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Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI) is best known for its fabulous "Gold
Box" games, a series of CRPGs that bore the official seal of TSR,
holder of the sacred Dungeons & Dragon copyrights and
trademarks. This invaluable license was sought after by nearly every
other CRPG developer, but SSI emerged victorious. No doubt TSR's
decision was swayed by SSI's legacy as a developer and publisher of
computer-based "war games" (as you remember, D&D emerged from tabletop war games). SSI's first game was Computer Bismarck, published in 1979 for the Apple II. SSI
quickly became the market leader in this niche, even with the premier
wargames publisher Avalon Hill competing against them. SSI's most
famous non-CRPG game is probably Cytron Masters (1982), one of the first (if not the first) real-time strategy games. It was designed by Dani Bunten, creator of M.U.L.E.
SSI's first CRPGs were published in 1984: 50 Mission Crush and Questron. 50 Mission Crush is more like a traditional war game than most CRPGs, and is probably better described as a turn-based strategy game. The game consists of fifty B17 bomber missions flown in World War II, and the player assigns each position in the plane to his characters (i.e., tail-gunner, bomber). These characters receive experience points each time they survive a mission, eventually gaining competence and winning promotions. The magazine Computer Gaming World published an intriguing review of the game written by an actual B-24 bombardier named Leroy W. Newby, who found it realistic enough to evoke dozens of wartime memories, which he duly juxtaposes alongside his gameplay narrative (see issue #35).
While 50 Mission Crush is a highly innovative and even unique game, Questron is an unimaginative Ultima clone. Indeed, SSI even secured a license from Richard Garriott for the game's "structure and style." At the time, Questron was noted for being much easier and simpler to play than Ultima, and one contemporary reviewer even remarked that it was a "perfect warm-up" for Ultima III (Michael Ciraolo in Antic Vol. 3, No. 7). Nevertheless, Questron had
some promising features. For instance, towns and cities contained
"mini-games" that let skilled players boost their character's stats.
There were also casinos where players could gamble for gold. Finally, Questron was
one of the first games with monsters that could only be defeated with
certain types of weapons. Perhaps the most unusual and disturbing
"feature" is the option to "kill self," featured prominently in the
main menu. SSI would publish a popular sequel to Questron in
1988, which was developed by Westwood Associates. The game followed the
same basic formula as the first, but was set in the past. The mission
this time was to depose six insane sorcerers and prevent the creation
of the "Book of Magic." An auto-mapper was added and the dungeons were
rendered in 3D, but it's essentially the same game in a new costume.
Let's talk next about the Phantasie and Wizard's Crown games, which are more direct precursors to the famous Gold Box games.
In 1985, SSI published the first of what would become a trilogy of Phantasie games. These games allow players to create and control a party of up to six adventurers, with several classes and races to choose from (including unlikable critters like goblins and minotaurs!). Another nice feature is separate screens and menus for purchasing equipment, exploring dungeons, roaming the world map, and vanquishing foes. There's even a bank where characters can store their money--a nice trade-off for the limited coin-carrying capacity of the characters (try saying that three times fast). Furthermore, the game tracks where your characters have been, eliminating the need for graph paper. There were also new problems--the characters aged, and could even die from old age if the player took too long to complete the adventure.
Combat in Phantasie is handled in much the same way as console CRPGs like Final Fantasy. The player first chooses from a menu what each character will do, then enters the next round of combat. A simple animation shows which character (or enemy) is attacking and how much damage was dealt (or received). If the players win, they do a comical dance which again reminds one of so many console CRPGs. Although the combat system is simplistic compared to Wizard's Crown, which we'll discuss in a moment, it nevertheless offers players fine control over how characters attack. For instance, fighters can choose to attack, thrust, slash, and lunge. These options control how many swings the character takes at an enemy, with varying degrees of damage and likeliness of a hit. "Lunge" attempts to hit a monster standing behind the first row of enemies.
The story behind the first Phantasie is simple enough--kill the "Black Knights" and their master, the evil sorcerer Nikademus, who supplied the knights with powerful but soul-sucking magic rings (ring a bell?). However, to accomplish this, the characters must round up twenty scrolls, each of which contains vital clues to help the characters accomplish their goal. The story is more deeply interwoven into the game than in most CRPGs, and the player's choices make a real difference in how the game unfolds. The many riffs on Tolkien and occasional humor help distinguish Phantasie from the typical dungeon-crawler.
"Phantasie, from Strategic Simulations, may be the best fantasy role-playing game to come down the silicon pike since Sir-Tech conjured up Wizardry. As a matter of fact—at the risk of sounding blasphemous—in some ways Phantasie surpasses Wizardry."—James V. Trunzo in Compute!, December 1985.
SSI followed up the first game with Phantasie II in 1986. The plot this time was even less imaginative than the first--Nikademus is back, and this time he's used a magical orb to enslave an island and its population. Naturally, the party must find and destroy the orb. Other than a revamped story, there is little difference between this game and its prequel, save the ability of characters to hurl rocks at an enemies during combat. Players of the first game could also import their old characters. The final Phantasie [sic] was released in 1987 for the Apple II, and given the subtitle The Wrath of Nikademus (Westwood Associates ported it to other platforms). Nikademus has returned, and after two defeats his ambition has only grown--this time he's out to control the world. The third game offered better graphics and more sophisticated combat, such as the ability to target specific body regions, a wound system, and better tactics. All in all, the third part is probably the best game in the series, even if it is noticeably shorter than the first two games. In 1990, a company named WizardWorks released the first games in a "retro-styled" package called Phantasie Bonus Edition for the DOS and Commodore Amiga platforms. Unfortunately, despite its initial popularity and many innovations, the Phantasie series has not managed to attain the enduring legacy it deserves, and has been long overshadowed by SSI's later "Gold Box" CRPGs.
