Sunday, May 18, 2014

Elder Scrolls: Arena (PC, 1994)

I begin my long-awaited (by me) excursion into the highly-acclaimed Elder Scrolls saga. The saga begins with a bang... a 1994 MS-DOS poorly-lit, poorly-rendered bang. That said, this game is pretty sweet.

  It's called "Arena" (and has four characters on the box) because it was supposed to be a more standard four-player RPG set in a battle arena. Originally, the name was just "Arena". Once they realized that it was more fun to just control one character and plunder dungeons, they overhauled the game a LOT and added "Elder Scrolls" for medieval flavor. Not sure why they didn't just drop the "Arena" because it has always looked out of place. They explain it in the game by having NPCs tell you that the whole land is so dangerous that it's like an arena, or somesuch nonsense. This game actually has nothing to do with arenas, nor is there an arena anywhere to be found in the game.

Games that start with a quote are usually good. Tales of Phantasia and Vagrant Story come to mind.

The intro puts the "Scroll" in the title, as we get quite the scroll of backstory.

In the immortal words of Peter Venkman, "Are you guys getting all of this?"

 In later games, this guy is voiced by Patrick Stewart. In 1994, voices in games hadn't been invented yet... aside from "SEGA!" which was possible only with Blast Processing.

 Here's the very clearly-defined bad guy. Hopefully there's a big battle with him at the end.

 During the intro, he zaps Ria Silmane into some sort of dimensional prison. It's a damn shame, she had quite a butt on her.

"Oh yeahhhh. Nice."

Choosing a race and class is very difficult, because it gives you SO MANY possibilities.

For race you've got High Elf (immune to paralysis, a huge deal in this game), Nord (super-strong hardy northern folk), and Redguard (an offensively deadly race for melee classes) as top choices.

Class is even more difficult. There are all kinds of pros and cons to each one. Some seem objectively awful (like Acrobat) and I'm not too interested in playing a stealthy thief class. I want to steamroll everything in sight.

Spellblade is the overpowered Red Mage class, and it's most similar to the character you play in Oblivion and Skyrim. Only problem is, they can't wear plate, and plate is BY FAR the best armor in this game. Even moreso when you consider it can be enchanted.

I also looked at Archer since range-fighting is often the way to go in this game and bows ROCK, but Archers can't equip plate armor either. Really, my final set of choices came down to Ranger, Knight, and Warrior. All three can equip plate armor. Ranger is an offensive powerhouse, Knight is automatically resistant to paralysis, and Warrior levels faster than any other class except Thief. All three had their advantages, but I ended up going with Knight so I could get the resistance without being a High Elf. Chose Redguard as the race for physical attack bonuses.

If I could do it over again I'd probably go Redguard Ranger for double attack bonuses. High Elf Warrior might have been good too, fast leveling plus resistance bonuses. Then again, fast leveling isn't my concern so much as having this guy be a demigod when he gets to where he's going. The Double R wouldn't have any paralysis resistance, so I sacrificed some attack power on that front. Redguard Knight it is. Hopefully paralysis-using enemies are as common as I've heard to make up for Knight not being as formidable offensively as Ranger.

 This game transpires over the ENTIRE Elder Scrolls world (minus the eastern continent of Akavir that hasn't even been used in a game yet). That means we can go to the four southern provinces that haven't had their own games yet.

Unfortunately, like Elder Scrolls Online, this game has a lot of empty space and doesn't really fill out the world at all. Obviously, the games focusing on individual provinces can do a lot more with those areas. This game may cover the entire land, but it has less overall content than the other games. Fast travel is the order of the day here, and there's no real wilderness between cities and dungeons. Well, there is, but it's randomly-generated boringness that goes on forever and is unnecessary to even set foot in to begin with.

  Enough explaining, let's get this show on the road. You can reroll your stats as much as you want on this screen, and I did so a few times until I liked the way things looked. This really is styled after Dungeons and Dragons, isn't it? I would have been ALL OVER this game in 1994 if I had a computer that could run it, and knew about its existence. It was pretty much a bomb when it came out, and this series didn't get popular until Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall.

In any case, I drop all my bonus points in Agility (to up hit% and evade%) which helps with the destruction spree I'm going on. And off we go.

There's Ria Silmane from the intro. Can't see her butt in this scene, so Richie has nothing to be excited about.

 The game starts with you in prison (a place Richie is quite familiar with). Oh, my character is named Sting. Like the wrestler, not the singer. Though it can be both, if you prefer. He's got a bat with Hollywood Hogan's name on it... and IF HE EVER...LOSES HIS FAITH IN YOOOOU... he'll use it.

 Luckily, there's a key -in your cell- to open the door and let yourself out with. Not sure how that makes any sense, but we'll roll with it.

