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Art of the Genre: Wizardry, Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011 | Posted by Scott Taylor

This twisting dragon was a genesis for me in so many ways...

This twisting dragon was a genesis for me in so many ways...

I guess my string of nostalgia continues here at the Black Gate L.A. offices. You see, it was ‘bring you son to work’ day last Friday and I decided even though it might come back to bite me, I’d expose my 5-year old son Ash to Ryan Harvey and Kandi. I figured if worse came to worse, I could just skip out and spend a few hours on the beach with him, but a few stars aligned and that wasn’t the case.

Luckily for me, unlucky for him, Ryan had left the office for the opening of Immortals, and Kandi took a personal day for a casting call in some new Roland Emmerich blockbuster so Ash and I sat in my office and had Starbucks as I tried to explain to him what it was I did exactly. The conversation quickly devolved into a justification for all things fantasy before he lost interest and asked if he could play Angry Birds on my iPhone.

This, for all you scoring at home, was a turning point for me. I had one of those ‘when I was a kid’ epiphanies. I mean really, when I was a kid there were no iPhones, heck we had a corded rotary phone in my house until the phone company demanded my mother remove it a decade ago, and that phone was even on a party line if anyone remembers what that is.

Yeah, I just turned the big 4-0 a couple of months back, and as I sat looking at my little pixie-faced boy with his Bieber hair and Quicksilver surfing attire I tried to remember what I was doing when I was getting ready to turn 6.

Well, I guess I was going to Star Wars, playing with action figures, enjoying platter meals at Burger Chef, and reenacting Smokey and the Bandit with my Hotwheels. In that year, 1977, the Atari 2600 would be released, but I’m sure I didn’t see it until I was 8 or 9, and probably didn’t own one until 1980 or 81. Yep, there were no video games for the first decade of my existence, but we somehow made due with our imagination.

Now that’s not to say we had it ‘bad’ like my mother’s generation where she rode sticks around the yard and played Cowboys and Indians without a true store-bought toy in sight, but it wasn’t the media monster it is today.

So anyway, back on topic, I looked at my son who has a beautiful imagination but would rather play Angry Birds and thought, ‘it’s now or never’. If I waited even another couple of months, I was convinced that anything I thought was cool when I was a kid concerning video games would be looked upon like I was a relic from the lost world of Lame.

Black and White words never meant so much... as long as you can picture the setting in your mind.

Black and White words never meant so much... as long as you can picture the setting in your mind.

“Son,” I said, “No iPhone today, instead I’m going to let you play a grand adventure I played when I was a boy!” He looked up at me with the kind of excitement only a 5 year-old can muster, and I fired up Firefox on my desktop which within five minutes had me downloading the emulator and free software for my first experience into fantasy role-playing… Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord.

This DOS game is built on a wire frame with graphics that would make a current pre-teen weep, but as I sat there with Ash I started spinning a tale of heroes, of a castle among the misty hills, and of a maze beneath the earth where all manner of treasure lay in wait.

When you look at Wizardry today, you can very easily see a big pile of black and white junk, but this was a teaching exercise for us both, me trying to recapture the pure joy I felt as a child with this game, and my son trying to use more of his creative brain in a game than the computer cycles its video card.

I’ll digress a moment to my first experience with Wizardry. It was the summer between my 6th and 7th grade year, a full five months before I begged my mother to order me the D&D Basic Red Box. My best friend Jason got a household computer, this insane IBM machine with a laser guided wireless keyboard, and his father purchased a couple of games for it, one of them being Wizardry.

I was 11 that summer of 1982, 12 during that long winter full of snow days, and when Jason loaded up this game it was like someone had switched on a light in my creative brain. At that point I’d yet to truly start reading, so fantasy for me lay only in artwork, and you can imagine the creative release this incredible RPG experience caused for me.

I never got one of these classes, the stats are too high, I mean 17 in every stat for a ninja!?  Still, I always wanted a Lord.

I never got one of these classes, the required stats are too high, I mean 17 in every stat for a ninja!? Still, I always wanted a Lord.

I would have stayed at his house all year if possible, sitting at his dining room table, his little brother Josh controlling a single character, Jason dealing with the two spell-casters, and me getting the tanks and thieves. It was a perfect mash-up, and I still can’t believe how we were able to share that single console, that single game, as a collective adventuring team without ever getting bored or greedy.

I guess this is the foundation of role-playing, the fostering of a group dynamic that helps form an unbreakable bond between the players. And so we sat, for countless hours, through horrible frustrations and the thrill of victory. It was the final summer I spent with Jason, his father taking a job at the far end of the state and yet our friendship never died as we eventually were freshman roommates when we made it to college. Still, for me, Wizardry was gone forever… or so I thought.

At my core Wizardry was that good, that pure, and as I loaded the game, I put my son in a chair next to me and asked the age-old question, ‘What do you want to be?’

“A thief!” he answered. Ah… a boy after my own heart. Steal their hearts, my son, steal their hearts…

“And what’s your name?”

