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The IF Elements of the Original Version(s) of Apshai, November 7, 2014
by jgerrie (Cape Breton Island, Canada)
One might normally classify this game as a kind of arcade variation of role-playing games, but it can be argued that the earliest version, written in Basic for the TRS-80 Model 1, at least if played with careful use of the manual (and a certain trick perhaps limited to the TRS-80 versions of the game that is described below) allows for a very satisfying IF experience.
In 1979 when the game was first created on the Model 1, 16K was considered an extremely generous amount of RAM for a personal computer to have. However, within the confines of such limited memory resources and before the advent of fast permanent storage devices written documentation was used by the authors to serve the role that would later be played by devices like CD ROM drives and the like. The slow speed and lack of graphics of the TRS-80 also meant that the arcade aspects of the game, that would become so prominent in the M/L versions later created for the second generation 8-bit computers (64, 800, Coleco Adam, etc.) was really not a significant element of game play, since the combat sequences unfolded more like the slow-motion tabletop dice throwing recreations of their RPG inspiration.
In the face of such limitations, the "room descriptions" of the manual were clearly not intended in this original version as mere window dressing (which in the later "arcade versions" could simply be ignored), but an integral part of the experience of the primary activity of the game, which was to explore the temple in an attempt to fill out one’s understanding of the narrative only hinted at in the carefully sketched "prologue" provided in the manual. These descriptions go far beyond providing "mood" for the otherwise dull linear graphic presentation of the rooms provided by the extremely limited graphic capabilities of the Model 1 (although they do that too, such as with their careful descriptions of the smells one encounters)—they actually provide clues for uncovering elements necessary for one’s continued survival (and thus are roughly equivalent to the puzzles and clues of more standard IF games). These clues include information about hidden passages, traps, the monsters one is likely to encounter and the possibilities of treasure and magic, all of which if interpreted correctly can greatly aid one's survival. But perhaps most important of all, they provide a set of narrative hints to the completion of the back story so as to achieve a satisfactory conclusion to the introductory narrative. So contrary to what is suggested in many standard descriptions of the game, the purpose of this early version clearly was not simply "to pillage the temple" by hacking and slashing one's way in arcade fashion through the various levels.
At least in the TRS-80 versions the purpose can be to seek by way of a carefully made set of choices conditioned by the room descriptions to progress through the four levels to discover the truth about the sinister force at the heart of Apshian civilization and defeat that force to end the "curse of Apshai." One essential aid to this way of playing the game is the SHIFT-@ key sequence of the TRS-80 machines that allows one to freeze the execution of any Basic program at any time. Using this key sequence one can halt play upon entering each room to consult the appropriate description and then use this information to help determine one’s subsequent actions. So one might decide, for example, that a room represents an unnecessary danger at a particular point given one's condition and choose to leave and return later after obtaining potential aids in other areas hinted at by other room descriptions. The authors, by combining the information storage of the existing technology of printed text with the novel (but limited) capabilities of an early 8-bit computer, were able to provide an immensely rich narrative experience that as a TRS-80 player always seemed radically different from the experiences of friends playing the game on other platforms.