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Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Pool of Radiance (NES) artwork

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Pool of Radiance (NES) review

"Pool of Radiance is an unusual game in that it has entirely fallen from the perspective of the average gamer, but still enjoys an almost legendary status with those familiar with the name. Among the right audience, it will still be brought up with the same type of reverence that NES owners talk about Super Mario Bros 3 or Zelda acolytes discuss Ocarina of Time. It wasn't just another RPG or a good RPG, it was the RPG that defined the late 80s and the first successfu..."

Pool of Radiance is an unusual game in that it has entirely fallen from the perspective of the average gamer, but still enjoys an almost legendary status with those familiar with the name. Among the right audience, it will still be brought up with the same type of reverence that NES owners talk about Super Mario Bros 3 or Zelda acolytes discuss Ocarina of Time. It wasn't just another RPG or a good RPG, it was the RPG that defined the late 80s and the first successful implementation of the D&D license on computers. Its engine (the “Gold Box” engine) spawned fourteen games in total, including such auspicious titles as Champions of Krynn and the original Neverwinter Nights on AOL. Pool of Radiance itself was released in some form on six different platforms. All of this happened within a four year period, making Pool of Radiance, arguably one of the most prolific and influential titles ever made.

The NES version is the final and most divergent instance of the game. Numerous features were removed or radically changed to accommodate the tastes of console players accustomed to comparatively simple RPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy that came out of Japan. Many of these changes streamline or simplify the experience, including a brand new interface, music composed exclusively for the NES version, new graphics, new dialogue, the removal of the adventurer's journal (a physical book that players of the computer version frequently needed to reference), and quite a bit more.

The most important changes are those that affect gameplay, namely the rebalanced difficulty. Random encounters are far less frequent and include far less enemies, and bosses have been rescaled. The various types of coins (platinum, silver, etc) from computer versions has been replaced by a generic “gold” amount, bow and sling weapons now require no ammunition to function, and the radius of spells is displayed during battles rather than assuming that the player knows the width of their devastating fireballs.

These changes, however, do not alter the fact that Pool of Radiance is very much in (or rather the defining element of) the computer RPG tradition. Players expecting the dancing goblins, fast battles, and low difficulty of Final Fantasy are going to be very surprised – and if your eyes buggered out a bit when I just called Final Fantasy easy, you are going to die in Pool of Radiance repeatedly. Your party of five adventurers will often face unconquerable odds, will max out at level 8, and will require 1,000 gold each and every time they want to train to gain a level. If you don't have the patience to sit by your NES for 30 minutes rerolling your fighter's stats so that he has 18 (00) strength and 18 constitution, you're going to be very frustrated with this game. Furthermore, players will be confronted with archaic and often counter-intuitive AD&D rules like THAC0, perma-death, and spells that can only be cast once per day, and you will need the manual or a guide from the Internet if you don't understand why equipping better armour actually lowers your armour rating.

And despite many of the improvements made to the game – and rebalancing the difficulty was something that computer versions of Pool of Radiance desperately needed – several changes that have been introduced can be major detractions. Randomly generated creature lairs in the wilderness have been completely removed, as has been the ability to customize the avatars and icons that represent your characters in battle. Furthermore, the rewritten dialogue is significantly shorter than the original script, and already simple puzzles are rendered inadequate to any competent human mind thanks to the simplified interface.

But any flaws that Pool of Radiance may possess can easily be overlooked by the quality and quantity of roleplaying it provides. The sense of adventure was unprecedented at the time and is still unmatched by anything else you can find on the aged NES. Even today, few games are made that posses the simple freedom in which Pool of Radiance excels. There is really nothing quite like being dropped into a fantasy city and being told to run free to your heart's content. The entire game is based on commissions that can are received from the city's clerk, ranging from clearing the slums of orcs (and two trolls!!) to defeating a kobold army to kicking the ass of a certain dragon.

And if you are looking for a sense of satisfaction from an RPG, you will find none better than this one. When two hits can kill even the hardiest fighter, when you are frequently outnumbered 3-1 in even random encounters, the feeling of accomplishment when you stumble upon a treasure chest and a mass of experience and money is hard to describe. This is perhaps an inherent quality of low-level Dungeons & Dragons adventures, but it would be remiss to say that Pool of Radiance didn't do it better than most.

