|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 game 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.