Video Games: “Old School” RPGs

I am currently playing and loving Legend of Grimrock 2. I’m embarrassed to say, I bought it after succumbing to a PC Gamer clickbait article of “Great Role Playing Games,” but I haven’t regretted it! I even don’t regret getting 8 hours in and realizing my party build was terrible and restarting. Grimrock is representative of a type of RPG which I have fond memories of – “Old School” since it was a long time ago and I was in grade school.

Wizardry – To this day, seeing this box art gives me a warm fuzzy. Some people have comfort food… I have my games.

In the mid ‘80s I had the fortune to visit with an older boy across the street. In his room was an Apple computer and all around his computer and taped to his walls were several maps meticulously drawn on graph paper with amazing detail and annotations. I asked him about the maps and he booted up a game which I will forever hold dear – you never forget your first! Wizardry!

Wizardry was the best! It was an amazing interpretation of a Dungeons & Dragons party in an epic dungeon crawl and I was hooked from the start. He showed me his party and allowed me to go into the dungeon and explore with his super powerful characters including ninjas, a samurai, and bishops. I eventually could purchase the series for my Tandy 1000 and then my walls were plastered with maps of my adventures – though, as an adult now (some would say), I am very grateful for the auto-map feature of Grimrock 2!

My appetite for games in high school was insatiable and I played a lot (still do!), but some remain my absolute favorites.

Wizardry (1981). One game to rule them all, or at least get the trend started. Don’t get me wrong, I played Adventure on Atari and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin on my Intellivision as a kid and they were great, but they were also very simple and not very representative of the D&D experience I was looking for. Wizardry brought the wonder of exploration and adventure, as well as characters I could name and mourn when they died – Wizardry was pretty brutal and unforgiving of mistakes. It was always good to have a backup character disk! Wizardry brought the dungeon crawl to life and the best part was that you could import your characters from one game to the next!

Bard’s Tale (1985). Bard’s Tale took Wizardy’s concept and added some great art, music, and humor to their dungeon crawl. It borrowed all the best concepts of Wizardry and added its own flair. All three came out in a six-year period and each one consumed dozens of hours of my time, and probably contributed to me being a B student. Totally worth it!

Starflight (1986). Starflight was a game changer for videogame RPGs in my opinion because developers threw off the shackles of fantasy and jumped into science fiction. I loved it! Starflight allowed me to be a starship captain with a crew in an unexplored galaxy full of interesting new alien races, planets to explore, and enemy starships to blow up! Starflight II was an even better game. Years later, in Mass Effect, as Shepperd explored the galaxy in his starship and planets in his ATV, I felt like I was reliving the “glory days” of Starflight.

Wasteland (1988). Holy crap! Post-apocalyptic, party-based RPG with zombies and machine guns! Yes, please! Wasteland made quite an impression on me and to this day its spiritual successor series (Fallout) is still my favorite.

Honorable Mentions:

Ultima. While Wizardry was often self-contained adventures, the Ultima series gave the feeling of an open world with an amazing amount of lore and adventure. I didn’t play it as much as the Wizardry series, but thought it deserved mention.

Dungeons & Dragons Series. OK, yes, I loved Pool of Radiance (1988) and Curse of the Azure Bonds (1989), but honestly, other than being canon D&D, they were just jumping on the money train and ultimately forgettable experiences. Fun at the time, but not lasting memories.

So, those are my favorite “old school” RPGs. The cutoff for me is 1990, when I graduated from high school and entered the Army. Of course, I had the fortune of growing up at this pivotal time in computer game development. I love my modern RPG experiences like Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fallout, and Elder Scrolls Skyrim, but sometimes I want to feel the wonder of the games of the past. And right now, that game is Legend of Grimrock 2.

Those are my favorites – I look forward to hearing about yours!

Movie Review: John Wick 2

(No Spoiler Review)

I am a guy and I grew up in the eighties.  That meant that I grew up loving action movies.  Arnold Swarzennegger and Bruce Willis movies were the films I enjoyed the most.  Over the top gunplay, witty dialogue, and lots of explosions were the rule of the day and those films delivered.  One of my favorite memories was skipping school and going out with a friend to see Total Recall.  I paid for it but so worth it.

