By Mark Michel
As a life-long gamer dating back to the 70s, I have had the fortune of watching the gaming industry and culture grow for over 4 decades. I’ve watched home gaming grow from the simplistic Pong-type games to the near-terabyte sized games.
I have played fighters, puzzle games and strategic games, but one of my favorite genres happens to be the Role Playing Game (RPG). RPGs have been around nearly as long as video games have – in fact they even pre-date the video game. Case in point; Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). Any geek worth his pocket protector will have at one time or another, played a lengthy game of D&D, and may even have his own 20-sided dice to prove it.
But for those of us who didn’t want to carry around stacks of books or graphing paper, we had to wait until video games caught up. And in 1981, they had! There were 2 basically text-based RPGs on the market back then; Zork and Ultima. But a third entrant burst on the scene and became something of a phenomenon practically overnight. That game was Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord.
Originally released for the Apple II, Wizardry was the first graphically-oriented RPG on the market that put the player in a first-person dungeon crawling maze. It was developed by 2 Cornell computing students – Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead. They began developing the game in the late 70s, but finally brought it to the Apple II computer in 1981. By that time, it was the first RPG that utilized color graphics and was the first true party-based RPG on the market.
Wizardry: Proving Grounds was but the first of many titles, marked the beginning of the first trilogy of Wizardry games; Wizardry Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, Wizardry II: Knight of Diamonds and Wizardry III: Legacy of Llylagmyn.
While the basic tenants of the game required the player to make options-based decisions, the options weren’t limited to a mere handful of actions. The game also had a well-balanced group of races and specializations that each character (that you created) could go into; from a brute fighter, to a stealthy thief – or perhaps a powerful healing Cleric or one of my favorites – the very powerful Mage, of course, there are also other career paths you could take your characters on such as becoming a Bishop, Lord or Ninja as well.
With such a selection of character types and chosen career paths, Wizardry was similar to D&D in nearly every way, which is probably why it sold so well in the 80s.
Wizardry was so popular that it was eventually ported to countless computer systems and consoles over the years. It jumped to the PC not long after arriving on the Apple II, and later to the Macintosh, and then to the various game consoles, such as the NES, Gameboy, SNES and others. Each console and system had basically same game, but each one was played in a slightly different way depending on the UI.
On the NES, the UI and menus are all interfaced with the use of the controller. This simplified the control the game player had with Wizardry.
Initially when you begin playing Wizardry, you will need to create characters. In order to do this, simply select “Training Grounds” from the main menu board. Here, you can create a character, change their class, inspect them and their gear and spells, or even delete them. For our purposes here, you’ll create a character.
First you name your character. A virtual keyboard is presented and you select the letters to make your character’s name. After which, you can save the name, and then select race – there are five races to choose from; Human, Elf, Dwarf, Gnome and Hobbit. Each race has a particular specialty – except for human..Humans have a pretty well-rounded set of stats. They aren’t great in anything, but aren’t lacking, either.
After selecting a race, you can choose whether to be aligned “Good, Evil or Neutral”. This may be important down the line, so choose your alignment carefully. Also, you can’t have good aligned characters with evil aligned characters. They don’t mix! But neutral characters can go into either type of group.
With your character’s alignment taken care of, you are brought to the “Initiative” screen, where you are given points to allocate to one of your character’s 6 characteristics. From strength to luck, you can allocate points into each category from the “Bonus” points section.
Think of the Bonus points area as your 20-sided die roll for initiative. Just like a 20-sided die, your Bonus points are randomly “rolled” by the computer. Odds are though, that you’ll get a mid-range roll of 6 or 7…Sometimes though, you can get real lucky and roll a 15 or higher! I’ve never seen the bonus roll go higher than 19 though – at least not on the NES version.
Once you put all your bonus points into the various attributes for your character, you can select one of the trades (or professions) your character will start out as. There are lots of professions for each character to go into, but in the beginning of the NES version, you can usually choose from one of four professions; Fighter, Thief, Cleric or Mage. You can eventually change your character’s profession to one of four other professions; Wizard, Samurai, Lord and Ninja, but you may want to hold off on changing professions until you have enough experience and hit points, because once you change professions, you become a level 1 character all over again…But you retain the spells and equipment you have gained to the point at which you make a change.
Getting the Band Together
Once you’ve created a bunch of characters, you’ll need to assemble them into a group of six, so you can go out and begin exploring the maze of dungeons below the town. To do this, simply select, Gilgamesh’s Tavern, and you’ll get a menu screen that asks you to add, remove, inspect or divvy gold. Select the “add” option, and you’ll get the character selection screen – which is basically a list of all the characters you have created in the game. Pick out 6 characters, and you’ll be nearly ready to go dungeon crawling.
Any good band of monster hunters needs to be prepared for the hunt, and the same is true of dungeon crawling adventurers! You can’t simply travel into the dungeons with only your bare hands and your birthday suit. Nope. You need to step into Boltac’s Trading Post to pick out some deadly weapons, fancy duds and perhaps a couple of spell scrolls or potions. You never know what you’ll run into in the dungeon. The Mad Overlord has populated his dungeon with all types of nasty creatures from who-knows-where.
You won’t have a lot of gold pieces to spend at the beginning of the game, so you’ll really only be able to get a handful of useful things. Perhaps some basic body armor and a sword of some type for the fighters and robes and a staff for the magic users. The nice thing about Wizardry, is that it will let you know at a glance what your character can and can’t use. A pound sign (#) next to an item in the shop, means your character can’t use the item. Of course, if you lack the funds, Boltac will tell you to get out of his shop, too.
Choose your weapons and armor carefully. And be sure to check Boltac’s inventory often while playing. He does occasionally get new items for sale. You can also sell your unwanted items, or have unknown items identified – for a price, if you lack a Wizard to identify them for you.
To the Maze
With your characters made armored and ready to go, you are ready to venture into the dungeons for your first trek.
When you head into the maze, you’ll find yourself in the crux of Wizardry’s game; a first-person pseudo 3D maze. This is the one feature in Wizardry that other games tried to emulate, but were always a step behind Wizardry’s path. While you “walk” through the maze, the walls appear to shift along your path, and eventually lead to corners, doors and even stairs which lead even deeper into the nine-level dungeon.
Each level has its own puzzles to solve, monsters to beat and obstacles that need to be overcome by you and your team of adventurers. But if you’re lucky, you will be able make your way to the last level of the dungeon to square off against the wicked Werdna (Andrew Greenberg’s first name backwards).
But before you try to jump into the dark abyss, you may want to be wary and take some smaller steps into the maze before heading down to fight the final battle, because as with every RPG, you will need to continually level up your characters, get better armor and weapons, learn new spells and possibly even bring fallen characters back from the grave. But while Wizardry takes a while to beat, it’s worth the effort. It’s fairly well-balanced, even by today’s standards – even though it can sometimes seem a little unbalanced in spots. It’s also not a game you can beat in one sitting. You will need many, many trips into the dungeons before you are ready to try to beat the game.
If you’re looking for an RPG that is fun and fairly deep, Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord is a good title to snag for the NES. So get yourself some graph paper, some good snacks and dive into this classic game for the NES.