From the pages of the past, games of yesteryear – Wizardry: The Return of Werdna

Sir-Tech’s ads, like the artwork for their boxes, were relatively simple. And if any game could be considered a love letter to their fans, the Return of Werdna easily fits the bill.

WARNING: EXPERT LEVEL SCENARIO!
The return of Werdna is an EXPERT level scenario for experienced Wizardry players ONLY. Novices will rapidly become totally frustrated – this game is VERY difficult! First-time Wizardry players should play the first scenario, Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, before playing any other Wizardry game.

– warning printed on the back of the game box

Four years would pass before another Wizardry would hit the scene. In 1987, Wizardry: The Return of Werdna was finally unleashed as one of the toughest CRPGs ever made. It was as if the series’ cadre of elite fans had gathered together to create a game that only they could enjoy and then convinced Sir-Tech to market it.

The proof seemed to be in the credits alone. Roe Adams III, who did a writeup on Wizardry’s cultural effect in an issue of Softline covering the first game’s wild popularity, had joined Sir-Tech a few years earlier and now flexed his chops as the designer on Werdna’s comeback. Playtesters included Computer Gaming Worlds’ longtime resident adventure and CRPG expert, Scorpia, along with Brenda Brathwaite (now Brenda Romero) who would go on to be one of the designers on the very last “Sir-Tech” Wizardry to come out of North America — Wizardry 8.

It also had a fantastic twist — you were the bad guy. In addition to the nifty text-and-still intro, the “manual” doubled as a short story giving insight into Werdna’s twisted evil. That’s because Werdna, the wizard that had caused trouble for players in the very first Wizardry and who the Mad Overlord, Trebor, had sent them after, is back and he’s angry.

It turns out that he wasn’t killed. His indestructible body only lay in a deep trance, so it was taken into a vast, underground ruin converted over into a prison and sealed within. Traps, monsters, and even other adventurers, patrol every corridor and protected every means of egress. But after some time, Werdna finally awoke.

Weakened and without the cosmic powers that had coursed through his fingers, it’s this decrepit shell that players will have to work with in order to gather their strength, summon monsters for aid, and escape. There’s also the matter of getting back that amulet, too. And Trebor’s ghost also wants a word.

It’s the first stand-alone Wizardry since Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord in 1981. At the same time, it’s also a game that only veterans could appreciate.

Even though it didn’t require a party from a previous Wizardry as the last two games did (Knight of Diamonds and Legacy of Llylgamyn), it did require fan familiarity to get the most out of the experience. The package even included a warning sheet telling players that if they haven’t played any of the previous Wizardry games to go back and do so, at least with the first game — Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. But if they want to play the game anyway, suggest purchasing the manual for Proving Grounds from them for $12.95 for it to describe the mechanics and its list of spells.

The game even came with a “Mordor Charge” (Don’t leave Boltac’s without it) credit-card like extra complete with a membership number with the dragon design used on the cover of Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord on black plastic. It promised things such as:

  • 10% off all Wizardry accessories
  • a Wizardry poster shipped free (A $5.00 value)
  • Use the card to meet the Wizardry authors at events
  • Many benefits for ongoing promotions

And of course, a few sheets of Wizardry-letterhead graph paper — or “Map Plotting Aid” — to help follow those corridors.

Even with that advantage, the game billed as the Fourth Wizardry Scenario tested even the most veteran of Wizardry’s fans with three different endings, the best of which was reserved only for those who could figure it out and survive to the end to tell Sir-Tech the tale via a mail-in card for the code successful players would receive. Based on how many keystrokes they used in the game and the best path taken to determine what ending they would get, the game would score players accordingly. And only the best would be recognized by the game, and a Sir-Tech certificate mailed out to them, as the “Grand Master Adventurer”.

Think you were the best at playing Wizardry? Sir-Tech wanted you to prove it by sending in a special code shown at the end of the game.

