Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

I’ve looked at one of the progenitors of the first person dungeon crawler before, while Wizardry represents the other side of that coin. Enthusiasts had been trying to digitize Dungeons & Dragons within months after its official release in 1976, so digital dungeon exploration was certainly nothing new. However, Wizardry is the first to gain widespread notoriety and notable sales. And for good reason – Wizardry popularized a surprising amount of genre staples that still exist to this day, and its apparent extra year of balancing resulted in a very well-made game regardless of the time period. I think it’s those qualities that kept me obsessively coming back, even after its anachronistic difficulty had thoroughly worn out its welcome.

In the early game, death comes swiftly for our brave heroes. And the late game too, really.

Prior dungeon delvers had you delving dungeons as a sole knight, but Wizardry is the first surviving example of a game to have you build a party of multiple characters that you directly control. Up to six of your characters at a time – all based on D&D races, classes, and stat rules – will be smashing orc face, with a total of 20 characters per disk on reserve. This gave you a fair amount of combinations for building your party. It’s a real proof-of-concept that players can handle juggling multiple heroes without getting confused, and that the tabletop RPG party can be replicated digitally without requiring other players. Japan, for example, loved Wizardry for this, and you really can’t look at the DNA of Final Fantasies, Phantasy Stars, and MegaTens without starting here.

Combat is entirely turn based, and will be very familiar to anyone who’s played a CRPG. This is another example of an early game that pretty much nails genre conventions right out of the gate. Each character gets the option to Fight, cast a Spell, or Parry (defense). You’ll need to create an effective balance of damage dealers and party healers to be successful, stocking your first three (front line) slots with warrior types to shield your back three Mages and Priests as they lob enchanted death. Watching your little band go from stumbling and inept to being able to huck nuclear fireballs at legions of vampires never fails to satisfy. Gear you find or buy is generally clear enough on how useful it is (lots of Swords or Armors +X) while every class can’t equip every piece of gear, further forcing you to diversify.

Magic’s use here is brilliant. It has D&D to thank for that, but its execution drives most of the game’s strategic dilemmas. Magic is broken into seven ranks and each rank has a limited number of charges determined by character level. You learn stronger spells automatically as you level, and you will always have less charges on a rank 6 or 7 spell than you would a weaker 1 or 2. This keeps your power spells limited, while your lesser spells never become completely useless.

Further, damaging spells often sit in the same rank as healing or support spells, so you’ll need to smartly ration those charges. Is it worth trying to silence this group of mages if it means you won’t be able to cure any poison the flies may inflict? Do you want chance killing every enemy with a massive explosion, if it means you won’t be able to teleport back home? Charges can only be replenished by returning to the surface and sleeping at the inn, so the risk/reward of safely returning to camp versus pressing just a little further into the dungeon remains a major source of tension through the entire game.

The “Milwa” spell draws the dungeon out to about 4 squares ahead.

The “proving grounds” of the title are explored through a first-person wireframe view of the dungeon, with scarce detail and absolutely nothing in the way of landmarks. Later versions, like the reprogrammed DOS versions for the Wizardry Archives, will at least offer a checkered square on the floor or ceiling to mark stairs or a point of interest. The Apple II original does not. Only doors are visible in the world, with secret doors flicking in and out of sight as you turn. Any rooms with keys or dangers won’t look any different until you step in and get a text block. If you weren’t already planning to, you’ll need to step in and map every square. The wireframe darkness and repetition alone makes it extremely difficult to navigate without a map, but the dungeon’s extra tricks will make it flatly impossible.

Every level is a 20×20 grid, but the edges wrap around, so leaving square 20 will warp you back to square 1 on the opposite side. If you’re not keeping track, hallways will seem to extend beyond the boundaries of your map. On top of this, there are multiple traps within the dungeon (rotating floors, teleporters, dark areas) that intentionally scramble your direction. Unlike later versions, you’ll get no indication here that you’ve teleported or rotated at all – not even an abnormal loading time – making some hallways appear to extend out to infinity. There’s no compass or similar on screen indicator to help either. Your sole assistance is a limited-use magic spell that only tells you the direction you’re facing and how many squares away from the dungeon entrance you are (which is always at 0,0 on the first level, and acts as your North Star). You can. not. make it. without referencing a map, even as the game does quite a bit to force you to rethink, redraw, and generally make this process as difficult as possible.

