Friday, February 7, 2014

"Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: The Real Stuff", 1989.

What if our company's three games all took place in the same world? What do you mean, "they do"?! For goodness' sakes, let's mash them all up and show off with some gestalt artwork that's more than the sum of its parts! Which brings us to another Extralives ad scan, featuring two of those games we've already seen, and also Curse of the Azure Bonds, which you can consider a species of Pool of Radiance on steroids. On the left, an anonymous hero of Hillsfar (one of its renowned Red Plume mercenaries perhaps?) is seen facing off against the minotaur who acts as the champion of its arena (you may recall him from the Hillsfar ad in all his pixelated glory); in the middle, the class-confused protagonist of the Pool of Radiance box and novel cover artwork smiting some gnolls; and on the right, Alias -- the character eligible to attain the highest level yet in her game -- mows down the weakest opponents in the ads, some woefully generic demihumans (goblins? hobgoblins?) Meanwhile, a red dragon not found in two of the three games cruises in a holding pattern around the fracas at ground level. OK, the ad artwork gets a passing mark, and its thematic conceit proves true in a sense -- a character from Pool can be exported and "trained" in Hillsfar before returning to wrap things up and go into temporary hibernation before being called back into action in Curse. There's a certain chronological progression that this "all three games, simultaneously" presentation glosses over, but admittedly the passage of time is difficult to depict in a still image. (AD&D still lives? Fruit decaying next to a sundial, a broken rod of cancellation and a rust monster?)
When it comes to fantasy games, the ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS system is the real stuff. In fact, AD&D designed fantasy role-playing gaming as we know it today!
Only AD&D games provide the incredible richness of detail that makes vast and mysterious worlds come alive, filled with characters, monsters, weapons, spells and encounters of incredible diversity and depth.
Now SSI uses this legendary system to take fantasy gaming one step beyond: A line of AD&D computer games set in the immense world known as the Forgotten Realms.
Every game in this exciting series can be enjoyed by itself. However, the beauty of SSI's FORGOTTEN REALMS epics is that they are intricately woven together. The more you play, the more you'll discover the glorious wonders of this mystical domain.

POOL OF RADIANCE: the first and now classic AD&D computer role-playing game. In the fabled ruins of Phlan and around the northern shore of the Moonsea, your band of six Player Characters fight an unending wave of monsters and strive to unlock their mysterious leader.

HILLSFAR: An action-adventure game that is a crucial stopping point in your travels. Hillsfar serves sa the training grounds for all your heroes. Transfer your characters from Pool of Radiance or Curse of the Azure Bonds and increase their skills through vigorous workouts that include combat, maze-running, lock-picking, archery and horseback riding. Succeed in Hillsfar and some of your characters' statistics will actually improve. They will emerge from Hillsfar more prepared than ever to survive your dangerous journey.

CURSE OF THE AZURE BONDS: the sequel to Pool of Radiance, with deadlier monsters, more powerful spells and new Player-Character types. In this game, you find your characters' arms mysterious imprinted with azure blue symbols. When they glow, they ensnare your will -- you must do as they command! Search the realms for members of the New Alliance who forged these chains of enslavement and remove the Curse of the Azure Bonds.

Look for AD&D games from SSI at your favorite retailer. A wondrous universe awaits you.

So what's from what, here? How come the only part of his anatomy the Minotaur is interested in protecting is his precious abdomen? (Alias, in the meantime, telegraphs: aim for my sternum, my vulnerable heart beats beneath! And don't ask just how I have employed rare earth magnets to compel my mail to lie so form-fittingly.) What are the little donuts on the demihumans' hoods? If one of the side-by-side heroes was left-handed, would they inadvertently hack into each other on the backswing?

OK, these concerns are entirely secondary. The slogan is the main question: what is this "Real stuff" distinguishing itself from? Other successful fantasy CRPGs such as Ultima and Wizardry? (Admittedly, this is looking pretty much like a reskinned D&D.) But you're too late in the game, SSI -- these beloved clone brands have had a lot of time and opportunity to grow entrenched in their fans' hearts while TSR was busy trying to sell needlecraft sets and games based on Bullwinkle & Rocky and the All My Children soap opera. Those clones are almost-real, while in fact they greatly surpass the "real", authentic, licensed AD&D games that had appeared on Intellivision carts. But by 1989 it's a bit late to put the genie back in the bottle, guys.

In fact, AD&D designed fantasy role-playing gaming as we know it today! Yeah, and Xerox designed GUIs as we knew them in 1989 also, but you didn't see them entering the PC market. It's a weird kind of claim: obviously true, but invoked somewhat neurotically: just because we were the last to market we still want cred for being the initial innovators. Well sure, but what have you done lately? Not many other pen and paper RPGs would successfully get licensed to computers -- like D&D, Traveller found itself much-copied in the early days, but without any official licensing going on; there would be one Tunnels & Trolls CRPG; and of course FASA started its life as a tactical minifig wargaming company and ended its life as a studio developing Xbox games.

The rest of the copy is pretty defensible. I don't know if Pool would be quite as fun to play if the wave of monsters really was unending (well, what with random encounters, I suppose you can grind as long as you like, but what with the player level caps it kind of defies the point of so doing.) Hillsfar is undeniably a neat idea, but I don't know if anyone would go so far as to describe it as "crucial". And as for Curse? As Extralives notes, it's odd that Curse never got a print ad of its own, just somewhat mashed into this one with the others. It's odd to see the sobriquet "New Alliance" as the name for the group of monstrous enemies -- it has an upbeat, optimistic ring to it... I suppose, much like Canada's own much-lamented and dearly-departed "Progressive Conservatives". Along with Deathtrack, Sword of Aragon, and Maniac Mansion, Curse was one of the first games I got to enjoy at home in grey-market form, and let me tell you: between its code wheel and the Adventurer's Journal, pirating that game involved a great deal of creative photocopier use.

This trifecta of Forgotten Realms games was a handy grouping for the time being, but soon Hillsfar would find itself redacted from the official history, replaced by the new Secret of the Silver Blades, unifying SSI's march of glory as an all-Gold Box end run... at least, until Eye of the Beholder hit the scene, Westwood's second and more successful bid to capture the heart and soul of AD&D CRPGers with their lush production values. But I keep having to tell you about that one, endlessly -- eventually we will get to it!

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