Many times, you’ll find yourself in a part of your campaign where you need a map for some reason and can’t get one whipped up on the spot. I find myself borrowing from lots of places, but today I am providing a resource some people may not have thought of. Old video games, specifically for this article the 8-bit NES days. This is three examples of maps that could be inserted into a game from non-RPG games and players likely will not notice a difference.
Part of what makes these maps so great is exactly how they were developed. Given the limited resources the developers had for memory available. To get technical, the NES contains 2 kB of onboard work RAM. A game cartridge may contain expanded RAM to increase this amount. The size of NES games varies from 8 kB (Galaxian) to 1 MB (Metal Slader Glory), but 128 to 384 kB was the most common. This was the entire game design they had stored in that small amount of memory. Think now about how games are in the Gigabyte range or 4,194,304 kB, that would fit over 10,000 NES games of 384 kB, hard given that only 713 known licensed games were made for the NES.
As for how these makes are displayed on screen, we look at their Picture Processing Unit, which stored positions, colors and tile indices of up to 64 sprites on screen in 256 bytes and another 28 bytes for colors. The system has an available color palette of 48 colors and 6 grays. Up to 25 simultaneous colors may be used without writing new values mid-frame: a background color, four sets of three tile colors and four sets of three sprite colors. The NES palette is based on NTSC rather than RGB values. A total of 64 sprites may be displayed onscreen at a given time without reloading sprites mid-screen. To use an example of this color restriction, look at the NES Mario, red hat, brown hair and eyes, fleshy face, brown shirt, red overalls, fleshy hands and the buttons on the overalls were the same shade as his hands, brown boots. Change to white and red when you get the fire flower and you see how they made changes with limited resources. Another example from Mario is why the clouds and bushes were the same thing, they had to reuse sprites to keep their count of unique designs down. Now, developers will go out of their way to design maps with as little obviously reusable content if they can help it.
The first game is Super Pitfall. You can see a perfect example here. The game is a side-scrolling action game, and the map may look weird to be used an a session, but this is the same as the How To Host A Dungeon ‘Map/Game’ but also as far back as some Original D&D books. So, you have to judge room width on the fly, but maybe it could work for an abandoned mine or similar structure. The color of the bricks changes as you go deeper, showing how deep you are at a moment’s notice. If you’ve played Spelunky, it was inspired by similar games as this, and you can see how that sort of exploration puzzle type can be quite exhilarating as you are exploring unknown caverns, no clue what is around the next bend.
At the same site, you can also find the game Blaster Master’s maps. This was another side scroller, where in the game you were first driving around in a tank shooting enemies and exploring and then you switch to go on foot specifically to explore caverns in a new overhead viewpoint, similar to the Startropics games which could be classified as an RPG like The Legend of Zelda, and I referenced it after these three games. However, the reason I like Blaster Master so much for map use is the cavern maps can work similar to Super Pitfall and the overhead sections are small enough for little caverns to navigate when you don’t want to make out a cave. Given how so many games focus on one style of gameplay, like platforming in Super Mario, think about the revolutionary switch from one style to another was for players when it was experienced the first time in game? You could do the change in kind at your tabletop by using some terrain maps of the caverns as layouts for them to figure out how to navigate. If you use figures and terrain, TheDMsCraft is a crafting Youtube channel featuring things like how to make a vertical climb with miniatures. The concept reminds me a lot of those greenscreen shots of hanging from ledges, as it turns the idea of perception on its head since we’re not looking down at someone, we look across at them.
Finally, also at the same site is the Castlevania series, but I specifically reference Castlevania 3 for me has a lot of choice because the paths were made that any of the three optional characters could travel through it as well as Trevor Belmont. Those companions were Sypha Belnades, a young sorceress with poor physical attack power but powerful elemental magic spells at her disposal; Grant Danasty, a pirate with the ability to climb on walls and change direction in mid-jump (a rare ability in earlier games of the series); and Alucard, Dracula’s son, a Dhampir with the ability to shoot fireballs and transform into a bat. This means allowing for multiple traversal styles, which is part of the gaming approach to let players do their own thing. In game terms, you could easily say that the players are exploring ruins so they have areas where floors have rotted away and fallen into disrepair. Great for places to fall out from under them due to weight or rot, walls and ceilings give way around them due to elements, maybe even have trickles of water to indicate a river nearby starting to eat through some of the materials. I could see this being exciting as the players try to figure out what is safe and what isn’t.
Here are three games other that are able to be considered NES RPGs. These are worth checking out for their unique style and innovation. They may help give you some ideas for reasons listed below.
Tombs and Treasures is essentially a point and click adventure game for the NES, played by menu driven commands like the Macventure game ports of Deja Vu, Shadowgate and Uninvited Guest. I recommend it because while there is fighting in the game, it is a puzzle solver and if you die to a fight it just means you missed doing something. Some of the puzzles could give you ideas for your table, as well. I don’t want to spoil it because it is a great game and you can complete it in under an hour, according to let’s plays I just looked up on Youtube.
The Taito version of the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade game is a great example of a branching storyline. For example, in the very beginning you receive a diary about the Grail from Indy’s father, who is in Venice. At the same time, you receive a telegram from Marcus saying that the Cross of Coronado is in Portugal on a ship called Coronado, and that he’ll meet Indy there. So you have to choose what you’ll do first: go to Venice and check about the Grail and your father, or go to Portugal to find Marcus and the Cross of Coronado. This branching story also shows in the gameplay as each stage presents different game genres. In Venice you find a scrambled picture of the Grail, and you have to try to put it back together. That compared to the later sections with platforming and fighting gives a lot of difference in kind to keep the game fresh.
And for Startropics, it is an overworld exploration akin to Dragon Warrior games which had you going into overhead action sequences when you went in dungeons like the first Zelda game. The plot is you are rescuing your missing uncle by solving various puzzles and challenges along the way. It is done into chapters, wrapping up each quest before moving to the next. You will encounter some very interesting puzzles in this, which is really creative for its time. One of my favorites is in Chapter 5, you give a parrot a worm and he gives you a clue as to what you’re supposed to do next, stating “Hide Peter Hide Awk! Do Me So Far, Do Me?” which after things like the Goonies did it should reveal this is a piano puzzle.
Given that we now have groups like the Cartographer’s Guild working to help in making maps and some even providing them free for people, it is surprising to look back at how expressive these basic maps could be. Just think about some of these basic examples when you are trying to come up with an idea for your next game. It doesn’t have to be like something out of Skyrim or Dark Souls or Final Fantasy XV, it just has to give a challenging layout and have some fun exploration for the players to encounter. If they could do it on a limited amount of hardware to display it, what could you do with the unimaginable power of the human brain? I personally have used maps from video games over the generations a few times, like the world maps of Dragon Warrior 1 for the NES and Lufia & the Fortress of Doom for the SNES, but I wanted to show that even games you don’t think of as being useful since they weren’t RPGs will still have something to offer the world of table top gaming.