Games have progressed a hell of a lot over time. That’s something of an obvious statement when you look at the complex and powerful capabilities of the current-gen consoles compared to the Ataris and the Commadores of old, but the way we look at game design has changed also.
Due to a combination of limited graphics, sound, and memory, the earliest games couldn’t show or tell you much. If a game was to have a plot, it was all told via text – usually in the instruction manual. As such, all early games had very simple objectives, and simple reasons for doing so. Why shoot the undulating blobs of pixels in Space Inavder? Because they’re invaders! From Space! It’s hardly the work of Dickens.
In a bit of nerd-culture overlap, tabletop RPGs (Dungeons and Dragons being the flag-bearer of the genre, to… mixed responses) were often used as examples for how early games with a limited ability to “show, not tell” could generate a game world for the player to experience. In Japan, this is the initial concept (along with the graphics push the Nintendo Entertainment System provided) behind both Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, but before that there were games like Wizardry.
While Wizardry wasn’t the first digitised Tabletop RPG (that would go to the 1980s game Rogue, a game represented entirely in ASCII, and shared a few similarities with the games at hand), it was definitely one of the most popular series of its time. Back then, Wizardry was famed for the way it was involved in the conception of a one-day extremely popular genre, creating many, many gameplay devices still used today. Now, Wizardry is immortalised for being SOUL CRUSHINGLY HARD.
This is just conjecture on my part, but I would wager that the difficulty of the Wizardry games (all 8 of them, with the 4th being especially ball-busting) was to extend the lifespan of the game. Not everyone can afford (or even want to) buy a game regularly, and having a game be rediculously hard is a very efficient if sadistic way of achieving that. The games boasted such wonders as missable items that’re required to progress in the game; foes and traps that can kill you with little to no warning or respite (with your save game being deleted if you die); and even a hidden timer that will kill the player’s party of adventuers of old age if you took too long to complete it.
Needless to say the series was a mega hit in Japan, to the point where a spin-off company started producing remakes and new games under the Wizardry name, actually outliving the American company. One of the hardest and most unfair games series in history had changed gaming forever.
But wait! The tale does not end there. Atlus (who I’ve mentoned before as one of the primary RPG publishers) recently released what can only be described as a love letter to the halcyon days of extremely difficult dungeon exploration. That love letter is The Dark Spire for the Nintendo DS. It’s Wizardry in almost every sense of the word (Wizardry 2, if you want to get specific); right down to the way characters are created, the complex and very retro battle mechanics, and the Excuse Plot to rule them all (There’s a tower with a wizard in it. He stole some royal jewelery, so go kick his ass! Who cares if he’s actually doing anything with it!).
However, they’ve gone to some lengths to modernise; and honestly, they’d have to. As old games were limited by their hardware; with no such limitations present, it’d be a total waste to not make use of them. The game has 2 ‘modes’. A ‘Modern’ mode with brooding, gothic graphics offset by a trippy neon colourscheme; and a ‘classic’ mode that drags things right back to their roots – The graphics become 8-bit and almost entirely monochrome. The impressive soundtrack also changes between full capability and 8-Bit chipsets, which continues to impress me. Every time I heard a new song, I switched the mode to classic to hear the retro version.
Of course, the battles and the way the dungeon exploration works changed extremely little from the games it’s birthed from; but that’s not necessarily a good thing. While the sillier rules such as dying of old age are removed for the sanity of the masses – unfair fights and swift deaths still run rampant. Death of a party member is a very significant loss – reviving a dead character is extremely expensive; money is hard to come by, and you need every penny to be able to rest at the inn when needed. Poison traps are introduced as early as the tutorial dungeon, and will kill a character in seconds (you take damage for every ‘step’ you make in the dungeon) if not immediately treated.
While the first few floors do contain weak monsters to fight, the game will (at complete random) throw a significantly harder fight at you, usually as punishment for exploring (you seem to encounter stronger enemies more often when discovering new ground, rather than treading old areas). It’s usually hard to run from these, and if you’re caught off guard – such as when you’re heading to the dungeon exit to heal up – the battles usually result in a swift game over. My favourite situation was in a fight against the ‘Floating Coins’ enemy. They have an attack that can hit all members of the party; but it only does 1 damage per person, often not doing damage at all. I initially laughed these off, until the game made me fight FIFTEEN of these at once. All of them using that attack, and coincidentally not failing to damage so much anymore…
Difficult battles you can eventually take in your stride, but what really bugged me about this game were the very complicated and obscure menu screens. The game will very happily give you starting items and equipment, but not tell you that it’s not already equipped. You can’t see the effectiveness of new items until you’ve bought them – and no, just because it’s more expensive doesn’t make it better. The most irritating thing of all is that one of the buttons will delete an item from your inventory with no insurance message – and by that same vein, will let you use an item on any character without any failsafes. This will lead to incredibly fustrating situations where you’ll accidentally (and irreversibly) throw away that expensive mace you’ve just bought, or use your last antidote on a member that’s not poisoned.
The game has a professional finish, but it belies extremely outdated gameplay. It’s nice to be able to visit (or re-visit) a time where RPGs were presented in the rawest essence imaginable – and there’s a rediculous amount of party customisation to be had with a brain-bendingly interwined experience/skill/magic/job system; but it always feels more than a little unfair – the game is very rarely on your side, and the effort you put into what you achieve is only passingly rewarded.
If you thought RPGs today are too easy, then by all means dig into this demon of a game. You’re a stronger man than I. Pikachu and friends feel oh-so comforting.