Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Priority CRPG 4: Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (1981)

The Apple II cover of Wizardry

Aaahhh, that's much better.  I'm happy to be playing pretty much anything other than Balrog Sampler, but it's even nicer that the next game is a stone-cold classic from my CRPG priority list.  This is one I've been looking forward to for years.

I've been playing CRPGs almost since I first got my Commodore 64, way back in the mid-80s.  I've at least dabbled in most of the major games and franchises, but I've never played a Wizardry game before.  I've certainly read plenty about them, and I spent most of my teen years obsessively playing the Bard's Tale trilogy, which I gather is very similar.  So I'm not unfamiliar with the series and how it works, but I have no firsthand experience.  This is a big one for me.  If it's as much like Bard's Tale as it seems I think I'm going to enjoy it a lot.

As usual, I'll be trying to play this game in its original version.  Wizardry was initially released for the Apple II, which is a huge relief.  Balrog Sampler had me struggling manfully with TRS-80 emulators for weeks on end, and the simplicity of Apple II emulators is wonderful in comparison.  I'm also going to be attempting to play this game at its legitimate difficulty.  Wizardry is yet another early CRPG that will permanently delete your characters without allowing you the luxury of returning to a prior save.  I figure that if I was able to beat Rogue properly, I should be able to do the same with Wizardry.  Hopefully I'll be happy with that decision a month from now.

Wizardry was initially developed by Andrew Greenberg (then a student at Cornell University) and Robert Woodhead, starting in 1978.  A version written in BASIC was apparently playable as early as 1979, but wasn't released because it was really, really slow.  I can attest to that as far as BASIC games go, as the ones I've played for the blog have been really sluggish.  (It gets especially bad for games with graphics.)  There are claims in the Wizardry documentation that the game is the "largest single micro-computer game ever created", so I shudder to think just how slow it might have been.  The game was rewritten in Pascal in 1979, but because Greenberg and Woodhead didn't have access to a run-time system the game couldn't be released until 1981. This meant that Wizardry got two years of solid playtesting.  So now I know that when my party gets wiped out by monsters without a chance to retaliate, that was a deliberate decision, and a not an oversight.

I played the PLATO game Oubliette some years ago, and Wizardry draws heavily from that game.  There have been accusations of plagiarism over the years, although from what I've played of both I'd say that it's no more egregious than what had already been going on in gaming up to that point.  If Wizardry has ripped off Oubliette, then just about every adventure game I've played - including Zork - has ripped off Colossal Cave Adventure.  There's no denying the influence, though: in many ways, Wizardry is an attempt to bring Oubliette to home computers as a single player experience.

Of course, Wizardry is massively successful, important, and influential in its own right.  It sold over 200,000 copies in its first two years, outselling Ultima at the time.  It inspired the aforementioned Bard's Tale series, not to mention just about every first-person dungeon-crawler that's ever been made.  And then there's its influence on Japanese RPGs, where its combat system was lifted for hugely successful games like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy.  The Wizardry series actually continued in Japan long after it was dead in the west, with the last game having been published in 2014.  Wizardry is a milestone, possibly the most important CRPG that I've never played.  I really want to dig into this one, even though there's probably very little new that I can say about it.

Wizardry's Apple II manual

The first thing I like to do with a game is check out the box and the manual.  This is especially important with games of this vintage, because often the story is almost entirely contained in the supplemental material.  There's no story in Wizardry's manual, but the box apparently did contain a slip of paper called a "briefing", which says that the evil wizard Werdna stole something valuable from King Trebor, and has hidden it in the dungeons below Trebor's castle with monsters to guard it.  Apparently there's a "control room" somewhere that will allow me to access the deeper dungeon levels more easily, but that's something for me to worry about later.  ("Werdna" and "Trebor", as I'm sure everyone reading this already knows, are the names of the developers written backwards.  I've seen this dismissed as lame on many occasions, but it is fully in keeping with the game's roots in Dungeons & Dragons, in which Gary Gygax happily named his wizard alter-ego Zagyg.  This is just the sort of thing that RPG players were doing at the time, and I kind of admire that ability to not take the fantasy too seriously.  Besides, it's not nearly as pretentious as inserting yourself into your game as "Lord British".)

