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Video Game / The Elder Scrolls: Arena

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"The best techniques are passed down by the survivors."
Gaiden Shinji

The first video game in The Elder Scrolls series, released for DOS in 1994. Originally, it was going to be an Action Game with RPG Elements, about gladiatorial combat. However, as development went on, the RPG elements grew more and more, until the arenas themselves were cut out altogether (they are still mentioned in some Dummied Out narration, though.)

The player takes on the role of a member of the Imperial Court of Tamriel. In the opening cutscene The Emperor is trapped in another dimension by his most trusted courtier, the battlemage Jagar Tharn. The evil Tharn then uses magic to disguise himself as the emperor and take his place.

However, he is noticed by both the player character and the lesser sorceress Ria Silmane. Silmane threatens to reveal Tharn's new identity, so Tharn kills her and throws the player into the Imperial dungeons.


However, Silmane appears to the player in his/her dreams, and guides him/her to reassemble the Staff of Chaos, a weapon capable of defeating Tharn and rescuing the emperor, but which Tharn has broken into eight pieces and scattered across the Empire.

Despite the title, there are no arenas in this game (thanks to the original concept changing). Instead, the player is allowed to wander in a massive continent of randomly generated environments, with many towns full of randomly generated NPCs that will point you in the direction of randomly generated sidequests, not to mention the main quest, which until The Elder Scrolls Online, was the only story taking place in the entirety of Tamriel. If you believe the rumours, the size of the world is supposed to be 6 million km2 which would make it one of the largest games ever made.


The game has been released as a freeware download by Bethesda as part of their commemoration of the fifteenth anniversary of the inception of The Elder Scrolls. Get it here.

This has also been released in "The Elder Scrolls Anthology" which has all five games, and skips the Dosbox prompt entirely.

This video game provides examples of:

  • Alternative Calendar: A very elaborate one, complete with holidays and whatnot.
  • Always Chaotic Evil: Many creatures you fight, dedicated solely to killing you.
  • And I Must Scream: One of the death screens, Tharn implies this as your fate. Stating that he'll revive your corpse as a zombie to serve him for all eternity, but he'll still allow you just enough sentience to remind yourself of how you ultimately failed everyone.
  • The Artifact: An interesting reverse example, Arena didn't have many of the famous Morrowind cities such as Seyda NeenContinuity Issue , Balmora and Vivec. Yet when "The Elder Scrolls Anthology" came out with maps for each game. Bethesda added the cities to the Arena map despite they are nowhere in the original game. This was for continuity's sake and that it wouldn't be Morrowind without them.
  • Artifact Title: The game was originally meant to be about raising a team of gladiators. Specifically, the developers were making a gladiator combat game with side quests into dungeons to get better equipment. However the team quickly fell in love with the side quests that the arena was dropped entirely. However, because they had already printed and put out all the adverts the had to keep the title, and retconned as a nickname for Tamriel. It's a pretty accurate nickname, though.
  • Big Bad: Jagar Tharn, the former Imperial Battlemage who imprisoned Emperor Septim in Oblivion.
  • Boss Warning Siren: A non-boss variation. The message "Troll is regenerating" appears on the screen when you either approach a Troll, or the game randomly spawns one in your general area.
  • Can't Kill You, Still Need You: According to the manual, Tharn can't just kill the Emperor because it would set off magical alarms. Also, Oblivion demonstrates why killing the Emperor is a bad idea in general, if you still want a Tamriel to rule.
  • Conspiracy Theorist: Randomly-generated NPCs will sometimes describe conspiracy theories they have about their randomly-generated feudal masters, which tend to be rather humorous. For example.
  • Contemptible Cover: The Vallejo-esque busty blonde wearing roughly half a square foot of tight black leather on the box art probably didn't do much to help the game be taken seriously as a genuine RPG epic.
  • Covers Always Lie: The cover was designed for when the game was based around teams fighting in arenas, which is why it doesn't really reflect the open-world RPG gameplay. This is thought to be one of the reasons the game did poorly at launch.
  • Crapsack World: Where to begin? Ruled by a usurper; monsters and bandits/psychopaths roam the wilderness and cities at night; everyone is racist, even towards their own race; failing to pick one lock doesn't take you to prison – it's an official death sentence, as guards will kill you with no second thought; gossip states that every province has been or will be ravaged by a plague, and the above gossip eventually implying that every ruler in Tamriel is a cannibal. note 
  • Dismantled MacGuffin: The Staff of Chaos.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The guards in this game are apparently extremely trigger-happy, since they'll send an entire squad to kill you if you so much as slash a locked door with your sword.
  • Downer Beginning: Tharn has banished the benevolent emperor to Oblivion, killed his apprentice, and had you thrown into a prison dungeon to rot and die while he reigns with terror.
  • Dungeon Bypass: The Passwall spell allows you to destroy dungeon walls. Some locks can also be undone with Open Lock spells so you don't have to get the keys, and the Skeleton Key also opens almost any door.
  • Early Installment Weirdness:
    • A lot of the series lore hadn't quite gelled yet, leading to an Elder Scrolls game with completely human-looking Khajiit, blue-skinned Tolkien Orcs (who are also not playable, as that'd come later), much more humanoid Argonians, no playable Colovian humans (i.e. Imperials) for that matter, no mention of the word "Daedra" whatsoever, the barest mention of how Dunmer or Altmer religion works, no mention of the concept of -mer for that matter, the Dwarves being treated more like Tolkien dwarves, "Dagoth Ur" being the name of the volcano on Vvardenfell (and no sign of the big man himself as you stomp through his pad), and a Cosmic Keystone artifact that has never been seen again.
    • Interestingly, the human-looking Khajiit haven't been retconned out of existence, just out of being common outside their homeland (the Khajiit have a great deal of racial variance based on the phases of the moons).
    • There are no guilds to join, unlike in the later games. The Mages Guild can be visited and you can receive quests related to it, but that's about it.
    • This is the only game in the main series to have restrictions on where the player can save (taverns, shops, and temples are all out of the question), likely to stop players from Save Scumming whenever they fail to steal an item or bum a bedroom. The latter was also something abandoned in the sequels.
    • The guards won't arrest you like in later games, they'll immediately try to kill you for even the smallest of crimes. However, this does get a Hand Wave in the game's opening cutscene, which explains that Jagar Tharn used his magic to turn his minions into "twisted counterparts of the Emperor's Guard".
    • The Dark Brotherhood exists (though obviously not joinable)... but only as a creepy, influential cult, the professional assassin aspect was only brought in by Daggerfall (which in turn dropped the religious aspect — it would not be until Oblivion the two characterizations were merged).
  • The Emperor: A benevolent one! Of course, he's not around for most of the game. Most of Tamriel's other emperors have played the trope more straight by necessity, due to the Deadly Decadent Court.
  • Evil Sorcerer: Jagar Tharn, plus some of his Mooks, plus a few more in the Backstory.
  • Fantastic Racism: Rather egregious. You'll often have ethnic insults hurled at you by members of your own race.
  • Fetch Quest: Loads and loads of them (due to non-storyline quests largely being procedurally generated), most of which are thankfully optional.
  • Fictional Document: The titular scrolls.
  • Freeware Games: Since 2004.
  • Game-Breaking Bug: Given that Arena was a hugely ambitious game for its time and ate up a lot of memory, there's quite a few of these. Even today and even if you have DOS box on the recommended settings, the game will crash and the only workaround is to save often.
    • In the Temple of Agamanus (the dungeon you need to clear to get the location of The Halls of Colossus) the room which holds the item you were sent there to get requires you to swim through some trenches (unless you can use Passwall). The room has a bad habit of spawning a ghost or wraith, which levitates over the entrance, blocking you from getting in. The only possible fix (assuming you have no way of using Passwall) is to save under the enemy and reload, which only sometimes works. Otherwise you'll have to backtrack through all 3 levels of the dungeon and go find an item with Passwall.
    • Using your bare hands as a weapon will often cause the game to crash,
    • Sometimes you will get stuck descending from a raised platform.
    • Using the spell Passwall to get to a dungeon door from the opposite side will actually corrupt your save file.
  • Game-Over Man: Depending on how far in the main quest you have progressed, Ria Silmane or Jagar Tharn will appear in front of you when you die. Ria will lament how Tamriel is doomed without you, while Tharn will gloat about having defeated you and then consider resurrecting you into an undead minion.
