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The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 2: The Golden Age (1985-1993)

Gamasutra presents part two in contributor Matt Barton's extensive look at the history of computer role-playing games, this time exploring what he calls the 'Golden Age,' 1985-1993. Part one, covering 1980-1983, is also available today.

[Note:The following is part two of Matt Barton's in-depth series on the history of computer role-playing games. We highly recommend referring to Part One: The Early Years before reading this article!]

Welcome back, brave adventurer, to the second part of my history of our favorite genre of computer game--the Computer Role-Playing Game (the CRPG). Last time, we explored the CRPG's murky precursors, which included tabletop war and sports games like Tactics and Strat-O-Matic. Of course, I also discussed the CRPG's most direct ancestor, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson's Dungeons & Dragons game, which itself derived mostly from their earlier fantasy-based strategy game called Chainmail. Since so much of D&D consists of mathematics, programmers realized at once that a considerable bulk of the game was well suited for play on a computer. The first CRPGs appeared on mainframes like the PDP-10 and a special educational platform called PLATO. By the early 1980s, these graphically simplistic but technically masterful games had been adapted or ported to almost every home computer on the market. Although the first commercial CRPGs for home computers (Akalabeth for the Apple II and Temple of Apshai for the Commodore PET and TRS-80) are hardly ever played today, they laid the groundwork for much of what would follow.

Throughout the "Silver Age," which lasted from 1981 until 1983, change would come gradually and mostly consist of improvements in graphics and user interface. Important series like Ultima and Wizardry appeared on the market, solidifying every gamer's expectations about what a CRPG should be. Meanwhile, innovative games like Telengard, Dungeons of Daggorath (Tandy CoCo), Tunnels of Doom (TI-99/4A), and The Sword of Fargoal (VIC-20, C-64) offered new alternatives to gamers and new models for developers. In short, by 1983, the field was sown with great ideas and impressive examples, but everyone knew that the best was yet to come.


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

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

The Transition to the Golden Age

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


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

Nevertheless, there was some exciting stuff going on before 1985. More of the old mainframe games were being ported (ever more faithfully) to home computers. Jim Schwaiger's company Bear Systems released Oubliette for the Commodore 64 and MS-DOS platform in 1983. Oubliette, like so many other mainframe CRPGs, had been developed for the PLATO system, but is more directly based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and TSR's official dungeon guides (i.e., the "real" D&D rules). Oubliette had originally been a multiplayer game, and the home version retained the ability to create many characters and select groups of them for each "dungeon romp." Furthermore, although it is quite limited graphically, it is quite sophisticated in terms of gameplay. You could choose among ten classes (including peasant!) when creating characters, and then join guilds to further refine them. In short, Oubliette offers a range of options and depth of play that really wouldn't be equaled until the Modern Age. A company named R.O. Software also ported the mainframe classic DND to MS-DOS, offering it under a "shareware" license. Although the author, a mysterious Digital contractor known simply as "Bill," charged $25 for his game, he did not bother to get permission to do so from Daniel Lawrence, the author of the original version. Since Lawrence was trying to earn his fortune selling his own commercial version for home computers--Telengard--he bitterly resented what he saw as unfair competition. Bill claimed that he deserved the compensation for cleaning up Lawrence's "spaghetti" code. R.O. Software released an update in 1988 called Dungeon of the Necromancer's Domain, a "ground-up rewrite" of the game that apparently differed enough to avoid future conflict with Lawrence. For more information about this quarrel, see the Unofficial DND page, where, incidentally, you can also download many of the games in question.

Another interesting text-based game from this period is Zyll, a game Scott Edwards and Marshal Linder wrote while they working for IBM (the game was submitted to IBM's employee submissions program). Zyll is essentially a hybrid text-adventure with real-time, CRPG elements. Furthermore, it allows two players to either compete or cooperate with each other to find the Black Orb (the game is of the fetch-the-object variety). Although it was intended for IBM's short-lived PCjr. computer, which featured advanced graphics and sound capabilities, Zyll was a text game that would run on just about any PC-compatible (though there are issues with the keyboard layout, since the menus are based on IBM's old PC/XT function key setup).

However, these games are of little interest to modern gamers and are more the domain of historians and older gamers suffering from nostalgia. No, it was a new game from Electronic Arts that was about to strike a new chord, changing the CRPG forever, and in the meantime, the best CRPGs ever made were looming on the horizon. CRPG fans just hadn't seen anything yet.


