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As we've seen, SSI had developed and published several significant CRPGs before it won the exclusive license from TSR to market official AD&D computer games. Questron, Phantasie, Wizard's Crown, and even Shard of Spring all have elements that show up in one form or another in SSI's later productions. The Gold Box combat system, for instance, is essentially a streamlined version of the one found in Wizard's Crown. However, we're getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Let's back up to the year 1988, when the Gold Box series first debuted.
The first Gold Box game is Pool of Radiance, a game which
marked an important turning point in CRPG history. The game shipped in
a distinctive gold-colored box (hence the nickname for the series),
which sported artwork by celebrated fantasy illustrator Clyde Caldwell (Caldwell also designed the covers for Curse of the Azure Bonds and
several other TSR-licensed games and books). It was initially available
only on the Atari ST and Commodore 64 platforms, though soon ports were
available for most major platforms, including the NES. Pool of Radiance was an instant best-seller, and not just because it was the first officially licensed AD&D computer
game. Awash with strong competition, SSI took the sensible
approach--take the very best elements of its own and rival CRPGs and
pool them together. Indeed, the Gold Box engine is essentially a medley
of Bard's Tale and Wizard's Crown, which can trace their own ancestry back to Ultima, Wizardry, and Tunnels of Doom. Nevertheless, Pool of Radiance is
much greater than the sum of its parts, and more than deserves its
reputation among serious CRPG critics as one of the best (if not the
very best) CRPG ever designed. Though later Gold Box games would refine
the engine and address some annoying flaws in the interface, all of the
qualities that made the Gold Box games so legendary are present in Pool of Radiance.
Before I go on, let me put my cards (or, should I say, dice?) on the table here. Every critic has those few games that it's just impossible to be truly objective about. We all have that "first love," that first game that taught us that playing computer games was something we'd be doing for the rest of our lives. For me, that game is most certainly Pool of Radiance. Although I had played earlier CRPGs like The Bard's Tale and Ultima, there was just something about Pool of Radiance that made these other games look hopelessly mundane. I loved the game so much that I bought every other Gold Box game and even the pulpy novels that were based on them. I would've bought the breakfast cereal and the underwear if they'd made them. In short, Pool of Radiance awakened me to a whole new world--the world of D&D, fantasy, Tolkien, Dragonlance, and, most importantly, CRPGs. How can I be objective about a game that shaped me into the man I am today? I adore Pool of Radiance, and so should you! After all, you wouldn't be reading this article if I had never played it.
However, I'll dry my eyes now, take a deep breath, and try to break this game down into its constituent parts. As I see it, the game's key strengths lie in its game world, story, combat system, and overall game structure. Since the game world and story are so closely related, let's discuss those first. In a nutshell, the characters' task is to help rebuild Phlan, a once-proud city that has long lain in ruins. The characters arrive at New Phlan, the part of the city that has already been cleared, and begin accepting commissions from the City Council to perform various quests, such as clearing the slums of monsters and recovering legendary artifacts. The quests vary widely and all make sense in the context of the story. Eventually, the player learns that an evil dragon named Tyranthraxus is at the root of Phlan's problems, but defeating him is going to take much more than a longsword +1.
Like The Bard's Tale, Pool of Radiance features a coherent game world that feels like a real place. No doubt much of this realism is caused by the 3-D, first-person perspective players see in "exploration" mode. The interface has a rectangle on the top left that shows where the characters are currently facing, and the rest of the screen is neatly divided to display pertinent information. However, no interface can make a dull and repetitive game fun to explore. SSI was luckily able to draw upon the rich body of literature TSR had created for its Forgotten Realms universe of tabletop AD&D games. The Forgotten Realms world was nearly as well-developed as J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, and possibilities for new stories were virtually unlimited--indeed, novels set in this fictional universe are still being published, most notably those by R.A. Salvatore. The Forgotten Realms are an ideal environment for CRPGs, and added great depth to Pool of Radiance and its sequels.