And while it certainly isn't an adventure to be taken by individuals without patience or a tolerance of D&D, it is without question a sterling success at what it is trying to do. For people who have played a computer version, the NES version is different enough to satisfy as an excuse to break out the 'long swords +1' one more time; for anyone that enjoyed Bioware's and Black Isle's RPGs, know that Pool of Radiance was the prolific title that directly inspired the gameplay and quest-based progress of Baldur's Gate and many others. That's not why you should play it though; you should play it because, despite the dust and the obvious wrinkles, Pool of Radiance is still a fantastic roleplaying game.

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Community review by dagoss (October 30, 2008)

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overdrive posted October 30, 2008:

Kickin' review there. You did a good job of not only expressing the differences between this version and the PC version, but also the differences between this game and the average NES console RPG. If someone's not familiar with the PC version and reads your line about how fights are simplified here.....and then looks at the second screenshot to see a party fighting two ogres, three orc captains, four hobgoblins and seven orcs (and, yes, the game's engraved in my mind enough to recognize all those sprites), that will blow their mind.

Which might explain why, in my attempt to do all four games in the Pools.... series, I am stalled in Azure Bonds at this area leading to the tower where you deal with the Red Wizard where you get to fight a gazillion Drow with their love of Hold Person and other spells that do a great job of leading to one-hit kills.....

Nice work mentioning the Troll room in the slums. That's a particularly sadistic fight just because it's so far above about everything else there. And I agree with how you said part of the game's appeal is because of the appeal of low-level campaigns. One thing that makes this game addictive is just how much you can improve by gaining ONE level or finding ONE well-secreted treasure alcove with a good weapon, piece of armor or item. If I recall right, early in the game, you can get a Necklace of Missile, which gives you a few uses of the Fireball spell......and that was my bread and butter for getting through some of the early tough fights, like the Slum Trolls or the big brawl in Sokal Keep.

And you had to love the "little" things only a masochist would do. Like clearing out the Textile Factory for a tiny amount of experience. Yay! You no longer have random battles in an area you have no reason to enter after doing the quest that brings you there in the first place. And you have to fight 15 battles against things that poison you (scorpions) or drain levels (wights)..... At least doing the same thing in Podol Plaza had a bit of purpose, as you had to cross that place a few times to get to a few certain areas of importance.

Damn.....really can't afford to get back into Azure Bonds now.....but I'm feeling way too tempted.....
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wolfqueen001 posted October 30, 2008:

I'll admit I'm very unfamiliar with this series... or anything modeled off of D&D in general. I think out of all those games you mentioned, the only one I played or even seen was Neverwinter Nights.

Still, you do a good job elucidating my ignorance, and while this review may not have been as catchy as some of your others, it's very informative and does a good job telling me things I should know.

On that note, why does stronger armor reduce armor rating? That makes no sense to me... Isn't it just better then to where weaker armor?

Also, Champions of Krynn? Sounds like a Dragonlance novel. >_>
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overdrive posted October 30, 2008:


1. In AD&D land, the better the armor, the lower the number. You have Armor Class 10, pretty much anything could kick your ass. You have AC -4, your opponent would have to be pretty badass to wound you.

2. I don't know if Champions of Krynn is a Dragonlance book, but it was the first of a three-game Gold Box series set in the Dragonlance world. Followed by Death Knight(s) of Krynn and then Dark Queen of Krynn.
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wolfqueen001 posted October 30, 2008:

Ah. That makes sense.

Yeah; it's not a Dragonlance book. I was just trying to allude to the fact that it took the name from there... Wasn't sure it was modeled off the world or a book or what. Good to know that it was. I really like those books. >_>
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WilltheGreat posted October 31, 2008:

God, THAC0 was retarded; the only good thing it had going for it was a catchy acronym. I honestly don't know why they didn't come up with 3E's armour mechanics sooner.
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bloomer posted October 31, 2008:

Wasn't the point of THACO just to save you trips to the printed tables? I mean I loved the tables anyway. My youth was spent consulting the result tables of TSR games, D+D and AD+D amongst them. But if you knew your THACO, you could just do a quick bit of math in your head after you heard what the target's AC was and know what you had to roll to hit. Still, the THACO concept came too late in my life to stick.
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dagoss posted November 02, 2008:

Just for clarification:

THAC0 = To Hit Armour Class 0. To hit an enemy with AC or 0, your THAC0 must be equal to or greater than one roll of a twenty-sided die (1d20).

The formula is like this:

If (THAC0 - AC >= 1d20) You hit the enemy!
Otherwise you missed.

This is why negative AC is important for your characters. If they are attached, it will be ADDED to the enemies THAC0, which will decrease the chance that you will be struck.

