Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 19, 2010
So here’s the continuation of the series about several CRPGs over the last three decades and how they did damage to my head and influenced my feelings on games and game design (you can read part 1 here, and part 2 here). So here are a bunch more games, principally from the end of the 80’s and the first half of the 1990s. I’m really skipping a bunch of games at this point – even some very fun ones – but in those cases I guess that the vulnerable part of my mind was already gone by the time I got around to playing them. But I did realize that I’d missed one significant influence from the mid-80’s. My bad. So let’s start with that one, and move forward:
The Bard’s Tale – From this game, I learned the meaning of “punitively difficult learning curve.” Okay, not really, but just surviving the first few seconds of your adventure in the streets of Skara Brae took some serious doing. However, like so many of those old games, you were allowed to mix & match adventurers from different groups. Why can’t we do that anymore? Oh, right, group-based RPGs are so Last Century. *Sigh.* If I recall, I ended up using the pre-generated characters to babysit my own characters until they got to level three or four. But the real lesson of The Bard’s Tale probably fell on deaf ears too often: Running Away can and should be an important and viable strategy. Hey, a couple of decades later, it served me well playing Wizardry 8!
Neuromancer – I never thought of this one as an RPG, but the book, “Dungeons & Desktops,” made a good enough case for it that I guess it counts. This one really did warp my brain over the course of the two or three weeks or so that I played it. I found myself reaching for the save-game toggle whenever I’d get ready to talk to someone. Of course, most gamers might assume this is a natural reaction, until I admit that I was doing this in “real life.” Talking to my future in-laws. Never found the save-game command in the real-world interface, though. Dang it.
The Pool of Radiance – The other Gold Box games were technically superior and some of ‘em were probably better games overall. But this is the one that really stood out for me. From this game I discovered that massive, tactically complex battles could be really, really fun. More importantly, I learned that deep, “crunchy” mechanics and heavy-duty tactical gameplay could be married with a compelling story. The two are not mutually exclusive. This is something I fear many modern game designers have totally forgotten.
Ultima VI – From this game I learned that even the coolest of games (and game series) can be brought down by a tedious filler quest. One day, I hope to power through the whole pirate map pieces quest and finish what I hear is a pretty awesome game.
Eye of the Beholder II – From this game, it’s predecessor, and Dungeon Master (played on a friend’s Amiga), I learned that food found on ancient dungeon floors are perfectly edible.
Ultima Underworld – This marked about the second time a CRPG blew my mind. Fortunately, it was nearly a decade after the last time, so I’d had some time to recover. Back then I was always a sucker for first-person perspective games, because they’d been such a novelty before. But Ultima Underworld went far beyond the gimmick. From this game I learned that claustrophobia could be fun. I learned that intense, focused, deep but otherwise small environments can be just as awesome as full worlds. I learned that “simulated dungeons” with emergent behavior could be enthralling (something the Dwarf Fortress dudes seem to have taken to heart). And I learned that major anti-magic zones that totally screw up everything you’ve learned to do so far in the game can be infuriating.
Ultima VII- The Black Gate: Uh-oh. So my third experience of an RPG blowing my mind happened the same year as Ultima Underworld. I pretty much worshiped at the altar of Origin after this, until they went and blew it with Ultima VIII. But Ultima VII: The Black Gate (and expansion) remains to this day my all-time favorite RPG. From this game, my holy grail became this combination of open world design, extremely interactive environments, believable “simulated worlds” to explore, and beautiful storylines that were explored by the player rather than told to the player.
Twilight: 2000 – This game taught me three things:
- A solid, interesting tactical combat system and a variety of interesting activities can make a game entertaining in spite of a multitude of flaws;
- Tank combat in an RPG may sound cool in theory, but grafting on a cruddy action-based tank simulator really isn’t;
- It also taught me the incredible frustration of even a mediocre game proving unwinnable near the climax due to a major, unavoidable bug.
Ultima VII pt 2: Serpent Isle – From this game, I learned that the frustration caused by a bug blocking all future progress in a mediocre game is nothing compared to the soul-crushing vexation felt when the same thing happens in an otherwise wonderful game.
Menzoberranzan – This game made me realize that the heartbreak of drug abuse not only destroys those who fall victim to it, but can also hurt all those who play the games they design. And that sometimes a game can be so boring that it really isn’t “better than nothing.” (Okay, I guess I knew that before, but this game helped reinforce that lesson…)
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