There are three major Wizardry-style first-person dungeon exploration games: Wizardry itself, The Bard's Tale and classic Might & Magic. This is the middle game of the middle series, a high point of the lot of them.
Developed by Interplay.
Designed by Michael Cranford.
Length: Very Long.
The secret spell ZZGO, a.k.a. “The Dreamspell” is not technically a cheat because it’s code is available in the game, but it’s not in the manual. It’s a multifunction spell that does incredible damage in combat and heals the party completely, and when used outside of combat allows the group to teleport to any dungeon.
Each of the seven main dungeons ends with a special area called a Death Snare. These are special puzzle areas set to a clock... a real-time one. Most of them would be fairly challenging on their own, but having to solve them to a real-world time requirement pushes them into frustrating, especially since teleportation doesn't usually work there. If the time runs out (and no clock actually appears on-screen) all your party members die, which is itself is quite a penalty to overcome. Further, the last of these snares requires the player to answer obscure riddles (I never did figure them out actually) and use cryptic directions printed on the last page of the manual to pass it.
The Bard's Tale series (the real ones, not InXile Entertainment's attempted revision) are old-school dungeon exploration games in the tradition of Wizardry. You can usually tell these games because they have a kind of square-based 3D display, one that doesn't glide smoothly like Wolf 3D or Doom but goes in discrete steps. They are filled with something that one might call mapping puzzles. These days a game without an automap is looked on as a kind of throwback, but it can be quite difficult to make a good map by hand, especially when the game is teleporting you between similar-looking areas and spinning you at inopportune times. By providing the player with an infallible mapping facility, a lot of opportunity for challenge is, essentially, streamlined right out of the game.
On the other hand, these games also tend to go to entirely separate modes when combat begins. The combat and exploration games are very cleanly separated, and although, for example, Bard's Tale II keeps track of the distance from the party to each group of enemies, up to 100 feet each in groups of 10, the structure of that encounter has very little to do with the arrangement of the dungeon around the player's group.
The Bard's Tale games are all rather long, once you factor in the time required to collect items, map out towns and huge dungeons, figure out puzzles, and defeat thousands of monsters in each game, and to be honest actually trying to simulate the experience of being a bunch of people exploring a dungeon probably isn't as interesting to random players as just going out and slicing up monsters.
How hard is it?
There are difficult traditional RPGs. Some of the dungeons in this game push the limits of credulity. If you haven't mapped a magically dark chamber full of spinners and teleports in the middle of an anti-magic area then you don't know how hard a roleplaying game can really be.
The game introduces each of the troubles in that last sentence individually, then compounds them one at a time. And note that even in antimagic zones in Bard's Tale games, one spell still works: SCSI, a.k.a. "Scry Sight," which tells the player his precise location on the level. Without that one spell even a simple spinner (which provide only a brief screen flicker to let the player know they've worked) would be a cruel obstacle. The lesson, thus, is that whatever you do to mess with the player's mind with mapping puzzles, they are surmountable so long as he's able to easily get an accurate reading of his location. Think hard about whether to provide or deny this resource!
GameFAQ's page on the PC version of the game.
The Bard's Tale Compendium is an excellent resource on the series. (Warning: music)
The archetype side-view puzzle platform game.
Developed and designed by Doug Smith.
Length: Very Long
Cool fact: The original game had 150 levels, many originally designed by friends of Doug Smith. While the game has seen many Japanese-developed sequels since then, levels from the original, plus the sequel Championship Lode Runner, keep turning up.
Watch for: There's a particularly fiendish kind of trick that appears once in a while that involves, from a ladder, digging the top space of a pillar, then waiting to dig out the space beneath it until the top space is just about to fill back in. The result is you're able to dip in to collect gold, then run out and use the top block to walk on. Sometimes this trick is compounded upon itself several times, creating an immensely tricky puzzle.
The Ultima and Wizardry games had sizable spin-off series in Japan that are mostly unknown to U.S. audiences (and generally for good reason), but Lode Runner far exceeds those. There have been far more Japanese Lode Runner games than American ones.
It's kind of amazing that the series hasn't changed all that much in that time. A couple of recent versions add in some extra kinds of blocks, but the vast majority of the series get surprising mileage out of eight types of blocks: empty, gold, diggable floor, undiggable floor, ladder, handbar, trap door, and escape ladder.
From those pieces came all 150 levels in the original game and the 50 levels of Championship Lode Runner, the levels of the NES and PC Engine versions, and four arcade games. Every implication of the blocks' rules, and the behavior of the rather dim-witted enemies who by the end are more tools to be taken advantage of than opponents, is mined for all its nuances by the end.
A few examples:
- Enemies fall into dug floors and are stuck, but if they walk into the pit from the side, they can move normally.
- Enemies walking across spaces containing gold can pick it up, and afterward drop it randomly. Sometimes this gets gold out of an impossible area.
- Enemies falling into pits drop the gold they're carrying...
...unless the space the gold would appear on is a dug floor or contains some other object. In that case, the gold vanishes from the level, meaning (usually) it doesn't have to be collected to finish. Some levels rely on this fact.
- Escape ladders act like space in all ways until the last gold is collected, at which time it appears and allows the player to exit the stage at the top. Sometimes this means the last gold must be collected in an area that is impossible to escape from, for an escape ladder will appear and let him out.
- Enemies' heads can be stood upon. If the enemy is moving, the player can walk across on his head. If the enemy is falling, the player's fall rate is faster so he can land on them on the way down. This can enable him to step to the side in the middle of a fall, something he cannot ordinarily do.
By the way, Lode Runner cannot technically be called a platformer. Platformers are generally understood to be jumping games, and that is something our hero cannot do.
How hard is it?
The original game had 150 levels and its sequel, Championship Lode Runner, had 50 more. A GameFAQs resource reveals the Japanese sequels gleefully crib from them every time a new version is released. Many of those offer a level of strategy modern gamers can't cope with. Yet they're all fair, and by the time one has struggled his way through that brick-strewn hell one will have graduated to a higher plane of gaming. After that the likes of Tetris will never again be a satisfying meal; bring on the meat.
From one perspective the 150 levels are actually beside the point, for Lode Runner was also one of the first construction set games. The game's simple rules don't seem like much at first, but just a few levels in and their great depth becomes apparent. From one perspective, the levels of the main game are just there for inspiration, to show off how deep the game can be. See what we've provided for you, they seem to say. See what you can do! Now go forth, and improve upon what we've done.
GameFAQs has pages on many of the games, although almost all the FAQs there are written by the prolific ASchultz. Here's the pages on the Apple II version, the Apple II version of Championship Lode Runner, the NES version, and the first arcade version.
KLOV's page on the first arcade version of Lode Runner. They have pages for the other games as well.
ASchultz also has a Geocities site devoted to the game.