The Dawn of the Golden Age

If you were a CRPG fan living in 1985, you were one of the luckiest gamers in history. Never before had such a torrent of high-quality commercial titles appeared simultaneously on the shelf. Perhaps the most significant of these was the launch of Interplay's Tales of the Unknown Vol. 1: The Bard's Tale, which introduced the famous Bard's Tale trilogy. Although there were certainly excellent CRPGs before it, The Bard's Tale was intuitive and addictive enough to attract a mainstream audience, no doubt due in part to the marketing might of its publisher, Electronic Arts. 1985 also saw the launch of SSI's Phantasie series, as well as their game Wizard's Crown. Although SSI wouldn't reach its zenith until it acquired the priceless TSR license and began marketing official AD&D games, their early games are far from shabby.


"There was a time when any computer fantasy game became an immediate bestseller due to the genre's popularity and the scarcity of such products. That is no longer the case—computer fantasy games now compete in a buyer's market where they must meet certain standards if they hope to sell." –James V. Trunzo, Compute!, August 1987

Other significant games of 1985 include Origin's Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, as well as Autoduel and Moebius: The Orb of Celestial Harmony. Like Autoduel, DataSoft's Alternate Reality: The City offered gamers an alternative to the traditional swords and sorcery theme of so many CRPGs. In short, 1985 and 1986 were some of the most formative years for the CRPG, and there are many important developments to cover. Let's get started then with The Bard's Tale trilogy.

Down and Out in Skara Brae


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

Although the Ultima and Wizardry series did more to establish the CRPG's basic conventions, it was Interplay that really refined and demonstrated that the genre wasn't just for "hardcore" gamers. Tales of the Unknown Vol. 1: The Bard's Tale, released in 1985 for the Commodore 64 and Apple II (ports for other platforms would follow until 1990), is probably the first CRPG that many readers will recognize from their youth. Indeed, The Bard's Tale's undeniable mainstream appeal was probably not matched by another company until Blizzard's Diablo in 1997. The game was so successful, in fact, that Baen Books launched a series of eight novels based on the games, some penned by such well-known fantasy authors as Mercedes Lackey! Although the final Bard's Tale game was released in 1991, in 2004 Brian Fargo and InXile Entertainment revived the franchise with a "spiritual sequel" for the PS2, Xbox, and Windows. But what was it about this series that made it so enduring?


"When the going gets tough, the bard goes drinking." –from The Bard's Tale instruction manual.

After all, like Wizardry, the first Bard's Tale is a challenging game even for expert D&D players. The difficulty is particularly felt during the crucial initial stage of the game, when the player's characters (up to six) are weak, poorly equipped, and inexperienced. I can't remember how many times I created an entire party of adventurers, only to have them all perish in a random encounter before I could make it to Garth's weapons shop! The game is also rather lacking in terms of narrative or story elements--it's a "dungeon crawler" with an emphasis on fighting random encounters with monsters, building up character stats and inventories, and mapping out dungeons. In many ways, the game is merely an updated Wizardry with better graphics and sound (indeed, some versions of the game even let players import their Wizardry or Ultima characters!). The story--find and depose an evil wizard named Mangar the Dark, who is threatening the town of Skara Brae--is hardly novel. Perhaps the only true innovation is the addition of the bard character, a sort of jack-of-all-trades character who could perform party-boosting songs during combat and dungeon exploration. The classes available to magic users were also sophisticated; players started off as simple conjurers or magicians, but could eventually upgrade to sorcerers and wizards. Truly ambitious players could even combine all these to create fearsome archmages.

Nevertheless, anyone who has played the game for any length of time discovers that it is much greater than the sum of its parts. There's just an indefinable quality that seems to hold the game together. No doubt, much of the game's playability is owed to the clean interface and striking color graphics (many of which are animated). Even novice players can learn the game's rules in a few sessions, and if the characters can survive to reach a few levels, the difficulty eases up considerably--and it's quite rewarding to go about whomping monsters who made a meal out of your former parties. Furthermore, the ability to travel outdoors as well as indoors lends a certain coherence to the game world. Unlike other CRPGs in which cities and towns were little more than places to buy equipment, Skara Brae felt like a real place. Again, this coherence is almost surely an effect of the game's rich graphics. Even if the graphics look primitive today, in 1985 they were stunning. Each building in Skara Brae looked like it belonged there.

