July 20, 2013

The History of the RPG: Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981)

Recently, I got to thinking about RPGs and how they have developed over the past 30+ years.

I have been there from the start, banging on Ultima on my friend's Apple II or staying up past midnight playing Bard's Tale on my Commodore. The line from those first efforts to the insanely deep RPGs we have today is a varied and long one. But you can see themes, ideas and influences from those early 1980s trailblazers in games today. And some of our favorites from today wouldn't even exist without some of the early efforts.

For me, my first exposure to the RPG was at the tender age of 9. One of my friends had an Apple II* and couldn't stop telling me about this new game his parents had bought for him. The name? Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord**. If you consider Wizardry, Ultima and Temple of Apshai as the Holy Trinity that began RPGs, I would personally put Wizardry*** in the lead role.

It was, for it's time, revolutionary. The first D&D style computer RPG to use color graphics. The first RPG to use party-based combat. For all of us kids who were getting into D&D on paper, to see those ideas "come to life" on a computer was a world-redefining event. We could actually be a good Dwarven Fighter or an evil Elf Thief. Wizardry was also the first "dungeon crawl".

It was genius in its simplicity. You create a party of up to six characters, arm them and then try to make it through 10 levels. The screen was mostly text, like this:

The view was first-person when moving through the dungeon. You find more valuable and powerful weapons and armor. If you make it to level 10, you try to defeat the wizard Werdna and get the amulet. If you do, you win.

And there was the catch: Wizardry was a stone-cold bitch when it came to trying to win the game. First off, mapping functions didn't exist in 1981. So if you were a good D&D gamer, you broke out your graph paper and drew the map as you went along. Because sometimes you would hit a square with a teleport spell and be sent into a random part of the level. Or maybe a wall.**** And if your character teleports into a wall, they are gone. Forever. Die in combat? You are done. If you run out of spells on level 3? You have to go back to the top to repower. And if you use the most powerful spell in the game (Mahaman) - which is only available once you hit Level 13 - you lose a level! You think grinding for copper in WoW is tedious? Try wandering a level for hours on end to kill enough monsters to get that level back. Oh yeah, and your characters age. So too many trips back to the top to visit the Inn and your Lord or Ninja will drop dead from old age.

Demon Souls is hard? Please. Kid, you don't know the meaning of hard.

And the kicker? The cherry on top? If you wanted any chance of successfully playing the next two games in the series, you had to beat this game so you could import your party*****. So when I have to reload a few times to actually kill a Frost Dragon in Skyrim? That's nothing, friend. Losing a party on the fifth level of Wizardry? That's pain.

But still...I love this game. Love it.



Any game that uses party-based combat owes a debt of thanks to Wizardry. Any game that is a "dungeon crawl" or a "hack-and-slash" has its genesis in Wizardry. Sadistic games that barely let you save or kill you seemingly at will? Blame Wizardry, which still does it better than anyone else. Or worse, depending on your point of view. first-person color graphics? Right here.

Descendants: Diablo. In a lot of ways, you can draw a straight line between the two games. Dungeon crawl straight down, returning to the top on occasion, teleporting to transition between levels. The only major differences would be the single- vs party-combat styles and the first-person vs third-person combat styles.******

Next on the list: Ultima


* The Apple II line was amazingly long-lived. The first one came out in 1977 and the final version - the IIe - stopped production in 1993. The IIe was a wonder unto itself: a 10+ year run and only minor changes were ever made to the design.

** I am just calling it Wizardry for the rest of the piece. But we all know I am talking about the first one, right? Good.

*** This is obviously a matter of subjective choice and which you actually played first. Timeline-wise, Temple of Apshai was first. But does anyone ever say "I was really inspired to make this because of all the hours I spent playing Temple of Apshai as a kid"? No.

**** You have no idea how annoying this was. Bill Simmons at Grantland will talk about the Madden football series from time to time and mentions the "No F***ing Way game", where the computer simply decides you are going to lose and has Tyler Palko complete a 90-yard bomb with no time on the clock. Teleporting into a wall was the equivalent back in 1981.

***** Initially it was worse that this. At first, you couldn't even play the next game in the series unless you imported a party from Wizardry. Luckily, some genius at Sir-Tech realized this might impact sales slightly and the correction was made. Now, you could generate a new party for Wizardry II but they would likely die in the high-level beginning dungeon. In the land of Wizardry this is known as progress.

****** Yeah yeah yeah. I know..."what about Rogue?? It's coming. Most people didn't get to try it until 1984.


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