You’ve heard of Ultima. You’ve heard of Wizardry. But unless you were a hardcore VIC-20 fan in the late 80s and early 90s, you may not have heard of Realms of Quest. Ghislain de Blois, head and founder of the mostly-solo development studio named Systems-IIII (after the popular System-III label of the time), has been making hardcore RPGs on the relatively forgotten console since 1986.
By chance, I happened to stumble across a screenshot of his current game-in-progress, Realms of Quest V on Twitter (follow Ghislain at @hitfan2000 if you want to see more). Entranced by the colorful, character-only graphics and seemingly hardcore dungeoneering it touted on such a limited system, I had to immediately dive in.
After a couple well-deserved deaths, I decided to look into the rest of the man’s catalogue, and I found a number of very enjoyable, well-crafted gems.
I was also lucky enough to get into contact with Ghislain, and we had a chat about his history. Keep reading to check out our Developer Spotlight, or skip to read our fantastic Developer Interview.
Dunjon – 2003 “Reslain”
Dunjon, a predecessor to Realms I, is graphically very minimal. It uses a similar method of drawing dungeons as RoQ (one byte-per-room), and even the player and enemy graphics are simple PETSCII. The most complex part of this game is the character generator, which rolls up a hero in D&D form.
As with Realms of Quest, it’s a simple dungeon hack / roguelike. You kill until you die, then you repeat. Classic, simple gameplay – easy to get hooked.
Dunjon 2 – Original release
Dunjon 2 touts more of the same from Dunjon 1, with a much cooler title screen. The level building is more maze-like and gameplay feels slightly more speedy. Encounters, too, are sometimes beneficial – a wandering bloke might shove a potion in your hands in good faith. It’s limited
in depth, as with the other early games, but it still touts the solid, bug-free and challenging role-playing experience the Realms series brings that is notably lacking on the VIC-20.
Realms of Quest II – Mega Edition
Immediately upon entering Realms II it’s apparent that the ante has been upped. Instead of the simplistic room-based maps from Realms I and the Dunjons, your quest begins outside of a town, on an overworld map. There’s mountains, trees, and lakes, and you can be ambushed at any second. You’re given no direction as to where to go or what secrets might be awaiting you.
The Anniversary version of RoQ2 includes separate battle graphics for combat on the overworld – a welcome splash of graphical appeal, but a bit of an excruciating test of patience, since this increases load times for each battle quite a bit (this is lacking from the Mega Edition). It’s also even more of a challenge than RoQI – you’re sure to fail at least once, so come prepared with band-aids for your psyche.
Ringside Wrestling / Ringside Boxing / Vicside Boxing
The Ringside games aren’t so much wrestling and boxing games as they are RPGs. You even create your own fighters and assign them stats before jumping them into the ring.
The actual fights are less than exciting for these games, and usually boil down to picking a number and watching them play out, but they are fairly unique in their own right can provide an interesting diversion (especially if you have actual hardware).
Break-Fast is a very enjoyable, ultra-simplistic breakout clone. It’s functional, and not much different than other Breakout clones on the VIC-20 (VIC Breakout, Super Smash), but it’s interesting in its own right for the hilarious title screen and bug-free experience.
Dunjon Master is an interesting yet very simplistic beast. It takes its cues from other maze games of the early 80s, generating a random maze for you in front of your eyes, then tells you to traverse it (as a white circle), occasionally interrupted by random, auto-resolving conflicts with unseen enemies.
It’s basically a quick time waster, and there’s no real depth to it – you just move around until you are killed and rack up a high score. Notable due to the drastic increase in quality Ghislain’s games take later on.
Haunted House is a small text-adventure title with a very simplistic parser and goals — get the treasure and get out. If the full-color text doesn’t get you, the bliss of mapping out a haunted house will.
Meteor Zone is an Asteroids clone, and from what it appears from the official Asteroids VIC-20 port, this one is actually quite a bit better. You even have the ability to engage hyperdrive, taking you two a new zone.
It still plays fairly slowly, and you can only shoot one bullet at a time, but it makes use of the VIC-20’s character-only graphics quite well. It’s mostly novelty at this point, but again – likely a better port of Asteroids than the official one!
