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Gold Box is the name for a series of role-playing video games produced by SSI. The company acquired a license to produce games based on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game from TSR, Inc. These games shared a common engine that came to be known as the "Gold Box Engine" after the gold-colored boxes in which most games of the series were sold.
In the mid-1980s TSR, after seeing the success of the Ultima series and other computer role-playing games (CRPGs), offered its popular Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) property to video game companies. Ten companies, including Electronic Arts, Ultima creator Origin Systems, and Sierra Entertainment applied for the license. Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI) president Joel Billings had, along with many other companies, earlier contacted TSR about licensing AD&D, but TSR was not interested at that time. Although smaller and less technically advanced than other bidders, SSI unexpectedly won the license in 1987 because of its computerized wargaming experience, and instead of releasing a single AD&D game as soon as possible, the company proposed a broad vision of multiple series of games and spinoffs that might become as sophisticated as TSR's tabletop original.
Graphics were relatively unimportant for wargames; earlier SSI CRPGs such as Wizard's Crown, one historian later wrote, "like SSI's other games ... tended to be a little bit uglier and a little bit clunkier than the competition". After winning the AD&D license, the number of SSI's in-house developers increased from seven to 25, including the company's first full-time computer-graphic artists. TSR significantly participated in the games' development, including designing a tabletop module that the first SSI game would be based on. Using Wizard's Crown's detailed combat system as a base for their work, the development of the Gold Box engine and the original games was managed by SSI's Chuck Kroegel and George MacDonald. Later versions were led by Victor Penman and Ken Humphries. The first game produced in the series was Pool of Radiance, released in 1988. This was followed by Curse of the Azure Bonds (1989), Secret of the Silver Blades (1990), and Pools of Darkness (1991), the games forming one continuous story rooted in the once-glorious city of Phlan and later encompassing the entire Moonsea Reaches and four outer planes. A series of TSR novels with identical titles paralleled the stories in the games, and also were best sellers. The original four titles were developed in-house at SSI, and were the best selling Gold Box games. Their success spurred an era of rapid growth at the company.
Earlier games in the series were playable on the Apple IIe, the Apple Macintosh, the Commodore 64, the Amiga and the IBM PC. Later games in the series were released only for the Macintosh, Amiga, and PC.
When SSI began work on the Dark Sun engine in 1990, development of the Savage Frontier series was passed to developer Stormfront Studios. Stormfront set their first Forgotten Realms Gold Box title, Gateway to the Savage Frontier (1991), in Neverwinter, far from the locale of the prior games in Myth Drannor. Gateway became the fourth Gold Box game to go to the #1 position on industry sales charts.
All of the online RPGs of the 1980s were text-based MUDs, describing the action in the style of Rogue or Will Crowther's original Adventure game. Stormfront's Don Daglow had been designing games for AOL for several years, and the new alliance of SSI, TSR, America On-Line, and Stormfront led to the development of Neverwinter Nights, the first graphical MMORPG, which ran on AOL from 1991 to 1997. NWN was a multi-player implementation of the Gold Box engine, and was the most popular game on AOL for over five years. It paved the way for later hits such as Ultima Online (1997) and EverQuest (1999).
Sales declined over time, as the engine—originally designed for the Commodore 64—aged, and SSI released too many games (11 Gold Box games over four years). When SSI and TSR extended the original contract expiring in January 1993 for 18 months, SSI was required to discontinue the engine. Dark Sun was supposed to use a new engine in its first game, Dark Sun: Shattered Lands, in 1992. Unfortunately, the new engine was still shaky when Shattered Lands appeared in 1994. With the Gold Box engine's sales finally fading after a six-year run, the losses SSI absorbed during those two years of delays played a critical role in the sale of SSI to Mindscape in 1994.
The memory of all these games is kept alive by Forgotten Realms Unlimited Adventures, or FRUA for short, released in 1993, which was an editor that allowed players to create their own stories using a version of the Gold Box engine. An active community grew up around this game, including hacks that expanded its powers and its graphics abilities.
The "Gold Box Engine" had two main game play modes. Outside of character creation, game play took place in a screen that displayed text interactions, the names and current status of your party of characters, and a window which displayed images of geography, and large or small pictures of characters or events. When combat occurred, which was often in these games, you switched to a full screen combat mode, in which player character icons could move about to cast spells or attack icons representing the enemies. All the games typically involved long dungeon crawls, and were heavier on combat than on role-playing.
