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CRPG History Abridged II - 12 more RPGs that brought something new to the table

Second part of the series, looking into other less-known RPGs that are unique and innovative. Or just weird.

Surprisingly (or maybe not), the previous click-baity article was a success and very well received, so I, your maybe-friendly editor of the CRPG Book Project, came back to make another one.

Now, if that wasn't clear last time, I'm intentionally leaving out games like Diablo, Fallout, Baldur's Gate, Mass Effect and other extremely popular titles that everyone know about in order to focus on the obscure and amusing games, mechanics or even curiosities.

This once again is just a random sampling of cool/weird computer RPGs I wanted to talk about, in no way intended to be a comprehensive listing - that's what the CRPG Book is for – this is just for those too lazy lazy lazy busy to read the entire thing. Shame on you.

Anyway, here we go:

Rings of Zilfin (1987)

In 1984, Roberta Willians made a breakthrough with King's Quest, moving from the then-standard text-adventures to glorious colored graphics, that would not only illustrate areas and puzzles, but also display an animated character, walking around and doing stuff! Yes, this was mind blowing back then.

A few years later, a man named Ali Atabek thought King's Quest was really cool. But you know what's also cool? RPGs! And arcade games, like Space Invaders! And thus Rings of Zilfin was born.

A weird mixture of Adventure, RPGs and Arcade gameplay, you must collect the two Rings of Zilfin and defeat the evil bad guy. You begin your quest by traveling to towns, talking to NPCs for clues, solving puzzles, buying better equipment and managing your endurance and fatigue levels.

Combat is quite interesting. Ground foes are fought with spells, swords of even point-blank shots with your bow, just by pressing the attack button. But flying enemies must be shot down Space Invaders-style either with arrows or spells. And each monster has a different attack pattern.

Unfortunately, while a amusing game, it requires extreme levels of patience, as every time you move from one area to another you must go through the traveling scene, which has your character walking to the next location while talking with monks, collecting mushrooms and battling monsters. While these look cool at first, enduring it every single time gets repetitive and boring really, really fast.

A few years later the Quest for Glory series would emerge and become the poster child for Adventure/RPG hybrids. But it's interesting to see the steps taken along the way, and wonder how different things could have turned out... Just imagine, reflex-based RPGs with arcade-like shooting sections... Heh, what a silly idea.

Star Saga: One - Beyond the Boundary (1988)

Some tabletop players nowadays rely on phone or tablet apps to handle things like dice rolls or character sheets. But, almost 30 years ago, Andrew Greenberg (a.k.a. Werdna, evil wizard and fabled co-creator of the Wizardry series) tried something a bit more ambitious with this game.

Basically, it's a complex multiplayer space CRPG, full of trading, exploration, and such. The twist is that, like a geek's wet dream, it's actually a tabletop RPG, where the computer is the Game Master.

You would purchase this expensive and totally awesome boxset, gather your friends, choose a character, boot up your IBM PC or Apple IIgs machine and have the time of your life.

While impressive in concept, especially at the time, in practice Star Saga: One is very similar to an electronic CYOA game (like Seventh Sense). The computer shows your currently available options, you input your actions, the machine calculates it and displays which passage in the accompanying booklets you should read, while also keeping track of your stats and inventory:

The elaborate map and the multiple booklets give it an impressive and intimidating look, but in truth today a game like this could be easily played on a cellphone, with animated maps and convenient displaying of the text passages. Still, it's an interesting historical artifact, way ahead of its time.

For a more detailed examination of this oddity, try the CRPG Addict's blog entry on it.

The Magic Candle (1989)

Remember Ali Atabek and his Rings of Zilfin? I hope so, or you have short-term memory loss (or didn't read what I wrote up there). Well, he went on to found Mindcraft and develop The Magic Candle series, one of the most unique RPGs of the 80's.

Although your quest is to save the world from an evil demon, said demon is already defeated & imprisoned when the game starts. But he's imprisoned inside the eponymous Magic Candle, which is melting. Once it burns out, the demon will escape, so your quest is actually to find a way to stop the candle from melting entirely.

Time-management is the core of Magic Candle, as you have a limited number of days to complete your quest (determined by the difficulty setting). To make the most of your time, you can split your party, sending each character to perform a different action. You can send the mage to learn spells, the warrior to train with a weapon master and the elf to work as a tailor to earn money while you take the hobbit to explore the town and try to gather clues on how to save the candle.

All this culminates in an extremely unusual ending where, instead of fighting an end boss or enduring a final dungeon crawl, you must perform an elaborate ritual to restore the candle, one you spent the entire game putting together and collecting ingredients for, based only on rumors, legends and old books (and taking notes on paper, of course – the game won't record any of this).