  • Gang Up on the Human: Even though criminals and dangerous monsters lurk the streets at nighttime, the City Guards never try doing anything about them. They don't even show up until the player does something illegal, at which point they will be too hellbent on killing them to focus on anything else.
  • Great Offscreen War: Lore in later games explains that the Imperial Simulacrum (the time period where Arena was set) also saw much political unrest and several military conflicts between provinces. But almost none of this, other than references to cities spying on each other, is brought up in the game itself despite the fact that the player visits every single province at one point in the Main Quest. Though it could probably be excused by the fact that the hero was probably too busy running around collecting pieces of the Staff of Chaos to notice the events going on around them.
  • Hammerspace Police Force: Much like Daggerfall after it, although guards don't even show up until the player decides to commit a crime. Never mind the monsters that walk the streets every night, they apparently need to focus all their effort on slaughtering the jackass that attacks doors that are locked.
  • Have a Nice Death: "With you died our last hope for justice. Tharn is now free to do as he will. It saddens me to see the beautiful land of Tamriel rotting from within. Goodbye, (Player Character Name). I wish you peace in the afterworld..."
  • Hell Is That Noise: The non-human enemies each have their own unique sound. Which, if you know what it is, can let you get prepared for what you'll be up against.
  • Jerkass: The patrons of the many inns you'll visit in the game are very rude and are quick to dismiss the player, regardless of their race, gender, or reputation. The only people worth talking to are the bartenders and minstrels.
  • Linear Warriors, Quadratic Wizards: Any character who isn't optimized for direct combat is going to run hard into Early Game Hell, but the way that spells—especially well-made custom spells—scale with level (e.g. a 1 + 19 damage spell does only 20 damage at level 1, but 400 damage at level 21 for the same cost) means that mages become nearly invincible at high levels, able to cast shields that can take two or three times as much punishment as an equivalent warrior can before dying, while one-shotting even the final boss with incredibly powerful custom spells. Warrior classes, meanwhile, need to rely on potions, items, and enchanted armor to make up for their lack of flexibility, which seriously screws over any combat class besides the Ranger, Knight, and Warrior (as only they can wear enchanted armor).
  • Kill It with Fire: The trolls in the game can only be soundly put down by using fire on them. Better have a fireball or item that can shoot fire handy.
  • Magically Inept Fighters: Warriors, Knights, and Rangers have a high number of Hit Points and a wide range of equipment to choose from but can't cast spells naturally.
  • Never Trust a Title: This game has no arenas in it, though the continent itself is nicknamed "arena" in an attempt to soften the Artifact Title. Also, the Elder Scrolls themselves are a very minor plot element.
  • Nice Day, Deadly Night: Unlike its successors, cities at night feature enemies that can and will kill you, though during the day they're nowhere to be seen.
  • Nintendo Hard: Everything is already trying to kill you, you'll be lucky to have any gold for your first few dungeons, all crime is a death sentence (instead of being arrested), poisons and disease are far more lethal than future games in the series, and to top it all off, the occasional Game-Breaking Bug may just finish you off. Good luck, you'll need it.
  • Our Elves Are Different: Really, there isn't much difference between humans and elves at all.
    • Though the High Elves (NPCs in Summurset Isle) still have their brownish golden skin, and Dark Elves (NPCs in Morrowind) still have their brownish black skin.
  • Our Goblins Are Different: Our Goblins are Goddamn Bats.
  • Our Orcs Are Different: Our Orcs are dressed like players of American football. Notably, they're a generic enemy and not a playable race as they are in the post-Daggerfall games.
  • Plot Coupon: The pieces of the Staff of Chaos.
  • Randomly Generated Levels: All of Tamriel is procedurally-generated for the most part. This allowed Bethesda to supposedly make it 6 million square miles across!
  • Red Eyes, Take Warning: Tharn has red eyes, for no readily-explained reason other than that he's evil!! Later games in the series would explain that he is part Dark Elf.
  • Retcon: Later games state that the dimension Uriel Septim was trapped in was Mehrunes Dagon's realm of Oblivion and that Tharn had been making deals with Mehrunes Dagon for power.
  • Ruins for Ruins' Sake: Due to the randomly-generated nature of the game, it's entirely possible to find large monster-infested dungeons right outside, even inside, of cities that have no business being there.
  • Rule of Cool: The title "The Elder Scrolls" itself. One of the developers came up with the name just because he thought it sounded cool—and then it was decided what the actual Elder Scrolls should be. This is, in fact, how they named everything. Or should that be "thinged everyname"?
    • They don't appear, in any form or to any extent, until the fourth game in the franchise. They're not significant to the main plot until the fifth.
  • Scenery Porn: It looks rather crude by today's standards, but back in 1994, it was clear why the name Tamriel means "Dawn's Beauty" in Aldmeris.
  • Sequel Hook: What's up with this Underking we keep hearing about?
  • Shoplift and Die: Or should we say, attack the doors of one of those many locked buildings, and get massacred by a whole squad of guards.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: The City Guards never patrol the streets, and only show up when you decide to start killing random bystanders. They also only send a few men after you at a time (unlike the sequels, where every guard in the city will be out to get you), and you can continue on with your business if they are all killed, at least until you commit another crime. You don't even need to confront them, since they disappear if you simply leave the area where they spawned (i.e. go into a building when they're on the streets, or vice-versa) and then immediately come back.
  • Treacherous Advisor: Jagar Tharn, who betrayed the Emperor.
  • Updated Re-release: The Deluxe Edition, released on CD-ROM instead of floppy disk, includes computer-animated video sequences, full voice-acting during cutscenes, and contains a slightly altered ending that omits General Warhaft, so that only Emperor Uriel Septim is shown being freed from his dimensional prison.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • Arena sets the Staff of Chaos up to be the Cosmic Keystone of Tamriel... and the sequels never mention it again. According to the UESPWiki, it was kept hidden somewhere in White Gold Tower (that huge tower in the middle of Imperial City in Oblivion).note  Dialog in Arena says the staff is destroyed when the Emperor is freed, though this may have been retconned.
    • Same with General Warhaft, the Emperor's chief military adviser. After this game, the only mention made of him is that he's written two really boring and useless books.
  • Wide Open Sandbox: A wide, wide, wide open sandbox.
  • Worthy Opponent: Tharn comes to view your character as this as you assemble more of the staff.


Example of: