The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part III: The Platinum and Modern Ages (1994-2004)
April 11, 2007 Page 2 of 12
Towards the Platinum Age
The early 1990s saw the publication of dozens of CRPGs from many different developers, many of whom are virtually unknown today. Although the DOS and later Windows platforms would soon dominate the computer game industry, for now both the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga were going strong.
Although highly polished, many of the CRPGs developed during this time are highly derivative and offer little innovation, but a few have managed to attain cult classic status.
“A thousand years ago, tucked deep in the beautiful woods to the southeast of Lyramion, there was a small village called Forkbrook. The people who lived there were blond haired and good natured; they lived by fishing and hunting and traded with the nearest town which lay two days travel to the west. In this village lived a small boy named Tar.”
– from the Amberstar manual.
Several of these early 1990s games were German imports. One such game, Amberstar by German developer Thalion, features good graphics, a great auto-mapping tool, and a huge world to explore. It seemed to offer much promise, but even a well-known soundtrack by chipmaestro Jochen Hippel was not enough to win it much fame in the US. The sequel, Ambermoon, was only released in Germany, and the third game (the series was planned as a trilogy) was never completed. Nevertheless, Amberstar is among the best CRPGs for the Amiga platform.
In 1992, Sir-Tech published an English translation of Realms of Arkania: Blade of Destiny, another successful German game based on the RPG system Das Schwarze Auge (The Dark Eye). The Dark Eye system was a strong competitor for Dungeons & Dragons in Germany, and offered gamers a viable alternative to TSR's rules. One nice innovation is that characters suffer from a variety of negative attributes, such as fear of the dead or a hot temper, which have direct effects on gameplay.
The game sold well enough to warrant two sequels, Star Trail (1994) and Shadows Over Riva (1996), both of which were only available on the DOS platform (the first was available on the Amiga and Atari ST platforms). The last game took advantage of the by-then widely adopted CD-ROM, and boasted SVGA graphics, but all of the games switch between 3-D, first-person perspective in exploration mode and isometric view in combat mode ("isometric view" or "3/4 perspective" is a way of portraying a 3-D object on a flat surface; consider the familiar line drawing of a cube). The combat system is highly tactical and turn-based (reminiscent of an SSI Goldbox game). Of the three, most critics agree that Shadows over Riva is the most excellent, and I'll have more to say about it later.
Other interesting games of the early 1990s are Imagitec's Daemonsgate, Microprose's Darklands, and Flair's Whale's Voyage. Daemonsgate (1992) seems to be an exercise in poor design, and is only noteworthy for its unusual marketing gimmicks. It suffered from a ghastly interface, and its most noteworthy characteristic is that it shipped with a VHS tape. The tape contained a goofy video entitled "Travis Sewerbreath" that had only a tenuous connection to the game. Daemonsgate also featured a "conversation system" allegedly capable of understanding over 70,000 words (few critics seem to believe this blurb on the game's box).
If Daemonsgate is all hype and no substance, Darklands, a meticulously historical CRPG set in medieval Germany, is all substance without enough hype. Indeed, it is undeservedly obscure despite its mind-boggling attention to detail. For instance, not only does the game include historically accurate arms and armor, but even the weights and relative effectiveness are incorporated into the gameplay. It also boasts of a huge gameworld with over 90 German cities and towns, all with historically accurate place names.
The goal of the game is simply to win fame and fortune; the game is quite open-ended and avoids many of the stale D&D clichés. Magic, for instance, is based on the ancient art of alchemy and is quite intricate, and clerics can call on 140 different saints, each with a unique personality.
Many gamers appreciated its intelligent character generation system, which involved adding years on to the character's starting age in return for valuable skills. Unfortunately, the game's code was riddled with show-stopping bugs, and gamers found the save game system irritating at best. Nevertheless, it remains a cult classic with a small but highly dedicated following.
Whale's Voyage is perhaps best described as a combination of Firebird's epic space-trading game Elite and SSI's Eye of the Beholder, and vaguely reminiscent of Binary System's earlier and much more successful Starflight series (1986, 1989) and Electronic Art's Sentinel Worlds (1989). Whale's Voyage did not fare well among critics, many of whom bashed it for its cumbersome control scheme, which required dozens of mouse clicks just to get one of the player's four characters to attack.
The game does feature a unique character generation method involving eugenics and DNA manipulation. After choosing an appropriate set of parents, players can "mutate" their characters' DNA in exchange for better stats. The trade-off, however, is greater susceptibility to disease. Players also get to choose which schools and universities their characters attend. In any case, the game was not a hit, and although there was a sequel released in Germany, an English version never arrived on American shores.
While we're on the subject of rotten tomatoes, we should probably mention Cybertech's Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace, which almost certainly contributed to its publisher SSI's fall from grace. Although TSR's Spelljammer universe was successful among tabletop role-playing gamers, Cybertech's effort to bring the world to DOS failed just as miserably at Cybertech's, and for much the same reason. Besides lackluster graphics and the lack of a good plot, the game was not properly play-tested and frustrated gamers with bug-infested code.
