Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Returning to Dungeon Master, Pt. 5: Stairway to Hell

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, Part Three, and Part Four.

Look, I'm not even going to try to dress this one up: there is something incredibly cool going on at the center of the lower levels of Dungeon Master, and I am about to spoil it utterly.

That's right, if you've also got unfinished business with this game and you're eyeing up a potential run, you might want to avoid this next bit entirely.

All clear?  Good.

Because that skeleton key Zed found unlocked a secret staircase that plunged right down through the remaining six levels of the dungeon.  Like a stone drainage tube cutting through the meat and heading straight for the bottom.  Along the way was a landing for each descending level, landings that were blocked off but could eventually be unlocked and connected to their respective level as a whole.

See, I kinda sorta knew there was some sort of connecting staircase that minimized backtracking in the lower levels of the dungeon, but for some reason the reality of this skeleton stairway caught me completely surprised.  I expected a useful series of stairs, yeah, but what I didn't expect was the feeling of finding a hidden maintenance door and stumbling into a behind-the-scenes stretch of dungeon.  It felt like I had gained privileged employee access behind the walls and discovered a stairway intended for shift breaks and emergency fire drills.

Question: how cool is this keyhole for the skeleton staircase?
Answer: 80's  hair metal cool.
Add to this the fact that this stairway was always unlocked by sticking a key in a badass grinning skull, and you've got one seriously cool feature blowing my jaded gaming brain a good 25 years after it was implemented.

This skeleton staircase also changed the way the game was played, as the dungeon suddenly went from a fairly linear progression of levels--descend to a new level, find the stairs down to the next one, rinse and repeat--to a series of individual levels that could be opened and revisited.  Dungeon Master was reaching new heights of openness with the discovery of this skeleton staircase, a discovery tellingly made on Dungeon Master's most literally open level.

And as I mentioned before, the skeleton staircase managed to surprise me, which ushered in the third phase of my Dungeon Master playthrough: I was officially off the map of what I had ever known and instead fully immersed in the unfamiliar. I had heard of pain rats and the knight dudes, yeah, and I was aware of the general structure of the last two levels, but I hadn't witnessed any of it firsthand. What had started as a nostalgic romp through the game of my youth had transitioned into a late-game experience that was new and unexpected.  Dungeon Master was turning out to simply be an amazing and fun game, even when detached from childhood baggage.

Home sweet home.
There was one final benefit of the skeleton staircase and it was this: the hidden and locked off series of landings provided a new safe camp spot for my party of wandering nomads left homeless by the abandonment of the screamer room.  We had a new base and it was at a nexus that spanned all of the remaining levels.

Once Zed and company finished unpacking their moving boxes and decorating the walls of their new home--"I've been carrying around that mounted beholder head since "I Hate Cowards," whined Zed--they took in a solid night of sleep, enjoyed a big breakfast, and punched in their time cards at the start of level nine.

Which, for the most part, was uneventful but enjoyable.  There were nasty Orko-looking motherfuckers who launched various spells at Zed and company, spells which mostly functioned as justification for the slaughter of Orko-looking motherfuckers that inevitably followed.  I think there were some rust monsters in there too, but they seemed like a rough idea that the developers never got around to deleting from subsequent drafts.

I forced my party into a small amount of food farming and training with the pain rat in their generating den, only to discover that pain rats are far too aptly named to ever be used for something as mundane as training. Zed and friends emerged battered, bloody, and in strong need of a drink.

Pain rats want to kill you more than you want to kill them.
They also escaped from this skirmish with multiple KFC buckets of drumsticks, which they hauled back to their new camp spot to drop next to three chests full of food, all of which is undoubtedly still rotting on that staircase landing next to discarded flasks, ninja stars, magic boxes, special swords, various necklaces, extra rings, and additional capes.

It was like the world's nerdiest episode of Hoarders.

On we trudged, each level increasingly blending together into one big blur.  Level ten wasn't too difficult, despite Zed repeatedly wandering over a monster trigger that resulted in a veritable army of giant scorpions. The return of beholders was like a reunion with old friends, albeit one in which you kill said friends and raid their corpses.

Level eleven's clockwise/turn back circular hallways stumped even our diminutive wizard Boris--"not so short now, are you?" taunted Zed, which Boris pointed out didn't even make sense--but we eventually passed it due to a level of just-fucking-around that I'm not entirely comfortable with when puzzle solving.  It was also good to see Trolins return, especially as it gave me an opportunity to toss the back row up to the front to gain some fighting experience.

At least I think the Trolins were on level eleven.

"As we get older the years just keep passing faster and faster," said Zed.

Giant scorpions, one of the more visually impressive monsters in the game.
I actually had a decent strategy with my party at this point, a solid mix of ranged spellcasting by all four members and toe-to-toe combat with my (sometimes rotated) front row. Each party member would brew their own healing and buffing potions, which meant that for the most part everyone was gaining experience in everything (except for the now-languishing Ninja skill, which seemed like more trouble than it was worth).

One side effect of this even distribution of action was a certain strong willed independent-mindedness of the skills that leveled up, the results of which were often surprising. Wu Tse, our party's ninja, wound up surpassing our designated wizard Boris in the art of magic, and good old Elija Lion of Yaitopya, the game's tribute to Rastafarianism, managed to somehow overcome his pacifism and intended priest role to first achieve the level of << Master Fighter.

Elija shook his head and sighed, white dreaded beard partially covering his full suit of Darc armor, as he carved a bloody path of destruction with Hardcleave and wondered where, exactly, he had gone wrong.

"I'll catch up soon," Zed said.  "I had a sprained finger that set me back a bit."

Level twelve was a bit more of a challenge, with the magic-impervious knights and the Oitu-generating room that warned that cowards would be "hunted down and killed." Believe me, I had to reload that one a few times to prove those words wrong. Zed and company eventually found the final necessary RA key to unlock the Firestaff from level seven, but opted to clear out the remainder of level twelve before heading back.

For the most part all of this was a blur, but at the end of level twelve my party did have one experience worth mentioning, and that one experience is this:

Elija, reluctant Rastafarian warrior.
Zed and his companions fell through a pit in the floor; a normal enough event in the game of Dungeon Master, and in true normal event fashion we decided to explore the area in which we had landed.

They killed one of those black fire things and found some stairs up, presumably back to the tail end of level twelve. Deciding to explore on, we turned a corner, walked down a hallway, and entered a room large enough to extend into darkness. The entrance was lined with more black fire guys, and Zed and Boris were debating just what to do about them when Wu Tse spotted two giant demon things with arm tentacles lurking in the distance.

Opting for the relative safety of the hallway, we backed out of the room and waited for the demons to approach to attempt fighting them on our terms. We saw a black shape framed against the darkness of the room--"Funny, that doesn't look like a demon," remarked Zed--and then blood drained from my face and fingers when out of the darkness and flanked by black fire stepped the unmistakable form of Lord Chaos, endgame boss and master of the entire dungeon.

"Holy shit, mon!" shouted Elija.

"Well would you look at that," marveled Zed.

I, for my part, released a startled shout of terror that frankly doesn't happen very often when playing video games.  We frantically backed out and ran up the stairs, leaving behind a trail of "OH SHIT"s in our wake.

"Everything okay up there?" my fiancée asked from downstairs.

"Uh, more or less," I replied.

Zed and company returned to our camp spot on the skeleton staircase landings and caught their breath, knowing more than ever that the end was near for our trip through this massive, sprawling dungeon.

It was time to head back up to the Tomb of the Firestaff and free the one and only weapon that could take this fucker on.

Up next:  golems and dragons and prayers, oh my!

No comments: