Friday, April 18, 2014

The Dungeon: Victory!

Huzzah for Fili!  He killed a lot of our buddies!

After a few weeks of playing The Dungeon on and off, I finally beat it last night.  It wasn't particularly a matter of skill - although the knowledge of what spells to use against certain foes is a big help - but more one of persistence and luck.

I had been watching The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug earlier in the evening (good prequel to the Lord of the Rings movies, terrible book adaptation), and this combined with a general lack of imagination regarding character names resulted in me feeding dwarf after dwarf into the Dungeon of Ramething (not to mention Bilbo and Gandalf).  Most of them died quickly.  A few managed to build some decent experience.  It wasn't until Fili, the sixth such dwarf, that I succeeded.

As I said, it was a matter luck.  I had been following my usual routine, slowly advancing room by room, collecting small treasures and retreating to the exit when my spells ran out.  Fili had about 12,000 experience when I decided to send him deeper into the dungeon to do some mapping.  That was when I stumbled across two pieces of jewelry lying unguarded.  One panicked beeline for the exit later, and I had gained 12,000 extra experience points, and the honour of a comfortable retirement.

(My character achieved this mostly through obtaining treasure, but spare a thought for the poor theoretical adventurer who gets all 20,000 experience points required via combat.  All he would have to show for his victory would be a life of poverty and a body crippled by the ravages of battle.)

Upon winning the game you get the nifty victory screen shown above, as well as a place in the Hall of Fame.  Check out Fili in his pride of place below:

First place.  Booyah.

I continued playing for a while after this, so that I could complete my map.  Once a character has retired you can't use him any more, so I had to send a lot of cannon fodder newbies in to map as much as they could before their inevitable demise.  It took me another twelve Tolkien characters before my map was complete; as far as I am aware, this is the only complete map of The Dungeon found on-line.


With the goals I set myself for this game out of the way, it's time to talk about its good and bad points.  I won't be rating any of the games on this blog on any kind of scale, objective or subjective.  I'm simply going to discuss the things I liked and the things I didn't, and leave it at that.  (EDIT: I later changed my mind about this; see below).

WHAT I LIKED

Spells: Seriously, there are 16 spells in this game, and I found myself using a lot of them.  You can't just stick with one or two spells and leave it at that; sure, Sleep is very useful, but it doesn't work on undead.  Charm only works on humanoids.  Magic Missile is twice as effective on undead.  A surprising amount of effort has gone into varying the spells, and making them work like they do in Dungeons & Dragons.  The only downside I could find are the spells that affect "surprise"; I couldn't really work out their concrete effect on game-play.  Even so, it's a system that works.

Variety of Monsters: There are 36 monsters in this game, some of which include Giant Rats, Orcs, Vampires, Giant Hogs, and Dragons.  Again, it's a menagerie drawn straight from D&D, but often that's exactly what I want from a dungeon-crawl game.  One criticism I have is that none of the monsters have special abilities.  They're all just a name, a type, and a hit point total, and combat flashes by so quickly that the monsters are all effectively the same.  This is offset by the spells, as mentioned above, and the various immunities that different types of monsters have.  Its just enough that the sameness of combat never really bothered me.

The Game Remembers Where You've Been: The game stocks the dungeon when your character is created, and after that it remembers which rooms you've explored.  At first I had thought I'd be able to stay close to the entrance, and continuously raid the rooms close by until I hit 20,000 experience points.  No such luck.  If you clear a room it stays empty, and every time you enter the dungeon you have to explore just a little deeper to find treasure.  It's a small thing, but it has a big effect on my next point.

Tension: You're deep in the dungeon, with no spells left and just a few hit points remaining.  The necklace you found is worth thousands of gold pieces, and if you can take it back to the surface you will be able to return as a much more skillful hero than before.  But there's a long way to the exit, and with every step you may be attacked by the foul denizens of the dungeon.  Will you make it?

This is pretty much every game of The Dungeon.  Your character can only be saved between missions, and if he dies in the dungeon he's gone for good.  This gives the game some proper tension.  The stakes are high, and they only get higher the more powerful you get.  Sure, once you've earned more hit points and spells you can deal with the easier foes, but there's always the chance of a dragon popping up and killing you.  Perma-death doesn't work for every style of game - I wouldn't want it in a longer, plot-based adventure - but for short dungeon-crawl games it's ideal.

