The Elder Scrolls: Arena, or sometimes referred to as The Elder Scrolls I: Arena, or just Arena, is an action role-playing game developed and published by Bethesda Softworks. It was released in 1994 for MS-DOS, and is the first game of The Elder Scrolls series. It became free to download from Bethesda's website in 2004, upon the 10-year anniversary of its release.
Arena's setting is the continent of Tamriel, and all of its current successors have also taken place on the continent as well. Up until the release of The Elder Scrolls Online, Arena was the only game of The Elder Scrolls series that had playable locations in all of Tamriel instead of just being restricted to one province. The game's locations include cities, dungeons, and the wilderness.
Arena's world is randomly generated for each game, and is about 6,000,000 square kilometers in size. The many towns and cities of the game have actual design instead of random generation, although names for businesses are random. Hundreds of dungeons are also a feature of the game, and 17 of them were uniquely designed due to their part in the main storyline. Fast traveling to different areas of the world is possible, and is an important feature because of the sheer size of the world. Without fast traveling, walking to different cities and other areas could take hours upon hours of real-world time.
The player controls their character in first-person, and both melee and magic combat are available. Combat moves are made using different motions of the mouse, with melee attacks being performed by holding the right mouse button and dragging the mouse across the screen, and magic attacks made by clicking the magic menu in-game, choosing the desired spell, and clicking on a spot to shoot it there.
Other features like a day-night cycle, pickpocketing NPCs, and breaking and entering into shops at night, are also available. Apart from the main story, which is completed by clearing the 17 uniquely created dungeons, players can receive miscellaneous side quests by chatting with NPCs. Side quests all vary from each other, with some including retrieving items from dungeons, while others are simply delivering items to another location.
Arena is also known for its challenging gameplay toward beginner players. Although the first few dungeons can be quite demanding, as the player increases their character's skills, enemies become less of a danger.
Originally, Arena was going to be a "medieval-style gladiator game" that revolved around traveling through the in-game world and battling teams in arenas to receive the title of "Grand Champion" in the Imperial City, the capitol of the world (hence the "Arena" part of its name; "Arena" came to be known after development as a nickname for Tamriel, due to the empire being harsh and violent). The title "The Elder Scrolls" was devised by designer Vijay Lakshman, although his co-designer Ted Peterson recalls, "I don't think he knew what the hell it meant any more than we did." At some point Bethesda decided it would mean "Tamriel's mystical tomes of knowledge that told of its, present, and future." Peterson also remembers that developer Sir-Tech (whose employees were currently working on Wizardry VII: Crusaders of the Dark Savant) were "literally laughing" at Bethesda's small team for taking on such a large scale project.
Peterson, Lakshman and programmer Julian Lefay were all influenced by pencil and paper role-playing games while developing Arena, as well as by Ultima Underworld The Stygian Abyss, its sequel, Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, and Legends of Valour. Although Arena was "much, much bigger" than similar games available at the time, Peterson stated that the team didn't implement anything "too new" in the game.
As development progressed, RPG-like side quests which had been added became more important than the fighting tournaments in the arenas. More RPG features began being added to the game, such as dungeons and cities, and finally, the idea of tournaments was completely scrapped and the quests and dungeons were more and more developed. Bethesda realized Arena "needed to be -- a full-blown RPG". Coding for the arena fighting was never actually created, and not many elements of it were left in the final product other than unused text files with fighting team names and introductions for them. Teams that traveled with the player were also scrapped due to the development team's opinion that the concept made the game less fun once the idea of making the game a first-person perspective RPG was decided on.
Bethesda had originally planned on releasing the game in December 1993, in time for Christmas, but missed this deadline and released the game in the spring of 1994, a bad time to release a game for a small and unknown developer such as Bethesda. Its packaging caused dissatisfaction among distributors, leading to only 3,000 copies being sold, which was a smaller number of sales than a previous game developed by Bethesda, The Terminator 2029. Peterson was sure the company would be doomed to settle for bankruptcy and go out of business. Sales rose and rose, however, as players passed knowledge of the game along by word-of-mouth. Arena soon sold well enough for Bethesda to begin work on its successor, The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall.
Two editions of the Arena were available, a 3.5-inch floppy disk version and a CD-ROM version. The CD-ROM contained bonus features, like CGI video sequences and upgraded speech for certain characters. A special "Deluxe Edition" was released in late 1994 and was the CD-ROM version with the latest updated patch, the "Codex Scientia" (which was a hint book for the game), and the map of Tamriel as a mouse pad.
Bethesda made Arena free to download off their website ten years later for its anniversary, although this was the 3.5-inch floppy version. Since it is a DOS program, their must be a DOS emulator installed on newer systems in order to run the game.
Three years following the downloadable version, the CD-ROM version was available for a limited time for purchase with a cover similar to one included with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and this edition was bundled with the DOS emulator DOSBox.
Finally, a disc version of Arena was included in a large bundle of all five of the Elder Scrolls games at the time, titled The Elder Scrolls Anthology and released on September 10, 2013.
At its release, Arena was full of bugs and was quite demanding on players' systems, but became a cult classic anyway. PC Gamer's Bernie Yee gave the title an 88/100, stating "give this game a better storyline, and you might have the best FRP ever designed."