An RPG with a funny name, based on the AD&D Forgotten Realms campaign setting, Menzoberranzan is a 1994, first-person, party-based adventure game developed by DreamForge Intertainment for Strategic Simulations Inc.
Released in 1994, Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession was developed by DreamForge Intertainment for Strategic Simulations Inc. and was distributed by US Gold in the UK.
I remember it well because I reviewed it for PC Player magazine back in the day.
This pioneering Japanese RPG was first released in 2007 and paved the way for one of the greatest series in the history of level-grinders… The Etrian Odyssey series.
Number three is my favourite, but one and two are excellent too (see also the Nintendo 3DS fourth instalment), and all follow the same credo. Which is: to base a game around exploration, mapping, and turn-based combat. And to make the party system flexible, so that adventurers can take out different parties and experiment with character skills.
This 2008 Nintendo DS release from Atlus is up there with the best in terms of top quality level-grinders – it really is superb.
The Etrian Odyssey series is all about mapping and exploration, item drops, boss battles, levelling, and lots of excellent turn-based combat, and this second instalment is a clear evolution of the first game, although arguably not quite as expansive and refined as its remarkable sequel.
I’m not sure if it’s the game or the emulator – or something else – but controlling the spinning top-like device, GERALD, in the Apple II version of Spindizzy is like trying to navigate Cape Horn in a rowing boat in the depths of winter. It’s suicidal…
The gyroscope-like central character wobbles around like a drunk skunk, with the controls giving only cursory directional motion. I’m sure it shouldn’t be like that. It’s almost impossible to negotiate the trickier parts of the landscape without precise control – you’re constantly falling off the edge, losing time. I must have a duff copy or a control mis-configuration somewhere… Bah!
Apple II Spindizzy certainly looks like the original Spindizzy (in spite of the lack of colour), and Paul Shirley‘s clever isometric world translates reasonably well to the system.
One interesting thing about the Apple II version of Spindizzy is that it was created and published without rights-holder Shirley‘s knowledge (according to sources), which contributed to an acrimonious split with publisher Activision. If true: that is very naughty of them.
More: Spindizzy on Wikipedia
In my mind: one of the best 8-bit games ever made. Spindizzy is part Marble Madness tribute; part completely original game, with you controlling a spinning top-like device, called GERALD, exploring a large, isometric game world that is suspended in space.
The basic idea is to explore with GERALD and collect jewels, which are found hidden around the landscape and which extend the time limit you can survive for. You can bring up a map, which shows what percentage of the landscape you’ve discovered – the ultimate goal being: to explore as much of the world as possible.
GERALD can transform into three different configurations – a ball, an inverted square pyramid (the default), and also a gyroscope. Unfortunately these are just cosmetic changes and don’t affect the gameplay in any way (an oversight in my humble opinion – more should’ve been made of them).
Spindizzy was a critical hit at the time, and a commercial success in Europe. Activision released the game in the USA, but it didn’t makes any real waves. There was an unauthorised Apple II version released in the US (by Activision, no less), which rights-holder Shirley wasn’t aware of until the mid 1990s (and which must’ve mightily pissed him off).
The original Commodore 64 version of Spindizzy is probably the one to play, although it is a very difficult game to master. There have been a number of conversions made – and most have been good – but this original version is pretty much perfect. It’s an incredible feat of programming.
More: Spindizzy on Wikipedia
A brilliant sequel to the tile-based RPG of 2012, Legend of Grimrock II is more of the same atmospheric adventuring from developer Almost Human, but with 2014‘s new content and ideas.
Grimrock 2 begins after a shipwreck; on a beach, with rocky, exterior locations, which is a surprising and refreshing way to start a game like this. You can even walk in the shallow water, which is nice, and on the very first level the shallow water holds an important secret. Don’t miss it.
As the sun goes down, though, you know you’re going to be in for a hard time with the local monster population, and keeping death at bay is often a game of split-second reactions and clever movement, than anything. At times, in the heat of battle, you have to remember how different enemies react to your movements in order to beat them, or not fall into their traps. For example: early in the first level you meet some little blue creatures (Goblins) who are very aggressive and attack you with no warning. They come at you in small groups. If you sidestep next to one, to try to get a hit in, they will jump backwards to avoid your blow. So you have to remember to sidestep once more, before you can get a hit in. So the tactic for beating Goblins is to try to separate them, then try to get one into a corner, where it can’t jump backwards to avoid your side-swipes. Magic is good against certain enemies. The creepy mummies are weak to fire spells, which is good because that’s the way the game introduces you to the magic system, which is done by clicking a series of runes on the menu, then clicking the ‘cast’ button.