The manual sets the tone pretty early.

While the manual doesn't have any story details, it's chockers with information on how to play the game.  Character creation, combat, exploration, shopping, and pretty much every other aspect of the game are described pretty thoroughly (or at least it seems so from my inexperienced perspective).  The illustrations are of a humorous nature, which is in keeping with the tone of a lot of RPG material of the era: more proof that the creators of D&D and CRPGs didn't take this stuff very seriously back then.  The back half of the manual is taken up by spell descriptions: there are fifty spells in all, and I gather that mastering their use will be vital to beating the game.  I'm not a huge fan of the way the spells are named in Wizardry, though. Yes, it's cool that the names are built using a system of syllables with meanings, and that the meanings are consistent across the spell names.  But when I'm trying to figure out what the fuck LATUMOFIS and LAKANITO do, it's not that helpful.  There's something to be said for D&D's use of prosaic names such as fireball and magic missile.

After booting up the game, it begins with an impressive title screen depicting a wizard summoning a demon from a bubbling cauldron.  Yes, it's primitive by modern standards, but this level of colour and animation are a real eye-opener when seen in the context of the day.  (That said, I'm playing Wizardry somewhat out of sequence, so maybe it's on par with some other stuff out there. I'll find out for sure eventually, I suppose.)

Impressive in its day.

The title page says that I'm playing version 2.1 from 1982, which I gather makes some minor improvements from the original.  It's probably not a major enough shift to warrant me tracking down an earlier version, and besides that I'm using the disks made available by Ahab at Data Driven Gamer, which are apparently the only ones out there that are in the same state that the game would be in when newly purchased.  So I doubt I'm going to get a more authentic experience than the one I'm going with.

The game starts in King Trebor's Castle, but your options are limited because you don't have any party members yet. The only thing to do is go to the (E)dge of town, where you can head to the (T)raining grounds to create some characters.  I could see this all being a little baffling to a first-timer, but the manual lays it out clearly enough.

At Trebor's Castle, with no party members

You begin character creation by assigning your character a name, which feels a little backwards to me: I like to know my character's stats, race and class before I name them.  The game then asks you to assign the character a password.  It will ask you for that password whenever you try to use the character.  It's an odd touch, but it is borrowed from Oubliette, where it was used to prevent other people using your character in a multiplayer environment.  It's included here to stop your little brother from mucking up your best guys, I guess.

The second step is to assign a race, using the standard D&D choices of Human, Elf, Dwarf, Gnome and Hobbit.  Each race has its own affect on your stats, as well as resistances to certain attacks, but the manual is uncharacteristically vague about this.  At this point I'll resist the urge to look them up, and assume that they conform to the stereotypes (i.e. Hobbits have high Agility and low Strength, Dwarves have high Vitality, etc.).

Choosing a race.

After choosing a race, you need to pick an alignment: Good, Neutral or Evil.  This affects which classes you can qualify for in the next step.  It should also be noted that Good and Evil characters can never be in the same party together, which means that there are certain classes I won't be able to use.

The next step is to determine your stats. Each character has six of these attributes (which range from 3-18 in standard D&D fashion): Strength, I.Q., Piety, Vitality, Agility, and Luck.  Strength affects your ability in melee combat, I.Q. and Piety affect your ability to cast and learn mage and priest spells (respectively), Vitality affects your health and hit points, Agility affects your speed in combat, and Luck affects your ability to avoid traps, spells and other attacks.  Again, I'm being vaguer than I'd like to be here, but I can't find where this is explained in the manual. I'm sure I read it in there yesterday, but it's escaping me right now and I'm wondering if I imagined it.  Anyway, if you've ever played an RPG, these stats do the things they always do.  You know how it works.

Assigning stats and choosing a class.

Aside from their usual effects, certain stats are required to qualify for a character class.  There are eight classes in Wizardry, four basic classes and four elite classes.

