Friday, January 3, 2014

"Advanced Dungeons & Dragons cartridge", Intellivision, 1982.

Here I was sitting at home dickering around wondering what to post next -- I seem to do well with themed series, especially when I have a run of coffee breaks scheduled at work as I do this month -- left to my own devices, I develop option paralysis wondering which game to dissect next. If there was justice in the world, I'd right at this very moment be furiously writing about neat retrogaming artefacts people had mailed or otherwise bequeathed to me in 2013. But instead I open up Facebook and see... people celebrating the 40th anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons.
There are ... a lot of Dungeons & Dragons-themed games. Many of them were advertised in magazines. (Heck, one of my major scan sources was piles of back stacks of Dragon Magazine, the house organ of TSR.) I suppose now I have an opportunity to purge them all, here! (By which point it will be D&D's 41st anniversary, I'm sure.)
The video game where danger lurks around every bend in your quest for the Golden Crown!
This was the first. It... well, in all likelihood it ain't the greatest, but it's a start. The journey of a thousand miles and all that. Recently over on Mobygames we've been conducting the annual "what is an RPG?" debate (with profane opinions being shared such as that Zelda should be categorized as one but Bloodlines not so. And despite our best efforts, soccer team management simulators keep working their way into genre eligibility. One consensus opinion is that just because a video or computer game licenses a pen 'n paper RPG's brand doesn't necessarily make the licensor's game an RPG by association. Well... that should be obvious, but... as the soccer manager case indicates, nothing is obvious in the wild west of video game genre definition.

Anyhow, I'm told that the game isn't strongly tied to its license, and that this title's existence owes more to Mattel's (the parent company of the Intellivision home video game console) strategy of tracking down authorities and licensing their brand for real-life games as diverse as Bowling (PBA), Chess (USCF) and Backgammon (ABPA). Companies like Electronic Arts in their nearby Burnaby-based EA Sports campus would ultimately rake in a pile of cash licensing similar brands representing sports that people actually care about (cf. NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) but that was simply a fine-tuning of Mattel's original strategy. TSR had some peculiar proclivities of its own, not wanting anyone to confuse any spin-off product (like the text adventure "Dungeon", eventually rolled back to its original working title of "Zork") with the genuine article -- hence the official inclusion of "cartridge" in this game's name.

The CRPG Addict covered the gameplay comprehensively, and there's no need for me to reproduce his authoritative ruling (that being -- this is not really an RPG. He could save us a lot of time at Mobygames by descending from the clouds and making similar rulings.) To summarize:

There is honestly not the slightest reason to play this game today, especially if you first played it when you were four years old and remember it as the greatest game ever. Like trying to watch Knight Rider or Three's Company today, it will spoil your memories.
I don't have a great deal to add. The little blurb in the ad ("danger lurks around every bend") could just as easily apply to Pac-Man if he ate crowns instead of power pellets, and the CRPG Addict opens with a comparison to Pac-Man also. (Pretty much, in 1982 games had to really apply themselves to escape design influence from Pac-Man.) What I do have to note here however is that the ad artwork for the game is in a very short-lived situation of being superior to the actual pen and paper game's art resources -- in this brief moment in their long and storied history, TSR was less in a position to commission cool fantasy artwork than Mattel was. That's a pretty non-standard rendering of a Dragon, but striking and unmistakable for what it is! The logo is also pretty groovy -- this artist had a long career ahead of them making band t-shirts for heavy metal bands. (I'm making that part up, but it's the kind of fiction used to illustrate cosmic truths.) This cartridge was ret-conned as "Cloud Mountain" after another licensed campaign was made using the same engine, Treasure of Tarmin, but we'll be seeing that next.