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The history of computer role playing games

The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part I: The
Early Years (1980-1983)
Matt Barton

Welcome, brave adventurer, to the first of my in-depth feature articles exploring the history of
our favorite computer game genre: The Computer Role-Playing Game, or the CRPG. For many
avid gamers, the CRPG is the perfect storm of gameplay, story, and strategy. Whether we're
talking about a randomized "dungeon crawler" like Rogue or a story-driven game like Betrayal
in Krondor, a click-fest like Diablo or a stat-crunching Pool of Radiance, the CRPG has always
enjoyed a tremendous appeal. Even today, when the first-person shooter and sports games
seem to have crushed all opposition, everyday millions of players login to World of Warcraft,
and each new installment in the Zelda series sends ripples throughout the entire game
industry. Whether acknowledged or not, the CRPG will always play a major role in computer
and console gaming. The CRPG is the spine of the electronic gaming industry--and it's not hard
to see why. You just can't have more fun with a computer or a console than when you're
engrossed in a well-crafted CRPG. But where did the CRPG come from? From what deep, dank
dungeon did they crawl? How has the genre evolved into the amazing games we enjoy today?
If you've ever wondered about these and other CRPG-related questions, of if you just like
reading the very best writing you can find on the net about gaming--then grab a mug of your
best ale and prepare to read an article only an author of Armchair Arcade would ever dare to
draft!


From Tabletops to Desktops
Although most people would probably think it's a trivial matter to trace the CRPG back to its
tabletop, paper-and-pencil based "equivalent," doing so probably obscures more than it
reveals about the two genres. As anyone who has actually played D&D is acutely aware, the
two games are as different as playing intramural basketball and College Hoops 2K7. Indeed,
the typical "CRPG" is not a "role-playing game" at all, or, if it is, that's generally the least
distinctive thing about it. After all, you "play a role" when you play PAC-MAN or SPACE
INVADERS, and even in games like Tetris you're playing a role--the unseen force that causes


those falling blocks to shift and rotate. It's probably more accurate to describe first-person
"interactive fiction" games like Zork or Myst as a "role-playing games," since in those games
the player literally assumes an important fictional role within the game. Likewise, a firstperson shooter like Half-Life seems to come much closer to the ideal of "playing a role" than a
game like Icewind Dale, in which you only indirectly control a whole group of characters.

Strat-O-Matic: Paper-based games like this paved the way for D&D and CRPGs.Taxonomic
quibbling aside, there is no doubt that while they are not direct descendents, CRPGs were
deeply inspired by D&D. At the very least, it's obviously more than a coincidence that so many
of the themes and trappings are shared by both genres, and both are highly absorbing and
addictive. One wonders if Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson knew the full implications of what
they were doing when they sprung Dungeons & Dragons on an unsuspecting public back in
1974. However, Gygax and Arneson's classic tabletop "role-playing game" didn't come out of
nowhere. As near as I can tell, the clearest precedents were war games like Avalon Hill's
Tactics II (1958) and sports simulation games like Strat-o-Matic (1961). However, while D&D
certainly borrowed (whether intentionally or not) many of the conventions of these older
games (especially an emphasis on caculation), it contained some radical new innovations. For
one thing, instead of recreating painfully-accurate historical Civil War battles or the World
Series, D&D was set in a fantasy world populated by elves, dwarves, and dragons. Although
there's some question about how deeply J.R.R. Tolkien's Ring trilogy played in the development
of D&D, most players of the game were hardcore fans of Middle Earth, obsessively reading and
re-reading the novels. Indeed, for countless Tolkien-enamored teenagers of the 70s and 80s,
D&D was simply a more enthralling way to experience these lavish fictional places. After all,
it's one thing to read about Frodo and Bilbo going on fantastic quests, but the appeal of going
on one themselves was simply too much for many teenagers to resist.
Authors Brad King and John Borland, authors of Dungeons and Dreamers: From Geek to Chic,
claim that "it's almost impossible to overstate the role of Dungeons & Dragons in the rise of
computer gaming." What could be more true? The "gamer" as we know him or her today was



born in the D&D era. Although there have always been games, none of them had the drawing
power of D&D. While cards and dice can certainly become disastrously addictive (see
Gamblers Anonymous), gambling games were always about prizes the players could win, not
the games themselves. Strategy games like chess, meanwhile, are so abstract and "mental"
that it's often not clear whether they are true amusements or really just exercises in logic.
Furthermore, the fact that you can become a professional chess player indicates that chess
lost its status as a mere "game." If you can earn a living doing something, you can no longer
describe it as a "pure amusement"--it's become a sport with real earning potential. Finally,
board games like Monopoly and RISK, while certainly fun and engaging, are only very rarely
enjoyed over extended periods for any significant amount of time. These are games that get
hauled off the top shelf of a closet a few days out of the year to keep idle hands busy during
the holidays. Though you can find large, highly devoted communities of UNO and ROOK
players, these seem more like exceptions rather than the rule.
Every childhood has its talismans, the sacred objects that look innocuous enough to the
outside world, but that trigger an onslaught of vivid memories when the grown child confronts
them. For me, it's a sheaf of xeroxed numbers my father brought home from his law firm when
I was nine. -- Steven Johnson, Everything Bad is Good for You
Not so with D&D. In so many ways, D&D was more of a lifestyle choice than a "harmless
diversion." Indeed, the closest equivalent I can think of is the children's game of "make
believe," in which a group of kids pretend to be in various social and occupational roles--such
as a father, doctor, superhero, and so on. The other kids will "go along" with the fantasy,
helping to perpetuate it (generally in return for similar reinforcement from the other children).
For instance, two boys will take turns being the "cowboy or the Indian," or I suppose nowadays
the "Republican and the terrorist" or some such nonsense. Often enough, these games can get
quite elaborate, with imaginary pals, exotic fictional settings, and plenty of simulated action. I
must confess to having played many such games with my younger sister, when we "went on
vacation" to all sorts of fantastic locales. Of course, once a kid gets to a certain age, playing
"make believe" seems too juvenile or irrational to engage in (at least openly), so all of these
impulses are repressed--at least until D&D comes onto the scene. Suddenly, playing "make
believe" is back, and players can enjoy the activity without being accused of being immature
or schizo. Indeed, the strength of D&D lies in its combination of make-believe, play-acting, and
a logical, math-based rule system. As Johan Huizinga illustrates in his book Homo Ludens, such
play is a vitally important part of learning. The more kids get to play "make believe," the more
intelligent they become! As Steven Johnson would say, playing D&D makes you smarter!