Then I grew up and stopped loving action movies.  As my tastes got more sophisticated, I began to realize the vapid nature of many of the ‘stories’ and the physical impossibility of many of the actions I was seeing on the screen.  As weapons became part of my life, I started to see the patent ridiculousness of the firearms usage.  Worst of all was the sameness of every story I saw.  In the middle of explosions and gunplay in lieu of story, I paradoxically realized I was bored.  Because I was bored I stopped watching.

Then I saw the first John Wick and was floored.  Finally, an action movie with style.  The story was minimalistic but every scene was shot with loving care.  Keanu Reeves, a guy with much presence and limited range finally found the perfect role – an antisocial killer quietly grieving his lost wife.  And the gunplay – I was thrilled to see a movie with realistic magazine changes, firing technique, and authentic fight scenes.

I'm thinking he's back.
I’m thinking he’s back.

I pleased to say John Wick 2 delivers more of the same while fleshing out the mythos.  The first movie introduced a world of contracted assassins and a baroque system of sanctuary, obligation, and a code of honor among the killers of the world.  It didn’t go into much detail but it was there and the second movie expands on it in major ways.  Instead of a personal struggle, you quickly realize there is a larger story of dueling assassins attempting to either save their system or tear it down.  It is an added layer which elevates the movie.

The strange thing though is how JW2 approaches the new layer – it doesn’t talk about it much.  The director keeps the focus on John’s journey and is content to let the larger story inhabit the background where it can be seen and heard but not overpower the real reason why people came – to see John Wick kick ass.

It is clinched to describe well-choreographed fight scenes as ‘ballet’.  I rather think of the scenes here as opera – an intricate stage play of drama, physicality, and setting where every single shot is packed with interesting details, lighting, and dense with background information.  The technical aspects of gunplay and hand to hand fighting are as exceptional as they were in the first but the increased focus of luscious sets and larger drama create a tapestry which was fascinating to behold.

I won’t spoil the movie at all except to say you need to see the first movie if you haven’t seen it.  This is clearly a middle movie and the ending is a cliffhanger for the expected third part of the projected trilogy.  As for me, I don’t think I have changed my opinion on action movies as a whole – but I have all the time in the world for this story and I highly recommend you make time for this film.

TV Review: The Expanse Season 2 Premiere

<Minor spoilers ahead>

Last year, SyFy channel brought James S.A. Corey’s science fiction series, ‘The Expanse’ to television.  ‘Expanse’ is a very popular science fiction book series which just completed its sixth novel in a project series of nine books.  As far as science fiction goes, it isn’t particularly deep – but it is fun and cinematic and filled with charismatic characters cracking one liners as they fight a political and corporate conspiracy which soon explodes into an intergalactic adventure.  SyFy channel, looking to finally find a replacement for its acclaimed ‘Battlestar Galactica’, could rest easy as the show gained positive buzz and had a very successful first season.


Season two premiered this week with two episodes and I’m happy to say the high-quality acting and sequences from the first season are back.    Rather than a full in-depth review, here are some thoughts on what I saw:

  • The chemistry of the crew of the Rocinante continues to be a high point of the show. There is now a love interest between Holden and Naomi and Alex continues to be good comic relief without being immature or annoying – the guy pilots a starship, he isn’t an idiot. But the best character continues to be the sociopathic Amos.  It is clear the man is a killer whose only anchor appears to be Naomi.  How long will that situation remain stable?
  • Miller continues to be brilliant. The death of Julie Mao has clearly put him officially in the ‘no fucks given’ category.  His actions in the explosive ending of the episode was pretty much the biggest mic drop moment of the entire series.
  • These first two episodes are where the politics of the Solar System really come into play and I thought the show knocked it out of the park by making the Martian-Earth stand off over Phoebe riveting. Chrisjen Avasarala and Fred Johnson were good last season but it is clear they are now going to be center stage in either preventing or starting a war.
  • The introduction of the Bobbie Draper and the Martian Marines is a good counterpoint. Bobbie was pivotal in the books and it appears they are making her a bit more militant than in the books.  The show so far has kept close to the books but I’m curious if they diverge a bit here.
  • The final action sequence of the second episode, the assault on the space station and the accompanying space battle were extremely well known. The Expanse has been great about giving us a different and perhaps more realistic form of space battle and they really delivered here with the cat and mouse game between the Rocinante and the Stealth Ship.

The third episode airs later this week and I look forward to seeing the political and interpersonal fallout from the space station raid.  Bottom line:  It looks like this show isn’t going to have a sophomoric slump and if you have been waiting for a great science fiction show to pop up, this is one you should start watching.