Nostalgia’s quite the thing, isn’t it? Just think back to the classic games of your childhood and you’re sure to have some fond memories. I’m not immune to this, of course. When I look at the Dungeons and Dragons: Gold Box Classics collection, I’m taken back to the glory days of my childhood adventuring days – creating a party and exploring mysterious fantasy worlds, battling foes and collecting loot along the way. It’s a nice, fuzzy feeling to revisit these ancient CRPGs from the height of the MS-DOS PC…
…and then I remember the not-so-nice, not-so-fuzzy feelings that I no longer have to deal with because of the ingenuity of a collection like this. Do you know what an IRQ is? Without getting into crazy technical nonsense, you probably don’t, because computers have been taking care of them for you for years. Back in the day, however, you had to determine what they are and enter that stuff yourself, and entering it wrong would break things horribly.
This was a big ask for a kid just wanting a little adventure. That’s why I didn’t realize that a solid half of the games in this collection actually have music, and it’s actually pretty good!
So you’ve got a bunch of classic Dungeons and Dragons adventures available on a modern platform that are souped up to work just as they should. Great! Which games are they, though? Well, we’ve got the pack separated into a bunch of separately-purchased bundles with a few games in each, allowing you to portion out your nostalgia however you please.
The Forgotten Realms Archives: Collection One comes with Eye of the Beholder, Eye of the Beholder II: The Legend of Darkmoon and Eye of the Beholder III: Assault on Myth Drannor. These are first-person dungeon crawlers where you lead a party of adventurers on various quests, battling foes along the way. Ideally, you’ll create a party in the first game and carry the team with you as you proceed to the rest of the series, which is a pretty nice touch that you don’t see too often these days.
Another thing you don’t see too often these days is the sheer brutality of these games. We could talk about Dark Souls, but that’s a game that, at its heart, wants you to win. The Eye of the Beholder games are there to defy you. You’re going to die a whole bunch – and that’s before you realize the mistakes you made in character creation and start over. Between the puzzles and combat, these games are no joke, but that might be precisely why you’d want to check them out.
Continuing with the Forgotten Realms Archives, we’ve got Collection Two, which has Pool of Radiance, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Hillsfar, Secret of the Silver Blades, Pools of Darkness, Gateway to the Savage Frontier, Treasures of the Savage Frontier and Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures. Why yes, that’s quite the list, thanks for noticing!
These top-down/first-person/isometric hybrid RPGs might be the most iconic games in any of the collections based on the beloved reaction they’ll get in RPG circles whenever you bring them up. They tend to be a little ahead of their time, introducing choices that matter and even some degree of customized plotlines based on the makeup of the party you’ve brought along.
Hillsfar’s the odd game out here, offering a sort of minigame collection/top-down adventure arrangement that’s clearly meant to be some kind of weird experiment before we understood how to make RPGs. Even without considering that game, there’s a whole lot of RPG here for what you’re paying, so if you’re only going to drop the cash on one of these collections, it might be this one…but I’m going to suggest the Dark Sun set instead. We’ll get there.
If you were into Collection Two, then you’ve got to check out the Krynn Series, which includes Champions of Krynn, Death Knights of Krynn and The Dark Queen of Krynn. These games owe a lot to the Collection Two hybrid RPGs, with the later games serving essentially as another step forward for this engine. The Dark Queen of Krynn in particular has lovely graphics that
Forgotten Realms Archives: Collection Three has Menzobberanzan! Men-zobber-an-zan. It’s the capital city of the Dark Elves and your party’s been taken captive there. Thankfully, you just might get to team up with Drizzt Do’Urden, the one D&D character that maybe even non-D&D people are aware of, to assemble an ancient artifact, escape the city with your lives and save the day as you go! We’re starting to see these games really come into their own here. You’ll create a pair of characters and find a couple more along the way to help out – psst, you probably want Drizzt – and explore in the classic first-person style you’ll recall from the Eye of the Beholder games.
There’s more dungeon-crawling, more saving at every corner in case you die and more trying to keep your head straight as the maps spiral into maze insanity. It’s not bad…
…but it has the misfortune of existing in the same collection as Dungeon Hack. Dungeon Hack is really, really cool, even by modern standards. It’s what we’d call a roguelike today. You’re going to create a character and try to explore a randomly-generated dungeon, battling monsters and finding much-needed supplies as you go. There’s even randomly-generated puzzles of a sort!
The sheer amount and variety of things to do is striking, with the ability to customize not only the dungeon generation but your own character to a sizable degree. That Fighter might find it pretty easy to get through the early levels, for instance, but without sustaining magic or any tricks, will they run into trouble later? Dungeon Hack really holds up in a modern sense and a more contemporary remake might be a nice thing to see someday.
If you liked Menzobberanzan and want more in the same vein, though, you might get a kick out of the Ravenloft collection. This has Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession and Ravenloft: Stone Prophet, which represent another step in the evolution of these first-person RPGs. They look a little better, the systems are a little easier to grasp, and while they’re still punishingly difficult it feels a little easier to get a handle on what’s going on. They also take place in Ravenloft, one of the more interesting D&D settings, essentially a world of horror where your characters are trapped and made to face classic monsters like vampires, werewolves and mummies. Ravenloft’s well-loved enough to have returned for the modern fifth edition D&D setting, so even new players might get a kick out of these gothic adventures.
Let’s end this one with a bang: the Dark Sun collection is probably the best of a great bunch. Shattered Lands and Curse of the Ravager take place in the ruined world of Athas, a barbaric setting where evil sorcerors have drained the sun of its life-giving energy. All the land struggles to survive under the oppressive heat and parched dunes, wielding weapons of bone and chitin as well as the psionic powers that define creatures from Athas. You’ll lead ragtag band of slaves to freedom, then build a liberation army in Shattered Lands, while in Wake of the Ravager ork with a resistance movement against a brutal dragon-lord in Wake of the Ravager. Naturally, you can still import your characters and carry them across both games.
The unique setting – Athas really is unlike anything out there, but think of it as psychic Mad Max with magic – and solid combat even by today’s standards make these games a must-play. More than maybe anything else in the Gold Box Classics, you can really see a direct link between these games and the CRPGs of today. We can hope we’ll see other old-school gems like Al-Qadim: The Genie’s Curse presented in such a way sooner or later. Oh, and I’m serious, try those Dark Sun games if you’re at all into CRPGs. They’re fantastic.
Even if you only want to pick up one or two of the collections, you’ll be well served by the Dungeons and Dragons: Gold Box Classics. Presentation and gameplay will vary between all these games, of course, but the universal launcher and reliable porting/emulation job means that my experience with everything in the collection was pleasant. You can adjust resolution settings, futz about with scaling and more to painlessly attain an experience that works for you. Combine that with the fact that the games all have their lovingly-written cluebooks and manuals included and you’re in for hours of retro RPG fun.