As the name suggests, Monkey Kong is a conversion of Donkey Kong to the VIC-20. The graphics aren’t quite as good as the original port, and it only supports joystick (so playtesting for me wasn’t possible), but it seems to be a quite serviceable parody.
Napoleon Simulator is a turn-based, text-only strategy game with deceptive mechanics. It’s here where we first see Ghislain’s predisposition for tactical combat – the method in which you obtain victory in Napoleon Simulator is, of course, by using Napoleonic tactics. If you don’t, it won’t work.
You play as Napoleon, giving orders to each of your battalions, and watch the numbers dwindle until one side emerges the victor. Simplistic, deterministic, but fascinating in its own right.
PARA-TROOPER is an arcade-style shooter game that greatly resembles Defender. You have ten tries to shoot a paratrooper (read: an asterisk) out of the sky with your super pixel-y cannon until its game over. You score more or less points depending on where the paratrooper is on-screen when he’s taken out.
Not a horrible implementation of angular shooting on the VIC-20, but not a great one either. Interesting though, through a historic lens.
VICFALL and VICFALL II
VICFALL and VICFALL II are absolutely precious VIC-20 conversions of the Atari 2600 versions of Pitfall. They are surprisingly colorful, most of the mechanics are in place, and they are shockingly un-frustrating to play.
The controls are more responsive than you’d expect for a game like this on the VIC-20 and from what I played it remained bug-free. It even has the same player-killing issues and bugs retained faithfully from the original Atari release!
VICFALL is definitely worth a shot for any Pitfall or VIC-20 fan. I can only imagine the retrograde nostalgia by playing this on actual hardware.
Worm-Out is a variant of Snake where your tail never follows you. You have one screen to grab as much fruit as you can to max out your score without colliding with yourself.
An interesting variant that I had never played before, and the color graphics kept making me want to try one more time. Controls, too, are more responsive than you would think. Worth a go!
Realms of Quest III – Anniversary
Ahh, Realms III.
After a moderately-long hiatus, Ghislain returns with Realms III remastered in 2009 for his first Psytronik-published title.
Let’s not understate how huge Realms III is, especially for a VIC-20 title. It makes good use of the VIC-20’s full 32KB memory expansion*, and you’ll need it. It’s got a 64×64 tile world map, 8 character classes, 10 dungeons (that I know of), and it comes with a full-color manual and a complete bestiary of all 70 pain-stakingly colored pixel art monsters.
You start in a castle on the coast. In Wizardry-like fashion, you can roll up as many characters as you like of varying races and select your best combination for an adventuring party. The spacebar tabs between the different locations in town and the arrow and enter keys intuitively navigate the menus.
When you’re ready to Move About, you’re taken to the full-color world map. You wander around in Ultima-like fashion, crossing bridges, poison swamps, forests, and rocky terrain to find the Dunjons.
Enemy combat is rendered in a Wizardry/Bards Tale/Wasteland-esque fashion, with a full-color enemy sprite displayed in the window and commands are given to your party one at a time.
Combat is exceptionally challenging and does not use mercy. Your characters will die a lot, making every combat a worthy achievement.
And lastly, the beautiful, 3d-rendered dungeons!
By some miracle, Ghislain has managed to deliver a first-person dungeon crawling experience on the VIC-20. Not only that, but he came back to a series and computer that he loved and made a game that stands well on its own right, as an inspired- yet inspiring work of dedicated programmer love, bringing light and attention back to a near-forgotten console in the process.
Realms III is a great game, and even if you’ve never touched a Commodore machine before, if you’re a fan of dungeon blobbers, it’s well worth checking out.
*If you’re using VICE, RoQIII needs to be started in xvic with the -memory all command line parameter.
Ghislain du Blois Interview
Your first game I was aware of on the VIC-20 was from 1991, Realms of Quest, well after the computer’s commercial demise. Where did the drive to do “retro” development (before old-school was even a thing) come from?
My very first computer was the Commodore VIC-20 and that is where my I attachment comes from. How I obtained one is a story in itself. Back in 1982 when I was 8 years old, Pepsi-Cola had a contest in Northern Ontario (Canada) where you collected bottle caps from the sodas that were purchased from them. You had to collect five where each of them would spell V-I-C-2-0. AT first, I had quickly collected all of the letters, save for “C=” (the Commodore “Chicken Head” logo) which was effectively the bottle cap underlay that won you the prize.
