The CRPG Addict, taking a break from what is shaping up to be a frustrating slog through Wizardry V, has decided to dabble in a bit of digital archaeology and look at the history of the earliest CRPGs.
He may even have zeroed in on what might be the oldest surviving CRPG:
In Dungeons and Desktops (2008), Matt Barton calls the 1970s the “Dark Age” of CRPGs, but he does his best to sort through some of the gloom. His account generally matches, but in a few notable cases conflicts, with the recollections of Dirk Pellett, an early CRPG contributor who wrote a history of early CRPGs in an introduction to dnd on Cyber1′s PLATO mainframe. Pellett’s history, unfortunately not accessible from the Internet, appeared in 2010.
Both trace the first CRPGs to 1974, almost immediately after the publication of Dungeons & Dragons. Pellett gives the “first” CRPG as a file called “m119h,” which was deleted soon after its creation by someone on the PLATO mainframe at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Since the mainframe was intended for “serious academic study and coursework,” administrators were quick to delete game programs, and one suspects that there were any number of CRPGs created and deleted while in various stages of development during this era.
The earliest surviving CRPG seems to be a 1974 or 1975 game called The Dungeon by Reginald “Rusty” Rutherford, who was studying in Urbana. He titled the file “pedit5″ (which some sources give as the name of the game) to keep it from being deleted as an obvious game. This didn’t save it, but somehow the source code got preserved, and it’s available on Cyber1 now.
The game uses an iconographic perspective with surprisingly good icons.
The Addict looks at a few other titles which followed in the wake of dnd and The Dungeon, and includes a few screenshots of some of these. His conclusions are worth highlighting:
My quick review of these games seems to support a couple of conclusions. First of all, the earliest CRPGs were quickly divided into the top-down/iconographic branch and the first-person branch. The former started with The Dungeon and/or dnd and gave rise to the family of difficult dungeon-crawls filled with random encounters that we saw in Telengard, Caverns of Zoarre, CaveQuest, and DND. Roguelikes also seem to have developed from this branch.
The second branch, starting with Oubliette, spawned (through adaptation or plagiarism) Wizardry and, from there, Might & Magic. Richard Garriott, in the meantime, synthesized the two branches in the Ultima series (starting with Akalabeth) by mixing iconographic outdoor exploration with first-person dungeon exploration.
And unless I am grossly mistaken, it was the Ultima series which served as a key inspiration (though not the sole inspiration) for JRPGs in the Final Fantasy mold.