Thursday, July 22, 2010

Backtracking: Oubliette (1983)

This is one of several mini-reviews of CRPGs I missed in my first pass, which I explain here.

I'm going to go with "rite of passage."

United States
Independently developed for PLATO educational system
Released 1977; commercial version released for DOS in 1983
Date Started: 22 July 2010
I've coded Oubliette as a 1983 game simply because that's when it was remade for DOS, but the original version was written in a PLATO mainframe in 1977. It and a handful of others were children of a popular game called dnd (based on Dungeons & Dragons, of course) that was written around 1975. Understand that in this era, games were noncommercial, and freely traded and added to by programmers. We might think of dnd as one game or 50 depending on how many variations we want to include. The same problem exists with early Roguelikes. I'm finding a lot of confusion among a number of 1980s Roguelikes: Hack, DND, Telengard, Amulet of Yendor, Heathkit DND, Larn, and so on. Some I may not to be able to play at all. (You Google "DND" or "Hack" and see if you can find a link to an obscure 1980s DOS game amidst everything else.)

Anyway, back to Oubliette (the term is French for "dungeon," but literally meaning "place of forgetting"). The basic game setup is that the game world, called Tokal, is a harsh and cruel place full of monsters and competing tribes of humanoids. A great wizard named Ligne established the world's one outpost of civilization: a town/castle with a deep dungeon in which various monsters were thrown. "As the dungeon and city above matured, it became popular among the young citizens of the city to venture into the dungeon, seeking gold and glory, almost as a rite of passage." You control a party of such adventurers.

My short-lived motley crew. "Crush" is an ogre.

I don't know how much of this game is based on the original code and how much was added for the 1983 DOS release, but either way it's pretty [expletive] cool. I found a text-based manual on a C64 site, and I can't believe the amount of innovation they packed into a game this early--including elements we see in no other CRPG. For instance:

  • You choose from eight races when creating your characters: dwarf, elf, gnoll, hobbit, human, kobold, ogre, and orc. The "monster" races advance more quickly in levels but are also short-lived (apparently, characters die of old age frequently in this game, and unlike in Might & Magic, there's no way to reverse it). Elves and dwarves live a long time but also advance very slowly. I know of only one other game--Phantasie--in which it's possible to play so many varieties of "monster" characters.
  • There are an incredible 10 classes: hirebrand (fighter), mage, sage, priest, peasant, ninja, thief, paladin, samurai, ranger. The nature of the classes anticipates later, more advanced games, in their skills. Hirebrands are raw fighters, paladins combinations of hirebrands and priests, sages combinations of priests and wizards, and so on.
  • The game offers D&D's set of six attributes, and like in Wizardry (in fact, I can see this game's influence on Wizardry) the attributes determine what class you can choose. Your race and sex also modify these attributes. Again, this is very advanced for a 1983 game, let alone the original 1977 version.
  • Once you create your character, you have to choose a guild to join for your "apprenticeship." There are 19 guilds, but restricted based on class and attributes, I guess. Once you join, three things can happen: 1) you graduate, and your age and attributes advance accordingly; 2) you fail to graduate and become a peasant (albeit playable); 3) you die during training. The latter is apparently common with some of the shorter-lived races. If you fail to graduate, you can re-enter, but at a cost of time. I created a human samurai who flunked out the first time at the age of 23. I re-enrolled him, and he graduated the second time--but when he was 51. Ouch. Anyway, this guild thing is very creative and unique to this CRPG.

New Player, I hardly knew ye.

  • There are six spell levels for both clerics and priests, with three or four spells per level. This is where the game's influence on Wizardry is more obvious (or did Oubliette add them for the 1983 re-release based on Wizardry?), as each spell is given a cryptic name--TOKSHEF, NARFIET, FEHALITO--many of which sound like their Wizardry counterparts.

After you create your characters, you outfit them, of course, but you start with a random amount of gold and who knows what you can afford. Fortunately, Grundig (owner of the general store) sells "pointed sticks" for 2 GP--better than fists, I suppose.

Once you enter the dungeon, you're faced with a familiar screen, if a bit primitive: your party listed up top, a wireframe graphic representation on the right, and a window telling you what's happening on the left. Again, the comparison to Wizardry is remarkable.

