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The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 1: The Early Years (1980-1983)
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The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 1: The Early Years (1980-1983)

February 23, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 5 Next

The Bronze Era (1979-1980)

Although thousands of people may have had their first CRPG experience on a mainframe, most of us would kill our first digital dragon on a personal computer. Although exact dates are hard to come by, we can say that as early as 1979, at least two commercially-published CRPGs were available for home computers. One of these was developed by a high schooler named Richard Garriott, who was sufficiently enamored with D&D to call himself "Lord British." Garriot's game, Akalabeth: World of Doom, featured wire-frame graphics in first-person perspective (other parts offer top-down perspective), and was, in many ways, far ahead of its time. Akalabeth was only available for the Apple II, and some controversy exists over whether it was first published in 1979 or a year later. Garriott insists that it was released in 1979, although the first disks and cassettes had copyright 1980 on their label. The other game was Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai, by Automated Simulations, Inc. (later re-named Epyx). Temple of Apshai was the first of a five-game series, though only the three games making up the "Apshai trilogy" are well known today. Temple of Apshai was first available on the TRS-80 platform, then the Commodore PET, but was later ported to the Apple II (1980), Atari home computer (1981), DOS (1982), and finally to the Commodore 64 and Vic 20 in 1983. Let's take a look at Akalabeth first.

By all accounts, Garriott was both a big fan of Tolkien and of Dungeons & Dragons. The name Akalabeth, for instance, is taken from one of Tolkien's more obscure works, The Silmarillion. The game was written in BASIC, a fact that makes the game all the more impressive from a technical perspective (and allowed players to cheat or modify the game as they saw fit). As mentioned above, the game features wire-frame first-person perspective, but switches to a top-down view when the player is on the surface. This innovation would be seen in countless later CRPGs. Akalabeth's story is straightforward enough. Lord British, "Bearer of the White Light," has recently driven the evil wizard named Mondain from the kingdom of Akalabeth, but Mondain's monsters still dwell in dungeons below the surface. The player's task is to descend into these dungeons, slaughtering foes and venturing to the surface to purchase equipment and procure new quests from British. British will raise the character's attributes upon completing quest--as well as give him (or her?) opportunities to advance in rank, such as from peasant to knight. These quests involve finding and killing increasingly difficult critters.

When players begin Akalabeth, they are presented with a few text screens with information about the game. The first establishes the back story. Subsequent screens tell players what "strength" and "dexterity" are good for, a list of keyboard commands, and so on. Finally, players are given the choice between playing a fighter or a magi. As might be expected, the fighter can't use "the magic amulet," whereas the magi can't fight with rapiers or bows (though axes are allowed). The magic amulet was an unpredictable item--sometimes it even turned the player into a powerful Lizard Man. Finally, although the players can select a difficulty level from 1 to 10, the game is still challenging since the character gobbles up food with every step. If the food supply runs out, it's game over--a situation that can easily put even the most powerful players into an unwinnable situation. To make matters even worse, thieves roaming about the dungeons are more than adept at swiping your character's gear--carrying a few extra of each item is probably a wise precaution.

I can't spell, have no grammar techniques, and have read less than twenty-five books in my life. -- Richard Garriot (Lord British), as quoted in Hackers by Steven Levy

Akalabeth (1980): Kill this thief quickly, or he'll swipe your gear!
Akalabeth (1980): Kill this thief quickly,
or he'll swipe your gear!

Unlike Akalabeth, which is easily found online and also available in some Ultima compilations, Dunjonquest: Temple of Apshai is a very difficult game to come by. Epyx re-released three games in this series as the Apshai Trilogy in 1983, which featured updated graphics. Try as I might, the only version of the original game I could find in working condition was the Coleco Adam version! Unfortunately, that version is comparatively crude to the versions offered on other platforms and probably not very representative. The Trilogy is very easy to find on a variety of platforms, however. I played the Apple II version, which I hope is at least similar to the original.

