So, you’ve seen all of Lordran, have you? Had your fill of old blood? Couldn’t possibly take another hour swinging with Sekiro? Fair enough. I know the wait for Elden Ring has been long and tortuous. We’ve all been desperately hanging on for whatever scrap of new PR comes our way. How many times did you watch a leaked video that was dodgier quality than the bootleg VHS of Eraser my friend bought in D.C. in the mid ‘90s—the one where a guy literally walks in front of the camera, realizes what’s happening, and then offers the bootlegger some chicken as an apology (yes, it was genuinely beautiful)?
We don’t have to live like this. There’s a better way to get our Soulsborne fix. And like the DLC of Bloodborne (you know, the actual good part of Bloodborne) it requires a little bit of virtual time travel.
Death spirals. Death loops. Death. Death. Death. Live die repeat. Learn the patterns, solve the puzzles. Do it again. Do it right. Death is an equation, solve it, and avoid it.
If we’re really honest, most games require players to learn sequences and how to respond to them appropriately. You learn the jumps in a Mario game until you don’t fuck them up and finish the level. Even in RPGs like Persona, you learn the elemental weaknesses to enemies and cast the right spell to finish the fights efficiently and maintain enough resources to survive the dungeon. In this light, Dark Souls isn’t terribly special. Learn the patterns, be efficient, survive.
Why is it so memorable and noteworthy then? Because of the brutal efficiency in which it will kill you and end the loop.
Shadowgate will fuck you up. You will die. You should die. It’s how you learn the patterns. By the time you finish Shadowgate, you should be able to restart and finish the game in little over an hour. Every run of Shadowgate is a speedrun because a limited torch system keeps the tempo. Learn the solutions, go faster, waste less movement. And when you die, which you will, you’re treated to one of the most iconic death screens in videogame history (and each death bears with it a unique and gratifying description of how you died).
The version for the NES is the one you want, if only because Hiroyuki Masuno’s soundtrack is one of the best to ever grace the console.
Perhaps more than anything else, Dark Souls finds its roots in Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest. If you’ve never been hands on with this game, but consider yourself a Souls fan, stop reading this and go play it. I’ll wait.
Simon’s Quest slows the pace and progression of Castlevania. With the addition of light RPG and adventure elements to the previously brisk platformer, the groundwork for contemporary character action games takes shape. But that’s not all. Owing to a dodgy localization and a desire to mislead players in the original script, here we find duplicitous characters, inscrutable NPCs, and a brevity of text that carries tremendous weight even as we cannot trust it. Every treacherous laugh in Dark Souls blossoms from the weird and sinister cast of characters inhabiting Konami’s Transylvania.
What’s unreasonably difficult and yet one of the most satisfying and nerve wracking dungeon-crawling experiences you can have on the Apple IIGS? Well, it’s IMVU founder Will Harvey’s 1990 classic for EA The Immortal. I can call it a classic because Nintendo just released the port on the Switch (which is the best way to play this if you’re not in possession of an actual IIGS), so clearly it’s a classic, even if everyone hates it but me. Actually, I’m pretty sure I hate it too. But in the way that I hate when Ornstein and Smough put their boots on my neck when I don’t pay attention and still manage to be a roadblock after all these years. Which is to say, we’re in a complicated BDSM relationship, and it’s great.
The Immortal is a mean bastard of a game. It stands high above kicking sand at you, shouting, “I’M A MOTHERFUCKER!” It’s “What if the entire game was Sen’s Fortress?” It’s violent, it’s confusing, and it’s obtuse. But in those dimly lit corridors where goblins lurk and traps are a constant, there’s tremendous beauty in the design. Sure, it’s broken and dodgy no matter which version you play. But having a conversation with a goblin because you made choices that allow you to low-key align with them in their war against trolls is incredible. Alternately being antagonized by everyone and everything because you decided not to align with the goblins is incredible in the way that shooting your foot off could be described as incredible.
Sure, it looks ugly and plays ugly. But The Immortal is a beautiful, difficult creature.
Wizardry V: Heart of the Maelstrom
I could have put any Wizardry on here. I should have put the very first Wizardry or the very best, VI. But I went with Heart of the Maelstrom for a very specific reason: the SNES version simply slaughters its older siblings in the sprite department.
Here’s how the lineage works. Tabletop wargaming begat Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeons & Dragons begat the UNIX Rogue-adjacent-precursor dnd and a whole host of early CRPGs that would culminate in Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord. And for whatever reason, ‘80s game developers in Japan loved Wizardry and basically everything you know and love arises from responses to this phenomenon.
Anyway, Wizardry rules. The SNES version of Maelstrom published by Capcom has great spritework, and with most DRPGs (or Blobbers, or Dungeon Crawlers, etc) it’s all about picking a tileset that you like and a rulebase you can live with and then wrecking shit with characters you named after your friends and who will absolutely die. It’s kind of like summoning in Dark Souls in that way.
King’s Field IV: The Ancient City
Photo credit: @lowpolyrobot
King’s Field is first-person Dark Souls. Put another way, Dark Souls is King’s Field for a new generation of gamer who abandoned first person fantasy to Bethesda.
I put King’s Field IV in this list because it’s the best of the Kings Fields we got. It’s soundtrack is a triumph—spooky and weird in ways that disrupt the expected. The cryptic item descriptions and character dialogue carried over from Simon’s Quest take on the unusual From Software flair. Combat may always move like you’re playing with an Ultra Greatsword Build in Full Havel’s, but it’s also as satisfying (look, tanking may not exist in Souls, but feeling like one still rules). In the end this is the breakpoint for From Software, the last common ancestor before the ascent of Hidetaka Miyazaki with the cult hit turned recent megastar Demon’s Souls.
You kind of are obligated to play King’s Field IV. And sometimes obligations can be pretty cool.
Also, it’s slow and long enough that by the time you finish it, Elden Ring will have arrived.
Dia Lacina is a queer indigenous writer and photographer. She tweets too much at @dialacina.