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 rather than substance. If it is pretty, the assumption is that people will buy it. The question is, however, do these beautiful graphics really add anything substantial to the game? " –David L. Arneson in Computer Gaming World, May 1988.

Rings of Ziflin (Apple II). Early cut-scenes
like this helped establish a story and carry
it along.

Ali Atabek's Rings of Ziflin, released in 1986, is a game intended for novices--and thus focuses more on story and atmosphere than tactics and stats. It features plenty of amusing "cut scenes" that establish and maintain the storyline, which amounts to keeping an evil necromancer named Lord Dragos from finding both rings of power and using them to take over the world (sound familiar?) Rings of Zilfin puts the player in the role of Reis (though the name can be changed), a budding magic user who must develop his abilities and take on Dragos and his minions. Players are spared the bother of creating characters and rolling for stats, and the combat sequences are more like mini-arcade games than tactical combat. Most of the game is spent traveling between towns, and along the way the character can collect plants--such as magic mushrooms, as well as drink from pools. Overall, it's an interesting game and quite different from most of SSI's other offerings. Atabek would go on to create a trilogy of Ultima-like games called The Magic Candle. The first of these, published by Mindcraft Software, appeared in 1989, with the sequels following in 1991 and 1992--both published by Electronic Arts. Of these, the first is generally considered the best, and is known for its creative storyline and abundance of mini quests. The gist is that a demon is trapped in a candle, but once the candle burns down low enough, it will escape--and then al hell will break loose. Like Rings of Zilfin, The Magic Candle did not allow players to roll their own characters, but did allow them to build a party by selecting non-player characters (NPCs) found at the castle. By the way, an "NPC" means a character that that may assist the player, but cannot be directly controlled; it is controlled instead by the computer. In this way, The Magic Candle series predates the "henchman" system of later games like Neverwinter Nights.

SSI also experimented with hybrid CRPGs, mixing together adventure and arcade elements to varying degrees of success. Gemstone Warrior (1984) and Gemstone Healer (1986), both developed by Paradigm Creators, are two fairly well-known examples. These games are perhaps best described as CRPG/shooter games. SSI also released one game solely for the Commodore 64 called Realms of Darkness (1987). This very rare game, written by Gary Smith, is a hybrid adventure/CRPG. However, these games are aberrations from the type of CRPGs SSI would become famous for making--namely, the celebrated "Gold Box Games," which we'll discuss next.

Unforgettable Realms: SSI's "Gold Box" Games

As we've seen, SSI had developed and published several significant CRPGs before it won the exclusive license from TSR to market official AD&D computer games. Questron, Phantasie, Wizard's Crown, and even Shard of Spring all have elements that show up in one form or another in SSI's later productions. The Gold Box combat system, for instance, is essentially a streamlined version of the one found in Wizard's Crown. However, we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Let's back up to the year 1988, when the Gold Box series first debuted.

Pool of Radiance (C-64). The game's smooth, carefully-laid out interface made up for the rather "paper doll" look of the characters.

The first Gold Box game is Pool of Radiance, a game which marked an important turning point in CRPG history. The game shipped in a distinctive gold-colored box (hence the nickname for the series), which sported artwork by celebrated fantasy illustrator Clyde Caldwell (Caldwell also designed the covers for Curse of the Azure Bonds and several other TSR-licensed games and books). It was initially available only on the Atari ST and Commodore 64 platforms, though soon ports were available for most major platforms, including the NES. Pool of Radiance was an instant best-seller, and not just because it was the first officially licensed AD&D computer game. Awash with strong competition, SSI took the sensible approach--take the very best elements of its own and rival CRPGs and pool them together. Indeed, the Gold Box engine is essentially a medley of Bard's Tale and Wizard's Crown, which can trace their own ancestry back to Ultima, Wizardry, and Tunnels of Doom. Nevertheless, Pool of Radiance is much greater than the sum of its parts, and more than deserves its reputation among serious CRPG critics as one of the best (if not the very best) CRPG ever designed. Though later Gold Box games would refine the engine and address some annoying flaws in the interface, all of the qualities that made the Gold Box games so legendary are present in Pool of Radiance.

Before I go on, let me put my cards (or, should I say, dice?) on the table here. Every critic has those few games that it's just impossible to be truly objective about. We all have that "first love," that first game that taught us that playing computer games was something we'd be doing for the rest of our lives. For me, that game is most certainly Pool of Radiance. Although I had played earlier CRPGs like The Bard's Tale and Ultima, there was just something about Pool of Radiance that made these other games look hopelessly mundane. I loved the game so much that I bought every other Gold Box game and even the pulpy novels that were based on them. I would've bought the breakfast cereal and the underwear if they'd made them. In short, Pool of Radiance awakened me to a whole new world--the world of D&D, fantasy, Tolkien, Dragonlance, and, most importantly, CRPGs. How can I be objective about a game that shaped me into the man I am today? I adore Pool of Radiance, and so should you! After all, you wouldn't be reading this article if I had never played it.

