Onward to 1988, when SSI acquired the Dungeons & Dragons license and started churning out what would be called the “Gold Box” games. I know a lot of people have fond memories of these, but my first impression here is of a game that really doesn’t want me to play it.
First, it throws up a deliberate obstacle to running the game at all: key-word copy protection. Every time you start up the game, it needs a word from the code wheel included with the docs; I’ve already made a sheet with equivalent information so I don’t have to go fiddling with the wheel. Then come the perverse UI design decisions. In the PC version, the keys that cycle through vertically-arranged menu options are not the up/down keys, but “home” and “end”. I suppose I see where they were coming from here: you have to be able to select characters while in navigation mode, and up/down already has a meaning there. But, well, other games managed to come up with better solutions. And by “better”, I mean ones that didn’t make me read the manual.
Then there was the matter of file access. At first, the game was incapable of reading or writing saves, and would just get stuck asking me repeatedly to “insert disk for drive D:”. I can’t fully blame the game for this, though: it was because I had run the installer directly from Windows at first, but run the game itself from DOSBox (after finding that it had the same video problems as the other games I’ve played lately — I should probably just assume that anything that runs in EGA mode will be affected.) It turns out that the installer had set up some configuration files with absolute paths in them, which became wrong when I used DOSBox’s virtual drives. This was easily corrected by editing the configuration files, but it took me a while to figure out. Anyway, it’s a problem that the previous games this year didn’t share. They just assumed that whatever directory they were run from was the one they should be using.
Anyway, after a lengthy character creation process (lengthy mostly because of the optional icon customization, which I may describe in more detail later), I got into the game, and went to the part of town labeled “Taverns and Shops” on the map in the manual, hoping to buy some basic equipment — just armor and weapons for each character. But there’s no obvious way to tell whether a given door leads to a shop or to a tavern, so I wound up blundering into the latter before the former. I tried to make a quick exit, but the game wouldn’t let me; I got caught in a tavern brawl that wound up killing my entire party. But even with everyone dead, the brawl continued for a long time, preventing me from doing anything else in the game. I’ve heard stories about terrible dungeon masters who play out battles that don’t involve the players at all, essentially treating the players as a passive audience. If that’s part of the D&D experience, SSI captured it well.