That’s just the start of how Wizardry, as a game, is absolutely ruthless. I’m not sure it’s correct to call it “too difficult,” because the limited magic charges mean you can get extremely powerful while still keeping the game balanced. It’s definitely not correct to it “unfair,” at least no more than the randomness of life itself is. But Wizardry, without a doubt, is absolutely unforgiving. It will routinely lure you in with expectations that you’ve got everything under control, and then – in a flash – leave you forced to practically start all the way over from the beginning.

Calling back to its tabletop origins, combat is determined by invisible die rolls using adapted D&D THAC0 rules. Wizardry doesn’t seem to put many restrictions on its random number generation, so the full range of possible outcomes can and will come up. Only certain sets of monsters can appear on a floor – plus a few static encounters that act as minibosses/gatekeeping – with the monster types getting nastier as you go deeper. But the numbers of foes you face are totally random. You can bump into anything from a single thief (easy-peasy) to up to four different groups of enemies at once, with 1-8 copies within each group, all seemingly decided by how the die fall. You can easily find yourself outnumbered and overwhelmed, while it feels like there’s precious little you can do about that.

The (7) here indicates all 7 enemies are active. Lower numbers mean some are slept, held, etc.

Pray you run into melee enemies. Some of them hit extremely hard, many of them poison if they connect, but you have eight spells that can make your party harder to hit. Conversely, you have zero spells that defend against magic. Magic can’t be dodged or blocked, while enemies have plenty of ways to hit the entire party at once. You can only hope to shut the caster down with a silence or sleep spell before they lay into you. If that group has multiple casters in it, they can all hammer you, one after the other, with spells that cause 10-80 points of damage to each character in the party on each hit. Your Mages survive with vastly lower health by having the front line take all the melee damage, but party-wide magic attacks routinely wreck them.

Making it worse, who goes first in each combat turn is apparently random as well. At best, you’ll have one chance to stop inevitable death before enemies start casting. At worst, those mages or monsters will shoot first, your Mages are dead, your Priests are in disarray, and you’re staring at another party wipe. And while you can Run from a bad encounter, don’t bother. I’d guess I had a 10% success rate, with every other time giving the enemy six free targets that aren’t even defending.

You have no control over who you attack within a group. You cannot choose to ignore the enemies you slept this round and focus on the ones that can fight back. You cannot select an individual to wear down before moving onto the next. Instead, the game will randomly spread damage across all the enemies in a group. Fights drag on because of this, building damage that seems like it could have been mitigated if tactics were allowed. And cruelly, the game doesn’t even tell you exactly what you’re facing unless you have a specific Priest spell active to identify every foe. Are those “strange animals” just Weretigers that fight one-on-one, or are they actually Dragons that breathe fire on everyone each turn? You won’t know for sure until your party is already roasting.

In a modern game, disaster would mean the loss of all your progress since your last save. This is not a modern game. Wizardry writes the outcome of every combat round to disk, permanently, as it happens. With no internal hard drive to install to, a physical Apple II must have sounded like an angle grinder as your mistakes or simple bad luck were dutifully recorded as history . So many people apparently would try to eject their disks before bad saves completed that Sir-Tech offered a $10 service fee to mail in and repair corrupted disks. You might be able to effect a desperate escape with the shattered remains of your party, but you can only avoid lost progress if you’ve made a recent backup of your character disk. It definitely raises the stakes, but it’s arguable if it does so in a fun way.

If you’re playing Wizardry honest, you’ll be expected to drag any survivors back to the castle and replace dead ones with new characters until you can grind up enough money for a resurrection. In a cool twist, Wizardry does save the location of any party member’s death (plus items) and lets you find their corpse later and bring them home. You then have a chance to restore your precious hero at the Temple, but this requires having a party that can both make the trip down there, and survive the return. If you’ve lost the only six heroes you made, it’s time to create and train up some replacements. That’s what the 20 characters per disk is for.