Interplay followed up its success with two sequels, The Destiny Knight (1986) and The Thief of Fate (1991). The Destiny Knight was essentially a rehash of the first game, using the same engine but expanding the game world to include five other cities (the first game had occurred entirely in Skara Brae) and a wilderness area. It also added banks and casinos to the services available in the towns, special spells for archmages, timed puzzles, and ranged combat. Though players can import their characters from the first game, the difficulty level is better balanced for new parties (i.e., you have a much better chance of making it to Garth's store to buy equipment before dying).

Although the characters dispatched the evil Mangar the Dark in the first game, another evil mage named Lagoth Zanta decides to shatter the "Destiny Wand" into seven pieces, scattering them across the land. Since the wand has protected the world for some 700 years, things don't bode well unless your characters can restore the wand and use it to slay Lagoth Zanta (one wonders what the wand was doing during the first game, but so it goes). Solving the game will require gaining insights from a Sage, a process that utilizes a rather infantile and frustrating text parser.

The Thief of Fate is probably the overall best designed game of the series, since it incorporates helpful new features like auto-mapping and the ability to use items to solve puzzles, thus opening up many interesting opportunities for thoughtful gameplay. The third game is also the most ambitious in terms of the game world; now the players must explore whole different "universes," including a trip to Nazi Berlin!

Electronic Arts also published Interplay's The Bard's Tale Construction Set for Commodore's Amiga and the MS-DOS platforms. This construction set included an updated version of the first game in the series (rechristened the Star Light Festival). However, more importantly, the set allowed CRPG fans to construct their own new games based on the enhanced Thief of Fate engine. The construction kit was popular on many platforms, but the most useful version available for MS-DOS, which had support for hard drives, VGA, mouse, and the usual slew of sound cards. Strangely, while music was played through the sound card, all sound effects were delegated to the PC's totally inadequate internal speaker. The two most well-known games created with the set include The Bard's Lore: The Warrior and the Dragon created by John H. Wigforss, and Nutilan by Dennis Payne. Both of these games were for the PC version. Of course, there were undoubtedly many thousands of other "homebrew" titles created by other fans, but the Internet as we know it had not yet arrived on the scene. Since these hobbyist developers had no way to cheaply distribute their games, most are lost to history. Thankfully, at least one ambitious developer is still releasing games built with the system--see Warrior's Tale, released in 2006.

While Electronic Arts' initial foray into CRPGs played a pivotal role in the development of the genre, The Bard's Tale was not alone. Another company that was beginning to flex its muscles was SSI, an old publisher of war games who had now set their sights on the budding CRPG market.


The Infant Phantasies of Strategic Simulations, Inc: Any Questrons?

Today, Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI) is best known for its fabulous "Gold Box" games, a series of CRPGs that bore the official seal of TSR, holder of the sacred Dungeons & Dragon copyrights and trademarks. This invaluable license was sought after by nearly every other CRPG developer, but SSI emerged victorious. No doubt TSR's decision was swayed by SSI's legacy as a developer and publisher of computer-based "war games" (as you remember, D&D emerged from tabletop war games). SSI's first game was Computer Bismarck, published in 1979 for the Apple II. SSI quickly became the market leader in this niche, even with the premier wargames publisher Avalon Hill competing against them. SSI's most famous non-CRPG game is probably Cytron Masters (1982), one of the first (if not the first) real-time strategy games. It was designed by Dani Bunten, creator of M.U.L.E.

SSI's first CRPGs were published in 1984: 50 Mission Crush and Questron. 50 Mission Crush is more like a traditional war game than most CRPGs, and is probably better described as a turn-based strategy game. The game consists of fifty B17 bomber missions flown in World War II, and the player assigns each position in the plane to his characters (i.e., tail-gunner, bomber). These characters receive experience points each time they survive a mission, eventually gaining competence and winning promotions. The magazine Computer Gaming World published an intriguing review of the game written by an actual B-24 bombardier named Leroy W. Newby, who found it realistic enough to evoke dozens of wartime memories, which he duly juxtaposes alongside his gameplay narrative (see issue #35).


