The Bard's Tale (1985 video game)
|The Bard's Tale|
|Publisher(s)||Electronic Arts & Ariolasoft (Europe)|
|Release date(s)||1985 - 1991|
|Media/distribution||Cassette, Floppy disk, Cartridge|
Tales of the Unknown: Volume I, better known by its subtitle The Bard's Tale, is a fantasy role-playing video game created by Interplay Productions in 1985 and distributed by Electronic Arts. It was designed and programmed by Michael Cranford.
Based loosely on traditional Dungeons and Dragons gameplay and inspired by the Wizardry computer games, The Bard's Tale was noteworthy for its unprecedented 3D graphics and partly animated character portraits. The Bard was also an innovation: "The Bard was author Michael Cranford's contribution to the genre, a character who casts spells by singing one of six tunes."
The following text from the box cover summarizes the premise:
Long ago, when magic still prevailed, the evil wizard Mangar the Dark threatened a small but harmonious country town called Skara Brae. Evil creatures oozed into Skara Brae and joined his shadow domain. Mangar froze the surrounding lands with a spell of Eternal Winter, totally isolating Skara Brae from any possible help. Then, one night the town militiamen all disappeared. The future of Skara Brae hung in the balance. And who was left to resist? Only a handful of unproven young Warriors, junior Magic Users, a couple of Bards barely old enough to drink, and some out of work Rogues. You are there. You are the leader of this ragtag group of freedom fighters. Luckily you have a Bard with you to sing your glories, if you survive. For this is the stuff of legends. And so the story begins...
The introduction depicts a bard sitting in a tavern. Between occasional sips from his mug, he strums a lute and sings:
- The song I sing
- Will tell the tale
- of a cold and wintery day;
- Of castle walls
- And torchlit halls
- And a price men had to pay.
- When evil fled
- And brave men bled
- The Dark one came to stay,
- 'Til men of old
- For blood and gold
- Had rescued Skara Brae.
In the actual game, the player forms a group ("party") of up to six characters in the Adventurer's Guild building which is the only "home zone" where the current game or more precisely, the characters and their current inventory, can be saved. Game progress is made through advancing the characters so that they are powerful enough to defeat the increasingly dangerous foes and monsters in the dungeons, obtaining certain items relevant to solving the overall quest, and obtaining information.
The fictional town of Skara Brae consists of 30x30 map tiles containing either buildings or streets (plus gates and magical guardian statues blocking certain streets). In the northeastern and southwestern area, a lone tower is blocked off by locked gates. The main gates which open to the west are blocked by snow, and remain impassable throughout the game. One street seems to lead south endlessly, teleporting the party back to its beginning upon reaching the portion where the city walls would be.
Certain buildings within the city are special, such as the Adventurer's Guild, Garth's Equipment Shoppe, the Review Board (which must be found first, and is the only place where characters can level up), various taverns and temples and the dungeons. The latter are mazes of various kinds—cellars, sewers, catacombs or fortresses—full of monsters and riddles, some guarded by magical statues that turn to life to attack trespassing player parties.
- The first dungeon is the Wine Cellar (1 level) of one particular tavern, which proves connected to the Sewers of Skara Brae (3 levels) which in turn feature an exit that leads to an otherwise inaccessible southwestern corner of the city where Mangar's Tower, the final dungeon, is located. In the sewers, numerous hints are found including the name of the Mad God. Finding the first dungeon (the wine cellar) required you to order some wine at a certain tavern. There was a hint to this in the manual (Hint: The first dungeon is the wine cellar of the only tavern in town which serves wine. It's on Rakhir Street). However this hint was not present in the manual included with the C64 release of the game.
- The undead-infested Catacombs (3 levels) beneath the temple of the Mad God, accessible only if his name is known (but not technically requiring the party to have found this password themselves). On the lowest level, a Lich must be defeated to obtain an eye.
- If they possess the eye, a statue of the Mad God in Baron Harkyn's Castle (3 levels) will teleport the party to the (otherwise inaccessible) northeastern area where the next dungeon is located; however, it is not required to proceed to the next dungeon immediately. If weakened too much from the fighting in the castle, the party may elect to leave the area via one-way portals instead at this point to return to the city and the Adventurer's Guild.
- Kylearan's Tower (1 level) is only accessible through the teleporter in Harkyn's Castle, requiring any party who wish to enter to fight through the castle's three levels first. Kylearan the Archmage awaits the party at the conclusion of the maze his tower and turns out to be friendly. He gives the party an access key to the final dungeon.
