Friday, September 2, 2016

1985/1986

 
  
If you had to pick one three-year period that was most important to the the rest of CRPG history, I think you'd have to pick 1985-1987. A few 1981-1983 titles--primarily the Wizardry and Ultima series--had set up the ball nicely, but 1985-1987 spiked it into the sunset.

From these three years, we got Ultima IV, Might & Magic, The Bard's Tale, all three Phantasie games, Starflight, the earliest versions of NetHack, and of course Dungeon Master. A thousand curses on Pool of Radiance (1988) for not coming out a year earlier and better-fitting my narrative, but at least we had two important precursors: Wizard's Crown and Shard of Spring. And while it hasn't been a major part of my blog, we can't forget about what was going on in the console world: The Legend of Zelda (not an RPG but an important ancestor of many of them), Final Fantasy, the first console port of a Dragon Slayer game, and Phantasy Star all made their debut during this period. Chances are, if you really loved a game from the 1980s, it was from the 1985-1987 period.
 
Here you go: the only time you'll see this screenshot on my blog.
  
Equally important, this era saw the growth of some of the most important companies of the RPG world. The early leaders like Sir-Tech and Epyx were on their way out, replaced with names like Interplay, SSI, and Origin. Yes, all of these companies technically started before 1985, but they came into prominence and stability (at least in their RPG offerings) during this period, and they would continue to dominate the genre well into the 1990s or later.

None of this is apparent from my recent trip through 1985, picking up the games I missed on my first pass in 2010. I suspect the entire 1985-1989 time period (I had ended my "DOS-only" rule before 1990) is going to be largely dregs. DOS might not have been the best platform during the period, but almost every game that was any good at least had a DOS release, and I covered those a long time ago. Most of what I missed on my first trip was schlock like Seas of Blood and City of Death. I'm glad I used the excuse to re-visit AutoDuel and Alternate Reality, but what I really would have liked was to play Might & Magic, Phantasie, and Ultima IV again.

A few themes for the rest of the decade first become apparent in 1985. Excepting roguelikes, the single-character game was essentially dead. Alternate Reality and AutoDuel are probably their last incarnations even worth talking about for a while. Even into 1991, I can only think of a few single-character games that are worth playing: the Quest for Glory series in particular; after that, maybe DarkSpyre/Dusk of the Gods and the two Elviras, but by then we're reaching down pretty far. Ultima Underworld will eventually bring it back, but until then, it's parties all the way.

Also over: bare-bones combat and magic. After the success of Wizardry and Ultima III, developers are starting to realize that (A)ttack, (D)efend, and a selection of 5 spells isn't going to cut it anymore. SSI has taken the lead with tactical combat in Wizard's Crown and Phantasie and in 1986 they'll continue with Shard of Spring. The Bard's Tale and Might & Magic will continue Wizardry's tradition. An occasional minor title like Questron II or Starflight will come along with minimal combat options, but from now on they'll be far from the norm.

The tag--"with tactical combat"--shows that SSI knew it was doing something new with Wizard's Crown.
   
Europe continues to just be weird. At some point, I used a metaphor of aliens designing CRPGs after seeing them through a telescope. It still applies. You kind of expect French games--like French cinema--to be ineffably bizarre, so a game like Mandragore is easy to shrug off. It even had moments of originality and charm. On the other hand, I would have expected something more grounded from my cousins in the U.K., not games like Swords & Sorcery where you trade insults like "heave-ho you broom-and-bucket wielding pie-eater."

A nostril sack is bad enough, but a second-hand nostril sack is pretty vile.
  
If Ultima IV didn't exist, it might be a tough choice for "Game of the Year." I'd probably ultimately select The Bard's Tale. I have issues with its two sequels, but you can't deny the importance of the game in the historical record. It moved Wizardry-style gameplay to the next level, put Interplay on the map, and fathered the Wasteland (1988) engine as well as a host of European titles like Legend of Faerghail (1990) and Antares (1991). But I would have selected it after giving a nod to Phantasie (a great approach to a game that didn't leave much of a legacy) and after writing a couple of appreciative but ultimately dismissive comments on AutoDuel and Alternate Reality: The City.
   
