The big question about the subject of today's retro game is just how to pronounce the title. Is it Ishar with the I sounding like ish? Or is it perhaps Ishar with the I sounding like eye, making it Eye-shar? Who knows, other than perhaps Silmarils, the people who made it. Yeah, they'd probably know, to be fair.
Anyway, Ishar is famous for not being all that amazing really, but still maintaining a curious charm that made it strangely playable. It's a flick-screen RPG affair like Dungeon Master, Eye of the Beholder and those sorts of games. It, and its two sequels, were also stupidly hard. That seems to be a theme with the games in this column.
We'll ignore prequel Crystals of Arborea for now, as I never played it. Apparently you get to meet loads of the characters you find in Ishar: Legend of the Fortress in it, but as I say, I really don't know anything about it.
My personal experiences with the game probably started with the second game, but for the sake of this already fragmented article, let's actually start with the first one, Legend of the Fortress. Suffice to say I don't believe I ever got to said fortress, as the game was too hard for my young-ish mind to comprehend.
Being as we're talking extreme Lord of the Rings 'inspiration' here (Silmarils company name itself comes from another Tolkien saga) it's fitting that your main hero guy is called Aramir, which is very similar to Aragorn , to name but one example. You've got to go take out an evil person named Krogh, perhaps named after the ex-Norwegian editor and later Nazi or even either of these two footballers.
He lives in the titular fortress and is a sorcerer of some repute. He's also killed the hero of the first game apparently. Ishar is the name of the fortress and you've got to get there by exploring the island the game is set on, collecting characters to form a team capable of launching an assault on Krogh's stronghold.
You can have five guys in your group at a time, their faces filling up the very large bar in the bottom half of the screen. With your chums, you have to traipse around the island levelling up, fighting tough enemies and dying a lot. A relatively unique facet of the game is that it's mostly set outside, which is unusual for flick-screen RPGs because they're based primarily on dungeon crawling on grid maps. Going outside makes the grid map harder to accurately sketch for the player and therefore making it easier to get lost.
Still, getting lost usually isn't your main problem. No, apart from the obvious threat of stupidly hard monsters lurking in the wilderness (and being annoyingly willing to chase you for ages across said wilderness) your main threat will be from your own party members taking issue with each other and squabbling.
In fact, so important is the inter-party dynamic that they even get to vote on who gets to join or leave the party. Say you've got 4 chums with you, all of whom are lawful good types. You then find a hardcore nut with amazing armour and skills, but he's a chaotic evil character. Your current team will naturally vote against him joining, putting the brakes on your attempts to build a strong group capable of taking on Krogh.
You have a number of options here – you could try to dismiss current party members until the vote went your way or you could attempt to have dissenters assassinated by their team-mates. Unfortunately, this can potentially cause more trouble, with others taking revenge for the death of their colleague and murdering the assassin, until you might end up with nobody left but poor old Aramir. And the new evil guy, who you're able to take on.
It's a really unique – certainly for the time – way of dealing with the party system and it'd be interesting to see modern development teams trying to use this method nowadays. Can you imagine Zaeed getting miffed by Jack in Mass Effect 2 and killing her while she slept, only to then be taken out by Miranda? Imagine the backlash from fans who ended up with nobody left to fight the Creators because they'd all killed each other! It'd be fantastic.
One more point about the first Ishar game. According to Wikipedia, whenever you saved the game, gold would be removed from your coffers. Again, imagine the reaction to that from modern fans if they put it in a new Dragon Age game.
Ishar 2: Messengers of Doom was very much the same as the first one in terms of the way it all worked. Same flick-screen stuff, same character assassination and so on. This time, you play the current lord of Ishar, some guy called Zubaran. Another sorcerer, who this time lives on an archipelago, needs to be taken out by you and your new band, or a party imported from the first game.
Each island in the archipelago has different landscape to traverse, like swamps, mountains or even a large city. The combat, always slightly iffy (one of the reasons the first game was so tough) has been streamlined here, although it's still far from being comfortable to use. And yeah, Ishar 2 is rock hard as well.
By the time Ishar 3 came out, people had played Doom and so the lure of the flick-screen RPG had diminished somewhat. Despite a time-travelling storyline, better visuals and more refinements, nobody really care any more and the series slinked off forever into the forgotten darkness of obscurity.
Until now. You can buy the trilogy on the ever-wonderful Good Old Games, so if you fancy a game where you can have your entire party chop themselves to pieces, or one which charges you to save your game, look no further. Just remember to have a pen and grid paper ready to map your environment.