Game 341: Shape Shifter (1992)

From The CRPG Addict

Shape Shifter
United States
Independently developed and released as shareware
Released in 1992 for DOS
Date Started: 17 October 2019
Date Finished: 18 October 2019
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
Some years ago, I modified my rules to allow myself to reject independent games “if they are clearly amateur efforts with no innovations or accolades attached to them.” I have never invoked the rule. The problem with the rule is that it almost seems like there’s at least one innovation to explore. It’s only after several hours, when you’ve committed to the game (or else you’ll have nothing else to publish), that you realize that you’ve been hoodwinked.
In the case of Shape Shifter, the element that sucked me in was right there in the title. You play a non-human character who can polymorph from a tiger to a snake to a mouse. The tiger, we learn, is strong and good at combat, but also slow and obvious, thus inviting more encounters. The snake avoids most combat, the mouse almost all of it. I figured the game would feature some interesting puzzles and encounters that relied on the ability to shape-shift.
The game opens with the player as a tiger.
The manual establishes the land as Vor Terra. Creatures of Chaos are invading the world via a rift in the space-time continuum. To face the threat, Lord Drelx Axtvqar created the Absomal Fxile, a council of the most intelligent (which, ironically, the manual repeatedly spells as “intellegent”) creatures in the land. The Absomal Fxile sequestered itself in an impenetrable palace. “It is the goal of every living creature,” the manual offers, “to one day join rule with the Absomal Fxile,” whatever that means. To gain access to the palace, the character will need to significantly increase his knowledge and solve a variety of puzzles.
I explore another part of the world as a snake.
Character creation asks only for a name, after which the character begins in tiger form. Statistics are strength, knowledge, speed, and health. The numbers redistribute every time you change forms; for instance, the starting character has 55 strength and 25 speed as a tiger, 25 strength and 45 speed as a snake, and 20 strength and 55 speed as a mouse.
Checking my statistics on a city street.
As you explore the land, random encounters mess with your statistics. Angry gnats, chill winds, and snare traps sap your health. A “horrible darkness” decreases health and knowledge. The goddess Sona Luna might suddenly decide to increase your health and knowledge, or “friendly wicker people” might give you a boost to strength, speed, and knowledge. Two of the cities have temples to gods who alternately boost and decimate your statistics.
A random event costs some health.
There are also combat encounters, and here the developer shows something of Chuck Dougherty’s (Questron) inventiveness with monster names–if Dougherty had endeavored to make them all unpronounceable. You face off against Illio Mucks, Nubliagg Frimuth Teroptts, MetzoBraums, Altzo Mafts, and Thraxiax Runners, among others. You and they do an amount of damage determined by your speed and strength. You get “credits” with every victory.
Combat is a rote exchange of blows with weird creatures.
The game takes place on 9 adventure screens arranged 3 x 3. The palace is in the far northwest. There are five other cities and towns to enter, each consisting of a single street of structures. Some of them are random buildings that you can search and talk to the residents. Others are more classic RPG facilities like taverns, healers, temples, and shops selling potions that temporarily increase strength and speed. There are no explicit weapons or armor in the game.

An all-keyboard interface works reasonably well, with arrows for movement and the occasional use of easy-to-remember commands like (E)nter, (I)nventory, and (U)se. The screen shows your available options in special circumstances.

