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The World of Western RPGs

From nerd to an artist – the 80's

As I said before, I am only going to use a handful of games to paint the era. This here is the 80's, a time when half of the world was under the Soviet influence and MacGuyver was cool. I will be using the most influential games.

Things to pay attention to:

  • the fundamental differences between Ultima, Wizardry and Might and Magic
  • the introduction of "art" into RPGs
  • a narrative
  • the automap
  • awesome soundtracks.

1980-1984

Wizardry I-IIITwo college students, Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead, created a dungeon crawler called Wizardry. It was soon followed by two sequels, which by today's standards would be considered expansions since they require the player to finish the first game. You cannot play them unless you transfer your party from the first game.

They tell the classic story of adventures about killing monsters and defeating the big bad villain. Wizardry III also went weird by requiring that one of your party members needed to be evil, because "only good and evil together" can defeat the villain. As usual with games made by college students, they feature a lot of inside jokes and pop-culture references in the form of stuff to kill.

"Oh my god, this ultra-powerful monster with 9999 hit points is Cher! Fucking amazing!


Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord



Ultima I-IIIAnother student, Richard Garriott, created Ultima with his friends. The first two games are dungeon crawlers, but simpler than the Wizardries; meaning that you do not need esoteric mathematical skills to survive a random battle - you are only required to press the attack button. And to top that, while the Wizardries consisted of only a single dungeon, the Ultimas had several. Even better, the Ultimas had overworld maps, towns, castles and in Ultima II even planets, and multiple ways to cross the land – by foot, by air plane, by ship and by spaceship. Featuring everything from orcs to alien spaceships to destroy, the first Ultimas are classic hack-and-slash games.

Keep in mind that the word "classic" is not a synonym for "good".

Ultima III is a bit more directed in its design. The world is provided with some history, the classic Ultima mysticism makes its first appearance through the city of Dawn (which only appears on the world map at dawn and then disappears) and through its renaissance fair music. Ultima III is the one that introduced the concept of awesome music into RPGs. You can thank Kenneth W. Arnold for that. This is also the last Ultima until Ultima 9 where the main goal is to kill a big baddie (though killing Exodus is actually done through a puzzle involving a computer and mystic cards, rather than a direct battle). Ultima III also saw the start of the company ORIGIN. From then on, Ultima was not a practice in programming by a lonely nerd any more, it was a big franchise.


Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress



Rogue: The Adventure GameBefore I am going to dissect Rogue, I have to mention that different sources give different dates for this game. But I shall go with MobyGames' authority and pick 1983 for the game's release. Most likely the Rogue design existed before, but since I decided to stay away from the murky era of the 70's, then 1983 it shall be. Rogue is a pretty popular game, or actually a gaming style since it has produced so many clones and people still have discussions about them. Basically in Rogue, you play a simple, smiling face that collects gold, kills monsters and descends further down into the dungeon. The goal is of course to capture some amulet that someone accidentally left somewhere. Compared to the Ultimas and Wizardries, Rogue is a prime example of simplicity. You do not need esoteric mathematical skills to fight the monsters (who actually look like letters – a Hobgoblin is represented by a big "H") and it does not switch to a separate turn-based battle screen like it does in Ultima III. You just hit the walking button and that is it. Perhaps you survived, perhaps you died. All you can do is to descend further.

You might ask then that why I even bother to mention this random simple game from the 80's. Well, Rogue is what RPGs once were, and this rogue-like gameplay has had a certain amount of influence on the genre. For example, it inspired Dungeon Master (yeah, I just made that up, DM is actually influenced by all of the stupid games from 80's... but let's pretend that Rogue represents all those games), the game that influenced the way RPGs tended to look and play until to the late 90's. Diablo, one of the most famous RPG franchises that made the isometric perspective popular in the late 90's, also carries some of that old Rogue influence.




1985-1987

Ultima IVThis title is one of the first examples of trying to create meaningful content in a game rather than just being a nerd fantasy. While other RPGs still followed the "kill-the-big-baddie" design, Richard Garriot tried to do something different with his games. He came to an idea that perhaps games can be something more. Something more important than killing stuff. Something like a spiritual experience. And in this game you can see what happens when 20-something former nerds get philosophical. The fourth game is similar to the earlier Ultimas in its design – you still have town NPCs, you still kill monsters, you still crawl through dungeons – and yet it is so different. In the end, the player has to admit that no matter how corny the Ultima virtues were, it still did something. This one is a unique game – it is part old Ultima design and part the new simulated world design. And yet it is so different and mystical. Basically Richard succeeded; this game is not just one to waste some hours of your life on, this game is an experience.

Ultima IV is also one of the few games in the 80's that is about the players themselves. If history was fair, then the entire genre would have tried to improve on the ideas of Ultima 4 and we would have much more advanced and thorough games now, but unfortunately history sucks. And so I ask from you readers to give a huge collective "fuck you!" to history. Thank you.




Tales of the Unknown: Bard's Tale IThe first RPG by Interplay and one of the few old-timers to attract mainstream appeal. This game was pretty much like the Wizardry games, except that it added color to its graphics and it was oriented around the character class of the Bard. Unlike Wizardry, you could actually travel around the town above the dungeon, though it just birthed more random combat. It is not like you could do anything interesting in that city, just getting lost and dying before you reached the store. In that regard, it is not really an improvement from the Wizardry-style portrayal of cities as text menus.

Although its basic gameplay is a lot like Wizardry – dungeon crawler with difficult puzzles and combat – it managed to offer enough of its own to have that unique feel that can be called The Bard's Tale-experience. But unlike Ultima IV, this one did not yet try to create art, since the writing usually consists of: "You see a monster. It hits you."


Bard's Tale II: The Destiny KnightFeaturing the same gameplay as the first game, this title provided a bigger world with more dungeons and towns, and more secrets. Also, it came with a twist – the villain of the game is the sage who you visit to ask for information after completing each dungeon. What an amazing portrayal of betrayal and misled efforts. Nah, I am just being unfairly mean. In essence, Bard's Tale II is the very embodiment of the Bard's Tale experience as it is the one most people fondly remember. It is also the first RPG to have a mini-game in it. Visiting casinos you can play the in-game card game for money.




Might and Magic IWhile in 1986 there already were companies who tried to create art (ORIGIN, Sierra, Infocom) there where still lots of old-school programmers left who made games just for fun (of course using a very loose meaning of the word "fun"). One of these programmers was Jon Van Caneghem, who later managed to make a company out his projects. He never ever did or even thought about doing serious "deep shit" games – his success peaking with the Heroes of Might and Magic series.

Jon Van Caneghem: “My design philosophy has always been technology first then game play then story” (2007)

But enough of that. Might and Magic, like Bard's Tale, is largely inspired by Wizardry. But unlike Bard's Tale, Might and Magic as a series went for a more user-friendly approach. The whole goal of the series has been to provide that old-school experience in the most fun and easiest way possible. Now of course Mr Van Caneghem had no intention of doing this with his first game, because it is not that different from contemporary titles. In fact, it is quite awful and Bard's Tale was definitely more attractive and playable at that time. But the basics were down; while Bard's Tale games were about dungeon crawling with esoteric mathematical puzzles, Might and Magic was about numbers getting bigger and letting the player feel awesome about that.

The only major difference is its interesting way to combine that fairy tale magic feel with science fiction – quite often in the MM series the player discovers that he has actually been killing monsters on a travelling spaceship and not in a medieval fantasy world as he initially thought. This unique feel stayed with the Might and Magic franchise almost until the end.




Wizardry IV: The Return of WerdnaThe first individual Wizardry game after a long time. This game brought a unique twist – you are playing the villain of the first game and you have to escape from the dungeon you once built. But while other RPGs had already kicked it up a notch in 1987, Wizardry IV still featured graphics, interface and gameplay similar to games from 1981. Its design brethren like the Bard's Tale series had also already improved this pure dungeon crawler gamplay. And thus, with Wizardry IV, the series became for sad people only. You see, Wizardry IV is known as the most difficult game ever and most likely no sane person has ever managed to complete it.