Characters’ moral alignment may cause enemies to be friendly. Attack anyway, and some party members may fall to EVIL.

The most practical method would be to create two identical parties – effectively an “Hero” team and a “Rescue” team – and keep them stocked and leveled roughly in parallel. That’s a lot of work. It took me a full month to get a party to level 10; I’d estimate around 30-40 hours of playing, with each level past 10 requiring six figures of XP to grant the next level. Most late-game encounters average around 1,000 XP, so this is going to require some real commitment. If you, understandably, don’t do this, you’ll have to start a fresh party from the beginning just to get to where your old one died.

Oh, and that Temple I talked about? There’s a chance they’ll botch the resurrection and turn your character to ash. For double the cost (increasing drastically with the character’s level) they can try again. If the dice frown upon you and they biff it a second time, your character is dead and gone forever. Scattered to the wind, no take-backsies, and again, all at the mercy of the random die roll. I actually had this happen with my Priest, and it was around then that I decided I wasn’t going to be playing Wizardry honest anymore.

But let’s consider a more positive outcome. If you manage to survive combat, you may find a chest. You can always buy a set of standard gear at the castle, but the finest equipment only appears in chests on the lowest levels. These chests must be opened on the spot and are almost always trapped. Anyone can take a crack at disarming them, but only the Thief has a real chance of succeeding. Unfortunately, that’s all he does – he’s a shitty fighter in the front and can’t learn any spells for the back. There are no bows and arrows in the first Wizardry.

“Easy,” you think, “I’ll just skip having a Thief.” But these traps are no joke – early levels gleefully poison party members while you have no spell to stop poison until a Priest hits level 8. Poison ticks with every step you take in this version, so those characters aren’t gonna make it back to town in time. Exploding boxes can wipe out multiple low-level party members instantly. My “favorite” – the teleporter – randomly moves the party somewhere else on the map. This includes the chance to land in solid rock, preventing you from ever recovering those characters or their equipment. Internet guides say it’s not common, but it’s common enough to have happened to me. I had started relying on save states by this point and was indescribably grateful to have a recent one.

You can make a backup of your character disk. You’re even encouraged to, and tools included with the game allow you to do this. However, disk transfer speeds and the whole setup of the Apple II means this isn’t going to be as easy as a save state. You’re bound to forget to backup eventually, or have a session where some killer loot is paired with an untimely death, leading to a very difficult choice about continuing on. But no matter how you look at it, Wizardry is going to put you in situations you would not face in a modern game – for better and for worse.

If it was 1981 and this was the only game I had, I might have more patience for this. If I’d grown up with tabletop games and D&D, I might understand where they’re coming from. I can even grant that the idea of rotating through party members like Pearl Jam rotated through drummers could be interesting, pressing ever onward until you land the combination of legendary heroes that gets the job done. Or that chipping away at the game over many months of sessions might make for realistic-feeling progress, or create some great stories as your parties adventure down in the gloom. You can’t have a gripping tale without some danger.

But from a modern perspective, this is masochism. The thought of actually accepting and restarting after a total party wipe makes me physically ill. Plus, there’s nothing new about restarting from the beginning. The allure of exploration is over with a completed map, so now it’s down to slow, repetitive grinding. It’s made even worse by the frequent need to return to camp to recharge, while facing the slow load times of comparatively ancient hardware.

If you surprise monsters, you can get a free turn to attack. If they surprise you, they get the same.

Despite all this, I can’t slag the game because something kept drawing me back. The gambler in me is intrigued by the “excitement” and is convinced “it won’t happen this time!” Wouldn’t it be neat to beat Wizardry without cheating? I bet that would be quite the story! Any disaster can feel like you just weren’t prepared enough in retrospect – why, if I had just waited to hit that floor until my Mage was level 13, I could teleport out if things got bad! I probably shouldn’t have pressed ahead without better armor, so I should stop and grind for a few days until I randomly, maybe, hopefully get some better gear!