However, I'll dry my eyes now, take a deep breath, and try to break this game down into its constituent parts. As I see it, the game's key strengths lie in its game world, story, combat system, and overall game structure. Since the game world and story are so closely related, let's discuss those first. In a nutshell, the characters' task is to help rebuild Phlan, a once-proud city that has long lain in ruins. The characters arrive at New Phlan, the part of the city that has already been cleared, and begin accepting commissions from the City Council to perform various quests, such as clearing the slums of monsters and recovering legendary artifacts. The quests vary widely and all make sense in the context of the story. Eventually, the player learns that an evil dragon named Tyranthraxus is at the root of Phlan's problems, but defeating him is going to take much more than a longsword +1.

Like The Bard's Tale, Pool of Radiance features a coherent game world that feels like a real place. No doubt much of this realism is caused by the 3-D, first-person perspective players see in "exploration" mode. The interface has a rectangle on the top left that shows where the characters are currently facing, and the rest of the screen is neatly divided to display pertinent information. However, no interface can make a dull and repetitive game fun to explore. SSI was luckily able to draw upon the rich body of literature TSR had created for its Forgotten Realms universe of tabletop AD&D games. The Forgotten Realms world was nearly as well-developed as J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, and possibilities for new stories were virtually unlimited--indeed, novels set in this fictional universe are still being published, most notably those by R.A. Salvatore. The Forgotten Realms are an ideal environment for CRPGs, and added great depth to Pool of Radiance and its sequels.

Pool of Radiance (DOS). The Gold Box games system titles are noted for their superb tactical combat

When the characters must engage in combat, the screen changes to a top-down mode very similar to the one found in The Wizard's Crown. Each round, or "turn," the player decides what action his characters will undertake, though these actions are taken immediately rather than after all the commands have been issued (as in Phantasie or Wizardry). There are plenty of options available to each character depending on his or her class. For instance, fighters can wield melee or ranged weapons, and magic-users function like artillery or sharpshooters, depending on the spell (fireball vs. magic missile, for instance). Thieves also have the option to "back-stab" an opponent, a devastating move that requires very strategic positioning. Furthermore, retreating characters (or enemies) are penalized by giving all surrounding enemies a free swipe at their backside. An intense battle can easily last 45 minutes to an hour, and even simple battles can quickly turn disastrous if the player rushes through them (or, worse, puts his characters in computer controlled "quick" mode). If a character's hit-points fall below 0, he or she is wounded and must be bandaged by another character to avoid death.

Much of what makes Pool of Radiance different is its adherence to official AD&D rules. For instance, instead of "magic points," magic-users are given a set number of spells to memorize. How many spells they get per slot depends on their level of experience and intelligence (or wisdom in the case of clerics). Although mages receive one new spell per level, they will learn most of them by scribing them from scrolls found in the unsettled areas. Once a spell is cast, it erases itself from the magic-user's memory and must be re-learned. Memorizing spells (and restoring hit points) takes several hours of inactivity, which means setting up camp. Although there are many safe spots where the characters can rest unmolested, many of the more dangerous areas all but prevent it. Thus, a player can't just focus on one battle at the time; she must always plan ahead. For instance, "wasting" all of a mage's fireball spells on a group of wimpy kobolds might leave the party totally vulnerable to a troll attack. Finally, some creatures are more vulnerable (or invulnerable) to certain kinds of attack--i.e., the undead can be "turned" by clerics or dealt extra damage by silver weapons.

"Some will undoubtedly see the strict enforcement of these rules as a nuisance, but it seems to us like a logical extension of the kind of resource management which is necessary to any sophisticated strategy game." –Johnny L. Wilson in Computer Gaming World, July 1988.

The city of Phlan has many intriguing areas to explore, such as a bizarre pyramid and a haunted library. But eventually players will get to go across country in "wilderness" mode, which anyone familiar with older SSI games like Questron and Phantasie or Ultima will instantly recognize. Later SSI games experimented with different "wilderness" modes, such as showing the player a large map and having him click on different regions. In any case, the wilderness mode makes Pool of Radiance seem even larger, and gives gamers something to do after they've completed the game (e.g., slaughtering groups of wandering monsters).

Buck Rogers (DOS). With a few cosmetic
changes, SSI's Gold Box engine became the
perfect vehicle for sci-fi adventure.

SSI eventually released three sequels: Curse of the Azure Bonds (1989), Secret of the Silver Blades (1990), and Pools of Darkness (1991). It also spun-off a series based on TSR's Dragonlance universe. These include Champions of Krynn (1990), Death Knights of Krynn (1991), and Dark Queen of Krynn (1992). While these games give players a chance to meet beloved Dragonlance characters like Tanis Half-Even and Raistlin Majere, the trade-off is more rigidly linear gameplay. There were also two more Forgotten Realms games that took place in another part of the realm: Gateway to the Savage Frontier (1991) and Treasures of the Savage Frontier (1992). Finally, as if SSI wasn't already milking its Gold Box engine enough, it released two games set in TSR's Buck Rogers universe: Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday (1990) and Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed (1992).

