Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Dungeon (1975)

This post is going to be a short one, folks.  The business of finding games from the 1970s can be a tricky one, and this is my first encounter with this problem on the blog.  You would think from the snazzy title screen above that I got this game running, but no such luck.  Try as I might, I can't get it to do anything but display that screen.  It is rather good, though, isn't it?

So what do we know about Dungeon?  It was designed in 1975 by John Daleske, Gary Fritz, Jon Good, Bill Gammel and Mark Nokada.  This site describes it as a 3-D first-person maze with multiple players, but also says that it was incomplete.  It's described as a predecessor to Moria, which is handy, as that's the game I'll be tackling next.

Another game, also called Dungeon, was designed by Don Daglow for the PDP-10 mainframe.  Daglow is a pretty big deal in the early days of gaming, and his description of the game sounds pretty amazing: apparently it had "ranged and melee combat, lines of sight, auto-mapping and NPCs with discrete AI".  Sadly, the PDP-10 system doesn't seem to be running anywhere on the internet, so this game appears to be lost to the ages.

Next up I'll be tackling Moria, which thankfully is available to play on PLATO.  Hopefully it's as surprisingly enjoyable as pedit5 and dnd have been.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Game of Dungeons v5.4: Victory!

With more a sigh of relief than a shout of triumph, I can finally declare that I have beaten The Game of Dungeons.  Not that it's a bad game; far from it.  For the time it was made it was absolutely revolutionary, and I still had fun playing it in 2014.  That said, I wasn't looking forward to the prospect of starting over from scratch had my character not proved up to the task.  Thankfully he was, and I can report how it all went down.

When last I posted, my character Belal (the 208th character I had sent into the dungeon) had around 2,700 hit points.  My goal was to grind him up to 100,000; the game manual said that the Dragon could dish out up to 100,000 points of damage, so I wanted a character who could withstand that much punishment.

During the course of that grinding, I discovered where I had been going wrong with my other characters.  The Fireball and Lightning Bolt spells are all well and good, pretty much guaranteed to destroy the foes you meet.  The problem is that they occasionally rebound on you, and the damage done increases along with your power.  I was having Fireballs rebound on me for 5,000 points of damage.  What I discovered is that, after a certain point, your other spells are strong enough to deal with any foe.  I started to vary my offense, using spells like Flaming Arrow and Holy Water instead, and I found myself hardly losing any hit points as a result.  My dungeon forays became a lot less tense.

I gradually built up my hit points and made progressively deeper forays as I got stronger, though two things hindered my progress.  One, I had no Bag of Holding, so the amount of gold I could get was limited.  Eventually I found one, and was pleased to discover that the tougher enemies I attracted were still being killed by my weaker spells.  Two, I couldn't grind on Level 19 or 20 of the dungeon; both of those levels are rife with secret doors, and a layout that makes it very difficult to figure out where you are unless you have a Magic Lantern to reveal those doors.  I found the lantern as well, and was set for hours upon hours of grinding.

I found the Dragon and the Orb on level 20, when I had about 75,000 hit points.  As you can see, my Magic Amulet was telling me that it wasn't a good idea for me to fight this guy yet.  I fled, continued to gain more hit points, and periodically came back to see what my Amulet said.

At 90,000 hit points, my Amulet's message altered slightly, saying "Danger" instead of "Farewell".  It was not exactly an encouraging sign, but any progress was good progress, and I was getting closer to my goal.  Just a few more dungeon delves, and I would be there.

So, armed with 100,000+ hit points, I entered Whisenwood Dungeon with the purpose of killing the Dragon and retrieving the Orb.  I decided not to have my character pick up gold; you can toggle it on and off at any time you want.  The manual warns that the Dragon is extra-ornery when you're carrying treasure, so I opted not to do so.

My amulet's message was encouraging when I found the Dragon; "Warning" is one step less deadly than "Danger" where the amulet is concerned, so I felt pretty good about the impending battle.  At least, as good as I could feel with permanent death on the line.  If Belal lost, I would be going right back to the start of the game.  This one was for all the marbles, folks.

As I've mentioned before, you can kill the Dragon instantly using the Dragon Spell.  This sounds like a great idea, but it drains nearly all of your spell-casting ability.  It's what I did the last time I fought the Dragon, and it left me with too little spell-power to make it back to the surface.  This time, I was going to use my regular arsenal of spells.

With my hit points at maximum I wasn't worried about using Fireball or Lightning Bolt, and I wanted to deal as much damage as possible to ensure victory.  I decided against Fireball; some monsters have immunities, and I figured that if anything will be immune to fire it's a Dragon.  So I crossed my fingers, held my breath, and let loose with a Lightning Bolt.

Success!  My Lightning Bolt killed the Dragon, and you can see above that it damaged me as well: that's the gigantic ZAPP! running across the screen.  You can also see the words "Swiss Cheese" written underneath; I haven't mentioned this yet, but whenever you win a fight there's a mildly amusing message that pops up depending on what spell you used.  I don't really know how swiss cheese is relevant to a Lightning Bolt, but I'll go with it.  I was just happy not to be dead.

As I discovered last time, though, the game was not over.  I still had to make it to the surface, with super-powerful monsters on my tail.

Much like the Wizard shown above, the foes that beset me on my way out were all about level 6,000.  I was feeling confident with my first such foe, and I decided to test out one of my weaker spells.  The Wizard fell to a Light Candle, and that was when I knew I'd have no trouble getting out.  I had plenty of magic power, and I wasn't going to have to rely on the dangerous Fireball and Lightning Bolt.  Nothing short of my own stupidity could stop me now.

This is Belal on Level 1 of the dungeon, right next to the entrance, literally one step away from victory.  I'm surprised looking at it now at how few hit points he had left, but now I remember that at least one of my enemies survived the spell I chose, and I had to fight in melee.  I'm probably luckier than I thought to have survived to the end.

Upon exiting, I got the victory screen displayed at the top of this post.  It was satisfying to know that I'd won, but it's not the most rewarding conclusion.  I'm not really a fan of having my character forcibly retired, and I'd like to know what the Orb actually does.  That said, seeing this screen was pretty cool.

So that's that, I'm a Finder of the Orb!  I may be the only legitimate player on that list; those other names sound like fakes to me.  Either way, my time with this game is done, and it's time to reflect back on my likes and dislikes.


Unexpected Depth:  There's a lot to this game.  On the surface it's a pretty simple dungeon delving game; enter the dungeon, grab as much gold as possible, survive, and get out.    Dig a little deeper and you'll find a variety of monsters, spells and treasures that add new facets to the game in the ways they interact.  Then there's the scaling difficulty: the more gold you get, the harder the game gets, and finding the Bag of Holding can ramp up the difficulty unexpectedly. as can finding a treasure chest.  Finding the Orb ramps it up yet again (though I found that, with the amount of grinding I did, it wasn't too hard).

Tension: Like The Dungeon before it, this game features permanent character death.  Also like that game it means that your actions have real consequences, and here it's amplified.  The Dungeon has one level; The Game of Dungeons has twenty, which makes it that much more difficult to get back to the surface.  The resulting anxiety makes for fun, rewarding gameplay.


Confusing Start: As I mentioned in my first post, it took me a while to come to grips with this game.  The squares that teleport you to different dungeon levels are hard to identify, and it's not immediately apparent that they transport you to a random location each time.  I spent a lot of time being disoriented, and it wasn't until I started mapping that I twigged to what was going on.  It's not exactly a flaw with the game, but it did mean that it was a while before I could really enjoy the game.

Permanent Death: I know I've praised this feature above, but after a while it can get pretty deflating to lose a good character.  I spent three-and-a-half months on this game, but without permanent death I'd have been done in a couple of weeks.  Overall I feel that permanent death is an integral part of the game, but by the end I was ready to move on.  Going back to the start would not have been welcome.


For the time, this is an amazing game.  I'm not surprised that it became so widespread, and ate up so much of the time of computer programming students in the 1970s.  It's addictive, it's surprisingly involved, and, keeping in mind that my gaming tastes are old-fashioned, it holds up well today.  Every old-school CRPG fan should try it, if only for some historical perspective.


Some time after finishing The Game of Dungeons I decided to create a rating system, and give the games I play a score to compare against each other.  The time has come for me to definitively rank this one, so here goes.  (Ratings are out of 7, with a discretionary bonus point to be added to the total if I still want to play the game after I finished it.)

