Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord
3.5
Game Name: Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord
Platforms: Apple II
Publisher(s): Sir-Tech
Developer(s): Sir-Tech
Genre(s): First Person Dungeon Crawler
Release Date: 1981
Availability: Second-hand

I’ve looked at one of the progenitors of the first person dungeon crawler before, and Wizardry represents the other side of that coin. Enthusiasts had been trying to digitize Dungeons & Dragons within months after its official release in 1976, so digital dungeon exploration was certainly nothing new. However, Wizardry is the first to gain widespread notoriety and notable sales. And for good reason – Wizardry popularized a surprising amount of genre staples that still exist to this day, and its apparent extra year of balancing resulted in a very well-made game regardless of the time period. I think it’s those qualities that kept me obsessively coming back, even after its anachronistic difficulty had thoroughly worn out its welcome.

In the early game, death comes swiftly for our brave heroes. And the late game too, really.

Prior dungeon delvers had you delving dungeons as a sole knight, but Wizardry is the first known game to have you build a party of multiple characters that you directly control. Up to six of your characters at a time – all based on D&D races, classes, and stat rules – will be smashing orc face, with a total of 20 characters per disk on reserve. This gave you a fair amount of combinations for building your party, and you could even go for a dungeon run with fewer then six (or even one, if you wanted to die quickly). It’s a real proof-of-concept that players can handle juggling multiple heroes without getting confused, and that the tabletop RPG party can be replicated digitally without requiring other players. Japan, for example, loved Wizardry for this, and you really can’t look at the DNA of Final Fantasies, Phantasy Stars, and MegaTens without starting here.

Combat is entirely turn based, and will be very familiar to anyone who’s played a CRPG. This is another example of an early game that pretty much nails genre conventions right out of the gate. Each character gets the option to Fight, cast a Spell, or Parry (defense). You’ll need to create an effective balance of damage dealers and healers to be successful, and stock your first three (front line) slots with Fighters to shield your back three Mages and Priests as they lob enchanted death. Watching your little band go from stumbling and inept to being able to huck nuclear fireballs at legions of vampires never fails to satisfy. Gear you find or buy is generally clear enough on how useful it is (lots of Swords or Armors +X) and every class can’t equip every piece of gear, further forcing you to diversify.

Magic’s use here is brilliant, and while it has D&D to thank for that, its execution drives most of the strategic dilemmas. Magic is broken into seven ranks, and each rank has a limited number of charges determined by character level. You learn more powerful spells automatically as you level, and you will always have less charges on a rank 6 or 7 spell than you would a weaker 1 or 2. Further, damaging spells often sit in the same class as healing or support spells, so you’ll need to smartly ration those charges. Is it worth trying to silence this group of mages if it means you won’t be able to cure any poison the flies may inflict? Do you want to take the chance on killing every enemy with a massive explosion, if it means you won’t be able to teleport back home afterward? Charges can only be replenished by returning to the castle and sleeping at the inn, so the risk/reward of safely returning to camp versus pressing just a little further into the dungeon remains a major source of tension through the entire game.

The “Milwa” spell draws the dungeon out to about 4 squares ahead.

The “proving grounds” of the title are explored through a first-person wireframe view of the dungeon, with scarce detail and absolutely nothing in the way of landmarks. Later versions, like the reprogrammed DOS versions for the Wizardry Archives, will at least offer a checkered square on the floor or ceiling to mark stairs or a point of interest, but the Apple II original does not. Only doors are visible in the world, with secret doors flicking in and out of sight as you turn. Any rooms with keys or dangers won’t look any different until you step in and get a text block. This darkness and repetition alone makes it extremely difficult to navigate without a map, but the dungeon’s extra tricks will make it flatly impossible.

Every level is a 20×20 grid, but the edges wrap around, so leaving square 20 will warp you back to square 1 on the opposite side. If you’re not keeping track, hallways will seem to extend beyond the boundaries of your map, or run on forever. On top of this, there are multiple traps within the dungeon (rotating floors, teleporters, dark areas that show nothing on screen) that intentionally scramble your direction. Unlike later versions, you’ll get no indication here that you’ve teleported or rotated at all – not even an abnormal loading time. There’s no compass or similar on screen indicator. Your sole assistance is a limited-use magic spell that only tells you the direction you’re facing, and how many squares away from the dungeon entrance you are (which is always at 0,0 on the first level, and acts as your North Star). You can. not. make it. without referencing a map, even as the game does quite a bit to force you to rethink, redraw, and generally make this process as difficult as possible.

