Posted by: Ben | December 5, 2010

Man vs Genre: Moebius: The Orb Of Celestial Harmony

The Facts

Here is everything I know about Moebius: The Orb Of Celestial Harmony, most of which I learned from Wikipedia: It was released by Origin in about 1985, although Amiga versions were appearing as late as circa 1988. Despite the name, it would appear to be set in a fictionalised version of the Far East and as tends to be the way with such things, it revolves heavily around martial arts. In a classic attempt at inter-format co-operation I’m going to be attempting to play the DOS version using the C64 manual.

The Cover

There appear to be two versions, which are most likely the US and UK releases. The Microprose (UK) packaging is pretty standard martial arts fare in a fairly crass attempt to hoodwink the Yie Ar Kung Fu crowd. The Origin (US) version is unsurprisingly Ultima-esque, and features a skellington crucified on a bamboo cross. I admire skellingtons, because no matter how uncomfortable the position they find themselves in, whether nailed to a bamboo cross, buried under feet of dirt in the woods or just lying about the fields, they always seem to have a smile on their bony faces. We have much to learn from our fleshless cousins. The subtitle on this version looks at first glance as though it could have been written in Chinese, but my Chinese is obviously better than I thought because I can just about read that it says “The Orb Celestial Of something or other.” Oh, and there’s a tiny little mini-ninja in the bottom right hand corner. Bless.

The Lore

“He who does not understand words cannot understand people.”

Confucius. Not one of his best.

“Twas in the year of the Yak that the disciple Kaimen abandoned the one true path of Moebius the Windwalker and stole the Orb of Celestial Harmony.”

Google is my best friend. There never was a Year of the Yak. Kaimen is possibly a non-violent martial art like tai chi. Moebius is definitely a German name. I don’t know what a windwalker is because the internet knows sod all about anything. It might be something to do with Native Americans. And the Orb of Celestial Harmony is what the bad guy steals in Moebius, otherwise there wouldn’t be a game.

Character Building

My ideal would be to create a female character and call her Jade Empire after the Bioware game, but since any character I create is going to be a heavily bearded gentleman, a more manly name is required. I need something recognisably Eastern but not too culturally specific, as my tendency to use the same character names requires the ability to re-use it in Pan-Asian adventures from Sapporo to Singapore. So after months of painstaking cultural research I settle on Jackie Empire.

Sadly, you’re not allowed to do anything at all until you get trained. I need to choose between Bare Hands, Sword and Divination. I go for Bare Hands, and I’m allowed to choose whether to fight an Assassin or a Palace Guard. Neither sounds especially appealing, but I’m not sure if I want to go up against an Assassin at this stage, in case I get assassinated. I go for the Palace Guard. I’m thrust straight into the worst beat-em-up ever, where I’m assigned the task of mashing keys randomly until the other guy falls over, or I do. To be honest I’ve never had the patience for this kind of game, especially the post Street Fighter 2 variation where nerdily learning combos wins out over amateurish jump-and-kick enthusiasm, and let’s face it, anyone unimpressed by Street Fighter 2 is probably not going to be bowled over by a hideously ugly 1980’s IBM PC variant on the same theme with roguelike controls. Luckily for me, combat is piss-easy and my random button mashing knocks him flat, even though he has a sword and I haven’t.

Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough.

“You are approaching mastery,” says my mysterious instructor (possibly Moebius himself, although the manual seems to imply that Moebius has cast off his physical body to become a being of pure energy).

So I take on the Assassin in a sword fight. As expected, he proves a tougher challenge, but now I’m the one with the sword, and after about twenty powerful slashes to the bollocks, he eventually goes down, leaving me with a newfound respect for the way of the ninja.

Always beat up a ninja to build confidence before heading out into a dangerous environment.

The next stage of the training process is Divination, which involves staring at a rotating yin-yang symbol in a box and mashing keys randomly until you achieve Illumination, or rather your character does, and the Begin A New Adventure option appears onscreen.

Finally, here are Jackie’s stats:

I'm intrigued by 'Available'.

Bizarrely, the character information screen is also telling me that I have retrieved the Orb 0 times, which suggests that Moebius should be more careful where he leaves it.

The Game

Oh dear Christ that is hideous. What you can't see from this picture is that his eyes are constantly moving from side to side like a criminal.

Apart from the utterly hideous graphics it initally seemed to be your standard Ultima-style wander-around. There turned out to be a day-night cycle which means that every few turns you can’t see where you’re going. which is exceptionally irritating. Perhaps the intention is to make you camp overnight, but after some initial disorientation, I decided it would be better if I didn’t let it put me off, and carried on walking.

About halfway through the second day, I saw a vision of Moebius, who told me he was pleased with my progress. Thanks, Moebius!

That night I was attacked by a tiger. I defeated it in single combat (sadly, text only this time) and stole its teeth. The beast escaped into the bush. Good luck without your teeth, tiger. I think I must be a terrible Buddhist.

On the morning of the third day I arrived at a house, and therefore expected the opportunity to engage in the traditional RPG hobby of looting. Unexpectedly, the “house” actually turned out to be a temple, or “cistern” where I could stock up on water and replenish lost health, which was good news because I was running out of water.

The only thing that happened on the fourth day was that I met a farmer who gave me a torch, and I realised I was going to be seeing visions of Moebius every day and that I’d better get used to it. What’s interesting is that Moebius is a Caucasian man with a full beard and a hood, and so is Jackie Empire. The only NPC I had met in the game so far was South East Asian and clean-shaven. Possibly this was intended to foreshadow some future plot point.

Or possibly this was in the days before they employed professional actors for such roles and Moebius here simply happened to be the member of the development team who looked most like a Zen master.

On the fifth day I found my first crucified skeleton. Also some other hideous apparition that I only noticed when I went back to look at the screenshot. Eew. On the plus side, it turned out that the game automaps, which is nice.

Skeleton, bottom right. Sinister, initially unnoticed face, top right.

The automap. The only pleasant sight in the whole game.

That night I was brutally assaulted and killed by one of the bandana-wearing Axl Rose lookalikes guarding the palace, thus forfeiting the first of my three lives. Lucky for me, I was resurrected by Moebius, who has the power over life and death but is too nice to actually kill my enemies for me.

Then it got weird. I killed a ninja, then another palace guard appeared and picked my pocket, then I think I fell down a flight of stairs. Then I realised I was running out of water and had to leg it back to the cistern before I died of thirst. I only just made it, but died of starvation instead. Two lives down already!

I’d discounted the possibility that the game was sophisticated enough to just let me drink whatever the guard and the ninja were having, which turned out to be a mistake because the castle itself had a perfectly good water source. I killed a guard with my bare hands, which turned out to be considerably easier than swordplay. Unexpectedly, when a second guard killed me, Moebius appeared and brings me back to life again, so it was three resurrections rather than three lives. Unfortunately that would prove to be my final reprieve. I managed to take down a few more guards, but the combat is basically just harder than it looks.

These sprites are trained professionals. Do not slap a swordsman around the chops at home unless you know exactly what you're doing.

Actually I can't be bothered fighting back. I think I'll just lie here for a bit.

And death turns out not to be the end, except of the game.

Guess I wasn't a Buddhist after all.

Total play time: An hour and a half.

Verdict

A mixed bag. On the one hand, it looks like an Australian’s nightmare, the combat is like running through treacle and the controls only approach sense if you rotate your keyboard thirty degrees clockwise. On the other hand, as the product of a time when the frontiers of what was possible were constantly expanding, it’s the sort of alarming mishmash that risk-averse publishers just wouldn’t finance nowadays. Even though it’s rubbish, I’m glad it exists.

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