- Reachable only via the Sewers' lowest level, Mangar's Tower (5 levels) is the final dungeon that has to be overcome to reach Mangar and slay him, provided the party has acquired the items which are required to best him. At one point within the tower the party can acquire a key that will allow them to access Mangar's Tower and Kylearan's Tower from the city directly fortwith, without having to move through the Sewers or Harkyn's Castle, respectively.
|This section does not cite any references or sources. (June 2008)|
The Bard's Tale is a straightforward "dungeon crawl". The objective is to gain experience and advance characters' skills through (mostly) random combat with enemies and monsters. This is done while exploring maze-like dungeons, solving occasional puzzles and riddles, and finding or buying better weapons, armor and other equipment.
When beginning the game, the player may create up to six player characters, chosen from among the following classes: bard, hunter, monk, paladin, rogue, warrior, magician, and conjurer. The classes sorcerer and wizard were available to experienced conjurers and magicians. A typical well-balanced party might consist of a couple of fighters, a rogue, a bard, and a couple of magic users. On some platforms, the player could import previously created characters from Wizardry and/or Ultima III, which was somewhat revolutionary at the time.
The most important character was arguably the bard, whose magical songs functioned like long-lasting spells and affected the player's party in various ways—such as strengthening their armor, or increasing their attack speed, much like "buffs" in modern day MMORPGs. A number of obligatory puzzles in the game were unsolvable without the use of bard songs. Each bard song triggered corresponding music while he played (some classical, some original).
With only a map of the town of Skara Brae included on the box, it was usually necessary for players to use pencil and graph paper to make their own maps as they played through the game. In the first two games, each dungeon level was set on a fixed 22 by 22 grid.
Magic users were allowed to change classes permanently. The game manual describes a magic user who has mastered all spells from all four classes as "an Archmage, the most powerful being in the world of The Bard's Tale." However, Archmage status had no effect on gameplay other than simply having all spells available.
Casting one of the 85 magic user spells consisted of typing a four-letter code found only in the printed game manual, which perhaps helped limit piracy and contributed to the commercial success of the game. However when using a mouse (in the DOS and Amiga versions), the full names of the spells would appear in a list to choose from.
Combat is round-based and abstract, described in text rather than shown graphically; there is no notion of moving characters around on a map during combat. Cash and experience points are distributed evenly to all surviving party members after a particular encounter is won.
Critical reception 
The game was reviewed in 1986 in Dragon #116 by Hartley and Pattie Lesser in "The Role of Computers" column. The reviewers rated the game well, concluding that "Bard’s Tale, a game of high adventure ... is one we recommend for your software library." The game was revisited in Dragon #120. In a subsequent column, the reviewers gave the game 5 out of 5 stars.
The ZX Spectrum version of The Bard's Tale, released in 1988, was favorably received. CRASH said that "the Skara Brae environment is so complex and involves so many different factors that it's hard not to get completely enthralled in your quest" and rated it at 86%. Sinclair User rated it at 89%, but noted that it would not appeal to general gameplayers, saying that "The Bard's Tale will enthrall diehard pixie fans [...] but there's too much text, and not enough graphics and animation, to convert the uncommitted." Your Sinclair were similarly positive about the game, rating it 9/10.
The Commodore 64 version of The Bard's Tale was given a 'Sizzler' award and rated at 94% by ZZAP! 64 magazine, in the 1986 Christmas Special edition. Reviewer Sean Masterson called it "the best RPG on the Commodore".
The Bard's Tale was both a best-seller and a critical success, and produced three official sequels:
- The Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight
- The Bard's Tale III: Thief of Fate
- The Bard's Tale Construction Set
A compilation of all three The Bard's Tale games, entitled The Bard's Tale Trilogy, was released for DOS by Electronic Arts in 1990.
According to programmer Bill Heineman the name of the overall series was to be Tales of the Unknown, and the three games were to be entitled The Bard's Tale, The Archmage's Tale, and The Thief's Tale. This is supported by the cover art of the original Bard's Tale release, which proclaimed the game as "Tales of the Unknown, Volume I." However, the immense popularity of the first game prompted Electronic Arts to re-brand the series under the more well-known name.
In 2003, Brian Fargo (who created maps for the first two Bard's Tale games and directed the third) left Interplay Entertainment and began a new game development company named InXile Entertainment. In 2004 they released their first game, also titled The Bard's Tale, an irreverent console-style top-down action game which pokes fun at traditional fantasy role-playing game tropes—such as, for example, those found in the original Bard's Tale. It was not a sequel to the classic series, nor was it connected in any respect apart from the title. Although a legal loophole allowed InXile to use the Bard's Tale name and the company had evidently planned to incorporate more elements of the original games, Electronic Arts still owns the original trademarks for the Bard's Tale series itself, and InXile was not legally allowed to use any of the plot, characters or locations featured in the original trilogy.
