The Best Video Game Ever: “Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord”

Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on the Best Video Games Ever.  To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, please click here.

I’m an RPG guy. And I’m going old school here. Way old school: 1982. This one I played on an Apple IIe, with the green VGA monitor. Especially thinking about how far RPG’s have come, and the new king of the fantasy-setting games, Skyrim, picking Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord may seem a bit odd of a choice. Look at that playscreen — how primitive! But I’m putting it out there without apology.

After all, there are two possible choices for the best role-playing game from the very early days of personal computers, and I had to pick one.

Richard “Lord British” Garriot’s first Ultima game was certainly groundbreaking. While both games were published (in the US) in 1982, both launched a series of sequels, and there’s no doubt that Ultima told a good story too and has the advantage of still being a product whose descendants you can still get easily, that first Ultima game simply didn’t capture the elements of the table-top role playing games that were the mainstay social activity of my dorky pre-teen and teenage years.

Wizardry, on the other hand, distilled the team-building, character development, and dungeon-crawling experience of a tabletop Dungeons and Dragons game into a computer program perfectly. And it triggered the imagination in a way that Ultima never quite did for me. It’s fair to say that Wizardry influenced how I played Dungeons and Dragons as a kid as much as D&D had influenced the narrative structure of Wizardry.

Part of that was its reliance on classes and isolating particular talents to the classes. The player creates not one but up to six characters and assembles them in a party. In a tavern, of course. The tavern isn’t much to look at — it’s a screen of just text. By themselves, the characters don’t have much personality other than race, alignment, class, and a name. Everything else, you had to imagine for yourself. How did the one character get along with the others? Why is the character in the team? Strategically, what are they bringing to the party? As your characters progress in experience, you wanted to get them developed with better skills and up into better classes — your fighter can become a ninja, but do you want to give up all the cool swag he’d acquired and start over at level 1? And the use of nonsense words with just enough prefixes and suffixes for the magic spells made it seem just enough like there was a mythology out there to buy into.

Part of it was the trim look of the dungeon — a three-dimensional rendering of the simple, blocky, graph-paper based dungeons that I draw to run my friends through. You had to map out the dungeons yourself, on your own graph paper, and after a few levels the programmers found ways to play tricks on you with that — spinners and blackout areas where the only clue you had for how things were laid out were the occasional splashes of “OUCH” on the screen, which tended to attract baddies.

Part of it was the forced choices of gear and the definite progression of challenge. The program got it right with the ratio of super-cool to kinda-cool to just plain ordinary stuff you’d find, and so when you found that Blade Cuisinart, you were really happy about it. The fighters could get to be tanks, at least level-appropriately, pretty quickly, but go down a level in the big dungeon, and you’d be in over your head quickly. I recall that until I got a level-up going throughout most of the party, I’d be doing guerilla raids down into the next level and popping back up to a survivable area soon afterwards. The game balance was just right, and the baddies would be challenging all the way through, at least until you figured out the cheats or started maxing out the character’s abilities.

And once you were in the dungeon, you couldn’t save it. You were all in and had to get all out before you could save. So you had to commit to your expedition, there weren’t many shortcuts to get where you wanted to go, and if you effed up or got unlucky, too bad, you’d have to heal up as best you could and use up all your magic on healing to save money before staying at the Adventurer’s Inn to level up and regenerate — because your Thief blew it on the trap and got turned into stone and your Bishop doesn’t have the spell to fix that so boom, there goes all the money.

With only 64K of active memory to play with, and PASCAL as their programming language,* the programmers had to keep things simple. But somehow they kept the balance right, the gameplay moving quickly. With only a limited number of keyboard commands available at any time, they managed to create a viable and challenging dungeon crawler. In 1982. Which actually wound up telling a fun story about adventurers with no other apparent job opportunities search for the Lord Trebor’s lost amulet, stolen by the dastardly evil wizard Werdna. And when you finally met and battled Werdna, he really was bad-ass — a big boss worthy of the climactic fight, capable of wiping out all six of your characters no matter how strong your party was.

And since the game itself had to be so trim to be playable, it forced you to get inside your own head and make up the other details of your game. Skyrim is beautiful, but you don’t need to use your imagination to know what Bleak Falls Barrow looks like. Someone else has done the imagining and the drawing for you. Which is cool, but the trim design of Wizardry made you do all that drawing and imagining for yourself instead of just sitting there pressing keys on the keypad and telling your mom that you needed fifteen more minutes before you could do the dishes.