“Foxblack!” came the reply. He loves foxes, what can I say…

Ahhh, Boltac... Don't let the smile fool you, this guy will take you for ever gold you have and then try for more.

Ahhh, Boltac... Don't let the smile fool you, this guy will take you for ever gold you have and then try for more.

So we went about creating a full party, placing the statistics until I got a Bishop who is both Mage and Priest, and then heading from the Training Grounds to Gilgamesh’s Tavern. Here I described the scene, gave voice to my son’s dwarven fighter, the mighty Blazebeard, and whispered the dulcet charms of our company priest, Bella, the elven beauty [named after a girl in his class who he has a particular shine on].

Once gathered, I spun a tale of creatures black and cruel [but not too cruel, I mean he is 5 after all] that lurked in the Maze beneath, the place common townsfolk called ‘the proving grounds of the mad overlord’. The company drank hearty brews and downed steaming loaves of bread slathered in sweet honey. A minstrel played a tune and gnomes danced atop tables before it was time to go and find equipment for this grand adventure.

Now Boltac’s Trading Post is like a second home to me, and when I described the stogy trader, his shop of countless armors and weapons, I was sure to set a tone where gold ruled all, that precious metal the key to an adventurer’s existence.

I see Boltac’s as a pillar of all that makes games addictive, that being the ability to buy things. Simple employees such as ourselves are always in a cash bind, always job hunting, just scraping by, but in a game we can be rich, escape the doldrums of our poor existence and splurge on all manner of treasure only dreamed.

Ash asked 'Why don't they move?'  I replied, 'They do in your mind'

Ash asked 'Why don't they move?' I replied, 'They do in your mind'

Boltac’s is a gateway drug, and my son wasn’t immune, his gold spilling out of his pouch to clothe and arm his characters with sword, staff, chain, and robes. He was smiling now, jumping up and down in his chair as I spoke of the twisting road to the bleak Edge of Town. How many folk had traveled here before us with big dreams? Too many, I’d think, but we were going anyway because we were special.

And into the Maze we went… ‘Stair up, take them? [Y/N]’

“No!” we shouted together. We want adventure, we want to stay down here, and as I used the arrow keys my fingers slipped back into some long-forgotten neural pathway from my youth. I knew this place, or at least my fingers did. Without pause I could guide the party right or forward and never bumped a wall. The three rooms before the main level one door were like old friends welcoming me home.

Together, my son and I passed through a gateway, and although our success was less than stellar, the party getting decimated by poison and stunners and hacked up by bushwackers, the day was well spent.

I was surprised at just how tough and unforgiving the game actually was. With fighters dying by the score, we saved every gold to get them raised only to have the game fail to do so and turn them to ash… this sad event doubled the price of the next resurrection attempt, and low and behold when we had that gold for that the resurrection would sometimes fail again and the characters would be ‘gone forever’.

Here is what 'Boltacs' looks like today... see what 30 years can do?

Here is what 'Boltacs' looks like today... see what 30 years can do?

Boltac, the old thief, forced you to pay the exact rate of exchange to identify an item as you’d get for selling it back to him, so he denied all exploration profit as any item you found in the dungeon HAD to be identified.

The dreaded stunner, a permanent paralysis, cost huge amounts of gold to cure at the Temple of Cant, and each level achieved by the character floated the cost of the priestly scale of healing up and up until it was untenable to even think about taking a character there.

Then there was the Adventure’s Inn, a place to rest your weary head after a long adventure, but wouldn’t you know it was terribly expensive as well and cost characters weeks of their lives to heal up damage sustained in the Maze [Do you remember age in this game? Characters start at 15!]

Oh, and levels, yeah you get them, but it’s a floating system where any ability the character has can go up or DOWN! I almost hate leveling up because I don’t want all my ability scores to go down a point [yeah, it actually happened once].

So, at the end of the ‘work’ day I shut down my computer, my son pleasantly happy that Foxblack [who was still paralyzed back at the Temple] and his dwarven mage, Dravendor, hadn’t died during our adventures.

Perhaps this is what Ash wanted, but somehow its just not the same on my iPhone...

Perhaps this is what Ash wanted, but somehow its just not the same on my iPhone...

Myself on the other hand couldn’t let things go with more failure than success. Loading the game onto a flash drive, I took it home and placed it on my trusted laptop. That night, well after my little fox was asleep in his den, I returned to Wizardry with the iron will to master it.

Spearheading a party of those who lived and some new blood to fill the ranks I again entered the Maze, this time with a desire to wrest every last experience point and gold piece from the labyrinth.

“You encounter a group of friendly kobolds, Fight or Leave?”

“Fight!”

Yes, I was getting the hang of this; that is until I went back to the surface, did my Temple rounds and discovered that I could no longer reform my party…

Bella, our lovely and most experienced elven priestess and company keystone, had gone from a Good alignment to an Evil one and could no longer group with the rest of the party.

