Ultima, Wizardry, The Black Onyx and the origin of JRPGs
The covers for the first game in each series
Update 1/28/2014: Concerning the release dates of Ultima and Wizardry, both articles on Wikipedia have been adjusted in the meantime to reflect the dates unearthed here. This article remains largely as is to document the process by which these were obtained.
While researching for an article about the Wizardry series of games, I've come across an annoying issue. The computer RPG market in the Western world was for the better part of the 1980s dominated by the rivalry of two great series, Richard Garriott's Ultima, and Wizardry by Robert Woodhead and Andrew Greenberg. When writing about the one, we therefore have to take into account and compare with the other, and of course it all starts with the first game in each series.
But which of the two came first? Wikipedia tells us that the game which became counted later as Ultima I "was first published in the United States by California Pacific Computer Company, September 2, 1980," while "In 1979, Robert Sirotek and Fred Norman created Sir-tech Software, Inc. to distribute the game, and it was released in 1981." The info box puts the release more precisely at December 31st, 1981, so more than a year later than its rival.
Let's take a look at the sources for both claims. The Wizardry article quotes Swords & Circuitry: a Designer's Guide to Computer Role Playing Games by one Jana Hallford. This was released in 2001, a mere twenty years after the fact. I can't argue much with the reliability of that book, as I don't have access to it and can't check its sources (which I personally doubt the Wikipedia author did, but let's give them the benefit of that doubt), but it should be noted that the quoted bit only includes the year 1981, with the December 31 date (which I intend "prove" wrong in just a few minutes) left unreferenced.
Softline magazine with Wizardry title story
The Ultima entry is a bit more fishy: It quotes "'U.S. Copyright Office'. Reg. #PA-317-501. Retrieved 2007-08-08." The site linked apparently has been restructured since and that specific entry isn't searchable, anymore. Either way the quote could only ever have referenced a copyright registration, not a release date.
But this isn't another big rant about the workings and lack of reliability at Wikipedia. Searching the web and various print publications for more accounts, one gets a wild mixture of claims for either 1980 or 1981. Wikipedia already beats most of them by actually stating where their date is coming from. The best one only ever gets elsewhere is Garriott's word in interviews, which also favors 1980. Yet there doesn't seem to be any copies of the game with the floppy dated as such around. The Museum of Computer Adventure Game History sure doesn't have one, they're all labeled copyright 1981, or later in case of re-releases.
Then I stumbled upon this gem of an article: Forgotten ruins: The roots of computer role-playing games: Sir-tech. I loved this one, not necessarily for its text body (because it happens to obfuscate facts with fancy writing and gets others wrong by merely glossing over the matter), but for its list of sources at the end. Here I learned - not being an US citizen and never having encountered the magazine in its time - that Computer Gaming World would be an excellent source for early home computer game history, and, just as importantly, that it was probably available online somewhere, as the web journalists who have the means and would bother to do actual research on physical old stuff surely can be counted on one's fingers. Turns out it is, indeed (check the list of links on the first page), and it was quite helpful, even though it didn't start getting published before late in 1981.
Weeding through the early issues of one of the first magazines focused on this new form of electronic entertainment, I finally hit gold in issue 2.5 (Sep/Oct 1982), page 2: The mag's "List of Top Sellers (as of 30 June 1982)" contained two entries very interesting to my cause:
24,000 Wizardry (Sir-tech Software, Sept. 1981)
20,000 Ultima (California Pacific Computer Co., June 1981)
Not only do we learn that Wizardry outsold Ultima - at least in the beginning - their actual releases apparently were much closer together than many sources make it sound like. Why does it matter? Well, aside from historic accuracy, it means for one that Wizardry itself could hardly have been influenced by Ultima. Even moreso as the Sir-Tech game was available in some kind of public beta / preorder state earlier that year, as High score!: the illustrated history of electronic games by Rusel DeMaria and Johnny L. Wilson tells us (among others). It also means that whatever common traits Ultima and Wizardry had weren't necessarily "old news" to early players of the latter.
But wait, there's still Akalabeth, isn't it? The supposedly highly influental "Ultima 0," programmed by Garriott in 1979 and also published via California Pacific in 1980. According to 1Up, "Akalabeth sold tens of thousands of copies." To quote the aforementioned book High Score!, this figure stems from a statement made by Lord British himself: "They sold 30,000 units, and my royalty was $5 per unit. Something that had taken four to six weeks to create had earned me $150,000."
Now developer interviews are the most deer and valuable - and often the only - resource video game journalists/historians can work with. However, the human memory is a fuzzy thing, begging to at least raise the question how much trust we can put on new answers about 20-30 year old questions. Granted, the amount that would have had to show up in his bank account surely is nothing forgotten easily, but for all we know, he could have confused figures with Ultima, or something in that manner. After all, the same man has been cited in another book (Dungeons and Dreamers: the rise of computer game culture from geek to chic) with a very different statement regarding the development time: It says: "Akalabeth was two years' worth of programming, but he had never meant it to be a real product," although it conforms with High Score! according the sales figures.
But why even question that statement to begin with? Well, let's take a look at the complete list from CGW 2.5:
List of Top Sellers (as of 30 June 1982)
35,000 K-RAZY Shoot-Out (K-Byte, Jan. 1982)
32,000 Zork I (Infocom, Feb. 1981)
30,000 Temple of Apshai (Automated Simulations, Aug. 1979)
30,000 Flight Simulator (Sublogic Communications, Dec. 1979)
25,000 Raster Blaster (BudgeCo., April 1981)
25,000 Wizard & the Princess (Sierra On-Line, Aug. 1980)
25,000 Snack Attack (Datamost, Oct. 1981)
24,000 Wizardry (Sir-tech Software, Sept. 1981)
23,000 Ghost Hunter (Arcade Plus, Nov. 1981)
23,000 Gorgon (Sirius Software, June 1981)
20,000 Ultima (California Pacific Computer Co., June 1981)
20,000 Super Invader (Creative Computing Software, Nov. 1979)
20,000 Castle Wolfenstein (Muse, Sept. 1981)
15,000 Apple Panic (Broderbund Software, July 1981)
15,000 Scarfman (The Cornsoft Group, Aug. 1981)
15,000 Pool 1.5 (Innovative Design Software, April 1981)
10,000 Galactic Chase (Spectrum Computers, Sept. 1981)
9,000 Choplifter (Broderbund Software, May 1982)
8,300 Canyon Climber (Datasoft, June 1982)
8,000 The Warp Factor (Strategic Simulations, Feb. 1981)
6,000 Photar (Softape, Feb. 1982)
5,000 Pac Attack (Computerware, Sept. 1981)
5,000 Horizon V (Gebelli Software, Feb. 1982)
5,000 Dragonquest (The Programmer's Guild., Jan. 1981)
5,000 Asylum (Med Systems, Feb. 1981)
4,500 International Gran Prix (Riverbank Software, Aug. 1981)
3,600 Tax-Man (H.A.L. Labs, Oct. 1981)
3,500 Rocket Raiders (Artworx Software, Dec. 1981)
3,500 Apventure to Atlantis (Synergistic Software, March 1982)
3,400 Rear Guard (Adventure International, Dec. 1981)
3,000 Voyage of the Valkyrie (Advanced Operating Systems, Aug. 1981)
2,000 The Game Show (Computer-Advanced Ideas, Oct. 1981)
2,000 Stone's Reversal (Powersoft, Nov. 1981)
1,000 Swordthrust #1 (CE Software, May 1981)
1,000 Hi-Res Computer Golf (Avant-Garde Creations, Nov. 1981)
1,000 ZX81 Classics (Lamo-Lem Laboratories, Jan. 1982)
1,000 Super Stellar Trek (Rainbow Computing, Aug. 1981)
So the list goes as far back as August 1979 (for Temple of Apshai), definitely before the commercial release of Akalabeth (the alternative 1979 date for the game refers to the dozen-or-so homemade copies Garriott sold before getting a publishing deal). What also sticks out is the yawning absence of Akalabeth. Now this can mean two things: Either the game was omitted from the list for some reason or accident, or it didn't sell much more (maybe even less) than 1,000 copies, at least not until it was bundled with later Ultima games (which happened quite early). The legendary rarity of the original also seems rather suspicious. If anyone had ever bothered to ask for and print a copy of Garriott's royalties check with California Pacific, we had a case, but as it is there stand his words, formulated decades later, against contemporary statistics.
