BioWare’s Baldur’s Gate wasn’t the first AD&D PC game set on the Sword Coast. In 1991, SSI’s and Beyond Software’s (who would later be better known as Stormfront Studios) Gateway to the Savage Frontier took players there as the start of a new Gold Box series set in the Forgotten Realms. Like the series that had begun with Pool of Radiance and Champions of Krynn, Gateway’s mechanics were a carbon copy of its peers with a solid adaptation of AD&D’s 2nd edition rules.
This new start takes place in the Forgotten Realms, one of TSR’s most popular settings, turning to the Savage Frontier’s forests and mountains between the Sword Coast to the west and the deserts of Anauroch to the east. In this adventure, the player’s party of adventurers had successfully finished a contract as caravan escorts only to be drugged asleep and then robbed at the local tavern. Starting out with only a small cache of coin and the a few spells, the game takes the more direct approach to start a fresh faced party off in a new series.
For anyone familiar with the Gold Box series of games, SSI recycled the engine built around Pool of Radiance in 1988 into a score of titles over the next five years. As a result, developing new CRPGs making the most of the legendary AD&D license almost became routine in those days. Sometimes two or three AD&D based CRPGs would come out in one year alone since engine re-use allowed artists and designers to focus more on building adventures than having to re-invent tech every time.
Races, classes, and statistical crunch familiar to AD&D fans were represented in every title right next to the monsters they would be thrashing. An Adventurer’s Guide broke the world down with a large helping of fiction and a separate manual focused on the commands and in describing the actual GUI. Back then, thick manuals and documents were expected with your PC games especially if it was something like a flight sim or a CRPG. They also doubled as a convenient form of copy protection, as Gateway’s did, in quizzing the player on finding a specific word on a specific line at a specific page.
Exploring the world was handled in a first-person window in the GUI with grid-based movement. The six member party was listed in another window with as negative an armor class as they could muster and text descriptions outside of those referenced in the Adventurer’s Manual specifically written for every Gold Box title fleshed out important scenes. Up to two NPCs could even join up, for a maximum party size of eight adventurers.
Magic was based on the Vancian system promoted through AD&D’s rule set — casters needed to reload their mental clip with spells they knew through memorization in camp. Experience packed onto characters could only level them up through training sessions, encumbrance kept individuals from walking away with entire treasuries in their backpack, and there were puzzles that relied on the player’s wits as much as the party did on their planning.
The combat system was unique to the series and really demonstrated just how well SSI knew their tactical craft. The developers’ bread and butter had always been deeply strategic titles from Cold War what-ifs to Civil War re-enactments with each battle sold as a separate game. After all, SSI stood for Strategic Simulations Inc. for good reason.
Whenever combat would break out, the game would switch to an isometric view with walls, halls, and open areas representing the party and enemy like miniatures on a slightly tilted board. Players controlled movement (with an eye on how much movement each character had available), could flank the enemy, had to make allowances for AOE attacks like fireballs which could also fry friendlies, and a number of other considerations such as ensuring that the mages weren’t in front of the fighters. It was a great system.
Gateway sent players into a vast area in Savage Frontier’s overland map with a number of cities, side quests, and special moments in which to decide either to aid someone or not. The main quest eventually tied them into uncovering a plot by Zhentarim conspirators — Zhentil Keep was a city of dark foreboding power in the Forgotten Realms — to conquer the Savatge Frontier.
Eventually, the quest centered around the recovery of an ancient set of statuettes of incredible power that had been used as a super-weapon in the distant past. Eventually, the party and allies face off against the Zhentarim responsible for the trouble and defeat them — only to see them weirdly defeated again in the ending cutscene which was a little anticlimactic. But at least the game allowed players to explore the Frontier for anything else that they might have missed by leaving it open ended.
The game was released on a handful of platforms — the IBM PC running MS-DOS, the Amiga, and was one of the few games to bother coming out for the C64 at this point. However, the port also had a few issues such as on the Amiga where it was reportedly a slow performer with long load times. Critics also didn’t give the game that much of a pass, either. It wasn’t a bad game, a competent Gold Box game, but that’s as far as it wanted to push. Even the ending wasn’t much to write home about especially when compared to the kind of visual icing that Westwood gave the one in Eye of the Beholder II. However, despite these issues, it performed remarkably well in the market with sales strong enough to encourage a sequel in 1992.
Time hasn’t been kind to the SSI/TSR catalog. Like many of its fellow Gold Box titles, Gateway to the Savage Frontier was eventually left to its abandonware fate on the ‘net. If you had DOSBox, though, it might be worth tracking down if you feel the need to play through every Gold Box game. They’re all floating out there.
A sequel, Treasures of the Savage Frontier, came out in 1992 but that’s where the series had ended. That same year would slo see the last of the Gold Box titles ever released with ’93 bringing in a construction set for players to build their own adventures using the ancient engine. By then, Origin Systems’ Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss and id’s Wolfenstein 3D would be sparking a 3D revolution.