SSI finally retired the Gold Box engine in 1992, though it would continue to release various compilations for years afterwards. Even if SSI was finished with the engine, players could still create their own "Gold Box" games using MicroMagic's Unlimited Adventures, published by SSI in 1993. The Gold Box games defined the Golden Age, and set the bar against which all later games would be judged. However, SSI knew it was time to move on. Its next big series debuted with Eye of the Beholder (1991). However, since that game has much in common with an earlier game called Dungeon Master, it's only fair to pause our coverage of SSI here and talk about other CRPGs of the Golden Age.

Sick of Swords and Sorcery: Non-Fantasy CRPGs

Before moving on such important CRPG classics as FTL's Dungeon Master and the later Ultima and Wizardry titles, we should take a look at some of the CRPGs that departed from the "swords and sorcery" conventions that dominate the genre. We've already mentioned a few in passing, such as SSI's 50 Mission Crush, set in World War II, the Buck Rogers games, and Origin's Ultima series, which featured many sci-fi elements as well as fantasy. Another game worth mentioning is Polarware's Expedition Amazon (1983). Although it suffers from some pretty serious design flaws, Expedition Amazon explored new possibilities for the CRPG. Set in modern times, the goal of Expedition Amazon is to guide a team of four explorers (Medic, Field Assistant, Radio Operator, and Guard) as they study ancient Incan ruins. Instead of dragons and orcs, players fought with recalcitrant natives and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. However, the game wasn't a success, and can hardly be said to have much influence on the CRPG genre. Thankfully, other CRPG developers were willing to try to push the CRPG out of the Middle Ages.

Alternate Reality (Atari 8-Bit). A colorful
interface and countless innovative features
make this sci-fi themed CRPG a classic.

In 1985, a Datasoft published Philip Price's Alternate Reality: The City, the first of a planned series of five games based on the same premise: aliens abducting the character and transporting him to different "realities." Even though only two of the games were ever published (the second part, The Dungeon, appeared in 1987), the series maintains a cult status, particularly among fans of Atari 8-bit computers (where it originated). Atari Age even hosts a competition for the game that is still going strong! The games feature first-person perspective and nice graphics, and are in many ways much ahead of their time. Both The City and The Dungeon are located on Medieval worlds, so most of the standard fantasy conventions still apply (mages, dwarves, etc.) However, Alternate Reality is more realistic than most CRPGs of its era--the avatar gets thirsty, hungry, and tired. The only way to address these problems (and get better equipment) is to raise capital. Thankfully, players can store their money and earn interest at banks, though the really profitable investment plans are risky. Even the treasures weren't always good; many items were cursed and had dire consequences for unwary players. And, as if all this isn't enough--it often rains, which apparently brings out the truly dangerous denizens of Xebec's Demise. Frustrated (or evil) players are free to prey upon the innocent. In any case, the high degree of realism and complexity makes Alternate Reality one of the most challenging of all CRPGs. Downloads and emulator information is available here.

Another unfinished series is Star Saga, a highly innovative game developed by Masterplay and published by Electronic Arts. Star Saga was intended to be a trilogy, but only two games were made. Star Saga is interesting because of its determined effort to more closely emulate tabletop role-playing games (it's allegedly based on a tabletop game called Rekon). The approach was to heavily integrate extra-game materials, such as a hefty collection of printed texts ("textlets") and even a game board and pieces. The idea was that players could enrich their computer game experience by referring to these materials during game sessions; for instance, by moving the tokens around on the map. All that appears on the screen is text describing the current situation and the effects of the players' actions. Star Saga is intended to be played by more than one player (up to six), and each player has a unique role and set of tasks. In so many ways, the game functions as a robotic "dungeon master," and the real action takes place on the tabletop. Obviously, the game just can't be properly played via an emulator, so anyone interested in learning more about this game should find an original copy with all the included printed material (nearly three pounds worth!)--a collector's dream. By all accounts, the writing is quite excellent and the story simply fascinating.

"[Star Saga] is probably the most unique and well-written role-playing experience yet to appear in a computer game. It will also stand up to any human game-mastered role-playing game on the market."—William "Biff" Kritzen in Computer Gaming World, Aug. 1988.

On a side note, one of my favorite science fiction-themed CRPGs of the mid 1980s is Jagware's Alien Fires: 2199 AD, a very obscure first-person, single-character game that originated on the Commodore Amiga (1986) but was later ported to the Atari ST and MS-DOS. Almost no one talks about this game today, and I was unable to find any version but the graphically inept DOS version online. Nevertheless, I find its premise interesting (you play as a Time Lord who must stop a Dr. Kurtz from traveling back in time to see the Big Bang.) The game is fast and difficult, and involves quite a bit of interaction with a rather odd and colorful cast of characters (mostly aliens). Furthermore, the Amiga version's digitized soundtrack is absolutely hypnotic, and the design decision to use the Amiga's built-in speech synthesizer adds a distinctly "alien," psychedelic feel to the game. Alien Fires is a quirky and extremely difficult game, and the lack of a good save option compounds the problem exponentially. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to everyone, but I've never played another game that had the same otherworldly ambiance. Try to find the Amiga version if you're determined to try this game yourself.