Looking at this makes me nostalgic....for 2010. I just realized that some day, when I refer to the "carefree days of my youth, playing all those role-playing games," I'm going to be talking about right now.
    
Quest of the Avatar towers miles above them. It would be a strong contender for RPG of the decade, and there's no question it would appear on my list of top 5 of all time. It is arguably the first RPG to truly internalize the concept of role-playing by drawing more of a direct link between the player and the character. This isn't just an icon on the screen, the game says: it's you, your "avatar," wandering around Britannia. How are you going to behave? You win not through combat prowess, although that does play a role, but for virtuous behavior. If you actually pay attention to the backstory and dialogue, a journey through Ultima IV is as valuable as any self-help book.

And thousands of kids played it! This is an era in which suburban dads were coming home with disks titled MatheMagic!: Defeat the Evil Sorcerer with the Power of Multiplication! that promised to "make learning fun!" and their kids just rolled their eyes and threw the boxes in the backs of their closets. But somehow Richard Garriott got the same kids to learn about truth, love, courage, and the virtues that derived from them. He did it, of course, with excellent gameplay: a large, open game world; a decent tactical combat system; meaningful NPC dialogue; a completely original spell system; and absolutely superb production values. No other game, not even its own sequels, has quite put together the same elements that made Ultima IV so memorable. For 1985, there's no contest.

Ultima IV came with a cloth map, wonderfully-illustrated and written books, and an ankh pendant.
    
Let's look ahead to 1986. In previous posts, I covered the games of this year that had a DOS release: The Bard's Tale II, The Faery Tale Adventure, Larn, Leygref's Castle, Might & Magic, Rings of Zilfin, Shard of Spring, Starflight, Swords of Glass, and Tera: La Cité des Crânes. I didn't finish a distressing number of them. For a while, I had The Bard's Tale II on my "upcoming" list, determined to give it another shot, but after my recent break, the last thing I need is to have to look forward to a game that I know I won't like. For the same reason, you won't see any further material on The Faery Tale Adventure. On the other hand, it's very likely that I will revisit Leygref's Castle, Larn, and Tera. My original coverage was incomplete to the point of not being able to properly number and GIMLET these titles.
   
I can't promise that I'll understand it any better than last time, but I'll give it a try.
   
1986 is the height of the brief golden age of French RPGs, and in addition to Tera, we're going to see four more, assuming they all turn out to be RPGs: Fer & Flamme, Le Fer d'Amnukor, Sapiens, and Les Templiers d'Orven. The U.K. is also continuing to grow its catalogue, and we have Dungeon of Ymir, Heavy on the Magick, Mindstone, The Wizard of Tallyron, and Tallyron II all coming up.

I look forward to Phantasie II because I like the series as a whole--it was idiotic that I skipped from the first to the third because of my "DOS-only" rule. I feel like I've heard good things about Realms of Darkness but I don't remember what. Roadwar 2000 will inevitably turn out to be not an RPG, but I'll play it anyway because I'm curious. Beyond that, everything is a mystery. I have low hopes, so if I encounter any true hidden gems here, it will be a nice bonus.

One thing is sure: the year will not go very quickly. 1985 had fewer than 10 new titles, and even padding the year with re-visits to AutoDuel and Alternate Reality, I covered it in 4 months. 1986 has 19 new ones, although inevitably some will fail my definition of a "CRPG." 1987 has 28, 1988 has 19, and 1989 has 25, at which point I'll finally be caught up to the main list and probably approaching 500 games on my blog as a whole. Part of me wishes I hadn't bothered to count just now.

36 comments:

  1. Tangential question: which part of your "is it an RPG?" test does Legend of Zelda for the NES fail?

    My gut instinct is that yeah, it's RPG-like but not an RPG, but then I think about it and there's weapon and armor upgrades (in the form of new swords and the blue and red rings) and gaining levels (in the form of finding heart containers) and inventory management (in the form of # of bombs and the healing potion) and I can't recall what the other determinants in the test, if any, are.

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    1. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm GamesSeptember 2, 2016 at 2:33 PM

      I say that Zelda is an RPG: It has complex puzzles, character development that limits your power but allows you to grow stronger over time, side quests, hidden objects, and a substantial invetory that does include optional items. it fits all three criteria, and the only deviation from the RPG standard is that the combat is real-time, not turn based.

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    2. I wouldn't call gaining more health character development, many non-RPGs have this mechanic as well. There's not a lot of role-playing involved if you only have one character type and can only develop him in one way.

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    3. My rule for whether a game is an RPG is: "Will it grind?"

      If there is a resource -- could be gold or XP or karma or whatever -- that the player can optionally and voluntarily get through repeated actions that somehow feeds back into tipping predeictable-but-random outcomes further in the player's favor, then I consider it "RPG enough." It's important that the player gets to choose when to grind or pursue plot. Grinding must be optional and voluntary, otherwise it's not really role-playing. Or possibly a game.

      Zelda is really borderline. You mainly grow health and power by finding objects, which is more like an adventure game. The only thing you can grind is rupees, and the things you can buy with them mostly advance plot, not make you significantly more powerful. You can't just walk into any store and choose from three levels of sword, based on how long you have been saving. The outcomes are not random at all, though they are very predictable.

      So:

      1. Predictable outcomes with a random component.
      2. Freedom to grow in strength semi-independent of plot.

      Bonus points, but not strictly required:
      3. Complex mechanical system for determining outcomes with multiple dimensions of control.

      I don't consider if the player is a person or a party or a car or a road gang or a fleet of spaceships as part of the criteria at all. Non-plot inventory is welcome as more dimensions of control to affect outcomes, but also not required. Or it could come in the form of upgrades or some other creative analogy.

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    4. Aside from having "character development" and "inventory" that only marginally pass the test, I'd say it most likely fails on my second criteria: "combats based at least partly on attribute-derived statistics." That's probably a clumsy way to say it, but it means that there has to be some consideration of the character's level, skill, and attributes when rolling for accuracy and damage in combat. It cannot be based solely on the type of weapon (or virtually any action game is an RPG) or on player dexterity with the controller.

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    5. Oh, and in response to Iffy's comment, I wouldn't say that an RPG has to allow for grinding--although I prefer it does. Plenty of RPGs exist in closed systems with a limited number of combats. Baldur's Gate II, for instance, mostly does--although there are 1 or 2 maps that theoretically respawn.

      However, if a game DOES allow for grinding, it almost certainly is an RPG.

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  2. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm gamesSeptember 2, 2016 at 2:28 PM

    I ask you again, addict: What is the nature of your world in Downfall? You told me how to interact with the world of the game, but not what I interacted with in that world. How does it differ from reality? What creatures inhabit it? What does anyone do for fun? What is the level of technology? I told you about the world in my dream, I could tell about 130 years in the history of Metal Gear, but you have told me nothing about this world--why would I want to be there, rather than an insane world like Metal gear, Bubble Bobble or Mother?

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  3. One game that I am interested in reading your opinion about in 1986 is the granddaddy of the cRPG world: "Dragon Quest". It had MSX and PC-9801 releases in 1986 and there is a partial fan-translation which should get you going. Even if you ultimately don't number and GIMLET it, I hope you give it a look because of how important it was in the future history of RPGs. It's also pretty short and very fun.

    (The first two Dragon Quests and the first Final Fantasy were all released for MSX or similar, although I haven't seen translations of those. Final Fantasy would start to experiment around with PC gaming again in 1997, but you have a long way to go before that happens and by then the game and the genre is unrecognizable from its roots.)

    (Please no one interpret this as my asking for more console RPGs; I'm really not and Chet has enough games to play.)

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  4. A great read. A question: Why not pick a most important four-year period in CRPG history? So that way you can add Pool of Radiance?

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    1. I don't know. 'Cause no one does things in fours.

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    3. 1988 also has Ultima V, the highest scoring game so far, so...

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    4. 1988 seems like a separate era from 85-87 to me. This is personal taste, but it's the first year that has several games I'd find nearly effortless to play and replay. Everything before that would be a bit more work. Even if you don't feel exactly the same, I think there was a big jump.

