Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

What Is an Old-School RPG?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 24, 2012

I’m going to make a confession. This is a big one, coming from a designer of an “old-school style” CRPG, and from a guy who’s constantly harping on the joys of old-school gaming.

I don’t know what the hell “old-school” means.

Sure, I was there playing these old classics when they were new, and I still play some of them today (Hey, I just re-played Ultima III a few months ago!) I remember clearly when The Bard’s Tale was the hot new thing. I was reading “behind the scenes” articles in magazines and books when the big players of the era seemed like they’d be pumping out RPGs until the end of time … and are now long shuttered.  I’ve chatted with some of these guys at length at GDC (back when it was called CGDC, even).  But that doesn’t mean I know what I’m talking about.

And sure, I’ve got my own little pet ideas, but they apparently conflict with other people’s ideas, so apparently I don’t really understand what it means. That, or  old-school is in the eye of the beholder.

For example… turn-based vs. real-time (or “action”). Action-based, “real-time” RPGs have been with us for a very, very long time. I like to refer back to Gateway to Apshai, published in 1983 (yeah, over a decade before Diablo), which was pure action-arcade-RPG. You had the trappings of an RPG, gathering loot and gaining levels as you used the joystick to do action-based battle against pixellated bad-guys. We can also go back to Ultima III or Telengard, two of the earliest CRPGs I ever played. These were “real-time turn-based” if that makes any sense. You had time limits to choose your actions. Worse, the only “pause” command was getting into some input loop where the games were asking for additional details or confirmation of your action.

So really, as far as I’m concerned, and as much as I like to refer to “turn-based” games as “old school”, the truth of the matter is that both have been with us about as long as we’ve had commercial CRPGs.  There’s absolutely nothing inherently new or improved or better about action-based gaming. And there were absolutely no technical limitations preventing RPGs from being real-time / action based back in the day, Mr. Findley. (Hopefully he’s repented of that attitude now that they’re working on Wasteland 2). There were lots of action-RPGs back then.

I guess I’m echoing Rowan Kaiser here, which was not my intention.  But the variety runs the gamut. Perspective? We had top-down, first-person, iso, side-scrolling, hybrids, and variations like crazy. Even many games that changed perspective when combat started. Complexity? You’ve got dirt-simple titles from back in the day that makes the most “dumbed-down” modern offerings seem like piloting the space shuttle by comparison. And then you have some pretty awesomely over-the-top tactical stuff, like SSI’s Wizard’s Crown.  And humongously detailed systems with tons of dynamic-generated content and gazillions of factions, like Daggerfall. And everything in-between. Old-school games had you exploring a single, open-ended dungeon. Or an open-ended world. Or led you along a very constrained path, level-by-level.

We can’t even agree about a time-period for “old-school.” Maybe it’s my age, but I still have a tough time thinking of any game published in a year that begins with a “2” as “old-school.” It’s like… for me, you take the history of commercial computer games, which for me begins around 1979, and mark it at the halfway point between then and now – which would be about 1996 – and set that as the “old-school” demarcation. Yeah, I’ll give it a little bit of extra slosh, but I have a tough time thinking of a game like Oblivion as old-school. Friggin’ kids. Plus, as I’m a retro-gamer who is still playing older games for the first time (I just recently finished Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords), I  have a tough time thinking of some of these games as being all that old.

When I talk old-school, I tend to talk about the classic games that I personally played, which included some classics as well as some stinkers. Back then, I didn’t worry about whether Al-Qadim: The Genie’s Curse was a “real” RPG or not. Hardly anybody worried about that until the “boom” of RPGs hit its peak in the early 90s and then started contracting.  Sure, you occasionally had an article explaining the difference between the two popular genres, RPGs vs. Adventure Games. How quaint that seems now. Really – it was all good.  Except when it was bad.  When did we start worrying so hard about what box we fit these games into, anyway? And how did that happen?

So you wanna know what “old-school” means? Maybe it means all the amazing variety of game styles that used to be sold but are no longer “in vogue” amongst mainstream publishers. Instead, they’ve narrowed their scope down to just a tiny handful of crowd-pleasing styles that they keep trying to perfect. But as the whole “mainstream publishing” thing is also losing relevance (at least for PC development),  I don’t even understand how important that really is anymore.

I’m still going to refer to some of the things I do as “old-school,” but like the word “indie,” it’s really just a poor shorthand to potential players to reset expectations. But old is the new new. Or something like that.

But really, I still don’t know what the hell I’m talking about.

Filed Under: Retro - Comments: 16 Comments to Read

  • Craig Stern said,

    I think the crux of the argument is less that “turn-based games were the only old RPGs,” and more that “action RPGs are pretty much the only RPGs that AAA studios still make today.” (Which, through a tortured misapplication of logic, therefore makes the turn-based games “old school.”)

    I do agree that there could stand to be more precise terminology to describe just what makes turn-based RPGs special in today’s market. I’m not sure what terminology would work better, though. Maybe we could call turn-based “an abandoned form” rather than conflating it with “old school design”?

    Also, apropos of nothing: I view this article as a perfect excuse to post one of my favorite meme images. http://knowyourmeme.com/photos/234137-i-have-no-idea-what-im-doing

  • Brent Bowman said,

    Well here it is 2012 already and I just downloaded Neverwinter Nights (the first one) from GOG and am enjoying it. I consider it to be quite old, but not old enough to be considered “Old School”.