All the monsters in Grimrock 2 are well thought-out, and have their strengths and weaknesses; move speeds, and move tactics. The mini tree-like creatures – the annoying ones that hide in the trees and leap out at you after you’ve passed – I think they’re called Ents, have a really tricky move pattern, where they move towards you sideways and attack really quickly. So unless you’re fast they can overwhelm you quickly. Others spit poison at you from a distance. The world of Grimrock 2 really is a deadly hunting ground for some of the scariest monsters you’ll ever meet in an RPG. The skeleton guards especially put the willies up me! Their real-time shadows as they move across the corridors into view are really quite astounding. The atmosphere generated by the lighting and music is just sooo good! You’ll be gripped by the precise WSAD/mouse combat, and cursing certain monsters when they kill the front row and force you to re-load.
A very practical enhancement to Grimrock 2 is the ability to have alternative weapons setups on your characters, and the ability to quickly switch between them when in combat. This gives the player the chance to experiment with more weapons and items, which is good.
Grimrock 2 also has its tense boss battles. There’s alchemy this time, and plants to pick up and make into potions. There’s digging (for buried treasure). An improved automap system. A mysterious, unfolding storyline. And even a simple-to-use dungeon editor, for making your own custom dungeons that anyone with a copy of Grimrock 2 can play. The gameplay, and the whole package, is top quality. And it is a tough challenge too. Getting all the achievements is way beyond my capabilities…
Legend of Grimrock II is a worthy sequel to a great first game. It expands and enhances the Grimrock experience immeasurably, and the result is arguably one of the best tile-based RPGs ever made.
Click: The original Legend of Grimrock on The King of Grabs.
Tower of Doom is a Roguelike RPG with mazes that must be explored and monsters that must be defeated in order to escape the dungeon.
There are seven different quests, of increasing difficulty, and the player can choose to play as any one of ten different classes (Novice, Warrior, Archer, Knight, Trader, Barbarian, Waif, Friar, Warlock, and Warlord). The ultimate aim is to reach the stairs on each level, and to keep going down until you reach the exit.
Tower of Doom is an excellent game, although a couple of things let it down slightly. Firstly, the screen ‘real estate’ isn’t great. The sandy-coloured border is way too bright and ugly, and way too big – the game would’ve looked better (and been easier on the eyes) with a smaller, black (or darker) border. Secondly, the inventory is a bit clunky. Dropping items to make room for others is a bit hit and miss because you can only drop items when you have room around you, and often it won’t let you. Other than that: Tower of Doom is an extremely enjoyable game and is still fun to play now.
Note: Tower of Doom was reportedly in development (as another licensed AD&D title, to follow Treasure of Tarmin) at Mattel Electronics before INTV Corporation took over the Intellivision. The game was unfinished at the time of the take-over (1984), but was later completed and released onto the market in 1987 (minus the AD&D license).
SSI‘s Dungeon Hack is an RPG that generates random dungeons, or custom dungeons, and is one big realtime battle through a Forgotten Realms world, in the style of Dungeon Master or Eye of the Beholder. It’s a never-ending dungeon crawl that gets progressively harder, and even has its own high score table!
In some ways Dungeon Hack is a first-person version of the classic Rogue, where every game is different and random events plague your every step. But it’s much more complicated than Rogue…
You can tweak pretty much every aspect of your prospective dungeon – its depth, the number of monsters, the frequency of keys, monster difficulty, poison strength, whether enemies can use spells – all kinds of things. And when you’ve generated your dungeon you then have to fight as far into it as you can, for points, which are all detailed in the aforementioned high score table.
Dungeon Hack is great fun if you love level-grinders. It’s not really about solving puzzles (like it is in Dungeon Master) – it’s more about the combat; both warrior-style and magic-based, and the mapping. The character generation side of Dungeon Hack is also highly detailed, so allows for a wide range of classes – enough to satisfy most players.
Paul Shirley‘s classic isometric puzzle/adventure game, Spindizzy, originated on the Commodore 64, but is also quite excellent on the Atari 800.
You play as a spinning top device, called GERALD (Geographical Environmental Reconnaissance And Land-mapping Device), who must explore the maze-like environment, collecting jewels.
Spindizzy is a hugely challenging game. Too hard for many people, but if you can master the controls you might be able to reach the parts other spinning tops cannot.
The Atari conversion was handled by Mark Roll and the game was released by Electric Dreams in 1986.