The life of the animated works of D&D and Nintendo are very different beasts. 1989 saw the explosion of Nintendo multimedia with several cartoons and a film about playing Nintendo. This was already well into the lifespan of the product, and was used to more as brand and product awareness boosts rather than product introduction. From 1989 to 1991, Nintendo did everything it could to remind people it existed, trying to buy time until it could catch up in the console wars. Dungeons and Dragons, however, follows a very different path.
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The people behind D&D have always loved the idea of a multimedia approach to the game, as has the fan base. Believe it or not, this dates all the way back to the initial release of the game. When it was originally published in 1974, a video game was not far behind. The game, simply called dnd, was a TUTOR language dungeon crawl where players searched a dungeon for two objects of legend, an orb and a grail. It was actually pretty innovative for the time, as it allowed non-linear progression. This is not an official company release or anything, but it starts the trend right from the beginning. Dungeon and Dragons as a product line has always been one of initial product recognition, as opposed to the prolonged recognition model of Nintendo.
1977 saw a continuation of the trend, as AD&D was released this year, as well as D&D28b, later known as Akalabeth and the first game of the Ultima series. It wasn’t until 1981 that an official release of a D&D video game was authorized. The Dungeons and Dragons Computer Fantasy Game was released that year, coinciding with the release of the D&D Basic Set 2nd Version. Two years later, the D&D Basic Set 3rd Version was released. That same year saw the release of the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon show on CBS.
In a lot of ways, this show is very similar to one that would come six years later, Captain N: The Gamemaster. The main characters are from the real world, and are sucked into the world of D&D through a magical portal in a tunnel ride. The characters are older children and young teenagers. Also like in Captain N, these magical children receive items of power to help them in the world they have entered. The group dynamic is also a very similar one, but that’s hardly surprising as it’s more a commentary on adherence to tropes and archetypes than believing one cartoon is riffing on the other. The cartoon ran for three seasons, another shared similarity, and just about every episode was standalone.
The episodes generally featured a signature D&D creature and scenario. The characters most often find themselves opposing Vengar, the evil wizard, who turns out to be the corrupted son of the Duneon Master, who is a living force in the world. Tiamat is also a force of opposition, but one that causes issues for both Vengar and the good guys. This third-party force is seen again in Captain N as Donkey Kong, of course. The characters spend most of their time looking for a way home, but they also spend a lot of time doing what the Dungeon Master asks and helping out the people of the realm. Pretty standard stuff, but three seasons means it was at least moderately successful.
During this same period, video games were non-existant. It wasn’t until the release of AD&D 2nd Edition that you see an explosion of game titles. Just before the 2nd Edition was published, the Pool of Radiance series and Heroes of the Lance series were released on multiple platforms. The actual release year saw several sequels to the games released, and the beginning of the AD&D video game explosion that would follow over the 90’s. The early 90s saw Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance as the primary settings, coinciding with the popularity of the novels and setting releases. The neatest thing, to me, is that the first MMORPG with graphics was actually developed in this time period. In 1991, a Neverwinter Nights MMORPG was released through AOL and ran through 1997. It doesn’t get a lot of recognition, but that’s super cool, if you ask me.
While TSR still owned D&D, these games were created by a variety of companies, including a super weird Ravenloft fighting game released for the Playstation. It featured a goblin shield fighter scooting around like a dog trying to clean his ass. For real. However, Wizards of the Coast acquired ownership in 1997. Almost immediately, you start getting a massively improved cross-media product. BioWare, and BioWare subsidiaries, begin making products in 1998, though it’s late enough 1998 to be 1999 by any reasonable consideration. This is the ramp up to the release of 3rd edition, which came out in 2000. The two of the best D&D games (fight me) were released just before 3rd edition, Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment (one of the greatest games of all time). The other title of mention in this very short span is Icewind Dale, another very good game.
In the ramp up period to 3.5, the most well-known of all D&D games was released in mid-2002, Neverwinter Nights. In 2003, Dungeons and Dragons: Heroes and Temple of Elemental Evil were released to coincide with the launch of 3.5e. From this point forward, it’s basically just all Neverwinter Nights content all the time. The exception is the back-to-back to celebrate the release of Eberron, Dungeons and Dragons: Dragonshard and Dungeons and Dragons Online: Stormreach. DDO is still alive and kicking, and is actually a pretty cool game still today. They did a lot of very, very cool things that warrant a completely separate piece. Besides that, what continues to be released is more and more Neverwinter Nights content, including sequel and expansion.
The release of 4e is the first major content release of Dungeons and Dragons that doesn’t have anything as a simultaneous release. This should tell you a lot about the confusion and turmoil surrounding 4e. If you care to investigate, you can find all about the economic turmoil of the division at the time, and how little was being invested. This was coupled with a programming focus on content for 4e, as opposed to separate games and titles. Unfortunately, this support was soon abandoned and there was all sorts of model failure all over the place.
However, 2012 saw the announcement of 5e, and the playtests that continued for a year. As I have written about elsewhere, D&D 5e is a conscious decision to take a step back in a lot of ways. Unsurprisingly, you see this modeled in the release choices for video games, as well. What came out during this span? Why, re-releases of Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale! The release of Neverwinter, a new MMO, coincided nicely with this period, as well. Since then, there have been major content editions to all of the online properties to coincide with the hardback content releases, as well. Temple of Elemental Evil got released as a free PDF, a free player’s guide for the 5e content, updates for Neverwinter and updates for Dungeons and Dragons Online.
While there was a period during the 90’s where there was a flurry of video game activity, most of those still were joined with the campaign releases or the novel releases of D&D properties. The rest of the time, you got introduction of new flagship properties to be joined with book releases. This is really the model of D&D, cross-promotion. When there are new editions, there is a bevy of other products that go hand in hand with the edition, and hope to sell the edition, or the produces content.
In a lot of ways, this is the opposite of what Nintendo chooses to do. When Nintendo stepped outside of their video game production, it was a smokescreen to allow them to begin development of a console and hope that people didn’t notice Nintendo was now behind. It was a gambit to continue the support of something already existing, and to let Nintendo have time to catch up. Frankly, it worked incredibly well. Funny enough, when Nintendo opted for a cross-promotional model, it’s bitten them in the ass. D&D hasn’t suffered as a brand, with one exception, because of the decisions they have made, but they haven’t received the same boost Nintendo received with its decisions.
The exception, of course, is the movie that was released in 2000. However, it’s also a feature film that saw Nintendo take a hit, reputation wise. Next time around in this series, those movies will be the focus, as the similarities are plentiful.