This content originally appeared in issue #2 of the Nintendo Fun Factor zine. The issue is available as a free download here; check it out!
Without Dungeons & Dragons, video RPGs today would be completely different, if they existed at all. Had Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson not published that three-volume set of manuals in 1974, there would be no Wizardry, no Ultima, no Dragon Quest, no Final Fantasy, and no Chrono Trigger. Can you imagine living in a world with no Chrono Trigger? I don’t even want to think about it.
Of course, there were, and continue to be, plenty of games based on the D&D source material, created for those who are too lame to even have friends who play tabletop D&D (such as myself). While the vast majority of D&D games were developed for PCs, some were ported to Nintendo consoles and handhelds, with even a few original games appearing along the way. So grab your homemade Legend of Zelda campaign setting handbook and venture forth into this look at the past (and potential future) of Dungeons & Dragons on Nintendo platforms!
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of the Lance (NES, 1991)
The first moments upon starting a new game in Heroes of the Lance are incredible for fans of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman’s wonderful campaign setting, as the heroes are introduced with charming 8-bit portraits. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. The game takes a side-scrolling perspective, but plays nothing like you’d expect a side-scrolling NES game to. The combat is more Hydlide than Castlevania; constantly frustrating with its strange lack of precision. The game remains fairly accurate to the source material, at least in regards to the characters (for example, Goldmoon carries the Blue Crystal Staff, which can be used to heal and resurrect party members), but this isn’t enough, as the game is simply too difficult and unpolished to be enjoyed by fans.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Pool of Radiance (NES, 1992)
A port of the beloved “Gold Box” PC title, Pool of Radiance is worlds beyond most NES games of the time in terms of scope, difficulty, and complexity. While battles in PoR are viewed from a top down perspective, movement through town and dungeons is first person. The size and lack of distinguishing features within the areas practically require that the player map out their surroundings on graph paper as they play. It’s an open and oftentimes obtuse game, but if approached with the proper mindset, ample patience, and a pad of graph paper, Pool of Radiance offers a rare experience on the NES.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: DragonStrike (NES, 1992)
Taking place in the Dragonlance campaign setting during the War of the Lance (ask your parents), DragonStrike eschews its RPG roots in favor of a straight up, top down, shooter. The game offers Xevious-esque multi-plane combat, but with a bit of a twist. Instead of having different attacks for each plane, your dragon can, with a press of up or down on the dpad, change planes to attack. Another way the game distances itself from its peer(s) is by allowing a larger range of horizontal movement and the ability to change directions and backtrack (which is necessary, as the game’s “destroy X amount of Y” missions often require you to do so). While admittedly “console-ised,” DragonStrike is a simple and fun way to revisit the land of Krynn.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Hillsfar (NES, 1993)
For an NES game, Hillsfar was ahead of its time in many ways; unfortunately, nearly all of its innovations are so poorly implemented that they simply frustrate the player. Hillsfar is essentially a D&D-themed minigame collection in which you complete very disparate minigames to build your character- the only thing the games really have in common is that they’re not very fun. For example, there’s an arena mode where you fight various baddies, but you attack via dull and unresponsive dpad inputs. Other times you’re riding your horse, which should be cool, but you are required to bound over obstacles in the road (like, SURPRISE! bales of hay). Again, unresponsive controls in which you have to hit the jump button and hope for the best drain every bit of fun out of this one. The best of the minigames is sadly a very pedestrian archery game where you place a twitchy crosshair over a target and fire (not unlike firing a sniper rifle in a modern Manshooter game)- the problem is, you can only play this game at certain times, so you’re forced to just stand and wait while the in-game clock ticks away and the shooting range opens. If you’re fortunate, you’ve been able to avoid Hillsfar this long- so in the name of fun, continue to do so.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Eye of the Beholder (Super Nintendo, 1994)
Capcom’s 1994 port of the seminal PC dungeon crawler (originally released in 1990) is a bit late, but (surprisingly? unsurprisingly?) excellent. Right from the start, when you are “rolling” your characters to create your party, it’s apparent that this is not going to be a “console-ised” (aka “dumbed-down”) version of the game- this is the real deal (complete with dpad “mouse” cursor). While the deliberate slow pace and light story may be an initial turn off for SNES RPG fans raised on games like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, Eye of the Beholder offers a polished experience that captures feelings of adventure, exploration, and most importantly, the spirit of D&D.
FUN FACT: Eye of the Beholder supports the SNES mouse (originally bundled with Mario Paint)!
Dungeons & Dragons: Eye of the Beholder (Game Boy Advance, 2002)
This version of Eye of the Beholder was less a port/remake, and more of a total reimagining. You still create a party at the start of the game (unless you want to use the somewhat lame presets), but this time you’re following D&D 3rd edition rules. Once you begin the game, you enter the familiar opening
dungeon in the first-person perspective and
everything feels normal… until you get into your first battle. Here, instead of the first-person, turn-based combat of the original, you are placed in an isometric perspective, not unlike a primitive version of SRPGs such as Tactics Ogre or Final Fantasy Tactics. The combat here plays out in a similar manner to the aforementioned titles, but unfortunately is quite slow and the perspective makes character movement a bit strange. Despite these complaints, the GBA version of Eye of the Beholder is still a deep and enjoyable handheld version of a classic game.
Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance (Gamecube, 2002)
One of the few attempts at a Diablo-esque loot-driven action-RPG on consoles, Dark Alliance excels in both control and addictiveness. While the D&D license is pretty much just used for the setting, the game delivers a fast and fun dungeon crawling experience. Unfortunately, it must not have sold well on the Gamecube, because the sequel was not released on the platform, leaving this the lone D&D release on the Cube. At least it’s a good one.
Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance (Game Boy Advance, 2004)
While a Game Boy Advance version of a console licensed game on paper may seem like a recipe for an awful experience, Dark Alliance on the GBA is anything but. This fast-moving isometric action-RPG retains nearly all of the addictive dungeon crawling and loot-acquiring of its console big brother. It may not look the prettiest, but its portability and low price (you can score a cart for under $10 online) make this an excellent addition to any D&D lover’s GBA collection.
Despite its anime-style visuals and Dragon Quest-esque first person combat, the Etrian Odyssey games capture a large part of what makes D&D great- mapping. While requiring the player to draw their own dungeon maps on the (3)DS touch screen may seem like a strange “feature,” it’s actually quite involving, rewarding, and harkens back to one of the most personal and demanding aspects of tabletop roleplaying. Etrian Odyssey was the series that brought the first person dungeon crawler back to the mainstream in Japan, and remains the pinnacle of the genre today.
FUN FACT: Etrian Odyssey series composer Yuzo Koshiro also composed the Sega CD
version of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Eye of the Beholder!
Orcs & Elves (DS, 2007)
For a DS port of a mobile game, Orcs & Elves is much better than you might expect. This
shouldn’t be surprising though- O&E was developed by legendary programmer John Carmack and Wolfenstein 3D / DOOM / Quake creators id Software. This straightforward, but solid and entertaining first-person dungeon crawler may not have the cutting edge visuals that id is known for, but makes up for it with solid turn-based combat, excellent level design, and some wry humor (thanks to your talking staff companion). Orcs & Elves is both a reverent homage to D&D PC classics such as Eye of the Beholder and a great DS RPG from an unlikely source.
FUN FACT: During the early days of id Software, the team played a D&D campaign together. There was an ultra-powerful weapon in their game- the name? “Daikatana.”
Fighting Fantasy: The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (DS, 2009)
Based off of the long-running Fighting Fantasy roleplaying book series (which were essentially singleplayer D&D modules in novel form), Warlock of Firetop Mountain is a first-person RPG with a visual style that fans of mid-to-late-90s PC RPGs will recognize. The combat is action, rather than turn based, so this is pretty much as close to an Elder Scrolls game on DS as you’re going to get. Unfortunately, the character animation is so limited by the hardware that every battle becomes a twitchy and awkward affair. But for those with the patience for it, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain offers an experience completely unique to the platform.
FUN FACT: Co-creator of the Fighting Fantasy series Ian Livingstone was president and CEO of Eidos Interactive until the Square Enix buyout, at which point he was promoted to “Life President of Eidos!”
Crimson Shroud (3DS eShop, 2012)
Crimson Shroud is, without a doubt, the best way to get your D&D fix on a Nintendo system. Created by the brilliant Yasumi Matsuno, this bitesized RPG offers everything you love about tabletop roleplaying, from dice rolls to figurines to text that feels it came straight from the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Check out our review in this issue (Issue 2 of Fun Factor -ed) for more reasons why this eShop release is a must-buy for D&D-loving 3DS owners.
D & D, Next?
So what’s next for D20 rolling Nintendo fans (other than Chronicles of Mystara)? Crimson
Shroud proved that tabletop-style RPGs could work (and find an audience) on the 3DS – it would be great to see more games in its style. More exciting though, are the possibilities the Wii U holds for the genre.
A Penny Arcade comic basically laid out the obvious: you have your player characters looking at the TV screen using either Wii Remotes or Classic Controllers and the player with the GamePad acts as the Dungeon Master. Boom.
There are a ton of ways this could go, gameplay-wise… It could be a slow, methodical
experience, filled with plenty of stats and dice rolling ala Crimson Shroud, or it could be a
straight hack-and-slash, like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance. Either of these approaches would work, as would a gameplay style somewhere between these two extremes. The Wii U looks to be a great platform for a console D&D experience- let’s hope that developers take advantage of its potential…