Classic Games in the Making: Old-School RPGs Are New Again

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Computer games have been around a long time, and a lot of the conventions and ideas that were once essential have now been forgotten. Sometimes game makers abandon them with good reason--does anyone miss using graph paper to hand-map dungeons filled with darkness and teleporters? But sometimes gamers find themselves pining for the adventures of yore.

Although it's easy to fire up an emulator and replay some old favorites, you might want to experience new games designed in the old style--and that's what we've gathered here. Most of the following games mix older ideas with newer ones, usually to great success.

(For links to all of these downloads in one convenient list, see our "Classic Games in the Making" collection.)

Let's start with classic computer role-playing games. All the titles discussed here are single-player and turn-based; no 20-man raids or button mashing required. Fans of SSI's "Gold Box" Advanced Dungeons & Dragons games (who doesn't remember taking a long lunch while your wheezing 8088 PC finished processing the actions of the two dozen kobolds attacking you?) will enjoy Knights of the Chalice (about $24, free demo). The game uses a simplified version of the D&D 3.5 rule set. You create a party of four and go forth on an epic quest, where you learn that, in the old-school tradition, encounters don't "scale" to your level. ("Save early, save often" is the only route to success.) The 8-bit-styled graphics look crude and blocky, but colorful and clear just the same; you'll never be uncertain about what's trying to kill you, or which figures are your characters.

Although Eschalon: Book II ($25, free demo) uses more modern, mid-'90s-style isometric graphics, and although it limits you to a single character, it offers an interesting and interactive world with levers to flip, dark passages to navigate, various skills to specialize in, and a complex plot to unravel. In some older games you were free to steal anything not nailed down--but in Eschalon, you must be sure that the town guards don't see you. You must also contend with hunger, thirst, and the slow degradation of your weapons and armor. Logically, if you bash an oak door down with your sword, the blade becomes pretty useless for fighting. The free demo gives you the first few zones and quests, which adds up to about 90 minutes of gameplay.

Another game in the top-down, isometric style, Avadon: The Black Fortress ($25, free demo) gives you a chance to recruit companions and engage in more-complex tactics as you try to select the best mix of skills and powers. The game also has a degree of moral ambiguity and plot complexity that adds some depth beyond "Kill Foozle" or "Find the sacred amulet." As with Eschalon, the graphics are sharp and clear, though far from cutting-edge. The free demo contains approximately 10 percent of the total game, enough for you to complete the tutorial and half of the first major quest.

Fans of NES-style RPGs--and of the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft--will enjoy Cthulhu Saves the World ($3, buy only), in which the titular squid-headed alien god has been stripped of his powers and must become a hero in order to regain them. Fourth-wall-breaking dialogue, a surprisingly broad assortment of monsters to kill, and fights that you can win only with careful resource management make the game fun. I have to admit that I frequently ended up wandering through nearly identical caverns and tunnels trying to find the exit I missed; that became tedious. However, getting lost is also part of the RPG genre, and leaving it out would have been wrong.

If you've ever wondered what might have happened if the MMORPG explosion had occurred 15 years early, check out NEStalgia, a free MMORPG done up as an old console game. It isn't all that "massive"--the servers have 20 to 40 players at any time--but the small community is friendly, and NEStalgia is quite different from the typical World of Warcraft-style game. The character icons are tiny, though, which makes it hard to tell who's who. (P.S.: Don't try to kill the mouse until you're fifth level or so--or take some friends with you.) The optional subscription ($15 per year) gives you a few more character classes, the ability to create guilds, and some appearance and storage options.

One clear indicator of the passage of time is the butchering of sacred cows. Ultima IV, Part II: Dude, Where's My Avatar? is likely to appeal only to those gamers who spent far too many hours on the deservedly beloved Ultima IV. This free satire game transforms Ultima IV's Britannia from a land of "Truth, Love, and Courage" into one of "Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll," with the Avatar called back to set things right. (But do you really want to?) It's filled with shout-outs to all the classic Ultimas--do you know what a blue tassel is, and why you need one?--but the actual gameplay elements are minimized. The map, however, is a faithful reproduction of the original. The parody's creator made it in Adventure Creation Kit, a program that has been maintained since the early 1990s, but be warned: This is a DOS program that has a Windows wrapper around it, and most of the interface, even the graphics editor, uses keyboard navigation instead of the mouse.

Those who prefer strategy over story can find old-school war games. Dominions 3: The Awakening ($55, free demo) is a massively deep game best described as "Civilization meets Gratuitous Space Battles, as envisioned by the people who made Dwarf Fortress." And Battle for Wesnoth (free) is a turn-based tactical game that features extended campaigns and the ability to "level up" troops, as well as some interesting resource-management and tactical-positioning challenges.

Finally, if you're looking for a change of pace, and you want old-school when it was new-school, you can do worse than to download, for free, the complete The Elder Scrolls Chapter II: Daggerfall, ancestor of Morrowind and Oblivion. This "2.5D" game has a first-person, 3D interface and sprite-based monsters, à la Doom. It's real-time, not turn-based, and the procedurally generated world is absolutely immense. Due to the fact that it was designed for coal-powered Babbage engines, I strongly recommend that you grab an emulation utility to run it in for best performance. I've always used DOSBox for this purpose.

Which New Classics Should You Play?

In general, Eschalon: Book II and Avadon are neck-and-neck in skillfully blending modern gameplay concepts and quality with old-school turn-based tactics, but I found Eschalon slightly more compelling in the "just 5 more minutes" way. Knights of the Chalice is fun, but somewhat simpler in content and graphics. Ultima IV, Part II calls only to fans who were there, man (and it depends on your taste in humor), but if you want satire mixed with good gameplay, Cthulhu Saves the World gives you both--its gentle mockery of console-RPG conventions will amuse even those not up on their Lovecraftian mythology.

Daggerfall is an example of what was truly cutting-edge at the time. Although its mostly random content can quickly become dull, and it has a number of bugs and glitches, many gamers still harbor a soft spot for it due to the scope and freedom it offers. Battle for Wesnoth is a fun tactical game with sprightly graphics and quick play. Dominions 3 is a deeper, more strategic game that can sometimes overwhelm you with detail and suffers some interface issues--but you'll be hard-pressed to find a game in the genre that offers more stuff to play with.

As for price, all of these games are either free or have free trials, except for Cthulhu Saves the World (but at $3, springing for the whole thing will hardly break anyone's budget). If you're interested in old-school computer gaming, all of these titles are at least worth a try.

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