The slime that would conquer Japan
But not all is well with that statistic, either. It came together by CGW conducting "a survey of 150 computer software manufacturers to find out what their best selling titles are." So did every company tell the truth? Did California Pacific only submit the most successful game they had? After all, Infocom also only included Zork I, despite them having very provably more 1,000+ sellers by that time, while others like Broderbund appear several times. But when Ultima had outsold Akalabeth with 20,000 units and Garriot received royalties for 30,000 units of the latter, wouldn't he also have gotten payment for Ultima, something Lord British stated never happened due to the publisher going out of business?
Although there still is no undeniable proof for either possibility, at least we now know that we don't know, and that's good to know, isn't it? At least it reminds to be wary when taking personal statements at face value when it comes to determine hard facts like release dates and sales figures. I want to stress once again that the aim of this article is not to question anyone's integrity, but to encourage the search for more solid evidence than word of mouth.
Even Korea got its own Ultima clones
(pictured: Sin'geom-ui Jeonseol)
Of course, the question remains as to what degree video games journalists are, should and can be video game historians. If you're writing a 4-page restrospective on the Ultima series in a magazine, chances are you're not nearly paid enough to go through the same process I just did. Those were two free days "wasted" for research on old computer games. Although the mad historian in me wants to question if one really should write an article about a game if one cannot even get the release date straight, I'm well aware of how unrealistic that claim is. My own article on the history of video gaming in Korea contains more than one hundred footnotes over all its pages, and yet the whole thing is a horrible, shoddyly put-together mess. Some sources are much less trustworthy than others, the founding date of the biggest Korean game developer/publisher for the 1980s might or might not be off by 6 years due to a typo in an old magazine, and release dates are a wild mixture between official sale dates, (contemporary) reported sightings in stores by magazines, probable-but-not-secured previous announcements, in-game copyrights, even educated guesses - it simply doesn't get any more easy. Surely, the proper way of dealing with it would be documenting the sources for all of those dates - but then I'd still be working on part 1 of the article, probably for a few years to come.
Even as it is, that article is an enormous time investment I'm still not sure I actually can afford to make, but who else is gonna do it? There is some great academic and semi-academic work done on the history of video games, but it's much, much to few and far between to really branch out into all relevant subjects, so the area is still totally dependent on the work of crazy nerds with the crave to spend all their free time to get trivial(?) facts straight.
The Birth of the JRPG
The Black Onyx
Another important chapter in Wizardry' history is the impact it had in Japan, where the series is still continued regularly, while it has been long been abandoned in the West. Officially, however, the original game hasn't been released there until 1985, when ASCII started to port the series to all the major Japanese computers. The same goes for Ultima, brought by Starcraft (oddly, it seems that the series started there with Ultima II and III, the first game doesn't show up in any release lists before 1988). Published more than a year earlier, in January 1984, there was The Black Onyx. Programmed by Henk Rogers, it channeled the Wizardry school of Western RPGs and became a huge hit on Japanese home computers. Did the Japanese learn about computer RPGs originally through the Black Onyx filter?
THE MAKING OF... Japan's First RPG by Edge magazine, which functions here as Black Onyx designer Henk Rogers' mouthpiece, states:
Voted game of the year by the readers of Login magazine (the best-selling Japanese gaming magazine at that time), Black Onyx sold around 150,000 copies, not counting huge numbers of rentals. The game's gigantic success paved the way for the other Japanese developers to bring their own RPG titles to market. The first Dragon Quest team went on the record praising Black Onyx as the influence for them investigating other western titles in the genre (specifically Wizardry). And so the RPG hacked and slashed its way into the Japanese videogame industry and consciousness.
Our own piece on old Japanese Computers tells another story, though:
Even though computer hardware rarely crossed borders, computer software proved to be much more flexible. A large number of Western games were ported to Japanese computer systems, with companies like Starcraft, Infinity, and Pony Canyon focusing almost exclusively on localizing English games. It was a rare time when large numbers of Japanese gamers were actively interested in Western games, an interest which has only just rekindled in the last few years. A little game called Dragon Quest famously arose out of a friendly argument over two Western games. As Koichi Nakamura has stated in an interview, "A game that I have fond memories of is Wizardry, which was popular in our office, but a co-worker of mine named Yuji Horii was hooked on Ultima at the time. Yuji kept saying we should make an RPG, but while I wanted to make a game like Wizardry, he wanted it to be like Ultima. We said to ourselves that we'd combine the interesting parts from both, and what we ended up with was Dragon Quest. So if it wasn't for Wizardry and Ultima, Dragon Quest wouldn't exist -- either in Japan or in the world."