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

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

In 1985, SSI published the first of what would become a trilogy of Phantasie games. These games allow players to create and control a party of up to six adventurers, with several classes and races to choose from (including unlikable critters like goblins and minotaurs!). Another nice feature is separate screens and menus for purchasing equipment, exploring dungeons, roaming the world map, and vanquishing foes. There's even a bank where characters can store their money--a nice trade-off for the limited coin-carrying capacity of the characters (try saying that three times fast). Furthermore, the game tracks where your characters have been, eliminating the need for graph paper. There were also new problems--the characters aged, and could even die from old age if the player took too long to complete the adventure.

Combat in Phantasie is handled in much the same way as console CRPGs like Final Fantasy. The player first chooses from a menu what each character will do, then enters the next round of combat. A simple animation shows which character (or enemy) is attacking and how much damage was dealt (or received). If the players win, they do a comical dance which again reminds one of so many console CRPGs. Although the combat system is simplistic compared to Wizard's Crown, which we'll discuss in a moment, it nevertheless offers players fine control over how characters attack. For instance, fighters can choose to attack, thrust, slash, and lunge. These options control how many swings the character takes at an enemy, with varying degrees of damage and likeliness of a hit. "Lunge" attempts to hit a monster standing behind the first row of enemies.

The story behind the first Phantasie is simple enough--kill the "Black Knights" and their master, the evil sorcerer Nikademus, who supplied the knights with powerful but soul-sucking magic rings (ring a bell?). However, to accomplish this, the characters must round up twenty scrolls, each of which contains vital clues to help the characters accomplish their goal. The story is more deeply interwoven into the game than in most CRPGs, and the player's choices make a real difference in how the game unfolds. The many riffs on Tolkien and occasional humor help distinguish Phantasie from the typical dungeon-crawler.


"Phantasie, from Strategic Simulations, may be the best fantasy role-playing game to come down the silicon pike since Sir-Tech conjured up Wizardry. As a matter of fact—at the risk of sounding blasphemous—in some ways Phantasie surpasses Wizardry."—James V. Trunzo in Compute!, December 1985.

SSI followed up the first game with Phantasie II in 1986. The plot this time was even less imaginative than the first--Nikademus is back, and this time he's used a magical orb to enslave an island and its population. Naturally, the party must find and destroy the orb. Other than a revamped story, there is little difference between this game and its prequel, save the ability of characters to hurl rocks at an enemies during combat. Players of the first game could also import their old characters. The final Phantasie [sic] was released in 1987 for the Apple II, and given the subtitle The Wrath of Nikademus (Westwood Associates ported it to other platforms). Nikademus has returned, and after two defeats his ambition has only grown--this time he's out to control the world. The third game offered better graphics and more sophisticated combat, such as the ability to target specific body regions, a wound system, and better tactics. All in all, the third part is probably the best game in the series, even if it is noticeably shorter than the first two games. In 1990, a company named WizardWorks released the first games in a "retro-styled" package called Phantasie Bonus Edition for the DOS and Commodore Amiga platforms. Unfortunately, despite its initial popularity and many innovations, the Phantasie series has not managed to attain the enduring legacy it deserves, and has been long overshadowed by SSI's later "Gold Box" CRPGs.


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

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


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

There are at least two other early SSI CRPGs worth mentioning: Shard of Spring and Rings of Zilfin, both released in 1986. Shard of Spring is a game written for the Apple II by Craig Roth and David Stark, and ported to MS-DOS by D.R. Gilman, Leslie Hill, and Martin deCastongrene--who did the whole game in Microsoft QuickBasic! It's a bit crude compared to the other SSI games of the era, and falls somewhere in between Wizard's Crown and Phantasie in terms of complexity. The story is that an evil sorceress has stolen the Shard of Spring, a magical item that brings eternal springtime to the land. Now that it's gone, the world has fallen into chaos, and the solution is obvious. Roth and Stark wrote a sequel called Demon's Winter, which was published by SSI in 1988. While very similar to the first game, Demon's Winter features an exponentially larger game world and two new characters classes, the scholar and the visionary. Visionaries have some unusual abilities, mostly dealing with reconnaissance--for instance, they can view a room to check for monsters without being seen. The story this time is perhaps even more straightforward than the first--the land of Ymros is faced with eternal winter unless the characters can find and destroy the evil demon god Malifon. Both games feature some interesting twists on religion, allowing characters to become acolytes of different gods and pray to them for aid during combat. Unfortunately, neither game had polished graphics or quality sound (even on the Amiga platform), factors that no doubt led to lackluster reviews in most game magazines.


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

"Another common problem in CRPGs may be an emphasis in glitz and glamour r

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