SSI’s license alliance with TSR pulled AD&D from tabletops to PC screens everywhere while at the same time, creating some of the nicest looking ads and box art for the games thanks to the access that they also had to their art vaults. Though renowned for the Gold Box series of hardcore CRPGs that dove right into the AD&D worlds of the Forgotten Realms, for example, they also dabbled in arcade action type derivatives for TSR’s Dragonlance setting. The first of those would be 1988’s Heroes of the Lance developed by U.S. Gold.
Heroes takes after the Dragonlance module “Dragons of Despair” which came out in 1984. It was also the first chapter kicking off the famous saga which would go on into novels, more modules, and epic arcs in the following years.
As for the game, it centered around eight of these heroes and their efforts to explore the ruins of Xak Tsaroth for the Disks of Mishakal, holy relics of power, and liberate them from the grasp of the ancient dragon protecting them. Favorites such as Goldmoon, Riverwind, Tanis Half-Elven, and Sturm Brightblade made up the merry party of eight that players would have total control over.
The manual did a fantastic job introducing players to what Dragonlance was and to its roots with a summary of events to set the mood, establish the world, and get players involved in caring about why they’re hacking and slashing their way as one of eight characters. It listed the vitals for each character, spells, capabilities, and everything needed to get into the game.
The game had some crunch within its character descriptions listing stats, their scores, and their weapons, though they didn’t really have that much of an impact other than giving you an idea of who was really good at what. This wasn’t a game where every number meant something — it wasn’t like the Gold Box games. This was a 2D, side scrolling action game with a thin veneer of AD&D layered over its simple action. Experience earned by characters was used more as a score than as something earned towards the next level — because there weren’t any. Collecting goodies like rings and wands and equipping them were really the only sense of improvement players would get on that level other than progressing through Xak Tsaroth, something that dungeon crawlers looking for a much more crunchy experience might find a bit jarring.
Players could only control one character at a time but could juggle between any of the eight Heroes in case you need to put someone on the virtual bench after one too many close calls with an exploding draconian. Like its sequel, Dragons of Flame, players were in charge of a multi-character superhero created with different life bars. Dragonlance critters populated its side scrolling passages and rooms from gully dwarves to draconians that crumble away or explode on death.
The game was ported to a large number of platforms. In 1988, there were still plenty of PCs that SSI focused its efforts towards from the Amstrad and the Amiga to the PC-88 and the always popular Commodore 64. Because of its simple mechanics and action-oriented focus, it was also a candidate for being ported over to the Sega Master System and the NES.
Unlike the PC version in ’88 which had a relatively warm welcome, the NES version in 1990, in particular, is regarded by more than a few as one of the system’s worst games. It was visually inferior to the PC versions and to a number of its own peers on the NES. It also suffered from being late to the party — a number of action packed games from a variety of developers from Capcom to Konami had already established expectations for what the console was capable of doing and Heroes was almost something of an anachronism among side-scrolling action titans such as Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Castlevania, or The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.
It didn’t stop SSI from bringing over a few of its AD&D games to the console world, however, and Heroes wouldn’t be the last it would use to crack the market with. While it may not be as memorable as their other titles, Heroes of the Lance stands out as an early attempt to bring AD&D into the realm of beat ’em up fun (which Capcom would do nearly a decade later with far better success via their own D&D license, bringing out Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara).
It also stands as another example of the contrasting expectations held by both the console and PC players of their games — both audiences knew what they wanted, and like so many other ports even in today’s market, not every game that may have found success on one side of that fence can pull off the same thing elsewhere. As brave as our Heroes were on PCs, they couldn’t step up to what Arthur and Link had already brought to their fans around the world.