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE

Randomness: Success in The Dungeon is highly dependent on luck.  Every time you create a new character, the game stocks the dungeon with monsters and treasure.  You have no way of figuring out what's in a room ahead of time, so it's a matter of bashing doors down and hoping for the best.  If you find a wraith in that first room, well, bad luck.  Generate a new guy and try again.  I only won the game through sheer perseverance and luck in finding two unguarded pieces of jewelry.  It could just as easily have been a dragon.

Lack of Encounter Options: Before I go any further, I will say that the number of options in this game is surprising.  It was programmed in 1975, so the ability to Fight, Run or Cast a Spell seems pretty advanced to me.  Even so, it's not quite enough.  The spells mitigate this a lot, but once you've run out you're basically at the mercy of the game and its randomly generated foes.  You have the option to run away, but that only works in corridors.  As you can see from the map above, most of the dungeon is composed of rooms, and if you're attacked by a monster in a room then combat is your only option.  With just one change - the possibility of running away at all times - I would have been satisfied.

FINAL VERDICT

By modern standards, this is a primitive and simplistic game.  By the standards of the time, it's shockingly sophisticated.  I never expected the first CRPG to be this advanced.  The earliest game in the genre that I had played previously was Akalabeth, and I was braced for something much worse than that.  Surprisingly, I got something better.  I probably shouldn't have been surprised; a system like PLATO was bound to have more processing power than the first home computers.  But I was, and I recommend that anyone with an interest in gaming history check out The Dungeon.  It's probably going to be better than you think.

ADDENDUM: FINAL RATING

Some time after I completed The Dungeon I came up with a rating system with which to rank the games I complete.  Here goes:

Story & Setting: The backstory in the manual starts off with a cracking line to open: "It is the year 666 -- the year of The Beast".  It then goes on to describe the ruined castle of Ramething, near the town of Mersad, in the country of Caer Omn.  The "ruined castle near a town" set-up is pure old-school D&D, and I'd be shocked if these names aren't taken straight from Rusty Rutherford's old campaign.  That said, none of this ties into the gameplay at all, and simply serves as a backdrop for the dungeon's location.

The story is similarly thin: the protagonist wants to amass 20,000 experience points and then retire.  It's a fairly thin rationale for sticking your head into a monster-filled dungeon, but I guess it's a good enough motivation for plaing a game.  Rating: 1.

Characters & Monsters: This game has a lot of monsters, grouped into six categories with differing spell immunities.  None of the monsters have special abilities; they're simply differentiated by how many hit points they have, and how much damage they can dish out.  Rating: 2.

Aesthetics: The graphics for this game are primitive, but they're not ugly.  I'm actually rather fond of the orange/black colour scheme of the old PLATO games.  They're also very functional: there was never any confusion as to what I was looking at, and that's appreciated.  It doesn't have any sound, but that just gave me an excuse to play Iron Maiden's Dance of Death in the background.  Rating: 2.

Mechanics: The gameplay is simple, but it works quite well at what it does.  Character creation is random, and combat is dead simple, but the spell system gives the game a much-needed layer of complexity.  I also really liked the way the game forces you to explore deeper with every trip into the dungeon.  Rating: 4.

Challenge:  It's a bit short, but it's very well balanced.  The threat of permanent death gives it a great sense of tension, and there's never a moment in the game where you feel completely safe.  My only complaint here is that success in the game is far too dependent on random elements.  Rating: 4.

Innovation: Well, it's the first CRPG in existence, innit?  There's no way of knowing what was in the mythical m119h, so I have to give The Dungeon the maximum score.  Rating: 7.

Fun: I did enjoy this game, and it was much more fun than I was expecting.  It wasn't very long or complicated, and it was never going to hold my attention for more than a few sessions, but it was enjoyable while it lasted.  Rating: 3.

The Dungeon doesn't get the coveted bonus point, as I doubt I'll ever come back to it.  The ratings above add up to a score of 23, which doubled adds up to a final rating of 46.

FINAL RATING: 46 out of 100. 

Next Game: I continue my trawl through the primordial age of CRPGs, with another PLATO game: The Game of Dungeons, aka dnd.

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