The Wrath of Denethenor

A print magazine advertisement for the Wrath of Denethenor from around 1986.

This is a fantasy adventure game I designed and wrote for the Apple II in 1984-85.

I began writing the game in my last year of high school and finished it up during my first year of college. A friend from high school, Kevin Christiansen, helped out by building the graphics routines and tools for the Apple II version.  At Sierra On-Line’s request, I ported the game to the Commodore 64 — which was only possible since it shared the same processor family — but which required redoing all of the graphics routines.

Back of the box

The whole thing was written in 6502 assembly instructions, compiled with Merlin and hand-linked!  (Yeah, crazy!)  It was large enough that I couldn’t fit all the code plus the current map and data in memory at once (even with a 64K requirement) so I had to fashion a system of loadable segments with known jump points — no dynamic linker available.

When I designed Wrath of Denethenor, I wasn’t much interested in creating a stats-heavy RPG or rolling characters with predefined roles.  It was my intention that your character started out generic and you played it as you wished: heavy on magic or fighting or thievery, etc.  I suppose you might say it was more of a hack-and-slash adventure game.  What I wanted to focus on and what I enjoyed the most out of games at the time like Ultima was the exploration aspect.  I also spent a lot of time to try to create effects and events and traps that were very specific and visual and not just “you’ve encountered a trap and lost 10 hit points”.

It’s easy to see the influence of Ultima II and III, games which led me to want to make a game using a similar graphic tile style.  Of course I wanted to improve on Ultima though, adding various complexities (and sheer size) to make what I thought would be a fun adventure.  In hindsight, I probably should’ve avoided many of the tropes that Richard Garriott used in Ultima so that Denethenor wouldn’t seem so similar.

After finishing the game and giving it to friends to playtest, I submitted it fully completed to only three of the better known gaming companies at the time and heard back from Sierra On-line before ever trying to submit to anyone else.  I guess it was unusual for gaming companies to receive such a large and fully complete and tested game, but I didn’t know any better.   I had written some other things for friends to try in high school (like a simple text adventure) and I sold a customer database system (written in BASIC) to a local newspaper for $100(!).  Sierra On-line put it through their QA process and I was happy to hear that their team was surprised to be unable to find few if any issues.

It was a fun experience and it was cool to be able to see it on the shelves and receive occasional letters from fans of the game.  It was obviously never a big hit though.


Box contents: two double-sided 5.25″ floppy disks, user guide, reference card, registration card, my signed note about pricing/piracy, and Sierra’s current product catalog.



More materials related to Wrath of Denethenor:

Here’s a number of reviews and references that I’ve found:

And some marketing materials:


Here’s some questions I’ve answered about Wrath of Denethenor:

What was most challenging in putting together the game (design, coding, graphics, etc)?

It’s hard for me to say now, so many years later, what was the most challenging aspect in putting the game together.  I would think that it would probably be the difficulty in debugging the code, particularly since it was written entirely in assembly instructions to get decent performance.  If you’re not familiar with what that means, it’s that everything was written in terms of basic machine language instructions like LDY, JSR, CMP, BNE, ASL, etc. instead of “high level” languages at the time like Pascal or C.  So even something simple like testing a variable to decide whether to do one thing or another was at the level of loading a value into a particular register from a specific memory location and shifting or rotating the value to do math and then testing for equality and then branching to another memory location if the condition was met, etc.

Adding to the headaches was that there wasn’t enough room for all the code I wanted in order to have all the different traps and effects for different parts of the world.  That meant having to build a system to load in sections of code for a given area and maintain jump tables to get to the correct subroutine when needed.  If I added even a single instruction to one of these subroutines, I’d need to correct the offsets to all the others.  Pretty ridiculously low level stuff to have to worry about and very fragile!  But hey, back then you actually moved bits and bytes into your frame buffer to get things to appear on screen.  Heh, and make and draw your own fonts/characters and a system for drawing little boxes (overlapping “windows”!) to display messages, etc.  All pretty crazy to think about now.  But it was also definitely fun to build a whole little gaming world and know that others were going to get to experience it.

Would you recall approximately how many copies were sold (Apple/Commodore)?

It never did all that well.  I don’t have a solid number, but total sales over the year or two that Sierra offered it was probably on the order of a few thousand units for both the Apple and Commodore versions.  Maybe as much as 5,000 but certainly not much more than that.  I did get a bunch of cool letters from people early on and over the years who liked it enough to write to me about their experiences though.

Kevin and I decided to ask upfront that they charge half the usual price (like $25 instead of $50-60) and skip the copy protection because we felt as teenagers that most games were pirated because they were so expensive.  Sierra went along with that and even issued a press release about it as being an experiment to get better sales by charging less and forgoing copy protection.  I remember being thrilled to see it on a store shelf but a little annoyed that I never saw much marketing for it.  Perhaps that wouldn’t have mattered anyway but I do wonder if there was something else going on at the time that explains why they didn’t seem to take much effort with it.

Did you have any say on the packaging, both in terms of the design and the contents?

With the packaging, I was taken aback with what they did with it.  They claimed some Nordic mythology background (which was nonsense) and made the box with one of those nice front covers that opened up to reveal a large spread – only it showed a sort of D&D tabletop display with miniatures placed on a little set.  Overlaid this are inset pictures of more miniatures representing creatures (orcs, dragons, etc) with attached descriptions.  Kevin and I were both disappointed that it didn’t actually show any of the real game content here.  On top of that, they used the common names of things which they had previously asked me to go through the entire game and strip out to avoid infringing on anybody.  I had to make up new names for many of the creatures: worgrecs instead of orcs, crachens instead of dragons, klinkens instead of skeletons, etc.  We did like the back cover though as it at least did actually show and describe the game.

Were you surprised that you received a response from Sierra? Would you have considered self-publishing (like a number of other people did these days – put everything in a baggie and an ad in a magazine!) if none of the publishers had responded?

I sent my little package with the full, completed(!) game and my written overview of everything to three of the better known publishers.  I was disappointed to be turned down by the other two but of course excited that Sierra expressed interest and invited to fly me out to their headquarters for a tour and discuss publishing it.  I never got to thinking about self-publishing since I did get the positive reply from Sierra – and I’m not sure I would’ve been up for trying to do that.  It was difficult enough just trying to pay for school.  I remember scrounging around to find someone to look over the contract for me because I didn’t think I could afford to pay someone.  In hindsight though, I think it would’ve been a cool experience to self-publish and have total control over packaging and trying to advertise.

Did you ever think of writing a follow-on game (whether a sequel or a stand-alone)?

People have asked now and again about making a sequel or bringing it to the Mac but I was always way too busy with work at FileMaker and other activities.  I did start a project with a friend and coworker to do a more ambitious adventure game back in the early 90’s but our effort petered out fairly quickly with work distractions.

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