Into the dungeon
Almost all RPGs of this era were fantasy based, though there were a few exceptions like Origin’s car-based Autoduel (1985, based on Steve Jackson Games’ Car Wars) and Starflight (1986), which swapped the traditional party for the crew of a spaceship on a quest to explore the universe and find out why the stars of the galaxy are flaring and destroying everything around. (It would later inspire the wonderful Star Control 2, as well as be one of the lynchpins for BioWare’s Mass Effect series.)
This shouldn’t, however, be much of a surprise. Fantasy worlds were easy to both produce and to understand – the difference between a shortsword and a broadsword being easy to parse. They also didn’t require much in the way of story, which was good, because they rarely offered much more than go forth and slay the Bad Dude/retrieve the Golden Whatever/rescue the Generic Princess. That wasn’t their fault, and it wasn’t simply that nobody wanted to tell stories. It was that doing so was difficult.
Most games of this era didn’t have the disk space for text. A 5¼ inch floppy disk held around 720KB of data. Its more compact successor, the 3 ½ inch floppy, held about 1.2MB. The more floppy disks a game needed, the more expensive it was to produce. This is why, for example, the first Eye of the
Beholder doesn’t have an ending sequence. One was planned, but it would have required an extra disk. The publisher said no. Instead, your reward for getting to the end was a quick burst of text going, more or less, ‘well done you won’ (the Amiga version retained the cinematic, so you can find it on YouTube now if you still feel ripped off ).
Some games found ways around this problem. Wasteland, for instance, released in 1987, came with a printed book that resembled a Choose Your Own Adventure. The idea was that when you reached a critical part, the game told you which paragraph to read. This saved space on the disks for more maps, graphics and other good stuff that RPGs really needed.
Most games got around it by shrugging and not worrying about it at all. Dungeon crawling was what people expected from these games, and dungeon crawling is what they got. 1987’s Dungeon Master, for instance, which offered a huge 3D
viewing window on the dungeon (redrawn in chunks, step by step, not a fluid 3D engine), real-time combat, rune-based magic, and seemingly endless maps to explore. To put expectations into context, this was a time when anything 3D was impressive, and a game could make waves by letting you go outside – even when ‘outside’ meant painting the ceiling blue, replacing the dungeon walls with trees, and claiming it was a particularly dense forest. The trick was still working by 1993’s Dungeon Master II:
The Legend of Skullkeep and Westwood’s Lands of Lore, despite games like The Bard’s Tale long having experimented with ‘dungeons’ that were, say, the streets of a monster infested town, and even the UK TV show Knightmare, which went a couple of seasons inside computer-painted dungeons before ‘upgrading’ to location footage. The general rule was that dungeons could be first person, but overworlds were top down. We craved the day when that would change; when a company like Origin would announce Ultima Overworld to go along with its beloved, dungeon-exploring Underworld brand.
1 ragonStrike Wasteland