“When the going gets tough, the Bard goes drinking.”
With these iconic words, Brian Fargo and his crew at Interplay (under the EA label) built the Bard’s Tale into a trilogy of fantastic CRPGs. The first one, introduced in ’85, brought players to the city of Skara Brae where the wizard, Mangar, is quietly terrorizing its citizens as his legion of monsters stalk the streets.
The subtitle the box bore, “Tales of the Unknown”, was very appropriate. Both the city and its dungeons beckoned adventurers to risk everything with every grid-based step and 90 degree turn.
It was incredibly innovative at the time featuring animated monster portraits, detailed graphics, plenty of loot, dark dungeons, and pages of spells to throw at everything in your way. It even featured a day and night cycle that affected your spell point regeneration. During the day, mages regenerated normally. At night, and with tougher beasts wandering about, spell points can drain away like water in the desert.
The game eased players in with a pre-made party, though you could always roll your own characters which I did if only to give them their own names.
Along with a collection of races like Elf, Human, and Half-Elf, eight classes were available at the start, like the typical Warrior or Rogue classes, though two more could be earned by transforming one of these classes into something else once a character had enough experience. A Paladin was a really useful class having a natural resistance to evil magic as well as being able to use certain weapons that no one else can. My party always had one up front along with two mages in the back ready for trouble.
And then there was the Bard. As long as you kept his vocal cords preserved in hops, his songs can give the party unique buffs such as making them fight even fiercer in battle or soothe enemies so that their pounding blows land much more softly. He can also fight, though he’s not quite as good as a Warrior or a Paladin.
Aside from monsters, the dungeons were also fraught with dangers ranging from something as simple as blinding darkness to devious traps like spinners. Automapping was still something of a holy grail feature on players’ wish lists leaving grid paper as a dungeon delver’s best tool for the job, and spinners could easily screw with your orientation as they often did with mine.
All this was crammed on 5.25″ disks requiring only 64K or 128K of memory on an Apple // machine to run, though the game would end up ported to many other platforms including the NES (which wasn’t that great).
One advertising feature on the back of the box indicated that the game was also written in “100 % assembly language, over 400K worth” which wasn’t the kind of marketing speak one might expect. When was the last time you bought a game that boasted “sumptuous 3D visuals created using Autodesk’s 3D Studio Max suite” or “exclusively coded in C++” on the back flap? Those were certainly different times with a different audience.
The game felt much like a simplified version of Dungeons & Dragons and worked exceptionally well gameplay-wise. The mechanics were streamlined enough to get into and start wrecking monsters and surviving the game in the opening hours was much easier to do than, say, it was in Jon Van Caneghem’s Might & Magic. Not that it was a bad thing, but I thought the Bard’s Tale’s learning curve tended to give players a much better chance at living a bit longer.
Decades later, Brian Fargo and his new studio, inXile, would revisit the Bard with a tongue-in-cheek action RPG called “The Bard’s Tale” which featured Cary Elwes as a wise-cracking Bard in it for coin and cleavage. Though it bore little resemblance to the classic that it was named after, it had a lot going for it including the bawdy humor that poked fun at nearly every RPG cliche in the book.
The ad below also boasts that you can import characters from either Sir-Tech’s Wizardry series or Origin’s Ultima III in a remarkable example of cross series cooperation. Players would also be able to port their characters from one Bard’s Tale to the next, all the way up through the Bard’s Tale III and even the unofficial iteration of Bard’s Tale IV, Dragon Wars.
Like Sir-Tech’s Wizardry series, the Bard’s Tale loved to give players the option to carry over their favorite characters on through the series. It’s an old-school CRPG concept that was also emulated to a lesser extent on the console, such as with Shining Force III on the Saturn (though the West would be deprived of the Japan-only continuations that concluded that title). More recently, BioWare’s Mass Effect had also used the same idea to a much greater extent.
So with the announcement of an HD version of Baldur’s Gate, is it too much to hope for the same thing for the Bard’s Tale? Probably. But it’s always nice to mull the idea over a tall stein while strumming a harp next to the fire, reminiscing of heroes past and great deeds left unfinished.