When studying the earliest CRPGs, it's fun to see the little quirks and imaginative variations that developers devised without any kind of standard template. It makes every CRPG from this era, if primitive, unique. With Space (1978), we had an unusual approach to character creation and text-based role playing. Beneath Apple Manor (1978) gave us randomly-generated, customized levels, a wide range of difficulty options, and a set of magic items that appeared only once (though randomly distributed) in the dungeon. Temple of Apshai had those wonderfully useful room descriptions that gave some of the feeling of a real RPG, Akalabeth combined top-down and first-person views, and Rogue presented all of the characteristics that we would come to love and hate about roguelikes. Some of these characteristics continued to other games, but most of them died quietly away in mainstream CRPGs.
|The main screen for Dungeon Campaign.|
The unique approaches taken in Dungeon Campaign (which, like Beneath Apple Manor, is another pre-Rogue roguelike-ish game for the Apple II) include the following:
- The game draws each of the four levels in front of you before you play. Astute players can try to sketch or memorize as much of the maze as possible before the game starts (I don't think screen captures were a possibility back then).
- Each level has one "boss-creature" that, if it acquires you, follows you around until it reaches the party and kills one or more characters.
- Instead of controlling a single character, you control a small army of characters, including one elf and one dwarf, who slowly deplete in number as you fight and fall victim to traps. You start with 15 soldiers, equivalent to having 15 "hit points" in another game. If the elf dies in combat, you no longer get warnings about various dangers in the dungeon; if the dwarf dies, the automap no longer updates.
|The beginning party status.|
- When you engage in combat with the enemy (accomplished by moving your colored block over the enemy's, which creates a crosshatch pattern of both block colors), you press the SPACE bar to start generating a random series of numbers between 1 and 10, then SPACE again to stop the roll. The result, multiplied against your "strength" (the number of soldiers) determines the result. The numbers go too fast to control the result.
|The snake thing on the left side of the screen is this level's "boss creature," a giant snake.|
- There are traps at various points in the dungeon that give you a fixed number of seconds to escape their radius.
|I've got two seconds to get two squares left and one square up.|
As you can see from the screen shots, the game uses low-res graphics with different colors to represent the party, enemies, the boss creature, stairways, and other features. There are a few bloops for sounds, plus a cute ascending tune when you go up a staircase and a descending scale when you go down. The commands are hard to get used to: instead of directional arrows, you use (L)eft, (R)ight, (U)p, and (D)own. Movement is generally turn-based, but both the unique "boss" creatures plus the traps occur in real-time, so if you just stand around, they'll damage the party.
Every level has a copious number of pit traps that dump you to the next level. I learned the hard way to (J)ump over these traps whenever I see a warning that "danger is near!" There are other encounters that end up teleporting you to other levels or other parts of the existing level before you're quite ready.
|Well, that wasn't nice.|
Other than movement and jumping, the only commands are (S)earch (which never does anything for me), see the party status (X), and (E)xit the dungeon, which only works in one place.
As you fight and win combats, your characters slowly deplete in number, but your "strength" increases in multiples by every combat you win. The starting party has 15 characters and a strength of 15; if after the first battle, there are 13 characters left, the party has a strength of 26. The ultimate goal of the game seems to be to amass as much treasure as possible and find the exit on Level 4 before everyone dies. There's no way to save the game in progress, so each "campaign" is not meant to take very long.
|The inevitable death screen.|
For whatever reason, I can't seem to find any treasure after battles, or anywhere else, so my parties aren't doing a great job at their core missions. I have managed to make it to the exit several times, so I'm going to consider that a "won."
The game is intriguing but, to be honest, it's not much of a CRPG. It technically meets the criteria of character development and statistics-based combat, but only barely in both cases.
Dungeon Campaign was developed by Robert Clardy and his company, the Seattle-based Synergistic (also known as Northwest Synergistic Software). This was the company's first game; it would go on to release another couple dozen before it was acquired by Sierra in 1997. Its RPG (or RPG-ish) offerings include War in Middle Earth (1988; here's my review), Vengeance of Excalibur (1991), Warriors of Legend (1993), Birthright: the Gorgon's Alliance (1996), and the Hellfire add-on to Diablo (1997).
MobyGames lists it as a 1978 game, but every other source, including the title screen and Clardy's own bio on MobyGames, puts it in 1979 [Later edit: Clardy himself cleared it up in the comments below; it's 1978]. I'm unsure about the release order when it comes to Dungeon Campaign and Wilderness Campaign. On the one playable version that I've found of either game (Virtual Apple), the games are bundled together with no umbrella heading, but Wilderness Campaign's release date is listed as 1980.
|A shot from the more advanced Wilderness Campaign, a year later.|
Wilderness Campaign features a similar style as its predecessor, but with a few more commands, more complex graphics, attributes (speed, strength, dexterity, and charisma), and an inventory of gold, food, and items. You explore a map full of castles, ruins, temples, tombs, and towns, with occasional earthquakes (you have to make a saving throw against dexterity) and crevices (you need a plank to cross) to keep things interesting. In every way, it's a more sophisticated game than Dungeon Campaign, which makes it a bit mysterious that it's hardly mentioned anywhere online (no Wikipedia or MobyGames entries), and I wouldn't have heard of it if I hadn't seen it as an option on the main screen of Dungeon Campaign. I was originally going to play it as part of this entry, but it's complex enough to deserve its own.
The same year that Wilderness Campaign came out, Synergistic repackaged and expanded both games as Odyssey: The Compleat Apventure (and no, neither of those latter two words are typos), a game for which MobyGames curiously has no entry, but Wikipedia has a long write-up. I look forward to giving this a try as well.
This is the third time I've interrupted my regular chronology with a one-shot review of an early non-DOS game, so I should explain what I'm doing. I've decided that my initial decision to stay fixed to the DOS/PC platform was wrong, and I'm correcting that mistake by going back and playing some of the most important games released for other platforms. If you think this means that I'll eventually hit your favorite non-DOS entry from the 1980s, don't get too excited: I don't think I'll be playing every one (in particular, I suspect I'll continue to eschew consoles). This will give me, and us, a more rounded sense of the history of CRPGs and prepare me better for my first book.