The World of Western RPGs
The craftsmen - early 90's to mid-90's
We thought we reached perfection but people told us that we were dead.Woah, we made it through 80's. Let's check again who is boss in town. ORIGIN is a big company now, and Ultima is fairly popular and steadfast in its simulated world design. New World Computing is just about to reach the height of its fame (which came in mid-nineties, more due to the Heroes of Might and Magic than the vanilla Might and Magic series). Sir-tech, the developers of Wizardry, are still kicking and they have a new director heading it, David W. Bradley, who steers the series to a more interesting direction. SSI is at its top with the Gold Box games, releasing two or three RPGs a year, but its death is looming.
Only Interplay (Bard's Tale, Wasteland) will mostly stay away for a while from RPG genre – they released two Lord of the Rings games (J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Vol. I and J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers), but they are not remembered for it, as well as the most typical 90's dungeon crawler Stonekeep in 1995 – until the glorious return with Fallout in 1997.
When it comes to games, this era pretty much consists of Dungeon Master clones. Except for the Ultima series, RPGs offered no innovative approach. They all followed the same design – 75% of them were Dungeon Master clones, only about 25% of them were different. But this era also shows that a simple clone can be much better game than the predecessor and achieve immortality. There are not many who fondly remember Dungeon Master or Eye of the Beholder, but Lands of Lore has enjoyed the attention of many.
There is talk about the mid-nineties being the dark ages of RPGs, which somehow implies that games released in this era are crappy beyond belief. But in retrospective it looks kind of funny to imply that this era was somehow crappier that what came before. The games are not crappy, they are much more user-friendly and the stories are more involving. It also marks the introduction of a lot of elements that the successful games in the late 90's made their own. Because SSI just stopped releasing three games in a single year, it seemed to some people that the end of the world was near. Also, this era starts the tradition of RPGs being buggy games, but they are still buggy nowadays, so we could say we are in Dark Ages even now.
The actual reason why this era is called the Dark Ages is because RPGs lacked the mainstream appeal that the growing genre of shooters had. If Oblivion and Mass Effect had not had the mainstream appeal they received, I'm sure that people would say that mid-00's were also Dark Ages. Calling it something does not make the games worse. Thinking about it, does the quality of Mass Effect or Oblivion really depend on the sales? No they would be good games without the success. It is just that the game industry judges quality by sales and fortunately for Oblivion and Mass Effect they were successful. The games in the mid-90's were not.
On the other hand, this "crisis" was actually a good thing to happen. Let's take a peek at the JRPG world for a moment, okay? In the mid-nineties JRPGs suddenly discovered that they were already perfect and needed no more improvement from the original Dragon Quest gameplay. They had success and mainstream approval. Thus there was nothing to drive them further. That is why JRPGs suffer nowadays; almost every game there feels just like another. This is the reason why there is so little variety in the genre.
The mid-nineties in WRPG world was a similar scenario. The games were pretty much perfect versions of the 80's RPGs. There was ORIGIN who was making games for the 23rd century, but outside of those Texans, RPGs were happy to just add minor improvements to the 80's style. And if these games of the 90's would have had been successful and gained mainstream approval, I believe that today's situation would have been similar to the state of JRPGs. We would have a bunch of games that consider themselves perfect. However, these near-perfect RPGs failed pathetically and thus WRPGs were driven towards change. This change brought the genre out from the clutches of sad and evil people who think that make-believe is the best thing to happen to RPGs (see Oblivion for further details).
Things to pay attention to:
- first RPGs to feature a journal
- first RPG to feature implied sex
- first RPG to feature a semi-graphic 2D sex scene
- first RPG to feature a homosexual semi-graphic sex scene
- first RPG to feature no visible interface
- the introduction of branching dialogue
- the introduction of fluid 3D movement
- what made the Ultimas different
- how tired you will get of reading the words "dungeon crawler" until we finally reach 1997.
1990-1996Ultima 6 and Wizardry 6
Wizardry 6 still featured the same dungeon crawler gameplay with the same premise of adventurers going into a dungeon. It is an unfriendly and a difficult game, and when it comes to graphics or sound it is behind times. Regarding combat you still have to possess esoteric knowledge in mathematics, since a party consisting only of deadly ninjas will get killed by a single rat. It is also the beginning of the new space trilogy in the series. The first five were not really directed in their design, but this one brings some sense of coherent continuity to the series. It also has five different endings which influence the way the next game in the series starts. So aside from the hardcoreness of it, this particular element is still pretty awesome.
Ultima 6 is a whole different matter. Rather than bringing a challenge, it delivers an experience. Ultima 5 already shaped almost a perfect, vivid world and Ultima 6 took it even a step further. NPCs now not only have detailed schedules, but they are actually individuals who you can have conversations with. Almost every one of them is memorable. It is the first Ultima to have conscious, character-specific writing. There are however some faults. Though the graphics and sound can be considered improved, nowadays it looks and feels even more horrible than Ultima 5. Secondly, while the previous game had specific musical pieces for individual moments (travel music for the over world map travel, etc.) U6 plays everything in a random order which can have horrible effects on a man. Thirdly, while U5 featured detailed NPC schedules, their dialogue did not change depending on the location. U6 tried to incorporate this into the game, but with varying degrees of success - for example you have one NPC acting like he is in the tavern when he actually is, (holding a cup in his hands, making jokes, some slight changes to the basic dialogue to deliver immersion) while another NPC beside him can act like he is in his shop during the business hours. Finally, this game has a war plot, but you do not see it anywhere in the game. People still live their lives as if nothing happened, everything is pretty colorful and peaceful and there are no effects of war on the population at all. Instead you receive ridiculous quests by the people. For example you need something from the mayor of the town to stop the gargoyles and he orders you to build yourself a lute and learn to play "Stones" on it.
But I hope you realize what I am actually doing there. It is normal to gently direct attention to some oversights that break the realism in games like Oblivion, but for a game in 1990 to have this kind of detail is unbelievable in every way. It is because of the Ultimas that I can judge the RPGs of old by the same standards that I judge recent games. That is, I am thinking in the terms of design and offering more than a nerd-fantasy, not the accessibility, graphics or interface. On top of that, Ultima 6 is the first RPG to actually acknowledge your character's gender. There are different dialogues when you play as a woman and it is the first RPG to hint at a sexual situation when you sleep with a prostitute. You can also sleep with your own gender, thus making Ultima 6 the first RPG to contain homosexual sex just for the sake of it.
Martian Dreams on the other hand is an experiment in "how weird can we make a game and still get away with it?". Not only does Martian Dreams take place on Mars, but it is also set in the 19th century and you are trapped in there with famous people of that time. It also keeps the wonderful world interactivity of Savage Empire. Let me just recite a few keywords to illustrate how unique Martian Dreams is: Freud, Shadowlords, Rasputin, female robots, Warren Spector, dream world, time travel, Nellie Bly, Martians... There is a lot more, and yes it is one of the first Warren Spector games.
All things considered the Ultima Adventures games are some of the most enjoyable games from that time; they have simple and intuitive gameplay and enjoyable pulp writing. If someone still thinks that the WRPGs of the early 90's are all about killing monsters and drinking potions, then they should take a look at these two games.
Ultima: Worlds of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams
Ultima: Worlds of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams
Ultima: Worlds of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams
The rest of the Gold Box series
- Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday (1990)
- Champions of Krynn (1990)
- Secret of the Silver Blades (1990)
- Neverwinter Nights (1991)
- Pools of Darkness (1991)
- Death Knights of Krynn (1991)
- Gateway to the Savage Frontier (1991)
- Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed (1992)
- The Dark Queen of Krynn (1992)
- Treasures of the Savage Frontier (1992)
- Unlimited Adventures (1993)
So rather than repeating myself I just count all the games here as one. SSI finished the Pools of... series themselves, made the Dragonlance series and also dabbled in sci-fi with the Buck Rogers games. The remaining three games were developed by an interesting studio called Beyond Software, Inc. (later known as Stormfront). The funny thing about Beyond Software is that they were an old studio. The team was already doing games in the 70's and they were still around. And yet it is not a studio that people know about. Well I find it funny. Anyway, Beyond Software did the last two Gold Box games and the last one featured a romance between the player character and a NPC. That is something nice for the BioWare fans to know.
