We live in an era rich in retrogaming options. A bewildering variety of pixelated treasures (and trash) from the past three decades can be revisited — legitimately — via dedicated plug ‘n’ play machines like the NES Mini, classic collections playable on multiple platforms, and various upscaled current-gen remakes. The notion of playing an arcade perfect version of The Speed Rumbler on a home console would’ve seemed like a pipe dream to the MAME-trawling Andrew of twenty years ago, never mind his teenage incarnation who dropped countless quarters into the coin-op cabinet at the local pool hall.
I used to taunt Sega’s and Capcom’s social media feeds with demands to bring Guardian Heroes and the D&D beat ‘em ups to the Xbox 360 digital storefront. The trolling was intended as performative nostalgia, but then the two publishers actually did release the games on to that platform. (I’m not taking credit for that, but I’m not denying all responsibility, either.) I picked up both, as I pick up most retrogaming releases of even minor interest. At the very least, it’s a gesture of support and encouragement fueled by the vain hope of very seeing a HD editions of Burning Rangers or Tech Romancer.
Yet for all the “greatest hits” discs and “arcade classics” downloads cluttering my entertainment center and console’s hard drives, I don’t really get around to playing them all that much. No matter how much I loved these games in the past or continue to rank them high on my all-time favorites list, it has become difficult for me to get past their technical limitations and often punishing gameplay (with the exception of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the Greatest Videogame Ever).
It’s fine when it comes to coin-op classics like Dig Dug or Galaga, because they really aren’t meant to be taken in large doses. With more immersive fare — particularly strategy or RPG games from the 8-and-16 bit eras — I rarely last past the first half hour before giving up and going back to the well-polished feedback loop of the Destiny grind. The time, patience, and thumbskill I used to have are no longer there.
Only a small handful of these titles are still capable of clearing those hurdles. Even then, it’s more aspiration than actualization, with the threshold of tolerance measured in hours rather than minutes. A few of the Koei strategy-sim offerings fit into this category, alongside the Genesis Shadowrun RPG.
And then there’s Pool of Radiance.
The first of the official D&D licensed “Gold Box” role-playing games debuted on home computers in 1988, before getting ported to the NES and re-localized for North American audiences in 1992. I picked up a deeply discounted copy a year later, as an impulse purchase while buying Street Fighter II for my newly acquired SNES console.
The game was downright ambitious as a CRPG offering, and even more so on the NES’s aging hardware — a content-crammed starting AD&D campaign that remained faithful to the pen-and-paper source material. The visuals (apart from the overworld map) were dismally crude, but the rough edges only contributed to the game’s overall vibe. It was a little messy and confusing, but so were the tabletob experiences it tried to replicate.
Weird shit was going down in the (mostly) ruined city of Phlan, and so it was up to the player to assemble a party of intrepid adventurers pulled from the fixed set of class/race archetypes. Each member of the party had to be created individually, a time consuming process of rolling and rerolling characteristics and hit points until hitting a workable combination.
There’s nothing like finally landing an 18(00) strength roll for your fighter, only to notice that he had a grand total of two hit points. The process might have been a bit too punishing and time-consuming, but it made landing a great — or even “good enough” — set of rolls a truly sweet experience. Once a hack-and-slash quorum had been obtained, the party is set loose to wander Phlan’s single non-ruined neighborhood in search of gear and possible leads.
The navigation was conducted via block-based FPS movement crosschecked against an partial overhead world map. The latter was more effective for tracking one’s movements, as the first person perspective was solely populated by menu prompts, text boxes, and character portraits which only appear when directly stumbled upon. Combat was waged on a isometric renderings of the encounter locale and played out in a turn-based fashion following the AD&D rules.
The game could be extremely brutal and unforgiving, particularly at the outset when reminders about the extreme frailty of low-level AD&D characters lurk around every corner. Save points were few and far between, and opportunities to rest and refit in the field fraught with the high likelihood of a party-wiping ambush. It’s the type of game that will make you want to smash the controller in frustration, but it also teaches you how to be cagey. Direct damage spells and attacks mattered less than the clever use of sleep, charm, and hold enchantments to disrupt large formations of foes and gain tactical advantage.
The process of clearing out each separate block of the ruins was an exercise in careful planning and good fortune. Winning the battle that stopped random encounters for a particular block was a profound moment of triumph even before your party divided up the spoils, as was working out how the various neighborhoods connected to each other and the overworld map. Each victory felt earned and consequential, which encouraged me to use what I’d learned to press my luck against tougher foes.
Pool of Radiance is my favorite NES role-playing game by a wide margin, engrossing enough to seriously compete with the SNES version of Street Fighter II for my attention during the summer of 1993. There was something incredibly satisfying about muddling through its complex and unforgiving mechanics until I reached something approaching mastery. Every so often, I’ll think about the game and the fond memories I have of playing it, always ending with “I should give it another shot.”
It was a crude mess when I bought it, so it’s not like the game could possibly age any less gracefully, right? Remember clearing out that first block and your party getting their first level advance and magic items? Or leaving the gates from the ruins and stepping onto the overworld map for the first time?
And so I’ll dig it out and boot it up and make it to the character creation screen. After a hundred rerolls, I’ll finally settle on one set I can live with, save the character along with the couple of ones I created during similar moments in the past, then put the game away for another couple of years.
Based on the existing progression curve, I should complete my adventuring party’s roster sometime in 2023. Monstrous denizens of Phlan, you have been warned.