Ultima and Ultima Underworld: Who's the Dungeon Master Now?
We saw in the last installment how FTL's Dungeon Master represented a significant breakthrough for 3D CRPGs. Although there had been plenty of other 3D, first-person perspective CRPGs before (including the real-time game Dungeons of Daggorath), turn-based games were by far the majority. However, even though Dungeon Master was the best-selling game of all-time for the Atari ST platform, and achieved remarkable success on other platforms like the Commodore Amiga, many gamers and developers seemed reluctant to jump on the real-time 3-D bandwagon.
The first big developer to do so in major way was Westwood Associates, who developed an extremely successful series called The Eye of the Beholder, published by SSI (their so-called "Black Box" games). However, although these games were set in real-time, movement was not fluid but discrete. For instance, if your party turned left, the perspective instantly shifted 90 degrees, cutting rather than panning to the new viewpoint.
Nevertheless, many Dungeon Master clones were published in the early 1990s, such as Raven's Black Crypt, ArtGame's Abandoned Places: A Time for Heroes, and Silmaris' Ishar: Legend of the Fortress (all 1992), a highly-polished game that was successful enough to spawn two sequels (Messengers of Doom in 1993 and The Seven Gates of Infinity in 1994).
Another popular game from this period is Virgin Games' Lands of Lore: The Throne of Chaos, developed by Westwood Studio--the same company that produced Eye of the Beholder. Throne of Chaos was noted for its excellent graphics, music, and interface; Westwood was an experienced CRPG maker at the height of their game. Westwood developed two sequels, Guardians of Destiny (1997) and Lands of Lore III (1999), which we'll discuss later.
Origin's Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss was the first 3D CRPG to finally achieve fluid camera movement (and is said to have inspired id's famous first-person shooter engine). Developed by Blue Sky Productions (later Looking Glass Technologies), The Stygian Abyss is a spin-off of Origin's celebrated Ultima series, but its gameplay focuses more on quick physical reflexes than its predecessors.
On the surface, it seems like Origin's attempt to mimic Dungeon Master. It's set deep in a dungeon, and the Avatar needs to constantly search for food and light sources (e.g., torches). Even the magic system is similar; spells are cast by arranging sequences of "rune stones" found sprinkled throughout the dungeon. However, unlike Dungeon Master, Ultima Underworld features fluid 3-D movement. Players can not only turn left and right smoothly, but also look up and down, climb up, and even swim.
Players also have more direct control during combat: The type of attack (slash, stab, hack) is indicated by the position of the mouse pointer, and the strength by how long the player holds down the mouse button. Many gamers and critics argued that these innovations made the game realistic and thus more immersive, as though players were actually in the game rather than simply controlling it from a distance.
Another nice feature was a "map," which not only tracked movement but allowed players to enter notes. In any case, you don't have to be a game historian to see how this game paved the way for the Elder Scrolls series.
The storyline is fairly straightforward. Somehow, the Avatar has found himself back in Britannia just in time to witness a creature carting off a Baron's daughter in a sack. Naturally enough, the guards suspect the Avatar of being an accomplice. Fortunately, he's spared the noose, but only on the condition that he enter a fearsome dungeon called the "Great Stygian Abyss", and return with the Baron's daughter.
Soon enough, the Avatar encounters some survivors of a failed colony, and eventually learns that the kidnapping is only part of a much more sinister plot. It's a good storyline that makes the game more than just a 3D coding feat.
In designing the Underworld system, one of the things we attempted to do was to merge traditional fantasy RPG elements, such as quests and combats and explorations, with a sophisticated three-dimensional simulation of a sensible and believable world.
– from the Ultima Underworld II manual.
Origin followed up in 1993 with a sequel named Labyrinth of Worlds. The sequel made few innovations other than the implementation of digital sound effects and an expanded viewing area. The storyline is also more complex and more closely related to the main Ultima series. A magical crystal of "blackrock" has formed over Lord British's castle, isolating the land of Britannia from its foremost defenders. Fortunately, the Avatar can use a smaller crystal to travel to eight different dimensions in search of a solution to the dilemma. It's a massive game, and the alternate dimensions allow for many intriguing scenarios, such as a fortress floating in the sky, an icy wasteland, and a surreal "Ethereal Void."
Surprisingly, the Ultima Underworld series is not as well known today as later games of its type, such as the Elder Scrolls series. Perhaps the key reason for this is that the games demanded more computer power than most PC gamers could afford in 1992. It's a rare case of when a lengthy production delay could have resulted in better sales.
Stygian Abyss was released for Sony's Playstation in 1997 and was ported to Windows Mobile by Zio Interactive in 2002.
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