Sunday, March 8, 2020

Game 38: Super Dungeon (1979)

Believe it or not, this is the title screen for Super Dungeon, not the
exciting new game PROGRAMMA SOFTWARE

Today's game is Super Dungeon, a CRPG released only for the Apple II. Like most of the CRPGs released commercially around this time, it has no particular goal beyond venturing into a dungeon and escaping with as much loot as possible. (Of those I've played so far, I think only Wilderness Campaign and Beneath Apple Manor have a non-monetary quest.)  What it also has in common with the other games of this time is that it's implementing Dungeons & Dragons-style gameplay in its own way; we're still in the era before there have been any widely influential CRPGs, so everyone has their own ideas about how it should be done.

Super Dungeon was created by Rodney Nelsen, who we'll see on the blog again at some point, as he has at least one more more RPG to his name (Dragon Fire, released in 1981). He also worked on some Carmen Sandiego games in the 90s, so he had a decently lengthy career in the games industry. It was published by Programma International, who must be among the earliest video game companies.  They went out of business in 1983 but in that time they published loads of games, almost exclusively for the Apple II. None of these appear to be of particular significance, although Dragon Maze was influential on a number of early CRPGs, including Super Dungeon.

I was immediately impressed after booting up the game by the extensive in-game instructions. The space limitations of the time usually prevent this sort of thing, but Super Dungeon does a very good job of explaining itself up front. It might be a tad too lengthy for someone who just wants to start the game, but you can skip it with no trouble.

It starts with the story, if you can call it that, which I'll reproduce here: "There have been numerous rumors of huge deposits of gold, hidden in a maze of caves, deep beneath the Earth. It is said that this gold is guarded by thousands of demons, monsters and other sorts of evil beings. Well, these rumors are true, and you are about to descend into the depths of these caves that we call the D U N G E O N S ! ! !" I don't know if it's worth those three exclamation points, but it is the classic D&D set-up.

Character creation is fairly simple. You type a name, and then the game gives you two stats: Constitution and Strength. Constitution, which appears to range from around 10 to 30, is this game's equivalent of hit points.  Strength ranges from about 10 to 25, and is part of what determines whether you score a hit in combat. Creating a character right now, I got a Constitution of 28 and a Strength of 12.

There are then five character classes to choose from: Warrior, Wizard, Elf, Dwarf, and Hobbit. Each of these, of course, has their own strengths and weaknesses, but what differentiates this game from others is that each class has certain doors it can pass through.  Seriously, doors are way important in Super Dungeon.  Your stats don't limit your choice of character class, but they may have an effect on how many experience points you earn. For example, a Warrior or a Dwarf will earn more experience if their Strength is over 15, and a Wizard earns more with a Constitution over 30. Hobbits are penalised if their Constitution is over 30, and Elves likewise if their Strength is greater than 15. With my scores of 12 and 28, I don't want to choose a Warrior, a Dwarf or a Wizard, so I go with an Elf.

After that you get more stats: Life Points and Armor Class. Armor Class ranges from 0 to 10, and wearing armour improves it. Unlike old-school D&D, a higher number is better.  Even wearing no armour my Elf begins with 3.  Life Points are like stamina, and may be the most important stat in the game. Every move you make drains a Life Point, and going through certain doors will drain from 5 to 10.  If your Life Points hit 0 you drop from exhaustion, and the last monster you encountered gets the honour of killing you.  Each class begins with its own range of hit points; Hobbits are the lowest with 50-60, while Warriors get 90-100. The main reason I chose the Elf over the Hobbit as my class above is that Elves get more Life Points (74, in this case).

Nathan the Elf, I feel like I'm insulting myself

The last part of character creation is buying equipment. You begin with a number of copper pieces determined by your class, and from that you can buy weapons, armour, a horse, and food. Weapons add to your Strength in combat, while armour adds to your Armor Class as I mentioned above. Food grants you more Life Points. A horse increases your Speed, which begins at 1 but can be raised to 2 with a draft horse or 3 with a light horse. It's pretty weird to imagine an adventurer galloping around the dungeon on horseback, but having a good speed is essential for getting the first strike in combat.

You have to buy two weapons for some reason. Most classes can use whatever weapon they want, but Wizards are restricted to non-magical daggers. They get a +3 Strength bonus to offset this due to their magic, and to be honest I never noticed them performing particularly worse than the other classes. There are no restrictions on the other items. With 106 copper, I bought my Elf a sword, a dagger, chainmail armour, a light horse, some iron rations and a quart of wine. This increased my Armor Class to 5, and my Life to 109. I don't know if you get the Strength bonus from both weapons, but the sword is worth 5 and the dagger is worth 2. There's no point saving any copper at this point, because you can't do any more shopping once the game begins.

Super Dungeon looks visually quite similar to Robert Clardy's Dungeon Campaign, which makes sense because both games were influenced by Dragon Maze.  Each level of the dungeon is created at random. Your character begins near an exit on the right of the screen, and the entrance to the next dungeon level will be found on the left. (It never occurred to me while playing, but progress being right-to-left is slightly odd from a Western perspective.)  Your character is represented by a brown rectangle, and you move around using the U, D, L and R keys to represent Up, Down, Left and Right. (I'm pretty sure this is done because the Apple keyboard didn't have all four Arrow keys.)

Scattered throughout the maze are various kinds of doors: red, blue, and white. The red doors are normal, the blue ones are secret doors, and the white ones are bolted.  You can get through the red doors for free, but depending on your class the blue and white doors will drain your Life Points: Wizards and Elves can get through the blue (secret) doors for free, while Dwarves and Hobbits suffer no penalty for going through a white (bolted) door.  Warriors are drained by both blue and white doors, but they get a bonus 25 Life Points at the start of every dungeon level. (In my opinion, it's not enough.)  You don't always succeed at opening doors, and more than once I lost loads of Life Points trying to batter down a white door that was blocking my way forward.

Randomly creating the next level of the dungeon.

Beyond every door is a room where you will find some treasure and/or a monster, so you want to explore as many of those doors as possible.  On the other hand, you don't want to lose too much Constitution or Life before you reach the exit, or you'll be starting the next level at a major disadvantage, unless you've earned a lot of experience points along the way. Balancing your Life and Constitution against the experience you earn is probably the most important factor in surviving the game.

The rooms beyond the doors aren't shown on the map, but when you enter one you get a crude graphical depiction of what treasure lies within. This can include coins (gold pieces, naturally) as well as various kinds of magic items. If there's no monster in the room you can claim the treasure, but if there is a monster you'll have to fight it first. You can only loot the treasure from a room once, though; if you try to go through that door again the game will inform you that it's illegal, and erase any doors you've already been through from the map.

The game has treasures as follows:

  • Gold pieces, either loose or in a bag
  • Magical swords and daggers, which increase your chance to hit (and give you the ability to fight certain monsters)
  • Magical armour, which increases your Armor Class. You can keep finding magic armour, and it keeps raising your AC, which is welcome even though it makes no sense.
  • Magic rings, which increase your stats
  • Magic potions, which give you a Life or Constitution bonus
  • Maps, which give you the ability to get through any door of your choice for free. The class description for the Wizard mentions that they can always read maps, but I never found a map that I was unable to read with the other classes.
  • Keys, which allows you free access through the white doors.
  • Chests, which might be trapped. I think they only contain gold, but don't quote me on that.
  • Coffins, which might contain gold, magic gas that increase or decrease your stats, or skeletons that you have to fight.

This room contains a pile of gold and a magic ring fit only for thin, rectangular fingers.

Combat is extremely simple.  There are lots of different types of monsters, all drawn from D&D, but they don't have any special abilities.  Monsters have scores in Speed, Strength and Armor Class. These function in much the same way as they do for the player, although the monster's Strength also doubles as its hit points.  The combatant with the highest Speed goes first, and then you simply trade blows until one or the other dies. This can take a while at first, because your maximum damage is equal to the dungeon level you're on. When you're fighting a monster with a Strength of 20 and doing 1 point of damage with each hit, it can get a little tedious. Thankfully you can blast through it quickly by holding down Enter, but there's always the risk of a surprise death when you do that.

Pretty much your only option other than attacking is to run away, which you get the opportunity to do at the end of every round (or at the beginning of combat if your Speed is higher). When you flee the monster gets a chance to hit you in the back. You shouldn't need to run unless your Constitution is very low, the monster has loads of Strength, or it has a Speed of more than 1. High Speed monsters are the ones you really want to watch out for, because they get multiple attacks per round. A monster with a Speed of 3 gets three attacks to your one, so they're best avoided; some monsters have Speed as high as 5.  You might beat them, but sometimes it's better to leave the room than lose too much Constitution. If possible, your best bet might be to circle around and enter the door from the other side, because doing that will give you a different room altogether.

This room has a bag, two coffins, and a Dragon that I would probably run away from.

Oh, there's one more reason you might want to run away: some monsters can only be damaged by magic weapons. This isn't a problem for the Wizard, who gets to kill them with spells, but every other class is outta luck. Even the Elf (who is described as being both a Warrior and a Wizard) needs a magical weapon in these circumstances. The game gives you the option to fight, but it's a suicidal one.

Defeating monsters gives you half of their Strength score in experience. When you reach the entrance to the next level you also get a bonus equal to the level you just defeated, modified by whatever bonus or penalty you get for your stats and character class. You can then spend this experience to raise your stats, with 1 point buying 1 Constitution or 3 Life points.  Getting the balance right here can be difficult, but for the most part I found it better to prioritise Life over Constitution.  Unfortunately, all this balance went out the window once I figured out that the process could be cheated.  You can return to the level you just beat, and then pop back to the next level and get more bonus points. Keep going back and forth between levels and you can get your stats as high as you like. It's time-consuming, but that's what upping the cycles on emulators is for. (I did cheat a little bit using this method, but the character I finally beat the game with was 100% cheat-free.)

Spending experience between dungeon levels. This is pretty deep into the game.

There are dangers outside of the rooms as well, that pop up at random. You can't see them on the map, you just have to deal with the consequences of the encounter as it happens.

  • Wandering monsters: These don't appear on the first dungeon level, but after that there's a chance that a monster will attack you while you're exploring the tunnels. You can't flee from them either, so it's just pure luck as to whether you're strong enough to win. It would be terribly unfair if a monster that can only be affected by magic weapons popped up in this way, but I never encountered one.
  • Tremors: Occasionally a tremor hits, which causes some tunnels to be blocked and others to open up. Fairness isn't a consideration here: sometimes the path to the next level is completely blocked, sometimes the way back is blocked, and sometimes (rarely) both ways are blocked. If this happens, you're probably dead unless you can find a teleporter.
  • Teleportation: Some squares will teleport you to a random location on the same level. If you're low on Life Points, this can be a death sentence; more than once I lost a character by being teleported away just as I was about to reach the exit and restore my Life with experience points.
  • The Witch: There's a witch who pops up at random and zaps away some of your Constitution. Usually it's a small percentage, like 1/10, and not too troubling.
  • The Thief: This thief occasionally appears to steal your gold. This isn't a big deal, unless you're playing for points: gold has no effect on the game aside from measuring your success at the end.
  • Pits: Sometimes you will stumble in the dark into a pit, and climbing out will drain a certain percentage of your Life. I've had it drain as much as half, and when your on the deeper levels that can mean hundreds or thousands of points. Along with being teleported this is the deadliest random occurrence.
  • Magic Wand: The only good thing that happens at random is that you can find a magic wand you can use to obliterate any one enemy. Handy to have in emergencies, or when you find a Speed 5 monster with a Strength score in the triple digits.

Getting zapped by a Witch.

As I mentioned above, there's no goal to this game beyond amassing as many gold pieces as possible. You win by escaping the dungeon with your treasure, which can be done in two ways. The first is by retracing your steps all the way back to Level 1 and leaving via the exit.  The other is by finding a secret passage, which looks like a black square on the map. (Well, the instructions call it a secret passage and the game calls it a transportation chamber.)  Entering a secret passage takes you all the way back to the surface, but they appear at random so you can't always rely on having one around.

In general I found that the Wizard was the most effective class: they get a decent amount of Life Points, they don't need magic weapons, and they can get through blue doors for free. At the beginning the ability to get through the blue doors is about as useful as the ability to get through the white ones, but eventually you're going to find a key that opens all of the white ones anyway. The Warrior is the weakest class: they can only go through regular doors, and their 25 point Life bonus isn't enough to offset that limitation. If you pick the Warrior, you're playing on hard mode.