I’m still not sure how much of that feeling is a lie – the monsters’ increasing difficulty and the randomness of the encounters means you can never feel truly safe at the lowest dungeon floors. An enemy Ninja may get a critical hit and instantly decapitate someone. A lucky shot might drop your Priest, leaving the rest of the party to crumble without healing like a house of cards. I suppose you could grind longer in safer areas, getting less XP and really dragging out your game. I’m sure in a year of play you could run around with level 35 characters and feel fairly invincible, But neither are at all practical for me, despite the nagging sense that I’ve really, honestly,  figured it out this time, and won’t it feel good to claim such a rare victory?

Wizardry is also oddly charming in a way. Text is limited, so there aren’t many truly comedic opportunities, but tongue is firmly in cheek when there are. There’s the whimsical manual illustrations by Will McLean, where a temple offers 50% off raising the dead, or a shouted magic spell is met with “Gesundheit!” There’s the animated frog and bear statues that reference Kermit and Fozzie. One of the best swords in the game is a literal Cuisinart. You can make your way into the dungeon’s backroom service area and “monster allocation center” to unlock a shortcut elevator. Even the evil boss Werdna famously postscripts a traditional grandstanding warning with a message that his rival Trebor “sux.”

I also enjoyed mapping far more that I thought I would. Granted, I started playing with actual graph paper just to see what it was like, and once I realized (around the third level) that my last two maps were so far off-base that I’d need to erase and redraw huge portions of them, I was ready to give up. But there are modern solutions to this. Grid Cartographer is the program that I used – I’ve read of others using Excel, or drawing programs on an iPad – and all of these make moving and redrawing your updated maps much easier (and cleaner!) than erasing on paper or starting over. I always avoided these games back then, because drawing maps by hand seemed tortuous. With modern options, I found it surprisingly fun.

If you’re still not interested in drawing, you certainly can download finished maps and follow along, but that seems like cutting out half the appeal. The wireframe dungeons are strange, abstract puzzles that feel good to solve. I loved the sense of watching my bearings come together through the map before me. The turn-based nature contributes to this – time doesn’t update until you move, so you’ll never be ambushed in the middle of drawing your map – along with seeing much lower encounter rates in the hallways. I always felt like I could safely sketch out the hallways, then grip swords and bash into a room when I was ready for combat.

Locked areas like this are only present on the first two floors.

Still, that randomized combat is a motherfucker sometimes, and I can’t say if you’re going to have the patience for it. Like me, you might think you do – until days of progress vanish before your eyes because a vampire got a hit and drained two character levels from your Samurai. Really? REALLY? Or, you might find that because you didn’t spend enough time re-rolling your character when you created him, he’ll never be able to change into the advanced class you had planned for him. Sorry, Ubergeek.

Or, you’ll spend time meticulously mapping each level, only to discover that levels 5-9 are outright useless and the traps within mean you’re actually doing yourself a disservice by going there at all. The first two levels have some neat designs, some puzzles, and some locks with keys to find. They’re “fleshed out” and filled in. This gradually drops off with 3-4, until 5-9 are barren mazes with nothing to find beyond enemies and traps. Levels 8&9 are just formed from the designers’ initials. The game becomes a race to level 10 – as that’s where the chances for the best gear and highest XP are – and then hanging there for weeks of grinding to make progress at later character levels.

Ultimately, if I was going to recommend a version of Wizardry, it wouldn’t be this one. Not just because the graphics are obviously primitive and the hardware is slow – though that’s certainly a consideration – but more because later ports got noticeable quality of life upgrades. As said earlier, most ports add graphics for points like stairs, turntables, and pits. Options to pool and split gold with a single key are added, rather than having to trade it manually here. Other versions forbid magic on the first turn when you or the enemies “surprise” the other, removing situations where you can get blown away with no chance to react. Random encounters in this version are lower, dragging out your grind. The Super Famicom version is great, but incorporates map and sequel changes made for Japan. I’d probably recommend the Llylgamyn Saga as the best balance of modern upgrades while staying true to the original. It’s made for Japan, but menu settings can put enough text in English to be playable.

