Once upon a time there was a reviewer who loved adventures but hated role-playing games. Then he discovered The Bard's Tale on his [name of other computer deleted] and changed his mind. Now here it is in its 8-bit Speccy version and it's great to see that hardly anything has been lost in the conversion. Well, the graphics aren't as good, obviously, and gameplay isn't quite as smooth, but it's still a terrific job.
The game starts in the Adventurers' Guild in a country town called Skara Brae. This used to be a peaceful town, 'till evil creatures infiltrated the place and the odious Mangar froze the surrounding lands with a spell of Eternal Winter. Cut off from the outside world, with the local police disappeared, naturally it falls to a group of ragged but intrepid adventurers to save Skara Brae and defeat Mangar.
The Bard's Tale fills both sides of two cassettes, and so it should with 16 levels of dungeon maze to explore. You load the core program first, followed by whichever level you've reached, and then load in your saved band of adventurers to take up the fight. There's a bit of fiddling around, and jotting down numbers from the tape counter, but it's well worth it. There's also an Editor program that allows you to swop characters around from one group to another - like dead ones for live ones! To get you started there's a default group of characters known as the A Team, so if you're impatient you can be straight out of the Adventurers' Guild and onto the streets of Skara Brae with these.
Top-left of the screen is a graphic of your location, or one of the characters, or one of the many monsters lurking around. Top-right tells you where you are, or gives you information, or tells you what's happening, or allows you to trade weapons, spells and so on. And across the bottom you get the details of your party, giving each character's name, Armour Class (level of protection), Hit Points (in total), Condition (Hit Points remaining), Spell Points and Class. There are 10 different character classes, but the last two (Sorcerer and Wizard) can only be gained by working your way up through the ranks. Otherwise you must try to choose a well-balanced party of six from the warriors, rogues, hunters, bards, magicians and so on at your disposal.
So far it sounds very like any other ordinary RPG of the type I've never liked, so why is this one special? I think the design of the game is the answer. Although there is a 24-page manual in the package you don't have to wade through it all before you can put your fingers near the keyboard. You can grasp the basics very quickly and be playing (and probably getting killed off) in no time at all. The more you play the more you learn, and a fair chunk of the game is menu-driven, though not so much that it takes all the fun out of playing.
A map of Skara Brae is provided so you can find your way around, but obviously you're on your own when it comes to the dungeons. As soon as I was out of the Guild, I was attacked by six Gnomes. Would I fight or run? Why fight, of course. Gnomes? No problem! I soon saw them off, but then I couldn't read what my reward was as the message went off the screen too quickly. I'd earned 80 experience points and... hang on, how many pieces of gold was that? Too late, t'message had gone.
With my gold I went into Ye Olde Equipment Shoppe and saw that they sold everything from a torch for five gold pieces to plate armour at 700. My bank balance didn't quite run to that, and they didn't take plastic, so I bought the best I could and it was out onto the streets again, kicking in the doors of buildings and watching out for marauding monsters.
Suddenly I was faced with six Kobolds - who looked remarkably like Gnomes to me. Oh well, that's one way to convert a 16-bit game to 8-bit. Whatever they were, they fell to the might of my merry band. I was just getting cocky when out of the shadows came seven Barbarians. Gulp! They looked mean and nasty. Fight or run? Ahem... run for it, lads! Oh dear, sometimes you can't run even if you want to. Splat! End of party. Back to the Guild and start again.
A few hours later, I was still wandering the streets of Skara Brae, looking, in on the inn, the temples and the Review Board, and slowly building up the strength of my party, discovering which creatures you can beat (like spiders) and which are best avoided (like skeletons). Somewhere in the city are the entrances to the dungeons, which take a lot of finding, but (in the immortal words of David Frost) the clues are there.
Can you find Harkyn's Castle or the Mad God's Catacombs? And if you can, will you wish you hadn't? Don't ask me, I'm stuck half-way down a sewer at the moment, though if you bung a fiver to Electronic Arts you can have a copy of The Bard's Tale Cluebook. And I warn you that more volumes of The Bard's Tale are on the way. Gordon Bennett, This could be a lifetime's occupation!
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