Sadly, when enough "concerned" citizens realized that so many young people were having so
much fun playing this new game, they began insinuating and then outright accusing players of
engaging in a "Satanic ritual" or, at the very least, dangerously influenced by hidden
subliminal content (for a sickening example, see this analysis of a Chick tract). We might
perhaps be more sympathetic to these folks; they knew just enough about D&D to make them
dangerous. For instance, they quickly learned that they involved graphic violence, magic (or,
"witchcraft"), and often demonic forces (dragons, hell hounds, demons). No doubt, walking by
and hearing a 7-year old cry, "I summon forth a black demon to annihilate your cleric!" was
enough to convince any well-meaning parent that something odd was going on here.
Furthermore, as then as well as now, occasionally news surfaced of some genuinely disturbed
gamer performing some horrific crime and then blaming it all on the game. The same could be
said about the D&D-themed "heavy metal" music of the era. Obviously, Iron Maiden or Judas
Priest was a powerful catalyst for evil during all those dice rolls for initiative. The fact that so
many people are still willing to buy into this rubbish is far more fearful than any demonic foe
encountered in a D&D session! Ironically enough, many of the friends I played D&D with were
far more devout Christians than anyone else I knew. Even the ones who weren't religious
tended to live more morally upright and ethical lives than most other folks--another reason, no
doubt, for religious hypocrites to despise them.
Still, no matter how someone feels about the moral influence of D&D, no one can deny it
played a highly constructive role in developing the computer game industry. Besides creating
a new type of person--the "gamer," and sowing a generation with seeds of creativity and
imagination, adapting D&D for computers became one of the Holy Grails of early computer
programming. Although many game historians cite Richard Garriott's Akalabeth as the first
CRPG, we can find earlier precedents in the world of mainframes.

The Mainframe Era (The Dark Ages)
Hackers on university mainframes got an early start on developing CRPGs, trotting out games
as early as 1974 (the same year Gygax and Arneson released the first Dungeons & Dragons).
Unfortunately, the history here seems a bit murky (thus the title "Dark Ages"), and declaring
which game was the "first" seems a bit foolhardy. What is clear is that there were several
CRPGs on machines like DEC's PDP-10 and PLATO, a computerized learning system. The first of
these appears to be Rusty Rutherford's pedit5 for PLATO. Pedit5 had most of the basic features
of the genre, such as an explorable dungeon, monstrous foes, collectible treasures, and a
magic system. Unfortunately, we will likely never learn much more about this game owing to
the short-sightedness of PLATO administrators, who had a rather nasty habit of deleting this
game wherever they found it (the many kids who managed to stay a step ahead of these


party-poopers were denigrated as "zbrats"). There may very well have been text-based CRPGs
before Pedit5 that may have simply been lost to history.
Later that year, two programmers at Southern Illinois University named Gary Whisenhunt and
Ray Wood created dnd, also designed for PLATO. This graphical game contains many features
that would become staples of the genre, such as the ability to create a character and assign
stats for characteristics like strength, intelligence, and so on. There was also a "level up"
system based on experience points. Monsters got tougher the deeper players went in the
dungeon. This game also marks the first appearance of the "general store" where players can
purchase equipment. Perhaps most important, dnd featured a story and a quest--kill the
dragon and fetch the Orb. It is certainly no surprise that fetching an all-powerful "orb" will
show up again and again as the defining quest of CRPGs! Whisenhunt and Wood's game would
later be the inspiration for Daniel Lawrence's famous Telengard game for the TRS-80 and
Commodore 64 platforms. We'll have more to say about Telengard momentarily.

dnd (mainframe): Pic from Wikipedia (public domain)Meanwhile, a student at Claremont
Graduate University in California, had designed a game called Dungeon, which ran on the
university's PDP-10 mainframes. Like dnd, Dungeon featured a level-up system. However, one
key innovation was the ability to create and operate a whole party of adventurers rather than
just a single character. To this day, there is debate about whether it's more fun to control a
single character or a whole party of them. Dungeon also featured a graphical map system with
"line of sight" vision, which meant that players could only see in the direction their characters
were facing--and took lightness and darkness into account (elves and other creatures with
infravision could see in the dark).
Perhaps the most famous of all CRPGs, however, is the UNIX game Rogue. Created in 1980 by
Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, and Ken Arnold, Rogue was known for its randomized dungeons,
ASCII-based graphics, and complicated gameplay. Rogue represented the player's character
with an at sign (@), and monsters were designated by the first letter of their name (Z for


zombie). The story was simple and would be copied (with slight modifications) in later games
like The Sword of Fargoal: descend to a specific level of the dungeon (in this case 26), retrieve
a magic item (in this case the Amulet of Yendor), and escape the dungeon. However, players
might have just as much with the game even if they aren't aware of this quest; just wandering
about killing monsters and gaining treasure and experience points are plenty of fun. Still,
Rogue is a very challenging game with a steep learning curve. For one thing, there's an
abundance of confusing keyboard commands to learn (R for remove a ring and r for reading a
scroll), and players practically need a legend to make sense of the "graphical" display.
Secondly, besides dealing successfully with the many monsters and traps in the game, the
character must also be constantly fed. Nevertheless, Rogue was so successful that it spawned
a near limitless number of ports and derivatives called "Roguelikes." Several of these games
have also achieved lasting fame, such as Hack, Moria, Larn, and Omega. It's very easy to find
a version of Rogue or at least a roguelike on just about any computing platform (indeed, I'm
not even sure we could call something that didn't have some form of Rogue a "computer
platform" at all!). I spent any number of hours sloughing my way through both Larn and Hack
on my Commodore Amiga computer, even though I also had access to games with "better"
graphics. A boy with an imagination is content with a warm bowl of ASCII every evening
(though ANSI is quite nice once and awhile).
The question that seldom gets asked about these early "CRPGs" is to what extent they really
recreate the tabletop D&D experience. Although they do manage to mimic some parts quite
effectively--particularly the dice rolling and number crunching--they seem to fall rather flat in
the play-acting department. Somehow I doubt that anyone sitting down for an evening of
Rogue ever donned a pair of cheap elf ears and a faux leather jerkin, though such
accouterments are common enough at real D&D games. Furthermore, although dnd players
might belt out an obscenity every so often, I doubt any of them did so in a Dwarvish accent.
What was clearly missing was the element of "role play" that was such a huge part of the
tabletop game. At best, the computerized versions could simulate the mathematics of D&D
combat and to some extent the strategy and exploration components, but the inherent
abstractness and aloofness of the medium seemed to stop true role-playing at the gate.
Although later on we'll discuss CRPGs that have tried to address these issues in interesting
ways, it's important to see for now that D&D and its computerized "equivalents" actually have
far less in common than most people think.

The Bronze Era (1979-1980)
Although thousands of people may have had their first CRPG experience on a mainframe,
most of us would kill our first digital dragon on a personal computer. Although exact dates are


hard to come by, we can say that as early as 1979, at least two commercially-published CRPGs
were available for home computers. One of these was developed by a high schooler named
Richard Garriott, who was sufficiently enamored with D&D to call himself "Lord British."
Garriot's game, Akalabeth: World of Doom, featured wire-frame graphics in first-person
perspective (other parts offer top-down perspective), and was, in many ways, far ahead of its
time. Akalabeth was only available for the Apple II, and some controversy exists over whether
it was first published in 1979 or a year later. Garriott insists that it was released in 1979,
although the first disks and cassettes had copyright 1980 on their label. The other game was
Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai, by Automated Simulations, Inc. (later re-named Epyx). Temple
of Apshai was the first of a five-game series, though only the three games making up the
"Apshai trilogy" are well known today. Temple of Apshai was first available on the TRS-80
platform, then the Commodore PET, but was later ported to the Apple II (1980), Atari home
computer (1981), DOS (1982), and finally to the Commodore 64 and Vic 20 in 1983. Let's take
a look at Akalabeth first.

Akalabeth (1980): Kill this thief quickly, or he'll swipe your gear!By all accounts, Garriott was
both a big fan of Tolkien and of Dungeons & Dragons. The name Akalabeth, for instance, is
taken from one of Tolkien's more obscure works, The Silmarillion. The game was written in
BASIC, a fact that makes the game all the more impressive from a technical perspective (and
allowed players to cheat or modify the game as they saw fit). As mentioned above, the game
features wire-frame first-person perspective, but switches to a top-down view when the player
is on the surface. This innovation would be seen in countless later CRPGs. Akalabeth's story is
straightforward enough. Lord British, "Bearer of the White Light," has recently driven the evil
wizard named Mondain from the kingdom of Akalabeth, but Mondain's monsters still dwell in
dungeons below the surface. The player's task is to descend into these dungeons,
slaughtering foes and venturing to the surface to purchase equipment and procure new quests
from British. British will raise the character's attributes upon completing quest--as well as give


him (or her?) opportunities to advance in rank, such as from peasant to knight. These quests
involve finding and killing increasingly difficult critters.
When players begin Akalabeth, they are presented with a few text screens with information
about the game. The first establishes the back story. Subsequent screens tell players what
"strength" and "dexterity" are good for, a list of keyboard commands, and so on. Finally,
players are given the choice between playing a fighter or a magi. As might be expected, the
fighter can't use "the magic amulet," whereas the magi can't fight with rapiers or bows
(though axes are allowed). The magic amulet was an unpredictable item--sometimes it even
turned the player into a powerful Lizard Man. Finally, although the players can select a
difficulty level from 1 to 10, the game is still challenging since the character gobbles up food
with every step. If the food supply runs out, it's game over--a situation that can easily put
even the most powerful players into an unwinnable situation. To make matters even worse,
thieves roaming about the dungeons are more than adept at swiping your character's gear-carrying a few extra of each item is probably a wise precaution.
I can't spell, have no grammar techniques, and have read less than twenty-five books in my
life. -- Richard Garriot (Lord British), as quoted in Hackers by Steven Levy
Unlike Akalabeth, which is easily found online and also available in some Ultima compilations,
Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai is a very difficult game to come by. Epyx re-released three
games in this series as the Apshai Trilogy in 1983, which featured updated graphics. Try as I
might, the only version of the original game I could find in working condition was the Coleco
Adam version! Unfortunately, that version is comparatively crude to the versions offered on
other platforms and probably not very representative. The Trilogy is very easy to find on a
variety of platforms, however. I played the Apple II version, which I hope is at least similar to
the original.
Anyway, I was able to find a scan of the original manual, which is a true treasure for any
historian interested in the early history of CRPGs. Back in 1979, game developers couldn't
expect players to already be familiar with most of the conventions of the genre (they didn't
even exist, yet!). What's interesting about the Apshai manual is the great lengths it goes to try
to convince players they should give RPGs a chance. I'll quote an excerpt here from the
manual's introduction:
Did you grow up in the company of the Brothers Grimm, Snow White, the Red Fairy Book, Flash
Gordon serials, The Three Musketeers, the knights of the Round Table, or any of the three
versions of the The Thief of Bagdad? Have you read the Lord of the Rings, the Worm
Ouroboros, The Incomplete Enchanter, or Conan the Conqueror? Have you ever wished you


could cross swords--just for fun--with Cyrano or D'Artagnan, or stand by their sides in the chill
light of dawn, awaiting the arrival of the Cardinal's Guard? Ever wondered how you'd have
done against the Gorgon, the hydra, the bane of Heorot Hall, or the bull that walks like a man?
(...) If any or all of your answers are "yes," you're a player of role-playing games--or you ought
to be.
The manual goes on at some length in this vein. "RPGs allow you a chance to step outside a
world grown too prosaic for magic and monsters," it claims. Although players may be total
losers in the "real world," the RPG offers them a chance to test their true mettle. Furthermore,
RPGs "can and often do become, for both you and your character, a way of life."
What's even more interesting is how the manual introduces CRPGs as a more convenient way
to role-play. "Ordinary role-playing games require a group of reasonably experienced players,
an imaginative dunjonmaster willing to put in the tremendous amount of time necessary to
construct a functioning fantasy world, and large chunks of playing time." Indeed, "twenty-hour
marathons are not unheard of." What the CRPG offers is a pre-constructed world and
automatic handling of all those complicated math problems. "While there are greater practical
limits to your actions that is usually the case in a non-computer RPG, there are still a large
number of options to choose from." Indeed, many of the more intriguing features of the game
seem to be attempts to bridge the gap between RPGs and CRPGs. For instance, instead of
merely buying items for a set price, players must haggle with the storekeeper. Furthermore,
much of the in-game text is "in character," with "Medieval" tendencies like using "ye" for "you"
and "thy" for "your." The manual also includes textual descriptions of each room of the
dungeon--probably a concession to the limited memory of early home computers.
Interestingly, though, this same "feature" would show up in some later games, particularly
Pool of Radiance. My guess is that by then, placing important information in a game manual
was a subtle form of copy protection.


Temple of Apshai: Players could get textual descriptions by looking up the "Room No." in the
manual.Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Apshai series is its combat system. The
manual claims that the developers were inspired by "historical research, a knowledge of
various martial arts, and practical experience in the Society for Creative Anachronisms." At
any rate, a "fatigue" system that limits how often you can attack and how far you can run
(your character's wounds and the weight of his equipment also influences the fatigue rate).
The character can also "hearken," or listen for the presence of a monster in an adjoining room,
and even try to talk monsters out of combat. If your character dies, he will suffer one of four
fates--either consumption by a roaming monster, or rescue by a dwarf, mage, or cleric. If it's
the dwarf or mage, your character will lose equipment. Temple of Apshai was quickly followed
up by Datestones of Ryn, Morloc's Tower, and Curse or Ra. The other Apshai games included
Upper Reaches of Apshai and Gateway to Apshai. Epyx released the Trilogy compilation for a
variety of platforms in 1983, but perhaps the best of these was the Commodore Amiga version
released in 1986. Anyone seriously desiring to play the series today will prefer the Amiga
version's enhanced graphics and control scheme.
I jumped every time one of those swamp rats appeared. My sword arm got sore from gripping
the hilt of the joystick, and there are wrinkles in my permanent-press armor from hours in
front of the monitor. -- Steve Hudson on Gateway to Apshai, from COMPUTE! ISSUE 60 / MAY
1985 / PAGE 56
Although neither Temple of Apshai nor Akalabeth are particularly playable today, their
historical value cannot be overestimated. Both games were successful in their own right, and
helped launch vitally important series (particularly Akalabeth, which led to the Ultima series).
However, the genre was still crude and left much to be desired in terms of interface and
design. There was tremendous room for extensive development. Although the "Golden Age" of
CRPGs wouldn't happen until the mid to late 80s, the "Silver Age"--which we'll discuss next-introduced some games that are still playable and rewarding today.