Wizardry spawned seven sequels and was way ahead of the actual role-playing game publishers in making it into the market. The most creative, I thought, was Wizardry 4: The Return of Werdna, in which you played a weakened evil arch-wizard fighting off waves of do-gooder adventurers out to kill you — and this was also one of the hardest games I’ve ever played. After that, there was a saga of three particularly story-intense games that were intricate and involving enough that you forgot that they were basically fetch-the-dingus, and an elaborate mythology combined with a strong sense of team-building was created that stayed true to the D&D-like spirit of the first game.

Don Zeko made a very strong nomination, it’s true. But because all the role-playing games that have followed, followed in its footsteps, and because it was able to use a lousy 64K of active memory and a 5¼” floppy disk to truly capture the essence of so complex a game as Dungeons and Dragons, Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord is the best video game ever.

 

* Clearly, they weren’t real programmers.
 
Burt LikkoBurt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.

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50 thoughts on “The Best Video Game Ever: “Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord”

  1. After all, there are two possible choices for the best role-playing game from the very early days of personal computers, and I had to pick one.

    I read this, nodded, and said “Yep. Zork.”

    Whoops!

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    • Quite a lot. Though I have to give some of the old games credit, they were legitimately HARD.

      At this rate, I’m going to wind up nominating the newest game on the list!
      (disclaimer: I’m going to be ethical and not nominate anything that folks could legitimately ask, “are you SURE you’re not biased?” It rules out quite a lot, that question.)

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    • You’re right, Don, much my admiration for the game comes from its status as a pioneer rather than its ultimate mastery.

      But I’ll say this for the game affirmatively — it did force you to use your own imagination to color in things. And for the minimal identity assigned to characters in the game, the player’s identification with each one was quite strong — maybe because there really was so little character in the game to hang on to, and the mental construct was thus so personal. In that sense, it was more engaging and absorbing than anything out on the market now.

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      • I don’t exactly mean this is a criticism. I’m not sure how much being an innovator should count for in this respect. While many sequels to groundbreaking games fail to capture the magic of the original, others seem to simply improve upon what worked before. Does that make such a sequel a better game, or does the trailblazing of the first game elevate it above later refinements? I genuinely don’t know.

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        • I wouldn’t have chosen Wizardry, myself.
          I’d say I’m totally split on this.
          There are plenty of forgettable firsts (Star Control? Wing Commander I).
          Then there are the ones where the sequel is way better (Civilization II, Brian Reynold’s Alpha Centauri)
          And then there are the ones where you’ve got arguments for both ways (Thief versus Thief2/System Shock II).

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          • The Wizardry games did get better — technically and artistically and narratively. But until Wiz-8, they kept the same grid movement pattern, the same six-pack of characters of varied skills, and the same character development ethics. While the art got better, the exercise of one’s imagination diminished, and by Wiz 8 the mythology built up over the previous games had become more than a little bit cumbersome for storytelling purposes.

            But when we get to voting, despite nominating Wizardry here, I’m quite likely to vote for Civilization.

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  2. Clearly, they weren’t real programmers.

    Granted, I’m old enough to have done most of the things in that piece, and in FORTRAN. Still, there’s a point where it’s foolish to cling to a single way to do things and refuse to move forward. At least they didn’t mention computed goto, which is where I draw the line. I was scarred for life by the six weeks I spent cleaning up a program that used computed goto to emulate a return from a subroutine in the mistaken belief that it would run faster than an actual subroutine call and return. I expected better from the people at the Naval Postgraduate School, where the program was initially written.

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  3. My computing experience came just after Wizardry and Ultima and just in time for Bard’s Tale series. I loved that game. Couldn’t play it with a darn (was too young, lacked patience). I finally solved the first BT almost a decade ago when I installed the “IBM” version on my laptop. I was working my way through BT2 when said laptop died, alas.

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  4. Burt – You may be able to answer a question that’s been bothering me for years. There was a game I used to play on the Apple II-C, if I remember correctly. You were an interplanetary mining concern, and you had to assign your ships to locations around the solar system. There was claim-jumping and travel time and profitability and a bunch of other things that made (as I remember it) a pretty interesting game. I once got a printout of the code – BASIC, I believe – but that’s long gone, and I’ve never seen a reference to the game in decades.

    Any idea?

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