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Things have changed a lot since I came onto the gaming scene. I am a product of the late 1970s, and my first video game was "Pong" on the Atari. Since then I have played, obsessed, and loved many games, but there is a special warm place in my heart for the Gold Box games from SSI. These were the great RPGs of all time, giving us Dungeons and Dragons in a full-fledged (though clumsy by the standards of modern games) form for the first time, and also giving us the opportunity to get both sides of the RPG experience: combat and story. Then and now, this is an issue for fans of RPGs. Many games purporting to be role-playing games are really either interactive movies or hack-and-slash fests, which are both great, but not quite what the RPG fan is after.
The Gold Box games changed all that, and set a standard for later games to follow. Trust me, if you think Diablo was light on story you never played Adventure. These games have deep story, interactivity, and strategic combat all the way through, which is more than I can say for many modern big titles. Let's take a look at what made these games so special.
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Party Creation and Combat
The Gold Box games allowed you to adventure as a party. Many games form this period allowed for this, but combat was often stilted and only allowed for having multiple attacks. The Gold Box games gave you in-depth control and strategic possibilities for combat which were equivalent to a real table-top game. You could position your characters, allow your fighters to take attacks while shielding the others, have a character attack and then run around, kiting your enemies, and use formation techniques to create lines of battle, protect movement and activity, and generally do everything that a group in a modern MMORPG would do.
In addition, some of the games had various scripted interactions between characters that would unfold plot-points and move the story along. These features would make the player feel like the party members were "alive" and that their actions had consequences, as interacting with characters the wrong way could make them change the way they act.
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These games took the events and storylines directly from the licenses they were from, allowing the story to be an interactive and mutifaceted version of your favorite books and series. The Dungeons and Dragons games covered Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, two of the most popular game worlds, and the books they used from those worlds were some of the best available.
This is not to say that you were bound into a static tale. One of the great things about each game was getting to see what could have happened if the main characters had been different or done things differently. In Azure Bonds the novel, the protagonist Alias is a good and true character...but in Curse of the Azure Bonds you can be as nasty as you want to be, or as neutral, or anywhere in between. This depth allowed for a full enjoyment of both the novels and the games while giving something unique to each player; no two characters or games would be quite the same.
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Integration and Celebrity Appearances
The Gold Box games allowed for characters from earlier in a series to be imported and continue the adventure in the sequels, allowing for continuity. Additionally, each game included references and quests from prequels in order to make the transition between the games seamless. Often all that happened when you finished one and moved to the other was new features and improved graphics. What modern series has such clean integration and continuity?
As well, key characters from each game world would often enter into the games, just like in a table-top RPG where the person running the game can tailor each factor to the player's needs. Elminster, Fizban, and other celebrities would often make cameos and sometimes even factor into the plot. The integration would allow for your character to be "remembered" by the celebrities from earlier games, allowing for a sense of being a part of in-game history.
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Where To Get Them
If this has stirred either your curiosity or nostalgia, head on over to this post for six places you can download these classic games for free. While some are harder to find than others, I have been able to download most of the Gold Box games through these sites, and with a little tweaking Windows XP can be made to run them. Be aware that these games had some interesting copy-protection that required entering words from the manual from time to time, so make sure to look for the manual or copy-protection instructions when you download them before trying to play.
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These were the games that hooked me on gaming. If you like your role-playing games deep and intensely immersive, do yourself a favor and give them a look.
Have fun and keep gaming!