In 1985, SSI released another party-based fantasy CRPG called Wizard's Crown, which was probably the most "hardcore" CRPG of its time. Players could create up to 8 players, and multi-class them as much as they liked (i.e., a character could be a thief/fighter/mage/cleric). Instead of "levels," characters improved their stats and skills, such as hunting, haggling, alchemy, and swimming. This skill system would show up again in modern games like Fall Out and Neverwinter Nights. Likewise, the combat system was more dynamic than anything offered up to that time. There were over 20 combat commands alone, including unusual ones like "Fall Prone," which made a character harder to hit with arrows but easier to hit with melee weapons. Like Questron and Phantasie, different situations called for different weapons. However, Wizard's Crown went a step beyond with added realism--shields only worked if the character was facing the right direction, for instance, and characters were still vulnerable to axes and flails, which could destroy or circumvent a shield, respectively. Ranged weapons were implemented, as well as an intelligent magic system. Although a major battle could last up to 40 minutes, players could also choose "quick combat," which would automatically resolve the combat in seconds. While the storyline was droll (find a wizard, kill him, and take back a crown), the extraordinary attention to character development and strategic combat made up for it. It remains one of the most complicated CRPGs and a strategist's dream. SSI released a sequel to the game called The Eternal Dagger in 1987. Demons from another dimension are invading the world, and the only item that can seal the portal is the titular dagger. Besides the new storyline, the sequel is nearly identical to the first game, though some elements like the "fall prone" option mentioned above were omitted.
There are at least two other early SSI CRPGs worth mentioning: Shard of Spring and Rings of Zilfin, both released in 1986. Shard of Spring is a game written for the Apple II by Craig Roth and David Stark, and ported to MS-DOS by D.R. Gilman, Leslie Hill, and Martin deCastongrene--who did the whole game in Microsoft QuickBasic! It's a bit crude compared to the other SSI games of the era, and falls somewhere in between Wizard's Crown and Phantasie in terms of complexity. The story is that an evil sorceress has stolen the Shard of Spring, a magical item that brings eternal springtime to the land. Now that it's gone, the world has fallen into chaos, and the solution is obvious. Roth and Stark wrote a sequel called Demon's Winter, which was published by SSI in 1988. While very similar to the first game, Demon's Winter features an exponentially larger game world and two new characters classes, the scholar and the visionary. Visionaries have some unusual abilities, mostly dealing with reconnaissance--for instance, they can view a room to check for monsters without being seen. The story this time is perhaps even more straightforward than the first--the land of Ymros is faced with eternal winter unless the characters can find and destroy the evil demon god Malifon. Both games feature some interesting twists on religion, allowing characters to become acolytes of different gods and pray to them for aid during combat. Unfortunately, neither game had polished graphics or quality sound (even on the Amiga platform), factors that no doubt led to lackluster reviews in most game magazines.
"Another common problem in CRPGs may be an emphasis in glitz and glamour rather than substance. If it is pretty, the assumption is that people will buy it. The question is, however, do these beautiful graphics really add anything substantial to the game? " –David L. Arneson in Computer Gaming World, May 1988.
Ali Atabek's Rings of Ziflin, released in 1986, is a game
intended for novices--and thus focuses more on story and atmosphere
than tactics and stats. It features plenty of amusing "cut scenes" that
establish and maintain the storyline, which amounts to keeping an evil
necromancer named Lord Dragos from finding both rings of power and
using them to take over the world (sound familiar?) Rings of Zilfin puts
the player in the role of Reis (though the name can be changed), a
budding magic user who must develop his abilities and take on Dragos
and his minions. Players are spared the bother of creating characters
and rolling for stats, and the combat sequences are more like
mini-arcade games than tactical combat. Most of the game is spent
traveling between towns, and along the way the character can collect
plants--such as magic mushrooms, as well as drink from pools. Overall,
it's an interesting game and quite different from most of SSI's other
offerings. Atabek would go on to create a trilogy of Ultima-like games called The Magic Candle. The
first of these, published by Mindcraft Software, appeared in 1989, with
the sequels following in 1991 and 1992--both published by Electronic
Arts. Of these, the first is generally considered the best, and is
known for its creative storyline and abundance of mini quests. The gist
is that a demon is trapped in a candle, but once the candle burns down
low enough, it will escape--and then al hell will break loose. Like Rings of Zilfin, The Magic Candle did
not allow players to roll their own characters, but did allow them to
build a party by selecting non-player characters (NPCs) found at the
castle. By the way, an "NPC" means a character that that may assist the
player, but cannot be directly controlled; it is controlled instead by
the computer. In this way, The Magic Candle series predates the "henchman" system of later games like Neverwinter Nights.
SSI also experimented with hybrid CRPGs, mixing together adventure and arcade elements to varying degrees of success. Gemstone Warrior (1984) and Gemstone Healer (1986), both developed by Paradigm Creators, are two fairly well-known examples. These games are perhaps best described as CRPG/shooter games. SSI also released one game solely for the Commodore 64 called Realms of Darkness (1987). This very rare game, written by Gary Smith, is a hybrid adventure/CRPG. However, these games are aberrations from the type of CRPGs SSI would become famous for making--namely, the celebrated "Gold Box Games," which we'll discuss next.