The Silver Age (1981-1983)
In 1981, the CRPG wasn't nearly as recognizable as a genre as it is today. Only a precious few
commercial games took on the title, and these were cumbersome and hard to play compared
to arcade and adventure games. What the genre really needed was a definitive game (or
preferably a series) that would help garner momentum for the genre. This boost would happen
in 1980 with the release of Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, developed by Richard Garriott
and published by California Pacific Computer Co. Ultima, of course, would quickly become the
premier CRPG series which enjoyed some two decades of installments. Another series that


spawned an important franchise was Sir-Tech's Wizardry, which began in 1981 with Wizardry:
Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. Wizardry would also enjoy a very long career--the eighth
installment arrived in 2001. Together, these two series helped define the genre. However,
Ultima and Wizardry weren't the only CRPGs on the shelf. Daniel Lawrence released his
Telengard in 1982, a game based on the old mainframe dnd game described above. Two other
important games released in 1982 are Tunnels of Doom for the TI-99/4A, and Dungeons of
Daggorath for the Tandy CoCo. Rounding out this era are The Sword of Fargoal, released in
1983 by Epyx, and Ultima III, a game that many CRPG enthusiasts cite as the first modern
CRPG. Let's start, then, with the Ultima series.

The Ultima Series
Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness marks a number of important firsts for the genre. Perhaps
the most important is the game's use of tiled graphics. Tiled graphics required much less
storage space and allowed for large, colorful environments. Like Akalabeth, the game was
originally available only for the Apple II platform, though Sierra On-Line released an Atari 8-bit
port in 1982, with more ports to follow in 1986. At the time, the game was hailed for its
immense size and "evolutionary" aspect--players started off in the Middle Ages, but later
traveled through time. What other game started with daggers and leather and ended up with
blasters and spaceships? It was truly an ambitious game. The game also abandoned the
"parser" control scheme of Akalabeth and was played by simple keystrokes like Apshai. The
game even features some arcade space combat action!

Ultima I (C-64): Tile-based graphics for CRPGs would become a distinguishing feature of
console RPGs.The storyline is related very much to Akalabeth's, and features many of the
same characters. The player's mission is to seek out and destroy the evil wizard Mondain's
"gem of power," which he's used to enslave the lands of Sosaria. However, Ultima is a much
more sophisticated game than its predecessor, and players soon learned the values of creative
gameplay. For instance, players could steal powerful items from the shops that would make


them nearly invulnerable--at least at the early stages of the game. Of course, successful
thieving might require a few reloads, but for frustrated players, it was a price worth paying.
Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress, released in 1982, is an even more ambitious game
than its prequel. Like the first game, this one involves both fantasy and sci-fi elements,
particular space and time travel. The basic plot here is that Mondain's apprentice, Minax, has
come of age and is now threatening the space-time continuum itself. The fact that the player
has to travel to so many different places and times brings to mind Sierra On-Line's colossal
Time Zone, released the same year. Unfortunately, Ultima II was riddled with bugs, and some
critics think that Garriott's deteriorating relationship with Sierra led to a less-than-polished
product. Apparently, Garriott didn't feel that Sierra was playing fair with royalties from the IBM
PC version of the game.
The final Ultima game of the Silver Age was Ultima III: Exodus, released in 1983. The game is
aptly named because, by this time, Garriott had left Sierra and formed his own company,
Origin Systems. It's often hailed as one of the most influential games ever made, both on
American and Japanese CRPG development (a fact that's almost painfully clear in console
games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy). The story this time is that Mondain and Minax's
evil progeny, Exodus (after all, anybody who names their kid "Exodus" should know from
whence it came). The game differs from the earlier Ultima games in a number of ways. For one
thing, the player controls a party of adventurers rather than just a single avatar. The combat
system is also enhanced and gets its own special gameplay screen, so that players must
battle multiple creatures and develop much more complicated tactics. The player also spent
time talking to townspeople to gather clues and information. Furthermore, this game features
coherent dungeons that don't change across sessions, so that players are encouraged to make
their own maps on graph paper. Finally, the characters' actions are much more unified towards
a single goal than in the other games, where many dungeons were simply "irrelevant." The
game was a tremendous success for Garriott and Origin, and versions were available for most
major computing platforms and even the NES.

Wizardry
Although Ultima was quickly laying the foundations of the genre, it wasn't the only kid on the
block. A company named Sir-Tech began publishing a prominent rival series in regular
installments starting in 1981. While it had much in common with Akalabeth, it differed in some
key respects. First off, it was a party-based rather than a single-character dungeon-crawler.
Like Rogue, the mission here was to descend into a dungeon and find an magical amulet,
smashing whatever got in the way. However, this game had better graphics and a very


intuitive layout. While most of the screen was taken up by relevant statistics and other
information, the top left corner offered a first-person, 3-D perspective of the dungeon (or a
picture of the enemy during combat). The dungeons were always the same from game to
game, so again players were rewarded by making their own maps (or purchasing them).

Wizardy (NES): The NES version has the best graphics and is probably the most reliable
version.The second installment, The Knight of Diamonds, was published in 1982, and required
that players complete the former game to play--a "feature" that was quickly corrected in later
versions. In modern parlance, the game was an "expansion pack" for the first game.
Furthermore, players had to visit every part of the game, collecting six pieces of magical
armor needed to fight off a city's besiegers, to complete the game. The third game, Legacy of
Llylgamyn, released in 1983, is yet another "dungeon crawler," but this time players begin at
the bottom of a volcano and work their way up. The goal is to find a dragon named L'Kbreth,
who can save the city of Llyamyn from earthquakes and the volcano's eruption. Again
characters had to be imported from previous games, but were stripped of their experience.
Furthermore, players had to choose moral alignments for their characters, a fact that
determined which parts of the world could be visited.
All in all, the first three Wizardry games are much more consistent across titles than the
Ultima series. Unlike Garriott, who seemed determined to revolutionize the series with each
installment, Sir-Tech seemed to follow the old "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" adage. Regardless,
the Wizardry games are still fairly playable today, though perhaps more for historical or
nostalgic value than pure enjoyment.

One-Shots
There are at least four other games that make up the Silver Age of CRPGs. These include
Telengard, The Sword of Fargoal, Tunnels of Doom, and Dungeons of Daggorath. While these


games are perhaps not as well known as the above mentioned series, they are nevertheless
significant and deserve our attention.
The first of these, Daniel Lawrence's Telengard, was released by Avalon Hill in 1982 for the
Commodore PET (though quickly ported to many other platforms, most popularly the C-64).
Telengard was directly inspired by the PLATO dnd game mentioned above, with minimal
graphics and randomized dungeons. The game contains many features that were repeated in
many later games, such as fountains, thrones, altars, and teleportation cubes, all of which
characters could interact with (with random and occasionally quite nasty results). The game is
also set in real-time (players who take a bathroom break during their game will likely find their
character dead when they return!). One of the game's key selling points was its huge dungeon
(50 levels with 2 million rooms!), 20 different monster types, and 36 spells. The author claims
that his game "predates" most of the early computer "adventure games, including Temple of
Apshai and the Wizardry series." Again, it's very difficult to ascertain precise dates here, but
it's hard to see how a game published in 1982 could have influenced games published years
earlier--assuming these dates are anywhere close to accurate. It's more likely that Daniel's
mainframe conversions of the aforementioned dnd, which he called DND, may have been
played by contemporary developers. Regardless, Telengard is a fine game that still enjoys
considerable appreciation today.
Perhaps SSI and Lord British and all the others already know how to create such a fantasy. But
if they ever did publish a game in which we weren't always concentrating on the details of
housekeeping, maybe we'd notice the fact that nobody in this whole genre has thought of a
new idea since 1951 -- Orson Scott Card, from COMPUTE! ISSUE 115 / DECEMBER 1989 / PAGE
92
Telengard is about as close to a pure "dungeon crawler" as you can get. There are no ultimate
quests or missions; the focus is entirely on survival and gaining enough experience to improve
your character. Jeff McCord's The Sword of Fargoal, released in 1982 for the Commodore VIC20 (the more familiar C-64 version followed in 1983), shares many of Telengard's features, but
restores the quest--this time, to descend into a dungeon, retrieve the eponymous blade, and
escape. To my mind, it's one of the more accessible and playable of the early CRPGs. Since I
reviewed the game in some detail in an earlier article, I'll focus here on what makes the game
significant amidst all this competition. One nice feature is the "fog of war" effect, which
essentially amounts to an auto-mapping feature. Although the game is set in third-person, topdown perspective, the inability to see parts of the map that haven't been explored add
tension, particularly since the game is in real-time. For some reason, The Sword of Fargoal