 I save-sploit at the first treasure pile to see what I can get. Basically, every treasure pile in this game has randomly-generated loot. Not sure how high up the equipment can get this early on, or if there's even a limit. For all I know you can get the best sword in the game from this first pile, but there's a 0.01% chance or something.

 I settle on this Long Bow and start owning everything in sight with it. Almost made me restart as an Archer, because bows in this game might as well be machine guns. I was demolishing everything in sight. However, I'm sure being a Knight will work out in the long run once I have plate armor and a good sword.

 I level up surprisingly quickly. Much like Fallout 3, there's a delay of ten seconds or so between when you pass a level-up threshold and when you actually level up. So you'll be running down a hallway not fighting anything when you suddenly ding. Weird.

 Protip 1: You can rest to recover health, so do that often. Only do it in safe (raised) areas, or you'll get attacked mid-rest by enemies that are usually more powerful than the norm for the area. Case in point, resting here gets me attacked by this Hitler Youth as the Wolfenstein boss theme plays. ...or at least, it should have. This 1994 3D is somewhere between that game and Doom in quality.

 The game over screen has Ria Silmane depressingly saying goodbye to you as your spirit dissipates into the black void of death.

Protip 2: You can save anywhere, as long as you aren't in battle. everywhere. All the time. In different slots, since it gives you like thirty of them.

 It's awesome when foes can't reach you and you have a bow to snipe with. Also... the lizardmen in this game are COMEDY GOLD. They look like pissed-off muppets.

Also worth noting: Every little thing I do is NOT magic, since Knights never get any spells. However, they can get items imbued with spells, and cast that way. Matter of fact, it's -extremely important- to find the items that cast key spells if you're a meleer.

 I was afraid to go in the various waterways in the first dungeon, but I quickly discovered that you can easily climb out of the water anywhere. Can't fight in the water, but enemies don't attack you there. If anything, it's a good way to escape.

 One of the times I rest, our hero has a wet dream about Ria Silmane. She explains the -entire goal- of the game, which is to recover the eight pieces of the Staff of Chaos from eight dungeons throughout the land, then confront Jagar Tharn in the imperial castle. Getting to those eight dungeons (to say nothing of getting through them) will be difficult since none of them are available from the start. They involve doing various quests, talking to the right people, finishing side-dungeons, or all of the above.

 I get ahead of myself, though. First, need to finish plundering this first dungeon. It's set up to give you as much loot and exp as possible before you move on with the game. If you're save-sploiting at each treasure pile, it's even more lucrative.

 I was pretty excited when I found a katana... but it just looks like a regular sword.

Looting enemies is difficult with the terrible controls (you can't look up or down), but they often have treasure troves. This one enemy could DECK OUT most melee classes. As a Knight, I'm looking for plate, but this'll do.

Map of the first dungeon, roughly 70% filled-in. It's typical for dungeons in this game to be ridiculously complex. Luckily, maps exist online if you get totally lost. In this case, the exit isn't too hard to find. It's in the southwest corner.

 The bow falls by the wayside as I find an overpowered Dwarven sword. In this game Dwarven weapons are about 60% of the way up the tiers, with only Mithril/Adamant/Ebony ahead of it. So yeah, I just leapfrogged the majority of the weapon stages. It's possible to get an Ebony weapon in this dungeon, but it must be super-rare because I never saw one. Hopefully other dungeons will also have randomized loot-piles.

What are those numbers floating around, you ask? Armor class for different body parts. Much like AD&D, lower numbers are better. You start with like +9 everywhere, but full plate gives you -9 everywhere.

There's the exit. This place isn't too bad when you know what you're doing. Too bad it's the doom of most new players.

 BUT WAIT! Before you can leave, you get to deal with anti-pirating measures. If you pirated the game and don't have the manual, then fuck you!

...or you could look up the answer on the internet.

 When you first get outside, it's night-time. Also, every time you fast-travel anywhere, it's night-time when you arrive. You can't do anything at night since all the NPCs are locked up inside, and monsters are much more common (even in towns). Not even sure why night-time exists in this game except to constantly annoy you. Just means you have to rest for a few rounds every time you fast travel to get daylight back.

The soundtrack up to this point has been an awful mess of not just "bleeps", but also "bloops". That all changes when you get outside for the first time. A tune plays that sounds quite a bit like the FFVII overworld theme. Kinda fitting, since that tune also plays after a really long "dungeon" type intro.

 Good luck finding an equipment shop. There are tons of them, but the towns are so massive that it's hard to find anything. Take a look:

Each of those red dots is a door to a building, usually someone's hovel. Some of them are buildings of note like churches or bars or shops. And this map only shows about 60% of the town, the rest is scrolled off. ....This is THE FIRST TOWN.