  • Fighters, your standard warrior type with high hit points and the best access to weapons and armour. They require a Strength of 11.
  • Mages, your spellcasters.  They get the most effective combat spells, but they can't wear armour and can only wield a dagger or a staff.  They require an IQ of 11.
  • Priests, your holy men who can fight a bit and use healing and defensive magic. They can also "dispell" undead monsters, allowing you to avoid fighting them. They require a Piety of 11, and can't be Neutral in alignment.
  • Thieves, who are primarily there to disarm traps. They can only use daggers and short swords, and wear leather armour. They require an Agility of 11.
  • Bishops, which are a kind of cross between Priests and Mages. They also get the ability to identify magical items, which seems handy. Like priests, they can't be Neutral in alignment.
  • Samurai, which are fighters that eventually get access to Mage spells. They can't be Evil.
  • Lords, which are combination Fighter-Priests. They must be Good.
  • Ninja, which are described as "inhuman fighting machines". Their Armor Class gets better as they reach higher levels, and they also have a chance to kill enemies with a single blow. They have to be Evil though, which puts them at odds with Lords.

The last four classes listed above are harder to qualify for, requiring high scores in multiple attributes. At higher levels you can also switch classes, retaining your hit points and spells while gaining the abilities of the new class.  To be honest, I feel like the ability to switch class kind of negates the benefits of the "elite" classes. Only the Ninja and the Bishop seem to have unique abilities.  Perhaps there's something I'm missing.

The manual recommends starting with two Fighters, a Priest, a Thief and two Mages.  I suspect that I might eventually swap out that Thief for another healer, but it's hard to argue with the balance here.  The scan of the manual that I'm using also has some hand-written notes, with the names of the player's party scrawled on the inside front cover.  In recognition of that player so considerately making his manual available, I'm going to use the names of his characters.  So my first party will consist of fighters Bubba and Mean Joe, thief Chico, priest Father Fred, and mages Misto and Merlin.  I decided to make Bubba and Father Fred human, Mean Joe a dwarf, Chico a hobbit, Misto a gnome and Merlin an elf.  I've covered all of my racial bases there, striking a blow for diversity.

The inspiration for my first party

I hemmed and hawed about whether to go with a good or an evil party, but in the end my basic CRPG instincts won over.  I made Bubba, Father Fred and Merlin good, and the rest of the party neutral.  I guess I'm not going to have a ninja in the party (unless all of these guys gets slaughtered and I have to start over).

My stats were disappointingly low: most of them begin in the 5-11 range, and you only get around seven points to distribute amongst them.  This number is variable, though, and occasionally you hit the jackpot.  This happened to me with Mean Joe, who got a whopping 19 points to spend.  He ended up with a Strength of 18, and a high Vitality as well, and expect he'll be the MVP of the party in the early going.

Once your characters are created, you need to go to Gilgamesh's Tavern to add them to the party. This is kind of irritating, to be honest, as you can only see the roster of characters at the training ground, and you can only add them to your party at the tavern. It's not so bad now, but I can see it being a potential problem down the line if I have a bigger roster and I'm more likely to forget their names.

While I was at the tavern I took the time to inspect my characters and look at what spells my priest and mages got.  Father Fred got Dios (heal) and Badios (harm).  Misto and Merlin both ended up with Halito (little fire) and Katino (bad air, basically a sleep spell).  I'm not sure if beginning casters all start with the same spells or not, but the ones I got are pretty good.  I wouldn't want to tackle the dungeon without some healing and a sleep spell.

Next it was time to head to Boltac's Trading Post to buy some gear.  Most of what's sold here is standard weapons and armour, but I was surprised to see some magical items (+1 weapons and armor, another D&Dism), as well as some potions and scrolls.  All of the magical gear was out of my price range, but it's something for me to work towards.

