Seek the Legendary Sword of Fargoal
Your quest is to descend into the dungeon to retrieve the legendary Sword of Fargoal. The dungeon is 20 floors deep, and in the iOS version, the sword rests on the final floor. After laying your hands on the sword you have exactly 2000 seconds, or just over 33 minutes, to get back out. Each floor of the dungeon is randomly generated, filled with monsters that will try to kill you, loot that will help you, and treasure boxes that may do either. There’s a temple on each floor that acts as a safe haven where you can heal up without monsters attacking you, and of course stairs that go up and down. You can engage in combat with enemies simply by pushing your character into them, and if you defeat them you’ll earn some experience points towards gaining a level. Unlike many other roguelikes, the monsters don’t take their turns in step with yours. They can and will move around while you’re just standing around. New monsters will spawn in over time as well, which can lead to more than a few unpleasant surprises.
In the C64 version of the game, the levels changed to a new layout every time you left the floor and came back. This meant that after getting the sword you had to stumble through entirely new floors on the way out, which made it incredibly hard to get out in time. That’s if you even managed to get the sword in the first place. You really needed an solid run of luck, even more so than in most modern games in the genre. It was even possible to reach the floor the sword was on and find there was no path to reach it, forcing you to return to the stairs and hope for a new layout for the map that could be solved. There was no saving, no resurrection if you ran out of healing items, no continuing, and absolutely no mercy.
The iOS version is a bit more lenient in its challenge. Potentially a lot more, depending on the difficulty setting you choose. There are numerous changes to the game, but the one that works most to the player’s general benefit is that the floors are set for each playthrough. That is to say, if you leave the fifth floor and come back, it will still have the same layout as it did the first time. In conjunction with the new mini-map that gets filled out as you explore, navigating the dungeon is a lot less confusing than it used to be. There are also a whole bunch of new items that help make your character stronger if you can find them. The new difficulty settings really open the game up in a big way, and they’re vital to this version’s continued appeal.
The roguelike genre is something of an impenetrable one for many people. By definition, they are cruel and incredibly capricious games, where your playthrough is typically only going as well as the next move you make. They usually feature permadeath and use plenty of random elements so you can’t even depend on memorization to help you out. To someone just coming into the genre, it appears to be a sadistic game of rolling the dice where the odds are stacked so heavily against you that you can’t possibly win. Those who have spent a lot of time playing roguelikes know that mostly isn’t true, and that while these games certainly appear to be based entirely on luck, they’re really about making the most of opportunities, doing what you can to limit bad luck, and not holding anything back for a rainy day if it’s useful now. In many ways, they’re a rejection of the habits learned in so many other games. It’s easy to understand why they seem so imposing to the first-time player.
Sword Of Fargoal has all of those elements, of course. One could probably make the argument that it helped establish a lot of that stuff. It’s interesting then that its remake should prove to be an excellent introduction to the genre today. There have been many attempts to file the edge off of the roguelike genre to give it wider appeal. The problem is, few of these attempts provide any sort of realistic route to the more difficult games in the genre. With most of these lighter games, the answer to the question of where to go next is to simply wait for the next game in the series. The iOS version of Sword of Fargoal offers another answer.
Its easiest difficulty setting, called Squire Mode, allows you to play through the whole game with a lot of the pain taken out of losing. While the other two difficulty settings feature the usual permadeath system where death ends the game, Squire Mode simply sends you back to the last temple you touched, stripping away all of your equipment. Even that is set up in a friendly fashion, allowing you to recover all of your gear simply by going back to where you died and picking up your bag. It’s a light penalty, though it still functions as one. Most importantly, this allows a new player to get to know the systems behind the game and see what there is to see without kicking them back to the start every few minutes. It’s still enjoyable and satisfying. The underlying exploration, collection, and leveling are pleasant enough things to occupy your time with, but it’s also preparing the player in a subtle way for its real face.
You can learn what each item does, how each monster behaves, what the subtle differences in the flooring can tell you about traps, when to teleport away, and how to survive tough situations, with just enough of the punishment left in the game to push you towards learning those things. From there, if you choose to tackle one of the other difficulty settings, you’ll have already learned a lot of the skills you need to make a proper go of things. It teaches you that you can do it, and it allows you to learn how by doing it yourself. This is perhaps why the iOS version of Fargoal clicks in a such a broad way with so many players. If you’re seeking to dive into the vast ocean of the roguelike genre, Sword of Fargoal is still a great choice as it’s both a very entertaining game and a fine primer.
That said, just because it’s a great choice for beginners, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything here for the veterans. On its other difficulty settings, Sword of Fargoal will give you a tough challenge, and its ability to straddle the line between simplicity and complexity is one of its finer traits. The new items added to the remastered version are just enough to increase your desire to explore without pushing the experience into being a full-out loot game. Even all these years down the line, this is a decent-looking remake, containing a lot of modern touches like atmospheric lighting effects while still paying a certain amount of homage to the game’s retro origins.