Game-related ramblings.

History Lessons: Sorcerian

Other History Lessons posts can be found here. If you’re looking specifically for console games, those are here. As always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

I’ve been playing early console role-playing games (and action role-playing hybrids, and Metroidvanias), nominally trying to go in chronological order. But I haven’t been very successful at that. The farthest I’ve reached in terms of the timeline is September 1989, with SpellCaster, but I’ve since gone back in time again to fill in some games I missed. Several of those are entries in Nihon Falcom’s Dragon Slayer series, including Dragon Slayer IV: Drasle Family (AKA Legacy of the Wizard), and my most recent entry about Faxanadu, a spinoff game based on Xanadu, the second Dragon Slayer game. If I had my timeline in order, the next game after Faxanadu would have been Hydlide 3: The Space Memories, followed by the original Final Fantasy (which was actually the first post I wrote for this series, heh) and Phantasy Star. After that, we reach the fifth Dragon Slayer game, Sorcerian, originally released in late December, 1987.

Sorcerian is notable as an early example of a game designed to support expansion packs. The development team was tired of having to write the code for a game’s engine and systems every time they made a new game, so they tried a new approach with Sorcerian: it shipped with one disk for the game systems, and another disk with a collection of playable scenarios. Then Nihon Falcom — or others! — could release more scenario disks, which players could collect to continue their adventures. This formula proved successful, and Sorcerian was ported from the PC-88 to other home computer systems as well as consoles like the Mega Drive and PC Engine CD. Later, Sorcerian saw enhanced re-releases for Windows, and the wide range of scenarios to play mean that there are fans still playing it today (interested readers may enjoy this comprehensive feature about Sorcerian for more details). Unfortunately for me, all of those releases are Japan-only, without even any complete fan-made translations. The only time Sorcerian appeared in English was a version for MS-DOS, brought to US markets by Sierra On-Line in 1990. Which means I’ve found myself in the strange position of using comparatively fiddly DOSBox emulation to play it, rather than the console emulation I’ve used for everything else in this series so far.

Fortunately for me, Sorcerian is quite easy to get running in DOSBox. The DOS version is more or less identical to the PC-88 original, and doesn’t seem to have any of the speed issues that can plague later DOS games. Those require careful choice of cycles settings in DOSBox to alleviate, and I was happy to find no need for such tinkering here. Sorcerian basically just runs, all I had to do was mount its install folder as my virtual C: drive in DOSBox, and run the game. But I spent some extra time fiddling with sound.

Since DOS runs on computers with varying hardware configurations, there are several choices when it comes to playing Sorcerian’s MIDI music, and they can have a drastic effect on how things sound. I’ve discussed MIDI in detail before, in my first post about Betrayal at Krondor, but to briefly recap: MIDI doesn’t store actual audio, it just tells the computer which notes to play, and what they should sound like (e.g. piano, strings, horns). Which means that the actual sound one gets depends on the audio hardware one uses to play it. The default PC Speaker is horrible, a sharp beeping sound that can only play a single note at a time, but DOS-based players in 1990 had some better options. The AdLib, released in 1987, was the first widely adopted sound card for IBM-compatible PCs, and it improves Sorcerian’s music a lot. But those who could afford some expensive hardware would opt for the Roland MT-32 instead, a now-legendary music synthesizer module that powered a lot of PC game music in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

I’ve written about the Roland MT-32 before, both in my first Betrayal at Krondor post, and in my posts about Star Trek: 25th Anniversary and its sequel. The short version is that it was designed as a synthesizer for musicians, but became a standard for computer music due to its combination of sample-based synthesis for realistic percussion sounds with subtractive synthesis for sustained tones. Getting MT-32 music working with DOSBox is a little tricky, but I used the same procedure that I explained in my post about Star Trek: 25th Anniversary. And it’s worth the trouble. Sierra were big fans of the MT-32, writing music specifically for the module in most (all?) of their games, and Sorcerian is no exception.

