WELCOME TO THE WIZARDRY WORLD

How do you play Wizardry, 1981’s hottest RPG, in 2022? “With some difficulty” is the only honest answer, as official access to Sir-Tech’s pioneering dungeon crawling adventure is virtually nonexistent. The Ultimate Wizardry Archives for DOS/Windows was as close as the series ever got to a convenient compilation, but that came out so long ago the pack’s now old enough to buy its own beers without getting ID’d (and bloody expensive to boot), leaving gaming with something of a gaping hole in its playable history.

So it’s a good thing Wizardry went through a phase of being ported to and/or remade for… not quite everything but close enough as makes no difference, turning up in all sorts of unlikely places—including the PC Engine in 1993, one year after Wizardry V debuted on the same format.

NEC’s CD-accepting console may be a very different to the Apple ][ the game was designed for, but even so this Japan-exclusive double pack of Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord and Knight of Diamonds is in many of the most important ways Wizardry as it’s always been. 

The game still silently autosaves after every battle, when accessing the camp menu, and at other key points, forcing players to live with every unlucky decision and wrong turn they make. Both dungeon layouts are based on the original computer game maps, and those seeking a more authentic visual experience can wander through first-person mazes drawn using simple monochrome line graphics if they wish. 

However the mazes look the monsters remain the same beautifully designed creatures reimagined this time around by Akihiro Yamada, whose distinctive style you might have seen in Mystic Ark (SFC), Terra Phantastica (Saturn), and many other games I really must write about one day. The enemies really are an incredible sight, every sprite brilliantly detailed and creatively interpreted—just take a look at this “capybara”, for example:

It must take some serious effort to reimagine the world’s friendliest animal as an intimidating teeth-baring menace, but this version of Wizardry makes it look effortless.

A moody soundtrack (a simple menu lets you switch between CD and PSG versions of the exploration and battle tunes) further enhances the threatening atmosphere. This is a journey where every step into the darkness, semi-secret doors in the stony walls constantly flitting in and out of existence, is not one closer to victory, but one further away from the safety of town, your party forever just one dangerous encounter away from being wiped out.

Anyone hoping for a smooth experience from town to Werdna will find themselves in for something of a shock, as Wizardry suddenly deviates from the game it’s based on about halfway through Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. The private elevator usually used to whisk parties straight from floor 4 to floor 9 doesn’t work, not even if the team has the elevator-activating blue ribbon in their possession. In fact I couldn’t get the private elevator to work at all, not even after trudging down through the normally useless floors 5-8 (these levels honestly containing nothing more than generic traps and monsters) and making an attempt to find some sort of all-new activation button. I found myself trapped on floor 8 with no way down and no way back up (there are no stairs at all on that floor, just like the original version of the game), lacking the time and the patience to methodically search a floor that chooses to cruelly start its players off in a room full of spinner plates (this is again a feature found in the original Wizardry) for whatever had been newly introduced to set things right. I’m guessing the idea here was to get some use out of the floors most people skip—a sound idea in theory, but one that needed a more obvious swerve away from the well-trodden blue ribbon path rather than waiting until its players are pushing the elevator button for floor 9 before saying “No, we’re not doing that here“.

Luckily for me this Naxat-published Wizardry double pack doesn’t force its players clear Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord before they begin Knight of Diamonds, although switching to the second title is hardly intuitive. There’s no simple scenario select screen here, instead you decide if a character’s destined for the second story during the creation process (it’s even possible to create a party for the third scenario, the game prompting you to swap to the separately sold Wizardry 3 & 4 disc on leaving town for the maze). It is of course possible to carry a party over from the first game to the second (or third), or even import/export characters from a friend’s game—although correctly transcribing and then manually inputting the lengthy alphakananumeric password required just might be the hardest challenge in the game.

However just because you can make a fresh party and dive straight into Knight of Diamonds, that doesn’t mean you should.

