Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 11, 2011
I kinda tripped over this one working on the manual for Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon this weekend. Frayed Knights was inspired by favorite old-school RPGs, particularly games like the Wizardry, Ultima, and Bard’s Tale series. Oddly, when I first started I think I would have listed Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant was my biggest inspiration. It isn’t a game I actually ever played to completion (yet), nor my favorite of the series (that would be Wizardry 8). But I think I was entranced by the potential of the game even more than its actual implementation, and in many ways it epitomized this style of RPG for me. It represented a particular style of RPG at its height. Watching Demiath’s little video here still inspires me and gets me jonesing to pull up my most recent saved games and get playing it some more.
But as much as Wizardry VII acted as a representative for “old school RPG” for me, it’s hardly representative of even the games of its immediate era. It’s really hard for me to really put my finger on what characterizes an “old school RPG” because – seriously – the genre was a lot more diverse 20 years ago than it is today (unless you include indies, who are really bringing that back).
Let’s say you cut off “old school” at 15 years ago – approximately the halfway point of the life of the genre to this point. Now, as of today this would actually disqualify Fallout, Baldur’s Gate, and (by a hair) Diablo. What if we went a little further and just limited it to DOS-based games, eliminating the purely console games or the less popular games on other computer systems? Would there be any unifying characteristics that would set them apart from today’s games, besides purely technological ones?
I’m really not sure. I played (and enjoyed) Al-Qadim: The Genie’s Curse back in 1994 or so, and that was way more “action” than RPG, D&D license or not. As I’ve often mentioned, Ultima VII – still my favorite RPG – was almost ridiculously stats-light (and tactics-light) and story-heavy. The Elder Scrolls games are almost direct descendents of Ultima Underworld. You have a genre that encompasses Rogue, Starflight, Dungeon Master, the AD&D “Gold Box” games, Beyond Zork (marginally), Darklands, Twilight: 2000 (with a 3D tank “simulator” mini-game), Princess Maker (it was released for DOS, after all), Journey, Hillsfar, Space Rogue, Betrayal at Krondor, and… well, you get the idea.
While some can argue about the “RPGness” of some of these titles (I still do), but the bottom line is that it’s a broad field. “Old school” is really either based on subjective preference, or in relation to certain features that were once popular but have since become pretty rare. Things like turn-based combat, or group-based adventures (somewhat distinguished from the player + companions approach found today). Big spell lists, and the need to return to a “home base” to rest up and prepare for the next fight comes to mind. These are hardly universal characteristics, but those are the kinds of things I think of when I think “old school RPG.”
Aside from low-res 2D graphics and ancient interfaces, what does “old school RPG” mean to you? what features make you feel nostalgic? What game or games epitomize the “old school flavor” in your mind?
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