If you’re an enthusiast of anything, it’s good to know your roots. And that’s especially true in the world of computer and video games, a medium which has enjoyed incredibly rapid development over the course of the last 40+ years.
One genre that it’s especially interesting to explore the long-term development of is the RPG — particularly because what we know today as Asian-style RPGs have always taken a lot of cues from some western classics.
With DRM-free digital storefront GOG.com’s 2021 spring sale running between March 22 and April 5, now’s a great time to learn the history of this longstanding genre; even if you’re not a fan of modern western RPGs, there’s a lot more “crossover appeal” with Asian-style RPG fans with these earlier titles, so be sure to give ’em a shot.
And if you’re reading this in the future for some reason (whoo, spooky), note that these games are pretty cheap even when they’re not on sale, so give ’em a look anyway!
The Ultima series from Richard “Lord British” Garriott and Origin Systems are some of the most influential RPGs ever created, particularly in their early incarnations. Third game Ultima III: Exodus in particular is often cited as a key influence on the development of titles like the original Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest, with its overhead perspective, party-based structure, separate turn-based battle screen and musical accompaniment to the action.
But the Ultima series continued to grow and develop over time, proving influential not just in the mechanical aspect of the genre but also in showing the narrative potential of video games. From its earliest installments, fourth game Quest of the Avatar has long been held up as a fascinating example of how RPGs can be more than just exercises in monster-bashing. And the series’ lore and storytelling only became more ambitious and complex over time — though even the earliest games in the series offered a delightfully peculiar blend of sci-fi and fantasy in their latter hours.
The early Ultima games are clunky and dated by today’s standards, and the MS-DOS PC versions on GOG.com arguably aren’t the absolute best ways to play them. But without them, we wouldn’t have Final Fantasy, we wouldn’t have Dragon Quest, and we may not have the Asian-style RPG as it exists today.
All the games in the full Ultima series, including the spinoff titles, are available for 75% off on GOG.com until April 5, and are dirt cheap (or free!) normally anyway. Click here to try them for yourself!
Ultima wasn’t the only defining influence on the modern Asian-style RPG, mind you. Of a similar level of importance was Sir-Tech’s Wizardry series, which helped to define the first-person dungeon-crawling RPG as we know it today.
In contrast to Ultima’s growing focus on narrative as the series proceeded, the Wizardry games have always been about exploring a series of increasingly fiendish labyrinths, fighting off fearsome foes and outfitting your party with the best gear you can find. They’re games that are all about progression and growing in power — which will make them an ideal fit for those who enjoy minmaxing their RPG parties.
Wizardry is noteworthy in that it all but died out in the west over time, but proved so continually popular in Japan that long after original creators Sir-Tech dissolved, Japan was still getting new Wizardry games. One of these, known as Wizardry XTH, indirectly led to both the formation of Experience Inc, modern masters of the beautifully presented dungeon crawler, and the creation of the Class of Heroes series.
Between 2009 and 2016, a number of Japanese developers collaborated on a project they called the “Wizardry Renaissance”, which resulted in a variety of new titles across various platforms. One of these, Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls, is available on GOG, along with the original series’ second trilogy, Wizardry 6, 7 and 8.
Wizardry: Labyrinth of Lost Souls is under a tenner in GOG’s spring sale. Click here to grab it!
Might & Magic
While not as commonly cited as Ultima and Wizardry in terms of influencing the subsequent development of Asian-style RPGs, Might & Magic is nonetheless an important series of classic dungeon-crawling role-playing games.
Perhaps most notably, the Might & Magic series, like Ultima, features a blend of classic fantasy and sci-fi. This blend of similar but disparate genres has been part of the Final Fantasy series in particular since its first installment; while the majority of that game is cribbed wholesale from the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, in its latter hours you’ll encounter robots, airships, flying fortresses and, of course, the dreaded WarMech.
Might & Magic’s setting appears to be medieval fantasy because the sci-fi conflicts that underpin it causes a number of planets to revert to earlier stages of technological advancement, even barbarism. As you explore the series, you learn more about the broader context of what is going on; in this sense, it can also be argued to have a certain amount in common with Sega’s Phantasy Star series — the first of which, lest you forget, was also a first-person dungeon-crawler like Might & Magic.
Ubisoft bought the rights to the series in 2003 before releasing a new game in 2014 that seemingly completely missed the point by abandoning all of the past series’ continuity. Taken on its own rights, it was seemingly a solid enough game, but you’re best off going back to the classics of the series to get a true feel for what it’s all about.
Originally released as a Japan-exclusive PSP title, Elminage Gothic was developed by the team behind one of Wizardry’s many spin-off series, Wizardry Empire. It also incorporated elements from a number of other Wizardry spin-offs as well as adopting the Gothic aesthetic favoured by the original series, and as such it is essentially a new Wizardry game in all but name.
In 2014, Ghostlight ported the game to PC and localised it for the first time, upscaling some of the art and improving the user interface in the progress. It is, however, worth noting that this is very much a classic-style dungeon crawler — and that means it is brutally difficult at times. One GOG reviewer complained that their sparring partner in the game’s training room actually killed most of their party — not knocked them out, not temporarily incapacitated them in that “haha, let me heal you back to full now” sort of way you get in many RPGs today, but actually killed them dead. You have been warned!
If you’re in the mood for a serious challenge, this is a hefty game that should keep you busy for a while — and not just because it’s difficult!
Lands of Lore
If you like the idea of a first-person dungeon crawler combined with strong storytelling and fixed, defined player characters, then the first Lands of Lore game is well worth exploring.
Developed by Westwood Studios, who had already made a name for themselves with the Dungeons & Dragons-branded Eye of the Beholder series, Lands of Lore is a sprawling, ambitious game with some excellent dungeon design, some pleasing adventure game-style elements and an all-too-brief contribution to the voice acting by none other than the legendary Patrick Stewart.
While there are some who argue that modern western RPGs — particularly the more sprawling affairs such as Bethesda’s titles — lack a certain amount of personality with regard to the characters you interact with, this absolutely cannot be said for Lands of Lore. A great villain, a band of peculiar allies and plenty of other people to chat with along the way, too — it really is a grand adventure that fans of more narrative-centric RPGs will get a big kick out of.
The second game in the series, which is bundled with the first on GOG, is something of an acquired taste, but worth a shot if you go in with an open mind.
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