      So if 85-87 are the crucial setup years, 1988 is the year that delivered on that promise. And I think PoR definitely belongs in the latter camp. I think it worked out fine.

      (And I'm glad to have the blog back. I checked in every day during the break.)

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  6. Larn was the only roguelike I ever beat, and I was fairly young at the time. That's not to say it's easy or won't take a hundred tries - that time limit was a frequent killer - but it isn't anything like as obtuse as NetHack. Simple as jumping into a hole, killing a demon prince and saving your daughter with the medicine you find.

    I realized you bounced off it last time due to how long you figured it'd take you, but it's a lot more reasonable than its contemporaries if you aren't trashing every throne you come across without an escape plan.

    Pro-tip if you play it again: At the start, jump down the volcano (it's a super high-level dungeon intended for after the main one) and try and steal something and get out before anything finds you. Doesn't take long to roll up a new character if you get immediately squished, but the money from a high-value item in there will get you started right.

    Also, I played Sapiens as a kid and I'd struggle to call that thing a RPG. Like many French games it defies attempts to categorize it, but I'd say it was a... party-based open-world action-adventure game? With a mini-game where you have to craft your own spearheads that I was horrible at. It's been a while, so maybe it skews closer to your definition of an RPG than I can recall.

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  7. Nice post to finish the year off for good Chet, and glad to see you back. Small note, you did give Larn a number(21) and Gimlet (26 total), although I guess your short 1-post coverage could be seen to be a bit lacking if you want to hit it again.

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  8. Regretfully, I have a new game for your master list. It's called "Lunatic Dawn - Book of Futures", a japanese game from 1995, now fully translated to English. And, strangely, it's not a JRPG, but looks completely CRPG. It came out for Windows 95, rather than japanese PCs. I was being told what it works on Win10, using compatiblity options. And the game's CD or CD-image must be in first disk drive in the system.
    Here's a link to translation patch:
    http://www.romhacking.net/translations/2585/

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    1. The same translation group is doing - besides the second and third Lunatic Dawn - a lot of the Japanese exclusive Wizardries, too. Some of which are on PC. Wizardry Chronicle and one of the two Empire ones are done. Those might be worth a look too.

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  9. Chalk one up for Google Translate. I looked at that screenshot and thought "Transcendence... with which power leans upon the priests and vestal virgins?". But apparently it's "...whose power relies upon/is based upon", which makes more sense. I guess I never really understood dont, unless it's followed by walkez.

    Not surprised you're eschewing a return to Faery Tale Adventure, and I think it's a good idea to avoid a game you know you don't like at this stage. I still find it vaguely funny, though, that it's such a Waterloo* for you, because last time I played it (admittedly the console version) I beat it in a day, so it can be a quickie. But that was using maps I'd made for an earlier playthrough that, in turn, allow me to avoid vast and ultimately pointless tracts of the game.

    *(Or, if you prefer: green eggs & ham? The burning shirt of Nessus? Something up with which you will not put?)

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    1. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm GamesSeptember 3, 2016 at 1:34 PM

      He does have interesting games to look forward to in the next few hundred entries on his list, and skipping some games will help him get to them: Obscure classics like Bloodnet, Al-Quadim: The Genie's Curse and my favorite C.R.P.G, Superhero League of Hoboken; definitive classics like System Shock, Syndicate and The Elder Scrolls: Arena; very flawed but great games like Ultima 7 and Underworld and Quest for Glory 4; and terrible but interesting games like Albion, Darklands and Robinson's Requiem. he will have to play wildly overrated garbage like Might and Magic, Betrayal at Krondor and Ultima 7.5 and 8 but it will b worth it.

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    2. Obdurate Hater of Rhythm GamesSeptember 3, 2016 at 1:38 PM

      He does have interesting games to look forward to in the next few hundred entries on his list, and skipping some games will help him get to them: Obscure classics like Bloodnet, Al-Quadim: The Genie's Curse and my favorite C.R.P.G, Superhero League of Hoboken; definitive classics like System Shock, Syndicate and The Elder Scrolls: Arena; very flawed but great games like Ultima 7 and Underworld and Quest for Glory 4; and terrible but interesting games like Albion, Darklands and Robinson's Requiem. he will have to play wildly overrated garbage like Might and Magic, Betrayal at Krondor and Ultima 7.5 and 8 but it will be worth it.

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  10. If you really want to play Ultima IV again (or other RPGs), why don't you use playing another port of a game as an excuse? ;-)
    You could let people vote for (or yourself research for) the best version of a game and write an article or two on that version and the differences you found.
    Best version of Ultima IV would probably be the Apple 2 game (even though my heart is with the C64 game).

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    1. Best version of Ultima IV is the 8-bit Sega version.

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    2. While the Sega version had slightly fancier graphics (calling them improved is a bit of a stretch), and has the dubious virtue of remembering keywords for you, the control scheme is a huge black mark against it. Ultima controls were always absurdly overcomplicated, but at least on the computer versions everything was handled with a single keypress and a direction instead of having to go through "Open menu" "select action" "select direction" every time you want to do something. I haven't tried to play through it to know if there's any other difference, but the interface alone probably quintuples the length of the game.

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  11. Roadwar 2000 is about as much of an RPG as Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure was. They have similar avatar-less party-based combat and advancement, and a level of inventory that's slightly higher than "marginal". Plus I think it's a fairly quick game, although I remember the "plot" was hard to determine without a walkthrough.

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    1. Actually, I take that back. Roadwar's tactical combat system is far more involved than Odyssey's is, though you have the option to "quick fight" and skip the tactical stuff if you want.

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    2. Actually, I take that back. Roadwar's tactical combat system is far more involved than Odyssey's is, though you have the option to "quick fight" and skip the tactical stuff if you want.

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    3. Roadwar 2000 is quite a good game, but I don't think you have characters with stats. Rather, you have 'a gang', and vehicles. The vehicles have stats and can be upgraded, so you can kind of think of them as party members, except that you'll be swapping them out all the time.

      I had a ton of fun with it, but I don't think it really fits Addict's criteria.

      Addict: if you do play it, the Amiga version is probably the best, having the best graphics and some reasonable sound effects and a little music. If you don't feel like dealing with the emulator for that, the DOS version will be ugly, but the game itself should be the same.

      I suspect you'll drop it quickly, though. You might like it as a game (I replayed it within the last five years, and had a lot of fun with it), but I doubt you'll think it's an RPG.

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    4. However easiest way to lose in Roadwar 2000 was to use quick combat and the game is won by entering the city X and picking up a fight if memory serves there was never any in game hints on why that particular city or why beating those guys up won the game, though or i might had just skipped screen since I was like 12 and couldn't be bothered to read a wall of text.

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  12. I vividly remember the Ultima goodies, especially the cloth map which I kept around for years and years after I stopped playing the game.

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    1. I was 9 years old when I bought that game. (I had just gotten the D&D Red Box, and The Bard's Tale had just introduced me to CRPGs.)

      I LOVED the materials it came with! I remember taking the manuals to read them during breaks, poring over the mysterious magical book with the dwarven runes on the cover to examine the various spells. I don't believe I ever got beyond 2nd level in the game, but I did explore all the major townes in Britannia. I was too young for the game, but it surely opened up a world for me and RPGs!

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  13. When you say Zelda is not an RPG, there is a gray area, which you already addressed and responded to. However, the Legend of Zelda: The Adventure of Link is almost certainly an RPG by your definition. I don't see how that one can be excluded. Perhaps you could argue the remaining Zeldas only increase your health and items, not your actual attack abilities. About the only significant difference is that Link has no RPG class, but the enemies certainly do.

    Adventure of Link was also released in 1987, so it fits your narrative! :)

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    1. Yes, everyone seems to agree that Zelda II is unique among the rest of the games for actually being an RPG. In any event, since it's console-only, it still doesn't appear on my list.

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  14. Phantasie II was my favourite of the three Phantasie games when I was a kid. It was basically just Phantasie I again, but bigger. When there are only a few games on the market, that was important. However, if you want something new, you may be disappointed.

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    1. No, I don't really want anything new. It's been a long time since I played a Phantasie game at all, so even if it was identical to the first, I'd have a great time.

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