I stumble into a bar full of NPCs and flute music. I gotta say, the sheer scope of this game, while intimidating as heck, is really getting me into it. I haven't been this awed by a game since Metroid Prime in 2002, and Ocarina of Time in 1999 before that. There's just a sense that anything can happen, and every time I turn a corner I'm somewhat wowed by something else. If the graphics weren't so awful, I'd probably be completely blown away.

I go around talking to everyone. Every NPC you speak to has something like a 20% chance of giving you information on where you need to go next. Which is pretty cool, you don't wander for an hour trying to find this one cat you're supposed to talk to like in so many other RPGs that I've played.

This lady is fairly sexy, but with the graphics as garbled and 1994 3D as they are, my penis isn't sure how to react.

Took me a while to find an equipment shop, but once I did it got marked on the map. In any case, I offloaded all of the equipment I hoarded in the first dungeon, getting like 5-10 G for each item... until I sold a magical Longsword that I found and got 7500 for it. HOLY HELL. This makes no sense to me. No idea what made that Longsword so valuable. The Dwarven Longsword that I'm using is much more powerful (and only worth 210). I wonder if magical weapons have a bonus against undead or magical foes or something along those lines. I'll worry about it later... for now, I'm suddenly rich.

 I take my 8,000 G and spend about 3,000 getting all the plate armor that I'm missing, and a few (enchanted?) plate armors with stat-boosts on them. A pauldron with 10 Endurance is pretty damn good, since Endurance directly affects your HP in a big way. Since 100 is the max for stats, a few enchanted items for my key stats should get me there quickly.

Here's the "overworld". Specifically, Morrowind province, which I detour to instead of looking for the first fragment dungeon in Hammerfell. You fast travel between locations and there's very little reason to ever go into the wilderness aside from looking for random dungeons.

Looking at it from this perspective, the game actually seems kind of small. Yes, all of these towns and forts are huge areas. However, from the several I looked at, it appears that a lot of them are copies of each other in content. Things like merchant inventories seem to be mostly the same everywhere.

 Morrowind looks interesting. It's a bit gloomy and rainy. You can see the massive volcano in the background plane, but I'm not sure if you can go there. If this were ESIII, you'd be able to run towards it until you reached it.

 I wander into some sort of graveyard in Morrowind. No enemies here, surprisingly. Found a small crypt dungeon, but there wasn't much there. Well, back to Hammerfell. Next goal is to find Fang Lair.

Okay, there was one thing in the crypt... the coffin of MORT. Who is MORT? I didn't try looting it, and now that I think about it I probably should have.

Coffin-looting... that's not very Paragon.

That's it for this game for now, but I'll be doing more with it in the future. This was a fairly dry, technical, informational, long-winded post. Next time around I'll be a bit more easygoing with it.

All things considered, this game is really good. It's deep, complex, and once you get over the antiquated graphics it's a lot of fun. The controls do suck (they're stiff PC controls without any of the benefits PC controls can bring, like being able to look in any direction). Also, the music is abysmal. Considering Daggerfall has a good soundtrack and Morrowind+ have amazing Jeremy Soule soundtracks, it's even more of a shock just how bad the music is in this one.

Despite all of this, the game instills a certain degree of awe at its scope. You never really know what's going to happen next. You have a dozen choices of what to do at any given time, and it's pretty rad. Kinda seems like an MMORPG before they were a thing. It has a LOT of rough edges, and I can't wait to see how much of an improvement Daggerfall is.

Just want to take a moment to note something. I know a lot of people who write on the internets don't really interact with the people who comment. Thing is, if people weren't reading these things, I'd just go back to playing and watching and not writing anything about any of it. I appreciate it whenever people read these posts of mine, especially when you take the time to comment and let me know you're out there.

Read more Elder Scrolls posts HERE! 


  1. Great post, really enjoyed this one. Arena is a game that I've always wanted to play but it's just so...old. I started with Morrowind and went from there, like a lot of people. Good luck finishing this and I hope you cover the rest of it!

  2. What is this? It looks like Doom + Skyrim. I must play

  3. I'm curious as to how much you'll like Tales of Phantasia once you get around to it.

    It really is a shame something like this wasn't well-known at the time. Or somehow on a console.

  4. An arena game without arenas? More importantly, a game they changed on the fly as they realized what works? That's admirable. Not enough games have "arena" in the title so I'll take it.

    Bethesda Softworks is repping for its hometown! Its hometown of a really nice Maryland suburb of DC. "Softworks" is a cool combination of words.

    Aww they used "affect" when they should have used "effect" in this prologue. Who translated this? jk

    Not only a great nugget about voices and P-Stew and this king surviving but also a great "SEGA!" joke.

