Wizardry: Proving Ground of the Mad Overlord (1981)

In the beginning, there was Wizardry. No, not the very beginning because someone had to come around and invent the Apple ][ first, but when it comes to home computer role-playing games, it is difficult to get older than the first Wizardry game. Richard Garriott had not written Akalabeth, the precursor to Ultima. Might and Magic and The Bard’s Tale were both half a decade in the future. No, if you wanted to find a multi-character dungeon crawl, you were stuck with Wizardry.

The amazing thing is, it has aged pretty well. It’s damned difficult, but at this point not impossible. I have played through the first level (of ten, I believe); read on for my thoughts so far.

Wizardry Proving Grounds Of The Mad Overlord 2014-10-15 at 12.00.55 AM
Interestingly, you do not actually need to make a scenario disk…

Wizardry is a bit difficult to define, but the cleanest way is to say that it is an early implementation of something like Dungeons and Dragons rules in a PC game. You lead a party of six characters who are fairly typical D&D classes: Fighter, Mage, Priest, and Thief; plus several other “prestige” classes that I have not been able to experience yet: Bishop (a priest+mage), Samurai (a fighter+mage), Lord (a fighter+priest), and a Ninja (an evil fighter+thief). Mages and Priests work pretty similarly to simplified D&D with limited numbers of spells you can cast per level and you have to have a spell in your spellbook to cast it. You assemble a party of six characters out of those classes and head off adventuring. Simple enough?

Wizardry Proving Grounds Of The Mad Overlord 2014-10-14 at 11.22.21 PM
The main “menu town” of the game.

The adventuring portion happens between a menu town consisting a tavern (for general party administration), an inn (for healing and leveling up), a temple (for resurrecting and curing party members), and shop for upgrading equipment and selling what you find along the way. When you are ready to head to the dungeon, you go to the “edge of town” and explore.

Starting the game is not easy– this is not a game that avoids biting the newbies. You have to create your characters, remember to go to the shop to buy them gear, remember to equip the gear before heading into the maze, etc. It’s a wonder anyone manages to get started, but once you do it gets a bit easier.

For my party, I chose two fighters, a thief, a priest, and two mages. That seems like it would be a fairly good balance, but we will see as I get deeper into the game. I named all of the characters myself and in the early stages I lost a few as I was trying to learn the ropes so my naming scheme is inconsistent. In this case, I seem to be left with a mix of Peter Pan names but my Smee and Wendy were killed early and replaced by Boudica (British history) and Hal (Shakespeare, not 2001). Yes, I am odd about these things.

Resting in this game is perhaps the most weird. You can rent a room, but you only recover (for the rooms that I can afford) 1 hp per week. Your characters gradually get older and older in the game and the manual suggests that bad things happen if your character gets above age fifty. Obviously, they have not heard that fifty is the new thirty.

Dead Means Dead

Exploring the maze for the dreaded Werdna is done in a first-person perspective with wireframes. No fancy graphics here, just 90-degree turns and the same featurless walls for hours.

A typical hallway. I can go straight ahead or turn right.
A typical hallway. I can go straight ahead or turn right.

As you explore the maze, it is very easy to get lost. There is a spell (“DUMAPIC”) that can be used to report on your location and what direction you are facing, but at least in the early game you do not want to use it very often so as to not run out of spells you need. The only way to keep track of your progress in the level is the old fashioned way: graph paper. Actually, that is too old-fashioned and now I just use Google Docs’s handy spreadsheet tool:

A spreadsheet map of the first level of Wizardry. Underscores are explored squares, "#" are dark squares, and combats marked off as "!!".
A spreadsheet map of the first level of Wizardry. Underscores are explored squares, “#” are dark squares, and combats marked off as “!!”. Ampersands are wrap-arounds.

Combat is rough in this game and “dead means dead”. I have lost track of the number of characters that I created, took into the maze, and then had killed by one of the monsters before I was able to get enough of a toe-hold that I could survive. The early stages were populated by my running out into the maze, fighting one creature, then running the heck back to the castle to rest up. Eventually, I was able to afford a few weapon and armor upgrades and gradually uncovered the whole map (unless there are secret doors that I missed). The occasional teleport square has made mapping somewhat more difficult, but with patience I was able to trace it all.

Now, dead does not mean dead, but it might as well. The temple lets you bring back to life dead comrades, but at more than a thousand gold (more than three times as much gold as I have ever had at once), immortality is too steep a price. I have been creating new characters to replace the old ones instead. Heartless, but necessary. It also makes character growth a slow process.

Murphy’s Ghost

Combat consists of each character selecting an action: only the first three characters can attack with melee weapons (I imagine we are in a tight hallway) and the rest can only use spells or “parry”. Of course, since spells are so valuable, my spell-casters spend most of the time parrying to no effect. My priest also has the ability to “dispel”, seemingly Wizardry’s variation on D&D’s “turn undead”.

Thus far, the enemies have been simple, only using melee weapons and attacking the front row. I know these will get more complicated later and could include spell-casters, but for right now this is what I see. When they are killed, they often will drop a chest which is frequently trapped– and while my thief has options to disarm the trap, let’s just say that I am on my fifth “thief” character so far.

A special attack against luck?
A special attack against luck?

I have not yet explored enough to get a handle on the magic system. There are a few spells that damage a single enemy and I just unlocked one that does a very fine job of cutting down an entire group. Regretfully, you do not get enough spells and only recharge your spell points when you return to town. This makes magic essential in the big fights, but you also need to carefully ration to keep from running out at the wrong time.

I managed to find a segregated part of the dungeon behind a hidden door which led to a statue with a key and a very interesting “boss” (?) fight. Murphy’s Ghost (or perhaps “Murphies’ Ghosts” since you can get more than one of them attacking at the same time) was not too difficult, but did reward my characters with a nice experience boost beyond what normal enemies offer. The same room also included a statue that handed me a Bronze Key, but no clear indication why I would want such a key. I suppose I’ll find out soon enough!


The problem that I am having so far is that the game does not feel very balanced. The opening section was quite hard, but once you get past it you seem to do okay on the first level– but I am very afraid that the moment I walk down the stairs I’ll be dead. And then, because “dead is dead”, I’d have to start all over again from the beginning. It is sobering that characters that you spend hours gradually building up can be chopped down practically irrevocably. You can send a relief party down to fetch the ones that died, but given the high cost of reincarnation and the difficulty and time in training the relief party, it hardly seems worth it. Perhaps later, gold will not be as much of an issue. Right now, it’s an impossibility.

The other big challenge is that leveling up in the DOS version does not seem very fair. Unlike what you might expect, you can both gain and lose attribute points when you level up: for example, you can gain or lose strength, agility, or vitality. Very frequently, my characters end up weaker than before (except in hitpoints) rather than stronger. It is terribly frustrating. I recorded the last sixteen level ups and only netted nine point increases, or about a half a point per level. Not very useful, but I know others have beaten the game this way so it must be possible– but the slow rate of character growth is a big detriment.

That said, there are some interesting mysteries. I found a strange man on the first level who teleports me back to the castle, an elevator leading down to the floors below, and a dark area labeled “out of bounds”.  The game does not seem to take itself all that seriously, except in terms of difficulty, a trait that I enjoy.

I plan on continuing to explore this game. I have nine more levels to go. It is absolutely worthwhile if you love gaming history or want a challenge, but far from recommended if you want something you can play quickly or which forgives mistakes.

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