When the characters must engage in combat, the screen changes to a top-down mode very similar to the one found in The Wizard's Crown. Each round, or "turn," the player decides what action his characters will undertake, though these actions are taken immediately rather than after all the commands have been issued (as in Phantasie or Wizardry). There are plenty of options available to each character depending on his or her class. For instance, fighters can wield melee or ranged weapons, and magic-users function like artillery or sharpshooters, depending on the spell (fireball vs. magic missile, for instance). Thieves also have the option to "back-stab" an opponent, a devastating move that requires very strategic positioning. Furthermore, retreating characters (or enemies) are penalized by giving all surrounding enemies a free swipe at their backside. An intense battle can easily last 45 minutes to an hour, and even simple battles can quickly turn disastrous if the player rushes through them (or, worse, puts his characters in computer controlled "quick" mode). If a character's hit-points fall below 0, he or she is wounded and must be bandaged by another character to avoid death.
Much of what makes Pool of Radiance different is its adherence to official AD&D rules. For instance, instead of "magic points," magic-users are given a set number of spells to memorize. How many spells they get per slot depends on their level of experience and intelligence (or wisdom in the case of clerics). Although mages receive one new spell per level, they will learn most of them by scribing them from scrolls found in the unsettled areas. Once a spell is cast, it erases itself from the magic-user's memory and must be re-learned. Memorizing spells (and restoring hit points) takes several hours of inactivity, which means setting up camp. Although there are many safe spots where the characters can rest unmolested, many of the more dangerous areas all but prevent it. Thus, a player can't just focus on one battle at the time; she must always plan ahead. For instance, "wasting" all of a mage's fireball spells on a group of wimpy kobolds might leave the party totally vulnerable to a troll attack. Finally, some creatures are more vulnerable (or invulnerable) to certain kinds of attack--i.e., the undead can be "turned" by clerics or dealt extra damage by silver weapons.
"Some will undoubtedly see the strict enforcement of these rules as a nuisance, but it seems to us like a logical extension of the kind of resource management which is necessary to any sophisticated strategy game." –Johnny L. Wilson in Computer Gaming World, July 1988.
The city of Phlan has many intriguing areas to explore, such as a bizarre pyramid and a haunted library. But eventually players will get to go across country in "wilderness" mode, which anyone familiar with older SSI games like Questron and Phantasie or Ultima will instantly recognize. Later SSI games experimented with different "wilderness" modes, such as showing the player a large map and having him click on different regions. In any case, the wilderness mode makes Pool of Radiance seem even larger, and gives gamers something to do after they've completed the game (e.g., slaughtering groups of wandering monsters).
SSI eventually released three sequels: Curse of the Azure Bonds (1989), Secret of the Silver Blades (1990), and Pools of Darkness (1991). It also spun-off a series based on TSR's Dragonlance universe. These include Champions of Krynn (1990), Death Knights of Krynn (1991), and Dark Queen of Krynn (1992). While these games give players a chance to meet beloved Dragonlance characters like Tanis Half-Even and Raistlin Majere, the trade-off is more rigidly linear gameplay. There were also two more Forgotten Realms games that took place in another part of the realm: Gateway to the Savage Frontier (1991) and Treasures of the Savage Frontier (1992). Finally, as if SSI wasn't already milking its Gold Box engine enough, it released two games set in TSR's Buck Rogers universe: Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday (1990) and Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed (1992).
SSI finally retired the Gold Box engine in 1992, though it would continue to release various compilations for years afterwards. Even if SSI was finished with the engine, players could still create their own "Gold Box" games using MicroMagic's Unlimited Adventures, published by SSI in 1993. The Gold Box games defined the Golden Age, and set the bar against which all later games would be judged. However, SSI knew it was time to move on. Its next big series debuted with Eye of the Beholder (1991). However, since that game has much in common with an earlier game called Dungeon Master, it's only fair to pause our coverage of SSI here and talk about other CRPGs of the Golden Age.