Skip to main content

Retrospective: Wasteland

Tomorrow's forecast: Fallout. In a good way.

I started my quest by murdering some children. In my defense, they had it coming.

It happened in the town of Highpool, an oddly lush oasis of green and blue in the middle of the burned radioactive wasteland. I'd only just left the Ranger Station that my motley crew of world saviours in training called home, and it seemed a friendlier first stop than the mountain full of mutant monsters to the west, the radioactive desert to the east, or the citadel to the north whose residents' idea of a friendly welcome was a cry of "Leave, wastelander scum! You are not old enough to die here!"

Highpool was definitely friendlier. Picturesque, by post-apocalyptic standards, with houses, a playground with swings and slides, a general store, and a heart-shaped lake that instantly warmed mine. Truly, this was a place worth fighting for; a place I considered might one day make for a fine retirement home when my long travels were over.

And then I fell into the sodding river.

There are better ways to kick off a career as world saviour. The short fall onto hard rocks only did 4 points of damage, but that was nothing compared to the embarrassment of the children running out to point and laugh at the soggy new arrival. I'm not sure what happened next, just that it involved a red flash of anger, conclusive proof that you don't want to take a catapult to a gunfight with a party led by someone called Angela Deth, and when I woke up, my pillow was gone. Oh, and there was a dead child at my feet. A very dead one. Complete with a little dog mournfully sitting by him, its betrayed, soggy eyes looking up as if to ask "Why?"

The future's so bright, you gotta wear shades. A radiation suit will help too, if you've got one.

I'd have answered, except that I was busy being shot dead by an angry vigilante.

Barely five minutes into Wasteland, you can see why this post-apocalyptic RPG has gripped players since 1988. When brought before what increasingly feels like the Kickstarter money bin, Brian Fargo's $900,000 pitch to finally create an official sequel was fully funded within three days. Its funding at the time of writing had just passed the $1.5 million mark, with the best part of a month still to go. This is a game buried so deeply in fans' hearts, confused surgeons have been known to accidentally pluck its original floppy disks out of their aortic valves.

For me, the warm feelings weren't so strong. Partly, that's because my memories of it have long-since run together with those of other games, like Fallout, naturally, and lesser known ones like Burntime and Bad Blood. Mostly though, it's because of the combat. I never cared for early RPG fighting systems, and Wasteland's menu-based hack-and-slash - no matter how strategic - was no exception. I hated it in its sister RPG The Bard's Tale about as much as I hated its godawful comedy-vacuum of a revival from a few years ago, frankly. It's nothing personal against Wasteland - the combat in other classics like Might and Magic and Ultima didn't do anything for me either. When combat starts, I yawn.

That might seem strange, and yes, RPGs have always been combat heavy. For me though, fighting things and looting their corpses has never been the point. Instead, when I buy one, it's for the joy of entering and exploring a new world, poking around a new culture, and ideally savouring the journey like a tourist instead of feeling trapped on a rail.

What I'd forgotten about Wasteland in the years since I played it last was just how much of that experience it actually offered. Where most other RPGs of its era were content to vomit up lots of space and monsters, Wasteland set out to create a whole fallen civilisation full of puzzles and characters and things to twiddle with, all magically crammed into less than a megabyte of space. It was a world that felt alive like few others, where things had a purpose and there were surprises to look forward to uncovering.

True, achieving this feat did mean making some hefty concessions to the technology of the time. Much of the in-game text isn't actually in the game for example. Instead, big chunks of plot and flavour text are handled by a polite little message saying "Read paragraph 13", which is your cue to turn to the printed manual (which of course you have, since there's no way you can find this information online) to see what's happening.

I don't want to set the world on fiiiire. I just want to staaart. A flame in your haaair....

What stops you simply reading them in advance and spoiling the entire game for yourself? Nothing, save for the risk of lies and red herrings. There may be someone out there who didn't simply devour the entire list within five minutes of discovering it, but I've never met one.

Even with a little stolen knowledge on your side, it's a long, brutal path to actually making use of it. You're given a starting team whose most useful first mission would be to drop their gear to the ground and politely turn themselves into delicious protein shakes for your handcrafted heroes to sip as they wander the blighted landscape. Out in the wilds, monsters both human and animal are everywhere, and not always the kind you can be proud of killing. At the Agricultural Centre not far from your starting location for instance, you don't just face the usual giant rats. No. In Wasteland's dark future, there are opossums that want a piece of you.

That's a big part of Wasteland's charm though - that as bleak as it might sound as a setting, its mutant tongue is constantly pressed up against the insides of both cheeks. You never know what you're going to find in each new settlement, and something memorable is rarely far away. It may be from an era when disk space was so precious that the main plot had to be outsourced to the manual, but that doesn't mean it'll skimp on the bytes to serve up descriptions like "Four foot tall pears, pleasingly plump, perfectly prepared, possibly, to plummet perilously from their precarious perches and pummel any passing pedestrian to a pasty, putrid pulp" or throw a random shout-out to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.

Unfortunately, I never did get as far into the Wasteland as I'd hoped. I'd wanted to refresh my memory of Las Vegas, where a mysteriously named figure called "Faran Brygo" runs a crime empire that hopefully didn't start with $1.5 million in pinched, pre-apocalypse Kickstarter contributions.

I'd intended to return to Highpool as a higher level hero and crush that local vigilante, the Red Ryder, so badly that the entire town would dry up in shame as a barren testament to my cruelty... purely on principle, you understand. I'd planned to remember all the little tweaks and beautiful touches that made Wasteland the classic that it is, from the silly little jokes, to the shameless infant massacring that no game would dare offer these days for fear of right-wing pundits coughing out their entire skulls. It's to Wasteland's credit that even now, it offers a unique RPG world and experience.

Soon enough though, the combat inevitably took its toll. The smiles I got from the quirky writing and regular fun discoveries weren't enough to shake my lingering antipathy towards menus and stats - an approach to fighting that lost every last shred of potential satisfaction the second Fallout showed up with the option to shoot enemies in the balls for bonus damage.

Killer rats, mutants, the shrieking banshees of certain death... some days, you should just stay in bed.

More to the point, of the two great wasteland games, that's the one that really showed me the joy to be had dancing in civilisation's ashes. Maybe I was simply a better age to appreciate it when it showed up, or hypnotised by little elves in my CRT screen. I don't know, but it doesn't really matter. As much as I admire Wasteland and love individual moments of it, if I'm honest, my favourite thing about it is that its success led to some of my actual favourite RPGs having a chance to exist.

This doesn't however mean I'm not excited for the upcoming Wasteland 2. It's got my pledge already, and I can't wait to get my hands on it. With an engine geared around easy content creation, the original game's attitude and imagination, and ideally a more modern approach to combat that makes it easier to avoid/endure. You don't have to have warm fuzzies dating back to 1988 to desperately hope it turns out well. The Wasteland name carries weight for a damn good reason, and any ancient RPG that can rack up over a million and a half dollars simply by saying "So, you folks remember me, right?" has to be worthy of our respect.

Unless The Magic Candle or Drakkhen ever pull it off, obviously.

If you want to see Wasteland's charms for yourself this Let's Play will give you a suitably tongue-in-cheek guide through its world. There are a couple of video series on YouTube that offer a better flavour of exactly how it plays, but they're overly narrated for my tastes. This one is short, only covering the first few areas, but restricts itself to showing the game instead of commenting on the action. Watch it. Admire it. Appreciate it. Even if it's a game you can't see yourself actually playing in this day and age, it's one with a very important legacy that deserves to be remembered, with or without a long-awaited sequel on the way.

Read this next