Gateway to the Savage Frontier
was one of several CRPG games referred to as Gold Box games - a brilliant stroke of marketing, really. Some of the game boxes were literally printed in golden ink, but don’t you think of treasure when you hear the words “Gold Box?” Many of these games simply are indeed wonderful works of art even if they are a bit repetitive in nature.
Created by SSI in the late 1980s, the Gold Box engine was used as the foundational basis for over a dozen
games made across multiple years with the last official installment hitting store shelves in 1992. (There was an RPG construction kit for MS-DOS that shipped in 1993, too.) And all of these games except a very small handful directly leveraged the popular fantasy world and mechanics of Dungeons and Dragons. What's not to like?
The first game - Pool of Radiance
- was a ground-breaking watershed moment in gaming. It introduced a user interface and tactical combat system that was insanely cool and revolutionary at the time. Interestingly, bizarrely, the few piddly weaknesses found in that first game were barely addressed - and some never at all - across the remaining dozen titles that leveraged the same engine.
Gateway was actually not created by SSI but by Stormfront Studios (originally called Beyond Software). What’s interesting about that is that game design heavyweight Don Daglow
headed the design of this game himself. Unfortunately the same basic issues found in all Gold Box games remain. The stories and missions, while offering the appearance of being non-linear, often are very linear in order to beat the games. The economy is bizarrely bad and simply never gets fixed with any semblance of balance. The story arcs are incredibly thin and, frankly, even after finishing any of the games I often didn’t fully understand what they were really all about. Gateway was particularly bad in this department. And some of the post-combat quirks of the engine that should have been fixed after POR never get fixed. If they still hadn’t been addressed in 1991 when Gateway was shipped, I assume they never do. They’re fairly minor overall, but strange to have never been dealt with (more about this below).
The basic premise of the game - which may sound familiar as it feels a bit cliche - goes something like this:
Your party must collect a magical ring (not sure why) and four small statuettes (not sure why) which have been dispersed across a vast landscape and are being guarded by various legions of foes loyal to an evil wizard. Once those artifacts have been found and won, you are to defeat the wizard in a magical place before his forces take over the world.
A strange little dwarf magic user who I assume is meant to simulate the role of Dungeon Master will appear from time to time (not enough) to try and help guide you along your way. And you’ll meet angry friends of the evil one that look like interesting characters, but honestly you’ll have little clue as to how or why they fit into this story at all. I’m looking at you, Ceptienne, whom I assume is the lady on the box cover yet feels to have been inserted at random in the game. She should have been the ultimate foe quite honestly.
Don’t get me wrong, though. Gateway does do a lot
of things right. There's a reason why Gateway surged to the #1 spot on the sales chart - it's a solid game. SSI had been planning on retiring the Gold Box engine but the strong performance of Gateway changed their minds.
While I’ve logged a few deficiencies, the Gold Box engine was still very capable of delivering a fun experience - especially the user interface. It’s very pleasing to the eye and extremely intuitive. The world map in Gateway is pretty rich and fun to explore, too. One nice addition to this installment is the ability to hire boats to more quickly travel from town to town, which is pretty cool. This felt a bit like finding a bird in a Final Fantasy game that allows quicker travel - always a good thing as world map travel can be a grind. And nearly all of the towns in Gateway have some sort of water feature: rivers that run through them, large docked boats, island towns, etc. Gateway seems to be the most water-centric world in the Gold Box series. I wish the story revolved around that repeating theme, personally, rather than the entirely too common evil wizard and his henchmen story.
Oh, and the graphics in Gateway are gorgeous, too.
The small rectangle that is used as our window to the outside world offers some of the most beautifully detailed depictions of monsters seen in the series. Not to mention the variety
of monster encounters is really excellent. The quality of the music and sound effects is still fairly low overall, but it’s predictable and not offensive. (That sound when anyone dies! “Ee-yah!” Oh man…)
Compared to Pool of Radiance
and Curse of the Azure Bonds
, the difficulty level in Gateway is really low
. I never once lost a battle and never had any of my characters - who all started at first level - die. I did have some weak NPCs that joined my party die off fairly easily, but who cares about them? It never affects the story in any meaningful way if they die (and they are always shockingly weak and seem to cause more harm that good most of the time). To be clear - I was not on the easiest setting the game offers, either. I was using the middle of the road default "veteran" setting.
By simply wandering outside in the wilderness I was able to quickly increase my character’s experience levels as some of the monsters (e.g. the two-headed Ettins) offered huge EXP rewards. As such, my characters increased in level at a furious clip and literally none of the battles I encountered were ever a challenge or serious threat.
