Monday, June 11, 2012

Returning to Dungeon Master, Pt. 4: To Have and Behold

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.  You also might want to first read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three.

Now that I'm leaning back in my study chair while stroking my chin and making deep thought faces, I can see that my Dungeon Master playthrough attempt consisted of three distinct stages.

The first stage is more or less what I've documented so far: the somewhat inept early-game revisiting of the first few levels that carried the most nostalgic baggage from my youth. I was basically a tourist in an aspect of my childhood, an aspect that also happened to contain horrible monsters that wanted nothing more than to rip off my head. This was the section of the game that is Dungeon Master to me.  This is what I talk about when I talk bout Dungeon Master.

Nothing like a room full of teleportation fields to test one's
 policy of avoiding online walkthroughs.
Once Zed and his companions entered level five--another branching level--I entered phase two, which consisted of me somewhat easily knocking out several levels that I still had some familiarity with, due to the map studying I did as a kid and the playthrough to level six that I witnessed back in 1987.  The challenges on these levels weren't exactly well known to me, but they still contained roots that traced back to my youth, however tenuously.

"Oh look, the teleportation room!" I said, as I encountered the teleportation room.

"Oh wow, flying snake things!" I said, as flying snake things killed all four of my champions.

Phase two also featured some backtracking to the screamer room on level four for training and food restocking. Oddly enough, though, once I had easy access to food I no longer found myself needed it, as my party somehow stopped burning through the stuff like a Japanese kid in a hotdog-eating contest.  Not even the enticing prospect of more screamer slices or dungeon floor apples could rouse up the appetite of Zed and company.

Rethinking occupational hazards while fighting a
 flying snake in a room full of pits.
Level five didn't throw up any excessively difficult barriers and my party made reasonably quick work of it. I remembered the pit room from my youth, and I also remembered my buddy fighting flying snakes in the middle of the fucking thing, a memory I was able to revisit multiple times when accidentally triggering a monster spawn point repeatedly.

"Do you men ever feel like we're slogging through the same fight over and over?"  Zed asked.

"I'm not a man," Wu Tse said.  "My character pic clearly has breasts."

"Sorry," Zed said.

"And fighting poisonous flying snakes is my favorite thing."

They reached level six, which contained beholders and skeletons, both of which were enjoyable monsters to fight (especially as neither poisons the party, a welcome relief after the party-poisoning poison party that was level five). Level six also held some personal nostalgic weight, as it was the last level I personally saw any of as a kid, as my buddy's playthrough was abandoned when we suffered a total party wipeout on level six and were then called to come upstairs and wash up for dinner.

My friend went on to eventually beat the game on his own, whereas I went on to keep playing the first couple levels over and over.

Until now.

It's odd revisiting a game nestled a good 25 years deep in my past. A child's developing brain tends to blow things cartoonishly out of proportion, and then the passing of time distorts things even further.

Taking on beholders in the odd-shaped pillared room.  The beholder's
open eye means something bad is about to happen.
A few years ago I visited San Francisco for the first time since my youth and it was a constant stream of uncovering memories long dormant and then finding reality smaller and more normal in comparison (although not exactly in a bad way). Oddly enough, returning to Dungeon Master as an adult provided a similar experience--this massive challenge from my youth was incredible and playable, but at the end of the day it was just a game. In much the same way that Chinatown is an (awesome) thin sliver of streets as opposed to the vast empire I perceived it to be as a kid, the open, odd-shaped pillared room on level six that killed my buddy's party proved to be just an (awesome) open, odd-shaped pillared room, as opposed to the mystery-shrouded chamber of genocide that I pored over on those BBS maps.

Now the room was an (awesome) open, odd-shaped pillared room that Zed and friends used as beholder target practice.  16 bit high-fives all around!

I really love what the dead skeletons have done with the place.
Anyway, we beat level six and quickly tracked back to the level four screamer room for a training session, at which point I discovered that training at the level four screamer room was no longer a worthwhile endeavor. My party had outgrown any real benefits the room granted, and so we said one final farewell to our first safe camping spot.

"There were too many screamer slices on the floor to find a good place to sleep, anyway," said Zed.

Level seven was mostly closed off, due to being the motherfukkin TOMB OF THE FIRESTAFF. I winked it a saucy "see you later" and descended to level eight, i.e. "The Arena."

Or, at least, it was called "The Arena" on those maps I studied as a kid, although the nickname doesn't seem to have survived the passage of time. Level eight originally held a lot of fascination for me due to its vast, open nature, despite (or due to) the fact that I never actually saw any of it firsthand. When flipping through the level maps as a kid it immediately jumped out at me, a massive, cavernous odd-level-out in a dungeon that otherwise seemed to be all snaking hallways and chambers.

"How can anyone even play this?" I wondered as a kid. "You're open on all sides!"

Party at the Arena, everyone is invited!
Well, as it turned out I can play this, and being open on all sides isn't that big a deal. The Arena was another Chinatown, with the staggeringly huge stadium of stone from my youth replaced with just one damn big room. The ghosts that wandered the level were dispatched easily enough with Zed and Elija's two vorpal blades, and the one giggler we encountered didn't steal a damn thing before death (which meant that I didn't yet really understand what an annoying plague they would soon come to be).

It was also on level eight that I noticed that monsters appear to scale up a bit, as we encountered some mummies--remember those?--that could take a fully juiced fireball and still shamble on toward us.

"Oh look at you!" Zed said. "All grown up and tough!"

"Not that tough," the mummies replied as they died.

It was also on level eight that I began to realize just what a monster Dungeon Master actually is, as opposed to the monster I perceived it to be as a kid.  The more I saw of the dungeon, the more I was impressed with the sheer size of the gauntlet that was thrown down when this game came out in 1987.

Dungeon Master was surprisingly well-realized for a first game in a series.  Often times it takes a sequel or two for developers to really figure out how far they can take things (e.g. Baldur's Gate), but Dungeon Master knocked it out of the park from the start. If you look at the other games that were current in 1987, DM could easily have cranked out a five hour experience and coasted by on the graphics and quasi-3D engine alone, and yet they crafted a deep, challenging dungeon that got increasingly weirder and less linear with each deeper floor.

Damage from the left, giggler in the front.
Despite a childhood spent poring over maps and an adulthood that featured no small amount of reminiscing online over a game that has been in discussion for 25 years, my current playthrough attempt still surprised me from time to time with moments of discovery.  It's pretty rare to revisit a thing loved in childhood and have it stand up, it's even more rare to go back and discover that the damn thing was even better than ever suspected.

Back in the heart of the dungeon, Zed and company made short work of level eight and found the stairs down. More importantly, though, they found a certain special key.

"My god," Zed said.  "It's--it's shaped like a skull."

"Maybe it goes in the skull carving over there with the keyhole in it," volunteered Boris, our diminutive, hobbit-like wizard..

"Oh gross," Zed replied.

Little did we know that this unassuming skeleton key would launch me into the third and final phase of my Dungeon Master playthrough attempt while simultaneously forever changing the game.

Up next: when Chaos drops by.

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