doesn't seem to get as much attention as its contemporaries, even though its interface is
more intuitive. Indeed, I could easily see a version of this game for mobile phones.
If you habitually toss aside the instruction book in a game package, resist the urge this time.
In fact, set aside an afternoon in which to play the game. -- Sherrie Van Tyle and Joe Devlin on
Tunnels of Doom in CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 9, NO. 9 / SEPTEMBER 1983 / PAGE 135
Tunnels of Doom, like Dungeons of Daggorath, are relatively obscure titles because they were
released only for a single platform. Nevertheless, they became highly successful and are
considered some of the best games for the TI-99/4A and Tandy CoCo, respectively. Tunnels of
Doom might be best described as a mix of themes from Telengard and Wizardry. Like
Telengard, there are fountains, altars, and thrones that have random effects on players willing
to experiment with them. However, Tunnels of Doom followed Wizardry's example by allowing
the player to control a party rather than a single adventurer. Tunnels of Doom also predated
Ultima III in the use of a separate screens for combat and dungeon exploration sequences.
When the player is merely wandering the dungeon, the view is first-person, 3-D perspective. In
combat, the view shifts to a top-down, third-person perspective. This mode would show up in
plenty of later games. Besides Ultima III, it was also a defining characteristic of SSI's Pool of
Radiance and later "Gold Box Games," released after 1988. (For more information about this
game, see my earlier review in Armchair Arcade.)

Tunnels of Doom (TI-99/4A): Separate game/exploration gameplay screens would become
standard in many later CRPGs.Dungeons of Daggorath, developed by DynaMicro, is more like
Akalabeth in the use of wire-frame, first-person, 3-D perspective. However, this game is in
real-time, and features a fatigue system similar to the one found in the Apshai series. A
pulsing heart at the bottom of the screen beats faster or slower depending on the stress of the
character. Taking too much damage or moving too quickly will cause the player to faint, thus
becoming monster meat. Dungeons of Daggorath also departs a bit from the D&D convention
by eschewing so much emphasis on math. Instead of showing how many "hit points" the


character has left, players must listen to the heart to determine how much damage their
character can take before submitting. It's a fine system that adds a great deal of realism and
intensity to the game! (Again, I'll point eager readers to my earlier review of this game).
Finally, I might mention that by 1983 a number of commercial ports of the mainframe classic
Rogue had appeared on personal computers. One set was published by a company named
Artificial Intelligence Design, who released it for platforms as diverse as the Tandy CoCo and
Commodore Amiga platforms. Later, Epyx bought the rights to distribute these ASCII-based
games. Of course, there were likely dozens (if not hundreds) of "Roguelikes" available in
shareware or public domain form, though exact information on these is much harder to
acquire. Suffice it to say, anyone who really wanted to play Rogue could do so on a personal
computer after 1983.

Final Thoughts
Whew! Now, you have to admit, it takes a writer of some diligence (or should we say,
dalliance?) to bite off so much in one chew. In some ways, the first three years of CRPG
development on home computers represented more progress than we'll see in the latter 26.
Although no single game really contained all of the qualities that we associate with a good
CPRG today, you could already pick and choose the elements from individual games. What is
Pool of Radiance, we might ask, but a combination of Tunnels of Doom and Wizardry? What is
Diablo but an updated Telengard? How far have we really come from the days of Pedit5, dnd,
and Dungeon?
Indeed, it's in this spirit that we should prepare for the next installment in this series--the
Golden Age of CRPGs. Things really began heating up for the genre as the Ultima and
Wizardry series continued to refine their formulas in subsequent installments, but the really
exciting stuff was taking place at different companies--most notably, Electronic Arts, SSI, and
New World Computing. Next time, we'll talk about classic titles like Phantasie, Pool of
Radiance, The Bard's Tale, Might and Magic, Dungeon Master, and Wasteland. Do I need to beg
and plead with you to keep your eyes on this site for the SECOND massive installment in our
series on the history of the CRPG? I didn't think so! So, stay on your guard, friend--the best is
yet to come!


The History of Computer Role-Playing Games
Part2: The Golden Age (1985-1993)

[Note:The following is
Barton's
in-depth
of
computer
rolehighly
recommend
The Early Years before

part two of Matt
series on the history
playing games. We
referring to Part One:
reading this article!]

Welcome back, brave
adventurer, to the
second part of my history of our favorite genre of computer game--the Computer RolePlaying Game (the CRPG). Last time, we explored the CRPG's murky precursors, which
included tabletop war and sports games like Tactics and Strat-O-Matic. Of course, I also
discussed the CRPG's most direct ancestor, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson's Dungeons &
Dragons game, which itself derived mostly from their earlier fantasy-based strategy game
called Chainmail. Since so much of D&D consists of mathematics, programmers realized
at once that a considerable bulk of the game was well suited for play on a computer. The
first CRPGs appeared on mainframes like the PDP-10 and a special educational platform
called PLATO. By the early 1980s, these graphically simplistic but technically masterful
games had been adapted or ported to almost every home computer on the market.
Although the first commercial CRPGs for home computers (Akalabeth for the Apple II and
Temple of Apshai for the Commodore PET and TRS-80) are hardly ever played today, they
laid the groundwork for much of what would follow.
Throughout the "Silver Age," which lasted from 1981 until 1983, change would come
gradually and mostly consist of improvements in graphics and user interface. Important
series like Ultima and Wizardry appeared on the market, solidifying every gamer's
expectations about what a CRPG should be. Meanwhile, innovative games like Telengard,
Dungeons of Daggorath (Tandy CoCo), Tunnels of Doom (TI-99/4A), and The Sword of
Fargoal (VIC-20, C-64) offered new alternatives to gamers and new models for
developers. In short, by 1983, the field was sown with great ideas and impressive
examples, but everyone knew that the best was yet to come.

Bard's Tale (Apple II): A sensible,
uncluttered layout and an eye-catching
game world helped propel this series to
the top of the charts.