As should be obvious, this system was designed for pen & paper, not video games.
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zippdementia posted July 13, 2012:

THACO was always a little confusing, but I liked it. Somehow it made me feel like I was doing something archaic and magical when I played. I'm one of the few people I know who still likes the old 2nd edition rules, though. I haven't tried 4th edition, I hear it's alright!

One thing I've long tried to discover about this game is whether the NES version was better than the computer one. "Different," I hear a lot. "Simplified." "Better for the console audience." But if you had your choice between the two versions, which one would you pick, Dagoss?
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dagoss posted July 13, 2012:

I'd don't know if I'd commit to saying it's "better," but I prefer the NES version. The PC version has some things going against it for me:

+ It takes FOREVER to set up a new game.
+ Unless you have a pirated/cracked version, you need to use this stupid code wheel to enter a code every time you start the game.
+ No music
+ Saying the graphics are better than than the NES version is like saying bird poop tastes better on rye bread instead of wheat bread. It's all 8-bit graphics, regardless of version--take the one with the color pallete you find looks the least like puke.1
+ Battles are HUGE and take forever. At a certain point, it becomes tedious instead of challenging.
+ Why do I need 300 types of money?

The NES version is more streamlined, more accessible, and--in my opinion--more fun for it. I've always wanted to take a party from Pool of Radiance to Pools of Darkness, but I never get far in the PC version of PoR before I lose interest. The NES version, however, I've beaten with more than one party.

1 Okay, I actually like the 8-bit graphics. They're simple and charming and in no way resemble puke.
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honestgamer posted July 13, 2012:

I find that most people who like PC versions of games much at all will invariably recommend the PC version over the NES version, if a game hit both platforms, but I will almost invariably prefer the NES version. I love Ultima: Quest of the Avatar on the NES, for instance, thanks largely to its streamlined interface (plus I actually prefer the visuals), but apparently that makes me a total rube. Yet when I tried to play the PC version that EA released for free (you just need DOSbox), I couldn't get into it at all. And I hear vicious things about Deja Vu (NES) being insultingly bad, but I actually had tremendous fun with that game and so did one of my friends who borrowed it from me.
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zippdementia posted July 13, 2012:

Well, some ports don't quite do it. Like, Maniac Mansion is still a great game on the NES but you lose a lot of details from the PC version and controlling the commands with a mouse was far easier then a controller. But it's good to hear that this was better!
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dagoss posted September 11, 2012:

I just finished replaying this game for the uptenth time, and I mean finished. No quest was left undone; no character did not reach their max levels.

By the end, my fighter had an AC of -6, THAC0 of 6 (holy crap!), and HP of 100. No character's AC was above -2. Tryanthraxus basically bent over and asked me "how would you like it, sir?" I wish the Medusa in the final dungeon was some sort of super monster so there was an end-game challenge. After playing this game several times, I still think the Kobold King gauntlet is the hardest part.

Every time I beat this game and am prompted to record my character sheet, I'm reminded of the 3 games that never were and I get a little sad :(
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overdrive posted September 11, 2012:

I agree about the Kobald King gauntlet being the roughest part. Three straight battles against large forces including trolls. If you add optional challenges, I'd include clearing the Textile House just because of how annoying it is to run around that place fighting tons of things that can poison/level-drain you until you've fought enough battles to get the pittance of experience the Phlan people decide that's worth.

And hanging around Zhentil Keep through all the battles OR doing the Buccaneer's Den with no attempts at diplomacy/trickery can also be harsh...or getting lost in the maze in the pyramid, too. But overall, the KK's area might be the worst.

In comparison, Tyranthraxus isn't all that tough. Especially if you recruit his lapdog mage to fight against him, since he'll carry you through the first battle with the long as your melee guys don't get in the way of his area-effect spells.
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Putty posted September 11, 2012:

Thac0 is a neat example of game development. In 1e D+D it wasn't really used in any way except to generate tables. So, most of the things you did involved looking at tables instead of calculating. By 2e, the tables were removed and replaced with a formula. The loss of the reference displayed the totally bizarre calculation all those old wargamers were doing.

3e was awesome because you always added. Subtracting on the fly can be a bit harrowing (I guess?).

I'm sure this is secretly about the devil.
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dagoss posted September 11, 2012:

AD&D rules always made more sense to me for table-top games than 3e. I could never shake the feeling that 3e was designed with video games not actual D&D in mind, but maybe that's just me...
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zippdementia posted September 11, 2012:

No, it's not just you. I thought THACO was perfectly fine, though I'm not sure it's functionally any different from Armor class.

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