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By Matt Barton
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Gamasutra
February 23, 2007

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The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 2: The Golden Age (1985-1993)

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The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 2: The Golden Age (1985-1993)


Sick of Swords and Sorcery: Non-Fantasy CRPGs

Before moving on such important CRPG classics as FTL's Dungeon Master and the later Ultima and Wizardry titles, we should take a look at some of the CRPGs that departed from the "swords and sorcery" conventions that dominate the genre. We've already mentioned a few in passing, such as SSI's 50 Mission Crush, set in World War II, the Buck Rogers games, and Origin's Ultima series, which featured many sci-fi elements as well as fantasy. Another game worth mentioning is Polarware's Expedition Amazon (1983). Although it suffers from some pretty serious design flaws, Expedition Amazon explored new possibilities for the CRPG. Set in modern times, the goal of Expedition Amazon is to guide a team of four explorers (Medic, Field Assistant, Radio Operator, and Guard) as they study ancient Incan ruins. Instead of dragons and orcs, players fought with recalcitrant natives and malaria-carrying mosquitoes. However, the game wasn't a success, and can hardly be said to have much influence on the CRPG genre. Thankfully, other CRPG developers were willing to try to push the CRPG out of the Middle Ages.


Alternate Reality (Atari 8-Bit). A colorful
interface and countless innovative features
make this sci-fi themed CRPG a classic.

In 1985, a Datasoft published Philip Price's Alternate Reality: The City, the first of a planned series of five games based on the same premise: aliens abducting the character and transporting him to different "realities." Even though only two of the games were ever published (the second part, The Dungeon, appeared in 1987), the series maintains a cult status, particularly among fans of Atari 8-bit computers (where it originated). Atari Age even hosts a competition for the game that is still going strong! The games feature first-person perspective and nice graphics, and are in many ways much ahead of their time. Both The City and The Dungeon are located on Medieval worlds, so most of the standard fantasy conventions still apply (mages, dwarves, etc.) However, Alternate Reality is more realistic than most CRPGs of its era--the avatar gets thirsty, hungry, and tired. The only way to address these problems (and get better equipment) is to raise capital. Thankfully, players can store their money and earn interest at banks, though the really profitable investment plans are risky. Even the treasures weren't always good; many items were cursed and had dire consequences for unwary players. And, as if all this isn't enough--it often rains, which apparently brings out the truly dangerous denizens of Xebec's Demise. Frustrated (or evil) players are free to prey upon the innocent. In any case, the high degree of realism and complexity makes Alternate Reality one of the most challenging of all CRPGs. Downloads and emulator information is available here.

Another unfinished series is Star Saga, a highly innovative game developed by Masterplay and published by Electronic Arts. Star Saga was intended to be a trilogy, but only two games were made. Star Saga is interesting because of its determined effort to more closely emulate tabletop role-playing games (it's allegedly based on a tabletop game called Rekon). The approach was to heavily integrate extra-game materials, such as a hefty collection of printed texts ("textlets") and even a game board and pieces. The idea was that players could enrich their computer game experience by referring to these materials during game sessions; for instance, by moving the tokens around on the map. All that appears on the screen is text describing the current situation and the effects of the players' actions. Star Saga is intended to be played by more than one player (up to six), and each player has a unique role and set of tasks. In so many ways, the game functions as a robotic "dungeon master," and the real action takes place on the tabletop. Obviously, the game just can't be properly played via an emulator, so anyone interested in learning more about this game should find an original copy with all the included printed material (nearly three pounds worth!)--a collector's dream. By all accounts, the writing is quite excellent and the story simply fascinating.

"[Star Saga] is probably the most unique and well-written role-playing experience yet to appear in a computer game. It will also stand up to any human game-mastered role-playing game on the market."—William "Biff" Kritzen in Computer Gaming World, Aug. 1988.

On a side note, one of my favorite science fiction-themed CRPGs of the mid 1980s is Jagware's Alien Fires: 2199 AD, a very obscure first-person, single-character game that originated on the Commodore Amiga (1986) but was later ported to the Atari ST and MS-DOS. Almost no one talks about this game today, and I was unable to find any version but the graphically inept DOS version online. Nevertheless, I find its premise interesting (you play as a Time Lord who must stop a Dr. Kurtz from traveling back in time to see the Big Bang.) The game is fast and difficult, and involves quite a bit of interaction with a rather odd and colorful cast of characters (mostly aliens). Furthermore, the Amiga version's digitized soundtrack is absolutely hypnotic, and the design decision to use the Amiga's built-in speech synthesizer adds a distinctly "alien," psychedelic feel to the game. Alien Fires is a quirky and extremely difficult game, and the lack of a good save option compounds the problem exponentially. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to everyone, but I've never played another game that had the same otherworldly ambiance. Try to find the Amiga version if you're determined to try this game yourself.


Alien Fires 2199 A.D. (DOS). The Amiga version has the best graphics, but the DOS port
has a more user-friendly interface.

After fantasy and science fiction, the most popular genre for CRPGs is post-apocalyptic fiction. Generally speaking, this genre is occupied with the future of civilization after a nuclear holocaust (or some other type of worldwide catastrophe). The genre has been popular in books and movies, such as Mad Max (1979), Damnation Alley (1977), and Death Race 2000 (1975). The reason I mention these particular movies is that they seem to have had such a strong influence on the developers of early post-apocalyptic CRPGs, such as Autoduel (1985), which was itself based on a Steve Jackson game called Car Wars (c. 1980). In Autoduel, the point is not to slay dragons, but rather to build the most deadly vehicle on the road. Accomplishing that goal requires forethought, luck, and quick reflexes--think of it as a cross between Bally Midway's arcade hit Spy Hunter and Ultima.  Instead of strength, dexterity, and constitution, characters are assigned points for driving skill, marksmanship, and mechanics.


Autoduel (Apple II). Whatever you do,
don't say "cute."

Autoduel is also known for being one of the first "open-ended" computer games (though of course the mainframe "roguelikes" were much earlier in this regard, and Firebird's Elite (1984) was a year earlier). At any rate, it's up to the player to decide what goals are worth pursuing and how he should go about pursuing them. Players are encouraged to experiment. For instance, the player could stick to "courier" missions, risking life and limb on the deadly highways. Other players might prefer winning money in the arena, or engaging in a bit of vigilante justice--or even become an outlaw. Likewise, players can build fast and highly maneuverable cars, or virtual tanks on wheels. In so many ways, what's enjoyable about Autoduel is not so much being part of a story or completing a quest, but rather just gaining expertise of the game's logic and creative possibilities. Oh, and if any of this sounds familiar to you Grand Theft Auto fans out there, don't get too excited--there's no "Hot Coffee Mod" in Autoduel. Or is there?

Autoduel was a very popular and successful game despite its simple graphics, and other games would follow in its trajectory. Interstel's Scavengers of the Mutant World, released in 1988 for MS-DOS, echoes the nuclear wasteland setting and build-a-vehicle concept. However, this time the only purpose in doing so is to escape to a radiation-free zone, killing anything or anyone that gets in the way. While the game had some good ideas (using old highway signs for shields, for instance), terrible graphics and repetitive gameplay prevented it from achieving much success. Furthermore, the monsters grew tougher as the party gained experience--and eventually became so strong that the player had no choice but to create a whole new party and resume. In short, there's more disaster here than the one serving as the game's premise.

In 1987, Origin published another post-apocalyptic game set in the far future called 2400 A.D. The story here is that alien robots called the Tzorg have overrun the world of Metropolis and must be stopped. The player assumes the role of a rebel, and must find a way to take down the robots' central control (perhaps the developer, Chuck Bueche, was inspired by the 1984 film The Terminator?) Instead of long swords and chainmail, players get to play with a whole host of curious gadgets, such as a holoprojector which casts a hologram of the character to confuse the robots, and a jetpack to make travel a breeze. All and all, it's a very creative game that should have been a great deal more successful. Unfortunately, some legal issues prevented the game from ever being released for the C-64, and apparently the game flopped on the Apple II. On a side note, John Romero of Doom fame is often credited with the C-64 port, though some controversy exists about his involvement.


Wasteland (DOS). But Mom, I am playing
outside—see?

Probably the most famous of all the post-apocalyptic CRPGs, Fallout, can trace its roots back to Interplay's Wasteland, released in 1988 for the C-64, MS-DOS, and Apple II, and published by Electronic Arts. Wasteland is set in the devastating aftermath of World War III. Players start out with a party of four "Desert Rangers," though up to three more characters can be recruited later on. However, these additional members cannot be controlled directly, and have their own goals that play a strong role in how the game unfolds. Two of the developers, Ken St. Andre and Michael Stackpole, had designed their own tabletop role-playing games (Tunnels and Trolls and Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes, respectively), and many of their ideas ended up in Wasteland. As in SSI's Wizard's Crown (1985), character development was based not only on "stats" but also skills--27 of them, to be precise. These abilities range from combat skills to sleight-of-hand and metallurgy. Obviously, sensible players will want to ensure their party has a wide spread of talents, since there's no telling what they'll be up against--though the game is flexible enough to let players overcome obstacles in a variety of ways, such as picking a lock versus climbing a gate. Likewise, the game has several situations in which an individual character must "go it alone," thus further helping players form coherent identities for their party.

