If the Ultima series was showing its age by 1999, SSI had entered a much steeper downward spiral by 1993. Although the publisher and developer had triumphed during the Golden Age with its TSR-licensed "Gold Box" and "Black Box" titles, unimpressive games like Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace turned fans away in droves.
Nevertheless, SSI trudged on for several more years, though they would eventually shift their focus back to strategy games before officially entering the "Where are they now?" file.
SSI developed and published other TSR-licensed titles after their Gold and Black Box heydays, but none seemed to command the respect of their earlier games. In 1993, SSI published Dark Sun: Shattered Lands, a top-down CRPG based on TSR's post-apocalyptic Dark Sun campaign. Despite an intuitive interface and intriguing setting, the game's mediocre graphics, jerky animation, typos, and buggy code kept it out of the limelight.
SSI released a sequel called Wake of the Ravager in 1994, but even though the graphics were improved, the bugs were back. One particularly bad one was quickly dubbed "The Bug" among the many players who encountered it. The Bug would suddenly prevent monsters from attacking the avatar, making the game a cakewalk rather than the intense experience it was supposed to be.
Although such bugs would be easily enough addressed today by downloadable patches, such a practice wasn't widely practiced in the early 1990s. If you were unlucky enough to buy an early version of the game, you just had to live with the bugs.
SSI also published games based on TSR's horror-themed Ravenloft campaign. The first of these, Ravenloft: Strahd's Possession, was developed by DreamForge and published in 1994. Like Ultima Underworld, Stradh's Possession is a first-person perspective, 3D game with smooth scrolling, though a "step" mode is available. A sequel named Stone Prophet appeared in 1995, offering enhanced graphics and some new abilities like flying and levitating.
of these games are based on "Gothic" themes and seemed poised to take
advantage of the vampire fad spurred by Neil Jordan's Interview with the Vampire,
which descended into packed theaters on November of 1994. Why these
games didn't receive more recognition is a bit hard to determine.
Perhaps they were damned by faint praise from critics, who couldn't
find anything particularly good or bad about the series. In any case,
these games are surely better than Take-Two Interactive's Iron & Blood: Warriors of Ravenloft, a truly rotten fighting game published by Acclaim in 1996 for DOS and Sony's PlayStation.
The last TSR-licensed game SSI published was the infamously wretched (and hard to spell) Menzoberranzan, which appeared in 1994 for DOS. Another first-person, 3-D game in the style of the Ravenloft games, Menzoberranzan seemed to have all the ingredients necessary for a hit. It featured one of TSR's most famous characters, Drizzt Do'Urden, a dark elf of the Underdark popularized by the novelist R.A. Salvatore. Furthermore, the developer (Dreamforge) had responded to earlier criticism and improved the game engine considerably.
Nevertheless, gamers quickly complained about the endless number of boring battles that dragged out the game and ruined its pacing. This is particularly noticeable in the crucial first stages of the game; the game requires considerable patience before anything remotely interesting happens.
The lack of strong sales in these games, and SSI's two dismal console action titles Slayer (1994) and Deathkeep (1995)
were no doubt the straw that broke SSI's lucrative licensing agreement
with TSR. TSR decided to eschew exclusive licensing and extended the
franchise to several rival companies, most notably Interplay, who along
with Black Isle Studios published BioWare's Baldur's Gate in 1998. I'll discuss some of these games in a moment.
SSI also published several other CRPGs during this era, mostly developed by Event Horizon (later Dreamforge). These include The Summoning (1992) and Veil of Darkness (1993), both isometric games that again met with faint praise from gamers and critics. SSI released Alien Logic in 1994, an isometric game developed by Ceridus software based on the tabletop Skyrealms of Jorune RPG. Despite being praised for its innovative premise and gameplay, critics complained about the difficult install procedure and steep learning curve of the game's interface, and the game has faded into obscurity.
In 1995, SSI developed World of Aden: Thunderscape and co-developed (with Cyberlore) Entomorph: Plague of the Darkfall. Both of these games are based on a world similar to the one found later in Sierra's Arcanum; it's swords and sorcery meets "steampunk." The first game features first-person perspective, but the second reverts back to the familiar isometric perspective.
Sadly for SSI, these well-crafted and highly playable games seem to have attracted little interest from CRPG fans then or now.
The story of SSI's slow but steady demise can probably be summed up in one phrase: Death by mediocrity. The company just couldn't seem to develop or publish another masterpiece like Pool of Radiance or Eye of the Beholder.
Games like Menzoberranzan and Shattered Lands just lacked the glamour of games from rival companies, and even better graphics and updated interfaces couldn't disguise the old engine under the hood. Sloppy coding and play-testing nailed the coffin shut.
Although TSR was likely correct in their assumption that SSI was no longer the best company to represent their interests, they didn't exactly strike gold with their next few licensees. Many of these games were action or strategy titles, but there were a few CRPGs in the mix, such as Sierra's Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance (1996) and Interplay's Descent to Undermountain (1998).
developed by Synergistic Software and is a mix of adventure and
strategy as well as more conventional CRPG elements. It’s based on
TSR's highly successful Birthright game, and features a great
story about a menace named "The Gorgon," who is hellbent on killing and
extracting the divine blood of kings to secure his power. The game
promised plenty of political intrigue and many multifaceted characters,
and players can control not just single heroes but an entire kingdom.
Finally, Birthright had Sierra's powerful name recognition behind it, which included their stunningly successful and highly innovative Quest for Glory series.
Unfortunately, Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance failed for rather banal reasons. Yet again, a promising game was stymied with game-crashing bugs that irritated even the most forgiving players, but the bigger problem is that the game is a "jack of all trades, master of none."
Birthright wasn't content with being a strategy, CRPG, or adventure game--it tried to please fans of each of these genres. The result was a learning curve steeper than Mt. Everest, a fact that eliminated all but the most dedicated gamers right from the start. The so-called "adventure mode" is also rather tacked-on, and isn't well integrated into the gameplay as it should have been.
Although it has its moments, Birthright amounts to little more than a few freckles and a mole.
Interplay's Descent to Undermountain is an even less satisfying game than Birthright. Descent to Undermountain attempted to ride some of the hype surrounding their immensely popular Descent series by modifying its 3-D, first-person shooter engine for use in a CRPG. The plan may have seemed like a good one, but an apparently harried production schedule resulted in one of the worst CRPGs of all time.
The task of transforming Parallax Software's brilliant FPS engine into a CRPG platform proved far more formidable than anyone had assumed. Besides sloppy coding and countless game-stopping bugs, the game suffered in general from a lack of polish. The levels were dreary and looked too much alike, and many players didn't appreciate their confusing, maze-like arrangement.
Poor graphics coupled with worse artificial intelligence added up to what we might expect--the game promptly descended into the landfill. Undoubtedly, TSR was beginning to wonder if it hadn't been better off with SSI!
Fortunately, things would soon take a major turn for the better with the publication of Baldur's Gate, the game that finally returned TSR-licensed CRPGs to the public eye. I'll return to this game momentarily.