Let me just get this out of the way; I’ve only ever played three Gold Box games, and two of them aren’t going to count for most gamers. Here’s my list:
- Buck Rogers: Matrix Cubed
- Champions of Krynn
Now, someone’s wailing and gnashing their teeth, since Hillsfar is never included in the master lists of Gold Box games. However, it’s part of Collection Two of the Forgotten Realms Archive available at GoG, and since every other game in that set is Gold Box – and since you can import/export characters from Hillsfar between Curse of the Azure Bonds and Pool of Radiance, I’m leaving it in my list. Even though I played in on Nintendo, and even though it’s a series of crappy mini-games.
Let’s talk about D&D games on the NES. Comparatively, there weren’t a lot of D&D games released for the Nintendo, with all but Hillsfar being set in the Dragonlance campaign setting. Heroes of the Lance and Dragons of Flame were crappier versions of Zelda II, and DragonStrike was a flight sim on hardware that just couldn’t take it. DragonStrike at least pushed the envelope and made for a fascinating idea of a game; at the bottom rung, Hillsfar. Stripped away from its primary purpose of leveling up characters between Pool of Radiance and Azure Bonds, it had no engaging gameplay to work with and was universally panned. It wasn’t the worst game I ever rented; it is barely beaten out by a copy of Hatris that refused to work in my NES.
Champions of Krynn was actually my first exposure to fantasy gaming and through that, fantasy literature; if not playing it but reading about it. It wasn’t my first exposure to Dungeons & Dragons, since I had been consuming comic books at an alarming rate for the past 6 months and was I very familiar with TSR’s D&D games and Forgotten Realms settings. Literally every Marvel comic from 1987 through 1991 had D&D ads on the back. Also I had see 3 episodes of the cartoon and, like most children, remembered only the intro.
In the winter of 1989, I saw a magazine (Computer Games or Video Games and Computer Entertainment, probably) with that big splash image of the Heroes of the Lance riding away from a floating castle surrounded by dragons. How was I not supposed to react to that? So many questions presented itself; who were these people? Were they escaping from the castle? Did the castle just rip itself out of the earth or was it always flying? Are the dragons protecting it or attacking?
So I bought the issue, even though:
- We didn’t have a PC, or Apple II or C-64 or Amiga, so I couldn’t even play any of the games mentioned in the magazine;
- The main article wasn’t even on Champions of Krynn but whatever Leisure Suit Larry had come out that year (maybe it was 3? It’s the one where you play as Patti for part of the game);
- The article on Krynn was essentially just a series of screenshots spoiling the end of the game.
Not the greatest magazine.
But Krynn led me to looking at fantasy NES games, like Faxandu and Dragon Warrior, which lead to books by Tolkien and T.H. White, and then things went downhill as I started reading game/movie tie-in novels, like the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Forgotten Realms, and of course the Dragonlance Chronicles. Still, I hadn’t actually played a Gold Box game at this point. But I knew one day I’d track down Champions of Krynn and play the game I had dreamt about for years.
In college I picked up a used copy of Martix Cubed at an electronics consignment shop, along with the Tex Murphy game Mean Streets. They ran just fine on the pokey 486 I was using for schoolwork, but I found neither game particularly engaging for long periods of time. It was a disappointment for me, as I knew Matrix Cubed was the same engine and developers as Krynn, but I found the gameplay to be a slog and not compelling when I could walk down the hall and get into a rollicking Warcraft II match. I mean, I could play as peasants! Why would I want to move 6 blocky creatures around a map and fire rockets everywhere when I could cut wood? I had such strange priorities back then.
It wasn’t until years later (and by years later I mean last summer) that I finally played (and beat!) Champions of Krynn. I enjoyed it, even though I had the ending ruined for me 27 years earlier. It was what I wanted from an EGA era computer RPG that focused on combat, and in the end it only cost me $2.99. I was not disappointed, 8/10 would play again (and probably will).
I knew there wasn’t a chance for Krynn to live up to my expectations. And it wasn’t completely a pure playthrough, as the Gold Box Companion made parts of the game far easier than it would have been for 11 year old me. In the end, I managed to see the exact same screenshots that were burned into my brain as a child, with my human Knight, half-elf ranger, a trio of elves (cleric/mage, fighter/mage, mage) and dwarf fighter/thief. Absolutely I did not pick a kender.
Next Time: We go back to 1998 when I finally play a pen and paper RPG correctly! Spoiler – it does not go well!