By 1985, the CRPG would enter what I have chosen to call "The Golden Age," the period
from 1985 to 1993, when the very best CRPG makers were steadily releasing
masterpieces in an orgiastic frenzy of creative development. Indeed, the triumphs of this
period would not be matched until the "Platinum Age" of the mid-90s, when outstanding
developers Bioware, Bethesda, and Blizzard arrived on the scene. However, although
Baldur's Gate and Diablo may receive far more attention and interest today than Golden
Age classics like The Bard's Tale or The Pool of Radiance, we must forever keep in mind
that these earlier games were their direct ancestors. Later developers would only refine,
not re-define, the genre. Anyone who truly desires to understand the CRPG must turn her
attention to the Golden Age, the era in which towering developers like Interplay, SSI, New
World Computing, and FTL released games so superbly designed that they are still
actively played by tens of thousands of gamers even today. There are few games that can
arouse more passion than venerable Golden Age titles like Wasteland, Dungeon Master,
and Quest for Glory. But enough of this build-up; it's time to enter the Golden Age of
CRPGs!

The Transition to the Golden Age
Let's travel back for a moment and put ourselves in the shoes of a hardcore CRPG gamer
living in 1983. If we were asked to wager on which company would dominate the CRPG
market for the next five years, the sensible choice would be Richard Garriott's Origin
Systems, and indeed, that company did achieve great things. In 1983, Origin's Ultima
series was the undisputed market leader, and the games just kept getting better with
each installment. Ultima III: Exodus was widely hailed as the best CRPG ever made, and
there was a good chance that the upcoming fourth game would make it look like
Akalabeth. If we wanted to hedge a bit, we might put some money on Sir-Tech, whose
difficult Wizardry series was quite respectable and had its fair share of zealous, hardcore
fans. Like Ultima, Wizardry was a long way from dead and had not yet released its most
famous games. In short, if anyone had suggested to us that two hitherto unknown
developers--Interplay Productions and Strategic Simulations, Inc.--would soon challenge
Garriott's throne and put Wizardry in the "where are they now file," we'd have either
laughed or scratched our heads. Yet, by 1990, gamers were just as likely to beg their
parents for the next Bard's Tale or SSI "Gold Box" game as anything from Origin or SirTech. In any case, 1985 remains one of the most historically significant years for the
CRPG.

Oubliette (C-64): Not a pretty game, but who cares
when you have an option to Seduce?

Nevertheless, there was some exciting stuff going on before 1985. More of the old
mainframe games were being ported (ever more faithfully) to home computers. Jim
Schwaiger's company Bear Systems released Oubliette for the Commodore 64 and MSDOS platform in 1983. Oubliette, like so many other mainframe CRPGs, had been
developed for the PLATO system, but is more directly based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien
and TSR's official dungeon guides (i.e., the "real" D&D rules). Oubliette had originally


been a multiplayer game, and the home version retained the ability to create many
characters and select groups of them for each "dungeon romp." Furthermore, although it
is quite limited graphically, it is quite sophisticated in terms of gameplay. You could
choose among ten classes (including peasant!) when creating characters, and then join
guilds to further refine them. In short, Oubliette offers a range of options and depth of
play that really wouldn't be equaled until the Modern Age. A company named R.O.
Software also ported the mainframe classic DND to MS-DOS, offering it under a
"shareware" license. Although the author, a mysterious Digital contractor known simply
as "Bill," charged $25 for his game, he did not bother to get permission to do so from
Daniel Lawrence, the author of the original version. Since Lawrence was trying to earn his
fortune selling his own commercial version for home computers--Telengard--he bitterly
resented what he saw as unfair competition. Bill claimed that he deserved the
compensation for cleaning up Lawrence's "spaghetti" code. R.O. Software released an
update in 1988 called Dungeon of the Necromancer's Domain, a "ground-up rewrite" of
the game that apparently differed enough to avoid future conflict with Lawrence. For
more information about this quarrel, see the Unofficial DND page, where, incidentally, you
can
also
download
many
of
the
games
in
question.
Another interesting text-based game from this period is Zyll, a game Scott Edwards and
Marshal Linder wrote while they working for IBM (the game was submitted to IBM's
employee submissions program). Zyll is essentially a hybrid text-adventure with realtime, CRPG elements. Furthermore, it allows two players to either compete or cooperate
with each other to find the Black Orb (the game is of the fetch-the-object variety).
Although it was intended for IBM's short-lived PCjr. computer, which featured advanced
graphics and sound capabilities, Zyll was a text game that would run on just about any
PC-compatible (though there are issues with the keyboard layout, since the menus are
based
on
IBM's
old
PC/XT
function
key
setup).
However, these games are of little interest to modern gamers and are more the domain
of historians and older gamers suffering from nostalgia. No, it was a new game from
Electronic Arts that was about to strike a new chord, changing the CRPG forever, and in
the meantime, the best CRPGs ever made were looming on the horizon. CRPG fans just
hadn't seen anything yet.

The Dawn of the Golden Age
If you were a CRPG fan living in 1985, you were one of the luckiest gamers in history.
Never before had such a torrent of high-quality commercial titles appeared
simultaneously on the shelf. Perhaps the most significant of these was the launch of
Interplay's Tales of the Unknown Vol. 1: The Bard's Tale, which introduced the famous
Bard's Tale trilogy. Although there were certainly excellent CRPGs before it, The Bard's
Tale was intuitive and addictive enough to attract a mainstream audience, no doubt due
in part to the marketing might of its publisher, Electronic Arts. 1985 also saw the launch
of SSI's Phantasie series, as well as their game Wizard's Crown. Although SSI wouldn't
reach its zenith until it acquired the priceless TSR license and began marketing official
AD&D games, their early games are far from shabby.
"There was a time when any computer fantasy game became an immediate bestseller
due to the genre's popularity and the scarcity of such products. That is no longer the case
—computer fantasy games now compete in a buyer's market where they must meet
certain standards if they hope to sell." –James V. Trunzo, Compute!, August 1987
Other significant games of 1985 include Origin's Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, as well as
Autoduel and Moebius: The Orb of Celestial Harmony. Like Autoduel, DataSoft's Alternate
Reality: The City offered gamers an alternative to the traditional swords and sorcery
theme of so many CRPGs. In short, 1985 and 1986 were some of the most formative


years for the CRPG, and there are many important developments to cover. Let's get
started then with The Bard's Tale trilogy.

Down and Out in Skara Brae

Bard's Tale III (C-64): The third game is probably
the best in the series, with great graphics and
just the right level of complexity.

