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If you were a CRPG fan living in 1985, you were one of the luckiest gamers in history. Never before had such a torrent of high-quality commercial titles appeared simultaneously on the shelf. Perhaps the most significant of these was the launch of Interplay's Tales of the Unknown Vol. 1: The Bard's Tale, which introduced the famous Bard's Tale trilogy. Although there were certainly excellent CRPGs before it, The Bard's Tale was intuitive and addictive enough to attract a mainstream audience, no doubt due in part to the marketing might of its publisher, Electronic Arts. 1985 also saw the launch of SSI's Phantasie series, as well as their game Wizard's Crown. Although SSI wouldn't reach its zenith until it acquired the priceless TSR license and began marketing official AD&D games, their early games are far from shabby.
"There was a time when any computer fantasy game became an immediate bestseller due to the genre's popularity and the scarcity of such products. That is no longer the case—computer fantasy games now compete in a buyer's market where they must meet certain standards if they hope to sell." –James V. Trunzo, Compute!, August 1987
Other significant games of 1985 include Origin's Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar, as well as Autoduel and Moebius: The Orb of Celestial Harmony. Like Autoduel, DataSoft's Alternate Reality: The City offered gamers an alternative to the traditional swords and sorcery theme of so many CRPGs. In short, 1985 and 1986 were some of the most formative years for the CRPG, and there are many important developments to cover. Let's get started then with The Bard's Tale trilogy.
Although the Ultima and Wizardry series did more to establish the CRPG's basic conventions, it was Interplay that really refined and demonstrated that the genre wasn't just for "hardcore" gamers. Tales of the Unknown Vol. 1: The Bard's Tale, released in 1985 for the Commodore 64 and Apple II (ports for other platforms would follow until 1990), is probably the first CRPG that many readers will recognize from their youth. Indeed, The Bard's Tale's undeniable mainstream appeal was probably not matched by another company until Blizzard's Diablo in 1997. The game was so successful, in fact, that Baen Books launched a series of eight novels based on the games, some penned by such well-known fantasy authors as Mercedes Lackey! Although the final Bard's Tale game was released in 1991, in 2004 Brian Fargo and InXile Entertainment revived the franchise with a "spiritual sequel" for the PS2, Xbox, and Windows. But what was it about this series that made it so enduring?
"When the going gets tough, the bard goes drinking." –from The Bard's Tale instruction manual.
After all, like Wizardry, the first Bard's Tale is a challenging game even for expert D&D players.
The difficulty is particularly felt during the crucial initial stage of
the game, when the player's characters (up to six) are weak, poorly
equipped, and inexperienced. I can't remember how many times I created
an entire party of adventurers, only to have them all perish in a
random encounter before I could make it to Garth's weapons shop! The
game is also rather lacking in terms of narrative or story
elements--it's a "dungeon crawler" with an emphasis on fighting random
encounters with monsters, building up character stats and inventories,
and mapping out dungeons. In many ways, the game is merely an updated Wizardry with better graphics and sound (indeed, some versions of the game even let players import their Wizardry or Ultima characters!).
The story--find and depose an evil wizard named Mangar the Dark, who is
threatening the town of Skara Brae--is hardly novel. Perhaps the only
true innovation is the addition of the bard character, a sort of
jack-of-all-trades character who could perform party-boosting songs
during combat and dungeon exploration. The classes available to magic
users were also sophisticated; players started off as simple conjurers
or magicians, but could eventually upgrade to sorcerers and wizards.
Truly ambitious players could even combine all these to create fearsome
Nevertheless, anyone who has played the game for any length of time discovers that it is much greater than the sum of its parts. There's just an indefinable quality that seems to hold the game together. No doubt, much of the game's playability is owed to the clean interface and striking color graphics (many of which are animated). Even novice players can learn the game's rules in a few sessions, and if the characters can survive to reach a few levels, the difficulty eases up considerably--and it's quite rewarding to go about whomping monsters who made a meal out of your former parties. Furthermore, the ability to travel outdoors as well as indoors lends a certain coherence to the game world. Unlike other CRPGs in which cities and towns were little more than places to buy equipment, Skara Brae felt like a real place. Again, this coherence is almost surely an effect of the game's rich graphics. Even if the graphics look primitive today, in 1985 they were stunning. Each building in Skara Brae looked like it belonged there.
Interplay followed up its success with two sequels, The Destiny Knight (1986) and The Thief of Fate (1991). The Destiny Knight was essentially a rehash of the first game, using the same engine but expanding the game world to include five other cities (the first game had occurred entirely in Skara Brae) and a wilderness area. It also added banks and casinos to the services available in the towns, special spells for archmages, timed puzzles, and ranged combat. Though players can import their characters from the first game, the difficulty level is better balanced for new parties (i.e., you have a much better chance of making it to Garth's store to buy equipment before dying).
Although the characters dispatched the evil Mangar the Dark in the first game, another evil mage named Lagoth Zanta decides to shatter the "Destiny Wand" into seven pieces, scattering them across the land. Since the wand has protected the world for some 700 years, things don't bode well unless your characters can restore the wand and use it to slay Lagoth Zanta (one wonders what the wand was doing during the first game, but so it goes). Solving the game will require gaining insights from a Sage, a process that utilizes a rather infantile and frustrating text parser.
The Thief of Fate is probably the overall best designed game of the series, since it incorporates helpful new features like auto-mapping and the ability to use items to solve puzzles, thus opening up many interesting opportunities for thoughtful gameplay. The third game is also the most ambitious in terms of the game world; now the players must explore whole different "universes," including a trip to Nazi Berlin!
Electronic Arts also published Interplay's The Bard's Tale Construction Set for
Commodore's Amiga and the MS-DOS platforms. This construction set
included an updated version of the first game in the series
(rechristened the Star Light Festival). However, more importantly, the set allowed CRPG fans to construct their own new games based on the enhanced Thief of Fate engine. The construction kit was popular on many platforms, but the most useful version available for MS-DOS, which
had support for hard drives, VGA, mouse, and the usual slew of sound
cards. Strangely, while music was played through the sound card, all
sound effects were delegated to the PC's totally inadequate internal
speaker. The two most well-known games created with the set include The Bard's Lore: The Warrior and the Dragon created by John H. Wigforss, and Nutilan by
Dennis Payne. Both of these games were for the PC version. Of course,
there were undoubtedly many thousands of other "homebrew" titles
created by other fans, but the Internet as we know it had not yet
arrived on the scene. Since these hobbyist developers had no way to
cheaply distribute their games, most are lost to history. Thankfully,
at least one ambitious developer is still releasing games built with
the system--see Warrior's Tale, released in 2006.
While Electronic Arts' initial foray into CRPGs played a pivotal role in the development of the genre, The Bard's Tale was not alone. Another company that was beginning to flex its muscles was SSI, an old publisher of war games who had now set their sights on the budding CRPG market.