Monday, February 4, 2013

Game 85: Dungeon (1979)

How far title screens have come in 10 years.

Over the past couple of months, we've taken a look at a couple of pre-Rogue roguelikes for the Apple II: Beneath Apple Manor and Dungeon Campaign, both from 1978. I was lucky enough that both developers commented on my postings for those games, and in both the gameplay and the comments, we get a picture of the earliest emergence of commercial RPGs. Both of these Apple II games were inspired by a very simple maze-crawler called Dragon Maze, but flavored with the programmers' own enthusiasm for Dungeons & Dragons.

Similar developers were at work on other platforms, and one of the earliest and crudest offerings is Dungeon (1979) for the Commodore PET. Released in 1977, the PET is the earliest Commodore model that can truly be called a "PC" (the previous KIM-1 was just a board). I never owned one; my first PC purchase was the TRS-80 in 1982, followed by the Commodore VIC-20 in 1984. (Yes, by then the C64 was already out. I was always chronically behind the times in my computer purchases. My only Mac-owning period was from 1992-1997, right in the middle of Apple's decline and before its big resurgence.)

The Commodore PET 2001. Note the tiny keyboard and built-in tape drive. Later models would have floppy disk drives.

According to MobyGames, the PET supported nine CRPGs before its demise, including three of the Dunjonquest entries (which would later be gathered into the Temple of Apshai trilogy), a variant of StarQuest: Rescue at Rigel (which I deemed a non-CRPG), a variant of Telengard, a variant of Wizard's Castle, and a game called Dragon's Eye that was also available on the Apple II and Atari 8-bit. There are, however, two CRPGs only available for the PET: Dungeon and Dungeon of Death, both released in 1979.

Dungeon was distributed via an electronic (tape-based) magazine called CURSOR, published by The Code Works, that ran from 1978 to 1982. Each "issue" came with a few electronic articles and a selection of programs. If the original distribution came with any kind of back story, it's been lost to time, but the subtitle of the game--"Search for Gold in the Ancient Ruins"--tells you just about all you need to know.

Dungeon is not terribly dissimilar to Bob Clardy's Dungeon Campaign, and like the Apple II games I played in December and January, it really is on the cusp of anything we can properly call a CRPG. When you begin the game, it takes 60 seconds to build a random maze and populates it with monsters and gold. The confines of the maze reveal themselves square-by-square as you travel through them (directional movement, which includes diagonals, are your only major inputs to the game). The player has only three attributes: hit points, experience, and gold.

This is an interesting homage. Was the developer aware of Zork, which had been around noncommercially since 1977 but which wouldn't be released commercially until 1980, or was he like the Zork team inspired by Jack Vance's Dying Earth series?

As you move through the dungeon, you encounter monsters annotated by their number of hit points (e.g., "a snake with 30 hit points"). If you move your PC (represented by a black dot) on top of the enemy, the game automatically makes random combat rolls and tells you the outcome, which might be the death of either party or a loss of hit points, or an offer from the enemy to depart for half your gold. If you defeat the enemy, you gain his hit points in "experience," and your own hit points increase. (The only other games I can think of in which you gain hit points for killing enemies are Akalabeth and Ultima I.)


Monsters I've encountered include grues, dragons, snakes, spiders, and nuibuses (no idea). They're not the only danger, though: you lose one hit point for every three movement steps, so you can't dally. The monsters seem to get progressively more difficult as the character increases in levels, so every victory means an increased chance you'll die next time.


Upon your death, the game reveals the entirety of the dungeon, which really isn't that big. The detached areas would seem to suggest there are secret doors or teleporters, but I haven't been able to find any in my explorations. In fact, a couple of times, I've gotten stuck in small areas (like the one at the top center of the screen shot below) with no way to progress.


I don't know if there's a way to win the game. I checked out a few YouTube videos of gameplay (examples here and here; I would have made one, but it would have been redundant), and none of the players "won." They just eventually died. The after-death maps don't seem to show any obvious exits (the "Gs" are gold symbols and everything else is a monster.) I'm going to assume the goal is just to survive as long as you can.

Dungeon is credited to Brian Sawyer, an employee of The Code Works. He appears on four other games published in the same way--via CURSOR tapes--including a skiing simulator, a firefighting simulator, and an action game called Joust. I tried to track him down but his name is very common and I didn't really get anywhere. MobyGames has 100 other games attributed to The Code Works, none of them CRPGs. I don't know if Dungeon left much of a legacy, but at least one site I reviewed sees some similarities between it and Sword of Fargoal (1982).

For me, this exercise was primarily valuable for learning the VICE emulator, which includes applications for the PET, the VIC-20, and the Commodore 64. I want to check out Dungeon of Death next because it's supposed to be a variant of either the PLATO dnd or Daniel Lawrence's DND. I have managed to find a manual, and it actually abbreviates the game "DND" (for--I'm not kidding--"Dungeon of Death"). Alas, I have not been able to find a download of the actual game. It doesn't seem to have any videos on YouTube or screenshots on MobyGames, both of which are signs that it was lost to the ages.

What interests me about the three pre-Rogue quasi-roguelikes I've tried recently (Beneath Apple Manor, Dungeon Campaign, and Dungeon) is that they're significantly less sophisticated than the PLATO games developed several years prior. As I noted in my reviews of The Dungeon/pedit5 and The Game of Dungeons/dnd, both from 1975, these are reasonably advanced games, with multiple attributes, character levels, inventories, and complex random encounters. Oubliette from 1977 had multiple characters. The first commercial games from 1978 and 1979 pale in comparison to what a bunch of kids were able to accomplish under the radar, in between classes, for their friends. This says a lot about both the technology of the times and what motivates people to develop truly excellent programs.

41 comments:

  1. I sincerily appreciate your continued coverage of the first era of crpgs.

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    1. I'm kicking myself for not starting out this way. I didn't know what the hell I was doing back in 2010.

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    2. Hindsight is 20/20, if not better.

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    3. In some cases it is as good as 20/5!

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  2. These early games are interesting, even if they are all very similar in execution. The evolution of the CRPG has mirrored the evolution of the table-top RPG in a lot of ways.

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  3. I also appreciate your exploration of these games. I just appreciate the simple graphics and lack of music. It allows for better use of imagination and my turntable has a better soundtrack. Modern games will never have the charm of these old things. I think you put your finger on it when you commented how these were done for fun by programmers rather than for profit.

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  4. I too appreciate detouring through the early ones, and non-PC platforms. The analysis in the final paragraph is quite valuable. I remember the simple, simple games on the earliest home computers, and the mainframe games indeed seem much more sophisticated, much more so than I'd associate with the era. So it's important to point that out.

    Btw, I've really enjoyed reading the blog post-Uukrul (which I still haven't finished, and haven't read the postings yet), just haven't had the time to comment. Hero's Quest and some of the less great games were especially fun to read about.

    --Eino

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    1. Glad you're still around. Hero's Quest wasn't my favorite game to play (although it wasn't far), but it was certainly one of my favorites to write about.

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  5. But weren't pedit5 etc. running on mainframes and written by students of programming, whereas other games were running on the weakest early PCs, for which very little software and programming culture was built up?

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    1. That's kind of what I was trying to hint at in my closing sentence, although I'm just guessing. I'd have to talk to some folks around at the time to get their perspectives. But yes, my sense is that you are correct.

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    2. I wonder how much more processing power the machine they wrote pedit5 for had over a commodore 64, actually.

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  6. Whenever I see a photo of a Commodore PET 2001, I can't help but think it wouldn't look out of place on a desk somewhere in the original series of Star Trek.

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    1. One of Commodore's biggest advertisements used the Man himself: William Shatner, who reportedly knew nothing of computers and had little interest in the PET.

      Apparently, the PET he was given does appear in an early eighties Star Trek movie, but I forget which one.

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    2. I don't know if Shatner did an ad for the PET, but I remember hearing about some 80s commercial he did for Commodore. A Youtube search reveals one for the VIC-20. Perhaps this is the ad your were thinking of.

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  7. One of my first inspirations for getting into computer gaming was PLATO. There were some excellent games on it circa 1976. They also had educational aspects - You navigated using polar coordinates in SPASIM and had to cope with acceleration and deceleration.

    While my first computer was a CP/M S-100 bus system I built, I also acquired a used 8K Commodore PET and subscribed to CURSOR. They managed to fit some pretty good games in that 8K of RAM. One I remember was RATRUN, a first-person perspective 3D maze in which you were a rat trying to find the piece of cheese. Yep, 3D FP PoV in 8K of memory! I had gone to school (UCSB) with the CURSOR editors - Glen Fisher and Ron Jeffries - but I didn't know they were involved until I started getting the tapes.

    Why didn't I get one of the first Apple ]['s? They used your TV set as the monitor, and I didn't own a TV. Besides, my brother had an IMSAI CP/M system, so we could share software. But I'd have gotten into games several years earlier if I had started with the Apple.

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    1. Corey, where did you encounter PLATO, and do you remember the games you were able to play on it?

      I was hoping to hear from a PET owner. Glad to hear SOME nostalgia for this platform. I guess my reaction to it is the same as when someone born in 1985 runs into an Apple II emulator, or someone born in 1990 is asked to use DOS.

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    2. For what it's worth, I was born in 1985, and I "learned to type"* on a IIe in elementary school.

      *I already knew how to type, so I just played pirate copies of Spy Hunter, Oregon Trail, and some Mario knock-off. I'm pretty sure they were originally confiscated from some other student.

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  8. Errrmmm, "both release28d in 1979."

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    1. Likely a consequence of having too many windows open and not realizing which one had the focus. Meanwhile, somewhere, is a document claiming that my father was born in 19.

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    2. Would that be A.D. or B.C.? ;-)

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  9. Apropos of nothing, of course (I is a Gadfly for a reason, I suppose) but I started out with a Vic-20. Rapidly upgraded to a C64 but after upgrading the Vic to a massive FOUR k of RAM :) Ah, good memories of the C64.

    Anyway, just to note, the urge to program dungeon games and dungeon crawlers still lives on in gaming. I was just playing a game called Deepfall Dungeon (http://www.deepfall.moonfruit.com/) and it's a cool mega-retro dungeon crawl. Take away the modern graphics and it would fit right in to the old 1981-era dungron crawlers.

    Ah, nostalgia and being murdered by horrible flesh-hungry beasts. Good times! Good times.

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    1. DungEon crawlers as well, I s'pose.

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  10. I found a rather bizarre reference to Brian Sawyer and this game with 2 addresses. Based on a quick internet search, it appears his relatives still live in Santa Barbara. You might be able to use this information to locate Brian if you were so inclined.

    http://jb.org/journal/2006-12/dungeon.prg.htm

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  11. Unrelated to the topic at hand, I am happy to say I finally caught up to your present postings! Work, vacations on sunny Mexican beaches, and then being sick as a dog had put me rather far behind.

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  12. I remember playing this game on the PET my Dad bought when I was 8 years old. I thought it was pretty awesome. But not as much fun as playing the original Adventure/Colossal Cave on the mainframe in his office.

    I have found memories of putting in the tapes, and fast forwarding/rewinding to the appropriate game and hearing the steady whir when I pressed play. Good times...

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  13. I love that you just gloss over "an action game called Joust", like no one would have heard of it. That game is classic. I played so much of that in the arcade.

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    1. I still play it regularly through emulation :)

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    2. Not Joust the arcade game where you ride awesome flying ostriches, Joust the commodore game written by Brian Sawyer.

      See http://s64.emuunlim.org/gameinfos/joust/joust.htm

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    3. I was going to comment on that. I used to play the DOS version against my brothers. You would share a keyboard, using a few keys on each side to control your bird.

      Now talking about it I have a craving to play it.

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    4. Ahh thanks Jason, that does not look nearly as fun as the Joust we were all thinking.

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    5. To make it more confusing, there WAS a C64 version of the one with the flying birds.

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  14. We used PETs when I was in high school. The first computer I programmed on in BASIC :) Ahh memories...

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  15. Thanks so much for posting this. This game really captured my imagination when I was a young elementary school student with access to a Commodore PET. The grues weren't much chop, but a snake - now that was cause for panic.

    I taught myself BASIC on those PETs. That was my first exposure to computer programming.

    One of my friends and I were so captivated by this game that we spent a few afternoons hand-copying the source code to looseleaf paper, so we could take it home and study it. (The elementary school had a few PETs, but no printers). Looking back, that memory really makes me smile.

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  16. This was one of my earliest gaming memories, and certainly my first CRPG. It, combined with Sword of Fargoal, would be the primary influences when I developed Caverns of Xaskazien decades later, and now Caverns of Xaskazien II. I've looked for details on Dungeon for years and find it funny and fitting that the first in depth information I should find on the game would be here on the CRPG Addict!

    BTW, in reference to your isolated room problem in Dungeon - I remember seeing an older kid playing and using what, even then, I considered a cheat. He was holding down SHIFT or maybe CTRL and moving about - it allowed him to move outside the walls of the dungeon to other areas. He claimed it was his character using a secret passage, but I assumed at the time it was a bug, because otherwise your character could, in essence, create a secret passage whenever he wanted.

    JS

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    1. Good lord. Every game, no matter how obscure, seems to have inspired someone! Thanks for coming by to share your recollections. I look forward to checking out Caverns of Xaskazien in a few years.

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  17. Ok, weird.

    I've been reading CRPG addict for a bit over a year. I started from the beginning and by reading one or two entries with my coffee in the morning I'm currently up to this.

    In the evenings lately I've been reading old Compute! magazines, which started life mainly oriented on the CBM PET. Just yesterday I saw an ad for CURSOR tape magazine. Today I read this entry. Freaky!

    Love the blog. Never underestimate how much easier it is to write software with a megabyte of RAM (Plato) vs 8k, or even 40k.

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  18. You can definitely go through walls by holding a special PET key. I couldn't find an equivalent key on my current windows machine, so I reprogrammed the game to allow passing through walls. In the regular game, the downside to passing through the dead space was that you would lose hit points as you go and I don't believe you can heal up (pressing 5). I had played this game back in 5th and 6th grade, and it is what got me into Computer Science. It's awesome! Just got done a few rounds.

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    1. It's always nice to hear from a fan of the most obscure games.

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