By design, the enemy parties were either incredibly weak, lacking in dangerous magical spells, or less than half a dozen deep. As a result, the tactics required to master Gold Box games - and truly enjoy them - seemed to be nearly absent in Gateway, which is a total shame. The combat system in the Gold Box series is one of best things about it. I feel like I barely had to tap into any level of intellectual thought with this game’s battles, though.
That being said, the hardest part about Gateway was figuring out where to go to find the statuettes. There were scant clues left anywhere - neither in the manual’s journal entries nor the on-screen text.
For as much as this game makes one reference the manual, the story felt bafflingly thin and hard to follow. Once you cleared a town of bad guys, the most immediate question was always “OK now what?” This wasn’t the case as much along the coastal towns, which really made the game feel more action packed and exciting. I loved that section of the game. The story’s flow was quite obvious along the coast and was one of the few times I felt addicted to playing.
But it was much more of a problem inland. Getting from place to place was slow and physical barriers (mountains, rivers, etc.) made travel a slog at times. Spoiler: it took me ages to realize that one of the key dungeons I needed to defeat was accessible from only one particular direction at the base of a mountain range with no roads leading to it. Yes, the location was labelled on my map in the manual, but it looked more like a label stating this was the mountain’s name - not an actual destination. In any case, once discovered there was a very cool NPC interaction there with giant magical beasts that flew me to the top of the mountain. It is this type of rare event that does make Gateway sparkle from time to time.
All in all Gateway was enjoyable and fairly solid. It didn’t introduce much to be a legendary game on its own, but it does offer a lot of D&D-based entertainment.
Personally, Pool of Radiance is hard to beat as it came first. And Curse of the Azure Bonds seemed to have a stronger story (although it could have been far stronger, too, based on the book it could have leveraged more directly). But Gateway’s graphics and interesting water terrain help give it a respectable thumb’s up.
If you’ve never played a Gold Box game in your life, this isn’t a bad place to start. Just know that the story interactions and combat situations are really light in this installment and, from that standpoint, Gateway is likely one of the easiest games in the series. It does require a lot of time to finish: it took me about a month, playing at least 20-30 minutes a day.
One of my biggest pet peeves with the Gold Box games that was never dealt with (it was a feature!) was the interaction with your characters after a battle concluded. You may have defeated every single bad guy, but the games force you to go through every single one of your own characters and tell the game if any of them should Quit or do something else. Over. And over. And over. Then, after saying “Quit” with your sixth character, it will ask you, “Continue battle?” after over a dozen previous mouse clicks.
Hm… NO. I can see the need for the very rare occasion to do something after a battle, but the game should have gone straight to the “Continue Battle” question immediately after killing the last foe. If you needed to do something, you could always have answered “Yes” at that stage.
Now, if the last foe had been defeated by your sixth character, the game would only ask you what that final character might want to do before asking “Continue Battle?” But if it had stopped on the first, or second… god. It can be so mind numbing. And could (and should) have been easily avoided.
When you get to the final battle, the idea is you're in a very large multi-chambered palace or pyramid of sorts. And the entire ending takes place in the combat-mode isometric view, which is rather unique as you have to complete it in stages. In each room is a large group of extremely weak bad guys. But you don't actually have to beat them! As long as you keep them busy (again, they are very weak) you can take one of your characters who is fleet of foot - someone with a movement potential of 12 - and simply run for the exits. Once that character escapes, your entire party escapes to the next room. You have to run through 5 or 6 before you get to the final battle with the evil wizard. But you don't actually have to fight him, either! Simply run past him out the back door and you'll beat the game and get to watch him being pulled underground by the undead.
Having played and finished three of the Gold Box games, there are still a few I’d like to try out. One being part two of the Gateway series, “Treasures of the Savage Frontier.” This game sounds interesting, as it had some sort of AI (artificial intelligence) in the code where some of your characters could actually fall in love, which sounds bizarre and worth checking out.
I’m also excited to try out the Buck Rogers sci-fi installment which uses the Gold Box engine. Just to see the engine running a completely unique graphical world is compelling alone.
Lastly, I think Pools of Darkness would be a pretty good place to wrap things up. I very much enjoyed Pool of Radiance and Azure Bonds, so playing the final installment of that series seems a natural place to eventually go.
This game was played on an Amiga 2000, installed to hard drive off original floppy disks. The ADFs from those original disks have been created and presented elsewhere on this page for you to download and enjoy.