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RPG Codex Top 74 PC RPGs of All Time: Boxed Edition
Editorial - posted by Crooked Bee on Mon 3 August 2015, 19:51:56
*Special thanks to felipepepe and Fizzii.
Warning: This article is extremely image-heavy.
Early last year, the esteemed Brazilian Codexer felipepepe took on the monumental task of compiling the RPG Codex’s Top 50 RPGs of all time. That in and of itself was quite the challenge, considering people were voting for games made over a thirty year long span. After the flamewars discussions finally died down, the result was a Top 72 RPGs Of All Time list. As I looked through this admittedly well rounded list, nostalgia began to take over.
I'm a child of the ‘80s, meaning my teenage years were defined in that decade. Back then there were three major retailers selling computer games in the United States: Electronics Boutique, Babbage's and CompUSA. It was an age before console dominance, when stores were almost exclusively selling personal computer games. There might have been a small section in the back selling Nintendo or old Atari cartridges, as well as a miniscule selection of Mac games (who played on a Mac?!), but by and large the store was bursting at the seams with box after cardboard box of computer games.
Thinking back to those days when I could walk into the local computer store and find these gems on the shelves in actual physical form, I asked myself “Why did having those game boxes in my hands mean so much?”. The reason, of course, was the fantastic artwork and all the treasures one could see on the outside and find on the inside of those boxes! Not only game disks, but thick manuals, maps of both cloth and glossy paper, and occasionally even a neat little trinket or addition that added to the game world in some way. The manuals written in an “in-universe” style were always the best, and often contained small clues to quests you’d encounter in the game. Sometimes you might discover a journal or spell chart that only whetted your anticipation of what awaited you once the game finished installing. A small coin or patch added to the excitement of entering this new world. Even the advertisements teased us with new and exciting upcoming releases that we knew we would have to start saving up for. However, it was the maps that had the greatest impact. Be they thick cloth maps like in Ultima, vague in-game sketches like Ultima Underworld, or highly detailed glossy paper maps like Wizardry and Might & Magic, these items were your first preview of the exploration and the adventures yet to come. All of these things combined gave so many of us so much joy, even before the first pixels had rendered on our 13" CRT monitors.
I remember walking into the local Electronics Boutique at the mall in the summer of 1990 and gazing at that long wall of shelves filled with computer game boxes. Row upon row of PC gaming goodness (and some of it perhaps not so good) enticing me with that wonderful art. Those games were beckoning me to enter their digitally encoded worlds. One box caught my attention immediately. It was a large one with a blond knight standing triumphantly over what appeared to be a demon of some sort. In huge letters across the top read ULTIMA VI. ULTIMA? The name made me take notice, and my first thought was that this must be the ultimate game ever made. I had to have that game, and so even though I was now a poor second year college student, I came up with $79.99 somehow and bought it. Spread across the counter were racks full of clue books (they weren’t generally thought of as “strategy guides” back then) offering those vital pieces of information that were otherwise usually only found on BBS boards and Usenet groups at the time. I had to go to my mother’s house to play my new game, as she was the only one that had a computer good enough to run the thing. Once I got there, I quickly tore off the cellophane wrapping and opened the box.
My first sense of wonder came when I saw the seven 5¼ floppy disks that were in it. Seven! One whole disk was just for the game's introduction, another just had “Map” printed on it, and two others were “Populace A & B.” My mind was racing at the thought that there were two whole disks just for the NPCs!! The next item I drew from the box was the mandatory Reference Card/Install Guide, that those of you from the Amiga, C64 and DOS generation will remember was going to show you whether you would be playing the game shortly, or whether you would be spending the rest of your afternoon configuring EMS and sound card settings. I turned a page in the reference guide and got my first glimpse at what was awaiting me in this new world. It was a blurry black and white picture showing the game's UI layout. “My God”, I thought, “the game world takes up almost half the screen and there are tons of command icons I’ll be using!” The next page showed the inventory screen, with eight equipment slots and even more inventory slots! Needless to say I was getting quite excited. Back then, I didn't think about that UI as cumbersome. I was excited that I had so many different buttons to press. Next out of the box was the thick Compendium. I spent several hours reading and re-reading this “in-world” written manual. It’s hard to call it a manual, really, as it was so much more. It was a glimpse into the world I was about to explore, giving me the history of Britannia (this was after all the sixth game in the series) and information about all the towns, dungeons, people and creatures that I would be encountering.
