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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)


The Late Golden Age: The Rise of Real-Time 3D

In 2007, we might find it difficult to imagine a time when real-time, 3D games were a novelty. Although these games had existed for home computers for some time--3D Monster Maze (1981), Dungeons of Daggorath (1982), the great majority of CRPGs were either top-down, turn-based 3D, or some mixture of the two. However, by the late 1980s, computer gamers were steadily replacing their 8-bit machines with Atari ST and Commodore Amiga computers. These new machines offered better graphics, sound, memory, and storage options--facts that were not lost on aspiring game developers. Nevertheless, it took awhile for real-time, first-person 3-D to really catch-on, and even now the question of whether it really leads to better CRPGs is open for discussion. Gamers were just as divided in 1988 over games like Pool of Radiance and Dungeon Master as they are about Neverwinter Nights 2 and The Elder Scrolls IV. There has (and probably never will be) a single, shared vision for a CRPG engine and interface. Some players seem to privilege the "immersion" experience of first-person perspective, whereas others prefer to see their characters moving about on the screen. Likewise, there are CRPG fans who enjoy contemplative turn-based combat (as seen recently in The Temple of Elemental Evil), though most modern gamers seem to prefer real-time action.


Dungeon Master (Atari ST). Can you overcome your carpal tunnel syndrome long enough to beat this game?

"Few games have generated as much affection as Dungeon Master, even to the point of third-party products (hint books and maps). It's hard not to like DM."–Ian Chadwick in ST-Log, February 1989.

Since these issues remain so central to CRPG development, FTL Games' classic Dungeon Master (1987) is one of the most historically significant  CRPGs, and there are many CRPG critics who consider it the greatest CRPG ever made. It was first released for the new Atari ST, where it became the best-selling game ever for the platform.  It was promptly ported to the rival Commodore Amiga, and somewhat later to the MS-DOS and even the SNES platforms. Though it is hailed for its innovative use of sound and a back story by a professional novelist (Nancy Holder), for our purposes the most important feature is the game's 3-D interface. The bulk of the screen is composed of a first-person view of the party's current perspective. This screen is updated in real-time as the player explores the dungeon, much like the setup of a first-person shooter. On the top of this window are four boxes showing the current status of the four characters, the items they are holding, and their relative position (i.e., who is in front and back). The rest of the screen is dedicated to the magic system, attack mode, and directional buttons. Although the directional keys are a bit cumbersome on the ST version (players must click them with the mouse), later versions allow all movement (including rotating) to be executed from the keyboard. Unlike most games of the era, Dungeon Master offers combat in real-time. When the party is attacked, the player must work frantically to issue orders (e.g., attack, cast a spell, quaff a potion), always taking into consideration how long it will take each character to perform and recover. Since very few of these actions can be automated or prepared beforehand, players need rapid reflexes and considerable endurance to complete the game. Without a doubt, many gamers suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome today have Dungeon Master to blame!

However, Dungeon Master is far from a simple "clickfest." Most noticeably, the game's magic system is complex and arguably more logical than simple point-based (The Bard's Tale) or slot systems (Pool of Radiance, Wizardry). In Dungeon Master, players cast spells by stringing together runes. Although only certain predetermined sequences produce effects, players can determine the potency of any spell (or potion) and subsequently how much magical energy to expend in the process. Furthermore, although any character can try to cast a spell, only practiced mages and priests can pull off really effective feats of magic. However, the manual doesn't include a magical recipe book, so players must either find them sprinkled throughout the vast dungeon, experiment in a trial-and-error fashion, or consult a hint book. In any case, it's an versatile if somewhat daunting spell system for novices. A similar (probably derived) system shows up in Dynamix's Betrayal at Krondor (1993).

Adding to the "real-time" aspect is the necessity to acquire food and water for the characters--a gameplay element seen in many earlier games, including Rogue and Ultima. Thankfully, the need to eat drink are infrequent enough to keep this aspect from becoming a nuisance. Hungry characters can even gobble down the carcasses of many of the slain monsters, though it's best to collect the turkey legs and other foods left lying about the dungeon (sanitation not required!).

