cloudy mountain (aka “ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS cartridge”) for the intellivision is a pack of neat little ideas. today an ad&d-licensed game would probably involve talking to bartenders in rural towns to take quests to go investigate a cave and kill blork the orc and bring back his stolen magic sigil, bringing you one half-step toward your ultimate goal of reaching the ancient temple and banishing the mad god. it would probably look a lot like the new elder scrolls game, basically. but in 1982 tom loughry of mattel’s “blue sky rangers” had to choose just one aspect of the dungeons & dragons experience to focus on. he chose the suspense of navigating an unknown cave system while a trecherous dungeon master springs traps and monsters on you every time you discover a new room.
what aids the sense of suspense and strategy in cloudy mountain is the limited stock of arrows the player has with which to slay enemies. she starts the game with three, and she can pick up more in the caves but they can be hard to find. the player needs to be careful in choosing which monsters to kill, which to avoid, and which to try and lure away from the treasures they’e guarding. the player can’t see into the next chamber until she enters it, but there are visual and audio clues to whether a monster is lurking in the next chamber, and what kind. a cow skull in a room, for example, indicates a dangerous monster laired in one of the adjacent chambers. standing near the doorway, the player can hear the flapping of bat wings, the snoring of a dragon, or the slurping of a slime.
this kind of clue is distinctive of cloudy mountain’s approach to design, which is to convey as much information as possible through the game world itself, rather than say a list of numbers on a status screen, like an elder scrolls game might. for example, the protagonist’s health – the number of monster attacks she can withstand before dying – is represented by the color of the protagonist on the screen, changing from black to warmer colors as she approaches death. the player’s remaining lives are represented by the number of dots that make up her adventuring party as she wanders around the map screen. the only other number to track is the number of arrows the player has in her quiver, and the game does something pretty clever to keep this off the screen.
(the player also accumulates a few tools, an axe, a boat and a key, but these are one-time use items that require work to obtain so relying on the player to remember she has them isn’t asking too much.)
one of the buttons on the controller is a “count arrows” button (the intellevision controller has a grid of buttons and an overlay to slide over them, specific to the game, to remind you what they are). when the player presses the count arrows button, the game plays a series of audio ticks – one tick for each arrow left in her quiver. if she’s only got, say, five or fewer, then the ticks are easy to count, and the number of arrows available to her is important. if the player has too many to easily count, then the specific number’s not important: it’s clear she’s got a lot, and she’s safe for a while.
using an audio reminder is super smart in a game that already places such importance on having the sound up and listening for the telltale sounds that convey information, and forcing the player to stop and take count of her arrows makes sense in a game that emphasizes planning over panic. and it lets the game cut out a level of abstraction, of distance, that having a big number plastered on every screen would create. as a similar example, look at the brilliant nes game AIR FORTRESS, and how it uses audio and visual tells, not a clock on the screen, to indicate how close a fortress is to self-destructing.
here’s a video of cloudy mountain (or rather its unlicensed prototype, “adventure”). notice how clean the game is, and how much the audio tells us about what’s going on. when you hear a series of rapid-fire ticks, that’s the player checking her arrows.