Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Wizardry 6: Bane of the Cosmic Forge - Lessons from the Past

"The Bane of Queequeg" is a stupid name for a blog.  It's OK, I know that's what you're thinking, it's hard to spell, it doesn't make sense and it alienates a large proportion of any potential readership.  I accept that, and maybe if I was starting again I would call it "Great Old Games" or "Drunken Ramblings" or "Badger Attack!"

Hmmmm... "Badger Attack!"...

This might just work...

Anyway there is a reason why this blog is called the ridiculous name that it is, and that is a game called Wizardry 6: Bane of the Cosmic Forge.  The "Bane" bit is obvious, but "Queequeg" is the name of the  first NPC you encounter.  He's loosely modelled on Queequeg from Moby Dick (in that he is some kind of sailor) but he sells items, and you can talk to him about things (like a captain and some treasure.)  He sidles up to you in as shifty a way as is possible for a graphic from 1990, metaphorically pulls open his jacket to show you a selection of dodgy watches and asks if he could "interest you in a bargain." 

This must qualify as one of the stupidest questions in gaming history.  You're a group of adventurers stuck in a musty castle with the ubiquitous giant rats (who always inhabit the early part of any RPG) constantly nipping at your extremities.  You're wearing the equivalent of suits made out of shattered dreams and you're reduced to trying to kill things by thinking really hard at them - of course you're interested in a bloody bargain!  Queequeg provides you with the first opportunity to sort yourselves out and he's the first friendly face you meet - I can forgive him that his name is hard to spell in Google.

Just like in Moby Dick.

Wizardry 6 is widely recognised as one of the greatest RPGs ever made.  It was released in 1990 and is a classic dungeon crawler; create 6 characters, walk into a castle, kill everything that moves that isn't Queequeg and collect treasure - whilst progressing towards your eventual goal.  This is hardly revolutionary, there are plenty of games where you can do that, but Bane sticks in the mind because of a few things.

Firstly it deviates from the normal fantasy milieu in lots of ways.  The standard Fighters and Priests are, of course, present but lots of other, much more interesting, classes are also available.  Valkyries, Lords, Bishops, Monks, Samurai and Ninjas are all there, waiting for you to use them.  You can wield katanas, you can dual wield katanas, you can use psionics, you can pick races such as a mook or a dracon, and they had khajit way before those johnny come latelys at Bethesda.  It uses enough familiar stuff to make any RPG player feel at home, but it also adds a touch of the exotic - something else to imagine and picture in your mind's eye.  I mean, let's face it, Samurai are cool aren't they?  And half dragon Samurai who breathe acid are even cooler.

Another thing that Wizardry does well are the puzzles.  Here it benefits from a healthy dose of "Old Game-itis".  Basically put Wizardry doesn't really give a stuff about you.  It doesn't follow conventions which are so ingrained in modern games that they have become.. well.. conventions.  Nowadays if you pick a key up then it will be used somewhere in the immediate vicinity.  If there is a locked gate then something nearby will open it, or somebody will give you a hint on how to do so.  This simply doesn't happen in Wizardry.  In this game progress-crucial items are hidden away in dark corners and you have to search to find them.  If you don't find them then nothing happens, nobody pops up to tell you anything, you just have to sit there and try to work out where you've gone wrong.  If you miss something early in the game (like, for example, something that a bargain-obsessed sailor might be selling) and are unable to get past a later obstacle then you have to go back and search the WHOLE GAME to find whatever it is you've missed, so that you can carry on.  And, not only this, but there are loads of obviously really important gates and doors that you encounter right at the beginning of your journey which you can't open for absolutely ages.  So you have lots of items which might or might not be important, and lots of doors which clearly need to be opened, but no way of telling how those match up - or even if they're supposed to yet.

And mixed in with this are some genuinely interesting puzzles.  I don't particularly want to single out Skyrim again but it only has one puzzle - that one with the different animal blocks and the big diagram on the wall detailing exactly what to do.  Compare that with this, which are the instructions telling you how to lower a drawbridge you find once you leave the castle...

*CAUTION* Safety detachment required prior to inchoate winder advancement. Do not activate coilwrap until a wait of 5 seconds post pump nascency, over safety interdigitation. Truss ascension may follow, but under no circumstance should fall extrinsic to pump and winder immurement. Final winder engagement induction for draw bridge facilitation.

Got that?

Modern games have perfected the art of giving the player a constant, gentle challenge.  They provide enough of an obstacle that you feel like you are making progress, but they also follow set rules that make everything pretty straightforward.  Look at the latest Deus Ex game, for example.  I have never seen so many high security complexes with easily accessible and extensive ventilation shafts in my life.  It's almost like somebody wants you to succeed.  There is a lot to be said for this approach and things have become much less frustrating as a result, but it also necessitates that game elements like puzzles become more sterile and similar (hence why fantasy vikings have started to leave the solutions to them on the walls right next to the doors that you're trying to open).  The player needs to know what is expected in order for it all to work, and the solution needs to be in reasonably easy reach because, if that doesn't happen, then they suddenly don't know how to deal with the obstacle that is stopping their progress and they become frustrated.  Wizardry 6 comes from a less polished age, but it actually requires some effort and concentration as a result and, of course, there are plenty of full solutions available on the internet if you decide to cheat.

And, it's not only the puzzles that require thought...

That, my friends, is the first level of the castle - drawn by my own fair hand.  Mapping is essential to making any progress, things are too confusing otherwise, and this was the last Wizardry game not to include an automapping feature.  Nowadays every game has one, but Bane is (just about) from a time when that responsibility was still placed on the player.  In a world full of green flashing arrows, or symbols on a map telling you exactly where to go, it provides a healthy, refreshing change.  There is no hand holding going on here, if you want to beat this game then you are going to have to work for it, and that will involve messing up a lot of graph paper and sharpening a lot of pencils.

To many, many people all of this will seem like a lot of hard work.  I wouldn't like to say that the general gaming population has got soft and lazy but I'm certainly aware that this sort of thing only appeals to a niche market.  I can't see many of the people who voted Grand Theft Auto V as the "most anticipated game of 2013" queueing up to try their luck with a 20 year old dungeon crawler where they have to draw their own maps.  (Rockstar are ripping you all off by the way, they've released the same game 4 times already.)  Wizardry 6 is not user-friendly, it's not polished by modern standards, it has its ups and downs and it can be frustrating and confusing.  However it also rewards effort, it rewards dedication and it gives the player a sense of achievement that just doesn't seem to exist in mainstream gaming any more.  Probably most importantly it shows us some of the things that we have lost in the past 20 years; a trust that the player is able to think for themselves, that they are competent games players and that they are able to cope with something challenging and thought-provoking.  I think it's a shame that this has almost disappeared.  It's hard to see how a game that promotes thought as much as this does could exist in today's gaming world.  It's too raw, it's too difficult and it just doesn't fit, but it illuminates very clearly how far things have gone in the opposite direction - and that maybe it's time to take a step backwards, just a little way.

If you want to try your hand at Wizardry 6 then it is available for free here
You will need a way to play it, as it is a DOS file.  If you have DOSBox then that will work.  Personally I recommend D-Fend Reloaded
This may look daunting but, in fact, it is really easy to use.  Guide here


  1. This was a really good read. I'm surprised no one has commented but I agree with everything you said. I can't play modern games because for me there is no sense of accomplishment. Your hand is held throughout the whole game, there isn't hardly any thinking, planning or tactics involved. I guess it's just us old generation of gamers. Tbh, Super Mario on the NES was harder than the crap that is shoveled out these days. But, that's what the kids and teenagers now have grown up playing so that is all they know. When they see games like this they cringe at the thought because they know nothing else.

    Remember when you would buy a PC or even console game in the old days, you weren't even guaranteed to finish it. Some games you literally had to put a lot of time in to complete and try over and over. Afterwards you would brag to your friends that you "beat" the game. Nowadays, everyone beats the game because there isn't any challenge. It's artificial challenge like you said. Just enough to make you feel like you're progressing and it's so mindless.

    Again thanks for the good read. Wizardry 6 was a game I didn't play back then as I started with 7. I'm really enjoying it thus far, brings back great memories.

  2. Spot on, some of the dungeon crawlers on the NES were so hard and deliberately complicated that there were times where the buyers would work...no, labor with the design for hours just to realize that, once again, the developers had taken our money and insulted us. It was just something that happened to every once in a while. It wasn't just that they were hard, but there would simply be no objective, stories that would actually work AGAINST any theme, while saddling us with inscrutable interfaces through which to navigate a labyrinth of nondescript screens or impossibly spaced platforms battling enemies that worked on completely different physics. 2 games in particular that were literally consumer muggings and painfully insulting. NES's Legacy of the Wizard and NES's Deadly Towers. Angry video game nerd did Deadly Towers perfectly. Legacy of the Wizard was just a saga that cannot be explained but that killed parts of many childhoods. They will give you pain.

  3. You can't dual-wield katanas unless you hack the game...