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.
- Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981)
- Wizardry II: The Knight of Diamonds (1982)
- Wizardry III: Legacy of Llylgamyn (1983)
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!
Ultima I-IIIRichard 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.
Rogue: The Adventure Game
- Rogue: The Adventure Game (1983)
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.
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 IInterplay 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 Knight
Might and Magic I
- Might and Magic I (1986)
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 Werdna
- Dungeon Master (1987)
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 series
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.
1988-1989Might and Magic II
- Might and Magic II (1988)
Bard's Tale III
- Bard's Tale III (1998)
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.
- Wasteland (1988)
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 Radiance
- Pool of Radiance (1988)
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 V (1988)
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 5 (1988)
Curse of the Azure Bonds
- Curse of the Azure Bonds (1989)
- The Magic Candle (1989)
Quest for Glory I
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|