemies will be present as you keep reloading the saved game.

Good and Evil bears some criticism in how it is handled.  Despite choosing your alignment for the main character, you cannot change it no matter how contrary to it you may act.  You can be a good character and steal all you want from locked chests and drawers so long as you do not get caught and kill the now-hostile witnesses and guards.  Playing an evil character is discouraged because the rewards for completing quests in the "evil" fashion are exceptionally stingy compared to completing quests in the "good" fashion.  Being "good" increases your reputation, which leads to lower selling prices in the shops.  Also, merchants will pay more for your goods.  Even evil parties would enjoy the benefit of lower prices, but if your reputation gets too high, then the evil NPCs will leave your party.  If you become too evil, steal too often, kill too many innocents, then the game will send parties or mercenaries or guards against you that will likely kill you.

The Expansion Pack, Tales of the Sword Coast, mainly offers more of the same.  It does address a perceived shortcoming in the original game by adding a traditional, multi-level dungeon for you to explore.  It also adds a few new areas and items and three major quests.  However, perhaps its most useful feature is that it raises the XP cap from 89,000 to 161,000.  If you were to go through the the basic game and begin to do quests outside the main storyline, your main character will easily earn well in excess of 89,000 XP.  If you do not let your NPCs die or change them too often, they will also be maxed out.  The Expansion Pack allows you to gain one more level on average for each character which you otherwise would not have been able to appreciate.  Finally, you can increase the number of character nodes eight-fold to improve pathfinding.  This is very important for the few tight maze-like maps in the game.

Thanks to the success of Baldur's Gate and other Infinity Engine games, there is a world of modifications available for Baldur's Gate.  New characters, items, spells, quests, expansion packs, you name it.  There While other Infinity Engine games may have more mods, the game that started it all has plenty of extra free content available for it.  If you do not want to buy Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition, you can still get the game up to more modern standards thanks to a widescreen patch.  However, while widescreen patches will allow you to see more of the game world, they will make your characters smaller and smaller.  Although Baldur's Gate is not a bug-ridden minefield after the official patches, there are several fan patches to fix outstanding bugs.  There are Infinity Engine viewers where you can look at the game assets in a convenient way and extract them.  The game has a screenshot feature that works most of the time, just press Print Screen and it will save to bmp in 24-bit color.  That is how I generated the screenshots in this blog entry.

If you are playing Baldur's Gate on hardware that it was current when it shipped, make sure you are using a 5-CD version (+1 CD for the Expansion Pack).  It was also released on DVD-ROM before the Expansion Pack was released and is patched and supports the standard five languages, that one is good too.  Avoid the 3-CD versions, sometimes called "The Original Saga".  They saved disc space by compressing the large area files.  This may be good for saving space but bad for performance on this hardware.  I also read somewhere several years ago that this version suffered from random crashes when loading new areas.  The best installation for those with the CDs is to do a full install of the whole game, then fully install the expansion and finally apply the 5512 patch.  Do not apply later official patches, they are not necessary if you are not using DirectX 8.0 or higher and multiplayer.  If you want to use unofficial patches, there are sites which can direct you further.