Seriously! Seriously!? This game is an unforgiving mistress. Hmmm… so there is a detriment to attacking ‘friendly’ monsters… noted…

If this image means anything to you, go back, enjoy, and know that adventure always awaits.

If this image means anything to you, go back, enjoy, and know that adventure always awaits.

Rethinking my strategy, I kept at it, made peace with the friendly monsters, reformed Bella into a priestess of Good, and finally hammered together a party that could survive, nay, thrive in that opening level.

Along my journey, one that stole away the vast majority of my weekend, I obtained the six-thousand gold piece Gloves of Copper I’d always remembered wanting back in 1982, and I found, fought, and cheered as I won a victory over those nefarious and silly Creeping Coins.

In the end, for me, it was a catharsis that said ‘yes, you can go back again’. Perhaps my son didn’t have the obsession I did, but he’s 5 not 11, and I know by the time he reaches that age the beauty of Wizardry will be vanquished by the graphics of the Xbox IV, but for those shared hours in my office, for that day in the sun, we were heroes of the imagination sailing on a sea of wire frames, we were immortal, and I’ll take it.

For those with interest, a free download of Wizardry can be found here, and the free DOS emulator to run it in Windows can be found here. Oh, and if you want the latest version of this venerable game, Labyrinth of Lost Souls, the free App on iTunes can be downloaded here.

12 Comments »

  1. Another half-forgotten favorite!. I played Wizardry on an Apple II through the early 1980s. My whole family did, though we each had a separate party and took turns playing the game solo. Probably this was a work-around for the sibling rivalry my sister and I finally got over when I went off to college. I wonder how it would have been to play as a party together.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - November 16, 2011 12:17 am

  2. Wow. I just took a major trip down memory lane! Wizardry dominated my life in ’82 on my old Apple IIe. In fact, my buddy and I nicknamed my computer “Werdna” because it always seemed just a little “evil” when we were playing Wizardry.

    Time to go download that emulator!

    Comment by beverson00 - November 16, 2011 8:33 am

  3. Oh, man! You all who got to experience the Apple II in its heyday were lucky. Wizardry looks so cool, but does anyone know if the NES port is faithful to the original computer versions?

    Comment by Mister_Alex - November 16, 2011 11:46 am

  4. Wizardry utterly consumed me when I was kid. I do have the games downloaded on my home PC and plan to play through them again and hopefully actually win this time as the furthest into the dungeon I ever got was level 9. I just have to finish the Ultima games first…

    It tickled me to learn a while back that while Wizardry is fading into obscurity for western gamers, the Japanese have never lost their fanaticism for it and continually produce new Wizardry games and rip-offs that, however slick the graphics are, are still based on that same punishing grid-based, turn-by-turn gameplay.

    Comment by andy - November 16, 2011 1:13 pm

  5. Wow. Sounds like a great father son experience. Now that is a great example of why RPG sounds so exotic to me.

    Comment by RaptorBunny - November 16, 2011 3:26 pm

  6. Sarah: Individual games inside a single family sounds about right. I’m sure my friend an I’s experience was more out of the norm. I’m happy to hear you remembered Wizardry, however! Thanks for speaking up.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - November 16, 2011 11:25 pm

  7. Beverson: I hope you get a chance to play the game! Its so darn hard in the beginning and the money system is just cruel, but I’ve enjoyed my time back.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - November 16, 2011 11:26 pm

  8. Mister Alex: Well, I never got to play it on the Apple, but its always run well on Microsoft systems for me so I’m still happy!

    Comment by Scott Taylor - November 16, 2011 11:27 pm

  9. Andy: I’ve yet to play any Ultima game, but after I finish my time with Wizardry I think I’ll have to try one, probably Ultima IV which everyone raves about.

    And yes, I’ve seen the Japanese loving on some Wizardry-like games. Certainly the newest version is an import from Japan.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - November 16, 2011 11:29 pm

  10. Raptor: Exotic? You use the funniest terms when you describe RPGs :) Really, your going to make me have to play with you sometime just so you can see how silly it all is!

    Comment by Scott Taylor - November 16, 2011 11:30 pm

  11. Scott,

    One of your finest posts. And for me, the heart of it is right here:

    > I still can’t believe how we were able to share that single console, that
    > single game, as a collective adventuring team without ever
    > getting bored or greedy. I guess this is the foundation of role-playing,
    > the fostering of a group dynamic that helps form an unbreakable bond
    > between the players.

    I think you’re absolutely right. There’s something about sharing an adventure around a table that helps forge true friendships.

    I have many friends. But the ones I kept in touch with for decades, through thick and thin, have been those I gamed with. I think that’s the true magic of gaming.

    Comment by John ONeill - November 17, 2011 12:25 pm

  12. John: Why thank you good sir! I was sure you’d pick the part about being immortal with my son, but I’ll take the paragraph you chose ;)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - November 18, 2011 2:40 pm


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