Christmas, 1981. The snow wasn’t falling. I was wearing shorts. I remember looking at the trees festooned with lights as we drove to my cousin’s house to open gifts. Palm trees. (Did I mention I grew up in South Florida?)
The hit toy that year was a big hunk of plastic that played lights and sounds. That’s right, the AT-AT Walker from Kenner.
But the one that was a hit in our house, the one we all had our fingers and toes crossed for, was Dark Tower. This hybrid computer-tabletop game was like some epic session of D&D with lights and sounds and a computer for a DM. At least that’s what Orson Welles promised us. And all for the low, low price of … runs the numbers through the inflation calculator … $171.86.
Let me tell you: Dark Tower did not disappoint. The game itself was nothing special. It featured a generic quest for keys to breach the tower and win the day. It checked off all the fantasy tropes: brigands and dragons, bazaars and citadels, warriors and gold. Bog standard fantasy all the way down. If that’s all we wanted, we’d have just played another game of Magic Realm.
But none of that mattered. What made Dark Tower so exciting was … the show.
By 1981, we were starting to see just what a microchip could do. Games like Ultima and Zork gave us the illusion that computers could tell us a story. They could be the DM. But those were played at a desk on a computer by yourself, and just like the arcade games we were all hooked on, the fireworks were on a flat screen.
And here comes Dark Tower. Pulling the titular tower out of the box. The heft of it. Sitting it proudly in the center of the board. Racing around the house to find a couple of D-cell batteries. Firing it up. The grinding gears. Some vaguely familiar 8-bit melody. A flashing LED screen hinting at something bigger like a distant torch flickering amidst a darkened dungeon. The experience was unlike anything we’d ever encountered before.
When I started Restoration Games with Rob a few years ago, right at the top of the website, we set up a place for folks to tell us what games they wanted us to bring back and why. Unsurprisingly, Dark Tower got quite a number of mentions. Reading through them, what always struck me was the why. A lot of other games had comments about how much fun they were to play or maybe a silly component. With Dark Tower, the comments were always much grander, with comments like “mind-blowing”, “epic”, and “wizardry”.
When Rob and I decided to tackle the game, we knew that was the mark we had to hit. Wizardry.
Little did we know just how much of a challenge that would prove to be. But more on that on another day.
This is the first in a series of design diaries on Return to Dark Tower, leading up to our Kickstarter campaign, launching January 14th. If you want to be notified when the campaign launches and receive a free metal active player marker, go to returntodarktower.com to sign up.