As Werdna, players don’t get a party of adventurers — they have to make do with whatever they can summon if they can survive long enough to find the pentagram on each level. Into those player slots will go the “groups” of monsters summoned to do his bidding, from regular thugs to ruthless, life stealing, undead. After all, you ARE the bad guy. Finding a pentagram also “levels” Werdna allowing him to pull from the batch of 12 monsters available on that level — or the ones below it if he’s further along — as well as add hit points to his pool. He’ll also get some healing in the bargain. He can’t stack his ranks with two of the same kind of beastie, but there’s plenty to go around to fill the ranks. And his spell repertoire will also level up with every pentagram found.

One feature that was unique to this Wizardry was that the enemies you would face were also adventurers created by other players. Remember that $15.00 service fee for resetting the password on characters in case you forgot yours? Sir-Tech may have done more than just reset it. There’s no easy way to tell just how many actually paid up for this service, but apparently, it was a lot if it boasted around 500 such characters roaming the ten, themed levels of Werdna’s prison, out to make sure he doesn’t return. And some of them even have items needed to solve puzzles.

Encounters were also limited — kill everything in a level, and you were relatively free to explore it. But save the game and come back to it later, or leave the level and return (which some puzzles may make you do anyway), everything respawns. It’s something that a number of other games have also done, before and since, to varying degrees whether it was a hack ‘n slash like SSI’s Gemstone Warrior where everything remained dead or, more recently, From Software’s Dark Souls which had no problem in bringing all of those horrors back if you left the game for a break. And then there was Trebor’s ghost. If he gets to you, it’s all the way back to the first level you go.

The Return of Werdna would also go head to head with Richard Garriott’s Ultima IV in the same year, and both would tackle the sticky issue of ethics with contradictory goals for the main character: playing as a villain in one, or the heroic Avatar seeking to be an exemplar of the Virtues in Britannia. Yet Wizardry’s Werdna doesn’t go out of his way to torture kittens or club baby seals — it keeps him focused on slaying ‘monsters’ which turn out to be the virtual personas of other players for an added philosophical twist.

The Return of Werdna was the ultimate challenge for Wizardry fans that had been there since the beginning, drawing on their years of experience with its many monsters knowing their weaknesses and strengths inside and out, ability to negotiate their way through the dungeons with an inkling of what traps may be waiting, and how to strategize their party. Werdna turned much of that on its head with  risky design choices catering only to that clientele, a sentiment underlined by a warning included in the box and a Mordor Charge card offer that only die-hards could appreciate.

The Return of Werdna wasn’t ported to as many platforms as its predecessors were — probably because of its unapologetic difficulty leaning so much on players’ experience with the previous games. Unlike the first three games, it didn’t get a console release in Japan although it did come out for their PCs, such as the Fujitsu Micro 7 (FM-7), like the others have. Today, it exists much like the others do — either in compilations that had come out later but largely as abandonware.

Yet the most notable thing about the game, for me at least, is that it allowed players to actually play as a boss monster. It was radically different from the heroic tropes used by countless others and something still rarely visited even today. Titles such as Bullfrog’s Dungeon Keeper in ’97 and 2007’s Overlord from Triumph Studios would tackle the same theme in their own way, but it continued to be an approach that a scarce few titles would even explore.

By 1987, the CRPG market had dramatically changed. Four years passed and while Werdna’s challenges were new, the engine was looking more than a little aged against the new upstarts that were also beginning to make their marks such as Bard’s Tale I + II from Interplay and Jon Van Caneghem’s Might & Magic I + II not to mention SSI’s own CRPG offerings on top of Origin Systems’ Ultima series. FTL’s Dungeon Master would also wow players with its first-person look and blob combat in the same year, paving the way for games such as Westwood’s Eye of the Beholder. And all of them didn’t hold themselves above players, new or old, from joining the fun. Except maybe the first Might & Magic which could be rough on anyone.

But it was clear that the competition was getting a lot better at this dungeon crawling business. Other designers, much like how Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenberg were inspired so many years earlier by ideas such as those in Dungeons & Dragons, would also throw their own two cents into the genre in trying to raise the bar their way. Sir-Tech still stood out for how they had shaped the genre with the early chapters of Wizardry, but it was also becoming clear that their members-only clubhouse had also given rivals the opportunity to invite so many others to adventure in places offering more than wireframe dungeon walls and keyboard-counted move scores.

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4 responses to “From the pages of the past, games of yesteryear – Wizardry: The Return of Werdna

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