That said, I don’t know if I can recommend the first Wizardry at all. It’s a fascinating game, but as it’s the first dungeon crawler I’ve really buckled down and played, it may just be genre that’s attracting me and later games are much better examples of it. What’s undeniable is its contribution to gaming as a whole. Yes, there are games on the PLATO network that explored these ideas, and possibly more that just didn’t survive into a modern era, but Wizardry brought the ideas together and made a solid digital D&D experience out of them. Just know what you’re getting into if you decide to explore the series’ uncompromising beginnings.


The Good

Impressive to see how much of a modern RPG is present in such an early game. With the right tools, mapping is a fun puzzle. Character progress always satisfying. Good range of magic spells with some powerful effects and balanced restrictions. Fantastic, detailed manual.


The Bad

Unpredictable and challenging, or random and mean, depending on your mood and what just happened to you in the game. Confusing dungeon traps might be a little too confusing. Entire game is character grinding personified, on slow hardware, with frequent deaths and loss restarting the process.




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12 thoughts on “Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord

  1. Nice to see I made the party as a big strong tough guy (am assuming FIG is fighter, right?)

    Also feeling slight shame that during our Twitter discussion about hard games, you must have been talking about this, a rock-hard RPG from the year of my birth, while I was moaning about being bad at a racing game from 2011…

    1. Yup, you and Dave on the front lines, bravely keeping the kobolds at bay. You also consistently died less than he did, for whatever that’s worth.

      Wizardry has a system where you can swap into advanced classes once you hit stat minimums. So later screens show Dave as a Samurai (SAM), who’s a better fighter and gets some magic. Downside is you have to start that character back at Lvl 1. I had planned for you both to become Samurai, but for all the reasons laid out above, once was more than enough.

      Ubergeek was supposed to become a Ninja, who has a chance to kill in one hit. But he never hit the minimums, because you can also LOSE stats when leveling. All depends on the roll of those invisible die!

      Stoo was a Bishop, who poorly combines Priest and Mage spells and levels slower than both. But it’s the only class that can identify objects from chests for free, and since the cost of identifying in town is the same as the value of the item, having a Bishop is the only way you can actually sell anything.

      All of these roles were picked at random, but I have a feeling we’ll be seeing this band of six again in the future.

  2. I’ve only played Wizardry 7 and 8 myself. I thought 7 was challenging! Even a brief try at 6 seemed like it was going to kick my ass from the start. I wouldn’t last at all with something this ruthlessly unforgiving, but it’s fascinating to read about the series’ early days.

    For some reason I usually lend my name to the party’s priest…

    1. I read those in preparation, and hope to get there myself. Though the King’s Quest series would like to have a word with me, I’m sure.

      Interesting that 6-7-8 form a trilogy, in the same way that 1-2-3 (somewhat 4) at least share a setting and connect your characters through them. Glad you found this as fascinating as I did!

  3. I will take the fact that I am indeed a fighter who died less often than Dave as confirmation that I am a double hard bastard who could beat up Vinnie Jones or Ross Kemp.

    1. The numbers bear this out.

      To be clear, I did finish the game and beat the wizard Werdna, but absolutely not legitimately. Constant save state scumming on the lowest level until I got acceptable outcomes, mostly because I was just exhausted of it by then. Ironically, Werdna himself is a pushover if you land a silence spell. Almost certain instant death if you don’t. Fitting considering the rest of the game, really.

      These characters directly port over to the sequel, so we’ll see if you can keep this reputation!

    2. “I will take the fact that I am indeed a fighter who died less often than Dave as confirmation that I am a double hard bastard who could beat up Vinnie Jones or Ross Kemp.”

      Considering my new ladyfriend could probably kick my ass six ways from Sunday despite being a librarian-in-training, this may not be the ego boost you’re looking for.

      Oh, by the way, in case anyone’s been curious where I’ve been lately, yeah, I’ve been seeing someone new lately and that’s eaten into my free time a skosh.