In combat, you face a group of enemies and have several options, from a standard attack to a more risky one that does more damage. You can also evade, cast a spell, or use an item. Thieves--or specifically female thieves--have the unique option to try to "seduce" the monster. If it works, the monster joins your team and fights at your side for the duration of the combat. If you fail, you die immediately, so it's a risky move. Only your first two characters can attack, unfortunately, and there are no missile weapons, so everyone else pretty much just stands there until they've earned some spell levels (you start off with none). If one of your characters dies, you have the option to (B)ury them in the dungeon! I don't know if this serves a practical purpose or if it's just great role-playing.

Unfortunately, according to at least one strategy guide I found online (remember, the normal rules don't apply to my temporary backtracking), there is no main quest or way to "win" the game. That might be a good thing, because I might be tempted to finish this one if there was a way to finish it. If I was reviewing this in the proper order, earlier in the project, I might play it for a few entries and give it a proper chance, but as it is...well, I've got places to be. Still, if you're into old games and want an original experience, give Oubliette a try.


Note: Several years later, I played the original PLATO Oubliette and offered some additional thoughts on this game. Read that review for more information.


  1. Hail sir! I stumbled upon your blog while doing some wwwandering in search of any modern commentary on Wizardry 1, which I am currently taking in. And there was a powerful sense of desolation that would overcome me upon finding a site so dedicated to have been abandoned (mere ruins) -- 2, 3, 8 years before; a despair to realize even the rememberers have forgotten.

    And so -- I wished to communicate to you how deeply heartening it was to stumble upon the tales you have here inscribed: keeping the flame burning as you are. And I thought it might be worth a moment to say: I am thankful for your thoughtful analysis, thoroughness, and ambition -- but most of all for cultivating the passion which sustains it all.

    Pardon the torrent -- it merely stirs the old soul. Not the least, I might add, you've inspired me a bit -- to follow your footsteps across land and imbibe some of the relics anew.

  2. I'm always interested in the interaction between CRPGs and the pen and paper RPGs that inspired them- there seems to be a lot more influence back and forth than I'd originally credited.

    There is a famous old RPG that also featured characters possibly dying in training, but it's a sci-fi game- Traveller, which came out a few years before Oubliette, also featured this idea.

    I believe the Hackmaster game also does, but I've no idea if it's anywhere near as old.

    I'm not claiming that they influenced each other, though that may be the case, but it's a very unusual dynamic of character creation, so it's interesting to see it appear in several places.

    1. Regarding HackMaster, no on both counts: It doesn't have characters die in training (unless that was added in the latest edition, with which I'm unfamiliar), and it's not anywhere near as old anyway. HackMaster started as just a fictional game mentioned in the Knights of the Dinner Table comic strip, which launched in 1990; there was no such actual game until the creators of the comic strip decided to create it in 2001... so compared to Traveller and Oubliette HackMaster's just a young'un.

  3. Pipe, the MegaTraveller CRPG's have the extended character development implemented in them and it's one of the most entertaining character generation processes that I've come across. If you haven't checked them out you really should. The only problem is that the generator was also made so that you could make your pen and paper characters in it so not all of the options (skills etc.) are implemented in the game. So if you end up playing them, make sure you consult a guide. The similarity between Oubliette's character generation and Megatraveller has me wanting to check this one out as well!

  4. The early Apple II text-based Space Trading/RPG games called "Space" also had a similar guild-based character creation thing. Also System Shock 2 has an -incredibly- dumbed down version that may have been inspired by this.

  5. doublepost go

    I took some screenshots of the character creation in Space. By the way if you come across any games that didn't get DOS ports, I can help you out. Apple II, C64, etc. etc. I even did a fan translation of the first Japanese RPG, The Black Onyx, which runs perfectly fine [and non-complicatedly] on a Windows PC with a few moments of emulator configuration. I highly recommend you play Ultima V on an Apple II emulator. The overall game just feels better somehow, and the music [with an emulated Phasor sound card] is really good. Compared to the musicless DOS version, or the Amiga/ST versions that loop a single terrible song endlessly. Or even the C64 version [which requires you to play it on a C128 to have any music, and even then it's not as good as the Apple II's].

    I am - or PM me on Youtube [LordKarnov42] since I check that more often than my E-Mail.

    Space Screenies:

  6. tttrrriiipppllleee pppooosssttt

    If you set DOSBox to emulate a CGA video card [instead of its default SVGA], it will work with CGA games a lot better. A lot of CGA games had three different color sets that it switched between [including Wizardry, see this image:

    And a few even had a composite mode where it would use a trick similar to what the Apple II did to display color on TVs or composite monitors. I know the original release of King's Quest on IBM PCs could do this:

    Default CGA RGB Mode:

    Composite Mode:

  7. Thanks for these screen shots! I was eager to see what Space looks like since it's one of the first CRPGs and I didn't get a chance to play it. While I appreciate the offer, I'm going to pass on other emulators. I need to set some limits on this or I'll never get out of the mid-1980s. But I appreciate the tip on the monitor setting. Your screen shot of Wizardry does look a hell of a lot nicer. I'll give it a try next time things look screwed up.

    Fortunately, I'm nearing the end of the era in which the DOS version of the game was the worst one!

  8. I still recommend Ultima V on AppleWin. It'll be a much better experience overall. Plus it's the last Ultima game that Lord British did any actual coding work on. And it has music :-p.

    And printscreen dumps screenshots at the default 2x resolution. Shift+printscreen dumps them at Apple II standard resolution.

  9. There seems to be only 2 Oubliette web sites still in existance:



  10. I just thought I would mention that there are iPhone and Android version of this game that have recently been released:

  11. |{P}|sez:
    Hey CRPG Addict, you ever eat at the Deli Haus in Boston? I used to, but I can't remember what I ever ate there or what's on the menu. It's weird. You should try skating Mission Hill when you get done playing the RPGs, that would be, like, wicked awesome. Winthroper4Life!

  12. I'm afraid not. I don't actually live in Boston, or anywhere very convenient to it. I never tried the Deli Haus--which closed a few years ago, by the way--on my visits to Kenmore Square.

  13. |{P}|sez:
    Oh no! No more Deli Haus. To arms!
    I miss Boston. The fabulous Grinders and sandwiches that frequent West of BU are missed the most though. As Clipse writes, "So much dough, I can't swear I won't change".

  14. I would really like to see a post or two on Oubliette. I don't really have time to play it myself at the moment, and am already juggling two very hard dungeon crawlers when I do time to spare. Perhaps if you're not able to write a post for Wizardry V or some other game down the line (understandable), you could make an intermission post about Oubliette.

  15. You'll probably get it. I have access to the original PLATO version now, and I might play it early in 2012.

    1. This would be cool. I'm really curious to see if there is anything to the Wizardry connection.

  16. Oubliette was an amazing game for the time. I played it extensively back in the mid-80s, along with Rogue and a PC port of Empire, Icon: Quest for the Rings, another game ahead of its time, Hack (the ancestor of Nethack) and many others.

    I never could get the graphic version to work, so I always played the textmode version, although frankly I doubt I was missing out on anything.

    Given that the EXE was only 42kB, I'm sure it would be pretty small potatoes to disassemble the game and turn the result into C code. I think I shall have to try that some time.

    One of the reasons for the game's sophistication compared to its contemporaries was how data-driven it was. All the monsters, magic items and spells were defined in the data files. Monster attacks, spells and magic items drew upon a defined set of effects and attributes, which gave the game a lot of flexibility, and even made it moddable to someone dedicated enough to reverse-engineer the data files (like I did).

    Nowadays, that seems (at least to me) a very obvious way to implement a CRPG like this, but at the time it was probably pretty novel. Actually, in that regard Oubliette was fancier than Nethack remains today, although Nethack is orders of magnitude more sophisticated.

  17. Thought people might like to know, there is a pretty faithful remake for Android and iPhone. Most of it is kept the same, but it’s added an 11th level with a boss fight to give it an end game.



