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An Elder Scrolls Retrospective: Arena

Arena-cover.jpg

Now that The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has finally screamed its way into gamers' hands, millions of players have disappeared into the land of Tamriel once again. But this behemoth title stands on the backs of many other astounding games, and each one deserves to share in the spotlight of their new child. Make the jump to take a look back at how this ambitious series got its start.

Released in 1994, Bethesda began their RPG line with The Elder Scrolls: Arena. The Imperial Battlemage, Jagar Tharn, has betrayed Emperor Uriel Septim VII, sealed him away, and been running the empire in secret for the last ten years, a period of constant strife known as the Imperial Simulacrum. Only the Staff of Chaos has the power to free the Emperor, but a hero needs to gather and reforge the lost artifact before that can happen. Naturally, this means that a lone prisoner must break out of jail, fight through numerous dungeons, accrue vast power and wealth, raise him/herself from nothing and become the most dangerous warrior of the age, and free him. Duh. Modeled after Dungeons and Dragons, Arena let you "be who you want and do what you want," which has been the motto of the series ever since. Towns, infinite random dungeons, NPCs, and tons of stuff to steal were at your fingertips, ready to have hundreds of your hours poured right on top.

This is where everything started. Arena established the entire Elder Scrolls Universe, giving players the whole of Tamriel to explore. Of course, the detail was pretty low compared to the later games, but the lore begins here. Eight races were available, with Imperials left out...for some reason, and Orcs not yet having entered the empire as a "civilized race." (Poor Orcs. They're still around, of crouse, but mostly to get in the way of your sword.) But it's more than just the locations and playable races. Uriel Septim VII, the eight character attributes, the thief-mage-warrior combat triangle, choosing your class through a personality test, all twenty-one classes, the books, the dialogue, the interactions - they all started here, and have been progressing forward ever since.

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Of course, not everything was the same as what we have now. Drawing heavily form Dungeons and Dragons, characters advanced through an experience point system rather than the skill system seen in later titles. Some characters, such as thieves and warriors, gained levels at faster rates than others, and the weapon/armor selections for each class differed. Magic was limited to certain classes, with MP totals being determined by class. Classes had special abilities, usually including extra spell resistance, immunity to poison, or a chance at critical hits. The difficulty level, which was already pretty high, approaches absurdity depending on your class. For example, without the magical protection armor provides, completing the game as a Monk should go on your resume. At the top.

This was one of the first attempts at a complete offline world, and while it may seem blocky and unimaginative by today's standards, Arena earned its cult classic status the hard way, through poor sales and word of mouth reputation. While it may seem tough to look backwards, remember that before Arena, the closest video games ever got to worlds this big and detailed were games like Wizardry and the static image exploration games Sierra was churning out. Finally, the detailed character systems, witty dialogue, and intense combat were combined with, ahem, cutting edge graphics to make a brand new experience. Countless RPGs and open world environments, from Fallout to Grand Theft Auto, owe Arena for paving the way and proving that people *want* to ignore their friends and responsibilities because they have to know what's in that next dungeon.

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Bouns fun fact: Arena was originally supposed to be an arena based combat game, but it evolved into an RPG over the course of development. But, Bethesda pays homage to Arena's first career choice in Oblivion, where posters advertising the Imperial City's arena matches use the box artwork from the first game.

1 Comments

kaei said:

Thanks so much for writing these! I am making my first foray into the Elder Scrolls world with Skyrim, and having all this concise backstory is very useful.

And girls who like girls who like rumble packs!

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kaei on An Elder Scrolls Retrospective: Arena: Thanks so much for writing these! I am making my first foray into the Elder Scrolls world with Skyrim, and...

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