Interplay's Lord of the Rings series (1990-1991)
- J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Vol. I (1990)
- J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Vol. II: The Two Towers (1991)
Eye of the Beholder series
- Eye of the Beholder (1991)
- Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon (1991)
- Eye of the Beholder III: Assault on Myth Drannor (1993)
The interface is also like the DM game – there is a screen with the game world in 3D, and on the side movement commands and combat options. Everything has to be done manually by a mouse. It is a bit tedious, but a step away from the dungeon crawlers of the past. The first game, while providing great gameplay, suffered in the story department. It even lacked an ending. But the second game does everything what the first game did and features NPC interaction (about as much as the Gold Box games) and the same kind of "being in a fantasy novel" feeling that made the original Gold Box games great. And thus it stands as an example that dungeon crawlers are not simply soulless hack-and-slash fests.
Westwood later got kicked out from doing Eye of the Beholder games. The third one was done by SSI itself and it is pretty much forgotten. However, the feeling of being inside a fantasy story is actually more prominent in Eye of the Beholder 3 (it had more interesting NPC interaction). And EoB 2 had a lot of deathtraps. Accessible rooms that lead to a trap through which you are unable to finish the game. EoB 3 did not have those, just a lot of respawning monsters. In a way, Westwood repeated what they did right in the EoB games and at the same time ignored the things they did wrong in those games. That lead to Lands of Lore.
Event Horizon gamesEvent Horizon was a tiny, unknown RPG development studio from the early 90's that above else emphasized storytelling in their RPGs. At that time, RPGs with such focus were rather scarce, mostly it was not their goal. But the guys at Event Horizon felt that telling a good story was important. That is probably the biggest element that differentiates them from other games: the amount of dialogue. When it comes to gameplay or graphics then these Event Horizon games are sadly lacking compared to others; they are uncomfortable to play and they look rather ugly. What I mean is: they looked ugly and felt uncomfortable then. These games suffer from very slow player character movement and dice-based real-time combat. But they have the honor of carrying the torch of quality in storytelling during these pre-Halo times. They rely too much on getting all the pieces of something fantasy together the way they tell their stories, but they did this with much more characterization and love than the standard at that time. It is definitely a step up from Gold Box.
I am going to dissect the games a little closer. Their first game Darkspyre is pretty much a boring dungeon crawler. I only mention it because I have to. The only thing distinguishing it from other dungeon crawlers is that it is not a Dungeon Master clone, and the combat is more action-based.
But with their second game, Dusk of Gods, Event Horizon delivers us one of the finest treatment of Scandinavian mythology ever in video games. The way it stays so true to the Edda material and delivers a satisfying experience... it is beautiful. It is not often when we see Norse Gods staying true to their original personality in modern treatment of these stories.
Their third game, Summoning, is actually a sequel to Darkspyre. It is pretty much a fairly straight-forward dungeon crawler, with much more emphasis on the plot though. A silly, contrived plot, but told with passion.
Their last game, Veil of Darkness, takes place in a cheap Dracula/Frankenstein movies inspired Transilvania. You are playing a crashed pilot who now has to find his way out this cursed valley, and while doing that you have to become the chosen one, kill the vampire and get the girl. If they had hired Bruce Campbell for the role it would have been a hit, but... still, for all of the Even Horizon games, this one is the best one when it comes to storytelling and writing.
Anyway, Event Horizon later became Dreamforge and we deal with them later.
Might and Magic 3, 4 and 5
- Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra (1991)
- Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen (1992)
- Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen
The third one is a bit of an unfinished game, cause after killing all the required monsters the game ends with a freaky space-travel scene. The main virtue lies in getting the Might and Magic experience right. The interface is inspired by Dungeon Master, but unlike the Eye of the Beholder series with their coherent direction, the Might and Magic series wallows in the old-school nonsense, random and esoteric, with the right toxin feel of the old RPGs.