Story & Setting: This game has even less story than The Dungeon, which wasn't exactly bursting at the seams with narrative to begin with.  Basically, there's a dungeon with an orb at the bottom that's guarded by a dragon.  If you bring it to the surface, you can retire to the Elyssian Fields.  It's another backstory that does the bare minimum to set up the game.  Whisenwood Dungeon is a collection of featureless rooms and corridors, so it's not adding much to the rating either.  Rating: 1.

Characters & Monsters: There aren't many monsters in the game, but the ones that are there are distinctive.  Demons are immune to fire.  Death is a monster you can't run away from.  Each monster has its own immunities and vulnerabilities, and working them out is a vital part of the early parts of the game.  Rating: 2.

Aesthetics: It's another orange-and-black PLATO game with no sound.  It looks almost exactly like The Dungeon, so I have to give it the same rating.  That's not necessarily a bad thing: there's no flash, but it's highly functional.  Rating: 2.

Mechanics: In many ways this game is an extension of The Dungeon: it has random character creation, and a very basic combat system.  It shines in other areas though.  The spell system is where the game excels tactically, and the way the game scales up in difficulty as you acquire more treasure keeps the game tense.  The various elements of the game combine for a fun experience.  Rating: 5.

Challenge: Make no mistake, this game is hard.  Permanent death combined with a twenty level dungeon makes for a grueling experience.  Most of the process of getting good at the game is learning what not to touch, and what not to interact with.  It managed to stay fun for a decent length of time, but after a while it started to wear me down.  I probably would have ranked it higher early on, but the sheer length of time it took me to complete broke my love of the game somewhat.  Rating: 5.

Innovation & Influence: A lot of this game is taken directly from The Dungeon, but on the other hand this is like the second CRPG in existence.  And while it owes a lot to its progenitor, it improved on every single aspect of that game.  Rating: 6.

Fun: I enjoyed the hell out of this game, especially in the early stages.  It's a punishing experience, but it rarely felt like a chore to play.  You can load it up for a quick five minute game, or you can settle in for a few hours, and I often found that once I got started I couldn't stop.  A dungeon delve doesn't take much time, so it was easy to justify "just one more game".  A year-and-a-half removed from it, I'd be more than happy to play it again.  The only thing that brings it down is the repetitive nature of the game. Rating: 5.

The above scores add up to 26.  I'm going to award this one the discretionary bonus point, because it's by far the best of the PLATO CRPGs.  This gives a score of 27, which doubled gives me a final rating of 54.

Final Rating: 54 out of 100.


Somewhat later in this blog I made the decision to overhaul my Final Rating system, so I'm going back through and fixing all of the games I've already played as of March 2020.  I've ditched the Innovation and Influence category, and replaced it for CRPGs with a category for Combat.  I've also changed the purpose of the bonus points, saving them for games that are important, innovative, influential, or have features that are otherwise not covered by my other categories.

Also, the Final Rating is a boring name.  The CRPG Addict has his GIMLET.  The Adventure Gamers have their PISSED rating.  Data Driven Gamer has his harpoons.  So I'm ditching the generic name and calling my new system the RADNESS Index: the Righteous Admirability Designation, Numerically Estimating Seven Scores. It's a pretentious mouthful, but I'm going with it.

Combat: Melee combat is The Game of Dungeons isn't all that different from that of The Dungeon, with the same three options: fight, evade, or cast a spell.  Fighting simply calculates the winner in the background, and the game lets you know who won.  Evasion is much more useful, because this game doesn't distinguish between rooms and corridors, so you can try to flee whenever you want.  The amount of gold influences your chance of getting away, because gold is kind of the game's difficulty setting: the more you have, the harder it gets. The spells are more plentiful here as well, and it's a little more difficult to figure out which ones work against which monsters.  Also, I love that this game has autocombat: you can set a level, and any monster you encounter of that level or below will be fought automatically.  The combat here is fast and frenetic, but there's enough here to make it interesting.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 2.  The Game of Dungeons gets the full array of bonus points. It's an early CRPG, and one of the most popular and influential ones that came out of the PLATO community.

The Game of Dungeons v5's RADNESS Index is 46.  So far it's on top, with The Game of Dungeons after that.

NEXT: I have four games to choose from: two that are called Dungeon (sensing a theme?), one called Moria and another called Orthanc.  I'll play around with them for a bit before choosing the next one, but I'm leaning towards Moria, yet another PLATO classic.