Dungeon Master was an unqualified success, and FTL followed up with Chaos Strikes Back in 1989. However, other developers were quick to follow their example. In 1990, SSI published the first of what would become a trilogy of "Black Box" Eye of the Beholder games, developed by Westwood Studios (formerly Westwood Associates) and based on the 2nd edition of the AD&D official rules. First available for MS-DOS but later for the Amiga, Sega CD (featuring a famous soundtrack by Yuzo Koshiro), and SNES, Eye of the Beholder was unquestionably influenced by FTL's breakthrough title. The games are set in TSR's Forgotten Realms, the same universe used in Pool of Radiance and its sequels. Like Dungeon Master, the player controls a party of four characters--however, in Eye of the Beholder, two non-player characters can also join the group. Another important difference is that players get to create their own characters rather than select them from a "Hall of Heroes," as in DM. Further differences are a built-in compass (players must find the compass in DM) and a slot-style spell system. Players select which spells they wish their mages to memorize or clerics to pray for, then "camp" until they've done so.


Eye of the Beholder (DOS). Any resemblance to Dungeon Master is purely coincidental.

The story in the first game is quite simple--a mysterious evil presence has been detected underneath the city of Waterdeep. Little is known about the nature of this evil, but the name "Xanathar" seems relevant. Naturally, the characters are instructed to investigate, but a sudden cave-in leaves them stranded in the sewers beneath the city. The second game, The Legend of Darkmoon (1991), added outdoor areas and focused more on narrative and interaction with non-player characters. Perhaps most importantly, the second game has a much more user-friendly saved game setup; instead of replacing a single saved game with each save, players choose among six different slots. Though the story starts off as vaguely as the first (you're to explore a mysterious evil in the Tower of Darkmoon), most fans of the series consider The Legend of Darkmoon the best of the lot. The final game, released in 1993, was not developed by Westwood Studios, but rather internally by SSI. It has some nice innovations, such as an "ALL ATTACK" button allowing all available characters to attack with one click, and the ability of characters standing in the rear to attack with pole-arms. However, it is by all accounts a disappointment and a terrible way to end the glorious trilogy. The culprits are a lackluster story, repetitive gameplay, and inconsistent difficulty.


Hired Guns (Amiga). I'll take four, thank
you very much.

Another company to mimic the successful Dungeon Master formula was DMA Design, a premier Amiga developer. In 1993, Psygnosis published their Hired Guns for MS-DOS and Amiga. Set in a grim, futuristic world called Graveyard, Hired Guns quickly became many gamers' favorite CRPG, and can be found on countless "Best Of" charts of Amiga games. The story is simple if a bit twisted--four mercenaries are hired to allegedly rescue some hostages, but soon discover they have been selected to test the prowess of deadly, genetically engineered creatures. One of the most popular features of the game is its multiplayer mode, which allows up to four players to play at once, and a "deathmatch" mode provides enjoyment long after players complete the campaign. Although many CRPGs claim to have "multiplayer" options, what this usually amounts to is one player sitting at the keyboard taking orders from the assembled group. Only a few games prior to the rise of LAN and internet gaming allowed more direct controls. Though Hired Guns is one of the most famous of these, a very early example is Quality Software's Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1981!), an Atari 8-bit game (later ported to Apple II) which allowed simultaneous play for up to four people. A later but only slightly less obscure example is Swords of Twilight, developed by Free Fall Associates and published by Electronic Arts in 1989. An Amiga-only title, Swords of Twilight is a real-time isometric RPG that allows up to three simultaneous players. Also appearing in 1989 was Mirrosoft's Bloodwych, published by Konami. Bloodwych, a first-person game in the vein of Dungeon Master, was available for a variety of platforms, and features a split-screen option for two players to enjoy the game simultaneously. The game is also known for its emphasis on dialog with non-player characters and enormous maps. The developers (Philip M. and Anthony Taglione) went on to create a follow-up called Hexx: Heresy of the Wizard, which was published by Psygnosis in 1994.

Now that we've covered some of the most groundbreaking new games and developments, let's wrap up with a glance at what was happening with the two foundational CRPG series, Wizardry and Ultima, as well as an important newcomer: Might and Magic.




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