Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 2, 2014
I made a joke yesterday about partying like its 1992, as a PC gamer. It occurred to me that there’s a lot of truth to that. It seems that we’re seeing a lot of recent / new / upcoming remakes, spiritual sequels, and direct sequels of PC games that were pretty hot back in 1991 – 1993, but have been relatively fallow over the last decade or so. Then of course, we have a couple of series that are still going strong (like Civilization).
1991 – 1993 were very influential years for me. I was in college as a computer science major. I was married in the latter part of ’91, and trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. I was a PC gamer on a very limited budget, and there were a handful of games that exerted a strong influence on me, and convinced me to give game development a shot once I graduated. I even contacted the H.R. department at Origin to find out what kind of qualifications / experience they were looking for (and from what the lady told me, it sounded like a college degree wasn’t highest on their list…).
I’m guessing there are a lot of others who were similarly impressed in that era, who have now “grown up” and are now either influential in a mainstream studio, or have the skills and rep to go at it as an indie and do a credible job of revisiting this golden age of PC gaming. As for me, I’m feeling a strong sense of deja vu. Mostly in a good way. It was a very good time to be a PC gamer.
Here are a few of the games of then… and now:
Eye of the Beholder / Legend of Grimrock (2)
I really only played Eye of the Beholder II, which was released in late 1991 (but it was mid-to-late 1992 before I played it). Of course, it was inspired by the Amiga title Dungeon Master, but it did it with a loose interpretation of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition rules. Eye of the Beholder offered sort of a “slow-mo action game,” marrying traditional first-person perspective, grid-based dungeons with real-time gameplay.
The Legend of Grimrock decided the ground had been left fallow long enough. While a grid-based world hadn’t been in vogue for years, they decided the gameplay could still be a lot of fun. They were right, and the EoB / Dungeon Master – inspired title proved to be a big hit.
They are currently working on a sequel, which recently hit the alpha stage. It promises to mix indoor and outdoor locations, better AI, an improved and more flexible skill system, and more of the insane puzzle-related gameplay from the first game. It sounds likely that we’ll see the game released before the end of the year.
Wing Commander / Eterium / Star Citizen
If there was any one game that I could say changed the direction of my life in any significant way, it was Wing Commander. I played that game, and had a vision of what games could be. The original Wing Commander dropped in 1990, but I didn’t play it until the summer of 1991… just before the release of Wing Commander 2: Vengeance of the Kilrathi.
Heading up the nostalgic spiritual sequels is the recently-released Eterium. I wrote about Eterium a couple of weeks ago. I really do like it. A lot. It is aimed squarely at the Wing Commander experience, and while it does offer a bit of new ideas to the mix, if you squint really hard you could swear you are playing Wing Commander 2 all over again.
Of course, there’s also Star Citizen. Chris Roberts, the creator of the Wing Commander series, managed to score a butt-load of funding to make a publisher-free space combat extravaganza that will probably dwarf the budget of everything but his ill-conceived movie. Intended as both a single-player and a scaleable multiplayer persistent universe, it has some pretty impressive looks and aspirations, but something like this is always in danger of collapsing under its own weight and then under-delivering something hastily salvaged from the wreckage. But hey… we can hope. I really want it to be awesome.
Ultima Underworld / Underworld Ascension
I played Ultima Underworld at about the same time as Ultima VII: The Black Gate, and for a while it was a toss-up as to which game was the most revolutionary, awesome, incredible, mind-blowing RPG experience for me. Eventually, I gave the nod to Ultima VII, but it is really tough to say which game was actually more fun.
Ultima Underworld and its sequel – I’ve said quite a bit about both games, and will doubtless spill more virtual ink talking about them. For their time, they were technologically amazing. Even today, although their graphics are dated and the interface very difficult to use, they are brilliant examples of old-school design principles mixed with a cool first-person perspective. The design was part-simulation, with factions, trading, cool 3D puzzles, traditional RPG puzzles, and even a requirement to learn something of the lizard-man language to communicate with some of the characters. It didn’t include the kitchen sink, but it dang near included everything it could.
Now, we hear that Paul Neurath has gotten some of the original band back together and has formed OtherSide Entertainment with the original aim of creating a modern sequel to Ultima Underworld. Whether or not it will be an actual part of the “Ultima” franchise remains to be seen. This one will probably not see the light of day this year nor next, but it’s exciting to imagine what they may be able to create.
Wolfenstein 3D / Wolfenstein: The New Order
1992 brought out an unexpected return to an old computer game series, Muse Software’s Castle Wolfenstein, in the form of the first-person shooter Wolfenstein 3D. While it wasn’t really the first FPS (Carmack had previously released Catacomb 3D), nor was it the phenomenon that Doom would prove to be, it shook things up in industry. My local computer store had the shareware version of Wolf 3D running on all of their systems to prove how game-capable they were. It didn’t quite touch mainstream consciousness, but it was a big hit among PC gamers, launched a mainstream publisher sequel (The Spear of Destiny), and console ports.
In a way, I guess you can say that the series has continued since 2001. It’s been five years since the last Wolfenstein game (which I hadn’t even heard of), but Wolfenstein: The New Order was just released. It takes place in an alternate history 1960, when the dieselpunk Nazi regime has taken over the entire world. I don’t see it having the kind of impact of the 1992 release, but hey… it’s fun still seeing a Wolfenstein among new and recent releases.
Ultima VII / Shroud of the Avatar / Divinity: Original Sin
It seems that most critics view Ultima VII (which included two games, plus expansions) as the pinnacle of the series, and I’d be one to agree. I could go on and on about the … ahem… virtues of Ultima VII. But now is not the time. Suffice to say – it was a vision of open-world design. I recently read a contemporary review of the game following its 1992 release, and the author complained about how bored he was of the Ultima series… but admitted that Ultima VII: The Black Gate was excellent and proved that maybe the series wasn’t quite dead yet.
Unfortunately, very few developers attempted to tackle that level of complexity, although I think the Elder Scrolls series and Fallout series gave it a solid try. More recently, Divinity: Original Sin attempts to incorporate a lot of that old-school love. It’s not a direct love-child of the Ultima series, or Ultima VII in particular, and probably can’t be directly compared to the 1992 classic, but publicly acknowledged inspiration is clear.
A somewhat closer comparison comparison could be made to the recent indie release, Driftmoon. Again – it goes its own way and marches to the beat of a different trombone. But the spiritual ancestry is pretty clear, especially with the unusual choice of the top-down camera.
The closest comparison of all should probably be made with the upcoming Shroud of the Avatar. Richard Garriott, creator of the Ultima series, has jumped in with a new company to create this single player / multiplayer world as a full-blown “spiritual sequel” to his earlier titles – particularly invoking Ultima VII and Ultima Online.
No, it still won’t be quite like playing Ultima VII again, but it’ll be as close as we’re likely to get to playing a “real” Ultima again for a while.
Frontier: Elite 2 / Elite Dangerous
Jumping to 1993, still a little while before I graduated, there was another space game that devoured my spare time and blew my mind – Frontier, AKA Elite 2. This amazing title fit an entire universe on a 3.5-inch floppy disk, procedural generating worlds, stations, enemies, and missions. It was amazingly ambitious, and while the space combat was nowhere near the quality of, say, the Wing Commander series, it delivered on its ambitious promises. Go out in a procedural universe and make a living by any means necessary… and there were tons of means available.
Thanks to crowdfunding success, a new Elite is currently in development. Elite: Dangerous is being made by the original Elite series co-creator, David Braben, and his team. It looks and sounds pretty awesome so far. It has recently entered beta testing, and it is due for release at the end of the year.
Might & Magic III: Isles of Terra / Might & Magic X: Legacy
Honestly, I’m a latecomer to the Might & Magic series. I played a little of Might & Magic 2 on a friend’s computer back in 1992, and of course read all about it in the pages of Computer Gaming World, but I’ve really only started playing the series about three or four years ago. But I finally get what people were talking about, and while the 1992 release of Might & Magic III: Isles of Terra was such a big deal. (And the two immediate sequels – which could link up and create an even bigger world when combined, was an even bigger one!).