Although the Ultima and Wizardry series did more to establish the CRPG's basic
conventions, it was Interplay that really refined and demonstrated that the genre wasn't
just for "hardcore" gamers. Tales of the Unknown Vol. 1: The Bard's Tale, released in 1985
for the Commodore 64 and Apple II (ports for other platforms would follow until 1990), is
probably the first CRPG that many readers will recognize from their youth. Indeed, The
Bard's Tale's undeniable mainstream appeal was probably not matched by another
company until Blizzard's Diablo in 1997. The game was so successful, in fact, that Baen
Books launched a series of eight novels based on the games, some penned by such wellknown fantasy authors as Mercedes Lackey! Although the final Bard's Tale game was
released in 1991, in 2004 Brian Fargo and InXile Entertainment revived the franchise with
a "spiritual sequel" for the PS2, Xbox, and Windows. But what was it about this series that
made it so enduring?
"When the going gets tough, the bard goes drinking." –from The Bard's Tale instruction
manual.
After all, like Wizardry, the first Bard's Tale is a challenging game even for expert D&D
players. The difficulty is particularly felt during the crucial initial stage of the game, when
the player's characters (up to six) are weak, poorly equipped, and inexperienced. I can't
remember how many times I created an entire party of adventurers, only to have them all
perish in a random encounter before I could make it to Garth's weapons shop! The game
is also rather lacking in terms of narrative or story elements--it's a "dungeon crawler"
with an emphasis on fighting random encounters with monsters, building up character
stats and inventories, and mapping out dungeons. In many ways, the game is merely an
updated Wizardry with better graphics and sound (indeed, some versions of the game
even let players import their Wizardry or Ultima characters!). The story--find and depose
an evil wizard named Mangar the Dark, who is threatening the town of Skara Brae--is
hardly novel. Perhaps the only true innovation is the addition of the bard character, a sort
of jack-of-all-trades character who could perform party-boosting songs during combat and
dungeon exploration. The classes available to magic users were also sophisticated;
players started off as simple conjurers or magicians, but could eventually upgrade to
sorcerers and wizards. Truly ambitious players could even combine all these to create
fearsome
archmages.
Nevertheless, anyone who has played the game for any length of time discovers that it is
much greater than the sum of its parts. There's just an indefinable quality that seems to
hold the game together. No doubt, much of the game's playability is owed to the clean


interface and striking color graphics (many of which are animated). Even novice players
can learn the game's rules in a few sessions, and if the characters can survive to reach a
few levels, the difficulty eases up considerably--and it's quite rewarding to go about
whomping monsters who made a meal out of your former parties. Furthermore, the ability
to travel outdoors as well as indoors lends a certain coherence to the game world. Unlike
other CRPGs in which cities and towns were little more than places to buy equipment,
Skara Brae felt like a real place. Again, this coherence is almost surely an effect of the
game's rich graphics. Even if the graphics look primitive today, in 1985 they were
stunning. Each building in Skara Brae looked like it belonged there.
Interplay followed up its success with two sequels, The Destiny Knight (1986) and The
Thief of Fate (1991). The Destiny Knight was essentially a rehash of the first game, using
the same engine but expanding the game world to include five other cities (the first game
had occurred entirely in Skara Brae) and a wilderness area. It also added banks and
casinos to the services available in the towns, special spells for archmages, timed
puzzles, and ranged combat. Though players can import their characters from the first
game, the difficulty level is better balanced for new parties (i.e., you have a much better
chance of making it to Garth's store to buy equipment before dying).
Although the characters dispatched the evil Mangar the Dark in the first game, another
evil mage named Lagoth Zanta decides to shatter the "Destiny Wand" into seven pieces,
scattering them across the land. Since the wand has protected the world for some 700
years, things don't bode well unless your characters can restore the wand and use it to
slay Lagoth Zanta (one wonders what the wand was doing during the first game, but so it
goes). Solving the game will require gaining insights from a Sage, a process that utilizes a
rather infantile and frustrating text parser.
The Thief of Fate is probably the overall best designed game of the series, since it
incorporates helpful new features like auto-mapping and the ability to use items to solve
puzzles, thus opening up many interesting opportunities for thoughtful gameplay. The
third game is also the most ambitious in terms of the game world; now the players must
explore whole different "universes," including a trip to Nazi Berlin!
Electronic Arts also published Interplay's The Bard's Tale Construction Set for
Commodore's Amiga and the MS-DOS platforms. This construction set included an
updated version of the first game in the series (rechristened the Star Light Festival).
However, more importantly, the set allowed CRPG fans to construct their own new games
based on the enhanced Thief of Fate engine. The construction kit was popular on many
platforms, but the most useful version available for MS-DOS, which had support for hard
drives, VGA, mouse, and the usual slew of sound cards. Strangely, while music was
played through the sound card, all sound effects were delegated to the PC's totally
inadequate internal speaker. The two most well-known games created with the set
include The Bard's Lore: The Warrior and the Dragon created by John H. Wigforss, and
Nutilan by Dennis Payne. Both of these games were for the PC version. Of course, there
were undoubtedly many thousands of other "homebrew" titles created by other fans, but
the Internet as we know it had not yet arrived on the scene. Since these hobbyist
developers had no way to cheaply distribute their games, most are lost to history.
Thankfully, at least one ambitious developer is still releasing games built with the
system--see
Warrior's
Tale,
released
in
2006.
While Electronic Arts' initial foray into CRPGs played a pivotal role in the development of
the genre, The Bard's Tale was not alone. Another company that was beginning to flex its
muscles was SSI, an old publisher of war games who had now set their sights on the
budding CRPG market.


The

Infant Phantasies
Questrons?

of

Strategic

Simulations,

Inc:

Any

Today, Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI) is best known for its fabulous "Gold Box" games, a
series of CRPGs that bore the official seal of TSR, holder of the sacred Dungeons &
Dragon copyrights and trademarks. This invaluable license was sought after by nearly
every other CRPG developer, but SSI emerged victorious. No doubt TSR's decision was
swayed by SSI's legacy as a developer and publisher of computer-based "war games" (as
you remember, D&D emerged from tabletop war games). SSI's first game was Computer
Bismarck, published in 1979 for the Apple II. SSI quickly became the market leader in this
niche, even with the premier wargames publisher Avalon Hill competing against them.
SSI's most famous non-CRPG game is probably Cytron Masters (1982), one of the first (if
not the first) real-time strategy games. It was designed by Dani Bunten, creator of
M.U.L.E.
SSI's first CRPGs were published in 1984: 50 Mission Crush and Questron. 50 Mission
Crush is more like a traditional war game than most CRPGs, and is probably better
described as a turn-based strategy game. The game consists of fifty B17 bomber missions
flown in World War II, and the player assigns each position in the plane to his characters
(i.e., tail-gunner, bomber). These characters receive experience points each time they
survive a mission, eventually gaining competence and winning promotions. The magazine
Computer Gaming World published an intriguing review of the game written by an actual
B-24 bombardier named Leroy W. Newby, who found it realistic enough to evoke dozens
of wartime memories, which he duly juxtaposes alongside his gameplay narrative (see
issue #35).

Phantasie (C-64). It took SSI a while to really get
away from the model established by Ultima.

While 50 Mission Crush is a highly innovative and even unique game, Questron is an
unimaginative Ultima clone. Indeed, SSI even secured a license from Richard Garriott for
the game's "structure and style." At the time, Questron was noted for being much easier
and simpler to play than Ultima, and one contemporary reviewer even remarked that it
was a "perfect warm-up" for Ultima III (Michael Ciraolo in Antic Vol. 3, No. 7).
Nevertheless, Questron had some promising features. For instance, towns and cities
contained "mini-games" that let skilled players boost their character's stats. There were
also casinos where players could gamble for gold. Finally, Questron was one of the first
games with monsters that could only be defeated with certain types of weapons. Perhaps
the most unusual and disturbing "feature" is the option to "kill self," featured prominently
in the main menu. SSI would publish a popular sequel to Questron in 1988, which was
developed by Westwood Associates. The game followed the same basic formula as the
first, but was set in the past. The mission this time was to depose six insane sorcerers
and prevent the creation of the "Book of Magic." An auto-mapper was added and the
dungeons were rendered in 3D, but it's essentially the same game in a new costume.
Let's talk next about the Phantasie and Wizard's Crown games, which are more direct


precursors

to

the

famous

Gold

Box

games.