Finally, I pulled out the cloth map. Those of a younger generation who have received so-called cloth maps with games such as Neverwinter Nights 2 or more recently with Wasteland 2 don’t know how well-made those Ultima maps were. They were thick and heavy, with bright, clear coloring that beckoned you to explore each and every coordinate shown. I quickly leafed through the compendium again to find the runic alphabet page, as the map was also written “in-world”. I had to translate the name of each place marked on the map! That may seem like tedious “work” in the ADHD world we live in today, but back then, it added to our understanding of the game world and increased what people today would call “immersion”. After that, I was finally ready to install the game, but then I noticed one final item in the box that I had overlooked - a small black “stone.” They actually put a black “Moonstone” in the box! Unfortunately for me, it was not one of the 10 Sacred Runes that would have meant my face would be immortalized in the next Ultima game, as stated in the contest flyer that was also included. As a collector, I can only imagine how much those would go for in today’s market. Apparently only 8 out of the 10 runes were ever claimed, so two are still out there somewhere…
Little did I realize that summer afternoon that those days would soon be coming to an end. By the early 2000s, our beloved computer games were increasingly being moved to the back of the stores (where I once laughed at the Nintendo and Mac games) and crammed into smaller and smaller areas, until finally you could only get the PC version of a game if you special ordered it. Even then, you were lucky if it came in anything larger than a DVD case with a two page pamphlet masquerading as a manual.
Fast forward a decade later to the Kickstarter craze of 2012, which sparked that nostalgic itch once again. So many “old-school developers” were promising that long-forgotten physical box experience, all in return for a measly few hundred dollars. Unfortunately, most Kickstarter boxed editions have been a far cry from those we loved back in the day, with only the recent Pillars of Eternity Collector’s Box looking and “feeling” like the ones from the 80s and 90s (though Wasteland 2 gets an honorable mention for its unique take on the Collector’s Edition, I guess). Then there are the intolerable delays that almost every Kickstarter developer has had in delivering their old school boxes to those who paid much more than they had ever paid for a single game for them. I thought $79.99 was an excruciatingly high price to pay even back in the inflation-adjusted dollar days.
Since so many of these promises for a return to “old-school” boxes were turning out to be empty, I decided to return to the true old-school games of the past. As a collector of computer games, I already owned many of the Codex’s Top 72 RPGs, so I decided to track down the ones I was missing and create a photographic archive of each one's box. In the process, I realized that in this digital distribution age, we've lost a piece of what made PC gaming great. Those old boxes did a lot to enhance our enjoyment and dare I say “immersion” in those game worlds that we spent so many hours exploring.
I have tried to collect only IBM-PC versions released in the US, as well any Collector’s or Special Editions which were produced for each game when possible. For each game, I've photographed its box's front and back cover artwork and original contents, as well as any clue books/strategy guides, tie-in novels, pre-orders, etc, that were also an important part of the overall experience. I hope you enjoy this trip down nostalgia lane as much as I did while documenting it. In the process, maybe you’ll also see that we have lost a little something along the way.
Readers, I present to you a visual record of the RPG Codex’s Top 74 RPGs of all Time “Boxed Edition” (it’s 74 rather than 72 since I had to include Blade of Destiny and Chaos Strikes Back in honor of Crooked Bee!). I’ve included some general notes and observations about many of the games as well.