Which leads us to my real conflict with this game – Wizardry is ruthless. I’m not sure it’s correct to call it “too difficult,” because the limited magic charges mean you can get extremely powerful (a level 9 spell lets you outright kill every enemy under level 8 with a single word) while still keeping the game balanced. You’re expected to be about level 13 when you take on the final boss, but you could probably do it as early as level 8 if you got lucky. It’s definitely not correct to call it “unfair,” at least no more than the randomness of life itself is. But Wizardry, without a doubt, is absolutely unforgiving. It will routinely lure you in with expectations that you’ve got everything under control, and then – in a flash – leave you forced to practically start all the way over from the beginning.

Calling back to its tabletop origins, combat is determined by invisible die rolls using adapted D&D THAC0 rules. Wizardry doesn’t seem to put many restrictions on its random number generation, so the full range of possible outcomes can and will come up. Monsters generally become more difficult as you progress down, and there are a few static encounters that act as minibosses/gatekeeping. Beyond that, you can face anything from a single thief (easy-peasy) to up to four different groups of enemies at once, with 1-8 copies within each group, all seemingly decided by how the die fall. You can easily find yourself outnumbered and overwhelmed and it feels like there’s precious little you can do about that.

The (7) here indicates all 7 enemies are active. Lower numbers mean some are slept, held, etc.

Pray you run into melee enemies. Some of them hit extremely hard, many of them poison (or worse) if they connect, but you have eight spells that can lower your party’s armor class and make them harder to hit. Conversely, you have no defense against magic; especially party-wide attacks – of which it seems there are endless varieties. Magic can’t be dodged or blocked. You can only hope to shut the caster down with a silence or sleep spell before they lay into you. If that group has multiple casters in it, they can all hammer you, one after the other, with spells that cause 10-80 points of damage to each character in the party on each hit. Your Mages survive with vastly lower health by having the front line take all the melee damage, but party-wide magic routinely wreck them.

Making it worse, who goes first in each combat turn is also apparently random. At best, you’ll have one chance to stop inevitable death before enemies start casting. At worst, those mages or monsters will shoot first, your Mages are dead, your Priests are in disarray, and you’re staring at another party wipe. And while you can Run from a bad encounter, don’t bother. I’d guess I had a 10% success rate, with every other time giving the enemy six free targets that aren’t even defending. Cruelly, the game also doesn’t tell you what you’re facing unless you have a specific Priest spell active. Are those “strange animals” just weretigers that fight one-on-one, or are they dragons that breathe fire on everyone each turn? You won’t know for sure until things have already gone very, very bad.

In a modern game, disaster would mean the loss of all your progress since your last save. This is not a modern game. Wizardry writes the outcome of every combat round to disk, permanently, as it happens. There was no internal hard drive to install to, so a physical Apple II must sound like an angle grinder with all the constant read/writes to the floppy drive happening. So many people apparently would try to eject their disks before their bad luck got written that Sir-Tech offered a $10 service fee to repair corrupted disks. While you might be able to effect a desperate escape with the shattered remains of your party, there’s no actual going back and avoiding lost progress. It definitely raises the stakes, but it’s arguable if it does so in a fun way.

If you’re playing Wizardry honest, you’ll now be expected to drag any survivors back to the castle and replace dead ones with new characters until you can grind up enough money for a resurrection. Or, if the whole party is slain, you’ll need to start all the way over. In a cool twist, Wizardry does save the location of any party member’s death, and lets you find their corpse later and bring them home. You then have a chance to restore your precious hero at the Temple, but this requires having a party that can both make the trip down there, and survive the return. If you’ve lost the only six heroes you made, it’s time to train up some replacements.

Characters’ moral alignment may cause enemies to be friendly. Attack anyway, and some may fall to EVIL.

The most practical method would be to create two identical parties, effectively an “A” team and a “Rescue” team, and keep them stocked and leveled roughly in parallel. That’s a lot of work. It took me a full month to get a party to level 10 – I’d estimate around 30-40 hours of playing – with each level past 10 requiring six figures of XP to grant the next level. Most late-game encounters average around 1,000 XP, so this is going to require some real commitment. All the while, any of these characters could be just one unlucky encounter away from their demise.

