Role-playing games in today's market tend to fall into two categories -- the Western style, generally inspired by the pencil-and-paper Dungeons & Dragons system, and the angst-ridden, soap-operatic Japanese RPG a la Final Fantasy. But the JRPG began life as an offshoot of the Western RPG before finding its own voice, and a number of American dungeon crawls have been licensed for release in Japan.
One of these games was Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead's seminal Wizardry, which debuted on the 8-bit Apple II way back in 1981.
The series was hugely successful in the States, and many licensed conversions were released on Japanese platforms in the years that followed. Here, we're comparing the original to the 1993 PC Engine Super CD-ROM edition, which combined the first two Wizardry games, Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord and Knight of Diamonds, into one console release:
The original game was fairly small in terms of what we call "content" today, but it was a full-blooded computer implementation of a D&D-style RPG system, with character attributes and classes, spells, experience, character levels, and equipment shops. The menus even called the Apple II's rarely-utilized hi-res mode into service, to fit more data onto the screen:
It also featured a whole Monster Manual's worth of crudely-drawn monsters. I'm particularly fond of the low-level Scruffy Men, though it seems a bit unfair to call them monsters -- they probably just need the cash:
The heart of Wizardry's gameplay, and a major reason for its popularity in the face of stiff competition from Richard Garriott's Ultima, was its innovative 3-D dungeon adventuring engine. There were no geographical details beyond doors and stairs going up and down; movement was not animated, just refreshed with each step or turn; players couldn't see monsters coming, but would simply encounter them on contact. And there was no automapping, so one had to either learn one's way around or draw a map by hand, step by step. But this limited early technology appealed to pencil-and-paper RPG players, who for the first time were able to explore a proper dungeon without needing to round up a Dungeon Master and a party of fellow adventurers.
As testimony to Wizardry's impact and longevity, we note that this Japanese edition came out more than ten years later. The PC Engine version features updated, full-color graphics and a stirring audio score, rendered with CD audio or chip-based tunes, at the player's discretion. But it respects its roots, and the options menu even allows playing with the original Apple II-style dungeon graphics:
Or the updated look:
The PC Engine version is extremely faithful to the Apple II original -- a map drawn for one version works for the other, and the monster and weapon names are consistently rendered in English. There is a fair amount of Japanese text, but beyond the intro it's limited to standard messages like BUBBLY SLIME DIES! and THERE IS A STAIRCASE HERE. DO YOU WANT TO CLIMB IT? We don't have to type anything in this console version -- menu selections make it easy to answer YES/NO or choose which type of trap to target for a disarm attempt. The monsters, traps, and key menu options are in English, and with a little experience playing the US version it's not at all difficult to figure out what's going on in the Japanese edition.
The biggest difference is that the monster graphics have taken a big leap forward on the PCE -- they're still not animated, but they're very nicely drawn and detailed:
Of course, neither edition of the game is easy either -- unlike the gentler nature of modern RPGs, it's very easy to lead one's party into deadly situations, and very expensive to drag them back to town and resurrect them at the temple. In this case, I failed to disarm a dangerous chest trap and managed to gas my entire party to death, forcing me to restore and start over:
Part of what makes Wizardry so challenging is that, in the classic RPG style, it takes patience and time to raise a party to higher levels. The handful of hit points allocated to first-level characters don't go very far in the maze, and gold pieces aren't easy to come by either. Healing stays at the inn, resurrection fees and equipment purchases are all expensive, and it's tricky to balance equipment upgrades against basic operating expenses.
But despite the throwback feel of the Wizardry engine, I still spent several hours mapping out the first few levels of Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord on graph paper, the old fashioned way. And while the experience wasn't compelling enough to keep me fighting through to the end in this age of more sophisticated and streamlined play systems, I thoroughly enjoyed my brief visit to Llylgamyn. Sometimes an oldie really is a goodie.
A number of the Wizardry games were ported to the PC Engine, but I would recommend starting with the simple, pure dungeon-crawling fun of Wizardry I & II. An NES version made it to the US; players with more exotic tastes may want to check out the import version here or here: