THE QUEST BE­GINS

1975-1990

PC GAMER (UK) - - Feature -

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.

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