A 1990s Mac RPG Retrospective: Hidden Jewels No One Knows About

As you can surmise from the past few articles I've written, I grew up in a Mac household and those early 90s Mac games rich with that plethora of shareware was a major aspect of my formative years. Waiting forever for Mac ports of all of last year's games was just a fact of life, but to make up for it I got to see the birth of the indie developer before it was really known as such. Mac-only devs were also a fact of life because DOS (then Windows) held the dominant market share and it just made more sense for the successful publishers of the time to make Mac ports an afterthought or ignore the market altogether. So, a fuck ton of shareware was born!

But of all that glorious shareware I remember with such longing, it hit me recently just how many fantastic RPGs there were back then that virtually no one knows about. Not that dissimilar if I start going on about The Outcasts or The Dark to a room full of confused punk rockers where I might get ONE person who says "Yes! One of the most underrated 77-era bands EVER!", I get virtually the same exact reaction when I talk about any of the following games except it's even rarer where I'll get that one person who knows what the hell I'm talking about.

But this list of old Mac RPGs is special. Let's Plays of these titles are super rare or non-existent in most cases. Moby Games listings also don't exist, or may be scant. These games abound few or no users' wishlists on GOG. Not a whole lot of buzz, if any, unless you find an odd mention on a forum post dating back to the Bush administration.

To me, part of what made these games memorable was that you had some degree of agency over the character you created. That may not sound like a huge deal to you if you're younger or you played more RPG and action games than I did growing up, but having that agency to create a character was something new to child/adolescent me in the 90s when computer games themselves were still something of a wild yonder.

They could have male or female representation, with varying degrees of choice for your avatar. The story would be the same regardless of how your avatar looked, sometimes other aspects of the game would go differently depending on what your stats, starting skills, and/or classes were by choosing or random roll. But it was nice to have that choice as it was something the point-and-click adventures I lived for lacked, and it was nice to play as a girl in a game where you fought monsters and did epic heroic deeds.

Early Mac games are notoriously difficult to preserve, and enjoy again. I last treaded the realms of Maccery in 2005 when I was still using my iBook from my first round of college and was frustrated to no end that OS Classic butchered virtually every single old Mac game one could legally obtain from Macintosh Garden and Home of the Underdogs (as this was long before GOG and video game preservation efforts becoming a real thing to take seriously.) There were a scant few that were still operable in Classic Mode or with the help of an emulator, but then you'd get that cruel auspice of the game loading then refusing to play or you might make it past a couple scenes before it just crashed. Playing these games in preservation mode like archive.org and Play DOS Games Online's efforts is better than letting them be forgotten by time, but for RPGs this really lessens the experience given all that stat-grinding and likelihood of dying.

But without further ado, these are some underrated RPG jewels that are largely forgotten or never got the audience they deserved. Many were even acclaimed by critics and what were leading Mac game publications at the time; but let's face it: Mac gaming publications didn't hold nearly the same weight as PC and console gaming ones. Be it the fickle hand of the market, the constantly-changing technology, or the simple fact that in pro wrestling terms, Macs were utter fucking jobbers as far as the games market was concerned: these incredible RPGs didn't get the love-- or simply nostalgic reverence-- they are so due now.

 

Odyssey: The Legend of Nemesis

I'll start this retrospective with some good news: this game functions beautifully on older Macs in Classic Mode or any older machines running System 7 or 8.1, and it's available for free on the dev's website. There's even a walkthrough if you get stuck, and the complete 90s gaming experience where you can peruse the original website still intact, Times New Roman text on top of a background that makes it impossible to read and all.

I first discovered this game when I was 12, about a year after it got released, when a demo was included on a Mac gaming comp CD. I got to play the full version when Paranoid Productions made it available for free in the mid-aughts. The demo still gave me a strong enough taste to know it was going to be an amazing game that satisfied my need for a good story and an easy point and click interface, while introducing me to RPG elements I was later going to come to love just as much. There was talking, oh so much talking, to NPCs throughout the game and tackling their many side quests: reuniting lovers, sharing Elban healing methods and Niacian military tactics to foster peace between the lands, and learning skills from the various hermits you meet in your travels that kept me wanting more.

In terms of both puzzle-solving and combat, the challenge was also JUST RIGHT which is what made it so addictive. I got myself killed several times and sometimes it was frustrating, but it was fairly hard to wind up in a totally unwinnable situation. Plus, the different sounds the monsters would make when you walloped them was just incredibly satisfying. (And those names: I called yaks "Spamalopes" for a couple years after I first played this game.)

Odyssey: Legend of Nemesis was certainly ahead of its time in terms of putting the narrative over theatrics, having fairly non-linear gameplay, AND multiple endings (something I wasn't aware of given I only got one ending the last time I played it ages ago) in crafting one fine RPG.

If you're into the likes of Ultima and story-driven RPGs like Spiderweb's offerings but with less grindy combat, you'll definitely love Odyssey: Legend of Nemesis.

