Crafting systems, like skill trees, are one of those features that have become so trendy that developers have found a way to crowbar them into nearly every type of game. There are good ones - like Minecraft’s seminal tic-tac-toe assembly board, and guff ones - like ARK: Survival Evolved’s, which saw me chewed into winalot by a hell-creek’s-worth of gigapredators again and again as I wrestled with muddy polygons in the depths of the inventory screens. But the crafting system that will always be my fundamental point of comparison, because it was the first one I encountered, was that of Wiz ‘n’ Liz.
A 1993 Amiga game from Lemmings-makers Psygnosis* (who I still read as pie-sig-know-sis in my head), Wiz ‘N’ Liz (while we’re on the subject, I always read “‘N’” as a sort of brief straining sound), was a liquid-fast platformer where you played as a couple of aged wizards, sprinting around bizarre, oversaturated landscapes collecting rabbits. On researching it for this piece, I remembered just what a brute its soundtrack was, too. Actually, I'm going to embed it here, because it ABSOLUTELY SLAPS, and you'll genuinely thank me if you hit play and listen through:
But the best bit of the game was the cauldron. During your lagomorph retrieval dashes, you would end up collecting fruit of many kinds (or “of diverƒ sorte”, as a medieval wizard might say), which you would then sort through at the end of the level, chucking items into a cauldron to produce magical effects. There were loads of potential outcomes, from points and in-game bonuses, to sudden minigames, weird visual effects (one turned everything invisible), and even a fakeout “game over” screen. In fact, here’s an ascii FAQ from 1995 with them all. They were seriously creative.
Of course, the game gave you no hints as to what did what. You had to chuck stuff in at random, then note down what happened, and start to build your own recipe book. When you latched on to a recipe that did something berserk or rare, it was tell-your-friends-at-school levels of exciting. In fact, the more I think about it, the more it was basically Skyrim’s alchemy system 18 years ahead of time, and with more actual impact on play. Wiz hhnnnnnnngh Liz might not have been the first game with a system like it. There are probably dozens of JRPGs that have done it better, before and since, for all I know.
But it was the first time I encountered a game system based on combining random items to discover recipes, and will therefore always be my benchmark. In fact, possibly the only thing to blow it out of the water completely was the sheer, code-mangling alchemy of the Game Genie cheat cartridge for the mega drive, which I discovered a year later, in 1994. But that’s a story for another time, once I’ve worked out a convoluted reason to talk about mega drive games.
* A correction, as per commenter RuySan, who pointed out I mistook publishers for developers: "Psygnosis wasn’t the developer of Lemmings, only its publisher. Lemmings was developed by DMA Design (now known as Rockstar North), and Wiz n’Liz was developed by Lunatic Software." Sorry folks!