As a fantasy-loving nerd who came of age in the '80s, I was fascinated by the role-playing game "Dungeons & Dragons."
Fortunately, I didn't know anyone else who cared, so I didn't get drawn into the cult.
But I've been a sucker ever since for the electronic games that were inspired by it, from 1981's "Wizardry" to the ongoing "Final Fantasy" series.
Its influence can be seen in all over video-gaming, and not just in role-playing fantasies like "Blue Dragon" or "Eternal Sonata."
The monsters in games as diverse as "Devil May Cry 4" and "Culdcept Saga" could come right out of a "D&D" manual. "BioShock," "Mass Effect" and even "Burnout Paradise" require "D&D"-style character-building.
And really, isn't every video game a role-playing game, whether you're pretending to be Master Chief in "Halo 3" or Peyton Manning in "Madden NFL"?
"D&D" co-creator Gary Gygax died this week, but the game he helped invent in 1974 lives on, with a long-awaited Fourth Edition due this year.
I'll almost certainly never play it — but I'll undoubtedly enjoy the video games it spawned.
—"Lost Odyssey" (Microsoft, for the Xbox 360, $59.99): Hironobu Sakaguchi's "Final Fantasy" series drew heavily from "D&D" mythology, and "Lost Odyssey" — his second game since leaving "FF" publisher Square Enix — shows he is still dedicated to the genre.
It features the usual ragtag band of fighters and wizards battling countless exotic creatures en route to a confrontation with an all-powerful villain.
The main character is Kaim, an immortal mercenary who doesn't remember much of his thousand-year life.
At first he seems like a typical video-game tough guy, but as he regains his memories he evolves into a more sympathetic, tragic character. And his journey, while clichéd at times, includes some of the most genuinely moving events I've ever seen in a video game.
At the core of "Lost Odyssey" are hundreds of turn-based fights that "Final Fantasy" admirers will relish.
It has some pacing issues, with long, exhausting, battle-heavy mazes followed by equally long sequences where there's no action at all.
Other aggravations, like annoying loading sequences and a dearth of save-game points, had me screaming at my Xbox.
But the well-balanced, strategy-intensive combat, a compelling story and a diverting assortment of side missions kept me coming back. It's a must-buy for fans of classic RPGs.
Three stars out of four.
—"Dragon Quest Swords: The Masked Queen and the Tower of Mirrors" (Square Enix, for the Wii, $49.99): If "Lost Odyssey" is for RPG die-hards, "Dragon Quest Swords" is for kids who have never played one before.
This spinoff of Japan's most popular role-playing franchise has its charms, but it's nowhere near as satisfying as the last console game in the series, 2005's brilliant "Dragon Quest VIII."
"Swords" looks a lot like "DQ VIII," but the controls have been radically simplified to accommodate the Wii remote.
When exploring, you can move only forward or backward; in combat, you swing the remote to use your sword and hold the B trigger to use your shield.
It's pretty easy to plow your way through most of the monsters, and the story is so linear that there's never any doubt about what to do next.
"Swords" is very short, especially compared with the 60-plus hours we've come to expect from Square RPGs.
Still, it may draw younger players to the genre; the rest of us will have to wait for "Dragon Quest IX." Two stars.
—"Dungeon Explorer: Warriors of Ancient Arts" (Hudson, for the Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable, $29.99): "Dungeon Explorer" is as generic as its title: You create a character — a wizard or a warrior — and, well, explore some dungeons.
The DS and PSP versions have different plots (again, entirely generic), but the gameplay is essentially the same.
Each mission consists of killing a bunch of monsters, finding some artifact and then escaping.
The hack-and-slash style of play, reminiscent of "Gauntlet" or "Diablo," is briefly diverting, but most of the dungeons can be survived by simply tapping your attack button over and over.
Without much variety, "Dungeon Explorer" gets stale pretty quickly. One star.