        1. When I greeted all those who were included in Wisardry’s company, I forgot to say hi to Uncle Dave (and Static), who has greatly contributed, in terms of content, to a further enrichment of archives of JGR – sorry, I didn’t want to lack respect!
          We’ve been meeting on these pages for years, but life goes on, and our daily commitments become more and more important.
          I’m glad to hear from you again, guys! And I’m glad you find time for your sites (I also refer to FFG of Rik and Stoo): I’m not married, even though I have a long-term relationship with a lady, but it’s clear that certain things have priority. We grow up, but it’s nice to meet here once in a while!
          That’s why, when you guys place a review, it becomes a party for me! 😀

  4. Oleg (doing Schwarzy voice):
    “JMan! My friend, you’re BACK!!! Eeaarghh graaurrgh! Long time n…”

    (Reads the Wisardry review, and “THE WIZARD IS *IN*!” tag):

    (Turnes in place at 180°, tank style, then goes back home to play at Hellfire, the expansion from GOG’s ‘Diablo’ bundle, which he has NEVER played before – conscious that he will never be as good at old RPGs as the mighty JMan! Not even cheating at it!)

    Just kidding! 😉

    I’m glad you’re back.

    Also, I see you’ve made yourself a nice bunch of rock-hard mates to share your adventure! (Hi to Rik, Stoo and Ubergeek!)

    After reading the review, I can only shake your hand for this effort, because the game as described, is BEYOND the regular gamer’s mental sanity: say, it’s like Meshuggah against your Rhapsody (Of Fire).

    I’d made attempts to play first-person dangeon crawlers before, but they never got caught on me. Probably because, as a kid, I was more interested in action games and, where I lived, the f.p. RPG genre wasn’t very popular. Growing up, I was more into RTS’ (Dune II, C&C, StarCraft, Total Annihilation), Dooms, Dukes…. you know the stuff.

    Today, as far as the Fantasy universe is concerned, the only games I can play, do not go beyond Action RPGs or scrolling slashers, like Knights of the Round on Super NES or D&D on arcade (always the scrolling one). And I’m kind of sorry about that, because I realize there are some good things to discover in what the Wizardry brought to us.

    Who knows, when I’ll get old, and my hands will no longer be able to hold a joypad or hold the mouse for more than ten minutes, I will ask my assistant to load one of these jewels and do some ass-kicking to the old WERDNA and her fellows! Or die trying!

    (Proctologist, Orthopedic and a hole bunch of M.D.’s, to a 70-year-old Oleg):
    “Sir, we strongly invite you to walk more and have more sex with your wife!”

    (Oleg, 70 years old, with his arm outstretched to the skies, battle axe in his hand):

    (JMan, doing Schwarzy voice):
    “Stop whining!”

    Anyway, thanks for bringing to us this gewel!

    I hope to read more of your reviews soon!


    1. Oleg! Good to see you!

      I definitely avoided these kinds of games when I was younger. Fantasy/swords & sorcery didn’t interest me, and the idea of drawing maps was basically offensive. Nowadays I’m more… tolerant of fantasy. Still not my favorite genre, still never seen an episode of Game of Thrones, but I can get by.

      For mapping, it really was finding the right software to make the process work for me. I really do like Grid Cartographer, and didn’t describe it much because I didn’t want the review to sound like a sales pitch. But I’m much more open to tackling these kinds of games now that I have a good mapping program.

      I don’t know that trying Wizardry when you’re 70 is good for your health, but retirement is definitely when you’d have the kind of time an honest run would require. I’m thinking about taking on the sequel without save states, but, well, we’ll see.

      If there’s ever the need for a seventh party member, I’ll be sure and add you! Or I might make you the captain of a second rescue team, hacking your way down to pull our boys out of the fire when things go wrong!

      1. Thank you for your kind thought, I will be honored to be part of the company in your virtual quests!
        I can already imagine the words in the statistics: “Captain Oleg, Keeper of the Seven Cheats”! (Reference to the albums of the band Helloween is a must).
        See you next time,
        All the best.

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