While almost entirely forgotten today, the The Magic Candle left a mark for many years, being chosen "the most rewarding game ending ever" by Computer Gaming World in 1996.

Might & Magic III: Isles of Terra (1991)

A lot could be said about M&M III, especially about how its a great game that performed a huge leap in presentation and accessibility. But I'll just share a weird story instead.

Back in the day, gaming magazines ruled the land. Computer Gaming World was arguably the biggest & most important of all. High in its towers, a mysterious woman called Scorpia was its resident RPG specialist, reviewing games, writing columns, answering mailed questions and sharing hints. The weight and influence people like her held are unlike anything in modern gaming journalism.

So it was unfortunate for New World Computing that Scorpia wrote a very harsh review for Might & Magic II, in which she said: 

"The original game, while not perfect, was imaginative and interesting, and showed great promise for future entries in the series. However, Might & Magic II seems to have swerved off the path in the boring 'monster mash/Monty Haul' direction" [...] - Scorpia - CGW #57, March 1989

The folks at New World Computing didn't take this very well, and in revenge the third Might & Magic game featured this enemy:

I swear I didn't make this up.

Princess Maker 2 (1993)

Thematically, Princess Maker is rather controversial. A Japanese game about raising a cute girl from her 10 to 18 years sets off a lot of alarms, which is part of the reason why it was never officially released here (there's only a leaked beta translation).

Mechanically, however, it's brilliant and unrivaled. Each month you pick a series of activities for your daughter to perform, like taking Magic classes, working as a lumberjack or going out on adventures. Each activity has a different impact on her countless stats and abilities, and might lead to special events, like fighting in a gladiator arena, meeting a charming prince, chatting with demons, encountering a perverted dragon or even challenging the God of War for a fight – I'm serious.

When going out on adventures, you can explore a few set areas in a typical JRPG format, directly controlling the girl in search of treasure and events, while fighting enemies in turn-based mode.

At her 18th birthday the game ends, and she'll go on to live a life or her own, based on how you raised her. There are over 70 possible endings, where she can become things like a General, Nun, Dancer, Farmer, Hero, Painter, Writer, Prostitute, Queen or even the Princess of Darkness.

While the series has many games and a few copy-cats, like Long Live the Queen and Spirited Heart, there's nothing that comes close to Princess Maker 2.

As a side note, the game was developed by Gainax, the studio behind Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Superhero League of Hoboken (1994)

Super-Hero CRPGs are a rare breed. They have been in tabletop RPG for over 30 years, all we had in CRPGs was 1994's Superhero League of Hoboken, a RPG/Adventure hybrid.

And what an exotic beast this is! Hoboken is also one of the very rare humorous CRPGs, so you begin by taking control of The Crimson Tape, a hero who's only skill is to create organizational charts.

Using his amazing leadership you'll recruit a bunch of similarly-not-powerful heroes, like Tropical Oil Man, who can raise the cholesterol levels of enemies, Iron Tummy, who can eat spicy food without feeling sick and Mademoiselle Pepperoni, who can see what's inside a pizza box without opening it.

All these seemingly-useless powers are either used in combat (make enemies have a heart attack), to solve puzzles (eat a massive amount of jalapenos) or as general utility skill (some pizza boxes may contain traps inside). Others heroes are really just plain useless, but can acquire new powers by various means, like eating radioactive fast-food.

Presenting a mix of Legend's usual adventure games (like Deathgate and Spellcasting 101) with a simple Wizardry-like turn-based combat with NINE party members (!), Superhero League of Hoboken can sometimes be a bit grindy and frustrating, but the weird humor (especially the game's enemies and their attacks) and the unexpected plot twists are more than enough to give this game a try.

Omikron: The Nomad Soul (1999)

A common criticism of David Cage's games is that they lack gameplay, feeling more like interactive movies with quick-time events. Oddly enough, his first title is the exact opposite of that – Omikron has almost every single video game genre mixed together.

The game opens with a police officer breaking the fourth wall and asking you, the player, to possess his body, enter the virtual world of Omikron and help him solve a murder. You'll then start playing it like an adventure game – looking for clues, talking with characters and solving puzzles like "get past security by adding sleep pills to the police chief's coffee".

Then you get called to stop a robbery at a supermarket, and the game suddenly becomes a FPS. Shoot the robbers, collect ammo & health kits, etc. And just when you've cornered the leader of the gang, he disarms you and you must defeat him mano-a-mano, Street Fighter-style.