Alien Fires 2199 A.D. (DOS). The Amiga version has the best graphics, but the DOS port
has a more user-friendly interface.

After fantasy and science fiction, the most popular genre for CRPGs is post-apocalyptic fiction. Generally speaking, this genre is occupied with the future of civilization after a nuclear holocaust (or some other type of worldwide catastrophe). The genre has been popular in books and movies, such as Mad Max (1979), Damnation Alley (1977), and Death Race 2000 (1975). The reason I mention these particular movies is that they seem to have had such a strong influence on the developers of early post-apocalyptic CRPGs, such as Autoduel (1985), which was itself based on a Steve Jackson game called Car Wars (c. 1980). In Autoduel, the point is not to slay dragons, but rather to build the most deadly vehicle on the road. Accomplishing that goal requires forethought, luck, and quick reflexes--think of it as a cross between Bally Midway's arcade hit Spy Hunter and Ultima. Instead of strength, dexterity, and constitution, characters are assigned points for driving skill, marksmanship, and mechanics.

Autoduel (Apple II). Whatever you do,
don't say "cute."

Autoduel is also known for being one of the first "open-ended" computer games (though of course the mainframe "roguelikes" were much earlier in this regard, and Firebird's Elite (1984) was a year earlier). At any rate, it's up to the player to decide what goals are worth pursuing and how he should go about pursuing them. Players are encouraged to experiment. For instance, the player could stick to "courier" missions, risking life and limb on the deadly highways. Other players might prefer winning money in the arena, or engaging in a bit of vigilante justice--or even become an outlaw. Likewise, players can build fast and highly maneuverable cars, or virtual tanks on wheels. In so many ways, what's enjoyable about Autoduel is not so much being part of a story or completing a quest, but rather just gaining expertise of the game's logic and creative possibilities. Oh, and if any of this sounds familiar to you Grand Theft Auto fans out there, don't get too excited--there's no "Hot Coffee Mod" in Autoduel. Or is there?

Autoduel was a very popular and successful game despite its simple graphics, and other games would follow in its trajectory. Interstel's Scavengers of the Mutant World, released in 1988 for MS-DOS, echoes the nuclear wasteland setting and build-a-vehicle concept. However, this time the only purpose in doing so is to escape to a radiation-free zone, killing anything or anyone that gets in the way. While the game had some good ideas (using old highway signs for shields, for instance), terrible graphics and repetitive gameplay prevented it from achieving much success. Furthermore, the monsters grew tougher as the party gained experience--and eventually became so strong that the player had no choice but to create a whole new party and resume. In short, there's more disaster here than the one serving as the game's premise.

In 1987, Origin published another post-apocalyptic game set in the far future called 2400 A.D. The story here is that alien robots called the Tzorg have overrun the world of Metropolis and must be stopped. The player assumes the role of a rebel, and must find a way to take down the robots' central control (perhaps the developer, Chuck Bueche, was inspired by the 1984 film The Terminator?) Instead of long swords and chainmail, players get to play with a whole host of curious gadgets, such as a holoprojector which casts a hologram of the character to confuse the robots, and a jetpack to make travel a breeze. All and all, it's a very creative game that should have been a great deal more successful. Unfortunately, some legal issues prevented the game from ever being released for the C-64, and apparently the game flopped onthe Apple II. On a side note, John Romero of Doom fame is often credited with the C-64 port, though some controversy exists about his involvement.

Wasteland (DOS). But Mom, I am playing

Probably the most famous of all the post-apocalyptic CRPGs, Fallout, can trace its roots back to Interplay's Wasteland, released in 1988 for the C-64, MS-DOS, and Apple II, and published by Electronic Arts. Wasteland is set in the devastating aftermath of World War III. Players start out with a party of four "Desert Rangers," though up to three more characters can be recruited later on. However, these additional members cannot be controlled directly, and have their own goals that play a strong role in how the game unfolds. Two of the developers, Ken St. Andre and Michael Stackpole, had designed their own tabletop role-playing games (Tunnels and Trolls and Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, respectively), and many of their ideas ended up in Wasteland. As in SSI's Wizard's Crown (1985), character development was based not only on "stats" but also skills--27 of them, to be precise. These abilities range from combat skills to sleight-of-hand and metallurgy. Obviously, sensible players will want to ensure their party has a wide spread of talents, since there's no telling what they'll be up against--though the game is flexible enough to let players overcome obstacles in a variety of ways, such as picking a lock versus climbing a gate. Likewise, the game has several situations in which an individual character must "go it alone," thus further helping players form coherent identities for their party.