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Cythera

Ambrosia was a prominent Mac shareware developer who had many cult hits like Maelstrom, Harry the Handsome Executive, and the utterly epic RPG that time also forgot, Pillars of Garendall. (An incredible game that almost made this list, but didn't qualify since it came out in 2001.) Ambrosia is still making games actually.  You can still buy Cythera directly on their site but it's not likely to work unless you're running a much older Mac.

Cythera was acclaimed at the time, coming out at the tail end of the 90s, and feels like an adequate representation of the industry's awkward teenage years: a great emphasis on the story and stat-grinding aspects of RPGs, yet clinging to both the graphic style of early 90s Mac games plus the penchant for dead-ends that was so common with a lot of games at that time.

It was definitely possible to get yourself into unwinnable situations (grrr, looking at you, Landking Pendant that eventually stopped resurrecting people when the battles started getting really tough) but it wasn't as in your face like early adventure games. Despite some of the flaws in this game, it still just holds up for that amazing narrative quality where the dialog was driven by both preset responses plus a text parser. A big part of the game's challenge was knowing which NPCs to talk to, and what to talk about using that text parser to move the plot along. Sometimes this aspect was really cool, and definitely something not seen in RPGs or adventures a whole lot these days. This is also because text parsers can be incredibly frustrating with the right trigger words being hard to determine sometimes.

No less, it sure was a deliciously twisty plot that unfolded nicely over the course of the game, in a land rich with danger and side quests a-plenty and puzzles to solve that had solutions ranging from simple to arcane.

The game was also laced with these little things that just made it so engaging and different from other RPGs, such as the "strange rod" that would open up your CD-ROM drive. Then there was learning how to make bread. Cythera had a hunger mechanism in that you had to keep your characters fed and eating wasn't automatic. You had to carry food and you could learn how to make bread from an NPC: not only to feed your characters, but this skill was actually going to be used to solve a puzzle. Not quite on the same level as the orgasmic-looking dishes you cook up in the latest Final Fantasy, but it was just something I hadn't seen in an RPG at the time and it would rule if homemade bread baked that quickly in real time (and was a good way to honor someone; spoiler alert.)

Firepower also wasn't the only way you could play this game. While combat wasn't totally unavoidable, Cythera was meant to be enjoyed at a slow pace where you could get some sweet armor and goodies fighting an army of liches or zapping those pesky polyps but you didn't need to conquer them to play through the story. Like Odyssey: Legend of Nemesis, this story aspect was also just ahead of its time and it was given far more emphasis than the technological achievements given what Macs were capable of by 1999.

The score of this game was also extremely evocative and often relaxing, making you feel at home in this strange and beautiful land full of ancient secrets you had to unlock to save the kingdom inspired by mythology. With Dungeons and Dragons style spellcasting, fun yet frustrating potion-making that could often by aided by save-scumming, and the game informing you that your deeds stained your soul if you stole something: Cythera is worth a playthrough if you're willing play OS Classic roulette.

Interestingly, fans were still uploading save files to the official Cythera page on Ambrosia's website as late as 2007, but the dust has largely settled since. I get that Ambrosia's moved into The New Tens with more App Store offerings for the modern mobile gamer rather than wanting to breathe life back into their days as a Mac dev for Mac gamers being ignored by the bigger fish. But since they're still selling and hosting this game and their other classics, it'd be nice to see them playable on modern operating systems.

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Realmz

Realmz was one epic undertaking that will make RPG lovers go wild with the sheer possibility. It was a more D&D-like character set-up where you chose different attributes for your characters and could create a whole bank of them to form parties with for various scenarios. The game came with a short and free scenario, The City of Bywater, and several other scenarios that were playable up until certain points where you had to pay to unlock them such as Assault on Giant Mountain and Prelude to Pestilence. The rest needed to be downloaded from the Fantasoft website which was still releasing scenarios up until 2002. Fantasoft has since made the game free, granting it abandonware status as of 2008 but the Fantasoft site is no longer hosted. Tim Phillips, the brain behind Fantasoft, went on to work on early Spiderweb titles like the Exile series which definitely explains why I've seen various assets from Realmz in future Spiderweb titles! (I totally squee in recognition every time I see those gemstones and rings.)

This was sort of an early form of episodic gaming/scenario-based gameplay that was going to become popular about 15 years later, primarily with story-based games like TellTale's offerings although you didn't need to play other scenarios to unlock future scenarios or have them make sense as most of them had standalone stories.  The usage of scenario-based content such as that found in the Heroes of Might and Magic series where it's both provided by the developers and created by fans could be story-driven or based primarily on action and aesthetics wasn't super revolutionary for RPGs at the time. But given that the scenarios didn't have nearly the same length as a Spiderweb saga or some of the other games on this list that had one game-wide story arc with multiple side quests, they made for nice "bite size" or "lunch break" size RPG experiences that were still immersive but didn't take up as much headspace as deep-diving into an epic RPG that would take most people with a regular job or running a business several weeks or even months to finish.

What made the experience even greater was having that bank of characters to choose from, where they leveled up and took a lot of their equipped items with them when you placed them in different scenarios. Portable characters just wasn't something I'd experienced in an RPG, or seen executed as smoothly in newer RPGs I've played.

