On the History of Wizardry

Once upon a time, there was Wizardry, and nothing else. Welllll-l-l… almost nothing else. Here’s a makeshift timeline of CRPGs and CRPG-like released leading up to the original Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord.

Don’t be fooled by this chart, where Wizardry happens to appear at the end. Most of these games were not widely available. Anything for a PDP or PLATO would only have been playable by a select few. Apshai and Ultima I were more widely available than their predecessors, but Wizardry was substantially deeper than either of them, and wasn’t surpassed for a while. For a time, it was the benchmark in the field, and inspired its own substantial subgenre, which we’ve heard called blobbers in the past. (Set Side B on blobbers previously, including an extensive list of them.)

Blobbers get their name because a whole RPG adventuring party is considered to exist filling one space in a first-person view of a dungeon grid, but it’s not really a great name because the defining characteristic of this sort of game isn’t the unity of the party but the view of the maze. Creating a first person maze of this type was a popular early graphical trick, because it was easy to program, and could be drawn on a tile-based display or possibly even a terminal. Blobbers continued to rule the roost for first-person games until the foundation of the first person shooters with id Software’s Catacomb-3D and Wolfenstein 3D, and more atmospheric 3D CRPGs like Origin’s Ultima Underworld.

Video and computer games are a field terribly unkind to their legacy. You might point to Mario, Sonic, Pac-Man and such as examples of games where decades-old originals are still known and played, but numerically speaking they are greatly outnumbered by the lost and nearly-forgotten. Games that used to be well known among all game-playing computer users are now mere footnotes, due to their companies going under, or their IPs being owned by uncaring megacorps interested only in milking their very most profitable properties YES I’M TALKING ABOUT ELECTRONIC ARTS. Ahem.

Wizardry is one of the foremost examples of this. For a while it was the best-selling computer RPG around, and its sequels did well for a long while. Wizardry VII was released in 1992, but then its successor Wizardry 8, a landmark title that finally brought the series into true 3D, took nine years to finish, and was sadly released right around the time of the demise of publisher Sir-Tech, although their Canadian branch lasted until 2oo3.

After Sir-Tech Software shut its doors, the series’ torch was held aloft for a long while by a succession of Japanese developers, beginning with ASCII Entertainment. Many of these games are still extremely obscure to the Western world, which seems odd considering how connected we’ve all become. We don’t even know if Robert Woodhead had anything to do with the first of the Japanese games, Wizardry Gaiden. The Japanese Wizardly line is all over the place aesthetically, but in play sticks by the formula of the very earliest games: spell ranks, permadeath, and tricky mazes. Despite being made for systems as varied as the Super Famicom and the PlayStation II, in gameplay they’re all of the Apple II orchard with limited additions. Despite being much that we don’t know, we still know a fair bit, due to an amazing 2020 article on the blog of the CRPG Addict written by “Alex,” with a great comments thread, that all deserves to be etched in stone and set forever on a monument in the middle of the town square of Llylgamyn.

It is more than a mere shame that all of these games remain effectively locked off from the country of Wizardry’s origin. An aging legion of players from the days of the Apple II has no idea that, in a land half a world away, 35 more Wizardry games, with gameplay with a clear recognizable link to the originals, were made and enjoyed. Maybe some day those games will be made more accessible to English-speaking audiences, the ones that aren’t now lost forever, at least.

I’ve said all of this, and I haven’t even gotten to what I had originally intended to be the subject of the piece, the terrific remake of Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord made by Digital Eclipse. Perhaps it’s best to hold off on that for a couple of days. Soon!

P.S. If anyone knows of easy-to-learn open source timeline making software, I’d greatly like to know of it, or even if there’s a good Excel or (preferably) LibreOffice add-on for that purpose.

Making of Karateka Video Review

This is a video review of the making of karateka played with a press key provided by the developer.

My interview with Digital Eclipse

AKKA ARRH on Steam!

Please pardon our lack of a romhack review this week. It’s not always easy to find a good hack to review out of the tens of thousands that are floating around out there. In the meantime, classic remakes are kind of like romhacks, right?

Those who have been following us for the (gosh) nearly one year we’ve been in operation will have picked up on the fact that we love classic Atari. Especially we love classic Atari prototypes. In my humble opinion, Atari treated the output of their stable of brilliant creators with almost a dismissive attitude.

Developers would make a game completely from scratch, spend months working on every aspect of it, handtooling the assembly code, sometimes for hardware platforms that were created specifically to run it, devote their lives for a time to this project, test it in-house, get reactions, modify it, get it running, get approval to make cabinets and put it out on location test, then have all that work get destroyed. Oh well! Back to the drawing board. That’s what happened to AKKA ARRH.

As awesome a title screen as there ever has been!

The only record of all of that effort might end up being those few prototype cabinets put out on test and in the hands of the original developers, and the files in the Atari archives, which were pretty much left out to rot when the company was shut down, and would have been lost to us except for a few people who searched their dumpsters looking to preserve them.

Because of the value of those tiny number of cabinets, collectors guard them zealously, which puts them at cross purposes with the people trying to release the files and get them working in MAME. Two such stories lately have been the prototype for Marble Madness II, which we talked about last year, and AKKA ARRH. (Which, I think, is still one of the best game names I’ve ever heard. It’s fun to say!)

AKKA ARRH’s history is a long story. Long lost except for a few cabinets, somehow, we’re still not sure how, the code got dumped and leaked on the internet. However it happened, that event seems to have uncorked the bubble, with rights-holder Atari (not the same company as the old Atari) commissioning a full remake from Llamasoft and Jeff Minter, the creator of Tempest 2000 and probably the person best keeping alive the spirit of classic arcade gaming.

Minter’s remake of AKKA ARRH is now on Steam. It’s kinda pricey at $19.99, but it looks g r e a t, as you should be able to tell from the trailer below. An emulation of the original arcade game is also in the Atari 50th Anniversary Celebration package from Digital Eclipse, available on Steam and lots of other platforms, which costs more but also gets you many more games, and documentaries and flyers and lots of other plat*.

Seeing that little TM symbol after the logo is oddly heartening. It’s so nice to see this game given a full release, even if only digitally. It’s been a long journey. Welcome home, AKKA ARRH.

* Lately I’ve been chafing against the limits of language. Please excuse my made-up words, I’m kind of sick of having to turn to the same old synonyms, once again, at the moment. You should know what I mean by context here.

News: 8/8/22: All Hail Raytheon

“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter

At NintendoLife, Alana Hauges notes a dispute between Corecell, developers of AeternoBlade II, and publisher PQube. It’s all a bit tl;dr, and that isn’t helped by the decision to put PQube’s lengthy response up front, undercutting Corecell’s arguments before we can even read them. In summary, Corecell claims PQube didn’t pay them for milestones, and PQube claims Corecell was unresponsive to their requests for fixes and offered to return rights. I mean, it’s rather they-said/those-others-said, but I note that PQube’s bring up the game’s poor sales, an irrelevant issue at best, is bad form. But we’re all busy blobbies and hey, here’s the next article.

“Here at Raytheon, this guy looks thoughtfully at this small bottle, no doubt full of some radioactive isotope or deadly poison. Notice our ‘Social Impact’ submenu, see we’re not evil!”

Even more depressing news, PC Gamer’s Ted Litchfield tells us that Girls Who Code, a non-profit dedicated to helping women get careers in the tech industry (good) was participating in a mentorship program set up by US arms manufacturer Raytheon Technologies (awful).

In more entertaining news, Vikki Blake at GameRadar mentions that Halo Infinite players have managed to discover a way to force a split-screen multiplayer for that game.

Isaiah Colbert writing for Kotaku informs us that Nintendo’s ending the gacha elements in their mobile game Mario Kart Tour. I’m glad to see this scourge of gaming slowly wane. Instead, players will purchase unlockables directly instead of hoping for lucky draws.

From Konami, resting on their late 80s/early 90s laurels for literally decades now!

Bryan at NintendoEverything has an interview with Chris Kohler of Digital Eclipse and Konami producer Charles Murakami about DE’s collection of 13 classic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games. Digital Eclipse consistently does such good work these days and it’s a good recounting of the highs of the package and the work involved in bringing it to us.

“This guy is helping us put a tiny portion of our tremendous military profits into these boxes to feed to poor people. We’re actually good!”