The Fair Shake

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin / Aquarius

Greetings readers! The Fair Shake train is now boarding. Please have your tickets ready. Carl is collecting them as you board. The destination is actually fairly obscure this week, as we’ll be entering the realm of the Aquarius Home Computer System. No, I am not referring to the excellent song by The Fifth Dimension, but there was indeed a computer system released under the name “Aquarius”, by none other than Mattel Electronics. Immediately before the video game crash of 1983, seemingly everyone wanted to be involved in video games. (Heck, Purina Dog Chow had a game made for them.)

Mattel saw video games as a lucrative extension of their toy business. Initially Mattel released the Intellivision in 1979, and was also releasing games for it, along with the Atari 2600. Mattel saw what they felt was an opening in the home computer market, and purchased the marketing rights for a home computer from a Hong Kong firm, Radofin.  Released in June of 1983, the Aquarius Home Computer System was cheap even for the time ($160 in 1983 dollars), but it was woefully underpowered, lacking among other things, programmable graphics. Based on a Z80, the Aquarius had a rubber ‘chiclet’ keyboard, a cartridge port 4k of RAM, an optional thermal printer, and a cassette adapter to save programs. The moniker given to the system by Mattel insiders was “The System of the Seventies”. No fear, for after four short months, the system was pulled from the shelves, Mattel paid Radofin to take back unsold systems and the marketing. 32 games were slated to be released, but only 21 were actually released. Most were Intellivision games ported over and reprogrammed for the Aquarius. One game, the topic of this column, is Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin.

What’s with the coiled cords? Is this a game system or a telephone?

The land of Tarmin holds an ominous castle. (Not this one, or this one. but one like this.) According to the game manual, due to sheer ‘courage and curiosity’ (or stupidity?), you decide to explore the castle, which is filled as expected with treasure and monsters. Your goal is twofold: Collect as much treasure as possible, and defeat the DRAGON KING (emphasis manual’s). There are 99 levels to explore, although the DRAGON KING is wandering on all floors. Each floor also has a variety of monsters, including spiders, bats, ghosts, and dragons that will attack you on sight. You start your exploration of the castle with a simple bow and a finite amount of arrows. However scattered around the castle are various weapons, some can be used repeatedly, like a spell book, or a scroll, while others are single use, like axes, hammers, and maces. There are also potions that boost your physical power and spiritual power along with rings, helmets shields and chest pieces that boost your armor rating. Scattered about also are some treasure chests that may contain any one of these items, or a piece of treasure.

Fun Fact: The actual title of the game was too long to fit on the title screen.



While the game really just has the AD&D name slapped on, it is a decent dungeon crawl on its own merits. There are no levels of achievement or experience points, just a point tally based on the amount of treasure you pick up in your travels. Statistics are limited to a physical and spiritual heath. Some monsters attack your physical power, others your spiritual. If either reaches zero, you die, with much fanfare. Monsters also have the same physical and spirtual health stats in varying amounts. Some monsters are more vulnerable to spirit weapons, and others more vulnerable to physical weapons. Battles and game play is turn based. Need to hit the bathroom? Important phone call? No problem! Tarmin will wait.

Hold on Dragon, I have a phone call.

One odd feature of this game is the method used to choose the difficulty level. Pressing 1 2 or 3 yields a level of “hard” “medium” or “easy”. Pressing 4 however, presents the player with the difficult level, the aptly titled “Hardest”. Level difficulty controls your starting starting statistics of physical health, mental health, shield strength and weapon strength. If a player doesn’t have access to the instructions, he’d most likely miss this. Control is either by keyboard or the optional game controller. A small plastic overlay, similar to Intellivision or Atari 5200 is placed over the keyboard or controller to indicate commands. Get your fingers off the WASD keys, this game is before that became standard. Control is great, with keyboard buttons for moving forward, fleeing, attacking and so on. Inventory control is a little clunky, with one button for pickup/drop, and another for rotating your backpack items within grasp of your hand.  Once you get in the swing of things, manipulating your inventory to pick up and item and use it, while putting another in your ‘hand’ to attack with becomes second nature.

Sometimes I wish modern PC and laptops had overlays like these.

Technically speaking, this game is text or character based, as the Aquarius has no programmable graphics. All of the on screen images are generated using ASCII – type characters built into the system. As such, the graphics are simple. Doors consist plain green rectangles that from the bottom up, walls are all the same blue with no detail. The ground and ceiling are the same teal. It’s almost amusing how a weapon is ‘tossed’ from your inventory at a monster. Monsters are static displays as are items. Color is used to indicate monster and item strength, with red representing weaker items, followed by yellow, violet and finally white for the strongest/toughest items. Distance and perspective are done in such a way that it works, with objects and monsters ‘growing’ as you approach them. Graphics are not the key to enjoying this game, however. Lose most of your health, have one or two arrows left as you meet the Dragon King by accidently opening the wrong door, and the graphics suddenly are unimportant.

You are here

This game has no music. I recommend Court of the Crimson King, by King Crimson, if you need something to accompany your game play. A simple clicking sound represents your footsteps. Arrows can be counted by listening to clicks as well, as there is no on screen numerical ‘ammo’ count. Door openings are signified with a bubble like noise. The ‘encounter’ sound is a simple screech, but has caused more than one player to jump in surprise. Other sounds are fairly simple, but get the point across. If you are looking for realistic sounds, look elsewhere.

AD&D: Treasure of Tarmin is the first dungeon crawler game I played. My parents bought an Aquarius at a close-out sale as a Christmas present for me (or was it for him? I was four. hmmmmmm) along with a few games, including Treasure of Tarmin.  This is another one of those “play with the lights out” games. It’s amazing how even a turn based game can create a great deal of suspense—it easily kept my attention through a 3 hour marathon run on Hardest. If you find yourself in the unenviable position of not having an Aquarius in your possession, fear not, for there is an emulator available for the system. The graphics are so simple that even if displayed on an LCD flatscreen, they look ok, as they are blocky by design (We all know what flatscreens do to retro consoles). If you want a new dungeon crawler that doesn’t meddle in character creation or stat management to keep you busy for a few hours, I would ask you to give Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin, The Fair Shake.

So wait.. I become the Dragon King? WTF?