Holy smokes! I’d all but forgotten about this program until I stumbled across The CRPG Addict, a blog by an anonymous RPG nerd who’s tasked himself with playing every computer roleplaying game that’s ever been published, in order of release. (The site is an obsessive catalog of the peaks and lows in the evolution of a genre that’s existed since the advent of home computers, and continues to dominate today in the form of monster MMO games like World of Warcraft.) I wish the poor author good luck in his quest and thank him for reminding me of some of the most influential games of the ’80s, including Stuart Smith’s Adventure Construction Set.
ACS was a curious thing. It was the first, most readily available set of tools for aspiring computer adventure game creators (after, I suppose, learning programming yourself). It was a game system built like the earliest graphical RPGs (think the original Ultima), and came with a couple of example scenarios along with lots of open-endedness for an imaginative person (me) to fill with ideas. Which I did. Many, many ideas.
Among the games I can remember crafting, from sprites to dozens of items to maps and creatures and dialogue:
- Your typical fantasy, swords-and-sorcery RPG
- A recreation of the movie Aliens
- An adventure set in feudal Japan
- A game where players took the roles of high-tech vehicles fighting tanks and helicopters and collecting power-ups
- A kaiju-style monster game
- The inevitable Star Wars, G.I. Joe, and superhero RPGs
- A space exploration game
- A game with secret agents infiltrating high-security enemy facilities
- A bunch of other things I’ve mostly forgotten
The appeal of ACS was the fact you could change everything. The tools were clunky (UIs built on the Apple //e were not particularly fun to use) but I spent hours and hours drawing sprites, creating weapons and armor and treasures, crafting maps and thinking up ways to push the capabilities of the software in ways the creator probably hadn’t intended. It was great fun. Sadly, back in the ’80s, there was no way to share my work other then to physically show someone, “hey, look at what I made!”
My impression of subsequent and more recent RPG toolkits is that they have become increasingly technical over the years, as the roles of game designer and programmer have converged and become most indistinguishable. But I hope the bar of entry to computer game design is not so high that only über-nerds end up making games (because only kids who write code can understand how games are made); young minds of all artistic and technical bents deserve a chance to be inspired to create, and sometimes all it takes is the right set of tools to set those minds in motion.