It is said that the greatest test is that of time. Actually, I'm not sure if anyone's said that, except me just then. But that's fine. I'm sure everyone will remember. Anyway, in the final edition of The RPG Scrollbars, let's take a look back to see what the people of the past said about what was the present but is now, by the laws of causality, in fact that past. With some help from the magazine archives at archive.org, natch.
Let's start by seeing what was going on back at the launch of cheery RPS fanzine PC Gamer, and long-time distinguished competitors PC Zone. PC Zone started at by far the better time, in April 1993, just in time for Ultima Underworld 2. PC Gamer meanwhile had to make do with the largely forgotten Shadowcaster, one of a long series of Raven's patented 'take an engine and make a fantasy game out of it' games. In this case the engine was Wolfenstein 3D, and it was really more of an action game than an RPG. It did however have a truly fantastic gimmick - unlocking the ability to take the form of assorted monsters. Weirdly, shape-shifting remains a fairly underutilised mechanic.
"The first thing you think when you see Shadowcaster is 'Uh-oh, looks like Origin had better watch out. You see, this is a game that gives its own Ultima Underworld games a serious run for their money. In fact, this is a game that knocks back 12 pints of lager and a curry, then pounds its own chest and sings "Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough," at the entire RPG fraternity."
I'm reminded of the time PC Format reviewed Descent using the three words 'Better. Than. Doom.' But the point of this isn't to go back and mock old reviews for being wrong or overly-enthusiastic. Maybe that PC Format one. But in general, the curse of reviewing is that you have to hit a game hard and fast and write while the iron is hot, making it easy to both be more critical than some games deserve, or get over-excited. And Shadowcaster was exciting, especially compared to the likes of fellow reviewer Dark Sun: Shattered Alliance, which prompts a bit of a snooze just for the streamline 'SSI and TSR team up once more to bring us another of their computerised AD&D games'. (Flicking through this issue though, I think my favourite little detail is that Street Fighter 2 of all games gets a third of a page next to a slightly mean review of Privateer, while the most 90s titled game of all time, Yo! Joe! gets a half-pager.)
But what of Underworld 2?
"Tankard of ale or bonk, sire?" was all you used to get from women in Role Playing Games. That and "Help! Help! I'm crap. I'm wearing a white dress and I need to be rescued!" Of course, that was the old days, when men were men and women were buxom serving wenches with low-cut dresses."
Indeed. How far we've come since... uh... 1993. And how modern those complaints are, at least to anyone who doesn't remember things like Unreal creator Tim Sweeney's 1992 Jill of the Jungle's third part, the satirical but pointed "Jill Saves The Prince".
The most interesting thing about Zone's UW2 review is how damn short it is. As was fairly typical for the time, the review is more boxout than words, with only one page out of five actually the review and most of it devoted to a play-by-play of the first couple of levels. While it does end on a score of 94% ("Just go out and buy it, okay?"), there's more words lavished on the long-forgotten post-apocalyptic train RPG Transarctica, and about as many on Shadowworlds, the sequel to Shadowlands, aka the only RPG ever whose main feature was a vaguely funky lighting engine. A subsequent review of Pagan would have more words, but inevitably the only thing I really remember about it is a boxout called "Lord of the Chins" in which the Guardian tries to exile the Avatar to the land of Pagan while the Avatar just mocks him with stuff like "Yeah, well, if you were as big and hard as your chin, we'd all be quaking!" It was a mighty chin...
Ah, the joys of old magazines. As ever, the difficult part about hitting the archives is somehow avoiding just sitting back and going through them all in depth. But we don't have the time for that. You may have the time for that! But for now, let's just keep things cut short to see what was said in a random sampling of of these classic titles.
"The thing about the FF games is that everyone goes on about the storylines. Bollocks to that. Either they really miss something when they translate them from the Japanese text or else they're just completely shit."
- PC Zone, Final Fantasy VIII
Hard to remember, but Final Fantasy had about the worst possible launch on the PC, courtesy of one of the worst ports in memory. The sequel was at least slightly better in that it only crashed every few minutes and the programmers had apparently been allowed to at least look at a copy of Windows before trying to implement it. Also, Triple Triad.
"Whereas the size of Ultima 7 was almost out of control, Pagan is refreshingly compact. It's still an enormous game, but it has a solidity that makes the pre-Big Bang universe look about as dense as a Stay Puft marshmallow."
- PC Format, Ultima VII
And with about as many colours once you're out of the main town!
"I went to see them and said 'Is this London?' and they were like, "Yeah, what's wrong with it?" Victorian lights and cobbled streets for Tottenham Court Road! And they asked if I could send them a photo."
- PC Zone, Vampire: The Masquerade: Redemption
Don't see the problem, guv'nor!
"One important matter for any complex computer game is documentation. Though this manual is well written, explains in detail the mechanics of playing the game, and even includes a short story, it lacks an important feature. During gameplay, monsters are not identified by name, so one needs to drag out those Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manuals to help identify monsters and their characteristics. The reviewer purchased two of them for purposes of the game."
- CGW, Dungeon Master
Pssst. It's Dungeon Master. You can just hit them. With swords.