With the MT-32 emulation running, the music in Sorcerian sounds remarkably good. It’s way better than the music from contemporary consoles like the Famicom/NES or Master System, mostly because of its wonderful percussion. As soon as Sorerian launched, I was treated to the lifelike clacks of claves, setting the rhythm for a relaxed melodic theme. Skip to the main menu of the game and a bona fide drum fill kicks off, before settling into a steady drumbeat that anchors a jaunty tune. The melodies themselves don’t quite sound like real instruments (although they’re still better than what consoles could muster), but those drums are startlingly lifelike. In fact, the only game music that sounds better is the CD music from PC Engine CD games like Ys I & II, which released a year before the DOS version of Sorcerian. Few players could afford the expensive CD add-on needed for that, however, leaving the MT-32 as the most impressive music hardware that an average player was likely to encounter.

Visually, Sorcerian is less impressive. It uses 16-color EGA graphics, which pale in comparison to the 25 on-screen colors (out of a total of 54) on the Famicom, or the 32 on-screen colors (out of 64 total) of the Master System. To compensate, Sorcerian makes heavy use of dithering to approximate more colors. This works well even on modern, high resolution displays, and would have worked even better on the CRT screens of the day, which tended to blur pixels together at their edges. But the heavy dithering gives every scene a mottled look, since there is often high color contrast between adjacent pixels. It’s instantly recognizable as EGA, similar to other DOS games of the era, and noticeably different to console games which could afford larger swaths of solid colors and smoother shading through multiple tints of the same hue. Another limitation of the DOS version — and the PC-88 original — lies in animations, particularly scrolling. Where consoles could support smoothly scrolling levels for responsive platforming action, the locations and creatures in Sorcerian slide by in large, discrete steps, a common limitation of home computer graphics at the time. This makes Sorcerian seem jerky in motion.

I came to appreciate Sorcerian’s art nonetheless. Locations are highly varied across its fifteen adventures (divided into three scenarios), giving each its own distinct feel. Early on I feared that I’d be seeing the same bland cave walls of the first adventure throughout the game, but I was pleasantly surprised when each subsequent adventure took me somewhere new. There’s a desolate swamp, a cursed town, a mysterious desert fortress, an elven village built into massive trees, a moonlit tower, even a (distressingly large) sailing ship. And much more besides. Each of these has its own environment art, and even its own array of enemies who are thematically appropriate to its setting. Where some of the games in this series revel in labyrinthine dungeons with little to differentiate one from another, Sorcerian instead aims to make each adventure feel distinct and memorable. For the most part, it succeeds.

It’s fitting that the playable quests are called adventures, because they feel a lot like classic adventure games (something I also noted about Ys I & II). There are friendly folks to meet, various items to collect, and puzzles to solve in order to proceed. There’s a lot of backtracking through areas connected to each other via a system of doors, to see if people have new things to say, or if newfound items can be used somewhere to open a secret door. Each adventure motivates all this by a story: a tale of a stolen artifact, a missing magician, a curse that is causing the crops to fail. These stories are surprisingly involved too, with a lot of conversations and new events that unfold. Each adventure can be completed in a single play session, offering players a nice self-contained story to play through, before taking their party of heroes on a new adventure next time. Unless they get stuck, of course.

As is ever the bane of adventure games, some scenarios simply had me stumped. While I could figure out what needed to be done in most cases, a few adventures rely on finding an item that’s particularly well hidden, or feature unclear ways of triggering a story event that’s needed to move forward. The adventure set on a sailing ship had a lot of promise, asking players to solve the mysterious murder of one of the crew. But instead of an interesting deduction puzzle, it just amounts to wandering around endlessly until players stumble upon the next little thing that’s changed. A frustrating sequence of seemingly random things to find that quickly had me turning to an online walkthrough. Those situations are the exception rather than the rule, however, and for the most part I enjoyed playing through the bite-sized stories in Sorcerian.

Running underneath all of the adventures is a surprisingly involved set of role-playing mechanics. There’s a default party of adventurers, but players are encouraged to create their own characters, chosen from four classes (human fighter, human wizard, dwarf, or elf). Each character has a set of seven statistics that govern their abilities in combat, defense, magic, and social interactions while in town. They all grow older over time as well, although dwarves and elves age slower than humans. Take a party on enough adventures and they’ll grow from youth to middle age to old age, with a new appearance for each phase of their lives, before they eventually die. Everything in Sorcerian takes time, from going on adventures to training to enchanting items, so characters will eventually succumb to old age and be replaced by the new generation. That timescale is clearly designed with more scenario disks in mind, so I never had to bid adieu to any of my characters, but it’s a cool idea.

Even more impressive is the magic system in the game. Spells must be placed onto equipped items via enchantment, and this process is excitingly complex. Magic, you see, comes from the gods, each of whom is represented by a celestial body. There’s the Sun and Moon, obviously, as well as Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Each governs a different aspect of the world, and every item can be enchanted with the power of one or more of the gods, mixing their powers to create more than 150 different spells. 150! And each of these spells actually has a unique effect during play, be it creating a shield, strengthening or healing characters, or firing a specific pattern of projectiles at enemies. Each of the enemies in Sorcerian belongs to a different element (earth, water, fire, air, and spirit), and each spell can only affect creatures of certain elements. Reading about this in the manual, my mind swam with strategic possibilities.

I really wanted to engage with these systems, but sadly they don’t matter that much in practice. When playing an adventure in Sorcerian, the party of four (sometimes limited to three) characters all follow the leader similarly to options from shoot ’em up games, and the entire party attacks and/or casts spells in unison. Enemies tend to come in large swarms, and there’s little in the way of tactics when firing off magic or swinging a sword or axe. Most enemies fall easily before the party’s onslaught, or are easily evaded with a few jumps, or both. There’s no reward for fighting off these enemies unless the party manages to defeat every single one in the area, in which case they receive a paltry few experience points that aren’t worth the effort. Especially because the enemies start spawning again immediately. The supposed elemental type of each enemy doesn’t seem to work the way it says in the manual, with spells sometimes not affecting monsters the way they should. That hardly matters though, because these swarms of monsters barely pose a threat, and even bosses aren’t too tough. Bosses tend to resist most spells too, so time invested in enchanting items soon feels wasted.

That’s especially true because enchanting takes a ton of in-game time and money. It’s prohibitively expensive at the start, and I soon despaired of ever making even a single item with a cool spell on it. Treasures found during adventures, however, often come with nice enchantments already, and I realized that the smart way to get cool spells was to start with one of these and add additional enchantments to it. Finding them is another matter, however. In a bizarre design decision, most treasures can only be found after an adventure is completed, but before the party heads back to town. Players must scour all the locations again to find these hidden treasures, but there are no in-game hints that the treasures exist. Most players will miss them completely. I only knew about them because I’d checked the aforementioned guide and walkthrough to answer a question about the magic system. Once I learned that treasures were hidden away like this, I gladly consulted the guide for their locations in every adventure, since I couldn’t be bothered to search everywhere myself.

Even if players catch all the treasures, however, it’s still tough to enchant things with fancy spells. First, they’ll want a character capable of appraising items on the special screen that appears when finishing an adventure, and then they’ll need to give each item to the appropriate character. But one can’t simply choose which character should receive that fancy new sword or magic wand, oh no. Items are automatically given to the first character capable of using them, but then a subsequent item of the same type will go to the next character in sequence. So many times I had to give a powerfully enchanted weapon to my dwarf, who couldn’t use magic, when I wanted it to go to my fighter, who could. Far too late I realized the optimal way to deal with this: buy extra items for everyone so their inventories are completely full, then strategically sell off the excess on the post-adventure screen to create a single opening for a new item, guaranteeing it goes to the character you want. Strangely, this is also the best way to make money. Re-selling standard, unenchanted gear on the post-adventure screen earns a ton of money, way more than selling them in town does. Which is good, because characters will need a lot of money if they want to do any enchanting.

I had a few big successes with enchanting. For example, my fighter found a magic sword with a decent spell on it, and by poring through the spell list in the manual I realized that if I added one more god to it, I could create a more powerful attack spell. This took three in-game years for the town enchanter to do, but it worked! The result was a sort of magical rain that tore through enemies on the entire screen, and theoretically damaged monsters of any element (but in practice, some were immune to it). It lasted me through the entire game, helping clear mobs of monsters. Most of the time, however, it seemed that the enchanting system was fighting me at every turn. Many treasures feature powerful enchantments that are locked away, only usable after paying the elder in town a hefty sum. Worse, sometimes adding a new god to an item doesn’t have the intended effect. If a particularly fancy weapon or magical ring is already enchanted with the power of several gods, adding another can actually remove some of the original ones, or change their relative power levels. This meant I often ended up with a worse spell than the one I started out with, instead of the powerful one I was aiming for.