What about the 4th and 5th? Well let me say this, coming to an idea to travel from sequel to sequel and then combining them both into a third game - it is a brilliant idea in my opinion. World of Xeen (combining the fourth and fifth title) is a long game filled with looting, plain old hack-and-slash, lots of dungeon-crawling puzzles and exploration. It also involves the space theme, which takes a ridicolous turn when the player is killing futuristic robots on a cloud... but Might and Magic is a ridiculous series and it does it with pride.
Also, starting with MM3, the Might and Magic series brings the first RPGs to have a journal to record your quests and stuff. I am of course still following the "MM series – pioneers of everything user-friendly" agenda, but except for Might and Magic and the Magic Candle series, games lacked journals until the 1996-1998 era, where they became a must.
Ultima 7: Black Gate and Serpent Isle
An element where Ultima 7 was not matched is in the way it brings life to its world. It is the first RPG project to have professional scriptwriter brought on board; Raymond Benson directed the writing process. I figure it is him the honors of this social approach belong to. Every single NPC is written as an individual. No, there is not that much text, it is just written that convincingly. And unlike Ultima 6, NPCs really say different things depending on where to you talk to them. Also, the game uses its world to portray social problems like the class war, social tensions between rich and the poor, a well-fed conservative familiy making the life of a single mom difficult – things like that. It does abandon the virtues but is therefore more mature than any game released before or after.
Also, God appeared to me when I was sleeping and he had this to say about Ultima 7.
"I want Ultima 7 to be rediscovered amongst the RPG crowd - designers and players. When it comes to the social aspect of it, U7's world is the most realistic game world out there. It is not realistic because its lore is so complicated (Morrowind) nor is it realistic because you have NPCs bumping around (Gothic, Oblivion). It is realistic because every NPC is given life through combining writing and scheduling (that put the Gothic series and Oblivion to shame). They were written into human beings. And they were written to affect the persons around them. And thus you see things like conservative rich family making life difficult for the single mom and her son, two beggars spending their days around in bitterness and world-hating, a father killing his daughter's best friend because she was not human, social tensions between the rich and poor, tensions between the poor and poor, outcasts of the society trying to fit into this cruel world, a man cheating on his wife with a young religious girl and so on. Ultima isn't realistic because of its game mechanics, lore or graphics. It is realistic because of its human values, because the game world is filled with humans. They lie, they hurt, they laugh, they do random acts of kindness, they fuck around like animals, they live, they enjoy simple things, etc - Ultima 7 realized the importance of the human heart and used it. It is not perfect, but there is no reason to leave this thing in the 90's and never perfect it. There is a lot to learn from Ultima 7 and much of it could improve current games."
It's God's favorite game and that should say a lot.Also, it is the first RPG to have weather effects like rain or snow, and the level of interactivity is only just being matched by the later Elder Scrolls games. Even Oblivion does not allow you to change babies' diapers just for the sake of it.
The sequel Serpent Isle was described by one of our most famous reviewers as Ultima meets Final Fantasy. This statement, though making me cringe, is not that far away from truth since it is the most plot-driven RPG of its time, with heavy doses of character drama. The themes are dark, with most of them involving death and sex... Speaking of sex, there is also a graphic sex scene it, though you can sleep with more people than the one whom the developers dedicated the graphic scene to. And depending on your gender, it is also the first graphic lesbian sex scene in an RPG. Serpent Isle is also one of the early Warren Spector games.
Ultima VII, Part Two: Serpent Isle
Ultima VII, Part Two: Serpent Isle
Ultima VII, Part Two: Serpent Isle
Ultima Underworld seriesUltima Underworld series. But unlike Eye of the Beholder or the first Lands of Lore, they were no Dungeon Master clones and featured real, fluid 3D movement. You could jump, look up and down and this was even before Wolfenstein 3D! Two months before in fact. And in Wolf and DOOM you could not jump, or look up or down. They are also the first RPGs to have branching dialogue. There I said it. It is the truth. In fact UU did a lot of things that makes it rise above from the status of a mere dungeon crawler. The writing itself is also pretty fine even by nowadays standards.
Like other Ultima games, UU also went for the simulated world design. You can fish, combine random objects into useful objects, have conversations with NCPs, throw stuff at people – it is interactive in more ways than one. This was done by Looking Glass Studios, who during their short lifespan always have tried to combine gameplay and narrative in the most brilliant way possible. This can already be seen in the first Ultima Underworld. They managed to make the dungeon a living world with living people, and they did it without any form of NPC schedules. This game is dungeon crawling at its finest. It took some time for the RPG genre to actually use fluid 3D movement (Lands of Lore still had the classic step-by-step movement to it). It also has a really comfortable interface for that time; in other dungeon crawlers you had to click on "step" to move and on "sword" to kill, while in this game it all depends on the way you move and use your mouse.
Ultima Underworld II uses the same engine and gameplay mechanics as the first game but adds a more detailed plot to it. Chronologically it is the chapter between Ultima 7 part I and part II. It starts with you and a bunch of other characters stuck inside a castle. You have to travel to different dimensions to find the key to escape this magical prison. As a way to continue the themes of Ultima 7, UU2 also features socialistic themes that sometimes approach a communistic agenda. It is only a small part of it however, because in the end you will be involved in something that is entirely in the realms of the surreal.
If the Underworld games were so cool, mature, ahead of their time, then why did not anyone try to copy them? The truth is that no one played them. No one could in fact. The graphics were just too extreme and demanding then. Sadly now, Underworld's extreme graphics are not as extreme anymore, especially when compared to Mass Effect's extreme facial expressions, so no one will play them nowadays either. Sigh. Let's give another huge collective "fuck you!" to history.
- Darklands (1992)
- Challenge of the Five Realms (1992)
- BloodNet (1993)
- The Legacy: Realm of Terror (1993)
Darklands is a game set in 15th century Germany, though a mythical version of it. I see similarities to today's Elder Scrolls games: big open-ended world, ability to play after finishing the main quest, etc. It also is the first RPG game to use real-time gameplay with combat that can be paused (later popularized by Baldur's Gate games). The level of historical detail is just amazing. If you ignore the fact you kill demons and dwarves in this game, it really manages to bring that 15th century Germany alive. Sadly, the game can get boring. Since there is a limited amount of things you can do in a city and since all cities and quests are variations of each other and... well it is one of the games that can be described as repetitive procedure generation. However, Darklands must be praised so someone would consider making another RPG with a historical setting.
The other two RPGs by Micropose are BloodNet and Challenge of the Five Realms. BloodNet is the best known. It is an adventure-RPG hybrid, though definitely much more uncomfortable than the Quest for Glory games. The setting's theme is cyberpunk-vampire. You play a hacker that recently turned into a vampire, but the implant in your head stopped the disease and now you have limited time to find a cure. Challenge of the Five Realms on the other hand is a classic fantasy game where you take on the role of a king on a quest to save his kingdom from destruction. Both these games are really uncomfortable to play, but BloodNet is the one that takes the dive in how awful it plays out. The sad thing is that the writing is just brilliantly entertaining in (though it is all style and no substance).
"What about The Legacy: Realm of Terror?“
What about it?
It is a dungeon crawler set in a Gothic mansion with a touch of Ctulhu. You kill monsters in it. Satisfied? Now let's move on.
- Wizardry 7 (1992)
There are several different beginnings, depending on your ending of the last game and several endings depending on what you did or did not do in the game. It is a pity that it is so hard and uncomfortable, cause there are a lot of good ideas. It is also the first real cosmic Wizardry, taking your 14th century knights into a galactic-wide war.
Realms of Arkania series
- Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny (1992)
- Realms of Arkania Vol. 2: Star Trail (1994)
- Realms of Arkania III: Shadows over Riva (1996)
It was followed by two sequels. The second is considered the best and the third has full voice-acting. The interface remained the same throughout the series and it is similar to the one from the Might and Magic series. The movement style is inspired by Dungeon Master and the use of pictures instead of commands comes from Might and Magic 3. The graphics received some minor improvements throughout the different releases, with the last one being a fluid 3D game. The battles take place in a separate grid-based combat screen meant for tactical gameplay. Basically, this series is complex enough that beating it will earn you the title of "the man" in some circles. Question is, do you really want to be the "the man" in those circles? Haven't you got anything better to do?
The rest of The Magic Candle games
- The Keys to Maramon (1990)
- The Magic Candle II: The Four and Forty (1991)
- The Magic Candle III (1992)
- Siege (1992)
- Bloodstone: An Epic Dwarven Tale (1993)
Bloodstone looks quite hopelessly outdated since it uses the same engine. It stands out for being the only all-dwarven game in existence, made for dwarf fans featuring lots of dwarf stuff fantasy. In the Magic Candle lore it is considered a prequel of sorts. You take on the role of a dwarf who lost his clan and now you have find other clans so that all dwarves of dwarrovrealm can be united against non-dwarven enemies. For dwarf fans wishing for something entirely dwarven, this is something to look into.
Lands of Lore
It still has the old step-by-step movement, unlike the Ultima Underworld games, but on the other hand this probably allowed more people to play this game since the UU games were ahead of their time. The CD version of the game is one of the first examples of full voice acting in RPGs and it is the first RPG ever to star Patrick Stewart, here as a noble ruler figure in mortal danger.
There are some elements that distinguish it from other RPGs. For example, you do not create your character, you pick one from the four available. They all have different personalities, which comes out when they comment on something (the player can click on objects in the game world, just like in an adventure game, which triggers the comments of the character). Okay, the comments are not that different... but their personalities are especially established through the the stellar voice-acting (for that time at least). And another thing, you only get to play a male character in this game.
There is no player-controlled interaction like in Eye of the Beholder (keywords) games or Underworld (branching dialogue) – character interaction is done through cut-scenes similar to the style of recent action games. In essence, Lands of Lore is the finest Dungeon Master clone in existence and if you have played one then there is no reason to play the others.
Dark Sun seriesCybertech, Stormfront and Westwood to do D&D based games. SSI spent years on developing an engine for this game and when it finally arrived, computer graphics had taken it a step further with games like DOOM. This game just did not arouse the attention it deserved.
But first we will take a closer look at the setting. Dark Sun is one of the few with an interesting Dungeons and Dragons setting. It is basically Vanilla Fantasy meets Post-Apocalyptic World. The world is a huge desert, halflings are cannibals and people do all sorts of evil things to each other. The setting has a slight Mesoamerican atmosphere to it, thanks to stuff like god kings called Tectujacthlpact and the whole society living on the whim of its god kings and their priests.
In the first game you take control of slaves who are used as gladiators. Your goal is to escape. And here we see how this game provides alternative solutions, and some choices and consequences. Though not affecting the main plot, you have different ways to escape from your life as a slave. Some of them lead to the death of certain NPCs. That is however only the beginning. Wake of the Ravager follows the adventures of that party and your goal is to save the world.
In both Dark Sun games you have to create the entire party so you won't have any character drama like in Serpent Isle or Betrayal at Krondor. But there is branching dialogue and lots of interesting quests with memorable characters to meet. Combat is the same tactical complex turn-based system from the old Gold Box games, though it is a bit more intuitive to get into it here. And that's all about the Dark Sun games - the last D&D games from SSI and in essence pretty nice Baldur's Gate-like RPGs before they arrived.
Quest for Glory II-IV
- Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire (1990)
- Quest for Glory III: Wages of War (1992)
- Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness (1993)
QfG is the only series that has used this to the full potential. Character transfering already existed in the 80's, but since you could transfer your characters from the Wizardry series to Bard's Tale, there was not much room for a purpose regarding narrative. QfG is the first game series that gives the impression to continue an imported character's story. Aside from the Baldur's Gate series and the later Wizardries, it is also the only one. RPGs have usually ignored this wonderful mystery of character transfering and the effects it can have on the narrative.
It is because of these small things, the way the game responds to your playing style and remembers what you did, that makes the QfG character transfer memorable. For example, you have the ability to become a Paladin in this game if you prove yourself worthy, through your actions and not on how many monsters you kill. If you become a Paladin in this game and you transfer your character to the next game, the themes of the that title will adjust themselves to your character's history, meaning that with paladin the focus is on learning what a paladin is and traveling with your mentor. With other classes this is different for instance.
The third game takes place in an African setting and has a story about war. It involves psychedelic drugs and even a sex scene (not graphic, and romantic sex scenes tended to be common in serious Sierra games).
The fourth game however turns back to the basics of the first game. Smaller environment and the emphasis on exploring this small area instead of a plot. The fourth game is also considered the best by both fans and Lori Ann herself. Also, it is one of the first examples of full voice-acting in RPGs. Even better: it is good. John Rhys-Davies as the narrator, Jennifer Hale as the mysterious female, Rob Paulsen, Jim Cummings, Cam Clarke, and many other awesome names. It is even more surprising because there is more text (all good) in this game (all voiced) than in some of the recent games with full voice-acting. The fourth game takes place in a Slavic, early 19th century community and has a very morbid, autumn feel to it.
Quest for Glory II: Trial by Fire
Quest for Glory III: Wages of War
Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness
Quest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness
Betrayal at Krondor
- Betrayal at Krondor (1993)
The Elder Scrolls: Arena
- The Elder Scrolls: Arena (1994)
Arena is quite different from games of its time. Well, not really since it borrowed ideas from Legends of Valour, an open-ended, random game, with fluid 3D movement and combat more similar to Underworld than to Dungeon Master. But where Legends of Valour failed, since it was a ugly and a buggy game, Arena succeeded.
Why? I don't know, but to me it looks as ugly as Legends of Valour. I would not say that it is a good game, it is not even huge in scope once you take a look in detail. This game randomly generates its world and quests, so you can spend your whole life playing this game (but if you really do it then you are a sad sad person). NPCs are just random sentences walking around: "I am a thief!" which is just like the early Ultima's (think Ultima II). Some of them provide quests in the vein of "Go north, bring me, thank you!" You can try to walk from one end of the world to the other, but since the game randomly generates the world as you walk, you will never reach your destination (the keyword here is that you have to travel in the "defined" ways). So basically, this game is just a huge pile of shi... I mean randomness.
You do get snow and rain, and holidays that affect what monsters roam the town, as well as the prices in stores. There is also a story that involves finding the seven pieces of shit to stop the great evil. But the gamers of 1994 liked it. They thought the graphics were pretty (in reality they are uglier than other games of that time). They liked the replayability that they would not need to buy another game as it could be played forever, and so Bethesda was in the business.
Superhero League of Hoboken
- Superhero League of Hoboken (1994)
Ultima VIII: Pagan
- Ultima VIII: Pagan (1994)
The graphics are the most beautiful of its time, and indeed they are more beautiful to these modern eyes than most other games of the 90's. While some Ultimas had interesting music, it is not until Ultima 8 that music plays a major part in setting the atmosphere. The Ultima Underworld series had a dynamic, ambient soundtrack accompanying the player's actions, but the quality and the memorability is much more higher in Ultima 8.
Regarding the plot, it is the middle chapter in the Guardian trilogy with as a main theme "ends justify the means". The Avatar is trapped in a dark, occult mushroom world where they cut people's heads off on a regular basis. Naturally, it angered a lot of fans who had not played an Ultima since the 6th one and had no idea of the new, more darker direction starting with Ultima 7.
Ultima 8 also has the honor of possessing the most detailed spell-casting system involving semi-occultic magic rituals with pentagrams, candles and chants of the most satanic nature. Unlike the previous Ultimas, this one does not allow you to play as a woman and there is no sex or reference to it in the game.
Ravenloft seriesDungeon Hack, created to drive players to suicide, published by SSI in 1993. After these Ravenloft games they did Anvil of Dawn, a pretty typical 90's dungeon crawler, and probably their most famous game: an adventure gem called Sanitarium.
Now on to Ravenloft. First about the setting. In D&D lore, Ravenloft is a place of hopelesness, it is a pocket dimension where people get trapped. They are then taken from their homeworld and thrown into a place of torment, sadness and pain. And as is common in Ravenloft campaigns, the adventure should feel like a nightmare, something unreal. In Ravenloft the player should doubt the reality of his surroundings and also his sanity. Unfortunately, none of that is in these games, though they try to be rather melancholic. Essentially these games follow the "story dungeon crawler" route like the Westwood games - Eye of the Beholder II and Lands of Lore. But the writing style takes some time to get used to. Just check the screenshots below.
These games did introduce some improvements. For one, two years after the release of Ultima Underworld step-by-step movement was history finally history; these games featured fluid 3D movement. Combat is more similar to the Underworld games as well, though you cannot control your sword directly with the mouse. You can only click the monster, which is a huge relief after the clumsy interface of those Dungeon Master clones where you had to click on the sword picture for each character. They also feature semi-branching dialogue (looks and feels like branching, but most of the time you only get one branch), which appeared to become a must for RPGs. And not only that, each alignment received differently written responses to NPCs. While the NPC responses did not change, it still provided a nice sense of immersion.
Dreamforge also did the Menzoberranzan game, which is quite similar to the Ravenloft games, except that it takes place in the classic Forgotten Realms setting and has Drizzt as a party member. And it is quite an awful game.
World of Aden gamesZelda-like RPG developed by Cyberlore (who previously did Al-Qadim, which was also a Zelda-like RPG in semi-Arabic setting and whose most famous game is Playboy: The Mansion). I do not have much to say about these games, since I covered enough first-person view RPGs to know how they play (and Thunderscape is a horrible, awful game). Everyone also knows what Zelda-like is (you walk around, waving your stick in real-time while solving puzzles and killing monsters). Naturally Entomorph is more story-oriented, with its pre-defined character with a dark past.
But the most important thing about these games is that they are the first RPGs to have really inspired, quality soundtracks. Of course, their quality is thanks to something called Red Audio Book techonology that is too complicated for this article to get into. They deliver the first, most beautiful soundtracks in an RPG, both composed by Danny Pelfrey.
- Albion (1995)
Albion is a rather... curious game. I will try to illustrate what I mean. It switches between between 2D screens and 3D screens. 2D is what you get when travelling in the wilderness or visiting someone's house. 3D is what you get when exploring cities and dungeons. But unfortunately the 3D perspective is terribly confusing and ugly. NPC interaction is done through a mix of keywords and branching dialogue. It is like a mix of everything – a 2D JRPG-like game and a 3D dungeon crawler. It is a unique game and definitely one of the historical must-plays. There is very little support for the furry subculture in western RPGs, but Albion does this job quite nicely.
Anvil of Dawn and Stonekeep
You might wonder why I do not mention Ishar as one of the most typical dungeon crawlers of the 90's. It is because Ishar sucks. Only masochists and sad people like Ishar. These games however do not suck, no matter how uninspired they are. In fact, they are quite awesome, for dungeon crawlers that is. But Lands of Lore is more awesome and all dungeon crawlers are too similiar for their own good. Anvil of Dawn also has the honor of carrying the torch of journal in these dark times.
- Daggerfall (1996)
This game also goes for the simulated world experience, though being more like Darklands than Ultima 7, since it does not use the game world to portray social problems (how could it when NPCs only serve to give out quests or say something random?). The game world itself is not hand-crafted but randomly generated like in Arena.
When it comes to dialogue, it is all keywords again, and no, there are no characters in this game. But on the other hand, you have more freedom than in every other game that precedes it. And as a child of its time, it has FMV cut-scenes with live actors. In essence, there was something very different with this game and it stands as an example that games made in the Dark Ages are not worser than games of before, because it is much more playable and enjoyable than Arena and it provides a nice variety from the usual Dungeon Master clones with its political tone and unique feel.
- Diablo (1996)
Like Dungeon Master, Diablo also inspired an entire decade of similar RPGs which will be ignored here, since there is a limit on how many times a man can chant "Diablo clone, diablo clone" without losing his sanity. I will mention one important thing about Diablo much further in the article.
You might have noticed that I did not mention any Amiga RPGs in this section. That is because that Amiga RPGs are not really anything compared to the ones for DOS/Windows. They are usually pale imitators, except for Darkmere. But Darkmere's main reasons for being worthy of mentioned are the pretty look and that is has a sensual, dark atmospheric feel. Here is a bit of Darkmere to satisfy that one raving mad Amiga fan.
Now let's move on.
|Continued: The birth of new era - late 90's to modern age|
|Table of Contents: The World of Western RPGs|