'Baldur's Gate' 20 Years Later: Beamdog Describe Classic RPG's Journey, From High School to Nintendo Switch

It's been 20 years since the release of Baldur's Gate, and the landmark RPG is in better hands than most legacy game series. It's now possible to play Baldur's Gate — an Enhanced Edition first released in 2012 — on an astonishing variety of platforms, including iOS, Android, PC and, as of Tuesday, on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch. The Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition Pack comes bundled with its 2000 sequel Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn and every DLC release for both titles, including Tales of the Sword Coast, The Black Pits, Throne of Bhaal and Siege of Dragonspear.

"Baldur's Gate" is an isometric role-playing game. Skybound Interactive / Beamdog

Cameron Tofer, programmer on both Baldur's Gate games and co-founder of Beamdog, which collaborated on the new Enhanced Edition releases with Skybound Interactive, described Baldur's Gate's more than 20 year journey to the latest consoles, beginning with the game's real origins — in high school.

The original "Player's Handbook" for 1989's "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition." TSR Games / Wizards of the Coast

"That goes way back," Tofer told Newsweek. "I hooked up with James Ohlen, the writer and designer of Baldur's Gate. We met in high school. There was a whole group of us in high school playing D&D. I joined a little bit later and rolled up Minsc, and James DMed us hardcore. We had this campaign going for a few years through high school and a couple of years through college. We were making our little games, playing D&D, just living the '90s dream, you know?"

That '90s dream eventually became RPG giant BioWare, with Ohlen leading on writing and design for 1998's Baldur's Gate. A happy accident of their starter status was that TSR — Dungeons & Dragons' original publisher — didn't give the Baldur's Gate team permission to use any of the iconic heroes in the D&D canon. That's precisely how Tofer's character from Ohlen's campaign, Minsc, became an RPG legend.

"James was like, 'You know what, I've got this campaign we've been running for so long, and all these characters are super fleshed out," Tofer said. It was time for a return to high school, with their original campaign characters becoming unforgettable NPCs in Baldur's Gate. This is especially true for Minsc, a tough-looking ranger with purple face tattoos and a heroic, if unstable, personality. But his most endearing feature is his animal companion and adviser, Boo, a miniature giant space hamster (it's a real thing, from the space-based D&D campaign setting, Spelljammer).

Minsc in the "Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition." BioWare / Beamdog

Beamdog's deep ties to Baldur's Gate have made Tofer and co-founder Trent Oster, another Baldur's Gate veteran and BioWare's co-founder, the right people to guide the RPG from the dial-up era to modern consoles, touch screens and mobile devices. Adapting Baldur's Gate to modern platforms requires tough judgments about how much to streamline mechanics without losing the subjective sensations that made Baldur's Gate such an enduring classic.

"Baldur's Gate hit everybody at this particular time, and it really hit deep with people. Their memories intermix with that period in their lives," Tofer said. "Now we're going back and fixing things. So it's like, 'Don't mess with my emotions,' right? It's really tricky. We really wanted to tap into the memories and feelings, but not necessarily what those raw moments looked like."

Deciding which elements of a '90s PC RPG are impediments to be improved upon or an essential part of the original play experience made for a few peculiar decisions. In one instance, the Enhanced Edition eliminated a bug that let players glitch, or cheese, through a section of the game.

"That made a lot of people angry," Tofer said. "People were like, 'Oh, now I've got to actually go through the game.'"

Generally, the team was mindful not to smooth too many bumps, since, as Tofer said, "a lot of the fun about Baldur's Gate was exploiting these loopholes." Other corrections players are unlikely to miss, like a math error that calculated round orders wrong, shortening player attacks once every handful of rounds.

Beyond raw mechanics, some of the biggest challenges have come from translating Baldur's Gate from mouse and keyboard to touch screens and consoles. For consoles, players control their character more directly, with NPCs following behind. This is a departure from the more god's-eye tactical controls of the PC original or modern touch screen versions.

"Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn" on Nintendo Switch Skybound Interactive / Beamdog

"We did have to change quite a bit. Baldur's Gate had very product-of-its-time menus," Beamdog Project Director Luke Rideout told Newsweek. Rather than nested items and mechanics optimized for a mouse, the Nintendo Switch version had to work with analog sticks. "We changed a lot of our side bars and changed our panel of menus on the left side of the screen, replacing them with a radial menu you open with one of the trigger buttons. Party management is handled with the other trigger button."

Other changes included the new ability to tag specific groups of players, which Rideout compared to how real-time strategy games like Starcraft manage units. Highlighting items in the environment required different tactics than with a mouse, so new AI routines were written to highlight the most relevant items within an invisible cone projected by the lead party character.

All the fine-tuning paid off: the Nintendo Switch version of Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition Pack is garnering high praise for its control scheme. In its review, Polygon, said the Nintendo Switch version "may be the best way to play the game to date," describing the control scheme as the "real victory."

But, while much has changed in the console release of Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate II, far more has stayed the same. Baldur's Gate remains a landmark for D&D adventurers, since it was the first game to faithfully adapt the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition ruleset instead of creating a video game with the right D&D settings and enemies.

"The original core team was like, 'We're going to implement D&D, that's what we're doing here," Tofer said, describing the implementation as "Baldur's Gate's crowning achievement."

Other features of the game hold up powerfully, even today, like the depth and effectiveness of its roleplaying. Using the traditional D&D alignment system, from Lawful Good to Chaotic Evil, players could alienate NPCs and even lose party members by committing an act they don't like. It's hard to imagine any one of the many modern triple-A titles, with their ubiquitous morality systems, doing anything similar.

"One thing Baldur's Gate does well is give players the agency," Rideout said. "If you want to, be a bad guy. But it also doesn't pretend like a good-guy character will tolerate that."

An RPG from another era, any version of Baldur's Gate is likely to represent a serious challenge for modern gamers, but for hundreds of hours of sprawling roleplaying, where your choices truly matter, Baldur's Gate still holds its own against anything released in 2019.

Classic "Dungeons & Dragons" RPGs are coming to the Nintendo Switch in three different bundles. Skybound Games

Baldur's Gate: Enhanced Edition Pack is out now for Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch. It's joined on consoles by Planescape Torment & Icewind Dale: Enhanced Editions, also released this week. Neverwinter Nights: Enhanced Edition will be released to consoles on December 3.