Anyway, I was able to find a scan of the original manual, which is a true treasure for any historian interested in the early history of CRPGs. Back in 1979, game developers couldn't expect players to already be familiar with most of the conventions of the genre (they didn't even exist, yet!). What's interesting about the Apshai manual is the great lengths it goes to try to convince players they should give RPGs a chance. I'll quote an excerpt here from the manual's introduction:

Did you grow up in the company of the Brothers Grimm, Snow White, the Red Fairy Book, Flash Gordon serials, The Three Musketeers, the knights of the Round Table, or any of the three versions of the The Thief of Bagdad? Have you read the Lord of the Rings, the Worm Ouroboros, The Incomplete Enchanter, or Conan the Conqueror? Have you ever wished you could cross swords--just for fun--with Cyrano or D'Artagnan, or stand by their sides in the chill light of dawn, awaiting the arrival of the Cardinal's Guard? Ever wondered how you'd have done against the Gorgon, the hydra, the bane of Heorot Hall, or the bull that walks like a man? (...) If any or all of your answers are "yes," you're a player of role-playing games--or you ought to be.

The manual goes on at some length in this vein. "RPGs allow you a chance to step outside a world grown too prosaic for magic and monsters," it claims. Although players may be total losers in the "real world," the RPG offers them a chance to test their true mettle. Furthermore, RPGs "can and often do become, for both you and your character, a way of life."

What's even more interesting is how the manual introduces CRPGs as a more convenient way to role-play. "Ordinary role-playing games require a group of reasonably experienced players, an imaginative dunjonmaster willing to put in the tremendous amount of time necessary to construct a functioning fantasy world, and large chunks of playing time." Indeed, "twenty-hour marathons are not unheard of." What the CRPG offers is a pre-constructed world and automatic handling of all those complicated math problems. "While there are greater practical limits to your actions that is usually the case in a non-computer RPG, there are still a large number of options to choose from." Indeed, many of the more intriguing features of the game seem to be attempts to bridge the gap between RPGs and CRPGs. For instance, instead of merely buying items for a set price, players must haggle with the storekeeper. Furthermore, much of the in-game text is "in character," with "Medieval" tendencies like using "ye" for "you" and "thy" for "your." The manual also includes textual descriptions of each room of the dungeon--probably a concession to the limited memory of early home computers. Interestingly, though, this same "feature" would show up in some later games, particularly Pool of Radiance. My guess is that by then, placing important information in a game manual was a subtle form of copy protection.

Temple of Apshai: Players could get textual descriptions by looking up the 'Room No.' in the manual.
Temple of Apshai: Players could get textual
descriptions by looking up the "Room No."
in the manual.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the Apshai series is its combat system. The manual claims that the developers were inspired by "historical research, a knowledge of various martial arts, and practical experience in the Society for Creative Anachronisms." At any rate, a "fatigue" system that limits how often you can attack and how far you can run (your character's wounds and the weight of his equipment also influences the fatigue rate). The character can also "hearken," or listen for the presence of a monster in an adjoining room, and even try to talk monsters out of combat. If your character dies, he will suffer one of four fates--either consumption by a roaming monster, or rescue by a dwarf, mage, or cleric. If it's the dwarf or mage, your character will lose equipment. Temple of Apshai was quickly followed up by Datestones of Ryn, Morloc's Tower, and Curse or Ra. The other Apshai games included Upper Reaches of Apshai and Gateway to Apshai. Epyx released the Trilogy compilation for a variety of platforms in 1983, but perhaps the best of these was the Commodore Amiga version released in 1986. Anyone seriously desiring to play the series today will prefer the Amiga version's enhanced graphics and control scheme.

I jumped every time one of those swamp rats appeared. My sword arm got sore from gripping the hilt of the joystick, and there are wrinkles in my permanent-press armor from hours in front of the monitor. -- Steve Hudson on Gateway to Apshai, from COMPUTE! ISSUE 60 / MAY 1985 / PAGE 56

Although neither Temple of Apshai nor Akalabeth are particularly playable today, their historical value cannot be overestimated. Both games were successful in their own right, and helped launch vitally important series (particularly Akalabeth, which led to the Ultima series). However, the genre was still crude and left much to be desired in terms of interface and design. There was tremendous room for extensive development. Although the "Golden Age" of CRPGs wouldn't happen until the mid to late 80s, the "Silver Age"--which we'll discuss next--introduced some games that are still playable and rewarding today.

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