Chaos: Battle of the Wizards

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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Wizards battling!

Yeah, there’s more to it, but this is stuff around the edges, like undead creatures can only be hurt by their fellow afterlife-shunners, or people with magical weapons or the array of spells which do things other than summon creatures. The usual thaumatalogical array of lighting bolts, with a few special spells which, in their low-production value, 8-bit ways, actually manage to be a little bit on the iconic side. The Gooey Blob, which starts as a single pulsating mucousoid thing before expanding; anyone in a square it spreads to is engulfed and immobilized, only being freed if friends attack the blob. Easy to do when small, but cheerily suicidal if you’ve let it expand to fill 80 percent of the playing space, which happens all too often.

That’s Chaos, then. What makes it special is how those mechanics, when placed together, create something which is my default answer when anyone asks me, What’s your favorite game ever? The important thing to realize is that Chaos was so far ahead of its time intellectually that no one even noticed, including the people who played it. They were just too busy being entertained.

In terms of technical futurism, Chaos had room for eight players in 1985; the same year Gauntlet was blowing everyone’s minds into tiny pieces by allowing four players to Need Food, Badly, together. In England, you have trouble cramming more than eight people in any given room, making it the maximum you’d ever need for a social gathering. Don’t have eight friends? Even with four players, nothing as competitively intense arrived in our homes until Bomberman/Dynablaster (if you’re console) or Doom (if you’re PC). Fundamentally, Chaos was turn-based deathmatch, taking the looks of Robotron and marrying it to the depth of chess gleefully polluted with the earthy semi-random humanity of poker.

Despite being a turn-based game, that the most natural comparisons are to arcade games is more than posture. Turns are made with, on average, less than 10 keyboard presses, unless you’re being particularly perfectionist and examining everyone’s statistics, in which case you can expect the room to harry you more than the hurry-up beast in Bubble Bobble. All of this means Chaos was fast to play. There’s room for skill, sure, but it’s a minimum effort strategy game. Sit there, Sit there, planning when best to drop your illusionary Golden Dragon if you wish, trying to second-guess whether anyone will have worked out you’re about to do so and selected a Disbelieve spell in advance … or just summon a Pegasus because it’s a magicky horsey. It is welcoming.

This was the key part of its futurism, foretelling the era of the mid-’90s when the strategy game – suddenly – was the mainstream. The whole of real-time strategy – lest we forget in these days of the genre’s middle-age spread, once an entirely radical innovation – rest entirely on the intellectual soil first investigated by Gollop. If you want to see its influence in the modern age, the truest disciple (and Gollop’s other ’80s games, like Rebelstar and the divine Laser Squad), is Advance Wars.

Between its vision and the quick, caution-to-the-wind play it accommodated, Chaos gained its gaming immortality. It actively invited you to gather as many friends as possible around to have a crack at each other in digital forms, while making a game simple enough so anyone you’d invite could play. And this means that wherever I’ve found myself in my life, there’s been a place for Chaos.

When I was a Spectrum devotee, my brother and I played it intensely, with friends or not, with the computer filling in the gaps. When I left the Spectrum behind … well, I didn’t leave the Spectrum behind. It sat beneath the desk, with Chaos perpetually in its drive, ready to be dragged out when Stafford’s finest Amiga-gamers fancied a break from Speedball II or Sensible Soccer. When I left Stafford behind … well, you never leave Stafford behind, but upon crashing in from a club, Chaos found itself loaded up, the keyboard passed from hand, chasing the smokeables. And now, when I don’t have a Spectrum, I’ll find myself sporadically making a pilgrimage to its online java shrine and going for one last duel.

Nostalgia’s the most dangerous of emotions. People doing the retrogaming thing normally leave disillusioned. But Chaos is untouched, because its flaws were always visible. It never looks dated, as it looked dated the second it came out. It also has a little arcade-crispness in rejecting modern staples like hit points on its units. Things are either alive or dead, with the survivability decided by their defense, which can’t be reduced piecemeal. There’s always room for a turnaround. If in a disastrous position, there’s always a tiny chance you could be lucky and pull through to, if not a win, at least a draw when the match ticks out. You almost certainly won’t, but forlorn hope keeps you interested as much as the knowledge you could come back with only a fraction of your health (like in Street Fighter 2), rather than most strategy games where necessary attrition will necessarily destroy you.

Its youthfulness is also assured by its real choice of genre. Action games, especially on the home systems, can age terribly unless the controls manage to be perfectly precise. Going back to a day when low frame rates were acceptable can be jarring. Conversely, a turn-based game suffers no such issues. Literally, Chaos is as good to play today as it’s ever been. You can come around to my house now; I’ll boot up an emulator, and we’ll sit down and play and you’ll be entertained.

Of course, you’ll lose. Don’t mistake its simplicity for a lack of sophistication.

Since you’d be a newcomer, I may even try some of the more nefarious tactics by exploiting some of the holes in the game’s programming. For example, deliberately getting an illusionary creature trapped in a gooey blob, then freeing it for it to become miraculously real. I probably won’t, just relying on the long-practiced ability of knowing when exactly to make a creature illusionary or not. Either way, the result will be the same: entertainment, and, in the final stages, an arena that’s gone from basic black to a mass of gooey blobs, corpses, clawing shadow-woods and the assorted detritus gaming archeologists will recognize as sign that a game of Chaos was once here.

And it will be glorious.

Chaos‘ trail is easy to follow online, for interested souls. Like most cult games, a small cottage industry exists of people making new versions of Chaos, some pixel perfect, some extrapolations. The game itself is now in the public domain, so it can be played legally with emulators. You could look at its direct successors, like Gollop’s Lords of Chaos and Magic & Mayhem, which are entertaining enough but lack the originator’s clarity of purpose. You could even look at the games that are openly inspired by it, like Shiny’s Sacrifice, which updated the warring-wizard mandate with a big helping of Hieronymus Bosch. You can do anything you want.

Just don’t disbelieve Chaos.

Kieron Gillen has been writing about videogames for far too long now. His rock and roll dream is to form an Electro-band with Miss Kittin and SHODAN pairing up on vocals.

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