Compared to the other RPGs on this list, Realmz was more propelled by action than story for the most part. That story was certainly there though and you had dialog choices and different actions you could take in various situations and special encounters that were definitely driven by the story. Sometimes you'd find allies who'd tag along with you by virtue of the storyline (where you'd better hope you didn't get them killed...) or you had very high-level characters with advanced summoning skills who could convince some creatures to follow you around for the long haul.

What made it stand out though was the sheer number of stats and possibilities: castes, races, age, skills, spells, natural abilities and downfalls, and prestige points there were literally put in for the hell of it and didn't impact the gameplay. Then that's not even getting into the various bonuses and dampers that the loads and loads of equipment, many obtained by hard-to-find or hard-won drops, would also do to your stats. There were easily thousands of different inventory items you could equip yourself with, with different bonuses and handicaps based on the character's attributes (such as the cloaks that could only be worn by elvish races, or ion stones that were all different for the various magic-using castes.)

The bestiary was also an interesting exercise in stats geekiness sometimes accompanied by lively descriptions of the potential enemies you could find in that scenario. What made it confusing was that sometimes the same art assets would be reused for the same creatures, so a Level 1 polyp-type creature that would go down easily would look exactly the same as a Level 15 magical creature that was harder to hit and less responsive to attack spells.

It's a game that screams 1990s and I'd love to give it a go again if I could get it functioning on something.

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Jewel of Arabia: Dreamers

I saved this one for last for a good reason: it's probably the most obscure and underrated game on this list. I actually never even played the complete version because all I had was a demo that came from either MacWorld or Inside Mac Games back in the late 90s, and by the time I had my own computer and cash...well, old games were butchered horrifically in Classic mode. Not to mention that this was the internet age's awkward teenage years well-- not just the gaming industry's-- so we also didn't have immediate digital distribution. If you wanted to support a shareware developer, you had to do so directly via check or money order and hope your game disk arrived.

Because of all that, I never got the full Jewel of Arabia experience. But it's well worth a spot on this list because the equal emphasis placed on storyline and combat was not only pulled off amazingly, but there were many other ways that this game just still holds up and so deserves a new audience that would appreciate it. Jewel of Arabia utilized a mix of history and mythology for a captivating setting in Alexander the Great's era where you encounter different factions and races ranging from Djinni to the elusive Black Hand cult, and nomadic Bedouins to Satyrs up in the mountains. It's easy enough to theme an RPG these days, but Jewel of Arabia really went all out on providing characters and settings that made you feel like you were transported to Mesopotamia in 250 BC: the poetic language often used in the dialog, the cultural references, the food you can purchase in the bazaar, the world music inspired soundtrack, were all very evocative.

Forming your party and creating your main character was a little ahead of its time. You had to have your main character, someone of noble descent, and their Djinni companion. You had a choice of avatars and could decide what gender you wanted all of them to play as, but if you couldn't decide on names? You could go with a randomly-assigned gender-neutral Arabic name. Stats and modifiers were randomly rolled, but two especially rare rolls I'd frequently try to get were Child of Fate and Child of Fortune. Children of Fortune, much like the ones in real life, could start the game so much more easily because having more money opened up the possibilities. Children of Fate could defy death: if you came close to getting a death blow, there was a chance the hand of fate would intervene and save your ass.

But also, unlike other RPGs where the party was solely comprised of people, you also got one animal companion. You start the game with Pixel the Monkey, your pet from childhood. Because the demo was quite lengthy, I got to the point where you can eventually trade Pixel in for a falcon. Each animal had a special ability, the falcon was swift in combat and Pixel could steal things from the bazaar (often a few figs.)

The pacing of the story was fantastic and kept you constantly wanting to explore more of the land of Persepolis, and find every side quest imaginable in addition to the main quest. Like CytheraJewel of Arabia also utilized a text parser in talking to NPCs but finding the right keyword was a little easier in this game. Combat was turn-based and would vary based on what castes of characters were in your party, such as the agile Hash-shasin who were deadly with blunt weapons, the more traditional Ghazi warriors, or the weapon-free Sufi. You also had a meditation system in addition to spellcasting which gave the game unique touch that fit in perfectly with the theme.

Interestingly, Quarter Note's website is still live with the game's 1999 webpage still alive and kicking although Tucows gave archive.org a full copy in 2004 for preservation. This is a game that needs to be playable again. I want to know why the Satyrs were being targeted and why The Black Hand was after us! I also never reached the point where Ramses the Cobra joined the party, and need to see this happen.

 

Early Mac RPGs can definitely teach us a lot about putting the story and the core gameplay loops over puzzle implementation, while avoiding mechanics that can frequently be frustrating to players. Despite the innovations these Mac-only (save for Realmz) games brought to the genre, distribution troubles and fickle markets of the time led them to be largely forgotten.

Today's indie developers have a different set of challenges compared to what Mac-only developers of the past faced. In the face of decision fatigue and seeing the same old games being spit out again, would your dream RPG skate on the cutting edge of technology or would it go back to the basics but do something completely different like Jewel of Arabia? Given the text parsers used in some of these games, perhaps driven more by dialog than RPGs of the past have been?

But whether you make RPGs or just love to play them, hopefully these 90s Mac gems will see the light of day again.