That’s because the second Wizardry scenario’s balance is based on the assumption—as it always has been—you’ve cleared the original and are porting over a game-winning team. This assumption extends not only to the monster types found within the new dungeon, but also the quantity and quality of spells the game assumes you have at your disposal too. For example the first floor alone contains a mandatory quest item squirrelled away behind a teleport puzzle that as far as I am aware can only be countered by a high level mage’s warp spell, and if you don’t have it already? Well, that’s a you problem as far as Knight of Diamonds is concerned, because a team able to finish the first dungeon would have it (assuming the mage survived).

As introductions to Wizardry go, this isn’t a bad one. Many of the frustrations encountered within are lifted wholesale from the original, and someone, somewhere, is probably excited at the thought of a significant change to Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord’s quest structure. Most of the time the exit to town isn’t as many steps away as it seems, and although there’s no visual automap in this version of the game a low level mage spell will let you know where you are on the current floor and which direction you’re facing, so orientating yourself in a maze filled with identical stone walls isn’t impossible. Unlike some other ports the game has no English/Japanese language switch, choosing instead to use a curious mixture of the two that slightly inconveniences everyone. On the physical side of things CDs are relatively reliable, easily shipped and stored (and easy to create/play back ups of from an original copy), and the PC Engine isn’t an especially difficult format to buy, maintain, or emulate—all practical points in this port’s favour.

There are definitely some glaring missed opportunities though. There’s an argument to be made that too many modern conveniences could have spoiled the mood, however would it really have hurt either game if they’d included floor and ceiling graphics, shown movement when stepping forwards, added kanji support, or included basic Shin Megami Tensei style spell and attack animations? Compared to the SNES, Game Boy Color, WonderSwan, Saturn, and PlayStation remakes—admittedly all created years after this 1993 PC Engine port—there’s a palpable gap here, the bridge between the daring concepts the original Wizardry was trying to convey and more modern dungeon crawling expectations left unbuilt.

If you want to play Wizardry? This is Wizardry. If you want to understand and enjoy Wizardry without taking a historical context crash-course first or dialling your gameplay expectations back almost forty years? Go for one of the other ports.

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4 thoughts on “WELCOME TO THE WIZARDRY WORLD

  1. What an interesting read. I, too, always liked the sprites the Japanese ports of the Wizardry games offer. The way I played the first trilogy is by way of the SNES bundle. Which is based on the NES releases. So the order of game 2 and 3 are switched, meaning they are all balanced around making a new party at the beginning. The elevator does let you skip floors like in the OG there too, ttho it is pretty curious that they redesigned the layouts for those superfluous floors anyway.

    I think most Japanese releases are based on that NES/Famicom version I heard, so it is always interesting to see that the PC Engine ones decided to deviate from them and in which capacity.

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  2. I played other versions of the first Wizardry game and always felt the lastest floors are kinda thrown there with little level design outside new enemies and item drops. The idea of having to warp around is also strange, like being able to create any party but in reality you cannot do that (but yeah, without spells to wipe out monsters fast you’d die much more anyway). In Bard’s Tale games magic needed for exploration comes around quicker to the player, while in Wizardry variants (original, NES/SNES, etc) it’s less clear. I was stuck too in the PC Engine version, i’d be interested to know what the real idea behind was (doors that don’t open, key items from other version that don’t work..). Personally i started to understand warping while playing Elminage games, being able to stop exploring and return back there fast without routing through previous floors (and using resources needed to harder encounters later) is basically essential in later Wizardry style games.
    I agree the artwork is quite nice, the use of few colors in a smart way, compared to other versions that kinda feel like scans of drawing than pure pixel art. Shame they didn’t put that effort in the dungeon too (love the small scenes in town, so much potential for comparable quality with walls, etc), when the effort for enemies was relevant, why not pushing harder? I guess strict budget/time constraints. Loved the catchy tune for the combat (FM version).
    Personally i liked also the small differencies with gameplay balance. Items you can find, ammount of experience you get, etc. For me it felt better than other versions.
    I checked the other PC Engine Wizardry games and sad that really, the dungeon tilesets are basically the same over all titles, delivering the idea of a work done in bulk. Still i want to explore them for the art :) It’d be cool to have a fan project dumping the assets and (using the info tables around) recreating a better dungeon system. Maybe too niche of a thing? :P

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