    Thanks for bringing back a flood of memories just by mentioning Telengard. I remember playing that on Eric’s C64 back in the day. I alwaysremembered playing it, but could not remember the name until I just read your post. Good memories and definitely something I would consider “Old School”

  • Matt Barnson said,

    From where I sit, PC-based gaming is dying. Portables — phones, handhelds, and tablets — are the present and future of mass-market gaming. I’ve paid $60 for titles on my iPad, and I’ve paid $1 (or nothing at all); it all depends on what kind of experience I expect to get.

    The last time I played a PC or Mac game? About 3 years ago. If you don’t count Dungeon Defenders for PC, which was a tablet game before it was a Mac or PC game…

  • Matt Barnson said,

    I realized that I somehow copied out the relevant bit to your article: from my perspective, ALL PC/Mac gaming is old-school 🙂

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    This fits in with the “What defines a cRPG” conversation doesn’t it? Really, to assist a conversation like this we need better defined sub-genres.

    For what it’s worth, my youth was spent playing Ultima, Quest for Glory and similar, moving on to Baldurs Gate/Neverwinter Nights and so on as I got older.

    So when I see something like Age of Decadence, I regard that as being “old-school”. It’s not hard to notice how different it is from the current crop of mainstream RPGs (Diablo 3, Mass Effect 3, The Witcher 2).

    However, when compared to the likes of Wizardry, Dungeon Master or Bard’s Tale, it doesn’t look very “old-school” at all. Mostly because it’s drawing from a very different source.

  • Daniel Biehl said,

    I think “old-school” is a bit of a moving target. I think a lot of people define “old-school” depending on when they got old enough to first enjoy CRPGs.

    I don’t know if there is a proper way to define “old-school”.

    Honestly I think it’s all perception.


    “That, or old-school is in the eye of the beholder.”

    I see what you did there. Well played sir. Well played. 😉

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Heh – well, I was tempted to capitalize that one, but I figured I’d just let it sit there…

  • Crashman said,

    Al-Quadim: The Genie’s Curse was such a great game. It was unlike anything I’d ever played at the time. I bought it in a package with six other SSI games; two first person Ravenloft games, Al-Quadim, two top-down tactical Dark Sun games… and one other one that I can’t seem to remember. I think I still have the original discs at my parent’s house. Oh, those were the days.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I picked it up Al-Qadim: The Genie’s Curse at a Fry’s in California when we went to our first GDC (then CGDC) as a new game company back in 1995. Played it when I got back. It was never destined to become a favorite, or a classic, but I enjoyed it and played it to its conclusion. There are a lot of “great”, “classic” RPGs I haven’t done that with…

  • miroz said,

    I draw an old/new line between 2D and 3D graphics, or sprites and 3d models. So, that’s between Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights, Daggerfall and Morrowind.
    For me, it’s like games lost something in this transition and can’t recover it anymore.

  • Gaulen said,

    I think it is very easy to define what is “Old School” :o) because the real difference is the target audiende:

    Old-school games are designed for people who like challenges, don’t mind to learn complex system mechanics and enjoy solving puzzles or any other thing that makes them think.

    New-school games are designed in order to please gamers who wants to believe they are heros who can beat anything, and that their actions really matters, but actually they are only playing a large scripted tutorial…

  • GhanBuriGhan said,

    “I have a tough time thinking of a game like Oblivion as old-school. Friggin’ kids. ”
    I’m with you on that one! :p

    Anyway, I think that oldschool is generally a term people use when they describe something they miss from the current crop of games that they found in older ones – as such it’s a highly subjective concept.

  • Robert said,

    As such I would like to pose “Dark Souls” as an ‘old-school’-rpg.

    It has a lot of the values that people consider old-school, but it also puts a lot of those preconceptions away. In many ways it’s a new-school game as well.

    -It is based on creating a (fair) challenge.
    -It has stats/builds/weapons galore.
    -Bosses/enemies are like puzzles in finding out how to beat them.
    -Heaps of secrets/fun exploration.
    -Nothing is chewed out for you.

    On the other hand.

    -Action, realtime.
    -Minimal dialogue

    Personally I find this issue a fun, but moot, point of discussion. I divide games in 2 groups: “Games I like” & “Games I don’t like”. But maybe I’m simple. 😉

  • Xenovore said,

    As for my definition of “old school”, I’ll just spew out what comes to mind:

    Ugly, pixely 2D graphics with few colors, bad/no sound or music, abstract, simplistic, often turn-based, annoyingly difficult, grindy, keyboard-only and/or bad mouse controls, limited movement, bad UI, incessant floppy disk swappage, buggy…


    …oldschool is generally a term people use when they describe something they miss from the current crop of games that they found in older ones…

    Couldn’t be further from the truth for me (as you might surmise from my list above). “Old school” pretty much equates to “crappy” as far as I’m concerned. Sure there are certain games that I enjoyed back in the day, and through the rose-colored, nostalgia glasses they look fun, but when I go back and try to play those games… I typically last all of 5 minutes before (re-)realizing how truly weak they were.

  • jwmeep said,

    I have hard enough time thinking of stuff I played in Highschool as oldschool (Daggerfall, Fallout,) let alone the newer stuff. Mainly since it makes me feel old. Is old school supposed to do that? It’s like hearing your favorite album being played in an elevator.

  • Something Old, Something New… And Everything Else! said,

    […] by Rampant Coyote on October 24, 2012 I recently confessed that I really don’t know what “old-school RPG” really means, mainly because it’s something that represents different things to different people. In the […]