Game 327: Darkwood (1992)

From The CRPG Addict



United States
Published as shareware in 1992 for the Macintosh
Date Started: 15 May 2019

Date Finished: 16 May 2019
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
You are an orphan named Derek who wants to join the elite city guard of Darkwood, the safest city in the kingdom. Anyone who defeats the toughest creature in the arena will become Captain of the Guard. You start at Level 1 with no experience, a dagger, and 10 gold pieces. In front of you lies a town with a weapon shop, an armor shop, a magic shop, an inn, and an arena.

Starting the game. You click on buildings to enter them.


Because it’s all you can afford, you buy some leather armor for 5 gold pieces before heading into the arena. You are offered battles against 20 creatures, listed in order of difficulty from a giant rat to a red dragon. You choose the giant rat. You defeat him in a few rounds of combat and get 10 gold pieces and 75 experience points. You rest up at the inn, and with your newfound wealth, you upgrade your weapon to a short sword. Back you go to the arena to face the next monster.
Over the next several hours, you kill successively harder monsters, buy successively better equipment, and level up. You can save at any time, so death is not permanent. Eventually, you make your way to the arena wielding a Sword +5 Holy Avenger and wearing Full Plate +4, and you defeat the red dragon. Then the game is over.

Battering away at an enemy.

As tempting as it is to go immediately to GIMLET and make this the shortest entry of all time, there are a few more things to talk about. The first is that I’ve played this game before, when it was new. Someone had loaded it onto one of the lab computers at my university, and I copied it to floppy disk and brought it home. (This would have been around 1993, in my only Mac-owning period.) The entire time I played, I assumed I was playing a prologue, and once I was named Captain of the Guard, the game would open up and I’d perform a bunch of quests in my new role. I couldn’t believe that it was over when it was over.

Dad would be so proud.

I mis-remembered a few things about the game. I thought I remembered that you could only fight each creature once, but not only would this make for a 10-minute game, it would be impossible. You need to grind relentlessly against low-level creatures to survive and build wealth. The game doesn’t really encourage you to test your limits. Even with reloading, if a goblin gives you 25 gold pieces and 110 experience points, and you can kill him 100% of the time (which you can after Level 2), what is your incentive to move up to a bugbear, which offers 40 gold pieces and 250 experience points but a 50% chance of death? Just fight the goblin twice. It only takes a few seconds.

You have to be careful not to be lured by the ghoul (400 gold, 500 experience) or the wight (500 gold, 700 experience). They can drain levels, so their rewards aren’t worth it. If you can get to the point that you can defeat the troll, he’s a reliably rewarding enemy, offering 1500 gold and 1800 experience. He’s the third-to-last enemy, so he should be a lot harder, but something isn’t programmed properly. He almost never hits you.

Grind all those experience points again? Or just reload?

I bought the best weapon and armor in the game, as well as a ring of protection +3, before purchasing any healing potions (easier just to reload than chug a 1000-gold-piece potion) or tomes. The tomes cost 2,000 gold pieces each and allow you to increase your dexterity and constitution to 18 and your strength to 18/100. (I don’t think intelligence, wisdom, or charisma do anything. They can’t be improved.) After that, the only things to spend money on are wands and potions.

Using a tome.

I made it to Level 8. It was taking too long to grind to Level 9. I found that the red dragon was unconquerable with melee weapons, even with a full stock of healing potions. But it was vulnerable to the lightning wand that you can buy in the magic shop. Four or five blasts and I was Captain of the Guard.

I don’t want to accuse the author of anything, but our past experience with shareware titles makes me suspicious of the provenance of these graphics.

In a GIMLET, it earns:

  • 2 points for the game world, featuring a basic backstory commensurate with the scope of the game.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. There’s no creation, and leveling doesn’t seem to do much more than confer extra hit points.
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 1 point for encounters and foes. The bestiary is Dungeons and Dragons standard, and the level-draining attacks of the undead are the only special attacks programmed in.


A few statistics help you determine what foe you’ll want to defeat next.


  • 1 point for magic and combat. Your options are only to attack, use an item, or surrender.


Using the Wand of Lightning in the final battle.


  • 3 points for equipment. Only one weapon and armor slot, but the magic item selection is decent.
  • 4 points for the economy. It lacks any complexity, but it remains relevant until the end.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. There are only a couple of sounds: hit, miss, and “you won!” Graphics are sparse enough that it might as well have been a text game. It’s disappointing how all the monsters are represented by the same helmeted figure. I found the all-mouse interface annoying, as I do all all-mouse interfaces, but it was easy enough to determine what to click on.
  • 2 points for gameplay. Too easy, too limited, and not replayable, it’s at least short.

That gives us a final score of 18. It’s about as minor as you can get and still qualify as an RPG at all. Author Robert Chancellor returned to the setting with Siege of Darkwood (1993), a light strategy game that he published through Pointware. Based in La Verne, California, Chancellor would later go on to work for Blizzard and Amazon Game Studios.

He sure got a lot of mileage out of that graphic.

What Darkwood does best is raise uncomfortable questions about what makes it a “lesser” RPG. Imagine that it is the menu town of something like a Gold Box game. Instead of leveling up and gaining wealth by fighting monsters in the arena in 30 seconds, you have to spend hours questing in dungeons, only to ultimately return to the city to spend your money and level up. What have all those extra hours gained you? Are they anything more than sound and fury? In stripping away the frills of typical, more elaborate RPGs, does Darkwood also strip illusions about the value of time spent playing those games? Can I honestly say that the endgame screen is less satisfying than a typical era title that takes 5 times as long but introduces no extra plot?

Those questions might be more worth thinking about if the combat in Darkwood were a bit more elaborate, a bit more tactical. I feel like if you’re going to set your title entirely in the confines of an arena, combat needs to offer something more than clicking the icon of a sword until someone is dead. (Has any good RPG been set entirely in an arena? I’m open to the possibility.) Perhaps an action-oriented approach drawing upon the underlying attributes. Perhaps the ability to team up with other NPCs. As it is, Darkwood leaves me uncomfortable and unsatisfied. Perhaps I can pretend it’s a prologue to Darklands.


I’ve removed Dragons Shard from the list after playing it for a while, then realizing that the shareware version caps character development at Level 5. This is my third half-hearted attempt to play a Bit Brothers game, all of which seem to feature the same engine. Until I can somehow obtain a full-featured copy of the game, I can’t get far enough to bother writing about it.

Also gone is Mission: Thunderbolt, which it turns out is not really a 1992 game but a 1991 Macintosh release of a single mission of a mainframe game called Doomsday 2000 (1987). The game has been moved to re-consideration in its appropriate year.

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