In what has unquestionably been an even bigger undertaking than ranking the Final Fantasy games, its time to look back now at an astonishing 40 years(!) of history where Dungeons & Dragons was translated into the electronic medium.
To keep this manageable and less than 100 pages long, I'm going to skip the iOS/handheld games, as well as anything that's a MMORPG. Although there were some Intellivision games in the 70's, I'm essentially starting this list with Pool Of Radiance, which is the first title people are likely to have actually played and still have access to today.
When looking back through the many D&D games to hit PCs or consoles, there's an interesting tradition of publishing vastly different games with the same name, which is perhaps sustained by how the same material has to be re-tread repeatedly as new editions of the tabletop game are released over time.
For instance, if you were only born in the last 20 years or so, you probably did a double take when I mentioned Pool Of Radiance as the first real D&D game. That's because I'm referring to the '88 PC title, not the 3D game of the same name that tried out the 3rd edition rules back in 2001. Likewise, the name Neverwinter Nights means very different things to millenials than it does to people who had AOL back in '91.
From the basic D&D rules through five or more major overhauls, each edition of the game has made its mark with computer or console titles, and they all had varying levels of success. The only major exception to that rule was oddly with the 4th edition ruleset, which for reasons no one really understands was entirely skipped on the video game front. Frankly, the move didn't make any sense, as that ruleset was much more suited for an electronic presentation than either AD&D or 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons, which have the bulk of the video game titles.
Lately it seems like the golden age of D&D games is over, ending not too long after the demise of the Infinity Engine. I'm holding out hope though that somewhere down the line, Wizards of the Coast will give the license to a developer with a deep love of the game who is eager to rise to the occasion and give us something as good as Baldur's Gate once again.
I'm going to get this out of the way right now: Planescape Torment isn't just the best D&D game to ever see release, it's the best RPG to ever see release, even to this day. Your Dragon Ages, your Witchers, your Final Fantasy, they don't even come close.
Since this game, nobody has told a fantasy story of this depth, with insanely interesting characters and fantastic locations. Vhailor is a suit of armor animated by the force of his devotion to law, while Fall-From-Grace is a succubus who wields divine magic and runs a brothel where only intellectual lusts are stimulated. Your main character is a blank slate, remembering nothing of his past or why he can't die, and you get to choose his class and alignment based on your actions.
Planescape is a campaign setting that is criminally underrepresented in video games, and unfortunately it seems like it will never be returned to again. Everything about this game just clicks together – the art style, the music, the bizarre quests and NPCs. This is one of the few RPGs where you want to put ALL your points into intelligence and wisdom and spend dozens of hours talking to your party members and even inventory items. If you played this through as a fighter, you missed more than half the game.
Torment is a game that continuously reveals new secrets the more you play it. I'd probably beaten it 5 separate times before I realized I could use the stories-bones-tell ability on the zombie workers in the Mausoleum. To my great delight, one of the shambling corpses I'd chosen not to kill on that playthrough turned out to be a former companion from a previous life, and he had some choice words for me.
Although there probably won't ever be another Planescape game, we are soon getting a quasi-sequel with Torment: Tides Of Numenera.
This is the game that changed everything for Dungeons and Dragons titles. Made by a team of practicing doctors who decided to give video game development a shot, the Infinity Engine began here and produced what was unquestionably the best representation of the AD&D ruleset yet.
Besides the stellar gameplay (now famously referred to as “real time with pause”), Baldur's Gate was no slouch in the character or storytelling department. Who could ever forget Minsc and his companion Boo (the only miniature giant space hamster in the realms)? The morose Xan (“we're all doomed!”) is still a favorite of mine to this day, and listening to the things Xar and Mantaron had to say if the other died was hysterical.
I've got a special place in my heart for this classic that will never get dethroned, and to this day I fondly recall having to smuggle all five discs into my room without the box, as ”that Satanic Dungeons and Dragons” was most definitely not allowed in our home.
There was a great balance here of combat and story, but what really captured people's attention at the time was the exploration. Simply finding new locations on the map and then covering every inch of those locations to discover new stories and new companions was incredibly satisfying.
I know some will wonder how this is rated below its predecessor, as Baldur's Gate 2 added in a host of improvements that took the series to a new level. Updated effects and portraits, more companions, much larger areas, more options to play as an evil character, the addition of romances, and so on were all advances that are absent from the first game.
I'll agree: in most regards, BG 2 improved on the formula. However, there were just a couple of ways in which it didn't, which keeps it from being an outright better game. For starters, there was that annoying opening dungeon that no one wanted to have to replay every time before getting into the real goods of the game (thankfully, mods exist to cull it entirely).
While all the side quests you engage in while exploring Athkatla and the surrounding lands were amazing, its the main story quest and its villain here that fall short. Jon Irenicus may be a tragic figure steeped in Forgotten Realms lore, but nearly everything else about him just isn't particularly interesting, and frankly he doesn't fit the tone of D&D very well.
That all being said, BG 2 is still an amazing game that's leagues ahead of the sub-par D&D titles we've been given in the past decade -- so if you haven't played it, seriously do so at your earliest opportunity.
For awhile, Black Isle Studios was the go-to developer for making stellar D&D games. After its dissolution, several members went on to form Obsidian Entertainment, which became known for producing sequels to much-loved series. They gave us Fallout: New Vegas, Knights of the Old Republic 2, and the excellent Neverwinter Nights 2.
A vast improvement on its predecessor in nearly every way, NWN 2 didn't just look prettier, it improved on the gameplay, the interface, and most importantly, on the story. The characters and main storyline were leagues ahead of the previous game. That continued with the expansions, which offered some truly unique storytelling in parts of the Forgotten Realms that aren't explored nearly as often. In a plus for me personally, the main quest intersected quite a bit with the planes, so some of the oddity of Planescape mode got to shine through.
My only real complaint was that the sound effects and music were largely recycled from the inferior first game, and I'm also not a big fan of voice acting in RPGs, so I wasn't crazy about the focus on full voicing of dialog.
This game put itself in an awkward position, and I'm incredibly glad that it did. When Neverwinter Nights came out in full 3D, Black Isle made the odd choice to release another Infinity Engine game instead based on 2D sprites with 3D effects. For fans of the franchise, the results were stellar, even if people complained that it looked dated.
The first several segments of this game are some of the best in D&D history, and this is easily one of the finest interpretations of the 3rd edition rules to ever hit a PC game. Simply interacting with and learning about the inhabitants of Targos while building up the city's defenses was a ton of fun, and the large-scale combat segments were done incredibly well.
A problem did arise though about halfway through – Icewind Dale 2 gets incredibly repetitive once you leave the Ten Towns behind. While the first half of the game improved on the original Icewind Dale in every conceivable way, by the time you hit the ice palace and battle the Auril priestesses, the formula becomes very stale and all the character interaction is replaced by non-stop combat.
The first video game to fully implement the 3.5 rules, in some ways Temple Of Elemental Evil is the black sheep of the D&D franchise. Yes, it was a buggy mess. At one point in my first playthrough, all doors stopped being physical objects and could be walked through without opening (no need for a rogue to pick locks or check for traps after that).
If you looked beyond those issues though, Temple Of Elemental Evil was a genuinely fun experience, and it really took the pen and paper rules and made them come to life on the screen. The intro and ending also changed based on what alignment you chose for your party, which was a new and interesting change. You could be roving band of chaotic evil lunatics out to pillage and rape, or a collection of altruists seeking to protect the innocent, and the game made no judgment calls.
This was also one of the few games in the franchise to add in unexpected consequences to typical adventurer behavior. For instance, if you sold the items taken off one villain you defeated, some of his companions would hear about it and ambush you later while traveling, while if you kept that equipment the scene wouldn't occur.
While the standard gold box titles are heralded as classics in gaming history, what doesn't usually get as much love (but absolutely should) are the off-beat titles from the lesser known campaign settings that came out in the same era. While the gameplay of the gold box sets were all very similar, these games shook up the formula a bit and gave you something more unique.
Dark Sun: Shattered Lands took us out of the typical high fantasy setting and instead offered up a dead desert planet where you aren't trying to save the world (it's already destroyed), but instead are just trying to eke out an existence as a gladiator slave. Spelljammer: Pirates Of Realmspace also took D&D to space, where it typically does not go.
Although they aren't actually gold box titles, the Al-Qadim and Birthright settings also got video game adaptations around the same era, to varying levels of success. The Arabian Nights themed Al-Qadim: The Genie's Curse played more like a Zelda title, while Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance was a turned-based strategy game built around the concept of taking control of different territories on a map. Neither were very highly praised, but both at least tried something different.
