A Review of Epyx's The Sword of Fargoal (1982)

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Matt Barton's picture

Jeff McCord's The Sword of Fargoal, released in 1982 for the Commodore VIC 20 and updated in 1983 for the Commodore 64, is one of the most accessible and innovative of the 8-bit computer role playing games. Every serious "Commodork" is familiar with the title, and for good reason. As I see it, there are essentially two qualities that earn this game its venerable status as classic. First, it's a highly accessible game that anyone can learn to play in minutes. Secondly, the creative "fog of war" effect, real-time gameplay, and creepy sound effects generate far more suspense than most other early RPGs. Even in 2006, nearly a quarter century after its release, The Sword of Fargoal still offers compelling and addictive gameplay.

Sword of Fargoal, C-64: Looks like I'm in trouble.Sword of Fargoal, C-64: Looks like I'm in trouble.Story
The background story of Fargoal is definitely not one of its more enduring qualities, but I suppose there are only so many pretexts that can explain why a sane individual would take it upon himself to go romping through a trap and monster-infested dungeon, all by his lonesome. The "plot" of Fargoal, if we can call it that, amounts to finding a magical sword (the game's namesake) which will allow a blind hero named Gedwyn to conquer an evil wizard, Umla. As far as I can tell, the "story" to this game is available only in the game manual. The game itself doesn't seem to make any references to Gedwyn or Umla. Indeed, players who manage to win the game are merely told that "The Quest is Complete!" Obviously, the storyline isn't what makes this game noteworthy! Like many games of this era, the "story" was probably an afterthought, and it's told entirely in the manual.

All the player really needs to know is that somewhere between the 15th and 20th level of the dungeon is the Sword of Fargoal. You must find this sword and bring it back up to the top before your time runs out...

The Rules of the Game
In many ways, Fargoal is a typical "dungeon crawler." There's not much to do beyond descending deeper and deeper into the dungeon, slaying increasingly stronger monsters. True to Nietzsche's claim that "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," your avatar will emerge from each victorious battle with a bit more "experience." Eventually, when the avatar has accumulated enough experience, he will gain a level, which brings with it a boost in his stats (he'll be able to take more damage before dying as well as mete out more punishment to his many enemies). The avatar can also bring the gold he finds to special "temples," where he can sacrifice it to the gods for instant experience.

Fargoal on the VIC-20: While not as sharp as the C-64's version, in some ways the VIC version is a greater technical achievement.Fargoal on the VIC-20: While not as sharp as the C-64's version, in some ways the VIC version is a greater technical achievement.Fargoal is presented in a 2D, topdown view. At first, the dungeon is almost entirely shrouded in a dense fog. As the player explores the area, the map is automatically updated, and the world under the fog is slowly revelaed. Since each dungeon level is randomly generated, however, going upstairs and back down will not bring the player back to same area--a new map must be made each time the avatar goes up or down a level. While this fact might make the game slightly less "realistic," the upside is that each level is a slightly new experience, guaranteeing a high replay value. This feature is why many reviewers like to compare Fargoal to the venerable old unix game Rogue.

Combat is initiated when the avatar moves onto a square containing an enemy, or when an enemy moves to intercept him. If the enemy intercepts, then the fight is to the death. If the player initiates battle, though, he can run away if the fighting gets too intense. After a battle, the avatar's hitpoints begin automatically generating, though standing on a temple square will speed up the healing process. There are some 20 types of creatures you can encounter in the dungeons, randing from "human type" beings like Elvin Rangers and Dwarven Defenders to more traditional "dumb brute" types like ogres and werebears. Obviously, players interested in their avatar's survival will learn which creatures are too tough for their avatar at his present level and avoid them.

There are also traps sprinkled throughout the dungeon. Some explode, others involve cave-ins, and others are pits that will not only damage you, but also drop you into a lower and more dangerous level of the dungeon.

Thankfully, everything in the dungeons is not out to kill you. Besides the many sacks of gold lying about, there are an assortment of magical scrolls to give your avatar an edge. The most important of these is the teleport scroll, which can be used to avoid taking damage from the traps. There are also scrolls to speed up the healing process, strengthen the player's defenses, make the player invisible from monsters, and light up unexplored portions of the dungeon. The player can also find healing potions, which instantly heal the avatar after a battle or trap. Finally, the player can also find enchnated weapons to help him vanquish foes. Strategically marshalling these resources will make a huge difference in the quest to retrieve Fargoal.

