Can We Get Another Turn-Based CRPG Already?

Role-playing games are huge these days. Games like Mass Effect, The Elder Scrolls series, and Fallout sell as well as anything with Mario on it at a Nintendo fan-boy convention. Even the Pokemon games, which are essentially old-school Japanese console RPGs, have sold over 200 million copies as of May 2010. But there was a time when the RPG was the obsession of nerds (yes, I include myself here) who sat around their parents’ homes, drawing detailed maps on grid paper, taking copious notes regarding quest lines and character details and studying complex skill sheets included in large, colorful computer game boxes.

The first major encounter in Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant. As exciting as turn-based combat could get! Well… for me anyway.

The lack of awesome videogame boxes, manuals, maps and so on aside, what the modern gaming world lacks is a true progression of the turn-based, square-grid map style RPG of the ’80s and ’90s. “But wait Armand, we have awesome RPGs these days! Who needs these relics of the long forgotten 1990s?” you might ask… or comment. I don’t know, was that a question? Well, I’ll answer it anyway. “Yes!” I say, “we do have awesome modern RPGs the likes of which would have given the ’90s version of me a seizure had I seen them then.” Games like Dragon Age truly encapsulate some of the greatest elements of computer role-playing games. But they are to the older turn-based games what Starcraft is to the original Civilization games. Both have resource management, armies, buildings and so on, but they are hardly the same kind of game.

A grid based map from Bard’s Tale.

Let’s back up a bit. The games I’m talking about are wonders such as the old Might and Magic series, the Wizardry games, or Lands of Lore. These were games that gave the impression of a first-person viewpoint without the modern-day 3D world in which such games now exist. The game world was broken up into a massive grid, with individual squares making up a pre-determined space of about 10 square feet. Just enough space for your party of four to six adventurers to battle hoardes of pixel-based baddies. You could move in four directions provided nothing was blocking your path, or just turn around to observe your surroundings in four directions.

Oftentimes, each space your party moved on the map translated to an increment of time passing in the game world. A single space could mean ten seconds, followed by another space, and another passing of ten seconds. This also meant that if you had an army of goblins two spaces away, ready to tear your party apart, you could sit there contemplating your next move (run away?) while enjoying a sandwich. In case you’re wondering, I don’t want to bring these games back just to enjoy food while playing. I know videogames have a pause option.

Many of these games had great stories, often much more complex and involved than other games of the time. But in the end, most were really massive dungeon-crawls. Receive quest to obtain the Sword of Smashy-Smashy from the elder wizard of the village you were hanging out in. Go to the nearby “Tower of Doom” or “Cave of Foreboding” and travel through level after level of monster-infested, trap-laced, loot-filled dungeons until you find the sword, often guarded by some sort of boss and found (conveniently) in the very last room of said dungeon. If this sounds familiar, it’s because the same formula is used today for most RPGs and dungeon crawls, only with fancier graphics and real-time, action packed combat.

Lands of Lore is a series often forgotten by modern gamers, but was highly involved in both story elements and gameplay back when they first released.

And I’ll say it here: I love these modern real-time RPGs. The Oblivions and Witchers of modern day gaming are excellent products, with rich stories and exciting gameplay. But that doesn’t mean I don’t yearn for the old fashioned stuff.

Here is what I’m asking for. A small gaming company of dedicated developers and artists and coders could do this. Take the formula of these classics, and employ high-resolution graphics, a slick interface, and for the love of all that is fun, include a quality storyline. I realize it won’t sell as well as the AAA titles of today, but it doesn’t need to. A lot of these games were made with smaller groups of people. They re-used a lot of the same game art in clever ways to create massive dungeons. They don’t require any 3D modeling (save lots of money there) and really just need a handful of animations for each monster type.

Gameplay mechanics are easily found in the classics, plus the many tabletop RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, which have wonderfully developed game rules a computer could use in the background and coding.

It’s actually been done to some degree recently. The Japanese company Atlus has released a series of games called Etrian Odyssey and another title called The Dark Spire for the Nintendo DS, both of which employ these very same grid-based maps and turn-based combat mechanics. Despite being solid games of this genre, both Etrian Odyssey and The Dark Spire are deigned with a very hardcore audience in mind. Unfortunately, these games cast aside the story and atmosphere of the classic games for a strong emphasis on dungeon-crawls and monster slaying. They can be grueling in their difficulty, and are ideal for such personality traits as OCD.

Ye Olde Pub in Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen.

They’re a step in the right direction, but perhaps (at the risk of sounding mildly xenophobic) they would benefit from a Western touch. The Might and Magic titles Clouds of Xeen and Darkside of Xeen, for example, could be combined into a massive game world so large that you could spend weeks exploring the environment and not see half the content. This includes massive skyroads built upon the clouds with cities and villages, two sides of a huge floating landmass with deserts, forests, mountains and swamps, many dungeons such as caves, towers, castles, sewers, etc. Hundreds of monster types, thousands of items, countless NPCs… the list can go on. The Atlus titles touch upon this, but will fail to hold the attention of all but a very core gaming block, one I myself am not a part of.

It seems a lost cause, I know. Most gamers these days don’t even know about this style of RPG, and many would point out that these “outdated” mechanics are exactly what kept the larger public away from videogames and helped create the stereotype of the basement dwelling uber-geek. But someone out there with the know-how, start-up company, and love for classic RPGs must exist. Maybe the gods of CRPGs will hear my call and deliver a true modern version of these titles with all the bells and whistles I want to see. In the meantime, I guess I can go on enjoying the excellent RPGs of the current age.

45 Responses to “Can We Get Another Turn-Based CRPG Already?”
  1. true gamer says:

    Retro rpg means rogue.

  2. Chad M. says:

    It seems like in the last generation we’ve seen a dearth of D&D based games. My introduction to RPGs was with SSI’s old Gold Box D&D games. I happen to like turn-based games (although I tend to prefer them in the third person, like Fallout 1 and 2), particularly because they let you strategize a bit without the whole “Strategy falls apart as soon as boots hit the ground” going on. VATS may be the coolest way to kill things in years, but I’d rather have the tension of a turn-based battle.

    This goes for strategy games, too. I’m more than a little ticked off that the classic X-COM turn-based series is being revived…as a first person shooter. What.

    • Armand K. says:

      Hah hah, I played the hell out of those as a kid. I still have the 6 CD Masterpiece Collection with Menzoberanzan and Stone Prophet, and a bunch of others. The whole thing has well over 10 games in it! I can’t remember if a lot of those games were turn based or not though. And they had a bit more 3D an environment I think (crap 3D, but 3D more or less.)

      I should try to install and play some again. The old UIs tend to be so clunky though, it’s hard to get into. Modern games have spoiled me. 😀

  3. FlareHeart says:

    If you want turn based, but also with a grid on a new system (PS3), try Disgaea 3. The original Disgaea was on the PS2, but it was AWESOME! The characters are funny and the story is intriguing.

    • Armand K. says:

      Dood! I’ve actually played the game, both on the PS2 and the DS, and it is indeed a great game. Not exactly what I’m looking for however.

      I like the tactics games, but I want something like the games mentioned above. Party creation, giant map exploration, “first person” view, that sort of thing. I’ve seen some modern ones made by fans and amateurs too, but nothing with the spit and polish I really want. Yeah, I’m pretty demanding, I know.

      Thanks for the suggestion though. Maybe someone unfamiliar with that game will check it out now.

  4. Travis says:

    Well the big companies won’t make these games anymore but you should look at the Indie developers. There is a lot of good stuff out there and most of them have demo’s.

  5. Rob says:

    You are best off looking to Japan. The Shin Megami Tensei main series basically went down the computer side when there was the split between console RPGs and Computer RPGs in the early 90s which is why Atlus makes things like Etrian Odyssesy. The first 2 games are basically first person RPGs. The third Nocturne, is 3rd person but really plays like a first person game (you can unlock a first person mode after beating the game). The new one, Strange Journey for the DS, is back to being first person. You only create a main character but given the game’s demon summoning mechanics and alignment importance you really do decide how your party is shaped. And they even feature everyone’s favorite electric tiles and warp puzzles! And the story is actually important unlike many similar Japanese dungeon crawlers.

    Besides Etrian Odyssey there is Class of Heroes. There is also talk about bringing the new Wizardry game to the US for the 360 and perhaps PC.

    • Armand K. says:

      Thanks for the excellent recommendations Rob. Maybe I need to dust off the PS2 and check some of these titles out. I’d love to try Class of Heroes, but sadly don’t have a PSP anymore.

      As for the Shin Megami Tensei series, I recently played most of the Demon Hunter spin-off game on the DS, and really enjoyed it. Never finished the last dungeon however. Not sure why I stopped right at the end, but that’s a different story.

      As for the popularity of the Wizardry games in Japan, I remember reading about it some time ago, but had since forgotten all about it. I need to look into that some more. Suffice to say, you’ve given me a lot of interesting leads, so thank you!

    • Armand K. says:

      Well, here’s hoping for an American PC release of the new Wizardry. I can’t believe they’re making games in the series in Japan! And here I am with no access to the game or the language. Again though, thanks for bringing these games up. It seems I’m not paying nearly enough attention to Japanese developers.

  6. masta de gumbo says:

    dig on

    knights of the chalice, eschalon and King’s Bounty the Legend.

    They may be topdown and not grid-based, but these games got the turn-based old-school heart.

    Long live Xeen!!

    • Armand K. says:

      The King’s Bounty games are great! I have all but the latest expansion pack and have lost many hours on the series. Eschalon I wasn’t able to get into though for some reason.

      I’d never head of Knights of the Chalice before, but it looks super old-school! I may be downloading that demo tonight.

      EDIT: Oh, and their RPG shrine and links list is a great asset! So glad you suggested this.

      • masta de gumbo says:

        i seriously ❤ Knights of the Chalice haha. you won't be sorry you gave it a spin. 🙂

      • Armand K. says:

        Well now, this is nice! I’ve only just finished my first battle in the demo, but I see a heavy D&D influence here with some old school CRPG gameplay. I may have to pick this one up!

  7. konjad says:

    There is a western turn-based C&C focused game with good graphic in development. Strange you haven’t heard about it if you are a fan of cRPGs. So far this game seems to be great. It will have not only a turn-based combat but also a way of completing quests through stealth or diplomacy, which means you won’t have to fight at all! The game’s title is Age of Decadence:

    It has available combat demo if you want to see how the combat will look like.

    • Armand K. says:

      I’ve heard of it and have checked out the site briefly. Looks interesting, but wasn’t exactly what I meant in this article. Nevertheless, thanks for pointing it out. Any game with that many stats has potential!

  8. ghaaroth says:

    forget the JRPGs, has an answer to all your needs.

    • Armand K. says:

      Looks very interesting Jack. I’ll be sure to check out the demo in the next few days. I’ve had so many fantastic recommendations that my demo list has gotten kind of silly. 🙂

  9. Annie D. says:

    A man is coming to save this world from darkness. Sometimes he appears as a big headed golden baby. At other times he is a slightly mad genius in Australia who has been working on the same computer game for over a decade from inside a deep underground fortress. When he appears he will change the face of RPGs forever and it will never be the same.

    • Armand K. says:

      Yes! I want all recommendations in the form of prophetic visions from this point on!

      This looks epic! Oh man, I sure do hope it releases when they say it will. Just side op for the forum and plan to check it out further as soon as I get approved. Thanks for the link! Really appreciated.

  10. My recommendations…

    Currently Available:
    * Knights of the Chalice
    * Eschalon series (but you said you didn’t get into it, so… okay 😉 )
    * Sword & Sorcery: Underworld (maybe a little TOO old school, but serious M&M 1 vibe)
    * Darklight Dungeon (ditto, also a little on the simplistic side, but I still had fun with it)
    * Pretty much anything by Spiderweb Software

    Coming “Soon” (we hope)
    * Frayed Knights
    * Age of Decadence
    * Grimoire (though that RPG has been “coming soon” for a decade now…)
    * Dead State

    • Armand K. says:

      Excellent list! Dead State is easily one of my most anticipated games at this point. Everything I’ve read about it oozes cool. A similar (sort of) game minus the zombies is Arcen Games’ A Valley Without Wind which is still in pre-alpha, but sounding very promising.

      I should give Eschalon another try. So many rpg gamers can’t be wrong about this game.

      I also tried playing Knights of the Chalice last night. Died 3 times just on the first orc battle. That game is punishing. 😀

      • I thought the demo for KotC was harder than the actual game. But some of the final battles in the full game were pretty insane as well. Hint: Do no neglect item-creation feats. While not strictly required, it is often the difference between a relatively easy battle and a nearly impossible one.

      • Armand K. says:

        Thanks for the advice. That’s the type of skill I ALWAYS ignore. I’ll make sure to use it if I end up playing the full game. In the meantime, I’m trying out a bunch of different demos. See which one sticks. NotC is ranking well, but I was surprised by Aveyond of all things.

        I’d always brushed it off because it looks like a simple jrpg, but it caught me in the 2 hour demo with the story. I didn’t really even get to real combat yet though, so not sure how much I’ll be able to tolerate that.

        Sooner or later (this weekend?) I know I’ll be buying some new games. 😀

  11. Charles says:

    Well, being on my own I haven’t yet been able to piece together quite the epic you described but hey, I can’t resist such an opportunity to blow my horn :p

    Swords and Sorcery – Underworld on

    Looks like Jay beat me to it though.

    • Armand K. says:

      I’ll admit, the environmental graphics may be a bit of a hindrance (yeah, I know, modern games have spoiled me,) but I’ll still give the demo a try.

      Thanks for the recommendation though. Where you involved in the development?

      • Charles says:

        I’m the one-man team. That’s what I meant by blowing my own horn 🙂

      • Armand K. says:

        Hah hah, I kind of thought so, but didn’t want to assume anything. Thanks for commenting though Charles, and as I said, I’ll gladly give your game a try. Good luck either way with the game though. I wish you much success!

      • Charles says:

        Thanks! No doubt I’ll really need to focus on graphics. That little detail seems to pop up everywhere :p

      • Freddie says:

        Have you tried old Amiga titles such as Fate:Gates of Dawn, Amberstar or Ambermoon on WinUAE? It is a great Amiga emulator for Windows. Currently I am playing Amberstar and I can’t praise it higly enough. Ambermoon is supposed to be even better and many consider it to be the best rpg ever.Gates of Dawn is probably the most elaborate rpg dungeon and it has got an ENORMOUS game world. Have a go if you dare!

      • Armand K. says:

        I actually have very little experience with the Amiga. It’s only lately I’m discovering what a great system it must have been. Hell, many of the games still look impressive today when I check out screenshots and descriptions.

        Thanks for the recommendation. My buddy Gregg also recommended a game on the Amiga to me just the other day called Hired Guns. It’s like one of these first person games, but you have a different view screen for each party member, and multiple players can control different characters on screen.

        That just seems so ahead of its time! That or crazy. Either way, I need to get an emulator and check some of these games out.

      • Charles says:

        I’m assuming that suggestion was for Armand but I’m jotting down the suggestion as well… For research purposes of course 🙂

  12. Josh says:

    Try A “modern” game that reminds me of “might and magic” and “the bards tale”

  13. Mooi says:

    Late reaction to an old article. But is see the thread is still sorta active.

    To give an idea. I’ve just pieces together how to run world of Xeen (part 4 and 5 of the Might and magic series stitched together) in a dos box and started again. And having ball.

    I love Oblivion too….and looking forward to Skyrim. But if any company would make a Might & Magic Xeen like game again that has the same gameplay and good storyline and slightly improved graphics (not talking 3d here just a bit more high res) i’d buy into it in alpha stage…just to give em a little support. Thats how much I want games like that again.

    ah well….here’s hoping a games developer tired of multimillion productions comes by and also thinks fondly of those days takes up the gauntlet.

  14. Excellent article and comments! Thanks a lot, Armand and everyone that has posted here! I have played all the classics and have been yearning for some new games like these. Seems there were a few I hadnt heard of yet, so I will check them out! 🙂

    I want to second The Quest by Redshift. Although it has a one-man party is very much like the old Bard’s Tale series in terms of gameplay. It’s available for a few dollars on Iphone and there is a ton of expansions available. Altogether, they create an enormous world offering HUNDREDS of hours of old-school gameplay! I can’t recommend it enough! 🙂

    Also, this may not be an RPG but I had a lot of fun tinkering around with Dwarf Fortress. It’s a daring project to say the least: a two man team working on the ultimate fantasy world. So far, they have been concentrating on a simtype game where you build your own Dwarven Fortress and the amount of detail is just mindboggling. It’s an ASCII game and it really takes a huge investment of time to get into but once you get the basics you can start building your fortress and play around.

    I have been replaying Wizardry 8 for the last couple of weeks and have been reading up on articles about the old games. What amazes me is that there is still such a sizable group of old school enthusiasts that still are playing these games, yet there are very few new games being developed. With the indie scene getting bigger and bigger these last few years, there should be a good market for new old-school type classics…

    Anyways, Ill keep an eye on this topic. Its very good to know there are more people like us! 😀

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