Whither the Gold Box?

Next Thursday I’ll be getting my geek on at GenCon. Sadly, that’s likely all I’ll be getting on while I’m there, but that’s another topic for…never. Regardless, you might not be hearing from me much late next week as I’ll be drinking with con buddies or slinging dice.

With that in mind I wanted to reminisce for a bit about gaming, specifically on the computer given my recent experience with Dungeon Siege 3. By the end, I mentioned that Ye Olde Games such as the “Gold Box” series are truly a relic of the past. That’s not being bitter — paradigms change, sometimes to make the most of the technology. It would actually be difficult to present the Gold Box game on a gaming console in a way that would make them playable. In doing so, it’s likely they’d lose the nostalgia aspect and evolve into a different form of game altogether.

The Gold Box games were named such because… well, they came in a gold colored cardboard box. Pool of Radiance was the first of the series, released in 1988.* For sake of comparison, a $1400 dollar computer could get you a 286 Intel processor, 640 kilobytes of RAM, a 14″ monitor, and a 3.5″ floppy drive that served as storage (capacity, 1.44 megabytes). Today, that same amount of money will land you a MacBook Air.

Oh, how the times have changed.

But Pool of Radiance was unique in that it was the first official adaptation of the AD&D rules.** You created and essentially micromanaged a party of adventurers with the intent of taking back the city of Phlan from the monsters that overran the place years ago. Game play was fairly simple and straightforward: clear out city blocks, then explore the countryside to deal with other matters threatening the city. The scope suited the plot well, making for a solid experience.

With graphics like these, it’s easy to see that visuals were not that highly regarded. The play was the thing. While they couldn’t adapt all the rules into computer code (The only classes available were Fighter, Magic-User, Cleric and Thief***), they did a bang up job of what they did use. When I say micromanagement, I do mean it. You had to create six adventurers, move and command them individually on the battlefield with each turn, handle equipment and other preparations — you even had to train your party members in order for them to gain a level.

It made for a memorable, if sometimes frustrating experience. More than once was I forced to reload due to death(s) in the party. Or sometimes level loss due to the Valhingen Graveyard. Or because I forgot to map an area and I ended up completely lost as a result. Oh, yes, I drew maps. You had to with these games. I used graph paper to meticulously draw out the 16×16 grids that represented city blocks.

So you can see why this might not translate to the Xbox or the Playstation very well.

Pool of Radiance was followed by Curse of the Azure Bonds (an adaptation of the novel Azure Bonds), Secret of the Silver Blades (probably the best in the series), and ending in 1991 with Pools of Darkness. The series allowed you transfer characters from previous games, meaning your party could get to ridiculously high levels. More often than not, however, the situation warranted it.

Baldur’s Gate was a more refined game engine, utilizing  the technology of 1998 to allow for “real-time” engine and more advanced graphics and animation. Instead of forming a party, you created one central character and could assemble a party from other NPCs you could meet during your journey. What made this game unique was the level of sophistication for the party AI. Khalid would turn and flee if he got too badly hurt. Minsc, if beserk, could start wailing on party members if they got too close. Despite that, this was still a party of adventurers you micromanaged, as you did with the Gold Box.

Also, like the preceding series, this is another game that can’t translate well to the consoles. Even though they have the technology to do so, the nature of console games makes them geared more for faster paced action in an RPG. Do I miss playing these older games? Hell yeah, and in fact I’ve reloaded them on more than one occasion for nostalgia’s sake. Still, new games are coming out that prove the genre of CRPGs is healthy and growing, and not going away any time soon.

And if I really want to get old school, there’s always the pencil & paper RPGs.

But that’s a topic for another day…

*Good Gawd, this game is 23 years old??!? I think I might have to go cry now.

** This was back in the day when we used THAC0 and liked it! Now you goddam kids and your rollerskates get the hell of my lawn!

*** Yeah, we called them Thieves back in the day. That’s because they tended to be Stabby McBastards.

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