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 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.