Dungeon MasterReleased in 1987, this game was graphically above any other game of its time, and not only graphically. While other games were all about keyboard short-cuts, clumsy interfaces and battles that looked like viewing someone's rap sheet, this one had a clumsy interface (to us modern folks at least) with a mouse. Everything is mouse-based. It is the direct predecessor to games like Eye of the Beholder and Lands of Lore. The most obvious similarity is of course the interface. Some might say that it is exactly the same kind of interface; there is a screen with the game world in 3D and on the side are the direction arrows and combat options through which you interact with the game world.

In its design it followed the classic example of Rogue. You have a dungeon and you descend further down. Okay, it is actually the continuation of all dungeon crawlers but... I am the one writing history here, so shut up. Dungeon Master also features puzzles from the Wizardries and Bard's Tale games, though solving them is as simple as pulling a lever or finding that secret button in the wall. It influenced an entire decade of RPGs that all tried and did improve upon its design in almost every way. Dungeon Master is one of the most important games in RPG history. It also produced a sequel that was released in Japan in 1993 and in America in 1995, but somehow did not attract much attention.




Star Saga seriesErm... these games are not really computer games. They are actually choose-your-adventure books recreated as a computer program. You get these huge books and maps, you type your stuff in and the program calculates stuff and gives you the passage you must read. And then you read and repeat. So that is what the game looks like.

So why did I even bring this up? I thought that throwing in some more unknown and obscure titles would give me more credibility. You know, I might actually sound like I know what I am talking about. Anyway, Star Saga is a really unique experience. This kind of thing can only happen in the early days of an medium, where the rules are not really set yet. Nowadays we would never get this kind of thing, as the definition of a video game has been set in stone over the years. But from all the historical relics of the WRPG genre, this is one of the most interesting ones together with Ultima 4. Because it is such a simple program, only giving you the passage number to read, it is much more immersive and satisfying in the quality of its literature than any other RPG from the 80's. Sure you do not get tactical battles or music - but, this stuff is great man. The writing quality is way above the others too.

Actually, it is much better to play nowadays, because Home of the Underdogs provides the easy-to-use HTML version of the manual where you just have to type in the number of the passage, instead of searching it manually. The screenshot I provide below is not really from the game itself. They show the program that helps you keep track of things. The game itself is in the book that came with the program. A really unique historical experience that manages to avoid the usual pitfalls of historical things. Basically, you pick a character from the six pre-made characters, you read the bio of each character to decide who you like the most and off you go. Just do not confuse the character-choosing screen with party forming, because it is hard for one man to keep track of all the characters. This program was intended as a multiplayer experience. But from all the historical relics of the 80's, this is definitely the one I recommend for being such a different experience than any other RPG.


Star Saga: Two - The Clathran Menace


1988-1989

Might and Magic IIFeaturing the same kind of dungeon crawler as the first game, with the same fairy tale atmosphere which in the end turns into space traveling nonsense. This time we can see the first traces of the design philosophy of Mr Van Caneghem. It is the first RPG that features an automap. An automap! How cool is that! In the world where it was expected from the player to draw his own graph maps that is a revolution. But still, this was only the first step for the MM series to make that old-school gameplay fun. The interface is still uncomfortable and the game is too hard and unfair, compared to more user-friendly Pool of Radiance and Ultima V.




Bard's Tale IIIThis is the last classic Bard's Tale game. The former director of the series had left the gaming industry and this new game made by other folks never managed to gain that much public appeal. It does not offer anything that different from its predeccors, only being more bigger. And you get to kill Nazi's. Also this time, the game concentrates on the character class of Thief. Bard's Tale 3 is also the first RPG to feature an auto-map. But why I do not act as amazed about the automap thing as I did with MMII. Well, I really do not know. Honestly, it even came out a few months before that game.

Why do you lie then? I do not know, stop asking uncomfortable questions. In its defence I can say that Might and Magic II lead to future classics, while the Bard's Tale series died with the third game. So it is easier for me to hail the MM series as the pioneer of user-friendly features. Yeah, I am horrible, but what can you do about it.




WastelandMade by the same people who made the Bard's Tale games (with the exception of Michael Cranford, the director of first two) this one is remembered most fondly in the line of old Interplay RPGs because it is considered the spiritual father of Fallout. This game takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, featuring much of that dark humor and morbid situations that made Fallout popular. Gameplay-wise it is a bit of mix of Ultima and Bard's Tale, featuring the top-down perspective of the former and the rap sheet combat of the latter. It also incorporates lots of skills into the gameplay, as you can climb trees with one character and swim with another. Well, you will not exactly climb trees, I was just trying to illustrate what skill-based puzzles look like. Like all non-Ultima games of that time a lot of the NPC interaction takes place inside the manual. However, something which Wasteland can be proud of, a lot of NPC interaction also happens in-game. The examples you see in the screenshots are, in quality and spirit, way beyond the standards of its era when it comes to writing.

Jim Leonard has written in-depth overview about this game's innovation on this site. The featured article Wasteland: A Landmark of RPG Innovations from 2000 can be read in its entirety here.








Pool of RadianceThe first Gold Box game. Development studio SSI was previously doing wargames, but around the mid-80's SSI tried its luck in the RPG market, with relatively crappy games like Phantasie and Questron, basically Ultima clones that did not stand the test of time. But SSI did not give up. They acquired the rights to D&D, the father of all RPGs. Needless to say, this would grant them popularity no matter what they would have done. But they did not try to make cheap imitations of Wizardry or Ultima. They did not want to be just a dungeon crawler developer either. And thus we see one of the first traces of defined narrative in an RPG. They made the game feel like a fantasy novel (players could all go: "This is just like playing a Dragonlance novel, only in Forgotten Realms.") From the beginning, with Pool of Radiance, Gold Box games delivered stories.

Another distinct feature is the combat system – SSI's past experience in wargames really showed. It has one of the best combat systems seen in RPGs at that time. It is completely right (for lack of a better word) – it is turn-based and strategical, and yet so exciting and adrenaline-heavy like an action game, it is difficult and yet so easy, the interface is not cumbersome (you have to think like they did in the 80's when reading this) – it is like magic. Of course, no matter how cool the combat is, it would soon turn tiresome if there was nothing else besides it (and there is a lot of combat). The developers realized this. That is why they put all these nice, memorable "encounters" in the game, interestingly written situations to spice up this lifeless world; a vast improvement over the likes of Bard's Tale.

Like in Bard's Tale games, you can travel around the city using a fairly detailed 3D perspective. While it might be hard to distinguish one location from another, you have to put yourself in the shoes of a guy from the 80's - He most likely would have said: "#%“#%¤“!!! ¤%#%&#ing rocks!! I'm actually in the Temple of Tempus." Overall, Pool of Radiance is an excellent step forward from the Wizardries and Bard's Tales, since it introduces a narrative to this awfully sad genre.




Ultima VLike Dungeon Master the year before, this one is the graphical titan of 1988. The first "real" Ultima. It really made the idea of a simulated world reality. Each NPC lives his own life, you can follow them around for the whole day. They talk coherently (unlike U4), which makes the world really feel alive. And it is the best example of 8-bit graphics. Everything is so detailed, it is just unbelievable – day, night, lighthouses illuminating the seas at night, NPCs with detailed schedules, living and breathing cities, etc. It is still a good example of an open-ended game. To be more precise, it is a good example of what an open-ended game should be.

Unlike Ultima 4 (which was pretty surreal), this one actually tried to bring some human qualities to the world. Ultima 5 takes place in a world opressed by dictatorship where the player is the outlaw. The only thing between the player and the world is a different approach to virtue and this gives the game a rather unique feeling making it one of the few games ever to succeed in this area.






Wizardry 5Wizardry 5 marks the turning point for the series. The game itself is just like the previous Wizardry games – it even has the same graphics as Wizardry 1, but it is directed by a new fellow, David W. Bradley, who later turns the series into space fantasy.




Curse of the Azure BondsA sequel to Pool of Radiance, Curse is much more linear and plot-driven, with the inclusion of some twists here and there. Essentialy it remains the same, though it adds the command fix, which sets up resting/healing automatically. Not much else to it as a game, but when it comes to storytelling and writing, this is one of the better Gold Box games.


Magic CandleThe Magic Candle series, a brainchild of Ali Atabek, is a fine example of how developers approached fantasy games differently in those days. For one, they created their own worlds. While they may not be considered terribly original – you get all your fantasy trappings with saving the world from demons – they required the player to work with the lore of the setting. One example from this particular game is that the player has to translate messages written in dwarven runes. And this "working along with the lore" actually gives them a certain appeal. As mentioned, In The Magic Candle you must stop some demons from doing their job. But instead of going on a hacking route, the player actually has to explore the world and discover its secrets to gather the necessary items to keep the arch-demon from leaving his humble abode. As a game, it can be described as a mix of Ultima and Wasteland. There is the player-controlled NPC interaction and exploration from Ultima and the skill-based puzzles from Wasteland. It also involves an interesting (and rather unused feature) where you can split up your party, so that some of your party slave their hours working while others go adventuring.




Quest for Glory II really did not want to bring any hybrids into this article, but when I looked at the screenshots of the previous games (this game and the later ones) the graphic whore in me noticed how much the other games suck. Just look for yourself.



See what I mean? Not only is it visually above anything, the musical quality was too awesome for the poor RPG genre of this era. Sierra composers were awesome. Nuff said. So, perhaps you have heard of these adventure-RPG hybrids? Well, they are not the only ones released, but from all titles available they are the most well-designed, user-friendly, beautiful, enchanting and so on. The adventure part shows itself in the responsiveness of the world. In those days, adventure games were the most responsive, especially the ones by Sierra. While not possessing the grace of cool physics engines, they handled the responsiveness by giving you the ability to look and manipulate a lot of the things you saw. Usually, nothing significant happens, but the witty and outrageous responses provide the same level of immersion (in some ways perhaps even more) that a good physics engine does when you stumble upon a table and all the dishes fall off.

A Sierra adventure game would describe the situation this way: "You foolishly bump into the table, knocking all of the candles on to the floor, setting the entire building on fire. People are screaming, running around like headless chickens, falling and screaming. You hear a child cry for his mother and as you look into her eyes, the entire universe points his finger at you and says: 'Are you happy now? You made a child cry.' Fortunately for you, it was just your imagination. Unfortunately for you, the mother of the child noticed you staring at her daughter for too long and starts beating you with a broom while yelling: 'You pedophile, leave my child alone!' You awkwardly apologize while she stoves the broom down your throat."

Imagine this spoken by the voice of John Rhys-Davies (who later actually did voice this kind of text in Quest for Glory 4). This is of course a made-up version, but it does give you the sense of style of these outrageously funny descriptions. And Quest for Glory is full of them. It is also full of outrageously bizarre characters. However, despite all the wacky humor, at its very core QfG games are serious stories – with QfG4 being the most morbid.

And these titles are also RPGs. So what does the RPG portion look like? Firstly, skill-based puzzles. You are given a situation and depending on what skills your character has, you can approach the situation in different ways. If you know how to climb, then you can climb up the tree. If you know the fetch spell, you can fetch the object from the tree. There are also side-quests along with exploration-oriented gameplay. QfG games usually give you small areas to explore, but with a lot of content. There is character creation as well. Also, the skill system of QfG is nowadays used by games like Morrowind and Oblivion.

On to the first game itself. For all of the Quest for Glory games we have to look up in awe to Lori Ann and Corey Cole. Lori being the writer and Corey being the personal man-stud of the writer, whose job was to keep the writer Lori happy and creative, and he was succesful. The first game takes place in spring, marking the birth of a new hero who finds himself in the valley of Spielburg that has experienced some bad luck. You are the hero and you are penniless, without any experience you have to survive the valley. The first part does not really put emphasis on the story or the characters, but it is awesome.




Continued: The craftsmen - early 90's to mid-90's

Table of Contents: The World of Western RPGs