For many gamers of a previous era, this is what they think about when the words Dungeons and Dragons come up. Focusing primarily on the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance campaign settings, these gold box games -- from Pool Of Radiance in '88 through Dark Queen of Krynn in '92 and Unlimited Adventures in '93 -- were the heart of D&D on the computer platform.
There's no question that these are classics and there's still fun to be had here, but unfortunately they really haven't aged well. If you didn't grow up with these gameplay mechanics, its easy to get frustrated and lose interest quickly. They are all also intensely similar, as its essentially the exact same mechanics on most of the games, just with different characters and enemies.
Many of these titles are now bundled together through sites like GOG, so if you want to see what came before, you can do so for a reasonable price and without having to try to get some abandonware files to work on your operating system.
Probably the only Infinity Engine game that isn't instantly loved and cherished by all, Icewind Dale did something odd by taking the combat and interface of Baldur's Gate and then culling out nearly everything else. It's not entirely devoid of story, but it very strongly put the focus on building a party of faceless adventurers and having them battle through endless dungeons, rather than on interacting with people and exploring.
Personally I enjoy the game – but only in limited quantities. The beginning is fun, but it doesn't take long for the formula to get very stale, as there's not much driving you on to keep battling more trolls and undead in various locations. The sequel really improved on everything and had more engaging characters, although it too fell prey to repetitive, endless combat.
There was a time when first-person dungeon crawlers were all the rage, from classics like Might And Magic III: Isles Of Terra to the simply titled Dungeon Master.
It shouldn't come as much surprise that D&D got in on this action, and the Eye Of The Beholder series surprisingly still holds up fairly well to this day -- although not without flaws and serious signs of aging.
Going outside the typical Forgotten Realms game, this same idea was presented in the gothic horror titles Ravenloft: Strahd's Possession and Ravenloft: Stone Prophet.
If you dig the first-person style of the Wizardry series, then these are worth playing, and they are an interesting look back at where the genre started for fans of newer titles like Legend Of Grimrock.
Coming out not long before the stellar Baldur's Gate, there was also the first person, real-time entry Descent To Undermountain, which was along the lines of The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall, but much more poorly received.
For those not in the know, BioWare's Neverwinter Nights is not actually the first game to bear that name. An online multiplayer game of the same title came out way back in the early '90s for AOL that was basically stick figures battling each other. While that game has been dead for decades, it can still be found on some abandonware sites. If you can get it running (good luck), unfortunately you won't be able to save your game, since the servers that ran it no longer exist.
On to the BioWare game from 2002, this is actually a difficult game to rank, because its dozens of games in one. I'm putting it here at this place based on the base game, which frankly wasn't very good.
The main campaign was an entirely forgettable affair, but where this game shines is in its expansions and the fan-made campaigns made with Neverwinter Nights' extensive editor tools. The two official expansions and a horde of campaigns made by players all went way beyond the throwaway base game and kept Neverwinter Nights relevant, when it should have been thrown into the dust bin of gaming history.
Did you know there's a side scrolling beat 'em up D&D game? This news recently spread much farther after it became available on Xbox Live Arcade, but there were a lot of years where only a handful of people knew about this, as it was included in an emulator pack on certain file sharing sites in an era long gone.
Art-wise, this game is amazing and really has a very iconic style, but how does it play? Not bad, actually. There's some mechanics that aren't great (the wizard's spells in particular), but overall it plays well and is a great addition to the library of anyone who liked games along the lines of Magic Sword, Golden Axe, or Final Fight.
For all the focus on combat in many titles, the fact of the matter is that Dungeons and Dragons is a role playing game based off tabletop interactions between human beings, and not a hack 'n slash affair. When D&D tries to go action RPG, the results typically fail to impress.
The best of these is easily the Dark Alliance games that hit consoles. If you cull out expectations based on the words “Baldur's Gate” appearing, then these are actually fairly fun Diablo or Sacred style games that offer some action amusement. Unfortunately you can't un-ring a bell though, and fans were expecting one thing while getting another, so for many hardcore fans of the Infinity Engine, there's simply no talking them into even giving these poorly named games a chance.
Dungeons and Dragons Heroes was a very similar idea, but only saw release on the original Xbox. Where Dark Alliance cut down on the story elements, I honestly don't recall Heroes even having a story at all, and it essentially went from Diablo to Guantlet. Is it fun in short bursts? Sure. Did it need to be a D&D game? Not at all.
Although its not an outright awful game, the newer version of Pool Of Radiance is one that feels a little unfulfilled. They updated the graphics, but the gameplay didn't get enough of a boost to really take this one into the top echelons of D&D games.
It's very slow moving (literally, not figuratively) and quite repetitive, focused entirely on combat and dungeon crawling. Every few years nostalgia gets the best of me and I re-install this, remembering it fondly despite the nagging sensation that there was something I didn't like about it, and I'm always disappointed each time.
If you want a 3D experience based on the 3rd edition rules, pick up Neverwinter Nights 2 instead.
Aside from the barely-played Stronghold from the '90s, Dragonshard was really the only serious attempt by a D&D game to try out real time strategy. Needless to say, it didn't do very well.
One of only two games set in Eberron, Dragonshard actually has an interesting premise, mixing typical RPG segments while exploring the underworld and then switching to a Warcraft style RTS when you go above ground. Unfortunately, a lot of the mechanics are clunky and don't work particularly well, and while they are clearly trying to mimic the graphics, the gameplay and story don't hold a candle to Warcraft III.
The previously mentioned Stronghold didn't manage to make a serious mark on the RTS genre either, and developers have avoided this genre altogether with newer games. There's definitely promise in the idea though, since large scale combat is a staple of fantasy. But nobody has managed to make it work particularly well yet with Dungeons and Dragons on PC or consoles.
A completely different experience from any of the other games on this list, the NES title Dragonstrike did something you really wouldn't expect from a D&D video game. It's not an RPG of any kind and doesn't reflect the table top rules in any way, but rather is one of the earliest examples of a dragon flight simulator.
While an interesting idea, the fact of the matter is that you could have replaced the dragon with an airplane and you'd just have a less satisfying version of many, many other games from the era. This is another instance where somebody could do something awesome with this concept, but hasn't fully fleshed it out and made it work yet.
Although this game had some seriously big name voice actors (Patrick Stewart?!?), it's another lackluster hack 'n slash where they forgot what D&D is all about. There's endless hordes of repetitive combat where you'll do the same combos over and over (and over, and over).
R.A. Salvatore wrote the story, so you can guess who is going to show up and how cliché and uninspired the characters will be. Sadly, this isn't the worst action RPG to be found in the D&D franchise, and is only the start of a dark era that has yet to end.
This one's sort of a sore point for a lot of role playing fans, and the wound is still raw since it's been freshly inflicted. The game we got was not the game we were promised, as things changed a whole lot during development.
This was supposed to be the game to challenge the DM toolset and editors from Neverwinter Nights and Neverwinter Nights 2. Instead we got something where you can pick some tilesets that randomly generate a dungeon for you – but hey, you get to place monsters during battles.
It's a very standard hack 'n slash action RPG with only a tenuous connection to the 5th edition D&D ruleset. For a more in-depth analysis of what went wrong with Sword Coast Legends, check out our look at the game here.
Ye gods, this is the bottom of the barrel for the action RPG front. This isn't just a bad D&D game, it's a bad game, period. There is nothing unique or interesting to be found here. It's dull, boring, unpolished, and features nothing you haven't seen a hundred times before. Seriously – even if you find it on sale for 90% off, don't bother.
Is there seriously a game WORSE than Daggerdale? Yes there is, and it's a fighting game. Yeah, I don't know why they did that either.
A D&D fighting game might not be an awful idea on its own, but why did they pick the gothic horror setting for it? They also apparently didn't bother to playtest it, because as it turns out that your biggest enemy isn't the opponent you are fighting, it's the camera. Prepare to be turned around for no apparent reason a dozen or so times a fight and get hit in the back no matter what you do.
This game is hilariously bad, and anyone who spends the hundreds to pick it up used on Amazon or eBay is wasting a whole lot of money.
If the blessings of Lathander are upon us, the D&D franchise will go in a much, much different direction than it has for the last 10 years.
There's a ton of material to mine for amazing games that don't have to return yet again to the Sword Coast of the Forgotten Realms -- if only the right developer (and a decent amount of money) were assigned the task.
For now though, we'll have to be content with developers giving us better experiences in different worlds.
Obisidan knocked it out of the park with the Infinity Engine style Pillars Of Eternity, and Divinity: Original Sin is an excellent choice for D&D fans. Until Wizards of the Coast finds a way to return the franchise to its former glory, fans will have to go elsewhere for a fantasy fix.
Do you agree with our list and rankings? Share your thoughts on the comments below!