Dungeon (Koei, PC-80)
For now it seems we have underestimated the influence of the Apple II hardware in Japan at least among computer buffs, as clearly Ultima, as well as almost certainly Wizardry, did have a noticeable impact on the Japanese programmer scene well before they were officially published on domestic computers. Let's explore this thread further:
The Edge article attributes the sole agency in bringing RPGs to Japan to BulletProof Software. But this wouldn't be the history of video games, if we didn't have conflicting reports. Wikipedia on Dragon Quest: "In 1982, Enix sponsored a video game programming contest in Japan which brought much of the Dragon Quest team together, including creator Yuji Horii. The prize was a trip to the United States and a visit to AppleFest '83 in San Francisco, where Horii discovered the Wizardry video game series."
The quote this time goes to an old article by HG101's own editor-in-chief, which... doesn't concern itself with that episode at all. Great, wrong citation. Hitting Google brings hundreds of regurgitations of the same story, while hints at a possible source are hard to find. This, however, would be possibly the most important question of JRPG history - as it would ultimately determine the nature of The Black Onyx' role as a mediator of the genre.
Panorama Toh (Falcom, PC-88)
When digging further, one eventually happens upon an Enix-published making-of manga called "The Road To Dragon Quest" (more info), which depicts just the events described above. Though it is generally very open with the influences for Dragon Quest, even drawing Wizardry's cover in one panel, with no word does it seem to mention The Black Onyx, not even as an encouraging remark concerning its success.
The Enix guys certainly weren't the only ones who already had gotten wind of the new trend before Rogers' game. The case doesn't look as good for BulletProof's version of the story when looking at Japanese proto-RPGs like Koei's Ken to Mahou (剣と魔法) and Dungeon (ダンジョン) or Falcom's Panorama Island (ぱのらま島), all released prior to The Black Onyx and already clearly drawing inspiration from established Western RPGs. Falcom's game even boldly claimed its title as a "Fantasy role-playing game," taking a bit more wind out of the sails for Roberts' statement: "The word had not got out; nobody knew what an RPG was and we were on the brink of collapse." The same month The Black Onyx was released, Starcraft even published their first conversions of western RPGs, like Telengard.
This is not to deny the importance of The Black Onyx altogether: As the first big-selling RPG in Japanese, it certainly did a lot for the popularity of the genre in the Far East, but judging by the clues, we very likely would have gotten Dragon Quest, anyway.
List of Japanese RPGs up until January 1984. Dates are for the oldest known versions (most are according to the PC88 Game Library).
82-12 Dragon & Princess ドラゴンアンドプリンセス (PC-80, PC-88, FM-7)
83-03 Genma Taisen 幻魔大戦 (PC-6001, PC-88, PC-98, FM-7)
83-05 Kufu-Ou no Himitsu クフ王の秘密 (PC-80, FM-7)
83-05? Tokugawa Ieyasu 1. Shounen-hen 徳川家康 1.少年編 (FM-7, MZ-700)
83-07 Danchi Zuma no Yuuwaku 団地妻の誘惑 (PC-88, FM-7)
83-08 Ken to Mahou 剣と魔法 (PC-80, PC-88, FM-7)
83-11 Poibos Part 1 ポイボスＰａｒｔ１ (PC-88, FM-7, X1)
83-11 Seiken Densetsu 聖剣伝説 (PC-80, unrelated to Secret of Mana)
83-11? Parallel World パラレルワールド (X1, PC-88)
83-12 Dungeon ダンジョン (PC-80, PC-88, FM-7)
83-12 Bounded バウンドット (PC-88)
83-12 Panorama Toh ぱのらま島 (PC-88)
84-01 Telengard テレンガード (localization)
84-01 Voyager ボイジャー１号 (localization)
84-01 Fortress of the Witch King ウイッチキング (localization)
84-01 The Black Onyx ザ・ブラックオニキス