Admit it, you knew this was coming. Maybe not today, maybe not next week, but you knew, at some point, I was going to dig into the hog waller. If that’s what you’ve been waiting for, retro gaming fans, then today’s your lucky day. Rejoice. Clap your hands. Give the ol’ banjo a tune-up. Because today I dipped my hands into the muck, and I came up holding the royal, diamond-encrusted, jellyfish-immortal turd of all turds in the Nintendo Entertainment System’s library: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes of the Lance. Do you have any idea how much I hate myself just for writing that last sentence?
As a young, burgeoning geek/nerd/thing growing up in the 1980s, I was big into the pen-and-paper RPG scene. I played Paranoia. West End’s Star Wars was endlessly entertaining. Twilight: 2000? Best be believing. Hell, I even played the RPG they made based on James Cameron’s Aliens. But my favorite was and always has been Dungeons & Dragons. One read through the 1st edition Player’s Handbook and I was hooked. And when I found out the Monster Manual had a massive number of entries under ‘Dinosaur’? Oh man, you’re telling me there was a game that had rules for fighting dinosaurs with swords? Game over, man. Game OVER! So yeah, I consumed D&D material the way a starving vegan would eat the ever-loving pink slime out of a big ol’ Arby’s sandwich and a milkshake if it were the only thing available: gingerly at first, and then…feeding frenzy!
I also owned an NES. So when I found out they made D&D games for a home console, I flipped. I’d seen SSI’s gold box games running on my friends’ computers, and they rocked! Plus, this was set in the Dragonlance world, and what red-blooded dork my age hadn’t read Weis and Hickman’s Chronicles? How could this fail to be epic? That…that was a rhetorical question. Don’t answer. I was young and stupid, and I fully deserved every morsel of frustration I willingly ingested in my effort to enjoy, understand, even tolerate this game. I’m older and know better now of course.
For those of you who don’t understand why AD&D Heroes of the Lance is a terrible game, let me try to explain. If the programmers responsible for this travesty had deliberately set out to create a video game that accurately represented both the presentation and emotion of a young person’s first, awkward sexual fumblings on their misstep-laden journey of self-discovery to becoming a quintessential master of coitus…well, that actually would have made for a better game than this. Bad analogy. Let’s assume instead the programmers set out to write code which would instill in the end user a desire to punch baby animals and indulge a week-long cocaine binge. This is what playing Heroes of the Lance does to you when you’re fourteen. This may also explain the origins of infamous Toronto mayor Ron Ford, but he’s also Canadian, so he’s been handling loonies all his life anyway.
Now in my travels around the ‘Net, I’ve actually read reviews by gamers who’ve by some miracle not had this same experience with Heroes of the Lance. There are people who praise it for being complex, not easy to learn, ‘hardcore’ if you will. Much like D&D itself, you can’t just “jump in and start playing”. You have to know the rules. You have to understand what works under which conditions and for how long. And you have to know how each one of your different heroes acts when pressing B or A plus a given direction, because a straight-up fighter doesn’t behave the same way as a druid or wizard. To you, apparent Zen master of the 8-bit gaming world, I can offer only a tip of my hat and a quiet ‘bullshit’ whispered with the sound of one hand clapping. You are everything wrong with the Internet.
Why is Heroes of the Lance so awful? My take is the developers, instead of trying to do one or two things really well, wanted this game to be all things to all people, and wound up breaking it. There are RPG elements, but not enough to cater to the crowd who likes Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy. There are adventure elements, but nothing as deep or enjoyable as what you’d get playing Crystalis or Legend of Zelda. There are action elements, but they control poorly and fail to be as entertaining as Castlevania or Faxanadu. It’s a bad game for all of the right reasons. And it stands to this day as a testament to what happens when a developer (in this case U.S. Gold with help from SSI) bites off way more than it can chew. This, folks, is what happens when a license truly has its revenge.
Assuming your eyes don’t melt upon viewing it, you may enjoy this ad. I give you permission: