When the question is asked "What was the first commercial CRPG", most of the knowledgeable folks around will tell you that it was Beneath Apple Manor. It's a fair answer: although there were plenty of CRPGs created before 1978, none of them were available in stores. Of the other commercial CRPGs from 1978 that I've played, Dungeon Campaign was created in December at the earliest, and Space is believed by Matt Barton to be a 1979 game (and I ain't about to argue with Matt Barton on these matters). There's one more game that just might qualify though: Devil's Dungeon.
|An appropriately used apostrophe in a game from the 1970s is a rarity to be cherished.
Devil's Dungeon was created by Dr. Charles William Engel, a maths professor from Florida, and was shown to be available in an ad dating from February 1978. At this point it was simply sold as a 15 page booklet with the BASIC code for the user to enter themselves, but it was available for sale. Whether a booklet of code counts as a commercially available game is up to the reader, I suppose, but as far as I'm concerned it was commercial, which strikes one requirement off the list. Whether it qualifies as a CRPG is another matter entirely.
(For a deeper exploration of this topic, head over to The Golden Age Arcade Historian, who really goes in hard on it.)
I tried to find an Apple II version with no luck, and have settled instead for playing it on a TSR-80 emulator. I'm actually not sure what platform it was originally intended for, or if Engel's code was even intended for a specific platform. Apple II and TRS-80 would be the most likely options in 1978, so I'm happy with either.
The game itself gives no backstory, but a preamble before the code in Simulating Simulations 2nd edition (a 1979 book featuring the code for a number of Engel's games) reads as follows: "For many years you have heard rumors of large quantities of gold hidden in a maze of caves whose connecting passageways lead deep beneath the earth of an occasionally active volcano. The stories tell of monsters and demons who roam through the caves, poisonous gas, tremors from the volcano, and one man who returned from these perils alive and named the caves The Devil's Dungeon. After much searching, you have located the wealthy, solitary man who survived a journey through the dungeon; and he has agreed to see you. Although now very old and in poor health, he tells you everything he can remember about the dungeon." That's a classic 1970s Dungeons & Dragons setup right there: a big hole in the ground full of monsters and treasure. My goal is to get in, survive, and get out with as much loot as possible. It doesn't get much more basic than that.
The gameplay itself is also pretty basic. It's entirely text-based, and bears quite a few similarities to Treasure Hunt, which I covered not that long ago. If Treasure Hunt was the adventure game boiled down to its barest essentials, Devil's Dungeon is the same thing for the CRPG. Each move displays your current status, how deep you are underground, which room you are in, and which rooms the exits lead to. The bulk of the game is simply typing the number of the room you want to explore next, and trying to avoid or fight the various dangers of the caves. All of the command inputs are numbers, as shown on the screenshot below.
|A starting character in Level 1, Room 1.
The dungeon is split into levels, and everything I've read indicates that you can keep descending infinitely. Every level has 16 rooms. You can explore them using the regular exits, or one-way slides that don't allow you to return the way you came. Mapping the levels is of limited utility, because there are tremors that happen periodically that rearrange the rooms. These tremors are frequent enough that I gave up on mapping very quickly, and if you can get me to stop mapping a game then it must be a truly futile effort. You can enter '88' to bring up a list of the caves you've visited and their exits, which is pretty handy.
Some rooms feature "drop-offs", which can be used to descend to the next level down. Once you go down you can't get back up again, but you can always escape the dungeon from Room 1 on any level (assuming you can find it). As in most games of this type, it gets more dangerous the deeper you descend, but also more rewarding.
There are monsters lurking around, and you can't claim the treasure in a room until the monster has been dealt with. Every monster is simply listed as "Monster", which is disappointing. The player and the monsters have Speed and Strength scores which dictate how effective they are in combat. Battle is not involved at all; you simply hit "0" to fight, and the game tells you if you killed the monster, if it lived, or if you died. The monsters scores are right there in the open, so it's usually pretty easy to tell if you're going to win or not. You can flee from any monster, but it has a chance based on your Speed to hit you as you escape.
|Killing a "monster", type unknown.
The final dangers, and the most irritating, are Demons and Poisonous Gas. Each one has a chance to affect you in some way as you leave the room: Gas can drain you of half your Strength, while Demons can drain half your Speed, or steal some of your Gold. There's no way to avoid these dangers, and little you can do to stop them affecting you once you've encountered them. The majority of dungeon rooms feature one or both, so no matter how high your stats get there's always some chance they'll get drained back down very quickly.
The only option the player has against the game's hazards is the Magic Wand. In any room you can use it, and it will destroy every danger in the room as well as creating a drop-off to the next level. It works 60% of the time, but otherwise it backfires and drains both Speed and Strength by 50%. I tend only to use it when I absolutely have to. You can sometimes get into rooms with no exits, and that's when the wand is essential.
|I escaped from a monster, got gassed, and walked right into a room with
more gas and some Demons.
The majority of the game consists of moving from room to room, killing monsters for experience points, scooping up gold (which also gives you experience points), and hoping that the gas and the Demons don't get you too many times. The goal is to amass plenty of experience and gold, then find Room 1 on any level. Room 1 is where you can exchange experience for Speed and Strength. The game is a war of attrition, with monsters and hazards constantly draining you as you try to get enough loot to stay ahead. Even just moving around drains both stats, with each move taking an amount equal to your depth underground.
The best I managed (playing fairly) was to descend to Level 6, and escape the dungeon with a dozen gold pieces. Even when making maps and trying carefully to avoid the hazards I'd already encountered I found the game incredibly difficult. With no way to know when you're about to stumble into some Demons or gas, and no way to control whether they drain you or not, it's a tough nut to crack, and seems to be based almost entirely on luck.
See that note in parentheses above? The one that says "playing fairly"? I put it there because I completely broke this game. Whenever you're about to leave a room, you can enter the number of a room that's not adjacent to the one you're in. This takes you to a screen that displays the amount of gold you found in the room, and asks you to enter a valid exit. If you just keep hitting enter on that screen your character keeps on finding gold, over and over again for as long as you like. I used this to amass over 100,000 gold pieces, and jack my character's stats up to around 20,000 each.
I could have cranked those scores even higher, except that after a while I found myself unable to locate Room 1 on any level. Demon and gas encounters took their toll, as did simple movement, and I died on Level 22 when my Speed was reduced to zero.
|Loaded down with "spondooly" as some of my older relatives might say.
In another game I used the above technique to garner a decent amount of gold on Level 1 (enough to raise my stats to about 3,000), then I dropped down a few levels until I found a room that would net me a decent amount of gold. (Rooms will tell you the maximum amount of gold you can earn from them, so it's easy to know whether a room is worth farming or not.) I quickly amassed over 100,000gp, but once again I found it really hard to find Room 1. I ended up descending to level 12, bouncing from one hazard to the next as my stats got lower and lower, until I eventually lucked onto an exit to Room 1 and escaped with my fortune.
I left the question of whether this game qualifies as a CRPG open at the start of this post, with the intention of returning to it later. It's certainly an attempt to recreate the play of Dungeons & Dragons, which was the goal of the vast majority of CRPGs of this era. Your character has statistics that determine your success, and can increase those statistics over time by earning experience points. There's a rudimentary magic system, and very basic combat. As far as I'm concerned it covers most of the bases that other early CRPGS cover, albeit in an extremely simplistic form. So yes, it's a CRPG. And yes, if Dr, Engel was selling those booklets it was definitely commercial. Unless another, earlier game is unearthed, it looks like Devil's Dungeon really was the first ever commercial CRPG.
Story & Setting: The story is the same old search for treasure in a monster-filled hole, and that hole is described in the most perfunctory way possible. Rating: 1 out of 7.
Characters & Monsters: There are no characters in this game, only Demons and other monsters. None of those monsters are individualised with names or types; the only variety here comes from their statistics. I guess that's all these games do when you get under the hood, but it's still disappointing. Rating: 1 out of 7.
Aesthetics: It's a text-based game with not even the barest attempt made to give the writing some character or atmosphere. Rating: 1 out of 7.
Mechanics: It's a simple game that does everything it was designed to do, but there's nothing all that interesting going on. Throw in the game-breaking bug I discovered and I have to knock it down. Rating: 2 out of 7.
Challenge: Playing this game fairly I would have described it as too arbitrary and difficult. After discovering the money-making bug it's much easier, and far too easy if you have the patience for farming gold on Level 1. Rating: 2 out of 7.
Innovation & Influence: In terms of influence, I would have to say that Devil's Dungeon is negligible. It's barely mentioned on the internet, and these kinds of text-based CRPGs petered out pretty quickly. It's also not all that innovative, being mostly a slightly more complex variant on Hunt the Wumpus (imagine playing Wumpus without any warnings about where the dangers are, and you have an idea what Devil's Dungeon is like). It should get some points for being the earliest known commercial CRPG, though. Rating: 5 out of 7.
Fun: I'm sorry to say, but I derived very little enjoyment out of the couple of hours I put into this game. There's just not enough that the player can do to control their fate, and that's always a frustrating game experience. Rating: 1 out of 7.
Bonus point? Are you kidding me? The above scores total 13, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 26. Overall, that puts it even with a couple of Greg Hassett's adventure games, and above King Tut's Tomb, Treasure Hunt and Library. King Tut and Library were broken, and earned their place at the bottom. Treasure Hunt is a better game than Devil's Dungeon, but it's not as significant. (I'm starting to regret that Innovation and Influence category.) As for the CRPG chart, Devil's Dungeon is at the bottom, and that's where it belongs despite it's significance.
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 adventure games with a category for Puzzles. For CRPGs I'm using a Combat category. 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: There are no tactics in combat, beyond deciding whether to run away. Once combat begins the game tells you whether you won or lost, and there's nothing you can do to influence the result. Rating: 1 out of 7.
Bonus Points: 1. There's an argument to be made that this is the first commercial CRPG, or at least the first one available for home computers. I wavered on this, but it probably deserves the point.
Devil's Dungeon gets a RADNESS Index of 19. That puts it dead last on the list, and it's probably primitive enough to deserve that rating.
NEXT: The next game on my list is something called The Dragon for the Commodore PET. I was notified about this by regular commenter Brian way back in 2017, but Google isn't showing any signs of its existence. The same goes for Quest, which is another one that he told me about. I'll table those for now, unless Brian can tell me if his leads on those games bore any fruit. That leaves me with Lords of Karma as my next game, a text adventure whose sole aim seems to be the doing of good deeds. I'll bet you anything that it involves killing things and collecting treasure.