The RPG Scrollbars: The CRPG Book Project

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.

39 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Dangit, the Orz up there *enjoying the sauce*.

    Anyway, this is pretty great. Seems like a ton of work for something that might not even be sellable, ever, due to copyright on screenshot assets and all. But still, nice design, solid concept. Looks good.

    • Grauken says:

      Most of the screenshots have been done by Pepe himself or his army of volunteers.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      Most places with lots of screenshots, like Moby/GamesPress either don’t mind any more, or are there to be snagged from. If you mean from companies, criticism and review is a fair dealing/fair use case, so not an issue. Though legally speaking most of the screens used by magazines etc wouldn’t actually fall under that category, nobody ever sues or complains over screenshots unless you’re photoshopping JC Denton inserting a baton into Sonic or something.

      • BooleanBob says:

        Source on that last one? Asking for a friend.

      • Richard Cobbett says:

        Source is sitting through many copyright and libel training sessions while at Future, the basic message of each being “Nothing you do is legal.”

        • Ben Damage says:

          Here, your hat blew off in the wind.

          • Robert The Rebuilder says:

            To be painfully explicit for Richard’s benefit – Boolean Bob (or their friend) would like to see that Sonic pic you mentioned.

  2. Frank says:

    Browsing through it, JRA, the QFG4 reviewer, is not identified in the opening credits. Kinda wish they’d give a shout out to the excellent Heroine’s Quest there…

    It’s missing Mr. Robot (not on the ‘want’ list either).

    Re that Betrayal at Antara review by Pepe — ouch. I really liked that game, having gotten it as a gift over a decade before seeing Betrayal at Krondor. Overall, a lot of his reviews are strongly negative. Maybe best to leave the footnote-worthy games (like this and Pool of Radiance 2001) as footnotes rather than full reviews?

    • thaquoth says:

      Heroine’s Quest has its own (pretty glowing) article later on.

  3. poliovaccine says:

    Hah, cool, I’m always a sucker for a good coffee table book. Thanks for the share..!

    Though I agree with the bit where the article points out some odd choices – X-COM as a CRPG? Or Tron 2.0?? It’s hardly like they lack for material to pad out the book, so I can only imagine a majority of the people involved with this thing actually considered those titles to fit the CRPG format somehow. I know people quibble down to a hair’s breadth about sub/genres, and it’s not my intention to open up one of those exchanges, but I am genuinely curious if anyone has an idea how/why games like X-COM or Tron would make it into a book about CRPGs..? Do I just have a deeply skewed idea of what CRPGs even are?

    • Grauken says:

      Turn-based tactical battles, character stats. True, it’s an odd choice and most people probably file it under strategy game, but it’s not a competently unreasonable fit.

      • BooleanBob says:

        We should get Wizardry in here to help clarify the matter.

    • Richard Cobbett says:

      The only strategy-first (not Strategy First) game I’d really consider is Jagged Alliance 2. That’s on PC, of course. Could also see arguments for stuff like Final Fantasy Tactics.

    • Artea says:

      I can’t speak for Tron, but X-COM’s character progression systems are more sophisticated and intricate than many games that are unanimously recognized as ‘true’ RPG’s.

      • cpt_freakout says:

        I guess it’s a problem about what definition of an RPG you’re using. If you’re referring solely to systems of stats and progressions, then I can see why XCOM’s in there, yeah, but if you’re using ‘RPG’ to mean “world modified directly by your character” or something like that then it becomes more difficult to see why XCOM would fit. And no, the commander is not a ‘character’.

        I guess they could put up a disclaimer at the beginning outlining the curatorial criteria so as to make things easier and less potentially confusing. People will always object, but at least with the criteria you’ve made your point and it’s not up for grabs, so to speak.

    • redrain85 says:

      As the writer of the TRON 2.0 review in the CRPG book, I was kind of surprised at its inclusion myself. But since I was asked to do it, I was glad to do so. :)

      Maybe its inclusion was partly due to the feeling that TRON 2.0 is frequently overlooked and forgotten. Regardless, it does have some light RPG mechanics.

      • RobinOttens says:

        I’m glad Tron is in there as that era of Monolith games come very close to Deus Ex territory of first person action rpg-ing.

        On that note; Is assassin’s creed in there? I’ve recently been playing the Witcher and AC series in parallel and noticed that literally every game mechanic from the witcher games is in the AC games as well, with the one exception of dialogue choices. You progress your assassin through buying gear instead of gaining “experience”, getting money and “synchronisation” from doing quests instead. Other than that, the two game series are remarkably similar.

        In other news, genre definitions are silly when nearly every game out there has you ‘play a role’ on a computer and the only distinction between jrpg and crpg is their country of origin since the jrpg genre literally started with a bunch of Wizardry-likes.

        I’m impressed by the effort put into this book though, it’s a nice catalogue of games. I shall enjoy scrolling through the preview later this afternoon.

        • Premium User Badge

          Phasma Felis says:

          “the jrpg genre literally started with a bunch of Wizardry-likes.”

          Now that’s just not fair at all. Mostly they were Ultima-likes.

  4. BooleanBob says:

    Another angle: CRPGaddict is trying to document his playthrough of every CRPG ever made.

    He’s a good writer and has some interesting opinions on what does and doesn’t make the genre work. So far he’s reached 1986 (I think. It seems like he maybe stopped playing by chronolgical order since the last time I read anything on the site.)

    • Premium User Badge

      teije says:

      Chester is actually up to 1991 but went back to the 80’s to play some games he missed the first time. So at the moment he is alternating between RPGs in 1991 and 1987. At some point he should catch up and then will be writing about one year only.

