I started playing 1988 games in February 2011, which means that I lost significant ground in the last year and a half. Of course, I covered 1979-1987 in my first year of blogging, so I guess I'm still averaging about 3.6 game years for every real year.
1988 was a year of contrasts. The year produced four of my highest rated games so far--Pool of Radiance, Ultima V, Might & Magic II, and Wasteland--but also a host of games I found tiresome and frustrating, including most of those that I've featured since my return to blogging after my January hiatus: Sentinel Worlds, BattleTech, The Bard's Tale III, Wizardry V. (If I seem to have been in a bad mood for the last four months, remember that I was playing games I had deliberately postponed. No more of that.) Ratings for new games in 1988 range from a low of 18 to a high of 69; the largest variance so far in my blog.
Many of the games produced in 1988 were the last gasps of dated series. Demon's Winter, SSI's sequel to Shard of Spring, was interesting but was soon blown away by Pool of Radiance. (It amuses me that the same company was responsible for Star Command, Demon's Winter, Questron II, and Pool of Radiance, all in the same year.) The gameplay for The Bard's Tale III and Wizardry V hadn't advanced enough since the earlier installments in the series to be fun and memorable. Questron II offered nothing that its predecessor didn't except slightly better graphics. Of the classic series, only Ultima V and Might & Magic II managed to get through the year with honor, primarily because they overhauled their engines to keep up with the times. They will continue to improve and expand as their series progress.
|Questron's insistence that every game need include the merciless slaughter of castle guards just seems obscene in the post-Ultima IV era.|
In a comment, PetrusOctavianus suggested that I designate a "Game of the Year" every time I make a transition. The clear GOTY for 1988 is Pool of Radiance. It wasn't my highest-rated game (that went to Ultima V), but I think it was the most important game of 1988. It was the first Dungeons & Dragons game that really captured anyone's imagination. It led to the plentiful "Gold Box" series and served as a spiritual ancestor to the entire Forgotten Realms line. The tactical combat system is one of the best I've ever seen, surpassing even many modern games, and it offers a depth of experience in encounters and quests that simply blows away everything that came before. It is one of the few games of any era that don't insist on a single interface: dungeon exploration is first-person; combat is isometric; and outdoor exploration is top-down. It isn't perfect--the economy is notably bad--but I had more fun playing it than any other game since I started this blog.
|I can't think of a single CRPG combat system that I like better than the Gold Box games. I perhaps like the Infinity engine games as much, but not better.|
If I had to do honorable mentions, though, they would go to Ultima V and Wasteland. Both offer unique experiences. Ultima V has a compelling, complex quest, an interactive environment (even few modern games allow you to move furniture!), and the first appearance of NPCs that keep a daily schedule. Wasteland offers the first digestible post-apocalyptic setting, gun combat, and an extremely innovative way of employing skills and attributes. They're both great games, but I don't think either had the lasting impact on the genre that Pool of Radiance did.
|I don't think I'll ever truly love Wasteland, the way some of you do, but I certainly learned to appreciate it.|
Should I do a worst game of the year? It would be a tough decision. Times of Lore was my lowest rated, and I think it sets up a theme that's going to become common in my blog: I don't really take to action RPGs. But no one had any real expectations for Times of Lore, so it seems disingenuous to rank it "worst." The Bard's Tale III offered one of the worst gameplay experiences of the year, improving nothing on the first or second games but making its world 10 times larger. Ultimately, though, I have to go with BattleTech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception. What seemed like an original setting and promising gameplay elements collapsed into a ridiculous story, no character development, and the most bafflingly stupid ending I've ever witnessed in a game.
|I spent all that time building my mech fleet so I could do this for 90 minutes.|
Petrus had also suggested that I offer my opinions on Games of the Year for earlier years. Briefly:
1981: Wizardry, of course. There were so many "firsts" here that I've lost count. We owe Might & Magic, The Bard's Tale, and Ultima III to this game. If only it had inspired its own developers as much as its competitors.
1982: Telengard. Understand, there isn't much to choose from this year. I pick Telengard because it represents the most commercial version of a long line of games that started with dnd. Unfortunately, it was also the end of the line.
|It would be years before we saw random miscellaneous encounters like this in CRPGs again.|
1983: Exodus: Ultima III. The first good Ultima game and the first iconographic game to offer multiple party members. The combat and magic system were very advanced for the time.
1984: There were only a few games this year and none of them really stand out.
1985: So many franchises started this year, but I have to go with Ultima IV. It still offers a quest and a gameplay experience unmatched in the genre.
1986: It's a tough choice between Might & Magic I and Starflight. The former took the best of Wizardry and improved on it, creating a series that would churn out fantastic games for 20 years. The latter is an ahead-of-its-time science fiction game with an incredible plot and extremely memorable NPCs and encounters. In terms of sheer influence, I think I'd have to go with Starflight.
1987: I know a lot of people would root for Dungeon Master, but I have to choose NetHack. It wasn't the first roguelike, of course, but it's probably the most successful. It showed that a roguelike could be as large, complex, and full of true role-playing opportunities as other CRPGs.
|I'm looking forward to the next edition.|
For 1989, I've structured my game list so that a game I know (or at least strongly suspect) that I'll like comes up every four or five games. These cornerstones include NetHack (version 3), Magic Candle, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Starflight 2, Dragon Wars, and Hero's Quest: So You Want to Be a Hero (the game that was later re-named Quest for Glory). There are 36 games on my list for the year, although I expect some of them (Girlfriend Construction Set, Star Saga: Two) won't hold up to CRPG scrutiny, and others (Dragons of Flame) might prove impossible to play. Despite that 1989 has about 50% more games than 1988, I want to set a goal of completing 1989 in less than a year.
If I had to pick a game I'm looking most forward to in 1989, it would be a toss-up between Curse of the Azure Bonds and Magic Candle--the former because I know I'll love it based on my Pool of Radiance experience, and the latter because so many of you keep telling me how good it is.
I'm starting with NetHack because I don't expect to "win" it right away. Instead, I expect that I'll keep it active throughout most of the year, dipping into it here and there, and hopefully ascending before the year is completed. Let's get going.