Monday, June 4, 2012

Returning to Dungeon Master, Pt. 1: Unfinished Business

Look: you were either there when the shit went down with Lord Chaos and the Firestaff or you weren't.

Sure, anyone can go back and see what they missed, but unless you were going toe-to-toe with mummies and trolins back when dungeon maps were downloadable only via GEnie, you really can't understand the full impact of the game.

Muscle-y dude in a loincloth?  Check.
Frustratingly generic game title?  Check.
The game, of course, was Dungeon Master, which was released by FTL Games for the Atari ST in 1987.  It wasn't important because of its cool magic system, although its magic system was cool.  It wasn't important because of its skill-based experience model, even though that would later be adopted and expanded upon in the Elder Scrolls games.  And even though over half of the people who owned Atari STs purchased the game--an impressive market penetration by any standard--even that isn't why the game was important.

No, Dungeon Master was important because it was the first realtime 3D action roleplaying video game, providing previously unknown levels of "you-are-fucking-there" gaming immersion.  Instead of a reduced game world with thick boxes demarcating rooms and icons representing threats and treasures, Dungeon Master provided long atmospheric chambers that disappeared off into darkness populated by monsters that could creep up from behind and scare the shit out of you.  Food and water were necessary for survival, and the dungeon itself was enshrouded in ominous darkness unless you provided a light source.

Dungeon Master was a groundbreaking experience of unparalleled virtual dungeon crawling.

And as a kid it was that game for me.  All gamers have them: those games that loom large in our past, those heavy hitters from our childhoods that somehow put on weight and grow muscle in our memories. Games that take root and spread out and become more than just games.  No game embodies this for me more than Dungeon Master.

I remember watching the teaser "demo" when I was 11, a non-interactive video that was almost nothing but scrolling text followed by the merest glimpse of a working navigation prototype; no monsters, no traps, no interactivity.  Yeah, that was what we were dealing with back in 1986, and that was all it took for me to plunk down thirty-plus dollars of my allowance money when the game finally came out a year later, my first video game purchase ever.

This is what terror looked like to a boy not yet a man.
I'd love to say that I played the shit out of Dungeon Master, but I really didn't. I never made much progress despite spending a fair amount of time with the game, so what the hell was I doing?  Starting and restarting, I seem to remember, and yet somehow never getting comfortable enough to make progress beyond the top few levels.  Gameplay is now pretty linear for me--face a challenge and conquer it, move on to the next challenge--but back then I just wasn't very good at breaking down and playing video games.  I did spend an afternoon watching a buddy play through the sixth level, but I personally never managed to pass the halfway point of the "Choose Your Door Choose Your Fate" branching level three.

In other words, the BIG GAME of my childhood is also one giant fucking manifestation of unfinished business. I thought playing the recently-released (and excellent) Dungeon Master homage The Legend of Grimrock would set my gaming soul free, but it only reinforced the fact that there's really no excuse to not put on my man pants and wrap up what I started a good 25 years ago. That's right, it was time to stop being a failure and play some goddamn Dungeon Master. Would my ability to actually play a video game properly now render the dungeon a sweat-free breeze, or would I someone wind up starving to death in a forlorn corner of level four as a nearby purple worm brainstormed new uses for my corpse?

The sight of this still does something to me.
This would turn out to be an eerily prescient concern.

For now, though, my first decision regarded what port to play. The most modern and user-friendly was Return to Chaos, which is a rough port in that it is a close approximation of Dungeon Master using its graphics. I wanted the true experience from my childhood, though, so the clear choice was Chaos Strikes Back for Windows, which is an exact translation of the Atari ST version of the game.

After a five second download followed by a torturous hour of untangling a config file while sobbing, I was off and running with a Dungeon Master that played remarkably well.

I took a moment to savor the dungeon entrance launch screen of the game, all 256000 pixels of which are seared deep within a formative alley in my brain.  I clicked enter, and the gates opened with the grainy CRINKCRINKCRINK that marked the cutting edge of sound circa 1987.

At twelve I lacked the worldliness to fully appreciate Zed's mustache.
Then followed one brief loading period shrunk to nothing by the progress of technology and I was within the Hall of Champions.

Drunk off rampant nostalgia, I decided to throw caution to the wind and select the exact same party I used as a kid. This decision would come back to haunt me, but it made a certain amount of sense at the time. As such, I resurrected (as my first mistake) the following four (as my second mistake):

  • Zed Duke of Banville as my fighter/jack of all trades
  • Wu Tse Son Of Heaven as my ninja
  • Elija Lion Of Yaitopya as my priest
  • Boris Wizard of Baldor as my wizard

With the four familiar faces gathered around me, I collected the few available items on the very first small, harmless level and then descended down that first set of stairs into the darkness of level two.

First glimpse into danger.
Postscript 1:  How to properly count the Dungeon Master levels is a matter of some debate as the first level is small and contains no threats, and is therefore sometimes considered Level 0. To hell with that, it's a level and the maps I downloaded as a kid called it Level 1, so Level 1 it is.

Postscript 2: This is a series about my recent attempt to play the classic CRPG Dungeon Master, and it will contain minor spoilers regarding this game.  I can't imagine they won't be common knowledge to anyone who cares--the game is 25 years old, after all--but consider yourself forewarned.

Up next: just what exactly is going on in this dungeon, anyway, and how does it hold up after 25 years?


Erik Hansen said...

I was so jealous that you could play this game on your computer. I was stuck with Treasure of Tarmin on Intellivision.

Bill S said...

Maybe so, but I have many a fond memory of playing Super Mario Bros. and Legend of Kage on your NES.

Michael Boggs said...

Man, that reminds me of the MANY hours I spent playing NES games on my cousin's system. I didn't have an NES, but being a few years older than my cousin, he LOVED watching me play. Which meant I beat many a game, like Metroid, and Legend of Zelda 1. (And the horrible side scrolling Zelda II: The Adventure of Link).