    Very much like your main character, his look isn't common enough in games.

    Resting to recover health? That makes a lot of sense! I wonder if it helps the game sort out all the code so it won't freeze, too...

    "Goodbye, Sting. I wish you" DIDN'T SUCK?

    Good to see a game where spell-casting items are really important. Makes sense; I remember depending on such items during solo segments of other RPGs.

    Escaping through the waterways..another great innovation.

    MAN this dungeon was good to you. I like that the game is doing this.

    Anti-pirating measures in a game? ...whoa.

    I remember the town talk from Daggerfall and I'm now hoping you'll put your sword away. Anyway, good post.

    1. I didn't yet know to put away the sword, sadly.

      Bethesda is a place in Maryland outside DC? Whoa, now I get why Fallout 3 takes place in DC and Maryland.

  5. Ive been playing arena while reading this. I got an elven longsword, than I got an adamantium longsword.

  6. Thanks for the comment, let me know how the playthrough goes for you.

  7. I really like reading about other people playing games because it's less time consuming than playing the game myself lol!

  8. Good read. I just started playing this game.
    A few points. The intro in the manual has Ria transporting the Ruby Key to your cell while speaking with you; it wasn't left there by carelessness. Traveling by water keeps you from being attacked, but you fatigue much faster - not sure if you die instantly when it's gone but one hit by an enemy will definitely kill you.
    Every time I've gone through the Shift Gate it's been daytime in the first town. I haven't yet checked to see what time it is before I exit and when I come out.
    Finding shops/inns: Ask townspeople. When you're far away, they'll give you a direction to take. When you're close enough, they'll mark it on the map for you.
    (By now you probably already know all that, but for some other newbie ...)

    1. Ah yes, the days when reading the manual helped you figure out the story of the game (...and the days when games HAD a manual). Good luck playing through it, let me know how it goes.

      I need to get to Morrowind soon...

  9. I am very happy to discover your post as it will become on top in my collection of favorite blogs to visit. Best Tempered Glass PC Cases

  10. Found this post via a dropped link in a Game Trailers forum. Daggerfall is a personal favourite and Morrowind is quickly becoming joining the ranks (if it hasn't already) as I play it more.

    This was a great read, especially for someone who isn't (and doesn't plant to be, at least, for a while) keen on Arena.

    1. Glad to hear about links being dropped. The ES1 and 2 posts are my two most popular series, and the continued adventure of Gazpacho in Morrowind has to happen some time in the near future. Daggerfall is awesome, though Arena definitely took some work to get through without losing my mind. Originally I was going to just start with Morrowind but I'm glad I went back and did these.

  11. I did a search for easiest class to play for a newbie and found your post on gamefaqs. I’ve played Skyrim to death during COVID, including melee, my least favorite. Most recently I tried “pure” builds, like a nec who only uses staves and raising the dead, a pally who won’t do morally questionable quests, a Druid who wears only leather or fur armor, an assassin who uses only daggers.
    Bethesda offered Arena for free, so I’m just starting it now. Wish me luck!

  12. I did a search for easiest class to play for a newbie and found your post on gamefaqs. I’ve played Skyrim to death during COVID, including melee, my least favorite. Most recently I tried “pure” builds, like a nec who only uses staves and raising the dead, a pally who won’t do morally questionable quests, a Druid who wears only leather or fur armor, an assassin who uses only daggers.
    Bethesda offered Arena for free, so I’m just starting it now. Wish me luck!

  13. I did a search for easiest class to play for a newbie and found your post on gamefaqs. I’ve played Skyrim to death during COVID, including melee, my least favorite. Most recently I tried “pure” builds, like a nec who only uses staves and raising the dead, a pally who won’t do morally questionable quests, a Druid who wears only leather or fur armor, an assassin who uses only daggers.
    Bethesda offered Arena for free, so I’m just starting it now. Wish me luck!

    1. Good luck! If it isn't obvious, I enjoyed the heck out of this despite the dated graphics. These posts might point you in the general direction of what to do if you get lost. Hope they're useful in that regard or at least entertaining. I also covered Daggerfall, but I haven't gone beyond that to Morrowind/Oblivion/Skyrim yet. Yet.

  14. Asked my dad to get this for me in Office Max about 20 years ago. Never really got past level 10. Shit was hard. Just beat it now as a warrior rocking full enchanted Ebony, etc. Funny how I never knew which shops sold the best gear. Game is archaic no doubt. It's no Skyrim. But even Morrowind was extremely buggy. Reminds me of Morrowind's cryptic nature (minus the music). If you have 20-30 hours to check this out, I would certainly recommend it. Thanks for the post.