If you're having a hard time because your character is too weak, you can always train him to increase his stats, RPG-style. Still not enough? Well, just leave the police officer's body behind and possess other characters, like a young journalist, a nurse, a literature student, a hooker or a mercenary cyborg – each with different stats and items. But obviously, none of those will be able to walk freely around the police station, and so you'll have to find an alternative way to solve puzzles there...

It's simply mind-bloggling how ambitious this game is, especially for the time.

And I didn't even mentioned that Omikron came out in 1999 – a month before Shenmue and two years before GTA III – yet it already featured a large 3D city with multiple districts that you can freely explore - visiting stores, purchasing stuff, listening to rumors, taking quests, driving your car around and finding more people to possess.

Finally, the game features David Bowie. And not just a small cameo – he's a major character in the game and composed part of the game's excellent soundtrack, later rearranged into Bowie's "Hours..." album. More even, he also plays a second role as singer in an outlawed revolutionary rock band. As you explore the giant city, you might find where's performing and watch him sing a few songs:

Sadly, Omikron is a mess. Clunky, inconsistent and confusing. But it's one of the most interesting, bizarre and innovative messes ever made. It's a shame that it was a commercial failure and resulted in David Cage moving towards "less gamey" games...

Gorky 17 (1999)

While sometimes it may feel like we've seen everything already, a simple and unexpected mix of two genres can offer something fresh. Like Death Metal + Jpop. Or a turn-based Resident Evil.

Gorky 17 (a.k.a. Odium) is the result of the later, mixing the pre-rendered backgrounds, mutated monsters, light puzzle-solving and horrible dialogs of the first RE games with turn- and party-based RPG combat. (To be honest, it reminds me more of the Parasite Eve games than Resident Evil, but referencing those doesn't have the same appeal).

Gorky 17 even has those cool (for the time) CG videos that introduce each boss battle:



While it's far from being a classic game, Gorky 17 is a fun game, that shows how just a bit of creativity (or creative borrowing) can create fresh experiences.

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (2001)

Saying that Troika's Arcanum is a love-it-or-hate-it game is an understatement.

If you look at the RPG Codex's Top RPG List, you'll find it proudly sitting at #5, above games like Morrowind and VtM: Bloodlines. But you won't find it anywhere on Rock Paper Shotgun's Top 50 RPG list, or even listed among IGN's or NeoGAF's Top 100 RPGs.

Now, there's a lot to dislike in Arcanum. It's an inconsistent, buggy and barely finished game, that features both turn-based and real-time combat, yet both feel clunky and boring. Not to mention the fact that it has some of the worst dungeons in RPG history.

However, all that becomes irrelevant (or at least tolerable) when you factor in the insane amount of depth, reactivity and complexity the game offers, from its elaborate character system to its well-crafted and original setting: a magical fantasy world torn by an industrial revolution.

While there's a "save the world" quest in the background, most of the conflicts in the game are based on issues of race, culture and wealth. You'll face situations like the controversy over the working conditions of orc emplyees on factories, not just dragons and evil wizards. And it's really impressive how you can experience the tensions of the world by playing the game with different characters.

For example, the Magic vs. Technology conflict means that your wizard likely won't be allowed to travel via trains due to risk of magical interference, while your inventor embodies such a powerful denial of magic that spells – both harmful and friendly – might stop having any effect on him.

But there's also the social/racial aspect, like how the dumb half-ogre will be hostilized as an inferior creature everywhere, while the beautiful female elf (there's a Beauty stat) will be well-recieved by all (except dwarves), but be often patronized and have to deal with sex jokes. Here's an example:

Reactivity is the key of Arcanum, as the whole world feels alive and acknowledge your choices in different ways. From simple details, like how your party members actually thank you when you resurrect them after combat, to how there's a daily newspaper that reports events going on in the world, providing exposition, subtle side-quest hints and even headlines on your latest feats:

Beyond an interesting world filled with interesting quests, Arcanum also offers interesting solutions and approaches, all fitting the setting. Have to solve a murder? Why, if you're a necromancer, just call back the victim's ghost and ask her who killed her:

These moments are the pinnacle of Arcanum's role-playing. They deliver a depth that few other games can rival, and offer a glimpse into just how complex and reactive a CRPG can truly be.

Sadly, it proved an impossible task for Troika to keep this extremely ambitious world turning. The game is very uneven and fails to keep consistency. You'll be in awe that you can talk to the soul of a murdered girl or resurrect a dead bandit you found in a cave, but that will make you all the more disappointed when the same spells won't work on other characters and situations.

Going on a musical tangent, Arcanum is a bit like the Tales from Topographic Oceans of RPGs: either you see it as a grandiose, ambitious show of skill that encapsulates some of the finest playing of its time, or as a dense and bloated masturbatory exercise, a late curtain call for its kind.

I'm both a Yes and Troika fan, so you know where I stand.

Freedom Force (2002)

The second title from Irrational Games, right after joining forces with Looking Glass Studios to deliver System Shock 2 (:fanboy squeal:), Freedom Force is again a Super-Hero RPG – the only one since Super Hero League of Hoboken, almost a decade earlier.

But while that was a adventure/RPG hybrid, based on 2D battles and weird puzzle solving, Freedom Force is a full homage to the Silver Age comics, from the cold war setting and the art-style to the cheesy heroes shooting one-liners at even more cheesier villains.

It also captures super-hero action in an unprecedented way, allowing you to fly over the city, jump from rooftop to rooftop and, if you're strong enough, even throw cars at enemies. 

Furthermore, it feature an elaborate set of tools to create your own heroes, allowing you to set its stats, powers and abilities, from just having a strong punch to flying, being made of ice and firing mind-controlling energy beans. All with a huge degree of customization:

The modding community that emerged from the game was also huge, adding hundreds of new powers, effects and heroes to the game. So if you dislike Ken Levine's ragtag band of superheroes, just fulfill your fan-fiction dreams and create your own team, maybe with Green Lantern, Spawn, Spider-Man and Ash from Evil Dead!

I did. Here's them fighting Batman:

They lost, obviously.

Sadly, the world sometimes turn its back to its heroes, and while Freedom Force sold reasonably well at the time, its 2005 sequel, Freedom Force vs. The Third Reich sold only about 40.000 copies, forcing Irrational Games to abandon the plans for a third game.

7.62 High Calibre (2007) & Marauder (2009)

Turn-based or real-time, which is the best combat mode? That's one of the biggest wars in the RPG fandon (and among developers). I believe in whatever fits the game best TURN-BASED ALWAYS!!!11, but Aperion's 7.62 High Calibre is a strong counter-argument.

Heavily inspired by the Jagged Alliance games and sequel to Brigade E5, this Russian game employs a real-time-with-pause system designed for realism. Like, MAXIMUM realism.

Among its features, the game allows you to aim at specific body parts, has seven movement speeds, four shooting speeds (from the hip, quick aim, good aim, precision shot), four shooting modes (you can even set how many bullets you'll fire in a burst), a first-person camera that shows you the exact vision of a character and even a adrenaline meter that makes a character act faster but with less accuracy the more nervous he is.

But the real core of the game is its real-time-with-pause system, where each action takes a certain amount of time – tracked down to centiseconds! And the game will make sure that you are aware of those centiseconds, as reacting to an ambush with a quick shot from the hip or with a slower aimed shot can mean the difference between firing the first shot or never firing at all.

It presents such a degree of simulation that even your pocket arrangement matters – reaching for a clip in your vest pocket is faster than reaching for the one in your backpack, and those seconds can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.

But it doesn't stop there. The game engages in the most comprehensive gun porn ever made by man, with hundreds of guns, loads of accessories (scopes, flashlights, lasers, under barrel grenade launchers, silencers, nigh vision, etc), multiple ammo and magazine types types and even the option to grab some duct tape and tape together two magazines to gain a few seconds when reloading.

And if you need even more, modpacks like Silver Girl's Armory add a few extra bazilion guns:

I grew up with Escape From New York, so adding scopes  to revolvers is a basic need.

And the guns aren't just DPS-dealers. Each has various stats that are key to your survival, from durability and range to how many centiseconds it takes to ready & fire it. For example, a long rifle can take five times the time to ready than a light pistol, a deadly disadvantage if you're caught unaware. 

Now, If a huge sandbox-like game like this feels a bit overwhelming, you can take a look at Aperion's following game, Marauder (a.k.a. Men of Prey). Based on a series of Russian novels, it uses the same engine & systems and place you in the shoes of Akhmetzyanov, a no-bullshit Russian man trying to survive with his wife in an alternate history where the Motherland was invaded by filthy Americans.

While 7.62's system is here heavily streamlined, with way less weapons, actions and resources, it's still a challenging tactical RPG that will make you count every single bullet and second, in intense and rewarding battles where you'll test your wits against impossible odds.

Battles which, I must add, wouldn't be possible in turn-based combat, or you would be standing still with 20 guys playing target practice with you every turn.


That wraps it for today. Thanks for reading and, once again, if you enjoyed this list there's a 200-page preview of the upcoming CRPG Book right here for download, filled with this kind of content! And it's still free! ;)

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