In 1985, SSI published the first of what would become a trilogy of Phantasie games. These
games allow players to create and control a party of up to six adventurers, with several
classes and races to choose from (including unlikable critters like goblins and minotaurs!).
Another nice feature is separate screens and menus for purchasing equipment, exploring
dungeons, roaming the world map, and vanquishing foes. There's even a bank where
characters can store their money--a nice trade-off for the limited coin-carrying capacity of
the characters (try saying that three times fast). Furthermore, the game tracks where
your characters have been, eliminating the need for graph paper. There were also new
problems--the characters aged, and could even die from old age if the player took too
long
to
complete
the
adventure.
Combat in Phantasie is handled in much the same way as console CRPGs like Final
Fantasy. The player first chooses from a menu what each character will do, then enters
the next round of combat. A simple animation shows which character (or enemy) is
attacking and how much damage was dealt (or received). If the players win, they do a
comical dance which again reminds one of so many console CRPGs. Although the combat
system is simplistic compared to Wizard's Crown, which we'll discuss in a moment, it
nevertheless offers players fine control over how characters attack. For instance, fighters
can choose to attack, thrust, slash, and lunge. These options control how many swings
the character takes at an enemy, with varying degrees of damage and likeliness of a hit.
"Lunge" attempts to hit a monster standing behind the first row of enemies.
The story behind the first Phantasie is simple enough--kill the "Black Knights" and their
master, the evil sorcerer Nikademus, who supplied the knights with powerful but soulsucking magic rings (ring a bell?). However, to accomplish this, the characters must
round up twenty scrolls, each of which contains vital clues to help the characters
accomplish their goal. The story is more deeply interwoven into the game than in most
CRPGs, and the player's choices make a real difference in how the game unfolds. The
many riffs on Tolkien and occasional humor help distinguish Phantasie from the typical
dungeon-crawler.
"Phantasie, from Strategic Simulations, may be the best fantasy role-playing game to
come down the silicon pike since Sir-Tech conjured up Wizardry. As a matter of fact—at
the risk of sounding blasphemous—in some ways Phantasie surpasses Wizardry."—James
V. Trunzo in Compute!, December 1985.
SSI followed up the first game with Phantasie II in 1986. The plot this time was even less
imaginative than the first--Nikademus is back, and this time he's used a magical orb to
enslave an island and its population. Naturally, the party must find and destroy the orb.
Other than a revamped story, there is little difference between this game and its prequel,
save the ability of characters to hurl rocks at an enemies during combat. Players of the
first game could also import their old characters. The final Phantasie [sic] was released in
1987 for the Apple II, and given the subtitle The Wrath of Nikademus (Westwood
Associates ported it to other platforms). Nikademus has returned, and after two defeats
his ambition has only grown--this time he's out to control the world. The third game
offered better graphics and more sophisticated combat, such as the ability to target
specific body regions, a wound system, and better tactics. All in all, the third part is
probably the best game in the series, even if it is noticeably shorter than the first two
games. In 1990, a company named WizardWorks released the first games in a "retrostyled" package called Phantasie Bonus Edition for the DOS and Commodore Amiga
platforms. Unfortunately, despite its initial popularity and many innovations, the
Phantasie series has not managed to attain the enduring legacy it deserves, and has
been long overshadowed by SSI's later "Gold Box" CRPGs.


Questron (C-64). The game may get
frustrating, but is the "kill self" option
really necessary?

In 1985, SSI released another party-based fantasy CRPG called Wizard's Crown, which
was probably the most "hardcore" CRPG of its time. Players could create up to 8 players,
and multi-class them as much as they liked (i.e., a character could be a
thief/fighter/mage/cleric). Instead of "levels," characters improved their stats and skills,
such as hunting, haggling, alchemy, and swimming. This skill system would show up
again in modern games like Fall Out and Neverwinter Nights. Likewise, the combat
system was more dynamic than anything offered up to that time. There were over 20
combat commands alone, including unusual ones like "Fall Prone," which made a
character harder to hit with arrows but easier to hit with melee weapons. Like Questron
and Phantasie, different situations called for different weapons. However, Wizard's Crown
went a step beyond with added realism--shields only worked if the character was facing
the right direction, for instance, and characters were still vulnerable to axes and flails,
which could destroy or circumvent a shield, respectively. Ranged weapons were
implemented, as well as an intelligent magic system. Although a major battle could last
up to 40 minutes, players could also choose "quick combat," which would automatically
resolve the combat in seconds. While the storyline was droll (find a wizard, kill him, and
take back a crown), the extraordinary attention to character development and strategic
combat made up for it. It remains one of the most complicated CRPGs and a strategist's
dream. SSI released a sequel to the game called The Eternal Dagger in 1987. Demons
from another dimension are invading the world, and the only item that can seal the portal
is the titular dagger. Besides the new storyline, the sequel is nearly identical to the first
game, though some elements like the "fall prone" option mentioned above were omitted.

Wizard's Crown (Apple II). This combat
screen and interface is an early form of
the one SSI employed in the Gold Box games.

There are at least two other early SSI CRPGs worth mentioning: Shard of Spring and Rings
of Zilfin, both released in 1986. Shard of Spring is a game written for the Apple II by Craig
Roth and David Stark, and ported to MS-DOS by D.R. Gilman, Leslie Hill, and Martin
deCastongrene--who did the whole game in Microsoft QuickBasic! It's a bit crude
compared to the other SSI games of the era, and falls somewhere in between Wizard's
Crown and Phantasie in terms of complexity. The story is that an evil sorceress has stolen
the Shard of Spring, a magical item that brings eternal springtime to the land. Now that


it's gone, the world has fallen into chaos, and the solution is obvious. Roth and Stark
wrote a sequel called Demon's Winter, which was published by SSI in 1988. While very
similar to the first game, Demon's Winter features an exponentially larger game world
and two new characters classes, the scholar and the visionary. Visionaries have some
unusual abilities, mostly dealing with reconnaissance--for instance, they can view a room
to check for monsters without being seen. The story this time is perhaps even more
straightforward than the first--the land of Ymros is faced with eternal winter unless the
characters can find and destroy the evil demon god Malifon. Both games feature some
interesting twists on religion, allowing characters to become acolytes of different gods
and pray to them for aid during combat. Unfortunately, neither game had polished
graphics or quality sound (even on the Amiga platform), factors that no doubt led to
lackluster reviews in most game magazines.

The Shard of Spring (DOS). Ah, killing rats with swords. The fun never ends.

"Another common problem in CRPGs may be an emphasis in glitz and glamour rather
than substance. If it is pretty, the assumption is that people will buy it. The question is,
however, do these beautiful graphics really add anything substantial to the game? " –
David L. Arneson in Computer Gaming World, May 1988.

Rings of Ziflin (Apple II). Early cut-scenes
like this helped establish a story and carry
it along.


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