The Gold Box games formed a number of series in which you could move characters who had finished one game to the next one in the series. In addition, characters from Pool of Radiance could be imported into Hillsfar, a game based on an entirely different engine, and then exported into Curse of the Azure Bonds. The system was improved over time, adding better colors, graphics, more player-class levels, and new story lines.
- The Pool of Radiance Forgotten Realms series (developed internally at SSI):
- The Savage Frontier Forgotten Realms series (developed by Stormfront Studios):
- The Dragonlance series (developed internally at SSI):
- The Buck Rogers series:
Additionally, Spelljammer: Pirates of Realmspace (1992) used the Gold Box combat engine.
- Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Limited Edition Collector's Set (1990, DOS, C64, Amiga, SSI) - a compilation of many early AD&D titles, including several Gold Box games.
- Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Collectors Edition (1994, DOS, WizardWorks) - a compilation of all of the Gold Box games, minus FRUA and the Buck Rogers series.
- Fantasy Fest! (1994, DOS, SSI) - a compilation of several AD&D games, including FRUA.
- Dungeons & Dragons Ultimate Fantasy (1995, DOS, Slash) - a compilation of several AD&D games, including FRUA.
- The Forgotten Realms Archives (1997, DOS/WIN, Interplay) - a compilation of SSI's Forgotten Realms video games, including the Gold Box series'.
- Gamefest: Forgotten Realms Classics (2001, DOS/WIN, Interplay) - a compilation of SSI's Forgotten Realms video games, including the Gold Box series'.
With 264,536 copies sold for computers in North America, Pool of Radiance became by far the most-successful game in SSI's history, outselling Ultima V and Bard's Tale III. It was given a score of 90% by Commodore User. The reviewer Tony Dillon was impressed with the features.
The next game in the series, Curse of the Azure Bonds, was also well received. It was given a score of 90% by magazine "The Games Machine", and 89% on CU Amiga-64. Dave Arneson, a creator of D&D, expressed his disappointment that the Gold Box games did not innovate enough from previous CRPGs, comparing them to "a cross ... between Questron and Wizard's Crown presented in a new setting". The final Gold Box game, The Dark Queen of Krynn (1992), sold 40,640 copies.
On modern systems
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The games run well in DOSBox on modern operating systems. Also the Gold Box Companion has been developed to smooth out some of the rough edges in the programming of some of the games. Some of the early games, for instance, do not allow turning off Quick Fight, which sets characters to automatic in combat.
- DeMaria, Rusel; Wilson, Johnny L. (2003-12-18). High Score!: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games (2nd ed.). McGraw-Hill Osborne Media. p. 169. ISBN 0-07-223172-6.
- Barton, Matt (2007-02-23). "Unforgettable Realms: SSI's "Gold Box" Games". The History of Computer Role-Playing Games Part 2: The Golden Age (1985-1993). Gamasutra. p. 4. Archived from the original on 2009-02-27. Retrieved 2009-01-02.
- Rausch, Allen (2004-08-16). "SSI's "Gold Box" Series". Retrieved 2009-01-02.
- Maher, Jimmy (2016-03-18). "Opening the Gold Box, Part 3: From Tabletop to Desktop". The Digital Antiquarian. Retrieved 19 March 2016.
- "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons". G.M. The Independent Fantasy Roleplaying Magazine. Vol. 1 no. 1. Croftward. September 1988. p. 20.
- Mulligan, Jessica; Patrovsky, Bridgette. Developing Online Games: An Insider's Guide. New Riders. p. 455. ISBN 1-59273-000-0.
- Maher, Jimmy (2017-03-31). "Opening the Gold Box, Part 5: All That Glitters is Not Gold". The Digital Antiquarian.
- Dillon,Tony; Pool of Radiance review in Commodore User (Oct 1988) p: 34, 35
- The Games Machine 22 (Sep 1989), Paul Rigby p:80
- CU Amiga-64 (Aug 1989), Tony Dillon p:33
- Arneson, David L. (May 1988). "The Future of Computer Role-Playing" (PDF). Computer Gaming World. No. 47. pp. 24–25. Retrieved 23 April 2016.
- Forgotten Realms: The Archives brings 13 D&D classics to GOG on PC Gamer Jordan Erica Webber (Aug 20, 2015)
- Forgotten Realms: The Archives - Collection Two on gog.com