Getting a clue from a tavern patron.
So far, none of this sounds too bad, but the game simply doesn’t add up to anything interesting or enjoyable. The world is extremely small, and you can explore the 9 screens and 5 cities and towns in significantly less than an hour. There are no puzzles in these locations. You have to acquire an inventory of artifact items, but you simply find them on your first search of the houses in which they’re secreted. (And in a bit of amateur programming, you keep finding them every time you search the houses, even if they’re already in your inventory.) There are also clues to find, but you get them by simply hitting T)alk in obvious locations.
A magical ring just laying about in an abandoned house.
Worse, there’s really no reason to use the titular shape-shifting ability. No puzzle or encounter requires you to be a particular animal. (I think there’s one tavern where they don’t talk to snakes, but that’s it.) You might want to swap out of tiger form to avoid combat, but combat is how you earn money, and as long as you replenish hit points by paying for healing, combat isn’t all that dangerous.
Over the course of the game, you learn that a key artifact–the Crystal Heart–is in a tower in the southwest part of the map. To enter the tower, you need three keys. Two of them are found in deterministic locations in cities, but the third appears as part of a random encounter in the wilderness, meaning you have to wander around until you get it. By then, you’ve probably assembled most of the other items and clues you need to solve the encounters in the palace. 
Only one thing to do in the “tower.”
You encounter one odd issue in that once you achieve a certain speed threshold–around 25–you successfully avoid all encounters. The problem is that a few key items and clues only appear with random encounters, so you can character-develop yourself out of victory unless you get lucky and pray to a god who takes umbrage and busts you back below the speed threshold.
One of the keys needed for the tower only appears as a random encounter.
The hardest part of the game is finding the Fire Lizard’s Bladder that you need to–uck–eat to immunize yourself to a poison mist that surrounds the palace. It only shows up in random encounters, possibly after a certain knowledge threshold, and I began to despair that I would ever find it. I finally got it after wandering and fighting for about an hour.

Part of the endgame sequence involves dealing with Earth Demons . . . 

. . . and crossing a “Rainbow Bridge.”
The endgame takes place at the palace, where you have to use all your artifacts in sequence. You eat the bladder to escape the mists. You use the “silk wings” to get over the wall. You use the Ring of Flame to destroy some Earth Demons. You use an Amulet of Knowledge to safely cross a Rainbow Bridge. You appease a guardian by giving him the Crystal Heart. Finally, you speak five words of entrance at the door to the Absomal Fxile. All of these solutions are provided in very straightforward clues throughout the game.
It would be easy to make a typo on this final screen.
The final message tells you that you have achieved the honor of joining the Absomal Fxile, “the most prestigious council in the land.” A final victory screen precedes the DOS prompt.
I can’t decide if it sounds more like a weapon or a tumor.
With 1s and 2s across the board, Shape Shifter earns a 17 on the GIMLET. It’s ultimately too trite and unchallenging, and it fails to live up to the promise of its premise. 
The game’s author was Jeffrey P. Kintz of Waukegan, Illinois. (He goes by “J. Kintz” in all the documentation.) A 1999 biography indicates that Kintz was 19 when he wrote Shifter. He claims his primary inspirations as the Ultima series, Moebius (1985), and the adventure game Below the Root (1984), although it’s hard to see the influence of any of them in his own work.
Shifter was his second game; his first was a horror-themed adventure game called Dismal Passages (1992) in which a protagonist tries to avenge his family’s death by tracking down a wraith. Over the subsequent decade, he would churn out half a dozen games, including The Dark Convergence (1993) and its sequel (1994), Elkinloor (1995), a 1995 remake of Dismal Passages, Vor Terra (1996), Borderworld (1996), The Darkest Night (1997), Savage Future (1999), and Lost Infinity Part 1: Roquan’s Farewell (2001). All of them except Vor Terra seem to be adventure games, although some of them are set in the same world as Shape Shifter. Enough feature non-human protagonists that it seems to have been something of a thing with Kintz, and in his bio he brags about the appearance of several of his games in a “Furry Video Game Database.”
A shot from Dismal Passages, which appears to have no character creation.
He sometimes published under the label of Aries Software and sometimes Midlothian Software. Although there are signs that his games do get better, Kintz strikes me as one of those Ed-Woodish creators (see this entry for more on Wood and developers I associate with him) whose enthusiasm for making games far surpasses his skill. I tried to see what he’s been up to in the last couple decades, but my search led me down some weird paths perhaps best left undiscussed in case I accidentally picked up the trail of the wrong Jeff Kintz.
Apparently, registering Shifter got players a free copy of a sequel called The Sun Demon in which the character faced the origin of the Creatures of Chaos. I was unable to find an extant copy.
If nothing else, an independent one-and-done is a good way to build some momentum after a long break. We’ll continue with Fantasyland 2041 soon. For those of you wondering about The Magic Candle III, for some reason I was unable to muster any enthusiasm when I fired it up the other day. I figured I’d best table it for a while longer and play a few games that intrigue me more.

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