The Bard's Tale (1985 video game)

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The Bard's Tale
Bard's Tale Box Cover.jpg
Cover art
Developer(s) Interplay Productions
Publisher(s) Electronic Arts & Ariolasoft (Europe)
Designer(s) Michael Cranford
Platform(s) Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Apple II, Apple IIGS, Apple Macintosh, Atari ST, Commodore 64, DOS, NES, ZX Spectrum, NEC PC-9801
Release date(s) 1985 - 1991
Genre(s) RPG
Mode(s) Single-player

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.[1] It was designed and programmed by Michael Cranford.

Based loosely on traditional Dungeons & 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."[2]

It was originally released for the Apple II, and was also ported to the Commodore 64, Apple IIgs, ZX Spectrum, Amstrad CPC, Commodore Amiga, Atari ST, DOS, Apple Macintosh, and NES platforms.


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 (with no connections to the real-world historical site of the same name) consists of 30x30 map tiles containing either buildings or streets (plus gates and magical guardian statues blocking certain streets). Access to one tower in the northeastern and southwestern city corner each is blocked by locked gates. The main city gates which open to the west are blocked by snow, and remain impassable throughout the game. One street seems to lead south endlessly, by actually 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 is unmarked and 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.

  1. The first dungeon is the Wine Cellar (1 level) of one particular tavern, which proves connected to the Sewers of Skara Brae (3 levels) that 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. It cannot be entered without a key, however. In the sewers, numerous hints are found including the name of the Mad God. Finding this first dungeon (the wine cellar) required the party 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. Upon ordering wine, the party would be sent by the bartender to his cellar to fetch a bottle themselves. It is not actually possible within the game to obtain a bottle of wine, nor is it required to proceed. The purpose of this introductory "dungeon" was simply to introduce the dungeon concept and provide access to the sewers.
  2. 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; it just needs to be typed in by the player regardless of how they came to possess this information). On the lowest level, a Lich must be defeated to obtain an eye.
  3. 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 and return to the city and the Adventurer's Guild.
  4. 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 his tower maze and turns out to be friendly. He gives the party an access key to Mangar's Tower, the final dungeon, but they still have to circumvent the locked gates around the tower by going through the Sewers.
  5. Still reachable only via the Sewers at this point in the game, 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 several items in the other dungeons 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 thenceforward, without having to move through the Sewers or Harkyn's Castle, respectively.


A screenshot of The Bard's Tale on the Commodore 64.
A screenshot of The Bard's Tale on the Apple IIGS.

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. However, when using a mouse (in the DOS, Amiga, and Macintosh 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.


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.[3]

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.

Artist Eric Joyner painted the original cover art, which featured himself (foreground, vest), artist Don Carson III (foreground with mug and background with pipe) and Carson's father Don Carson Jr (harp) as models.[citation needed]

Rebecca Heineman, who worked at Interplay and would later write the code for The Bard's Tale III from scratch, claimed in a 2010 interview to have personally written much of the game code for The Bard's Tale, 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.[4] In a 2011 interview with the same interviewer, Brian Fargo did not refute Heineman's claims (explicitly referring to the earlier interview) but stressed the development aspect over the pure coding, calling Heineman's role in the development of the first two games was "minimal" and stating that around forty of the thousands of lines of code in the finished game were hers, while at the same time acknowledging her coding genius.[5]

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.[4] Brian Fargo confirmed the story to be true.[5] When Cranford's contract with Interplay ended, Heineman started to program The Bard's Tale III: The Thief of Fate, threw out all of Cranford's code and started from scratch.[4]


The Bard's Tale was very successful, and became the first non-Wizardry computer role-playing game to challenge the Ultima series' sales, especially to Commodore 64 users who could not play Wizardry (a Commodore version did not appear until 1987, with inferior graphics to that of The Bard's Tale). They, historian Jimmy Maher wrote in 2014, "set upon The Bard’s Tale like a horde of the mad dogs who are some of the first monsters you encounter in its labyrinths".[6] Computer Gaming World in 1985 described Bard's Tale as "not to be missed!"[7] 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."[8] The game was revisited in Dragon #120.[9] In a subsequent column, the reviewers gave the game 5 out of 5 stars.[10]

Compute! called the Apple IIGS version "unquestionably the most graphically stunning product I have seen on any Apple computer".[11] The ZX Spectrum version of The Bard's Tale, released in 1988,[12] 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%.[13] 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."[14] Your Sinclair were similarly positive about the game, rating it 9/10.[15]

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".[16]

With a score of 7.49 out of 10, in 1988 The Bard's Tale was among the first members of the Computer Gaming World Hall of Fame, honoring those games rated highly over time by readers.[17] In 1990 the game received the seventh-highest number of votes in a survey of readers' "All-Time Favorites".[18] Maher wrote that "the most surprising thing about [the game] is that nobody did it sooner". Despite being "even more derivative of Wizardry than Questron had been of Ultima", he stated that its better graphics and larger scope made the game very appealing.[6]



A magazine advertisement for The Bard's Tale.

The Bard's Tale was both a best-seller[19] and a critical success, and produced three official sequels:

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 Rebecca 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.[20]

What was originally going to be The Bard's Tale IV became Dragon Wars.[21]

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,[22] 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.

In May 2015, Fargo announced he was planning to develop and a sequel funded through Kickstarter, The Bard's Tale IV.[23] It will directly continue the storyline of the original trilogy.[24]


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:

  1. Castle of Deception, by Mercedes Lackey and Josepha Sherman (1992, ISBN 0-671-72125-9)
  2. Fortress of Frost and Fire, by Mercedes Lackey and Ru Emerson (1993, ISBN 0-671-72162-3)
  3. Prison of Souls, by Mercedes Lackey and Mark Shepherd (1994, ISBN 0-671-72193-3)
  4. The Chaos Gate, by Josepha Sherman (1994, ISBN 0-671-87597-3)
  5. Thunder of the Captains, by Holly Lisle and Aaron Allston (1996, ISBN 0-671-87731-3)
  6. Wrath of the Princes, by Holly Lisle and Aaron Allston (1997, ISBN 0-671-87771-2)
  7. Escape from Roksamur, by Mark Shepherd (1997, ISBN 0-671-87797-6)
  8. 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.


  1. ^ Barton, Matt (2007-02-23). "Part 2: The Golden Age (1985–1993)". The History of Computer Role-Playing Games. Gamasutra. Retrieved 2009-03-26. 
  2. ^ Bagnall, Michael R. (1988). Addams, Shay, ed. Quest for Clues. New Hampshire: Origin Systems. p. 27. ISBN 0-929373-00-6. 
  3. ^ Cranford, Michael (1998). "The Bard's Tale Compendium". E-mail correspondence. Retrieved 2009-07-22. 
  4. ^ a b c Barton, Matt (10 December 2010). "Matt Chat 85: Rebecca Heineman Pt. 4". YouTube. Google. Retrieved 14 October 2013. 
  5. ^ a b Barton, Matt (15 January 2011). "Matt Chat 89: Bard's Tale and Wizardry with Brian Fargo". YouTube. Google. Retrieved 14 October 2013. 
  6. ^ a b Maher, Jimmy (2014-06-25). "Of Wizards and Bards". The Digital Antiquarian. Retrieved 11 July 2014. 
  7. ^ Scorpia (November 1985). "The Bard's Tale". Computer Gaming World (review). p. 27. 
  8. ^ Lesser, Hartley and Pattie (December 1986). "The Role of Computers". Dragon (116): 69–76. 
  9. ^ Lesser, Hartley and Patricia (April 1987). "The Role of Computers". Dragon (120): 79–82. 
  10. ^ Lesser, Hartley and Patricia (October 1987). "The Role of Computers". Dragon (126): 82–88. 
  11. ^ Trunzo, James V. (October 1987). "The Bard's Tale II: The Destiny Knight". Compute!. p. 31. Retrieved 10 November 2013. 
  12. ^ "Bard's Tale, The". World of Spectrum. Retrieved 2007-12-11. 
  13. ^ "The Bard's Tale". CRASH (55): 55–56. August 1988. 
  14. ^ "Bards Tale". Sinclair User (77): 88–89. August 1988. 
  15. ^ Gerrard, Mike (September 1988). "The Bard's Tale: Tales of the Unknown". Your Sinclair (33): 28. Retrieved 2007-12-11. 
  16. ^ "Gamebase 64 - Game of the Week". Reprinted - ZZap! Review. Retrieved 2013-05-21. 
  17. ^ "The CGW Hall of Fame". Computer Gaming World. March 1988. p. 44. 
  18. ^ "CGW Readers Select All-Time Favorites". Computer Gaming World. January 1990. p. 64. Retrieved 15 November 2013. 
  19. ^ Campbell, Colin (14 July 2015). "How EA lost its soul, chapter 8". Polygon. Vox Media. Retrieved 15 July 2015. 
  20. ^ Heineman, Bill (2000). "The Bard's Tale Compendium". Interview transcript. Retrieved 2011-02-24. 
  21. ^ Rebecca Heineman Interview. Digit Press, 2006.
  22. ^ "The Bard's Tale Compendium". Game review. 2004. Retrieved 2011-02-24. 
  23. ^ "The Bards Tale IV by inXile entertainment". Kickstarter. June 2, 2015. Retrieved June 15, 2015. 
  24. ^ Brian Fargo On Bringing Back The Bard's Tale

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