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The RPG Scrollbars: The CRPG Book Project

A bit like Wikipedia, but on paper

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Since the invention of the RPG, there have been many, many RPGs. Maybe too many to count. At least six! Let’s see. Ultima VII. Al-Qadim: The Genie’s Curse. The Magic Candle III. Faery Tale Adventure II: Halls of the Dead. Two or three more, probably, and that’s if you don’t count Quest For Glory. But who has time to play them all?

Oh, if only there was a ridiculously large tome devoted to trying to catalogue them all in a decent amount of depth, currently at 450 pages and rising. If only. If only

Even at that imposing size, The CRPG Book Project, managed by Felipe Pepe, can only really scratch the surface of the genre. It’s more a primer history than a deep-dive into any individual title, with most games only given a page or two on what they were, why they’re interesting, and what their place in the genre is. Articles aren’t intended as comprehensive reviews, and sequels, in particular, are on a real ‘need to cover’ basis.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. There are eight Wizardry games, ten Might and Magic games, nine Ultima games, and that’s only talking the main games in their series. Ultima also has the two Underworlds, the Worlds of Ultima games (Savage Empire and Martian Dreams), Ultima Online, and if you really want to be completionist, also two Runes of Virtue games on consoles, a couple of ports of the later games, and Ultima: Escape From Mount Drash, which has sod-all to do with Ultima, but still probably has to go in there somewhere. As much as fans of some of these long-running franchises will argue, there’s a definite split between landmark instalments that shook things up, and parts that may as well have been subtitled ‘Second Verse, Same As The First.’

The result though is a lovely book. It’s obviously possible to get much of the raw information in other places, like Wikipedia, but this is a lovingly written and laid out tribute to the genre designed to be enjoyed as much as informed by. Every game is presented in full-colour article form, with a wide range of writers – many from the Codex, but also a few familiar names like Chris Avellone, Scorpia and Tim Cain. I also threw in a couple the other year – Quest For Glory and Martian Dreams – though it’s a different RC who did most of the longer-form stuff bearing those shared initials.

Most of the pages are devoted to the games themselves, broken up into eras – 1980-1984 through to (currently) 2014, factoring in the first big wave of Kickstarter projects. If it’s been on a shelf in the West, it’s probably represented here. Bard’s Tale. Castle of the Winds. The Immortal, aka the most ironic name possible for a game full of deaths. Flops like Descent to Undermountain. Visitors to computer screens like Breath of Fire IV and Grandia 2. The occasional questionable entry like X-COM: UFO Defense/UFO: Enemy Unknown and Tron 2.0. Deus Ex. Fallout 2. Silver. Veil of Darkness. Autoduel. Even Super Columbine Massacre RPG. Each gets its own nicely laid out introduction with mostly original pics and occasional links out to other sources.

After that, things wrap up tightly with a very quick look at early JRPGs – understandably kept very separate due to the CRPG focus specifically, though it’s always a shame to see games like Chrono Trigger and Pokemon not get their historical or cultural due – some fan-translations, some RPG Maker stuff in brief, and some quick looks at old hardware platforms. Well. Uh. Two, anyway.

That last one is easily the weakest section of the book, as it stands, covering just the ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC, neither of which were exactly RPG powerhouses. This section really needs to be bolstered with the likes of the Apple II, early PC systems and Amiga, and thinking of that, the PC bias does make itself more obvious in the absence/irrelevance of stuff like Obitus or Knightmare and Captive II: Liberation. (Technically, yes, Liberation is in, but only as a paragraph and single image in Captive 1’s write-up, despite Captive being a relatively basic Dungeon Master in space game and Liberation at least trying to kick down the genre boundaries.) Most of the really important stuff did come to PC of course, but in Europe at least, it took a while for the C in CRPG to become completely synonymous with the greatest platform in the world. Filthy Amigas and STs, hogging the spotlight. Still. Where are they now, eh?

For the most part, the games listed are the ones that you’d want to see, though personally one of my favourite things about this kind of book is running into the stuff I’d never heard of before. The book, for instance, features Wasteland, but not Escape From Hell or the sorta-kinda-not-really sequel Fountain of Dreams, in which you have to try and find a cure for radioactive mutations that ends up literally ten or so steps from your starting position and guarded by an army of murderous clowns. Yes. Really. Likewise, foreign-language stuff is out, as is most shareware. There are exceptions like Dink Smallwood and Castle of the Winds and some Spiderweb stuff, but don’t expect much on formative historic memories like how boring, say, Moraff’s World was. It also skips almost entirely over MMOs and most other online-focused stuff.

No book can hope to cover literally everything though, and what’s more important is that the CRPG Book Project does a great job of covering the history of the genre. It doesn’t go deep enough that the hardcore super-fan who asks their doctor for health potions instead of regular medicine is going to find too much that they don’t already know, but as a primer on the scale, the scope and the variety of the genre, you really can’t do much better than either give your scrollwheel a good work out, or personally clear a good chunk of the rainforest in the name of a print-out.

As said though, it’s not completely finished yet. The current version is down as the ‘alpha preview’, but with scope to add a few reviews and so on should you find anything offensively or notably missing, like believing The Kristal to be the paragon of all gaming, regardless of how many cc’s of thorazine the nurse keeps prescribing. The current ‘want’ list is available here, in Google Docs form. As an aside, Felipe Pepe has also made his image collection available to all, so should you ever be in need of a picture of Arx Fatalis or a reminder of how disappointing Lionheart: Legacy of the Crusader was, you can snag those here. (Reminder: Sigh. Blasted game.)

The book itself though? That’s here in all of its and the genre’s glory.

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Richard Cobbett

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