Sir-tech seemed to be on the verge of appearing obsolete. Wizardry V, while it was fun, lacked some of the flashy aesthetics and mechanical advancements that seemed to leave its dungeons behind the competition. Though few could really compare to its character development system, there were examples such as Interplay’s Wasteland proved that others could not only add the same kind of depth to a roster of onscreen names but do it in a wholly different world leaving swords and sorcery behind. And in 1990, D.W. Bradley’s Wizardry VI: Bane of the Cosmic Forge arrived.
It was a dramatic upgrade to Wizardry tossing aside the wire-frame dungeon walls and Castle/Dungeon formula of the last five games. The core elements were still intact — the character classes, stat crunch, six member party, hundreds of pieces of gear, and the tough challenge of puzzles and combat. Now, it was all part of a wide open world filled with forests, swamps, dungeons set in the wilderness, and NPCs that players could converse with using a simple parser.
Bane was also big on story. The opening pages of the manual told a story of a foul king and an equally foul wizard, both evenly matched in ambition and wickedness, who began a quest to conquer the planes 120 years before the start of the game. They were doing a pretty good job at doing that, too, slaying mighty beings and terrifying monsters in due course when they heard word of a relic called the Cosmic Forge. Anything written by the Forge was said to come true.
They found it, used it to call up horrors aplenty, and then thought to themselves how life would be easier without the other half of this partnership. A climactic battle ensued between the two power-mad overlords, and then nothing. The castle has lain abandoned since. No one knows what happened to those within, such as the equally evil Queen, or to the Cosmic Forge. And that’s where your party of brave adventurers enter the picture, working to uncover the mystery and make their way towards one of three endings which was a rarity few games could even boast about at the time regardless of genre.
Character creation was a many-layered engine of creativity with eleven races and fourteen potential classes to assign to them if their stats made the grade. In addition to the crunch, it also randomly generated bonus points to distribute among their attributes. There was also a batch of points that could be used for the skills that each character’s class could become proficient in as they leveled along with a host of spells to pick for the spellcasters.
This would become the the system that would be used in the next two Wizardry games, refining itself over the years, and continuing to make it one of the deepest available in CRPGs. It also had an aggravating shortcoming or two before going through the polish of two more games. Bane made players go through and build a character before allowing them to delete it and try again to re-roll for a new batch of bonus points for their stats. After so many times, this became more a practice of patience than in being any fun. It seemed strange that testers didn’t think this might be an issue.
But it also introduced a number of neat features that set it apart from the rest of its peers. For example, spells aren’t simply cast — players can determine the level of power that they can invest into each one and then let them fly as long as they have the power to do so. Resting in a dungeon allows players to take stock of their party, heal up by resting, and then eventually moving on when satisfied as long as monsters don’t run across them. Thankfully, players can save anywhere which the game actually suggests doing as a smart tactic especially if the party’s ninja or thief aren’t skilled enough to avoid triggering that trapped chest that kills everyone.
Lockpicking was also handled in a unique fashion depending on the character’s skill — random numbers would scroll by and the player would need to hit a key at the right moment to successfully pick it. That is, if the character they picked even had the kind of skill needed to get even a remote chance of doing so. Bashing a door presented two gauges — one representing the ‘strength’ needed to smash it down, and a moving bar rising and falling past that limit requiring the player to hit a key at just the right moment. Other games just did a stat check, but Wizardry wanted to mix things up by turning these two exercises into reflex tests instead.
Wizardry had also had undergone a major first-person facelift — walls were textured, sound effects followed whooshing spells through the air, doors creaked open, crumbling stone covered floors, and monsters screeched and shuffled when encountered. Digitized sounds punched up the atmosphere of the game beyond the animated beasties.
It also had one of the more aggravating pieces of copy protection out there. Copies of the game also came with a multi-page booklet of dark brown paper with black printed text — to make it difficult to photocopy if not strain the eyes — with a series of symbols. On starting the game, players would be challenged to match the symbols against what was in the booklet and type the corresponding words to keep playing. It was also reported that players that unsuccessfully tried to ‘crack’ the game would trigger something else hidden within it making combat impossible. Players could ‘play’ the game, but their characters would suffer from a case of being unable to hit anything in combat while the bad guys mercilessly thumped them into pulp.
D.W. Bradley also expanded on the lessons used in his design for Wizardry V eschewing the 20×20 grid used to confine dungeons into something more organic — dungeons that felt like actual dungeons with corridors stretching out into all directions, rooms with hidden doors and other secrets set in towers and secret sanctums…places that felt lifted straight from fantasy.
And instead of taking place in a multi-level dungeon set beneath a castle once again, Bane spread its dangers through different areas such as a Castle, a forest, and a mine. All filled with wicked things that want to kill you, and will, if you’re as careless as I was in the beginning by forgetting to arm my characters with actual weapons. Players could also roam about without worrying about dropping a valuable piece of kit required for the quest — the game won’t let you which is some degree of saving grace.
This was a fresh, new take on Wizardry, especially in its use of multiple endings which the brutal dungeon of Wizardry IV had also boasted. But in some ways, it was also Sir-tech playing catch up with the rest of its peers. By this point, SSI was already churning out a series of games based on TSR’s IPs such as their Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rules and associated worlds, ready-made with plenty of depth and crunch translated straight from the source and into desktop PCs. FTL had already shaken expectations with their graphically intense, dungeon crawling Dungeon Master series, and Ultima continued to expand its ability to tell stories, flesh out a living world with NPCs, and provide enough role-playing flair to appeal to fans and newcomers both.
Even in Japan, RPG designers were busy with their advances much of which was arguably outside the notice of many Western developers and players at the time. Crea-Tech’s Japan-only Metaru Makkusu (Metal Max) also upended the fantasy fever brought on by Enix’s Dragon Warrior series and Square’s Final Fantasy when it arrived in 1991, though not quite with the same kind of reception that Interplay’s Wasteland had challenged the Western CRPG scene with. It was a post-apocalyptic RPG with multiple endings, open-ended gameplay (even after finishing it), side quests, NPCs, a strong story, and a combat system in which players controlled a party of characters who drove — and upgraded — tanks as they leveled up. Fantasy staples such as swords and wands were replaced with cannons and tank armor.
Bane was also the first Wizardry to leave the aging Apple II hardware behind. Times had changed and the accelerating advance of DOS-based machines, such as IBM PC compatibles, was something that Sir-tech and its cadre of programmers couldn’t ignore.
It was also ported over to a number of other powerful platforms such as the Amiga, PC-98 and FM-Towns in Japan, and eventually, the Japan-only SNES version courtesy of ASCII which boasted improved graphics, sound, and music taking full advantage of the console. It, along with Wizardry VII, would also be further enhanced for release on the Sega Saturn a few years later. Today, however, like most of the other Wizardry titles, it exists in that dusty world between console collections and abandonware on the ‘net.
But to Wizardry fans on PCs at the time, Bane of the Cosmic Forge was a huge leap over what the series had been capable of delivering before on the Apple II. It looked great, sounded great, and wrapped all of those trappings around a core set of mechanics and a challenge that felt as fresh as they were roughly ten years earlier when Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenberg created Dungeons of Despair. Yet the best was still to come, although the greatest threat to the series would come from within.
Little did anyone guess in the early years of the new decade that Sir-tech would eventually find itself struggling to entrench itself as successfully as it did in the 80s. Rivals, such as Origin Systems, had successfully diversified outside of the series that had founded them, eventually branching into a variety of productions such as the iconic Wing Commander series. Or have its hubris checked by newcomers such as Bethesda Softworks who would prove them wrong on what was possible in the first Elder Scrolls game. Japan still had a lot of love for Wizardry, but in the West, the field was getting more crowded — and a lot more interesting for CRPG fans.