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Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (NES) artwork

Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord (NES) review

"You’ll open the battle against a shadowy figure with an vague name like “unseen entity” and have to wait a turn or two before the foe’s real name is revealed. And that can be dangerous, as this “unseen entity” could be a Murphy’s Ghost, which primarily exists to give young parties a high-experience foe weak enough for them to beat without much risk OR it could be any of many undesirable level-draining undead."

Upon replaying classic dungeon crawler Wizardry, I made a shocking revelation -- of the 10 floors that make up its dungeon, half of them have no actual purpose other than to confound and decimate players with cunningly-devised traps and debilitating monster attacks.

I’d never really realized that back in the day when I first played the NES port of the game (Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord), but during a recent revisiting of it I quickly figured that players who know where to go will avoid a good number of its more sadistic challenges. On the other hand, novices to Wizardry will likely experience more than their fair share of trials and tribulations.

After creating their six-character party (consisting of standard RPG classes like fighter, priest, thief and mage), players are given a simple quest: descend through the 10 maze-like floors of the Proving Grounds and defeat the evil wizard Werdna. Offering assistance are a handful of businesses, including a weapon shop for equipment purchasing and selling, an inn to recover hit and magic points and a temple to take care of adventurers who met a dire fate. And then, there’s the dungeon.

It won’t take long to figure out it won’t be a quick-n-easy job to take out Werdna. A first-level party is pitifully weak. Fighters are lucky to connect once for low damage per turn, while the magic-using characters only have one or two uses of a couple weak spells available to them before they become completely worthless.

Therefore, for a good amount of time, the typical strategy is to descend into the dungeon, trigger a few easy battles with slimes and kobalds in the rooms closest to the exit and quickly flee to town. As you kill monsters, party members will gain levels, magic-users get more spells and the money obtained from battles will give them better weapons and armor.

After a while of this, you’ll be ready to explore the rest of the first floor, as well as the second. On these two floors are a number of keys and items used to help get to an elevator to the fourth floor. Here, you can fight a brutal battle (hope you’ve been level-building....) to access an item that lets you ride another elevator to the ninth floor.

You’ll only need to spend roughly five seconds here (although it’s advisable you hang around long enough to gain a level or 10), as right next to where the elevator deposits you is a chute that drops your party on the 10th and final floor. Now, all you have to do is navigate this place, kill Werdna and escape. And, by avoided the third, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth floors, you’ll hardly see any of the damaging pits and other traps present in Wizardry. Easy as pie, huh? Well, not exactly. Despite being ancient (the original Apple II version came out in 1981, the NES port six years later), this game has a lot of little tricks up its sleeve. Like....

Party members might not get along. Characters may be aligned good, neutral or evil. Good and evil characters will refuse to be partners. Making things more complicated, you’ll occasionally run into groups of friendly monsters. Choosing to fight them can turn good characters evil, while letting them escape may have the opposite effect -- which can create an undesirable situation where you leave the Proving Grounds and realize you’ve just lost the services of a kickass character because he’s now good and refuses to team up with your evil-aligned party. Of course you could just make everyone neutral, since nothing changes their alignment, but some of the game’s elite classes like lord and ninja can’t easily (or at all) be accessed by neutral folks.

Some monsters really bring the pain. Human enemies have the same abilities that your guys do. That means mages will decimate you with spells and, far worse, ninjas can decapitate (ie: instantly kill) party members with successful hits. Certain undead foes can drain one or two levels if they hit you. It takes a goodly amount of time to gain levels towards the end of the game -- losing ANY of that progress utterly sucks.

And you don’t always know what you’re fighting. Unless you cast a certain spell when you enter the dungeon, it sometimes takes a little while for the true identity of a monster to be given. You’ll open the battle against a shadowy figure with an vague name like “unseen entity” and have to wait a turn or two before the foe’s real name is revealed. And that can be dangerous, as this “unseen entity” could be a Murphy’s Ghost, which primarily exists to give young parties a high-experience foe weak enough for them to beat without much risk OR it could be any of many undesirable level-draining undead.

And winning a battle isn’t always enough. It’s a rare occasion when you get gold and/or items for killing monsters with no strings attached. More often than not, you have to disarm a potentially damaging trap to get the goodies. And any items included with the gold need to be identified or you’ll be at risk of having a character equip a cursed piece of armor, which is pretty expensive to remedy.

Oh! And you better be pretty damn careful with that teleportation spell! Sure, it’s a handy piece of magic that’s capable of taking you virtually anywhere in the dungeon instantly. But what happens if you teleport somewhere where you CAN’T go? Well, your party will be embedded in a wall and lost forever. Sorry about your luck and better luck with the new party you’ll have to create from scratch.

Wizardry might be a pretty primitive game by today’s standards, but it still delivers the goods. While it’s a pretty simplistic dungeon-crawler on the surface, this game’s engine delivers a surprising amount of depth, giving it a decent amount of replay value. I’d look at this game as an enduring classic if there was some real purpose to more than half the dungeon, but it’s still a pretty fun game to revisit every few years.

overdrive's avatar
Staff review by Rob Hamilton (November 30, 2007)

Rob Hamilton is the official drunken master of review writing for Honestgamers.

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