I lost a dozen or so characters before I figured out the balance of the game (and also how to cheat). The first character I "won" with got down to Level 10 before I found a secret passage and left the dungeon with around 13,000 gold pieces.  I was ready to declare the game beaten at that point, but I thought that just for fun I'd make a mad dash and see how deep I could get.  I had an expectation that the game might be infinite, but I hadn't taken into consideration the fact that it remembers the levels you've previously explored; there's a limit to the number of levels a PC of this era could remember. When I got to Level 20 I noticed that there was a secret passage right next to the exit.  I cleared out the level, and when I stepped on that secret passage I got the following victory message:

This was followed by a summary of my character's status, including how much gold I had amassed:

Having reached the bottom of the dungeon, there's really nothing left to do but try to do it again with more gold.  I'm not particularly into achieving high scores, so for me Super Dungeon is done and it's time to give it a Final Rating.


Story & Setting: I mean, let's be real, this game doesn't have a story, and it does nothing to flesh that non-story out with some setting flavour. The dungeon doesn't even have a name!  Random doors and walls do not an intriguing setting make.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: The variety in the monsters is pretty high: there might be as many as a few dozen.  They're all from D&D or mythology, which is a hackneyed thing to do but works when you don't have graphics. It's not original, but at least I have some idea what a Rust Monster looks like.  There are some deep cuts as well: I don't think I've ever encountered a Su-Monster before (in video games or tabletop, to be honest). There's not much done with that variety, though. None of them have special abilities, beyond the few that are only damaged by magical weapons. In many ways, the variety is in name only, because there are no tactical options in combat.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The graphics are functional, but not exactly easy on the eyes. The only sound comes from the internal speaker, with different variations of beeps and bloops that are occasionally amusing but otherwise don't do much for me. As for atmosphere, there ain't none.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: Exploration is rudimentary, while combat is a rote affair at best.  The strongest aspect of this game is the balance between Constitution, Life and experience, which can be tricky to master when you're starting out.  It's an adequate game that's a little too repetitive.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: This game was a challenge at the beginning, before I learned how to best conserve my Life and Constitution (and before I learned that you can earn free experience by going back and forth between levels like a cheating cheater). This took me a couple of hours.  After that, it became far too easy.  I had thousands of Life points, my Constitution became too high for any damage done by monsters to trouble me, and eventually I found enough suits of magic armour that monsters could barely hit me at all.  The only challenge that remained was from random factors such as pits, teleportation, and the dreaded game-ending tremor, but these aren't the good kind of challenge. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Innovation & Influence: Like most of the CRPGs of this vintage, this game is trying to recreate D&D. It's not really doing anything that previous games haven't done, but it's doing the same things in different ways. I'd say it's moderately innovative, mostly because it came out early enough in video game history that it's not drawing from anything that came before. As for influence, there aren't any significant CRPGs that take inspiration from it (only its sequel/remake Dragon Fire), and it doesn't appear to have made much of a historical mark.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Fun: This kept my interest for a couple of hours, and to be honest most of the fun I got from it was after I became super-powerful: there's something to be said for being able to stomp around the dungeon killing everything in your path.  Even so, that fun was mild at best, and it didn't hold my interest beyond those initial hours.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Bonus Points: I probably won't ever play Super Dungeon again, so it doesn't get any bonus points.

The above scores total 14, which doubled gives a Final Rating of 28.  That puts it 30th overall, and 14th out of 15 CRPGs.  It's only above Devil's Dungeon, which is perhaps unfair; it's better than a number of games above it, but that's a consequence of me rating a bunch of stuff way higher than it deserved in the blog's early days.  In the end, the exact ratings and positions are a little meaningless, as long as it's in the right ballpark.


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: Combat in this game really is a process of hitting attack repeatedly, until one side is dead. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Bonus Points: 0.

That gives Super Dungeon a RADNESS Index of 24. It's equal 28th overall, and 12th out of fifteen CRPGs.  It ended up a point behind Dungeon Campaign, which doesn't seem quite right, but I marked that game little too high in a couple of categories if I'm being honest.  They're in the same ballpark, though.

NEXT: The Priority List kicks in, as I get to the game that's a prologue of sorts to what is probably my all time favourite CRPG series: Akalabeth!


  1. I'm really glad that you're back on a regular basis! Also, the solution with the priority list seems like a good idea to keep yourself motivated. I'm still stuck somewhere between "Moria" and "Oubliette" but catching up slowly...

    1. You're about halfway, that's not too bad. And the games get really short once you hit the era of home computers.