That sounds like a lot of complaining, but I must stress that I really enjoyed the adventures on offer in Sorcerian. It’s just that they don’t need careful spellcrafting to complete. The only times my characters died were special situations, like getting frozen and then inadvertently left behind before they could be thawed. Standard combat is easy, and the joy of the adventures comes instead from exploring evocative locations and unraveling their mysteries. There’s surprising variety on offer here, and I can see why Sorcerian earned a following of fans who still play its scenarios today. Sadly, the DOS version did not sell well, so Sierra never localized any of Sorcerian’s many scenario disks; I was limited to the original three scenarios, for a total of fifteen adventures. Perhaps taking my party on new scenarios from Falcom and others would have let me engage with enchanting a bit more, and try out a larger selection of the game’s myriad spells. Even if it didn’t, however, I bet I’d enjoy new adventures anyway, as they’d take me to new places with new people to meet and new quests to solve.

Sorcerian is also a different beast than most of the games I’ve covered in this series so far, including the other entries in Falcom’s Dragon Slayer series. Part of my excitement about Sorcerian’s magic system is because it’s so much more complex than the typical console role-playing game, reminding me of western, tabletop-inspired role-playing design instead. Yet this is married to the real-time action that was much more common in Japanese designs, creating an unusual hybrid. Add in the story-driven exploration and puzzle solving of the individual adventures, and Sorcerian becomes a fascinating game. It simultaneously shows the array of stats and systems from the western games that inspired the burgeoning Japanese-style role-playing game genre, the heavy story focus that would become one of the genre’s defining features from the 1990s onward, and the action gameplay that has become dominant in the genre in recent years. It’s worth the trouble to get Sorcerian running in DOSBox, especially if you go the extra mile and set up the Roland MT-32 music, which is an excellent accompaniment to the adventures.

Next, we’re moving on to 1988, but we have a few more games to cover before we’ll be all caught up in the timeline. Stay tuned!

Next on Console History: The Battle of Olympus


Scratching That Itch: EGO


Scratching That Itch: Simply The Best


  1. I’ve always found it interesting that (for example) Final Fantasy has done 20+ completely different rulesets — albeit with similarities between them — over the years. Coming from a tabletop perspective that’s like every D&D adventure coming with a different rulebook!

    Why not create a “core” set of mechanics and then build each game on top of that? That doesn’t seem to happen in computer rpgs, although there was a brief attempt at something similar with Ultima 6 and the Worlds of Adventure spin-offs.

    But it does happen sometimes, as we see with Sorcerian and its adventure disks. It’s interesting that it didn’t catch on more.

    • I think for computer games, developers feel pressure to improve the technological part of their games with each new iteration. Make them look and sound better, push the envelope of what can be achieved in the art. That means making a new engine (usually… recent games tend to all use the same third-party engines that update regularly), and if you’re already doing that, why not tweak the ruleset too? You’d have to re-code it anyway. It gives designers a chance to change things they weren’t fully satisfied with in the earlier games, after they’ve had a chance to consider them more. I guess it’s similar to, say, Dungeons & Dragons doing a new edition every so often, just accelerated to follow the technology curve.

      For a computer game to fully embrace an expandable scenario design like Sorcerian does can be risky because those new scenarios will still look like Sorcerian, whereas competing games will start go look better and fancier and newer. Sorcerian stayed relevant because it got a bunch of re-releases and ports that improved the graphics and sound (the most recent Windows remake looks really nice!) while retaining the classic scenario designs, and adding new ones. But that’s a hard balance to strike. Some other games have been successful re-using the same engines and rulesets though. I always hear this point made about the SSI “Gold Box” games, which are incidentally based on Dungeons & Dragons. They’re basically all the same game systems, but different adventures and stories, just like tabletop Dungeons & Dragons. Maybe you’ve played them! I still haven’t, although I intend to try them someday. I think I got a bunch of them in a pack from GOG at some point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén