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The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 2: The Golden Age (1985-1993)
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The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 2: The Golden Age (1985-1993)

February 23, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 7 of 9 Next

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.

Ultima 6 (DOS). Gargoyles just killed a bunch of people. WWJD?

The moral imperative this time is based on racism and xenophobia--the player must learn about an alien culture and explore issues that of cultural relativism. However, some players felt the story was unfocused, and criticized the gameplay for being too heavily invested in menial side-quests. Though combat is not especially difficult, players can easily find themselves wandering aimlessly, without a clear sense of purpose or direction. Still, the game was a hit and still cherished by many fans, although the next Ultima game--the first in the "Age of Armageddon" games, featured a graphical overhaul and controls and tends to make the accomplishments of The False Prophet pale in comparison. I'll discuss the Armageddon games in our next installment, so stay tuned! Now, let's turn our attention to the Wizardry series.

Golden Age Wizardry: The Dark Savant

If Origin's Ultima series was becoming increasingly moralistic and even dogmatic, Sir-Tech's Wizardry was about to take the opposite approach. Four years had passed since Legacy of Llylgamyn (1983), and when Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna (1987) finally arrived, it no doubt took most fans of the series by surprise--this time, you get to be the evil wizard hellbent on getting his revenge. The plot is perhaps the only of its type in the history of CRPGs. To make a long story short, Werdna (the wizard defeated in the first Wizardry) has awakened, but he's now without his powers and trapped in the bottom of his ten-level dungeon. Furthermore, all of the monsters and traps that existed to keep out wily adventurers now serve the opposite purpose--to keep Werdna imprisoned. Getting Werdna out of the dungeon will take time and patience, but the revenge will no doubt be sweet. Thankfully, Werdna is able to summon monsters to help him out, though you are unable to control them directly.

The Return of Werdna is widely considered to be the most difficult CRPG ever created, and it's definitely a game suited only for veterans of the first three games. The dungeon is resistant to mapping, and there are several brain-stumping puzzles sprinkled throughout. To make matters worse, the ghost of one of your slain enemies, Trebor, haunts the dungeon and will instantly kill you if you encounter him. Finally, every save of the game resets all the monsters on the current level. Suffice it to say, rumors of this game's difficulty have not been exaggerated! There's also a nice bit of history here that's not often discussed in modern reviews of this game—Sir-Tech used some of the characters from disks it had received from gamers, who either wanted them repaired or to show they had indeed solved the game. The company used some of these purloined characters as do-gooder enemies for Werdna.

Besides the unusual plot setup and insane difficulty, The Return of Werdna varied little from the previous three games. The next game, Heart of the Maelstrom (1988), featured a few enhancements, including new character abilities, spells, and bigger mazes. It was designed by David Bradley, who took over from Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenberg. The plot involves descending into the titular maelstrom torn open by an evil woman named Sorn, whose purpose in life has become to put an end to the whole universe. The game was released for the SNES in 1992, where it seems to have fared a bit better than on other platforms.

Wizardry 6 (DOS). Cause if we let these rats destroy us…

The Wizardry series really got a boost in 1990 with the publication of the sixth game, Bane of the Cosmic Forge, which set off a great new trilogy by David Bradley focused on an enigmatic character called the Dark Savant. The aged Wizardry engine finally got an overhaul, with better graphics and a sleek, mouse-driven interface designed for the EGA era. Furthermore, it was some four times larger than any previous Wizardry and was meant to represent somewhat of a break with the previous games. For instance, this is one of the few games in the series that doesn't allow players to import characters from the prequel. It also features an innovative storyline, which concerns a magical pen whose scribbled words become reality—a similar conceit underlies the Myst series. The game emphasizes puzzle solving almost as much as combat, and offers multiple endings. Character creation also became more central to the game, since race and gender had direct effects on gameplay. It also offers on-screen dice rolls, a nice throw-back to traditional D&D.

"Role playing is just as it sounds. You play the role of something or someone other than yourself. Just like professional actors and actresses, you pretend to be a character, acting and reacting to situations as he or she would." –from the Bane of the Cosmic Forge instruction manual.

Bane of the Cosmic Forge also introduced a more nuanced combat and leveling-up system, two components critical to the success of any CRPG engine. One obvious addition is an intuitive skill-based system, divided into three large categories (Weaponry, Physical, Academia) and further subdivided into minutiae like Sword, Oratory, and Mythology. Combat is similarly complex; there are eight different "modes" like thrust, bash, lashing, and punching, each with their own pros and cons. The manual goes on for some 130 pages, and it's well advised for anyone serious about the game to read it cover-to-cover.

The next game, Crusaders of the Dark Savant, released in 1992 for MS-DOS and repacked in 1996 as Wizardry Gold for Windows 95, is another highpoint in the series, and marked the first expansion into 256-color VGA graphics. Perhaps taking a page from the Ultima series, this game contains a blend of fantasy and sci-fi elements. The powerful pen introduced in the last game has been captured by a cyborg named Aletheides. The disappearance of the pen has revealed a secret it was guarding—the lost planet of Guardia. Somewhere on Guardia is the secret to incredible power, and several groups (including the player's party and the "Dark Savant") set out to find it. This aspect of competing with other groups for the same prize was quite novel, and opened up several new gameplay possibilities—should you join one of these groups or slaughter them? Another nice development was "multiple beginnings," a twist on the multiple endings of the prequel. Four different beginnings were available, but which one you experienced depended on how your imported party completed the previous game (or whether you started fresh).

Like its predecessors, Crusaders of the Dark Savant is a difficult, complicated game that it quite intimidating to beginners, even if it does feature auto-mapping and a mouse-driven interface. The combat engine even factors in the characters' mental and physical fatigue, which steadily grows during the many protracted battles. Picking locks is likewise no easy task, but requires quick reflexes (you must hit the button at just the right moment as the tumblers roll). Nevertheless, Crusaders of the Dark Savant was praised by critics and was not really eclipsed until the release of Wizardry 8 in 2001, which I'll discuss in the next installment.

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