What Were the Odds?

What Were the Odds?
Chaos: Battle of the Wizards

Kieron Gillen | 6 Feb 2007 07:04
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Strictly speaking, the game didn't come from nowhere, just the closest local equivalent: Penkridge Market. A village sitting halfway between the nowhere Midlands towns of Stafford and Cannock, its sole notable feature was the sprawling Saturday market that grew from its side, like a prolapse of capitalism. Wandering around, trailing parents, it was a joy. Men shouting about meat, glorious meat. Knock off heavy-metal T-shirts (Eddie the Head Ts for a quid, man!). Bargains from the backstreets and backs of Lorries. All manner of media, at knock-down prices and questionable legality.

In its own way, chaos. Which was terribly appropriate.

While the parentals were off looking at something tediously grown-up, my brother and I worked out whether we could afford to buy a game. One day, we bought Chaos, by Spectrum. Just Chaos, as its "The Battle of the Wizards" subtitle was excised on the budget release. This meant we got it for a couple of quid (about $3 at the time). The price was what clinched the deal, but of the array of budget games, I've no idea what attracted us specifically to Chaos. Its cover art was a couple of shady figures and some manner of hellish wolf - a Dire Wolf, specifically - starring out at us. And, yes, we were suckers for anything which stunk of Orc, but the sloped racks of Penkridge Market was full of that manner of common fantasy. And while Chaos remains a great name for a videogame, it wasn't a name trafficked much through the nation's playgrounds. In fact, it wasn't whispered at all. No one had heard of it. Ultimately, we bought it for no reason other than it was Saturday and we wanted a game to play.

It was two quid well spent. We had no idea at the time, but we'd be playing Chaos, on and off, for the next 20 years.

We weren't alone. While it didn't have a reputation at the time, one slowly accumulated. By the time seminal videogame magazine Your Sinclair closed its doors in 1993, its readers voted it the fifth greatest PC game ever. In 2006, when British multi-format magazine GamesTM did a Best Games Ever list, it was the second highest Spectrum game present.

The game managed a posterity which, at the time, few would have guessed was possible by a couple of factors. First, as the Spectrum press started to fall, they took to cover mounting tapes with videogames. Chaos was a relatively early example of it - tellingly, it was the only game on the tape, when later over half a dozen fine Spectrum games would be squeezed on. Its sales success didn't matter. An entire generation of hardcore gamers were given a copy and fell in love.

Secondly, Chaos gained historic importance in retrospect due to its creator's later work. Julian Gollop's among the British designer/programmers who could be justifiably described as "auteurs." The ideas which went to achieve commercial success in X-COM (making turn-based strategy games operate with the intensity and accessibility of an arcade game, without sacrificing intelligence) were first devised for Chaos and his other great success of the period, Rebelstar Raiders. The obfuscation of his peers be damned, Gollop seemed to say. Strategy games were for everyone.

This democratization of tactics led to Chaos: The Battle of the Wizards being about wizards, well, battling.

Two to eight wizards found themselves in a single screen arena, which starts off completely empty. Each wizard is allowed to choose one of their randomly selected spells to cast. Casting it will make it disappear from your arsenal. The majority of these will summon a creature for you, which can then go fight in your name. Then, everyone takes a turn to move all their characters. Then, they go back to choosing spells. Repeat until one wizard stands victorious and the rest have their pixels spread across the screen in a Defender-esque blur. That's it.

Wizards battling.

Well, that's not quite it. A few sophistications have to be considered. First, every spell has a chance of success. The harder the spell, the less likely it'll cast correctly. While summoning a Bat can be guaranteed to work, a Golden Dragon only works 10 percent of the time. You can mitigate this in one of two ways. First, each spell is catagorized either Lawful or (wait for it) Chaos. If mostly chaotic spells are cast, the universe becomes more chaotic, increasing the chance of Chaos spells to work. The same for Lawful. It's terribly metaphysical. Second, when summoning a creature you're given the option of making it illusionary. If you do so, the spell will always succeed, and the resultant monster will operate exactly like a fleshier sort, except for having the Achilles heels of disappearing embarrassingly when hit with the Disbelieve spell (The one incantation in the game that's perpetually reusable). Anyway, that's it.

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