Interface-wise, Wasteland can be described as a mix between The Bard's Tale (for combat and character info screens) and top-down games like Ultima (for travel and exploration). It's a nice setup that works well, even if it doesn't allow players quite the tactical combat possibilities of Pool of Radiance or The Wizard's Crown. At any rate, the appeal of Wasteland stems more from its fascinating game world and intricate character development than combat stratagems.

Like Pool of Radiance and several other games of the era, much of the context for the action takes place in a printed manual with numbered paragraphs. The manual warns against reading ahead, but notes that once the game is finished "you can kick back in your best lounge chair under a shady cactus and read the rest of the fictional vignettes." Indeed, players who did either found some funny paragraphs designed to catch cheaters, including the first one. After several torrid descriptions of an impending sex scene, a would-be seductress proclaims, "Stop reading paragraphs you're not supposed to read, creeps. Next time I'm going to demand they put me in a Bard's Tale game, this Wasteland duty is dangerous."

Wasteland remains the favorite CRPG of many a gamer who played in back in the late 1980s, and for good reason--it's a captivating and highly innovative game that deserves its place beside (if not above!) Interplay's other CRPG classic, The Bard's Tale. It's more than a testament to the game's enduring legacy that the best-selling Fallout, released in 1997, is in many ways little more than a graphical revamp of the older engine. Wasteland is a classic game that remains highly playable and rewarding even today. I might note that Electronic Arts released an alleged sequel to the game called Fountain of Dreams in 1990, but none of Wasteland's developers were involved. The publisher made an uncharacteristic decision to downplay the "sequel" aspect as much as possible, and the game (which, by all accounts, is something of a lemon) made very little impression on the market.

The last non-fantasy CRPGs I'll mention for now are Battletech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception and Sentinel Worlds I: Future Magic. The Crescent Hawk's Inception, developed by Westwood Associates and published by Infocom in 1988. This top-down CRPG put players in the role of Jason Youngblood, whose mission was to locate his lost father and win back the land of Pacifica. In some ways, this game is similar to Origin's much earlier release Autoduel, in that players spend most of their time trying to build the best mobile death machines. Here, however, combat is turn-based and much closer to games like Pool of Radiance. Although the game was generally well received, other games based on the Battletech franchise were either strategy or arcade/simulation games (Mechwarrior, for instance). Westwood Associates also developed a game called Mars Saga in 1988 that was published by Electronic Arts. Mars Saga is seldom mentioned game today, though it was Westwood's first game that wasn't based on a license.

Sentinel Worlds, developed by Karl Buiter and published by Electronic Arts in 1989, is something of a cross between The Bard's Tale and Firebird's Elite. Players begin by assembling a five-person crew, who are then assigned "skill points" in areas as diverse as gunnery, bribery, and ATV repair. Combat can take place either on the ground or in space, but there was more to this game than who had the bigger gun. Players also had to choose the right options from conversation menus, where a few bad choices could force restoring to an older saved game. Like many other Golden Age CRPGs, Sentinel Worlds included a book of numbered passages which the players were asked to consult at certain points in the game. These passages added literary texture to the game, but were obviously much more of an interruption than the "cut scenes" we so often see in modern games. Like SSI's The Wizard's Crown, Sentinel Worlds is complicated game with a steep learning curve--factors that might explain why the game has not received the appreciation it deserves. Buiter followed up with Hard Nova, released in 1990 and also published by Electronic Arts. This game has more of a "cyberpunk" theme, and isn't an official sequel to Sentinel Worlds despite sharing most of its gameplay concepts.

Suffice it to say, the Golden Age of CRPGs wasn't just about orcs, prismatic sprays, and vorpal blades. There was a smorgasbord of sci-fi and post-apocalyptic games to choose from, including triumphs like Wasteland. Games like Star Saga and Autoduel really pushed the boundaries of the genre and demonstrated new concepts--some of which are now cliches and others mere curiosities. However, we're still not done with the Golden Age yet. Rounding out the Age are a collection of pioneering efforts into a more intense CRPG featuring real-time, 3D gameplay.

The Late Golden Age: The Rise of Real-Time 3D

In 2007, we might find it difficult to imagine a time when real-time, 3D games were a novelty. Although these games had existed for home computers for some time--3D Monster Maze (1981), Dungeons of Daggorath (1982), the great majority of CRPGs were either top-down, turn-based 3D, or some mixture of the two. However, by the late 1980s, computer gamers were steadily replacing their 8-bit machines with Atari ST and Commodore Amiga computers. These new machines offered better graphics, sound, memory, and storage options--facts that were not lost on aspiring game developers. Nevertheless, it took awhile for real-time, first-person 3-D to really catch-on, and even now the question of whether it really leads to better CRPGs is open for discussion. Gamers were just as divided in 1988 over games like Pool of Radiance and Dungeon Master as they are about Neverwinter Nights 2 and The Elder Scrolls IV. There has (and probably never will be) a single, shared vision for a CRPG engine and interface. Some players seem to privilege the "immersion" experience of first-person perspective, whereas others prefer to see their characters moving about on the screen. Likewise, there are CRPG fans who enjoy contemplative turn-based combat (as seen recently in The Temple of Elemental Evil), though most modern gamers seem to prefer real-time action.

Dungeon Master (Atari ST). Can you overcome your carpal tunnel syndrome long enough to beat this game?

"Few games have generated as much affection as Dungeon Master, even to the point of third-party products (hint books and maps). It's hard not to like DM."–Ian Chadwick in ST-Log, February 1989.

Since these issues remain so central to CRPG development, FTL Games' classic Dungeon Master (1987) is one of the most historically significant CRPGs, and there are many CRPG critics who consider it the greatest CRPG ever made. It was first released for the new Atari ST, where it became the best-selling game ever for the platform. It was promptly ported to the rival Commodore Amiga, and somewhat later to the MS-DOS and even the SNES platforms. Though it is hailed for its innovative use of sound and a back story by a professional novelist (Nancy Holder), for our purposes the most important feature is the game's 3-D interface. The bulk of the screen is composed of a first-person view of the party's current perspective. This screen is updated in real-time as the player explores the dungeon, much like the setup of a first-person shooter. On the top of this window are four boxes showing the current status of the four characters, the items they are holding, and their relative position (i.e., who is in front and back). The rest of the screen is dedicated to the magic system, attack mode, and directional buttons. Although the directional keys are a bit cumbersome on the ST version (players must click them with the mouse), later versions allow all movement (including rotating) to be executed from the keyboard. Unlike most games of the era, Dungeon Master offers combat in real-time. When the party is attacked, the player must work frantically to issue orders (e.g., attack, cast a spell, quaff a potion), always taking into consideration how long it will take each character to perform and recover. Since very few of these actions can be automated or prepared beforehand, players need rapid reflexes and considerable endurance to complete the game. Without a doubt, many gamers suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome today have Dungeon Master to blame!

However, Dungeon Master is far from a simple "clickfest." Most noticeably, the game's magic system is complex and arguably more logical than simple point-based (The Bard's Tale) or slot systems (Pool of Radiance, Wizardry). In Dungeon Master, players cast spells by stringing together runes. Although only certain predetermined sequences produce effects, players can determine the potency of any spell (or potion) and subsequently how much magical energy to expend in the process. Furthermore, although any character can try to cast a spell, only practiced mages and priests can pull off really effective feats of magic. However, the manual doesn't include a magical recipe book, so players must either find them sprinkled throughout the vast dungeon, experiment in a trial-and-error fashion, or consult a hint book. In any case, it's an versatile if somewhat daunting spell system for novices. A similar (probably derived) system shows up in Dynamix's Betrayal at Krondor (1993).

Adding to the "real-time" aspect is the necessity to acquire food and water for the characters--a gameplay element seen in many earlier games, including Rogue and Ultima. Thankfully, the need to eat drink are infrequent enough to keep this aspect from becoming a nuisance. Hungry characters can even gobble down the carcasses of many of the slain monsters, though it's best to collect the turkey legs and other foods left lying about the dungeon (sanitation not required!).

Dungeon Master was an unqualified success, and FTL followed up with Chaos Strikes Back in 1989. However, other developers were quick to follow their example. In 1990, SSI published the first of what would become a trilogy of "Black Box" Eye of the Beholder games, developed by Westwood Studios (formerly Westwood Associates) and based on the 2nd edition of the AD&D official rules. First available for MS-DOS but later for the Amiga, Sega CD (featuring a famous soundtrack by Yuzo Koshiro), and SNES, Eye of the Beholder was unquestionably influenced by FTL's breakthrough title. The games are set in TSR's Forgotten Realms, the same universe used in Pool of Radiance and its sequels. Like Dungeon Master, the player controls a party of four characters--however, in Eye of the Beholder, two non-player characters can also join the group. Another important difference is that players get to create their own characters rather than select them from a "Hall of Heroes," as in DM. Further differences are a built-in compass (players must find the compass in DM) and a slot-style spell system. Players select which spells they wish their mages to memorize or clerics to pray for, then "camp" until they've done so.

Eye of the Beholder (DOS). Any resemblance to Dungeon Master is purely coincidental.

