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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 4 of 5 Next

The Silver Age (1981-1983)

In 1981, the CRPG wasn't nearly as recognizable as a genre as it is today. Only a precious few commercial games took on the title, and these were cumbersome and hard to play compared to arcade and adventure games. What the genre really needed was a definitive game (or preferably a series) that would help garner momentum for the genre. This boost would happen in 1980 with the release of Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness, developed by Richard Garriott and published by California Pacific Computer Co. Ultima, of course, would quickly become the premier CRPG series which enjoyed some two decades of installments. Another series that spawned an important franchise was Sir-Tech's Wizardry, which began in 1981 with Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. Wizardry would also enjoy a very long career--the eighth installment arrived in 2001. Together, these two series helped define the genre. However, Ultima and Wizardry weren't the only CRPGs on the shelf. Daniel Lawrence released his Telengard in 1982, a game based on the old mainframe dnd game described above. Two other important games released in 1982 are Tunnels of Doom for the TI-99/4A, and Dungeons of Daggorath for the Tandy CoCo. Rounding out this era are The Sword of Fargoal, released in 1983 by Epyx, and Ultima III, a game that many CRPG enthusiasts cite as the first modern CRPG. Let's start, then, with the Ultima series.

The Ultima Series

Ultima I: The First Age of Darkness marks a number of important firsts for the genre. Perhaps the most important is the game's use of tiled graphics. Tiled graphics required much less storage space and allowed for large, colorful environments. Like Akalabeth, the game was originally available only for the Apple II platform, though Sierra On-Line released an Atari 8-bit port in 1982, with more ports to follow in 1986. At the time, the game was hailed for its immense size and "evolutionary" aspect--players started off in the Middle Ages, but later traveled through time. What other game started with daggers and leather and ended up with blasters and spaceships? It was truly an ambitious game. The game also abandoned the "parser" control scheme of Akalabeth and was played by simple keystrokes like Apshai. The game even features some arcade space combat action!

The storyline is related very much to Akalabeth's, and features many of the same characters. The player's mission is to seek out and destroy the evil wizard Mondain's "gem of power," which he's used to enslave the lands of Sosaria. However, Ultima is a much more sophisticated game than its predecessor, and players soon learned the values of creative gameplay. For instance, players could steal powerful items from the shops that would make them nearly invulnerable--at least at the early stages of the game. Of course, successful thieving might require a few reloads, but for frustrated players, it was a price worth paying.

Ultima I (C-64): Tile-based graphics for CRPGs would become a distinguishing feature of console RPGs.
Ultima I (C-64): Tile-based graphics for CRPGs would
become a distinguishing feature of console RPGs.

Ultima II: The Revenge of the Enchantress, released in 1982,is an even more ambitious game than its prequel. Like the first game, this one involves both fantasy and sci-fi elements, particular space and time travel. The basic plot here is that Mondain's apprentice, Minax, has come of age and is now threatening the space-time continuum itself. The fact that the player has to travel to so many different places and times brings to mind Sierra On-Line's colossal Time Zone, released the same year. Unfortunately, Ultima II was riddled with bugs, and some critics think that Garriott's deteriorating relationship with Sierra led to a less-than-polished product. Apparently, Garriott didn't feel that Sierra was playing fair with royalties from the IBM PC version of the game.

The final Ultima game of the Silver Age was Ultima III: Exodus, released in 1983. The game is aptly named because, by this time, Garriott had left Sierra and formed his own company, Origin Systems. It's often hailed as one of the most influential games ever made, both on American and Japanese CRPG development (a fact that's almost painfully clear in console games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy). The story this time is that Mondain and Minax's evil progeny, Exodus (after all, anybody who names their kid "Exodus" should know from whence it came). The game differs from the earlier Ultima games in a number of ways. For one thing, the player controls a party of adventurers rather than just a single avatar. The combat system is also enhanced and gets its own special gameplay screen, so that players must battle multiple creatures and develop much more complicated tactics. The player also spent time talking to townspeople to gather clues and information. Furthermore, this game features coherent dungeons that don't change across sessions, so that players are encouraged to make their own maps on graph paper. Finally, the characters' actions are much more unified towards a single goal than in the other games, where many dungeons were simply "irrelevant." The game was a tremendous success for Garriott and Origin, and versions were available for most major computing platforms and even the NES.


Although Ultima was quickly laying the foundations of the genre, it wasn't the only kid on the block. A company named Sir-Tech began publishing a prominent rival series in regular installments starting in 1981. While it had much in common with Akalabeth, it differed in some key respects. First off, it was a party-based rather than a single-character dungeon-crawler. Like Rogue, the mission here was to descend into a dungeon and find an magical amulet, smashing whatever got in the way. However, this game had better graphics and a very intuitive layout. While most of the screen was taken up by relevant statistics and other information, the top left corner offered a first-person, 3-D perspective of the dungeon (or a picture of the enemy during combat). The dungeons were always the same from game to game, so again players were rewarded by making their own maps (or purchasing them).

Wizardy (NES): The NES version has the best graphics and is probably the most reliable version.
Wizardy (NES): The NES version has the
best graphics and is probably the most
reliable version.

The second installment, The Knight of Diamonds, was published in 1982, and required that players complete the former game to play--a "feature" that was quickly corrected in later versions. In modern parlance, the game was an "expansion pack" for the first game. Furthermore, players had to visit every part of the game, collecting six pieces of magical armor needed to fight off a city's besiegers, to complete the game. The third game, Legacy of Llylgamyn, released in 1983, is yet another "dungeon crawler," but this time players begin at the bottom of a volcano and work their way up. The goal is to find a dragon named L'Kbreth, who can save the city of Llyamyn from earthquakes and the volcano's eruption. Again characters had to be imported from previous games, but were stripped of their experience. Furthermore, players had to choose moral alignments for their characters, a fact that determined which parts of the world could be visited.

All in all, the first three Wizardry games are much more consistent across titles than the Ultima series. Unlike Garriott, who seemed determined to revolutionize the series with each installment, Sir-Tech seemed to follow the old "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" adage. Regardless, the Wizardry games are still fairly playable today, though perhaps more for historical or nostalgic value than pure enjoyment.

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