I’m still playing the recently-released Might & Magic X: Legacy, the long-overdue return to the franchise. Interestingly, while the later Might & Magic games ditched the grid-based world, Legacy went back to the early 90s and embraced it, like Legend of Grimrock. While only being able to walk in four directions isn’t very realistic, I haven’t met anybody who has played the game who denied that it was fun. It’s a solid, very fun game that embraces its old-school roots – with a little bit of streamlining for modern audiences.
X-Com / XCom: Enemy Unknown / Xenonauts
Yeah, okay. We’re now well into 1993, with another title that consumed a good deal of my time – another of the most awesome games of all time. X-Com was the U.S. name for UFO: Enemy Unknown, and it was an instant classic. It was followed up by what amounted to little more than a re-skinning with X-Com 2: Terror From the Deep. Unfortunately, everything thereafter grew progressively worse and diluted the game’s good name.
The series was finally revived a little over a year ago with a fantastic offering called XCom: Enemy Unknown. While it differed substantially from the original, it nevertheless felt true to its roots, particularly with turn-based combat. It’s a hit, and deservedly so… and it still gave us turn-based combat!
But … that’s not all. X-Com spawned numerous spiritual descendents, and the strongest and most faithful of them has been in development for many years. Entitled Xenonauts, this is a faithful spiritual remake / re-envisioning that was finally released a few weeks ago. I picked up a copy when it hit the release version based on glowing recommendations by friends. I still haven’t played it yet, though I certainly intend to.
While I think it is kind of amusing that the “spiritual sequel” is more faithful to the original style and gameplay of the original than the “true” sequel, I’m pretty happy to find that there’s room for both.
Wasteland / Wasteland 2
Wasteland was actually a considerably earlier release (1988), but in 1992 there was still a thin, shriveled hope that a sequel would appear “any month now.” It didn’t happen. A few years later, we got Fallout, which was a worthy spiritual successor by any measure. But 2014 is finally delivering the long-anticipated true sequel that fans have been expecting for 25 years.
So yeah, I’m reaching a little bit on this one. But come on… Wasteland 2 deserves a mention in an article like this!
Wizardry 7 / Grimoire?!?!?
Wizardry 7: Crusaders of the Dark Savant was another major, awesome RPG released in 1992. It was huge, popular, full of new features and ideas, and could keep a player busy for a long, long time. Hey, it’s been over twenty years and I still haven’t finished it! One day, I promise myself. One day. Considering its size and scope, however, that will be one day after many weeks of effort.
RPGWatch tweeted me yesterday with the idea that Grimoire was the new Wizardry 7, which certainly seems to be the intent of its creator. Okay. I’ll believe it when I see it. Grimoire has been living in the twilight zone of actual, playable product and vaporware for years, now. If and when it does release to the public, the hard-core, old-school PC RPG fandom will be stunned. But hopefully – hopefully – we’ll all be pleasantly surprised.
Doom / Doom
And we’ll finally revisit 1993. At the end of ’93, the big one dropped… Doom. It turned the industry on its head. PC gaming hit mainstream because of this game, though the game itself found its way to virtually every platform imaginable in time (particularly after the source code was released as open-source by id Software).
Doom 3 released ten years ago as something of a remake. It was technologically cool and very pretty, and had plenty of “jumps,’ but to many players it lacked the heart that really made Doom special.
There’s a remake that I believe has now or is very soon entering beta. Ditching the numbers and going back to the name, “Doom,” I don’t know much about it. But if it actually captures the feel of the original, I’ll be very happy.
UPDATE: I knew there were gonna be more. Spotkin is readying the 1.0 release of their new game, Contraption Maker – a spiritual successor to / remake of 1992’s awesome The Incredible Machine – by many of the team members who worked on the original series. It’s currently available via Steam Early Access, but the release version should be out very, very soon. Congrats to the team in Eugene!
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