A series of novels based on The Bard's Tale were published by Baen Books during the 1990s. Although the books had little in common with the storyline of the games, their existence is a testament to how influential the Bard's Tale brand had become. They include:
- Castle of Deception, by Mercedes Lackey and Josepha Sherman (1992, ISBN 0-671-72125-9)
- Fortress of Frost and Fire, by Mercedes Lackey and Ru Emerson (1993, ISBN 0-671-72162-3)
- Prison of Souls, by Mercedes Lackey and Mark Shepherd (1994, ISBN 0-671-72193-3)
- The Chaos Gate, by Josepha Sherman (1994, ISBN 0-671-87597-3)
- Thunder of the Captains, by Holly Lisle and Aaron Allston (1996, ISBN 0-671-87731-3)
- Wrath of the Princes, by Holly Lisle and Aaron Allston (1997, ISBN 0-671-87771-2)
- Escape from Roksamur, by Mark Shepherd (1997, ISBN 0-671-87797-6)
- Curse of the Black Heron, by Holly Lisle (1998, ISBN 0-671-87868-9)
While they are listed here in the order they were published, some books in the series connect more than others, such as Castle of Deception and The Chaos Gate, Prison of Souls and Escape from Roksamur, and Thunder of the Captains and Wrath of the Princes.
Michael Cranford, the designer and programmer of the first two Bard's Tale games, was a devout Christian. He included references to Jesus Christ in The Bard's Tale, and all but one of the city names in The Bard's Tale II are taken from the New Testament. After a falling-out with Brian Fargo he was not involved in The Bard's Tale III and decided to go back to college to study philosophy and theology instead.
Bill Heineman claimed in a 2010 interview to have personally written much of the game code, in particular graphic, animation and sound routines, as well as the development tools used to make the game (such as a graphic design program that was used to draw the monster and character imagery) and all ports, doing "all the heavy lifting" regarding coding in her words. She also said the work created a rift between herself and Cranford. Cranford, according to the interviewer, had denied this in an email, going so far as to claim that Heineman had nothing to do with the first two parts of the Bard's Tale.
Heineman also claimed that Cranford, after doing some last bugfixes, held the game's final version "hostage" to force Brian Fargo to sign a publishing contract that contained a clause by which the sequel game (The Destiny Knight) would be Cranford's alone. When Cranford's contract with Interplay ended, Heineman started to program The Bard's Tale III: The Thief of Fate, threw out all of his code and started from scratch.
Lawrence Holland, who composed the music and programmed the music interface for The Bard's Tale, went on to create the renowned Star Wars: X-Wing series of games for LucasArts. He later founded his own game company, Totally Games.
- Barton, Matt (2007-02-23). "Part 2: The Golden Age (1985–1993)". The History of Computer Role-Playing Games. Gamasutra. Retrieved 2009-03-26.
- Bagnall, Michael R. (1988). Addams, Shay, ed. Quest for Clues. New Hampshire: Origin Systems. p. 27. ISBN 0-929373-00-6.
- Lesser, Hartley and Pattie (December 1986). "The Role of Computers". Dragon (116): 69–76.
- Lesser, Hartley and Patricia (April 1987). "The Role of Computers". Dragon (120): 79–82.
- Lesser, Hartley and Patricia (October 1987). "The Role of Computers". Dragon (126): 82–88.
- "Bard's Tale, The". World of Spectrum. Retrieved 2007-12-11.
- "The Bard's Tale". CRASH (55): 55–56. August 1988.
- "Bards Tale". Sinclair User (77): 88–89. August 1988.
- Gerrard, Mike (September 1988). "The Bard's Tale: Tales of the Unknown". Your Sinclair (33): 28. Retrieved 2007-12-11.
- "Gamebase 64 - Game of the Week". Reprinted - ZZap! Review. Retrieved 2013-05-21.
- Heineman, Bill (2000). "The Bard's Tale Compendium". Interview transcript. Retrieved 2011-02-24.
- Rebecca Heineman Interview. Digit Press, 2006.
- "The Bard's Tale Compendium". Game review. 2004. Retrieved 2011-02-24.
- Cranford, Michael (1998). "The Bard's Tale Compendium". E-mail correspondence. Retrieved 2009-07-22.
- In this interview on Youtube.com: "Matt Chat 85"
- The Bard's Tale at MobyGames
- The Bard's Tale at GameBase64, with links to the files and music for the Commodore 64
- Bard's Tale at World of Spectrum
- The Bard's Tale (1985 video game) at the Open Directory Project
- The Bard's Tale Compendium
- Images of The Bard's Tale box, manual and screen shots at C64Sets.com