"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 The various types of coins (platinum, silver, etc) from computer versions has been replaced by a generic “gold” amount, bow and sling weapons now require no ammunition to function, and the radius of spells is displayed during battles rather than assuming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.
Community review by dagoss (October 30, 2008)
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