Oh, and that Temple I talked about? There’s a chance they’ll botch the resurrection and turn your character to ash. For double the cost (increasing drastically with the character’s level) they’ll try again. If they biff it this time, your character is dead and gone forever. No take-backs, and again, all at the mercy of the random die roll. I actually had this happen with my Priest, and it was around then that I decided I wasn’t going to be playing Wizardry honest anymore.

If you manage to survive combat, you may get a chest. You can buy a set of standard gear at the castle, but the finest equipment only appears in chests on the lowest levels. These chests are almost always trapped. Anyone can take a crack at disarming them, but only the Thief has a real chance of succeeding. Unfortunately, that’s all he does – he’s a shitty fighter in the front, and can’t learn any spells for the back. But these traps are no joke – early levels gleefully poison party members while you have no spell to counteract it until a Priest hits level 8. Poison ticks with every step you take in this version, so those characters are dead. Exploding boxes can wipe out multiple low-level party members. My “favorite” – the teleporter – randomly moves the party somewhere else on the map. This includes the chance to land in solid rock, preventing you from ever recovering those characters or their equipment. It’s not common, but it’s common enough to have happened to me. I didn’t even feel bad about reloading that save state.

If it was 1981 and this was the only game I had, I might have more patience for this. I can even grant that the idea of rotating through party members like Pearl Jam rotated through drummers could be interesting, pressing ever onward until you land the combination of heroes that gets the job done. But from a modern perspective, this is masochism. The thought of actually accepting and restarting after a total party wipe makes me physically ill. Plus, there’s nothing new about starting from the beginning. The allure of exploration is over with a completed map, so now it’s down to slow, repetitive grinding – made worse by the frequent need to return to camp to recharge, and the slow load times of comparatively ancient hardware.

If you surprise monsters, you can get a free turn to attack. If they surprise you, they get the same.

Despite all this, I can’t slag the game because something kept drawing me back. The gambler in me is intrigued by the “excitement” and is convinced “it won’t happen this time!” Wouldn’t it be neat to beat Wizardry without cheating? I bet that would be quite the story! Any disaster can feel like you just weren’t prepared enough in retrospect – why, if I had just waited to hit that floor until my Mage was level 13, I could teleport out if things got bad! I probably shouldn’t have pressed ahead without better armor, so I should stop and grind for a few days until I randomly, maybe, hopefully get some better gear!

I’m still not sure how much of that feeling is a lie – the monsters’ increasing difficulty and the randomness of the encounters means you can never feel truly safe at the lowest dungeon floors. An enemy Ninja may get a critical hit and instantly decapitate someone. A lucky shot might drop your Priest, leaving the rest of the party to crumble like a house of cards without healing. I’m sure in a year of play you could run around with level 35 characters and feel fairly invincible, but that’s not at all practical for me. Still, there’s that nagging sense that I’ve figured it out this time, and won’t it feel good to claim such a rare victory?

I also enjoyed mapping far more that I thought I would. Granted, I started playing with actual graph paper just to see what it was like, and once I realized (around the third level) that my last two maps were so far off-base that I’d need to erase and redraw huge portions of them, I was ready to give up. But there are modern solutions to this. Grid Cartographer is the program that I used – I’ve read of others use Excel or drawing programs on an iPad – and all of these make moving and redrawing your updated maps much easier (and cleaner!) than erasing on paper or starting over. I always avoided these games back then, because drawing maps by hand seemed tortuous. With modern options, I found it surprisingly fun.

If you’re still not interested in drawing, you certainly can download finished maps and follow along, but that seems like cutting out half the appeal. The wireframe dungeons are strange, abstract puzzles that feel good to solve, and I loved the sense of watching my bearings come together through the map before me. The turn-based nature contributes to this – time doesn’t update until you move, so you’ll never be ambushed in the middle of drawing your map – along with seeing much lower encounter rates in the hallways. I felt like I could safely sketch out the hallways, then grip swords and bash into a room when I was ready for combat.

Locked areas like this are only present on the first two floors.

Still, that combat is a motherfucker sometimes, and I can’t say if you’re going to have the patience for it. Like me, you might think you do – until days of progress vanish before your eyes because a vampire got a hit and just drained two character levels from your Samurai. Really? REALLY? Or you might find that because you didn’t spend enough time re-rolling your character when you created him, he’ll never be able to change into the advanced class you had planned for him. Or you’ll spend time meticulously mapping each level, only to discover that levels 5-9 are outright useless, and the traps within mean you’re actually doing yourself a disservice by going there at all. And I don’t know who Murphy or his ghost is, but you’re going to kill him a lot, as that encounter is the safest one that grants around 1k XP. That still means days of grinding to make progress at later character levels.

Ultimately, if I was going to recommend a version of Wizardry, it wouldn’t be this one. Not just because the graphics are obviously primitive and the hardware is slow – though that’s certainly a consideration – but more because later ports got noticeable quality of life upgrades. As said earlier, most ports add graphics for points like stairs, turntables, and pits. Options to pool and split gold with a single key are added, rather than having to trade it manually here. Other versions forbid magic on the first turn when you or the enemies “surprise” the other – here, you absolutely can get blown away with no chance to react. Random encounters in this version are lower, dragging out your grind. The Super Famicom version is great, but incorporates all the map and sequel changes made for Japan. I’d probably recommend the Llylgamyn Saga as the best balance of modern upgrades while staying true to the original. It’s made for Japan, but menu settings can put enough in English to be playable.

That said, I don’t know if I can recommend the first Wizardry at all. It’s a fascinating game, but as it’s the first dungeon crawler I’ve really buckled down and played, it may just be genre that’s attracting me and later games are much better examples of it. What’s undeniable is its contribution to gaming as a whole. Yes, there are games on the PLATO network that explored these ideas, and possibly more that just didn’t survive into a modern era, but Wizardry brought the ideas together and made a solid digital D&D experience out of them. Just know what you’re getting into if you decide to explore the series’ uncompromising beginnings.

 

The Good

Impressive to see how much of a modern RPG is present in such an early game. With the right tools, mapping is a fun puzzle. Character progress always satisfying. Good range of magic spells with some powerful effects and balanced restrictions. Fantastic, detailed manual.

The Bad

Unpredictable and challenging, or random and mean, depending on your mood and what just happened to you in the game. Confusing dungeon traps might be a little too confusing. Entire game is character grinding personified, on slow hardware, with frequent deaths and loss restarting the process.

 

LAIR OF THE EVIL WIZARD WERDNA!
OFFICE HOURS 9AM TO 3PM
BY APPOINTMENT ONLY
THE WIZARD IS *IN*!

 

10 Comments

  1. Rik says:

    Nice to see I made the party as a big strong tough guy (am assuming FIG is fighter, right?)

    Also feeling slight shame that during our Twitter discussion about hard games, you must have been talking about this, a rock-hard RPG from the year of my birth, while I was moaning about being bad at a racing game from 2011…

    • The J Man says:

      Yup, you and Dave on the front lines, bravely keeping the kobolds at bay. You also consistently died less than he did, for whatever that’s worth.

      Wizardry has a system where you can swap into advanced classes once you hit stat minimums. So later screens show Dave as a Samurai (SAM), who’s a better fighter and gets some magic. Downside is you have to start that character back at Lvl 1. I had planned for you both to become Samurai, but for all the reasons laid out above, once was more than enough.

      Ubergeek was supposed to become a Ninja, who has a chance to kill in one hit. But he never hit the minimums, because you can also LOSE stats when leveling. All depends on the roll of those invisible die!

      Stoo was a Bishop, who poorly combines Priest and Mage spells and levels slower than both. But it’s the only class that can identify objects from chests for free, and since the cost of identifying in town is the same as the value of the item, having a Bishop is the only way you can actually sell anything.

      All of these roles were picked at random, but I have a feeling we’ll be seeing this band of six again in the future.

  2. Stoo says:

    I’ve only played Wizardry 7 and 8 myself. I thought 7 was challenging! Even a brief try at 6 seemed like it was going to kick my ass from the start. I wouldn’t last at all with something this ruthlessly unforgiving, but it’s fascinating to read about the series’ early days.

    For some reason I usually lend my name to the party’s priest…

    • The J Man says:

      I read those in preparation, and hope to get there myself. Though the King’s Quest series would like to have a word with me, I’m sure.

      Interesting that 6-7-8 form a trilogy, in the same way that 1-2-3 (somewhat 4) at least share a setting and connect your characters through them. Glad you found this as fascinating as I did!

  3. Rik says:

    I will take the fact that I am indeed a fighter who died less often than Dave as confirmation that I am a double hard bastard who could beat up Vinnie Jones or Ross Kemp.

    • The J Man says:

      The numbers bear this out.

      To be clear, I did finish the game and beat the wizard Werdna, but absolutely not legitimately. Constant save state scumming on the lowest level until I got acceptable outcomes, mostly because I was just exhausted of it by then. Ironically, Werdna himself is a pushover if you land a silence spell. Almost certain instant death if you don’t. Fitting considering the rest of the game, really.

      These characters directly port over to the sequel, so we’ll see if you can keep this reputation!

    • Uncle Dave says:

      “I will take the fact that I am indeed a fighter who died less often than Dave as confirmation that I am a double hard bastard who could beat up Vinnie Jones or Ross Kemp.”

      Considering my new ladyfriend could probably kick my ass six ways from Sunday despite being a librarian-in-training, this may not be the ego boost you’re looking for.

      Oh, by the way, in case anyone’s been curious where I’ve been lately, yeah, I’ve been seeing someone new lately and that’s eaten into my free time a skosh.

  4. Oleg says:

    Oleg (doing Schwarzy voice):
    “JMan! My friend, you’re BACK!!! Eeaarghh graaurrgh! Long time n…”

    (Reads the Wisardry review, and “THE WIZARD IS *IN*!” tag):
    “Oh.”

    (Turnes in place at 180°, tank style, then goes back home to play at Hellfire, the expansion from GOG’s ‘Diablo’ bundle, which he has NEVER played before – conscious that he will never be as good at old RPGs as the mighty JMan! Not even cheating at it!)

    Just kidding! 😉

    I’m glad you’re back.

    Also, I see you’ve made yourself a nice bunch of rock-hard mates to share your adventure! (Hi to Rik, Stoo and Ubergeek!)

    After reading the review, I can only shake your hand for this effort, because the game as described, is BEYOND the regular gamer’s mental sanity: say, it’s like Meshuggah against your Rhapsody (Of Fire).

    I’d made attempts to play first-person dangeon crawlers before, but they never got caught on me. Probably because, as a kid, I was more interested in action games and, where I lived, the f.p. RPG genre wasn’t very popular. Growing up, I was more into RTS’ (Dune II, C&C, StarCraft, Total Annihilation), Dooms, Dukes…. you know the stuff.

    Today, as far as the Fantasy universe is concerned, the only games I can play, do not go beyond Action RPGs or scrolling slashers, like Knights of the Round on Super NES or D&D on arcade (always the scrolling one). And I’m kind of sorry about that, because I realize there are some good things to discover in what the Wizardry brought to us.

    Who knows, when I’ll get old, and my hands will no longer be able to hold a joypad or hold the mouse for more than ten minutes, I will ask my assistant to load one of these jewels and do some ass-kicking to the old WERDNA and her fellows! Or die trying!

    (Proctologist, Orthopedic and a hole bunch of M.D.’s, to a 70-year-old Oleg):
    “Sir, we strongly invite you to walk more and have more sex with your wife!”

    (Oleg, 70 years old, with his arm outstretched to the skies, battle axe in his hand):
    “WERDNAAAA!!!”

    (JMan, doing Schwarzy voice):
    “Stop whining!”

    Anyway, thanks for bringing to us this gewel!

    I hope to read more of your reviews soon!

    \m/

    • The J Man says:

      Oleg! Good to see you!

      I definitely avoided these kinds of games when I was younger. Fantasy/swords & sorcery didn’t interest me, and the idea of drawing maps was basically offensive. Nowadays I’m more… tolerant of fantasy. Still not my favorite genre, still never seen an episode of Game of Thrones, but I can get by.

      For mapping, it really was finding the right software to make the process work for me. I really do like Grid Cartographer, and didn’t describe it much because I didn’t want the review to sound like a sales pitch. But I’m much more open to tackling these kinds of games now that I have a good mapping program.

      I don’t know that trying Wizardry when you’re 70 is good for your health, but retirement is definitely when you’d have the kind of time an honest run would require. I’m thinking about taking on the sequel without save states, but, well, we’ll see.

      If there’s ever the need for a seventh party member, I’ll be sure and add you! Or I might make you the captain of a second rescue team, hacking your way down to pull our boys out of the fire when things go wrong!

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