The Elder Scrolls: Arena (Bethesda Softworks, 1994)
For the past couple of years, all I hear about from my friends is how great Skyrim is.
I mean, they're right. It's a graphical and gameplay masterpiece. It outshines the previous two installments in the Elder Scrolls series, and even screenshots of it are breathtaking. It inspired me to buy Morrowind again recently, off of Steam, and play it through from the start. I was glad I did; It seems that Bethesda's Elder Scrolls saga is consistently incredible.
But did you ever play the first one?
In 1994, 3D and first-person were really hitting their stride. These concepts were being applied with a wide brush, and all kinds of games were being developed to exploit the new jump in technology. It only stood to reason that someone would develop an RPG using the scope popularized by games like Doom and Quake; First-person 3D worlds simply begged for exploration. Bethesda Softworks, then a small company in Maryland, decided to tackle the task. Though they'd been around since 1986, Bethesda's biggest notoriety up until then had been developing the first physics based sports simulator, Gridiron, for the Atari ST. They had also made DOS and NES games based on the first Terminator film, and the DOS version contained some 3D elements.
Elder Scrolls: Arena is an oft-overshadowed ground breaker in terms of both first-person RPGs and the “open world” concept. The player creates a customized character using the now-familiar races and classes, and can pursue the game's main plot while also doing side quests. There is also the (then) novel option of just poking around the land of Tamriel and seeing what turns up. But first... you must make it out of the initial dungeon.
Hunting MacGuffins, hobnobbing with royalty, battling wizards and skeletons... welcome to Tamriel.
Arena's plot involves the betrayal of the Emperor by his battlemage Jagar Tharn. Tharn imprisons the Emperor in a pocket dimension, and uses magic to assume his form. Tharn also kills his apprentice, Ria Silmane, because he knows she cannot be corrupted. Silmane sends her spirit to you as you languish in the dungeons beneath the Imperial City, and sets you free by helping you find a key to open your cell. You find a smattering of helpful equipment and progress through what seems to be a set of sewers, slaying rats and goblins as you seek the exit. You then emerge (if you are lucky) in a random part of the Empire... and the story begins. The objective is to assemble the parts of a magic staff that can be used against Jagar Tharn, and confront him in the Imperial City once you have become powerful enough to stop him. There are many other quests you must undertake in the meantime: rescuing people, delving into ancient ruins, and other typical (but exciting) fantasy adventures.
Arena presents you with literally the entire Empire, and you can visit each province. While the graphics are understandably limited, it is a vast game for its time. A great deal of information is packed into one game world, and while the taverns and shops all look the same, everything is worth exploring and there are tons of unique locales dotting the world of Tamriel.
And they are full of monsters. Orcs, skeletons, monstrous hounds, minotaurs... there are even vampires and undead wizards (called liches) running around in some of these forsaken places you'll discover. And of course, you'll occasionally run into rival adventurers and agents of Jagar Tharn. Tharn himself will occasionally harrow you in your dreams, once he knows you're assembling the magic staff.
Almost all of the well-known class choices are available for you during character creation, and while the Argonians and Khajit look far more human than you may be used to, the only race missing is Imperial. You can go for stealth, magic, brawn, or a combination thereof. I had the most success as a melee bruiser, but it's fun to throw around magic fireballs and float in midair too. It also helps to be able to pick locks. Finding good loot is half the fun when poking through the places your quest will take you; gold can only buy so much, and everyone knows the best toys are lying undisturbed for centuries in the ruins.
The game's soundtrack, while a far cry from its sequels' scores, is still rich and appropriate. It is a little repetitive, but one hardly notices. The graphics are perhaps more grainy and pixelated than something like Doom; with so much to pack into a game world (and a disc), the detail had to be a point of compromise. Nonetheless, you'll find that the textures and sprites are adequate. The only other point to pick at is that Tamriel, in its first incarnation, is quite a flat realm. No inclines, hills, or soft curves exist. Again, one must remember that this is the grandpappy of what became a legendary set of games. Some gentleness must be shown in judging what really is a stellar release for 1994. Besides, the cinematic cut scenes are obscenely cool. Especially the ending.
I give Elder Scrolls: Arena 8 out of 10. I do so through the gilded lens of hindsight, and to acknowledge that its genetics are very much alive in games like Skyrim. I spent many an hour plugging away at the Quest to assemble the Staff of Chaos, and while I never finished that mighty undertaking, it was worth all the time invested. As a man who adores the fantasy genre, it has always stood out in my mind as a game all too easily forgotten. Especially since it spawned such incredible sequels and helped jump start a now monolithic company!