The Bard's Tale series from Electronic Arts/Interplay is one of those great computer RPG game classics1. It came out right before the PC revolution (or at least the VGA/Soundblaster revolution which really turned the PC into a game machine). This was back when geeks debated Commodore 64 vs Apple vs Atari 800. The series came at the tail end of the C64 days, at the point when developers really figured out what they could do with the hardware and made maximum use of it. Bard's Tale fans fondly remember the excellent graphics developers managed to tweak out of the C64, loads of magic items and spells, enough slots for a large and diverse party, a diverse selection of player character classes, large and complex towns and dungeons, exciting NPC interaction, great plots and back stories, and of course a fantastic use of the C64's legendary SID chip. Bard's Tale's choice in music (and skillful execution given the hardware of the day) no doubt created a large number of Bach fans. Let's not forget too that it was all turn based. You could move forward a square, make a grilled cheese sandwich, come back, move right a square, take a bite of your sandwich...

The series came to a theoretical end in 1988 with the release of Bard's Tale III: The Thief of Fate. Several years later, in 1991, a Bard's Tale Construction Set was released. Upon that release, the free people of west thought they would never hear more of Sauron... err... Bard's Tale. But with the Internet there came a stirring. Bard's Tale was not dead. "Just sleeping," as your father would explain about why your turtle has not moved in 5 days and smells funny. There was talk EA had a Bard's Tale IV in development in 1990 but the project was unceremoniously cancelled after the project was 90% completed. Several developers who had worked on or around the Bard's Tale IV project came forward to verify the rumors.

What happened?

No one is sure why EA killed off the series despite Interplay's apparent desire to finish the project. The rights for Bard's Tale were shared between EA and Interplay thusly: EA owned the name. Interplay owned the code. Lots of great game series have come to an end because the company went belly up. However, EA in the intervening decade has only grown bigger, stronger, and more profitable. It certainly had the capital to finance such a project.

It's possible EA felt the series had been played out. It was rooted in the hoary old 8-bit days. Given the advances it's highly unlikely EA would take the time to finish, release, and market a 15 year old game. In a world of Final Fantasy, Might and Magic, Baldur's Gate, not to mention advanced first person shooters, Bard's Tale IV would look foolish. Resurrecting the name might have struck EA, with is huge and lucrative console gaming customer base, as another pointless move. Gamers today weren't even born when the last of the series came out. ("Say, I know, let's release a PS2 game based on Happy Days! You can ride the Fonz's motorcycle and get into food fights at Al's. Maybe Pinky Tuscadero isn't so old and saggy we can't sign her to sex up the box.") So, yeah, there are a couple generations of gamers that don't know about the series. What's a bard? Why does he have a tail? For those that do remember the game as something dusty on a back shelf, you might have to spend part of your marketing budget assuring gamers "This isn't your grandfather's Bard's Tale!"

Some good news has come out for the aging fringe gamer. In 2003, Brian Fargo, founder of Interplay and now owner of InXile Entertainment, bought the name rights. His company released a PS2 version called simply Bard's Tale. Despite it being a new Bard's Tale, it's not the Bard's Tale IV people have yapped about for years. Fargo does claim a fourth PC-based game is going out real soon now and several screen shots have been issued to tease (or dash) our hopes.

For hardcore fans of the original's three-panel, keyboard-driven, turn-based interface, it would appear from screen shots that this incarnation is, to use InXile's own marketing speak, a "modern interpretation of the original Bard's Tale, the grandfather of all role-playing games." I dunno this might just scream Donkey Kong Country meets Halo 2. And as an amateur historian of computers, computer games, and role playing games, the "grandfather of all role-playing games" claim rankles my nerves. Geez Wizardry would have a better claim to "grandfather" than Bard's Tale which one night argue is a sort of third wave role playing game. (Wave 0: Adventure | Wave 1: Wizardry | Wave 2: Ultima III | Wave 3: Bard's Tale)

Those looking for a modern pass at the Bard's Tale's 2D/three panel interface should investigate a commercial, fan-created version called Devil's Whiskey. For a time they used the name "Bard's Legacy". Some nastygram made them change the name to Devil's Whiskey (herein I exclaim "WTF" although I think the game's working subtitle was "Bard's Legacy: Dark Whiskey" and that was likely the genesis). The familiar three panel interface is there but the "view port" panel is hopped up with lush 3D graphics.

Hints of the once and maybe future Bard's Tale IV can be found floating around. The Bard's Tale book series are set in the same world the game was to have been set in. More interesting in the late '80s Interplay did an end around EA and released a very Bard's Tale like game called Dragon Wars. The author of Dragon Wars himself claims this was the legendary Bard's Tale IV.

Steve Englehart, a writer contracted to flesh out the game's story, claims Bard's Tale IV involved a bard unfairly imprisoned for a murder he did not commit. He's released by the king because the king needs someone to find his missing son, who apparently ran off with a serving wench. Oh the scandal! No one can officially investigate the case as it would become public and oh the scandal! Englehart has done everything from writing for Lucas's Droids cartoon to authoring several graphic novels for Marvel and DC Comics. He's no crank and likely a trustworthy insider on this still born project.

Another rumor was that Bard's Tale IV was so big it would be split into two games: IV and V. Now here might be the reason the project was dropped. While a Bard's Tale IV might be using what many considered a dying game interface but just make it in time to the shelves to score with the fan boys, by the time the second half of the project came out, it would most certainly appear dated. Cut and run. By 1993, the whole role playing industry was itself in a huge slump. 1993 is when Doom was released. Doom pretty much blew away any notion that a turn based game could be fun.


1 A divine trinity would no doubt form around Bard's Tale, the Ultima series (Ultima IV being the ultimate expression of the flat 2D "god view" game system) and Wizardry (which never came out on C64, the explanation being the developers could never find a decent C64 Pascal). If I had to jettison the Apple only Wizardry, I'd add in a heartbeat the AD&D Gold Box series (Pool of Radiance et al). I'll make here a passing reference to Wasteland2 and add a grumble that C64 users were robbed of an essential childhood by not having a port of Sundog.

2 Brian Fargo also bought the rights to the Wasteland name along with the Bard's Tale name.

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