THE QUEST BEGINS
Computers and RPGs have always gone hand-in-hand. Even when the best adventurers could hope for visually was a few letters and numbers on a screen, what better way could there be to handle stats, die-rolls and complex calculations? Soon enough, though, computer RPGs were capable of doing much more.
The original PC RPGs – such as MUDs, or multi-user dungeons – appeared in the mid-’70s. These weren’t for home computers, but mainframes, typically found in universities. They tended to be based on either Dungeons & Dragons, which itself launched in 1974, or be variously disguised takes on Tolkien. These included Dungeon, DND, Orthanc and
Oubliette. A few, such as Oubliette, had simple graphics, though most started out as just text or used ASCII’s standard set of text-mode graphics.
Despite the primitive technology, these games often offered surprising depth. Don Daglow’s Dungeon for instance, a 1975 D&D pastiche, offered control of an entire multiplayer party, mapping, NPCs with AI, line-of-sight-based combat, and both melee and ranged attacks. Moria, from the same year, served up wireframe graphics for its characters, and even featured rudimentary 3D views of its corridors. Small ones, with no detail, but let’s not forget that even Space
Invaders wasn’t out yet!
For those outside universities, the genre really began around 1980. There had been games for home systems before that, including Temple of Apshai for the TRS-80 and Beneath Apple Manor for the Apple II, but few of them made real waves. 1980 saw the launch of
Rogue, the first true dungeon crawl game, whose combination of randomly generated content and permadeath set the tone for today’s ‘roguelikes’. It would be a few more years before it and its clones would be available on home computers – the PC version landed in 1984 – but the basics were here.
The most successful dungeon crawler of all time is, of course, Blizzard’s Diablo. But Rogue’s longest-lived descendent is arguably a much more interesting game – 1987’s
Nethack. Technically, it was based on a Rogue clone called, yes, Hack, but let’s not quibble. Nethack takes the basic dungeon crawling concept and adds several decades worth of development. Ever wondered if throwing a custard pie in a basilisk’s face will stop its petrifying stare? Nethack not only answers that question (it will), but also implements blindness if you get hit by a pie yourself, causes you to break your code if a vegan character eats one (seriously), and ensures the attack doesn’t count if you’re on a pacifist run (it does no damage, no matter your combat bonus). This level of detail lead to the saying “The Dev Team Thinks Of Everything”. Many versions are now available, from the original ASCIIbased game to graphical overhauls like Vulture’s Eye. All are free, as a condition of the distribution licence.
As home computers became more popular over the ’80s, they began to take over – and many of the big names are still with us. Wizardry, for instance, launched in 1981, and the series ran until 2001. It used simple graphics and played out mostly using menus, in a way that most Western RPGs would soon try to move away from. However, its popularity in Japan led to it largely defining what that market thought an RPG was. Later games like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest still follow its lead today, albeit with those systems endlessly refined and prettified. The Bard’s Tale followed in its footsteps in 1985, with three games, and returned last year courtesy of a $1.4 million Kickstarter.