      Anyways, a very good writer and must read for anyone interested in the history of western RPGs. Covers French and German RPGs too, not just ones in English.

      • thaquoth says:

        I’m amazed he’s still going to be honest.

        Most these kinds of endeavours just peter out after a while, but he just keeps on trucking. Willpower of a giant. I love his articles on crazy arcane stuff that nobody would be touching otherwise. For some games his articles are literally the only sources on the net.

  5. funkstar says:

    Man, mentioning Tron 2.0 has made me want to play it again :s
    While I think it probably shouldn’t be included in the project as it is predominantly an FPS, it did have a surprising number of RPG elements as well that were well adapted to fit the Tron aesthetic/setting

  6. PearlChoco says:

    Great work! Still a bit strange to not have The Witcher 3 mentioned in such a massive work about RPG’s…

  7. Artea says:

    “though it’s always a shame to see games like Chrono Trigger and Pokemon not get their historical or cultural due”

    I get Pokemon, because it’s probably the most well-known RPG franchise in the world. But Chrono Trigger? It’s just a middling jRPG, eclipsed by many better RPG’s, both Japanese and western. I’ve never understood its position as some apex of the genre.

    • Chillicothe says:

      This is why we need one of these books for JRPGs…

      Anywho, I look forward to getting a “bible” that includes the lesser-known CRPGs outside of the Ultima-M&M-Wizardry trinity that inspired other, more successful titles years later that utilized those innovative facets in more noticed and polished entries.

      • felipepepe says:

        Closest thing to a JRPG encyclopedia are the ‘OLD GAMERS HISTORY Vol 3 & 4″ book released by Media Pal in Japan. They cover almost 200 JRPGs from 1983 to 2000 yet still leave some classics out.

        Add in the fact that more than 1/3 of those games were never released in the West and you’ll see that making a JRPG Book is even harder than making this CRPG Book.

    • skyst says:

      Chrono Trigger is arguably the best RPG on the SNES and really was incredible for the time. I would be more likely to replay a SNES Final Fantasy or, my personal favorite SNES title, Ogre Battle, before Chrono Trigger, since it is not especially interesting in 2017, but it is absolutely one of those games that blew people away in the 90s.

      Remember, CRPGs were quite niche back then and PCs were not in every household; the bulk of kids were gaming on consoles. We always had a PC in the house since my mom was employed in the tech field, but for whatever reason we never even messed with CRPGs until a ways into the Baldur’s Gate era a few years later, despite owning most of the RPGs on NES, SNES and Genesis. The same could be said for my entire pool of geeky schoolmates at the time.

      I’d wager that a large amount of Chrono Trigger’s popularity stems from it having the best music, graphics and most beautiful sprites of any other game in the genre at the time. I believe that Final Fantasy VII’s reining popularity is due to similar reasons. Both are absolutely solid games but just about anyone could easily debunk arguments of them being “the best” with regards to story or game play.

  8. Premium User Badge

    Nauallis says:

    Unrelated to the content of the actual article, but I gotta say that oh man, that headline picture brings back pleasant childhood memories, especially of HoMM 1&2. I swear that map, for Might & Magic, at some point was made into a scenario map for HoMM2.

  9. cpt_freakout says:

    This is great! As unfortunate as the industry’s disinterest in its own history is, at least we have people like these (and you!) attempting to make something out of it. This is the kind of book future historians will be forever grateful for. I can only keep hoping that GOG eventually revives all games, bar none, the good ones and the bad ones and the unplayable ones.

  10. Kolba says:

    I want a physical copy.

  11. Rainshine says:

    Definitely had to take a gander just to look back at some of my favorite RPGs from years past, reminiscing and feeling disappointment at what they could have been/what I wished someone would do right. I’m glaring at you, Arcanum.

    From the Handbook sheet, the Pillars of Eternity comment got a chuckle out of me.

  12. fuggles says:

    Lionheart – cripes that was a hard game. My talking heavy character could never beat the last boss, which sucked.

  13. April March says:

    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.

    That just makes me want a Crapshoot coffee table book.

  14. nottorp says:

    Why do I see Lara Croft there? Tomb Raider is a RPG now?
    Even Star Control is kinda debatable, but come on, Tomb Raider?

    • Someoldguy says:

      Everyone has their own standards, it’s like arguing what bands are Heavy Metal. Personally I don’t consider games like Dungeon Siege to be true RPGs but there were people hailing the move to aRPGs as the answer to revitalising the tedious, dusty old CRPG genre. Nor would I include Tomb Raiders or XCom. It’s hard to define exactly why though in a clear way.

      I give early CRPGs based on D&D etc a free pass because they were trying to reproduce ther PnP RPGs but didn’t have the capacity back then to really invest the characters with lots of life and personality, but the story was still a fairly personal one of your group of 4/6 individuals with unique talents and you had choices to make of where to go and how to handle some situations. When they had the capacity to improve, games like Baldur’s Gate went the extra mile and gave your heros and heroines true personalities alongside their +2 weapon, 17 strength and wand of magic missiles.

      XCOM comes close but to me it’s a strategy game. The teams you use are just replacable grunts with stats, you might grow attached to your best sniper dude or heavy weapons specialist, but you know there’s an endless supply of them if you want multiple squads. Most will be out of action in the sickbay from time to time and have a replacement plugged into the gap. In the end you may find yourself binning most of your top squad because even if they’ve survived it turns out their hidden psi stats are too weak so they have to get benched.

  15. MaXimillion says:

    The book includes and recommends Sengoku Rance. Something I definitely wasn’t expecting to see, but was pleasantly surprised by.