The Return of Heracles
The Return of Heracles is an adventure game for the Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64 and Apple II computers, originally written by Stuart Smith and published by Quality Software in 1983. Built on an engine that was a precursor to Adventure Construction Set, The Return of Heracles is set in the age of Greek myth and allows the player to assume the role of one or more heroes and attempt various quests.
The game has also been sold under the names The Return of Herakles; it was also bundled with another adventure game of Smith's, Ali-Baba and the Forty Thieves, in a compilation called Age of Adventure, published by Electronic Arts.
The game allows you to play any of the following heroes from Greek myth. You may play more than one hero at once, but since the game awards bonuses if you complete a quest in less than 200 turns, having multiple heroes in play at once makes it harder to earn such bonuses.
- Asclepius, the world's first physician.
- Cadmus, the slayer of the Serpent of Ares, and founder of the city of Thebes.
- Autolycus, a thief, wrestler, and Argonaut.
- Endymion, the shepherd who was put in eternal sleep when Selene fell in love with him.
- Perseus, the slayer of Medusa.
- Polydeuces, an Argonaut, and one of the Gemini twins.
- Castor, an Argonaut, and the other of the Gemini twins.
- Actaeon, a hunter who was cursed by Artemis after he saw her bathing.
- Theseus, the slayer of the Minotaur.
- Pegasus, the winged horse.
- Palaemon, the man who would become the legendary strongman Heracles.
- Hippolyte, the queen of the Amazons.
- Melanippe, sister of Hippolyte.
- Jason, the captain of the Argonauts.
- Achilles, the almost-immortal Greek warrior who fought in the Trojan War.
- Great Ajax, a strong Greek warrior who fought in the Trojan War.
- Odysseus, the cunning Greek warrior who fought in the Trojan War.
- Philopoemen, a famous Greek strategos involved in several large battles.
- Polybius, a historian and the weakest base character in the game.
A few of the heroic characters have unique abilities or specifics, listed below:
- Asclepius has the unique ability to heal allies occupying the same map tile he is, and is effectively the game's only support character.
- Pegasus is easily the fastest character in the game and is noted for being a favorite character for high scoring speed runs.
- As Palaemon, the player must survive Hera's serpents with Palaemon's low stats and lack of equipment before becoming Heracles, who statistically is as incredibly strong as he is slow.
- Theseus has good base stats and begins the game in Troezen, in where he can destroy the altar for Aegeus' sword and armor (though any hero can travel to Troezen to do the same if they have enough of the strength stat).
- In a nod to his representation in most myths as a powerful boxer, Polydeuces can battle enemies effectively with bare hands, which is helpful should his weapons break in battle.
- Achilles' skin works as a powerful natural armor that loses effectiveness should he actually be equipped with real gear. Adding him to the game also gives the player his cousin Patroclus as a free bonus character.
- Having Odysseus join the game also adds Argus, his faithful dog and companion, as a free player character.
- Non-human characters such as Pegasus and Argus (or a hero transformed into a creature) are unable to attack or be attacked by members of their own species. This makes it impossible for Pegasus to complete the game on her own solely as a horse as the defeat of the Mares of Diomedes is one of the game's objectives. They also cannot purchase equipment or training from merchants.
- Endymion and Actaeon start in areas where it is possible for them (or other heroes) to experience the same tragic fates that befell them in myth.
The selected hero(es) are given twelve tasks to complete (many of which overlap with the Twelve Labors of Heracles). They may be done in any order, although if you visit the Oracle of Zeus twice without completing the task assigned during the first visit, Zeus will only assign a new task after seriously wounding your hero with a lightning bolt. After most quests, you gain some sort of tangible benefit for the hero who completes it.
- Slay the Nemean Lion. Reward is the lion's skin, which is the most powerful armor in the game.
- Slay the Hydra. Reward is the blood of the hydra, which permanently poisons your weapons.
- Recover the treasure of Stymphalos, which is guarded by the Stymphalian birds. Reward is the treasure itself.
- Slay the serpent of Ares, build the city of Thebes. Reward is three new heroes, but the hero who slays the serpent is turned into a snake.
- Solve the Riddle of the Sphinx. Reward is access to the city of Thebes.
- Retrieve the Golden fleece. Reward is the golden fleece, which has tremendous monetary value. You also gain four new heroes along the way.
- Retrieve the red cows of Geryon. Reward is the selling price of the cows.
- Retrieve the golden apples of the Hesperides. Reward is the selling price of the apples.
- Slay the Minotaur. Reward is the Labrys, the Minotaur's axe.
- Rescue Helen from Troy. Reward is the loot from King Priam's treasury.
- Rescue Penelope from hostile suitors.
- Destroy the man-eating mares of Thrace.
Two of these quests require that another quest be completed first. You cannot attempt to solve the Riddle of the Sphinx until after you build the city of Thebes, and you cannot attempt to rescue Penelope until after you have rescued Helen.
While Greek myth speaks of a specific hero (or group of heroes) completing each of these quests, the game allows any hero to complete any quest.
A hero may visit the Oracle of Delphi to receive a hint as to how to complete a quest, although the quality of the hint depends on how much gold the hero is carrying (a character with no gold will be turned away).
The Return of Heracles was an RPG-like adventure game. Each character was defined by three basic characteristics: strength, dexterity, and speed. Strength and dexterity determine how effective a character is in combat, while speed determines how many squares you can move in one turn. Characters may also have special training in defensive techniques, use of the sword, and use of the dagger.
Each character may carry a sword, a dagger, armor, and wealth (measured in gold drachmas). Swords and daggers have two basic properties, relating to how well-made they are and how effective they are. The workmanship of the weapon may be "cheap" or "fine", with cheap weapons more likely to break in the middle of combat than fine weapons. The effectiveness of a weapon may be "lousy", "mediocre", "mighty", "terrific" or "Zeus-blessed", each one able to do progressively more damage. The Labrys (the axe of the minotaur) is treated as a sword for game purposes.
Weapons and armor may be replaced over the course of the game, but items so replaced may not be recovered later.
Characters lacking a sword may not engage in combat with a foe in an adjacent square. Characters lacking a dagger may still wrestle a foe, but must use their fists (which do minimal damage).
All swords and daggers have a risk of breaking in the middle of an attack. Only natural weapons (such as bare hands, or the natural weapons of monsters) do not risk breaking when used in an attack.
Armor protects a character by reducing the amount of damage dealt by a successful blow (occasionally negating a blow entirely), but reduces the character's dexterity. In general, the more protection a piece of armor provides, the greater the penalty to dexterity. The skin of the Nemean lion is an exception to this rule (it is simultaneously the most protective and the lightest armor in the game).
Weapons may be poisoned, and do additional damage with each hit. Poison on weapons wears off after a few hits (unless the poison came from the Hydra), but monsters with poisonous natural weapons (such as snakes) never run out of poison. Unlike in other RPG-like games, the damage caused by poison is instantaneous; no additional damage is suffered in later turns.
Characters may possess any amount of wealth (measured in drachmas). However, large amounts of wealth weigh down a hero, reducing his speed. It is possible for a character to possess so much wealth that he is unable to move until he drops some or all of it.
Some heroes, especially Jason, Odysseus, and Polybius, were heroes more because of their minds than their physical prowess. The rules of the game do not take a hero's intelligence or wisdom into account; as a result, these heroes are significantly weaker than some of the others.
Some heroes were also described in Greek myth as being skilled with weapons other than the sword and dagger, but the game doesn't support any other weapons. This also precludes players, for example, from defeating the Nemean lion by the means used in legend by Heracles (since its skin was impervious to all piercing and cutting weapons, he strangled it).
Some monsters were described in legend as being impossible to kill unless a certain tactic was used. Antaeus, for example, was supposed to automatically heal any injury as long as he was touching the earth. Since the game rules lacked the flexibility to allow such tactics, these monsters were instead made to be subject to normal attacks but otherwise very powerful.
In addition to the perils one might expect to encounter while performing the aforementioned quests (such as a lion with armor-like skin or a minotaur with a devastating axe), there are a few unusual perils, some of which can instantly and without warning kill a hero. For example:
- A hero who climbs too near the top of Mount Olympus has some kind of close encounter with one of the gods. This encounter may be beneficial (e.g. the hero may be granted increased weapon skill) or detrimental (e.g. the hero may lose all his gold and be turned into a crab).
- Any hero who climbs all the way to the top of Mount Olympus is instantly killed by the gods.
- There is a spot in the Lernaean swamp where, if a hero steps there, he will be consumed (and killed) by quicksand.
- Any hero who enters the house of Circe is turned into a wild animal. Unlike other scenarios where a hero is turned into an animal, a hero so changed by Circe becomes a non-player character. Also unlike other scenarios, this can actually be reversed by having a second hero attempt to enter Circe's sanctum; before entering, Hermes arrives and provides an herb which negates Circe's spell and forces her to return the affected heroes to normal.
- Any hero who moves adjacent to Charybdis is immediately sucked in and killed.
- The Sphinx, the unsleeping dragon that guards the golden fleece, and the rocks of the Symplegades (which are treated as monsters in the game) are impossible to kill. All hits against them are completely negated by their natural armor, save for the Sphinx. The Sphinx can actually be killed with a force of enough boosted characters, though doing so crashes most versions of the game. The Scylla is also extremely powerful and ideally avoided, but can actually be defeated normally with a strong team of heroes for a considerable amount of drachma.
- The Sphinx in particular is essentially an unavoidable death if the player guesses incorrectly to the Riddle of the sphinx. This is compounded by the fact that, in some versions of the game, the Sphinx will only accept "human" as the answer to the riddle despite other passable answers such as "person", "people", "mankind", or even "man". "Man", in fact, was the actual answer Oedipus gave the Sphinx and is even used by the in-game text after the Sphinx is destroyed. The Atari 800XL/XE version of the game also accepts at least "man" and "men" in addition to "human."
- Some treasure chests are trapped in various ways. Most traps inflict damage that can be healed by resting, but the "disease" trap causes a permanent reduction in strength, dexterity, and speed. (Strength and dexterity lost in this manner can be recovered by paying for muscle building or agility training, but speed can only be regained by making a sacrifice to Hermes, an act that the player has no control over.)
- If a hero witnesses a stag being killed by Actaeon's hunting dogs, he will see Artemis bathing, and she will turn him into a stag. This happens even if the hero is a woman (Hippolyte or Melanippe) or an animal (Pegasus, Argus the dog, or someone previously transformed into an animal form). The hero remains under the player's control, but is immediately attacked by the same hunting dogs that brought down the first stag, as well as any species of dog in the game irrespective of alignment. Argus himself as a dog will even have the option to attack any hero-turned-stag which otherwise is impossible for allies to have.
- Similar to the above, Endymion can experience his actual fate in Greek myth by entering the cave where Selene and Zeus place him in endless slumber. When this happens, the player loses control of Endymion as he literally goes into "resting mode" for several turns. The game eventually makes it clear that Endymion's sleep is without end and he is removed from play.
- Killing the Serpent of Ares causes Ares himself to instantly turn the hero that dealt the fatal blow into a serpent. As this quest is needed to complete the game, this setback is ultimately unavoidable.
- In a reference to the Lotophagi, there is an area on the Penelope quest called "Land Of The Lotus Eaters". Approaching one of the chests in this area causes the hero, always out of curiosity, to consume the nearby lotus fruit instead of taking the treasure, transforming the victim permanently into a mindless non-player character.
- Once the Trojan Horse has been brought into Troy (after one hero exits the horse into the city), it becomes impossible for any other heroes to enter Troy until the gates are opened from the inside. If one or more heroes infiltrate Troy via the Trojan Horse, but are all killed before they can open the gates of Troy, the city cannot be re-entered, and thus impossible to complete the quest as well as the Penelope quest (as that quest is only unlocked after completing the Troy quest).
- In the Trojan Fields, if Achilles is present, and any hero moves onto the tile formerly occupied by Hector after killing him, Achilles is immediately killed in a sequence involving the "Achilles' Heel".
- It is possible to be killed trying to open a "gate", i.e. a door. Gates leading to new areas will sometimes close, and the player must bump into the gate in an attempt to open them. Although rare, this sometimes results in an irate Janus (who is in fact a Roman god and not a Greek one) to cause masonry from the gate to fall onto the hero, causing enough damage to even kill the hero if the character is weak enough.
While the game is mostly true to Greek myth, it does deviate in some ways, not all of which can be explained by technical limitations of the computer games of the time.
- Weapons made of iron and steel are available in the game, even though such weapons did not exist in the period of the myths.
- Medea falls in love with any hero who visits her in Colchis, even if the hero is a woman (Hippolyte or Melanippe) or not human at all (Pegasus, Argus the dog, or a character who has been transformed into an animal).
- When heroes arrives in Colchis to retrieve the Golden fleece, no effort is made by King Aeetes or his son Absyrtus to kill them, although the heroes must fight and defeat the fire-breathing bulls before they can face the unsleeping dragon that guards the fleece.
- According to the legend of the Hydra, Heracles dipped his arrows in the blood of the Hydra. This cannot be done in the game because it only supports combat with swords and daggers (although the game does allow the hero who slays the Hydra to dip his sword and dagger in the blood of the Hydra).
- In Greek Myth, Cadmus was forced to do eight years of penance for slaying the serpent of Ares, but he was not turned into a snake himself until many years later (after he completed his penance). In the game, the hero who slays the serpent is immediately turned into a snake.
- Argus (Odysseus's dog) is treated the same as any of the other heroes, even though he played no significant role in the story of Odysseus. As a character, Argus is very fast and dextrous but very weak.
- Janus, the Roman god of doors and beginnings/endings, appears in this game despite not being a Greek god nor having a real equivalent in any Greek myth. In the game, he is depicted as the fickle entity behind the gates randomly closing. The player must attempt to win Janus' favor to open closed gates, risking even his wrath, which is at odds with his actual portrayal and worship in myth as a force of change and progression.
- The open-ended nature of the game often causes many obvious deviations from the actual myths, such as Achilles, Patroclus, and Ajax all surviving the Trojan War, or Heracles being transformed into a stag by Artemis instead of Actaeon.
Softline called Heracles "Lively and colorful ... truly a must" for gamers. Computer Gaming World praised the game's transparency, stating "The rules explain themselves. Although documentation comes with it, you'll never have to read it." Although the magazine found the game very enjoyable, several flaws were noted, particularly the inaccuracies pertaining to Greek mythology.