(take note of the word “ordinateur” which is French for “computer”. The contest was held in Northern Ontario, Canada which has a large French speaking population)
How I was able to find that rare bottle cap took some initiative on my part. My grandmother who lived in another city nearby at the time owned a convenience store. And conveniently, she sold Pepsi products and even more convenient, her store had a bottle opener that customers would use and the caps would fall into and get collected into a container. I had asked my grandmother to keep the bottle caps so that when me, my brothers and parents would visit her, I could remove the rubber underlays from the Pepsi caps to find the “C=”. And when I did, I had such a great thrill. Perhaps having such a great grandmother as a resource gave me an unfair advantage over the others who were trying to win, but considering that I continue to produce actual software for said computer, I’d say that I was definitely destined to win.
I had this VIC-20 for 5 years. During that time, I had tried to make many of my own games in BASIC, not being content with just playing those that came on cartridge. Unfortunately, I did not have a storage device (not even a Datassette) so that many of the games that I had made are lost forever. However, I had friends with VIC-20s who did have Datassettes and I would often go to their houses and create a few games (and actually save my work) during sleepover sessions. We formed a VIC-20 group called “System IIII” where they would tell me game ideas for me to program as I was the most competent programmer among them. Fortunately, some of these creations from the mid-1980s had survived and I was able to improve on the original programming for a collection of games I had put out in 2015 entitled “System IIII Catalog: 1986-1990”.
(While the original System IIII had more or less disbanded by 1988, it’s primary creator would revive the name when he would acquire another VIC-20 a couple of years later)
You can read about and download these games right here: http://sleepingelephant.com/ipw-web/bulletin/bb/viewtopic.php?t=7600
Eventually, I would get a C64 and even though it was technically the “better” computer, I would always reminisce about the VIC-20. I had even typed in a COMPUTE!’s Gazette program called “VIC-20” emulator for the C64 because I liked my old machine so much. In 1990, I had purchased the VIC-20 from one of the original System IIII members so that I could finally be reunited with my original machine.
What games at the time (and now) would you say are your biggest inspirations?
Ultima IV is probably _the_ game that fueled the creative spark and my love of computer roleplaying games. This game had it all: great graphics, music, atmosphere and a vast world to explore and discover. Other games that I am also heavily influenced by are Phantasie (for it’s large variety of races and classes to choose from), Telengard (for stripping down the RPG down to it’s most basic elements) and later on, Oubliette which originated on computer mainframes in the 1970s that predated Wizardry (and is now currently available on Android and iOS). Moreover, Realms of Quest IV and V are also heavily influenced by Oubliette.
There’s a rumor you were still in high school at the time RoQ1 was released, is this true and do you have any anecdotes about making VIC-20 games back then?
It is quite true that I had begun developing Realms of Quest I while I was in high school. But this wasn’t my first RPG game–I had made Video Quest for System IIII around 1986 (a very simple dungeon crawler). And some time after my VIC-20 died, I would go to a friend’s house to play on his C64 and we’d attempt to make our own computer roleplaying games, which became half-completed projects that were so difficult to manage. On three seperate occasions during 1988-89, we made attempts to create our own Ultima-style game.
So back to 1991, I had started to program a game that was similar to Telengard for the VIC-20. Gone was the ambition to recreate Ultima and I would be successful in creating and finally completing a computer role playing game that was a cohesive and defined game world. While the inaugural game of the Realms of Quest series was modest in it’s scope, I had my first “real” computer RPG under my belt. I had also commissioned my youngest brother to create the maps of the 20 level dungeon.
(First image courtesy of rubygolem.wordpress.com)
What is the biggest challenge you face with the limitations of the hardware, particularly as you continue to expand features title-to-title? (Memory? Graphical capability? Speed?)
While Realms of Quest I and II were for the unexpanded VIC-20 (which has 5KB of RAM), Realms of Quest III onwards used greater memory expansion. As long as one is efficient in their programming, a 32KB expanded VIC-20 should be quite plentiful if one is used to programming on the unexpanded machine. The VIC-20 does have a smaller screen (22*23 characters) and you have to plan accordingly as well. Realms III was a game that fit entirely in RAM (32KB) while Realms IV used 24KB of expansion memory but had datafiles that used an entire disk side. The latest game of the series, Realms of Quest V, which is currently in development will encompass 600 KB of storage memory that spans over 4 floppy disk sides. The challenge for me is not so much about the limitations of the machine but actually creating and organizing such a large project. I keep track of everything through a large Excel spreadsheet where I document as much of the game as possible, including the purpose of every file. Realms V is going to have about 350 digitized images, 20 pieces of in-context music, 20 cities and 20 dungeons to explore.
What keeps driving you to continue VIC-20 development instead of moving your efforts to a more manageable platform with a potentially broader audience?
I actually seriously considered making Realms of Quest IV (and V) for the C64 but I always decide in the end, to make it for the VIC-20. Something about the way the graphics look, the quite garish and charming sound that it produces–there is no machine that is quite like it. I could certainly reach a larger audience with the C64, but there have been so many computer RPGs made for it, my game would be just one among many. I would also be competing against Ultima V and the Gold Box games which were made by quite a large team of creators. But I think Realms of Quest IV certainly measures up to the original Wizardry and Realms V is looking to be as good as those RPGs that were being made for the C64 in the mid to late 1980s. A grand RPG for the VIC-20 is quite unique for that platform and I hope to reach full market penetration among it’s users and even even beyond. I am also actively posting on Twitter now to raise awareness for the game (http://twitter.com/hitfan2000)
Your Theater of War series of games has generated a small loyal following. Is there any plans to revisit the series later?
True story about Theater of War I: I had programmed the entire game on the actual machine (including the 6502 ML routines) back in 2010. It is quite a simple and fun game engine. There’s a certain “rock-paper-scissors” element and symmetry to these games. If I do plan on revisiting these, I would like to make them for Android or iOS and allow people to play against each other online.
What about Ultimate Quest, given the resurgence in Ultima-style indie games lately?
Ultimate Quest: Catacomb is actually the culmination of the three aborted RPG projects I had attempted to create with a friend for the C64 back in the 1980s (as mentioned earlier in the article). They were called: Quest Realms, Ultimate Quest and Catacomb, respectively. In late 2013, after principal development on Realms IV was completed, I decided to revisit these partially-completed games and combine them all into a single one so that it could be featured on side 2 of that release. With greater programming and organizational ability I was able to finally express what I had attempted to do back in the day when I was a teenager programming on my friend’s computer.
(The disjointed pieces of my failed attempts at computer RPG making in the 1980s would eventually become…
… Ultimate Quest: Catacomb in 2013! Take note that after the original System IIII VIC-20 Club had disbanded, there was the short-lived Reslain Systems to carry the torch for the C64.)
What marked your decision to work with Psytronik as a publisher? How would you describe your experience working with them in the context of publishing games for computers out of circulation?
At the time I was making Realms of Quest III in 2009, I thought that Psytronik was the logical choice. They create the packaging and they have ties to the retrogaming community. There is a lot of risk and uncertainty in producing types of games in physical format and this takes the process out of my hands. AS well, Psytronik has it’s own loyal following and built-in audience who want to have a complete collection of their games. I was quite thrilled when a preview for Realms of Quest III had appeared in Retro Gamer magazine thanks to them.
(Psytronik is quite good at getting the word out on your retrogaming creations)
How did the Cronosoft and Psytronik connections come about?
I approached both and offered them my games to publish. I like to think that I produce a quality product that others would appreciate.
Are you doing all the development individually?
For Realms of Quest V, I’ve done all of the game engine save for a display routine that increases the number of colors that are being displayed on the same scanline (a big thank you goes to Mike from the VIC-20 Denial forum). Ryan Liston has created the music for the game and I’m also getting a lot of help from Ruby Golem in producing the dungeons for the game.
What’s the thing (feature, NPC, anything) you’re MOST excited about in your upcoming Realms of Quest V?
While I’m quite proud of the NPC features in Realms V, I am quite excited that this grand adventure game will showcase 350 graphical pieces. Nothing like this has ever been done for a quaint machine like the Commodore VIC-20. Some people have noted that this would have been the “killer app” for the machine if it had come out back in the day.
What is on the horizon for System IIII Games after Realms V? Do you plan on continuing the RoQ series, more VIC-20 games, or have you been thinking of something else?
While I’ve said this with every single game after Realms III, I swear that this will be my final 8-bit RPG game ever. I’ve not thought of any other projects save for looking into developing games for Android and iOS.
Do you have any games that are just sitting on your drives unfinished that you may release one day?
I’ve pretty much scoured almost everything out of my past Commodore projects and put them out there in one form or other. There are a few text-based adventures (interactive fiction) that I did for the C64 that I haven’t put out yet. Maybe I can convert them for the VIC-20 and bundle them with Realms V if there is enough room on the disk when all is said and done.
Any thoughts for doing games on other systems? CPC464, Dreamcast, Spectrum?
The only other classic machine I would consider doing development for is the C64. I did read the Stella Programmer’s Manual for the Atari 2600 many years ago and I understand how the machine works, but I never got around to making a game for it.
Thank you for agreeing to our interview, please take a moment to tell us a little about you?
You’re most very welcome. I would describe myself as having a technical and creative side, which is why I like to make computer roleplaying games.
What do you for a living now?
I’ve been working in information technology for the vast majority of my working life. I had type-in game programs published in Commodore Magazine back in the 1980s. IN high school I had a ummer job where I performed data entry duties. In order to obtain my diploma in Computer Science in college, I programmed a chess engine that could play against itself. Other notable accomplishments include being on the original team that created and launched the Prime Minsiter of Canada’s website, and I programmed a robot dialer used by telemarketers. I know that makes me evil in some peoples’ eyes, but I did that during the dotcom crash and I had to earn a living somehow 🙂
Whats the scene like in Canada?
The retro scene in Canada is probably closer to the American one compared to the European. There’s a cultural difference between North America and Europe as far as the Commodore scene goes. The demos coming out of Europe are constantly pushing the limits of the graphic chips. And there are certainly more websites and publications coming out of Europe as well.
We North Americans though, are quite adept at making strategy and computer roleplaying games 🙂
Are you surprised with the resurgence in retro gaming?
Being a professional in information technology, I get strange reactions when they find out about my hobby. I’ve been called a “computer amish guy” by one colleague. The thing with tech is that there is constant disruption and discarding of the old ways to do things. But I look at creating games for old platforms to be the equivalent of restoring old classic cars. There are radio stations that play classic songs that people remember. There was an article in the New York Times about a typewriter repairman who started his business in the 1930s who kept it running up until his death a few years ago. The business employed hundreds of people at it’s peak and in the final years of his life, he was the only one left. When he passed way, the knowledge about how to repair electric typewriters died with him.
I think it’s great that there is a retro scene. The popularity seems to ebb and flow. As the audience for 1980s video games gets older, will games from the 2000s get the same waves of nostalgia by the coming generations? Nostalgia is certainly nothing new and it’s largely driven by the desire by those who wish they could go back and be young again.
I think a good indicator about the popularity of the retro computing scene can be seen with the prices of old computers on eBay, they seem to be getting more expensive lately. But this could also be caused by the fact that these machines break down and die with the passing years as well.
Lastly, what would you say to someone who has never heard of Realms of Quest (or possibly even the VIC-20) before, and is thinking of getting their feet wet?
While the game is for an older platform, they are quite playable on PC with emulation. In fact, Realms V is programmed with emulation on the PC in mind–the cursor keys control movement and the ESC key can be used to go back to a previous menu. Fans of blobber-style RPG games will certainly enjoy these games from Realms III onwards.
Thank you for taking the time to ask these questions. If anybody wants to discuss Realms of Quest or my other projects I can be contacted at @hitfan2000 on Twitter or at ghislaindeblois(@}gmail.com by email.
While you wait for Realms of Quest V, be sure to pick up Realms of Quest IV – it’s only a dollar!
And don’t miss out on the currently 100% free Realms of Quest Trilogy, which contains a compilation Systems IIII disk that includes all of the retrospected titles above!
While you’re at it, or if you’re on the fence, read our brand-spanking new review of Realms of Quest I here:
What are you waiting for? Get to dungeoneering!
Even the God-Emperor Fou-Lu eats at Cook-Out.
Indie dev, retro gamer, tech blunderer.
Proud Ultima Dragon.