"There is also a very novel feature which allows you to use yourself as the agent. By filling in the accompanying application form, you can become a member of Zodiac. To do this, you must send in the completed form, a passport photograph and £1.50 to Core, who will then digitise your facial features and send you back a disk with your character on it."
- ST Format, Corporation
I like to imagine that the then-intern still has nightmares about this offer. Imagine if they'd done the same for some kind of 'Be Lara Croft' type deal. The horrors... the horrors...
"Ultima IX is broken. More than any other game this year, it's been knowingly put on the shelves in a state which would have Watchdog hopping in an apoplectic war dance. If bugs were diseases, Bob Geldof would be on TV demanding your money for an emergency relief program. (snip) Perfected and optimised, Ultima would have received 94%. This is obviously one of the greatest solo games of all time."
- PC Gamer, Ultima VIII
"Its level of complexity and intelligent plot knocks Baldur's Gate into oblivion and gives RPG fans a real taste of what PC games could really deliver in the next year or two."
- PC Zone, Planescape Torment
Oh, god, if only. Planescape's old enough to vote and we're still waiting.
Deus Ex isn't all bad though; I'd say it's only 90% bad. There are times when it's fun. You'll be stalking snipers on the rooftops in New York, pushing deeper and deeper into an underwater base, or sneaking past robot sentries around a missile silo. But just as you're starting to get into the spirit of things, something lame happens (snip) and Deus Ex reminds you that you're playing a cliché-riddled game with horrid AI that uses the one of the worst possible engines to tell an uninteresting story in unimaginative settings. Other than that, I suppose Deus Ex is okay.
- GamesDomain, Deus Ex
Sounds terrible. Bet that one's going to be forgotten quickly.
"Upon opening it you are confronted by an awesome sight that will chill the bones of even the most hardened role-player. FOUR DISKS."
- C&VG, Pool of Radiance
Pffft. I played Wing Commander 2.
"Until now, there's never been a true RPG on the market. (snip) Sometimes, people will just walk up to you in the street and fight you. To be entirely accurate they don't fight you outright. They just walk up and say you dress like a diseased troll."
- ST Format, Legends of Valour
A tactic that would later be used by many an MMO griefer!
"If your neighbour bought a spanking new black Countach, practiced his handbrake turns outside your house in the middle of the night and you were only able to watch as chicks flocked to his motor while the dogs visited yours, then you'd be in much the same situation that PC and Amiga owners were in 1988. Of course, they weren't worried about cars - it was a computer game, released to an unsuspecting public, that pissed off a nation of non-ST owners. The game was called Dungeon Master."
- Zero, Dungeon Master
Well, it's a change from the anorak brigade type commentary, I guess...
"The seventh instalment in Origin's classic Ultima series seems to have picked up a negative word of mouth in some gaming circles for no reason other than that it's a seventh instalment. Many who were delighted when Ultima VI was released cannot be bothered to boot up Ultima VII, as though it goes without saying that the seventh of anything can't possibly be any good. The market suddenly seems matured; weary gamers, sure they have played enough to last them a lifetime, eye the new Ultima with suspicion that it is just More Of The Same."
- CGW, Ultima VII
They're probably thinking of flour.
"There is a very small group of individuals who claim to like Might and Magic VII. We hated it. Abysmal graphics and archaic gameplay are never going to impress us, but we do not hold grudges. What's past is past. So, we start afresh with this latest offering, Might and Magic VIII. We have no preconceptions, we forgive 3DO its previous sins. Let's move on and see how it fares."
- PC Zone, Might and Magic VIII
They promptly gave it 9%.
"Though it certainly looks impressive, plays fairly well and is generally pretty okay, there's always this constant nagging doubt at the back of your mind that says, what are you doing? This is a flick-screen game. They went out years ago. Stop it at once! (snip)"
- PC Zone, Stonekeep
Ah, the joy of retro sensibilities. It requires a bit of distance before we forget how bored we got of the good old games of the past and are ready for the likes of Grimrock or Bard's Tale IV. Or maybe even Grimoire... when it finally launches in 2027.
But what of this own little column's past? What have we learned over the last couple of years? We've drunk a million or so virtual shots to Ultima VII, for starters. But there's been plenty more! We've learned that the industry needs more urban fantasy, that there are plenty of scenes we'd like to see, that I probably shouldn't be allowed to write any Mass Effect novels, and that great ideas were meant to be stolen. We've poked behind the scenes of MMO jails and visited deep spaaaaaaaaaaace, and confirmed without argument - really, no argument - that HEROES! DON'T! CRAFT! In between all of that, we've found time to listen to the radio, go streaking for science, and confirmed once and for all that spiders are the fucking worst. Worst of the worst!
Plus some other stuff too, if you follow this here tag.
Oh, and lest we forget, we learned that Eye of the Beholder III invented the goatse.
And so it came to pass that at the end of civilisation, as the world descended into chaos via a chain of strange yet plausible coincidences sparked by the absence of a weekly RPG column, that the final scrollbar reached the bottom of the page. Somewhere, as the hordes of red dragons took to the sky and the cities of man and beast alive burned, one last smouldering monk didst take another look at the series' long-running title and utter "Oh, now I get it. What a terrible bloody name."
And then there was but darkness. Forever and ever. Or at least for a while.
Ultima VII. (Take a shot.)