Bubba, who started with 170 gold, bought a longsword, a large shield, and some chain mail.  Merlin,  with 110 gold, bought a staff and some robes. Misto, with 135 gold, bought a dagger and some robes. Chico, with 163 gold, bought a short sword, small shield, and leather armour.  Father Fred and Mean Joe were a little lacking in funds (100 gold and 91 gold respectively), so I went back to the tavern and had some of my other characters trade their leftover gold to them. (This was pretty tedious, as I had to do it one character at a time; there's no "pool" function where the party can just spend money from one collective pile.  It's hard to criticise games for not using functions that had never been thought of at the time, though, so I'll try to shut up about it.)  Upon returning to Boltac's, I was able to buy Father Fred an anointed mace, a large shield, and some chainmail.  Mean Joe was able to buy a longsword, a large shield, some chainmail, and a helm.  So not only does Mean Joe have the best stats, but he has the best gear as well.  Life just works out like that for some people, I guess.

I decided to take a quick foray into the maze, just so that there's some actual gameplay in this post.  I was pleasantly surprised that the game doesn't dump you straight into the dungeon: instead you are in camp, and have the opportunity to review your characters and equip their gear.  It's a nice little reminder to be prepared.  Equipping weapons and armour is also very user-friendly, as it runs through each character and asks what you want to use in each category.

The party begins at the stairs (which I assume are at the bottom left of the map), with a tunnel leading ahead and another to the right. I chose to take the right tunnel, which led to a room through a door.  Movement uses the W-A-D cluster, with W being forward, A turning left, and D turning right.  Going through a door has its own separate command - K - which is another minor irritant.  Trying to walk forward into a door using W brings up a message that says OUCH.  I'm not sure if this can hurt the party, but in this case my characters emerged unscathed.

I didn't find anything there, so I went back to the stairs and headed north.  As soon as I turned a corner I was attacked by 5 Scruffy Men.  Sometimes in Wizardry you don't know exactly which monsters you're facing, only their general type.  As the battle progresses the monsters will be identified.  In this case, I was soon to learn that I was fighting 5 Bushwackers.

The battle begins with mysterious enemies.

I decided to kick off with my full arsenal, as I was planning on heading right back to the castle after my first fight.  I had my first three characters attack, while Chico parried and my mages both cast Katino (sleep).  It did not go well.  Bubba went down in a single blow, and was dead.  Mean Joe retaliated, wounding one of the Bushwackers, but my Katinos were not all that effective: only two of the enemy were put to sleep.

Bubba nooooooo!

I probably should have fled, but I decided to stick it out for another round, attacking with everything and casting two more Katinos.  Mean Joe, Chico and Father Fred all killed a Bushwacker, and of the two remaining one was asleep.  The cost was dire though: both Mean Joe and Chico were killed.  With only a single foe I decided to chance another round, but nobody on either side landed a blow.  The second Bushwacker woke up, and I knew that I was overmatched.  It was time to run, which I was able to do successfully.  Back at the stairs, my party dragged the corpses of their friends back to the castle, with nothing to show for their foray.

This game's going to be a tough one, isn't it?

I get the feeling I'm going to be seeing this kind of thing a lot.


  1. You should double up on priests instead of mages for security's sake.

  2. "To be honest, I feel like the ability to switch class kind of negates the benefits of the "elite" classes."

    Samurai and lord are logical fighter career paths. If you switch from a fighter to a spellcaster, you'll lose all of your fighting prowess, and basically have a high-HP, low-stat spellcaster. Which isn't a bad thing, but it completely changes that character's role, and furthermore, you'll need to level up the fighter quite a bit first to get the most out of it, since increased HP is the only benefit.

    But if you switch from a fighter to a samurai or lord, you'll stay a good fighter, have better stats, gain access to some very good class-exclusive gear, and also learn a few spells. And you can do this at a fairly low level without sacrificing too much. Samurai will have less HP in the long run but lords should be the about same.

  3. Wizardry is brutally hard until you get a few guys at level 2 or 3 to shepherd the new guys along. It speeds up once you stop dying constantly.

    1. Yep. As Inigo Montoya is prone to stating "Prepare to DIE!!!"

      Wizardry pulls no punches... especially early on, but you can have a high level party get wiped out quickly on the lower levels as well.