SSI’s license with TSR was a boon for CRPGs in the late 80s to the mid 90s. Mining the deeply lore oriented materials of settings such as Dragonlance and the Forgotten Realms, SSI’s adventures became surrogate DMs for a growing audience of players eager to experience the kind of worlds forged by titles ranging from Apshai to Ultima.
The first of the fabled “Gold Box” games, Pool of Radiance in 1988, set the tempo for the kind of role-playing and tactical strategy that they would bring to CRTs everywhere backed by the rules of AD&D’s 2ed rule set. The packaging, in gold-colored paper adorned by art pulled from TSR’s vault of illustrations used for their own products, boasted a wealth of documentation from a manual that broke down the gameplay system and a “journal” packed with in-world fiction such as the entries referenced by the game and a breakdown on the AD&D concepts used by it making it a sort of miniature “Players’ Guide”.
Though rough around the edges, the game proved to be popular and by recycling the same engine into a new game tweaked with a few improvements, a sequel was quickly turned around about a year later as Curse of the Azure Bonds in 1989.
Azure Bonds had an all new story based on the novel advertised above featuring Alias, the swordswoman, and her compatriot, Dragonbait, in cameos. Instead of the “Azure Bonds” binding the arms of either one of those two, however, a party of adventurers under the player’s command are now the victims in a nefarious conspiracy by a group of evil organizations to control them. To break their enslavement and get to the bottom of this mystery, they will have to find these villains and do what comes naturally which usually involves a lot of combat.
In typical fashion, the game did what many popular CRPGs did back then in re-using the same engine and largely keeping the same look — something almost unheard of nowadays with Square Enix’s penchant for re-inventing its systems with every iteration or an audience’s demand in ticking off topping the look of the last game to make it “feel” like a proper sequel.
The tactical combat was still the same in laying out the six member party in a kind of overhead-isometric formation view with enemies arraigned in the same way almost as if it were miniatures going at it in virtual reality. A first-person view window continued to be a part of the game including how you approached a number of dialogues as a haughty snob or in a friendly manner.
A few new tweaks were also introduced to polish the formula. Automapping was implemented to help out making it one of the earliest games to use it after Interplay’s Bard’s Tale III. Healing the party was also streamlined.
Because Dungeons and Dragons uses the Vancian system of magic memorization, mages and clerics have only so much space in their heads for spells. To make room for more, they have to “forget” one spell and slot in another like a memory stick. Kind of lame, but them’s the rules. In Pool of Radiance, players had to micromanage this making healing up a party while they were camped to rest a painstaking process of dropping spells learned, spending more time learning new spells, using them, and then filling that same head again with the spells that you need for exploration. In Azure Bonds, that was all automated with a handy Fix command.
Players can also import their experienced party from Pool, sans equipment, but loaded with enough platinum pieces to gear them up at the local shop. Or they can hit up a pre-rolled party appropriately leveled up enough to take on the new challenges. This was a combat intensive game and unlike Pool’s “job” approach in finding things to do, a bit more linear in its approach.
The game also “cheated” a bit. It’s no secret that developers often tweak their own in-game rules to uphold the kind of tension or challenge that they want to create for their players, though some of it can come off as cheap elements such as rubberbanding AI in racing games that seem to be glued to your bumper.
Scorpia, in CGW’s review of the game, wondered why her party was being battered senseless by creatures called otyughs in the sewers of one of the game’s venues despite having armor values that would put a tank to shame. George MacDonald, the project leader over at SSI for the game, wrote into the magazine fessing up to her suggestion that the values were tweaked. She was right, though he also provided a good reason for why that was.
The clues were buried in the text describing how dangerous the “footing” would make combat in the sewers, and based on that, a value was secretly added outside of the usual rules calculating that danger against the party and in favor of the otyughs. He goes on to say that there are a number of warnings like these in the narrative and that “if it looks like you’re not getting the die rolls you should, odds are you’re not”.
Seen from that perspective, it’s actually not so much cheating as it is improvisation. After all, as George points out, the game does warn the player making it a case of taking it outside of the box beyond the rules to be as creative as a DM who is constantly fighting the battle in trying to keep their players entertained. So instead of making it a mechanical explanation, it can come down to simply immersing yourself in what the game is telling you — because the details actually can matter. From dice rolls to potential side quests, it’s interesting in seeing how it can still come down to the art of listening instead of dissecting the mechanics to know why.
It also had one or two surprises such as the Mulmaster Beholder Corps which was intended as an impossible battle, not against a boss monster, but against an army of the worst the game had to offer from beholders to dark elf lords unless one had a tough party and a pinch of an item called the Dust of Disappearance.
Azure Bonds wouldn’t be the last game in the Gold Box series. Between this and Pool, SSI also produced a number of other AD&D oriented titles that weren’t wrapped in gilded paper such as Hillsfar and Dragons of Flame. But the Gold Box games were often looked on as the real meat of TSR’s license with SSI — CRPG titles sharing the kind of stats and storytelling that was also AD&D bailiwick.
Like Pool, Azure Bonds would find itself on Apple IIs, Amigas, C64s, DOS machines, the PC-98, and even the Macintosh though unlike Pool, it wouldn’t find its way over to a console like the NES. And like many of SSI’s classic titles, these wouldn’t find themselves on digital distribution sites like Good Old Games or Desura further pushing them into the land of abandonware.
Fortunately for these forgotten classics and others like them, fans have scanned their dox along with dumping the disk images for anyone with an emulator to relive these adventures, though it would still be nice to see these re-released as a classic collection in one place. Tough, brutal, but undeniably a part of CRPG history, Azure Bonds wouldn’t be the last word in Gold Box games from SSI, either, jousting with dragons later on and then taking players into space with Buck Rogers.