  18. A true underrated classic, although I prefer Oubliette parody 'Liberal Crime Squad' by Tarn Adams (which is now Open Source as well)

  19. Hi! How do you run this game using DOSbox? I have some sort of graphic glitches.

    1. I wish I could help you, but I just opened it in regular DOSBox without problems. What kind of glitches?

  20. Hi, Though I am not a classic CRPG addict I do like and still play the "Old" DOS games. Also many Win Ver. 3.1 games as well most on 5 1/4 or 3 1/2 floppies; as well. I have been a collector for many years. I just thought that you should know that I actually "HAVE" the original Oubliette PC game on 5 1/4 disks. It was one of the first games I got for my then monster PC with a fantastic 256K RAM memory. Anyway, please continue your quests and good luck. Oh, other games I have include an Original Star Trek same that used only symbols like "*" and "x" for ships and lasers and such it was great at the time but we sure have come a long way since then.

    1. Congratulations on your collection. I don't miss having to RUN games from 5.25-inch floppy disks, though.

  21. Thank you for this blog. An update for you: the 1977 version was written for the CP/M operating system. I have a copy. The most unique feature is that the Pseudo Dragon data has a glitch: occasionally you can give it one too many hits and throw its hit counter into the negative - necessitating taking 64k hits for it to die. Twenty minutes standing on the "k" key with a level 54 Human Samurai wielding the Axe of Mortokgor, usually does the trick. This version runs under all versions of Digital Research's OS, as well as ZR-DOS and ZPR3.

  22. I wonder if there ever was an RPG that let you play a "monster class" and then let you fight against the "normal classes", e.g. human warrior, or dwarf rogue or something like that. You know, an rpg from the monsters' perspective.
    These early games are fascinating. Some "alternative" roads of history seemed possible. Some threads of history just died, like the Wizard's Castle one.

    1. Wizardry 4 maybe? Or Dungeon Keeper?

    2. Hm, on Super Famicon there is Dark Half.

      Here is description:

      Control both an evil overlord and the hero sent to kill him in this darkly innovative Super Famicom RPG from Westone/Enix.

      Control both an evil overlord and the hero sent to kill him in this darkly innovative Super Famicom RPG from Westone/Enix.

  23. Hi Chester.

    I found this video. It looks like it is Oubliette, but does not use wire-frame first-person view, but use top-down losres instead.

    I saw a comment here mentioning "graphic mode" and "text mode" but is there an option in game where you can choose first-person view of top-down view??

    If not, do you have any clue as to what this is??

    1. That's the game I was looking at here. I just didn't play with it long enough to notice there was an option to switch between first-person and third-person.

  24. Thank you! Having such an option didn't even cross my mind until I saw someone mention the "text mode", but even then I wasn't so sure. Not many games (especially as early as this one) would offer two types of views!

  25. My brother & I used to play Oubliette in the C-64 days. I don't know how we got the game but it didn't come with any manual. Thankfully, the game play was pretty strait forward. The magic system, on the other hand, was not. You had priests and wizards, of varying types and these two magic forms had different spells that you had to type in, in order to cast. Unfortunately we didn't have a list of the potential spells available for each magic class. On top of that, if you cast a spell that was above your experience level it would fizzle or fail. A light spell, for instance, might be typed in as luminanso, (not correct but given as an example.) It might be cablecast by a level-1 wizard. A more powerful light spell might be typed in as grandiLumananso, which would last much longer but would take more magic and not be available to a wizard until he reached a 4'th or 5'th level. Generally most the more powerful spells would, as such be the same as their weaker cousins but be proceeded by the prefix Grandi. These are not actual spell names or prefixes. Just examples.

    The thing was, we didn't know any of the names of the spells, so typing them in was a hopeless cause. You COULD, however, get a staff, imbued with a magic spell, such as a Light staff or a Fireball staff, or a Greater Fireball staff. When you used such a magic staff, the spell name would flash across the screen and, if you where really quick, you could jot it down on a scrap of paper. Now you had a spell that you could type into the casting, text box for a wizard, and he would be able to use his own magic to cast said spell, without a magically imbued staff. Of course the same methods of learning magic for monks and priests worked as well.

    Thus we slowly created a list of magic spells that would be available for each type of caster. by adding the prefix for greater, we might get the more powerful spells as well. Cheating??? I suppose, but remember, you still had to be experienced enough to cast the stronger spells.

  26. I wonder if "Grundig (owner of the general store)" is based on the German consumer electronics manufacturer which was still big & well-known back then, at least in Europe (

    1. I remember back in the early 80s in Argentina, when I was a kid, the ad for the Grundig TV, which had a very big screen for that era. So yeah, I had the same thougt when I read that name in the post


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