Square Enix has Final Fantasy. Atlus has Shin Megami Tensei. Gust has Atelier, and Namco has the “Tales of…” series. Bethesda Softworks, a once-small now-huge US developer, has The Elder Scrolls. At first glance, you may not have recognized this name. But, if I were to say “Morrowind” or “Oblivion,” even casual gamers will remember these as top-selling titles.
But I’m here to teach a history lesson. Long before Oblivion and Morrowind, and even before the second chapter “Daggerfall” (arguably the least successful of the series), there was Arena. Originally released in 1994 on eight 3.5″ Floppy Disks, requiring a minimum of 4MB RAM, this DOS-based game captured my young mind. Having been raised on Final Fantasy, Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger, this title was a change of pace for me. It was the first PC game I ever played, and in my heart, it will probably remain one of my favorites.
Graphically, the title is quite dated. In fact, even when I first played it, I struggled to comprehend what I was looking at (perhaps because I hadn’t yet gotten used to the first person perspective or the concept of three dimensions in a game). The skimpy MIDI soundtrack is nothing special either. Aesthetically, the game wasn’t too impressive, even for its time. However, there was something special about this game, and that something special is what has drawn gamers into each successive title. Well, friends, it all started here. Cut away the fancy layers of trim on your copy of Morrowind, and what you’re left with is Arena. Bethesda has simply been expanding and improving a wildly successful formula that they put together over a decade ago.
Drawing on the mechanics and mathematical workings of Dungeons and Dragons, the game opens with you creating your character. You have to choose your class, either by simple selection or by taking a test that involves moral decisions. Then you choose your homeland and race, which coincide. Throw in a name and a gender, and then you can mess with your appearance, customize stats, the whole nine yards. After all of this, it’s time to get to work.
The story opens by giving some background on the world and the problems within the royal palace. It seems a prominent Battlemage named Jagar Tharn worked his evil ways to take the throne from the rightful ruler and began a tyrannical reign across the country. Those who tried to stop him were killed. You, apparently, were a member of the previous ruler’s court and have been thrown in prison. And so you start your journey in a prison.
Once you break out, you follow the advice of a woman, who speaks to you in dreams, and the help of random townsfolk to collect the 8 scattered pieces of the “Staff of Chaos” so that you can take on Tharn and stop him once and for all. And that’s about it.
Okay, so it’s not a ground-breaking story either. Become a powerful warrior and save the world. We’ve done it a thousand times, and we’re going to do it another thousand times before we finally become so jaded that we swear off RPGs forever. Well, that’s not where Arena’s strength lies. No, the almighty power of Arena lies in its open-ended world, its quests, and its extremely addictive gameplay.
So, the world. Divided into various regions (including Morrowind, subject of the third chapter), the world of Arena includes many major cities, small towns, dungeons, and wide open fields. Though the major cities and 16 main dungeons (two for every piece of the staff of chaos) are pre-designed, nearly everything else is subject to random generation. Normally, one will ride from one town to the next on horseback, but if one so chooses, an alternate option is to simply walk the distance from one town to the next. Just follow the compass and go! It takes a fair amount of time, but as you go, you cross various terrain, plenty of enemies, and occasionally, an entrance to a randomly-generated dungeon.
The game’s sidequests are many. There are small “odd jobs” to earn money, but these are nothing compared to the “rumor” based quests. These allow you to gain control of extraordinary weapons, armor, or items. By asking random townspeople about rumors, and then heading to an inn to confirm the rumor, one is able to locate a particular dungeon that will have the item in question. One such item was a book that allowed the character to go up 50 stat points as the player chose to assign them. This quest was repeatable, so after eight or nine tries, one could have a maxxed-stat character (100 in STR, INT, etc).
You are warned from the outset of the game that different classes will invariably determine the difficulty of the game. The easiest class to play as? Yup, the same as Jagar Tharn himself, Battlemage. You can fight, and you can cast awesome spells. This wasn’t a balanced class so much as a somewhat-cheap “do it all” class. Non-spellcasters (such as thief or acrobat) have it the hardest, apparently, and simple healers or mages will have a rough go as well. The genuine value of spellcasters is found in the ability to create one’s own spells. I particularly remember a glitch my brother and I discovered that allowed you to create a ridiculously powerful spell that didn’t cost very much money to purchase or MP to use. Again, one might call this out on being a balance issue, but as the game was so open-ended, it was bound to happen.
Other very cool spells included wall creation, wall removal, staircase creation (imagine the time-saving feature here!), and a spell-based lockpicking ability. Simply amazing stuff was at your fingertips in this game.
In search of treasure? One of the best places to go for treasure was the residential area of your favorite town. By being sneaky and picking a lock, or simply breaking the door down with your weapon, you could enter a house that apparently belonged to no one (though monsters tended to live there). By trying to break in, you do risk being caught by castle guards, but if you’re strong enough, they become fodder for you to level up and acquire even more equipment to wear or sell.
What else made this game fun? Oh yes, the riddles. In each of the story-related dungeons, there are doors that would not open without first answering a riddle. Some of these riddles were commonplace, but others were quite difficult (I remember one in particular where the answer was the letter “e”…you had to really think outside the box to solve it!) Then again, there were two or three riddles I never solved in my multiple playthroughs: I simply cast remove wall and found an alternate entrance into the room in question (persistence was the key in this case, as many walls were “indestructible” so to speak).
If there was one significant problem to this game, one that can never be solved, it’s the glitchiness. This game was, is, and forever will be so glitch-ridden that it sometimes makes it difficult to play. Even today, with the DOSBox emulator on your PC, the game will freeze on you. When I had my first computer, I thought it was my computer’s fault. Now I know that it is indeed the software that is at fault. And be warned: if the game freezes in the middle of a save, that save file will become corrupt and henceforth unusable. I recommend saving in different slots on a regular basis, just in case that happens.
Also frustrating is that you cannot play this game without a mouse. Attacking happens one way, and one way only: holding the left-click mouse button down and sending your pointer flying across the screen. Depending on direction and angle, this will make you swing your weapon in one of a variety of ways. It was a unique concept, but it wears you out pretty quickly sometimes.
All things considered, however, this game was the one that started it all, and it deserves respect as such. It certainly isn’t a perfect game, but even now, it is a ton of fun to play. If you thought going back and playing Final Fantasy I was a trip, try playing the first chapter of The Elder Scrolls. You’ll be glad you did. And, as of the game’s 10th anniversary, Bethesda has offered the game as a free download on their site. So, go ahead and give it a try! You literally have nothing to lose with this classic title.