Interface-wise, Wasteland can be described as a mix between The Bard's Tale (for combat and character info screens) and top-down games like Ultima (for travel and exploration). It's a nice setup that works well, even if it doesn't allow players quite the tactical combat possibilities of Pool of Radiance or The Wizard's Crown. At any rate, the appeal of Wasteland stems more from its fascinating game world and intricate character development than combat stratagems.

Like Pool of Radiance and several other games of the era, much of the context for the action takes place in a printed manual with numbered paragraphs. The manual warns against reading ahead, but notes that once the game is finished "you can kick back in your best lounge chair under a shady cactus and read the rest of the fictional vignettes." Indeed, players who did either found some funny paragraphs designed to catch cheaters, including the first one. After several torrid descriptions of an impending sex scene, a would-be seductress proclaims, "Stop reading paragraphs you're not supposed to read, creeps. Next time I'm going to demand they put me in a Bard's Tale game, this Wasteland duty is dangerous."

Wasteland remains the favorite CRPG of many a gamer who played in back in the late 1980s, and for good reason--it's a captivating and highly innovative game that deserves its place beside (if not above!) Interplay's other CRPG classic, The Bard's Tale. It's more than a testament to the game's enduring legacy that the best-selling Fallout, released in 1997, is in many ways little more than a graphical revamp of the older engine. Wasteland is a classic game that remains highly playable and rewarding even today. I might note that Electronic Arts released an alleged sequel to the game called Fountain of Dreams in 1990, but none of Wasteland's developers were involved. The publisher made an uncharacteristic decision to downplay the "sequel" aspect as much as possible, and the game (which, by all accounts, is something of a lemon) made very little impression on the market.

The last non-fantasy CRPGs I'll mention for now are Battletech: The Crescent Hawk's Inception and Sentinel Worlds I: Future Magic. The Crescent Hawk's Inception, developed by Westwood Associates and published by Infocom in 1988. This top-down CRPG put players in the role of Jason Youngblood, whose mission was to locate his lost father and win back the land of Pacifica. In some ways, this game is similar to Origin's much earlier release Autoduel, in that players spend most of their time trying to build the best mobile death machines. Here, however, combat is turn-based and much closer to games like Pool of Radiance. Although the game was generally well received, other games based on the Battletech franchise were either strategy or arcade/simulation games (Mechwarrior, for instance). Westwood Associates also developed a game called Mars Saga in 1988 that was published by Electronic Arts. Mars Saga is seldom mentioned game today, though it was Westwood's first game that wasn't based on a license.

Sentinel Worlds, developed by Karl Buiter and published by Electronic Arts in 1989, is something of a cross between The Bard's Tale and Firebird's Elite. Players begin by assembling a five-person crew, who are then assigned "skill points" in areas as diverse as gunnery, bribery, and ATV repair. Combat can take place either on the ground or in space, but there was more to this game than who had the bigger gun. Players also had to choose the right options from conversation menus, where a few bad choices could force restoring to an older saved game. Like many other Golden Age CRPGs, Sentinel Worlds included a book of numbered passages which the players were asked to consult at certain points in the game. These passages added literary texture to the game, but were obviously much more of an interruption than the "cut scenes" we so often see in modern games. Like SSI's The Wizard's Crown, Sentinel Worlds is complicated game with a steep learning curve--factors that might explain why the game has not received the appreciation it deserves. Buiter followed up with Hard Nova, released in 1990 and also published by Electronic Arts. This game has more of a "cyberpunk" theme, and isn't an official sequel to Sentinel Worlds despite sharing most of its gameplay concepts.

Suffice it to say, the Golden Age of CRPGs wasn't just about orcs, prismatic sprays, and vorpal blades. There was a smorgasbord of sci-fi and post-apocalyptic games to choose from, including triumphs like Wasteland. Games like Star Saga and Autoduel really pushed the boundaries of the genre and demonstrated new concepts--some of which are now cliches and others mere curiosities. However, we're still not done with the Golden Age yet. Rounding out the Age are a collection of pioneering efforts into a more intense CRPG featuring real-time, 3D gameplay.




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