General notes and observations:
Number of games without clue books/strategy guides: 16
Gothic II / Mask of the Betrayer / The Witcher / Gothic-Knights of the Chalice /
Arx Fatalis / Drakensang: River of Time / Risen / King of Dragon Pass / Divine Divinity /
M&B: Warband / ADOM / Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna /
Star Control II (included an ad for one but not sure if it was ever published) / Herione’s Quest / Divinity II
Number of games with multiple clue books/strategy guides: 7
Baldur’s Gate II / Morrowind / Baldur’s Gate / Icewind Dale / Wizardry VI /
Dungeon Master / Neverwinter Nights 2
Number of game strategy guides with posters or “extras”: 7
Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Ahm & Throne of Bhaal (posters) / Fallout: New Vegas (poster) /
Darklands (update disk) / Knights of the Old Republic II (poster & DVD) / Icewind Dale (poster)/
System Shock (pull-out maps)
Number of games with Collector’s Edition strategy guides: 4
Fallout New Vegas / Dark Souls / Dragon Age / Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Number of games with cloth maps: 11
Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn / Icewind Dale / Might & Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven /
Dragon Age: Origins / Ultima VII: The Black Gate / Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar /
Ultima VII: Serpent Isle / Icewind Dale II / Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny /
Drakensang: River of Time / Neverwinter Nights 2
Number of games with glossy paper maps: 12
Morrowind / Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant / Betrayal at Krondor/Baldur’s Gate /
World of Xeen: Clouds of Xeen / Darkside of Xeen / Realms of Arkania: Star Trail /
Might & Magic VII: For Blood & Honor / The Witcher 2 / Might & Magic III: Isles of Terror /
Star Control II / Wizards & Warriors / Realms of Arkanis: Blade of Destiny
Number of games with paper maps: 5
Arcanum / Darklands / Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss / Arx Fatalis /
Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds
Number of games that are Collector’s Editions: 10
Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn / Morrowind / Fallout: New Vegas /
Might & Magic VI: The Mandate of Heaven / Dragon Age / Icewind Dale II /
The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings / Drakensang: River of Time / Deus Ex: Human Revolution /
Neverwinter Nights 2 / Wizards & Warriors
Number of “special” or “enhanced” editions: 10
Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines (soundtrack) / Gothic II (Night of the Raven add-on) /
Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition / Wizardry (VII) Gold / Baldur’s Gate DVD Edition /
World of Xeen (Might & Magic: Clouds and Darkside) / The Witcher: Enhanced Edition /
The Witcher 2: Enhanced Edition / System Shock CD Edition / Lands of Lore CD Edition
Number of games that included a “trinket” or “extra” as part of the standard release: 10
Deus Ex (newspaper) / Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (rune pouch) / World of Xeen (notepads) /
Ultima VII: The Black Gate (Fellowship medallion) / Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (ankh) /
Ultima V: Warriors of Destiny (coin) / Dungeon Master (sticker) / Wizardry (grid paper) /
Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna (Mordor card & grid paper) / Chaos Strikes Back (sticker & coin in Atari version)
Number of games without a physical manual: 3
Knights of the Chalice / Mount & Blade: Warband / Divinity II
Number of games never released in physical form: 4
Knights of the Chalice / Geneforge / ADOM / Herione’s Quest
Number of games with boxed expansions: 9
Baldur’s Gate II (Throne of Bhaal) / Morrowind (Tribunal & Bloodmoon) /
Neverwinter Nights 2 (Mask of the Betrayer & Storm of Zehir) / Jagged Alliance 2 (Unfinished Business & Wildfire) /
Baldur’s Gate (Tales from the Sword Coast) / Icewind Dale (Heart of Winter) /
Ultima VII: The Black Gate (Forge of Virtue) / Ultima VII: Serpent Isle (Silver Seed) /
Divinity II: Dragon Knight Saga (Flames of Vengeance)
Number of games with a boxed sound pack expansion or adapter: 2
Realms of Arkania: Star Trail / Dungeon Master
Number of games with a spiral bound manual: 7
Fallout / Fallout 2 / Baldur’s Gate II / Icewind Dale / Icewind Dale II / Knights of the Old Republic /
Herione’s Quest (only because I made one)
Number of games with boxed pre-orders: 5
VtM: Bloodlines (t-shirt) / Fallout New Vegas (coasters) / Daggerfall (Interactive Preview) / Icewind Dale II (cards, bonus disks & poster /
Knights of the Old Republic (letter opener)
Number of games with a tie-in novel: 4
Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Ahm & Throne of Bhaal / Betrayal at Krondor / Baldur’s gate
Game with the most amount of "stuff" in box:
The Witcher 2 with 20 items
The Game Boxes
You can find the original Top 72 PC RPG list here.