Dynamic Tension
Much like DynaMicro's Dungeons of Daggorath for the TRS-80, Fargoal incorporates lots of techniques to help ratchet up the tension and keep the player on the edge of her seat. The key trick is the fog effect. As the avatar roams the dungeon, he's never sure what manner of creatures the fog is hiding. They can emerge from unexplored areas at any time, even (or perhaps, especially when) the player has just barely survived an encounter and hasn't had time to heal. The fog helps recreate some of the real-life anxiety we feel exploring new environments in which we don't know what to expect around the next corner. There are also "mystery squares" that could be valuable treasures or vicious traps--the only way to know is to step onto them and hope for the best. These little games of chance also keep the player in suspense.

Probably the most noticeable mood setter, however, is the innovative use of sound. In Fargoal, this amounts to the playing of two sinister-sounding chords at regular intervals. These chords signify the movement of monsters around the dungeon. These creepy sounds are nicely balanced against the other sounds, such as the chirpy effect that follows acquiring a treasure. There's also a snippet of heroic chords when the avatar triumphs over a monster. Essentially, the various sounds and music in the game lend tremendous ambience to the avatar's actions. If you have any doubts about McCord's genius with sound in Fargoal, try playing the game with the sound turned off--and watch a formerly exciting game become a dull plod through a boring dungeon.

Finally, the real-time effects of monster movement, hit point regeneration, and the timed sequence at the end of the game add even more suspense. A player who leaves the game for a cup of coffee may find his avatar dead when he returns--the monsters won't wait, but continuously prowl around the dungeons searching for blood. Furthermore, monsters can always come up the stairs, so a level is never totally "clear." The only place where the avatar can rest safely is in a temple, which are far and few between in the dungeons. Likewise, since hit point regeneration can take some time, it's necessary to work hard to avoid encountering other monsters when the avatar is weak. A wrong move into a trap or fresh monster can lead to sudden death.

If a player actually manages to find the Sword of Fargoal (and I must admit, I have yet to do so!), the game gives him 33 minutes to clamber back up to the top. If 33 minutes sounds like a long time, consider that due to the random dungeon setup, each of those 15-22 levels will be unexplored and crawling with monsters. Sword of Fargoal is not a game for wimps.

Fargoal, the Remake.: What's stopping you? Download it now!Fargoal, the Remake.: What's stopping you? Download it now!Sword of Fargoal Today
There are many ways to enjoy Sword of Fargoal today. "Purists" may want to seek out the original VIC 20 version, but most folks will probably want the enhanced version for the Commodore 64, available on this fanpage with the permission of the author (along with the much-needed manual). Both of these ROMs will require a proper emulator; I recommend VICE.

If emulation isn't your bag, then I'd highly recommend the authorized remake of Sword of Fargoal by Paul Pridham and Elias Pschernig. There's a version for the PC and the Mac. From what I can see, the remake is excellent and highly configurable (each enhancement to the original game is optional). This remake is shareware, so folks who find themselves playing it constantly ought to pony up $10 to reward Paul and Elias. Happy hacking!

Comments

Anonymous (not verified)
The original author made an

The original author made an awesome remake for the iPhone. It's brilliant.

Bill Loguidice
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Really?
Anonymous wrote:

The original author made an awesome remake for the iPhone. It's brilliant.

You mean this on our front page? http://www.armchairarcade.com/neo/node/3072 ;-)

Matt Barton also has an excellent Matt Chat video linked in that same blog post with Jeff McCord himself.

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.
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Mark Vergeer
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direct link.... google fly in?
Bill Loguidice wrote:
Anonymous wrote:

The original author made an awesome remake for the iPhone. It's brilliant.

You mean this on our front page? http://www.armchairarcade.com/neo/node/3072 ;-)

Matt Barton also has an excellent Matt Chat video linked in that same blog post with Jeff McCord himself.

Books!
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.
[About Me]

Perhaps this Anonymous user came in through a Google Search and didn't see the front page but felt like leaving a note....

PS3: MarkVergeer | Xbox 360: Lactobacillus P | Wii: 8151 3435 8469 3138
Armchair arcade Editor | Pixellator | www.markvergeer.nl

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Bill Loguidice
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I know, Mark, hence the wink

I know, Mark, hence the wink and the smile. I just wanted to basically point out that, yeah, we're with him on that. I hope people at least check out the main page when they're here. It's not like it changes every day.

Books!
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.
[About Me]

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Mark Vergeer
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arggh dyslexia kicking in...

I totally didn't see the ;-)

PS3: MarkVergeer | Xbox 360: Lactobacillus P | Wii: 8151 3435 8469 3138
Armchair arcade Editor | Pixellator | www.markvergeer.nl

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