The story in the first game is quite simple--a mysterious evil presence has been detected underneath the city of Waterdeep. Little is known about the nature of this evil, but the name "Xanathar" seems relevant. Naturally, the characters are instructed to investigate, but a sudden cave-in leaves them stranded in the sewers beneath the city. The second game, The Legend of Darkmoon (1991), added outdoor areas and focused more on narrative and interaction with non-player characters. Perhaps most importantly, the second game has a much more user-friendly saved game setup; instead of replacing a single saved game with each save, players choose among six different slots. Though the story starts off as vaguely as the first (you're to explore a mysterious evil in the Tower of Darkmoon), most fans of the series consider The Legend of Darkmoon the best of the lot. The final game, released in 1993, was not developed by Westwood Studios, but rather internally by SSI. It has some nice innovations, such as an "ALL ATTACK" button allowing all available characters to attack with one click, and the ability of characters standing in the rear to attack with pole-arms. However, it is by all accounts a disappointment and a terrible way to end the glorious trilogy. The culprits are a lackluster story, repetitive gameplay, and inconsistent difficulty.

Hired Guns (Amiga). I'll take four, thank
you very much.

Another company to mimic the successful Dungeon Master formula was DMA Design, a premier Amiga developer. In 1993, Psygnosis published their Hired Guns for MS-DOS and Amiga. Set in a grim, futuristic world called Graveyard, Hired Guns quickly became many gamers' favorite CRPG, and can be found on countless "Best Of" charts of Amiga games. The story is simple if a bit twisted--four mercenaries are hired to allegedly rescue some hostages, but soon discover they have been selected to test the prowess of deadly, genetically engineered creatures. One of the most popular features of the game is its multiplayer mode, which allows up to four players to play at once, and a "deathmatch" mode provides enjoyment long after players complete the campaign. Although many CRPGs claim to have "multiplayer" options, what this usually amounts to is one player sitting at the keyboard taking orders from the assembled group. Only a few games prior to the rise of LAN and internet gaming allowed more direct controls. Though Hired Guns is one of the most famous of these, a very early example is Quality Software's Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1981!), an Atari 8-bit game (later ported to Apple II) which allowed simultaneous play for up to four people. A later but only slightly less obscure example is Swords of Twilight, developed by Free Fall Associates and published by Electronic Arts in 1989. An Amiga-only title, Swords of Twilight is a real-time isometric RPG that allows up to three simultaneous players. Also appearing in 1989 was Mirrosoft's Bloodwych, published by Konami. Bloodwych, a first-person game in the vein of Dungeon Master, was available for a variety of platforms, and features a split-screen option for two players to enjoy the game simultaneously. The game is also known for its emphasis on dialog with non-player characters and enormous maps. The developers (Philip M. and Anthony Taglione) went on to create a follow-up called Hexx: Heresy of the Wizard, which was published by Psygnosis in 1994.

Now that we've covered some of the most groundbreaking new games and developments, let's wrap up with a glance at what was happening with the two foundational CRPG series, Wizardry and Ultima, as well as an important newcomer: Might and Magic.

Ultima, Wizardry, and Might and Magic in the Golden Age

Naturally, Sir-Tech and Origin were not content to let the premier CRPG series fall by the wayside. From 1985-1994, Origin published five new Ultima titles, and Sir-Tech gave us four additions to the Wizardry canon. Meanwhile, a new developer of CRPGs, New World Computing, introduced its well-known Might and Magic series in 1986, which had expanded to five games by the end of 1993. Let's start with Ultima and see how the series evolved during the Golden Age.

Golden Age Ultima: The Great Enlightenment

Ultima IV (DOS): But, you mean my
personality isn't just a series of dice rolls?

Although some Ultima fans consider Ultima III to be the best game in the series, Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, released in 1985, is probably better known and admired today. Indeed, as late as 1996, Computer Gaming World was naming it the #2 Best Game of All Time for PC, and Richard Garriott (creator of Ultima) cites it as one of his top two favorites games of the series. It certainly marked a turning point in the series, and was recognized as such--it was the first game set in the "Age of Enlightenment" trilogy. From here on out, Ultima would be best known for its strong emphasis on morality and important cultural and social issues. What does it mean to lead a good life? If you don't see how that question could pertain to a CRPG, you have some homework to do!

Perhaps the key aspect that makes Quest of the Avatar unique is the unusual goal it sets for the player. Almost every CRPG we care to list is ultimately concerned with building up enough strength, experience, and resources to overcome some uber-powerful foe. "Character development," if we can call it that, amounts to gaining levels and tweaking stats. Quest of the Avatar departs radically from this convention, instead having the player focus on the character's morality, boiled down to eight essential virtues: Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Spirituality, Humility, Sacrifice, Justice, and Honor. The game actually "punished" players who acted in typical "hack'n slash" fashion, mindlessly looting and killing. On the other hand, all CRPGs can be seen as "quests for self-improvement," and Quest of the Avatar merely demonstrates a new method of achieving the ultimate such improvement--enlightenment. The character's quest is to become a "shining example" to the people of Sosoria.

Just how different Quest of the Avatar is from other CRPGs is evident as soon as the player tries to create a character. Instead of "rolling die" and generating stats, players answer a series of questions about moral dilemmas. Answering the questions one way results in the character's becoming a bard, druid, shepherd, and so on. Although it's perhaps dangerous to speculate about how much Richard Garriott thought his game might have a real-life impact on players, the afterword he penned for the manual seems clear: "The Quest for the Avatar is the search for a new standard, a new vision of life for which our people may strive. We seek the person who can becoming a shining example for our nation and guide us from the Age of Darkness into the Age of Light." Some critics claim that Garriott was reacting against the stereotypes that RPGs were necessarily satanic or immoral, and my guess is that they're at least partially correct. Much was made of the new moral and philosophical element of the game, and contemporary reviewers praised Origin for bringing new vitality to the genre. Another interesting innovation is the magic system, which requires that mages find reagents (ingredients like ginseng and garlic) to cast spells. This reagent business is an integral part of many tabletop AD&D campaigns, but is omitted from most CRPGs, including SSI's "Gold Box" games.

"To me, Ultima has become more than just a collection of puzzles to solve, but an environment, an entire world if you will, a gateway to a life among the peoples and cultures of a different time and place." –Richard Garriott in an interview published in Computer Gaming World, July 1988.

Quest of the Avatar also depends heavily on conversations with non-player characters, some of whom can even join the Avatar on his quest (up to eight, or one of each character class). In some ways, it started the (infamous) tradition of CRPGs that literally required players to try talking to everyone. Accordingly, players must take copious notes if they hope to progress very far in the game--and it's a huge game, at that, estimated at some 150 to 200 hours to finish. Thankfully, players have many ways to get about in the world--horses, ships, and "moon gates" just to name a few. I should also add that game included a cloth map and a small metal ankh in addition to two manuals. By the way, the manuals for each of the Enlightenment games are quite lengthy and loaded with information that is either directly useful or helpful in establishing context for the games. For instance, besides lengthy discussions of virtues, ethics, combat, and magic, Ultima V's manual includes lyrics to a song called "Stones," penned by Gwenllian Gwalch'gaeaf, wife of the famous folk musician Iolo Fitzowen. In short, if you don't have the printed materials that were included with these games, you're missing out on a large chunk of the Ultima experience. On a positive note, though, this is the only game of the series that's legally available for free download on the net, and several teams have created versions that are much easier to run on modern operating systems. If you're interested, be sure to check out the remake xu4, where you can also download the original.

The next entry in the series, Warriors of Destiny (1988) is even more deeply steeped in morality play than its prequel. This time, the theme is fundamentalism. An evil tyrant named Blackthorn has taken over the land of Britannia, and is terrorizing the people by enforcing too strict of a moral code (i.e., "Thou shalt donate half of they income to charity, or thou shalt have no income.") Although most of the core elements are identical to the earlier game, the writing here is more polished and professional, and interaction with non-player characters is more meaningful. Players will need to be very careful to write down any potential "keywords" that might trigger a crucial response from a non-player character. Making matters even more difficult is a running clock that determines whether it's night or day on Brittannia. Many events can only take place if the Avatar is in the right place at the right time; a fact that makes a hint book nearly indispensable.

There are some other important differences between the two games. The number of classes has been cut from 8 to 3 (fighter, bard, and mage). This limitation is particularly felt when important characters from the previous game; the specialized classes can their magical abilities. The magic system has also been revamped a bit; now reagents can be purchased in stores, and the spell system is now structured around eight "circles" and strings of syllables. Like Dungeon Master, players can now fine-tune their spells by combining different sequences of magical incantations. The combat system is also more realistic and complex, and characters can even accidentally strike their comrades! Warriors of Destiny also marks a few important turning points--it's the last of the series to originate on the Apple II and the last time Garriott took a hand in coding.

Ultima VI: The False Prophet, was released in 1990 for MS-DOS, and marked the end of the "Age of Enlightenment" trilogy begun with Quest of the Avatar. By 1990, the Apple II was really showing its age, and Origin was convinced that Apple's IIgs just didn't have a large enough user-base to warrant their attention. The False Prophet took advantage of the PC's new VGA cards, which Origin correctly determined would mark the beginning of the end for competing platforms. However, though the game features enhanced graphics compared to its predecessors, in some ways it's actually more limited--the dungeons, for instance, are rendered entirely in 2D, in some ways a step back from the 2D/3D switching that occurs in earlier games. The interface was also cleaned up, and the old alphabetical list of commands was replaced by a new streamlined menu. Contemporary players were impressed with the immense size of the world, which was always displayed on screen along with the characters (i.e., there's no "world map" mode). Interaction is enhanced with small portraits of the interlocutors, and keywords are marked in red for easy recognition. An abundance of "cinematics" also adds to the ambiance. The towns and villages are also better populated and seem more realistic--in addition to the usual assortment of taverns and blacksmiths, there are also weavers and bakers plying their trades. Likewise, objects like chairs can be moved around, and walls and doors have "hit points" and can be destroyed. A player so inclined can even grind fwheat into flour and bake bread! Finally, "random monsters" are now extinct, and there are sensible limits concerning when and where the party can be attacked.


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