A complete history of role-playing videogames: Part 2

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When last we met, we’d been taking a peek under the duvet of history and marvelling at the influences that Western RPGs had on Eastern RPGs. This influence would continue for a while, and later on even be reciprocated, but for now let’s pick up the trail of this history back in the West, and see what followed in the footsteps of Wizardry, Ultima, Rogue-likes and Telengard.

At the time that RPGs were seeing a momentous rise, another genre, with many similarities, was also seeing its star beginning to blaze brightly on the screens of yore: adventure games. Anyone with an ounce of genre-savviness will know that the chief differences between RPGs and adventures is the amount of character stats. Adventure games were still in diapers at the time, but they did one thing supremely well: stories.

RPG History Part 2: Zork Logo 2The early adventure games – such as Zork and Dungeon – were still little more than text, but their heavy leanings toward narrative had a drastic and dramatic impact on their role-playing brethren.

If there’s enough call for it, I’ll probably cover the rise and fall of adventure games in another article, but suffice to say that early adventure games had a greater affect on RPGs than just ‘better stories,’ although the full culmination of that impact wasn’t to be seen until much later.

The impact I’m rambling on about is that of the natural offshoot of early text-based adventure games: MUDs, or multi-user dungeons. Without going into too much detail for those who haven’t experienced them, MUDs can be visualized as ‘World of Warcraft: now with more text and little to no graphics!’ Once again, keep MUDs at the back of your mind as I continue this history.

RPG History Part 2: Temple of Asphai

The successes of Ultima and Wizardry led naturally to spin-offs, sequels, and clones. Ultima, for example, spawned Ultima II in 1982 and Ultima III in 1983. In the same vein, Wizardry II and III followed in 1982 and 83. Both series of games were incredibly successful, as was a contemporary RPG, The Temple of Apshai. By this point, RPGs were no longer limited to PCs, but were being ported to early home consoles, too, allowing more people access to these games.

At the same time that these games were arriving, computing power was on the rise, allowing developers to put more complex interactions and more detailed worlds into their RPGs. Which games remained PC-shackled versus which games were ported to home console made a huge difference to how Western and Eastern developers perceived, developed, and marketed RPGs in their respective territories.

RPG History Part 2: Dragonstomper

With another hop back East, 1982 saw what was possibly the first true home console RPG, Dragonstomper for the Atari 2600 console, but almost definitely the only true RPG for the Atari 2600. The game made use of device called a ‘Supercharger,’ which essentially plugged into the 2600’s cartridge slot and connected to a cassette tape player to play cassette games on the usually-cartridge-only console. Dragonstomper was revolutionary for its time, and included such ‘well-loved’ staples as random battles with monsters.

1984 saw the release of a game called Dragon Slayer on the NEC PC-88. The game was ported to the MSX system by a then little-known company, Square. One of the students hired to work for Square, Hironobu Sakaguchi (whom many JRPG aficionados will recognize as the father of Final Fantasy), used to play a lot of a certain influential game: Wizardry. If you missed the connection in the last article, I’ll make it more explicit for you now: it’s almost certain that Wizardry had more than just a passing influence on Final Fantasy. But back to Dragon Slayer.

RPG History Part 2: Dragon Slayer

Dragon Slayer was an interesting beast for a number of reasons, and one of them was the fact that it was almost certainly the father-game in a new sub-genre of RPG: the action RPG. Although exploration of the game’s environment happened on a side-scrolling screen, engaging in battles took you to an overhead view real-time battle screen, where you could move around freely and kill enemies at will. Dragon Slayer also introduced puzzles based on items that you had collected from around the game world. Both of these gameplay mechanics very likely had an influence on Shigeru Miyamoto – whom some of you will recognize as the father of The Legend of Zelda – and Masaya Hashimoto, the father of the Ys series.

Dragon Slayer was so successful that it spawned its own slew of sequels and 1985’s Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu, was one of the best-selling games in Japan that year. Xanadu kept many of the same mechanics that made the first Dragon Slayer so successful, and introduced some new mechanics that we find common in JRPGs, including experience and levels for weapons, armour that changes the character’s appearance, and even an expansion pack for the game.

Xanadu was a massive success, racking up over 400 000 units in sales. It’s possible that you can’t comprehend that number without a little context: in 1982, just three years prior, the best selling game in the West was Temple of Asphai, at 40 000 units, one tenth of Xanadu’s sales figures. Dragon Slayer’s successes would be instrumental in influencing two other game franchises in different ways, namely Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest.

RPG History Part 2: Hydlide

Another NEC-PC game, Hydlide (released to Japan in 1984), also made several contributions to the action-RPG genre, including password saves (allowing the player to bypass save files) and passive health regeneration. Hydlide eventually made its way west to American audiences in the late 1980s, but by this time, another game had taken the throne in the action RPG castle. I’ll keep you guessing until we hit the late 80s in this history.

The following year saw Hydlide II, which introduced a morality feedback system; although players could attack just about anyone and anything, killing villagers and good monsters would have repercussions for the player, essentially denying the player equipment, training, and the usual townsfolk chit-chat so common in RPGs. It was a tactic that made players lonely enough to avoid evil behaviour if they wanted to finish the game at all.

RPG History Part 2: Dragon Quest

Back on the NES, the first Dragon Quest game by Enix hit the Japanese public like a horrible natural disaster. The game’s creator, Yuji Horii, wanted something more accessible to the general public and the inspiration list for Dragon Quest reads like an RPG parts shopping list: bits of gameplay mechanic from Ultima, dungeon mechanics from Wizardry, story elements from visual novels, and the like.

Dragon Quest also introduced a few new mechanics of its own, including side-quests and sub-quests, romance sub-plots, an amazing musical score, artwork by a credible manga artist (Akira Toriyama, the artists and writer behind the Dragonball Z stories, amongst others) and the general use of the RPG as a bildungsroman. The Dragon Quest games have not only given rise to multiple sequels, but also spin-offs, and even its very own urban myth regarding a law surrounding a weekday ban in Japan on releases of Dragon Quest!

RPG History Part 2: Stargazers

Although high fantasy was (and still is) the prime subject for RPGs, a few sci-fi RPGs also entered the stage in the late-80s. Prime amongst them was 星をみるひと (Hoshi wo Miru Hito, or Stargazers [literally, “People Who Look at Stars”]), set in post-apocalyptic New York. Enix and Square weren’t being idle, however. Enix released the sci-fi themed 地球戦士ライーザ (Chikyu Senshi Raiza, or Earth Fighter Rayieza), while Square delivered Genesis: Beyond The Revelation in the same year.

Most sci-fi RPGs lent their themes well to cyberpunk- and post-apocalyptic-type stories less than far-flung-future-space-opera style stories, but a fair mix of both occurred. The post-apocalyptic ones in particular would lead to a later, very popular series in the West: Fallout. But once again, that was much further down the line.

RPG History Part 2: Bard's Tale

Going back West again, 1985 saw the release of Bard’s Tale, an almost straight RPG that saw the player doing little else but gaining experience and raiding dungeons. What Bard’s Tale brought to the table was something that had been missing from many RPGs since the start of the genre: accessibility. The Bard’s Tale simplified gameplay enough that even novice RPG players found it simple to get into, yet hard to master.

Wizardry’s influences on The Bard’s Tale are abundant, from the 3D dungeons to multiple party members to simply being able to import Wizardry save files (and Ultima III files as well) for use in The Bard’s Tale! The Bard’s Tale series was also applauded for fully explorable towns (the most famous and well-remembered being Skara Brae) as opposed to the menu-based towns seen in other games. The Bard’s Tale proved so endearingly popular that a series of books – written by famed fantasy authors Mercedes Lackey, Holly Lisle and Mark Shepherd, amongst others – was commissioned to be a companion to the game series.

RPG History Part 2: Might and Magic

In 1986 a new competitor in the RPG battle entered the arena: Might and Magic Book One: The Secret of the Inner Sanctum. Like many games of the era, Might and Magic Book One was written almost entirely by a single person. The game was first released on the Apple II system, but was so popular that it was later ported to well over half a dozen other systems. Might and Magic proved so popular, in fact, that it eventually spawned a total of nine games in the main series, as well as a number of spin-off games. Ultima and Wizardry aside, few other Western RPGs have managed to stay alive and spawn so many sequels.

Around 1988, table-top gaming and digital gaming converged once again. TSR, the owners of the Dungeons and Dragons franchise, offered up the license to the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D) game rules. Much of the motivation behind the offering was the successes that TSR saw in Ultima and Wizardry, and in the rise of RPGs in general. The license was won by a company called Strategic Simulations Inc (SSI), which heretofore had produced mainly strategic wargames similar to the Warhammer series, and the odd fantasy-based RPG title such as Wizard’s Crown.

RPG History Part 2: Pool of Radiance

Development soon started on a new game engine – called the Gold Box engine – that relied heavily on the AD&D rules. Shortly afterwards, the first Gold Box game, Pool of Radiance, appeared on the market. It was the first digital RPG that truly followed the D&D rule-set devised by Gary Gygax almost a decade before, and was superbly received.

To close off the Western end of the decade, Times of Lore was released to the Western public, arguably one of the first seriously accessible action-RPG games to grace PCs. The game’s top-down view was heavily reminiscent of JRPG games such as Hydlide, and the game was lauded for its huge environment (an alleged 13 000 screens of map) and its accessible, menu-driven gameplay.

RPG History Part 2: Times of Lore

A final jump Eastwards again for this chapter of the review, and 1986 finally saw one of consoledom’s most famous action RPGs: The Legend of Zelda. Zelda first appeared on the Famicom disk system before being ported to the NES. The game was an almost instant hit, selling over six and a half million copies. Compare that to Dragon Slayer II: Xanadu’s paltry 400 000 just a year earlier, and you can begin to understand just how powerful the action RPG had become, from its humble roots in Dragon Slayer.

RPG History Part 2: Legend of Zelda

Zelda also introduced a kind of non-linearity to action RPG games, allowing players to complete the dungeons in any order they wanted. That, combined with the many hidden dungeons, puzzle elements and simple save system, made Zelda so well-received that the series is still alive today, and the latest game, Skyward Sword, is just as popular now as the first game ever was.

Thanks for reading part two of Fayyaad’s feature on the history of role-playing videogames – don’t miss out on part one if you haven’t already read it!

Look forward to part three soon!