|"Sure, call it whatever you want. Just send us the check." -- TSR|
Advanced Dungeons and Dragons is a 1982 game for the Intellivision console, later renamed with the subtitle Cloudy Mountain to avoid confusion with 1983's Advanced Dungeons and Dragons: Treasure of Tarmin. It is a barely-passable action game, not under the most liberal of definitions an RPG, and having about as much to do with Dungeons & Dragons as Pac-Man. In a recent comment, Harland suggested that Mattel's policy was to cover its bases by "acquiring licenses from everyone no matter how tenuous the connection," but I suspect their motivation was less avoiding legal problems and more trying to fool D&D fans into thinking this game was in any way related.
Despite Cush1978's warnings about the game's lack of CRPG elements, I wanted to play it because it's really the first officially-licensed Dungeons & Dragons game for anything resembling a computer. Wikipedia's list of Dungeons & Dragons video games starts with dnd and Don Daglow's Dungeon, but these weren't licensed and if we're going to include them, we need to include pretty much every CRPG in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The next games, Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth Game and Dungeons & Dragons Computer Fantasy Game, both also by Mattel, are electronic toys. This and Treasure of Tarmin are the only other D&D titles that precede Pool of Radiance, and unless Tarmin turns out to be unusually good, it seems that Pool was the first game to remotely replicate the D&D experience on a computer or console.
The game takes place on a map in which you have to navigate between your house and the titular Cloudy Mountain, where your goal is to re-unite two pieces of the Crown of Kings. The trick is that only certain mountains in the ranges are navigable (randomized for each game). These initially appear as black, but as you approach them, they change color to gray, blue, red, or purple, indicating their relative difficulties. You must cleave a path through the right series of mountains to reach Cloudy Mountain.
|Hewing through the forest with an axe, on my way to Cloudy Mountain.|
Each navigable mountain, when "entered," turns into a moderate-sized labyrinth of caves. You explore, kill or avoid monsters, look for tools and arrows, and ultimately try to find the ladder leading out to the other side of the mountain. Then, you can proceed to the next one.
|Making it to the exit. I honestly don't know what that skull is there for. There's at least one in every dungeon.|
At some point, you'll probably have to navigate the river, forest, or gates (or all three), meaning you have to find a boat, an axe, or a key among the dungeon's treasures. I say "probably" because there is at least one potential path that avoids all of these obstacles but involves crossing more dungeons.
|Finding a key.|
The difficult gameplay all takes place in the caves. You have only one weapon--a bow--and you start the game with only three arrows. Since many enemies take two or three arrows to kill, finding more arrows is an immediate priority. If you run out of arrows, you have no options against the monsters, as most monsters cannot be outrun. You have three "lives" and each life has essentially three hit points, with the character proceeding from black to blue to red before dying.
|Coming upon a quiver of arrows. I think the fuzzy creature above it is supposed to be a spider. They steal arrows.|
The game is innovative in its use of sound. Most computer RPGs of the era either had no sound or were best played with the sound off. I can't think of any CRPGs from the 1980s in which sound was essential to the game. In this game, it is. You have to listen carefully for the sounds of movement or snoring to know if there are monsters in the corridors ahead. If so, you must either avoid the corridors or shoot arrows down them ahead of you. Arrows bounce off angled walls at 90 degrees, and mastering this banking is key to killing monsters before they're suddenly on top of you, at which point you'll almost certainly die. (Arrows bounce directly back at you when fired at flat surfaces, a mechanic responsible for more than one of my deaths.)
|A snake and a blob north of me. Snakes are fast and deadly. Blobs are slow but cannot be killed.|
Almost equally important is the need for sound to determine how many arrows you have left. The number never appears anywhere on the screen. Instead, when you press one of the commands, the game "bips" at you once for every arrow you have.
|About to get killed by a dragon while near a piece of the crown.|
If you make it to Cloudy Mountain, you must explore the dungeon until you find both halves of the crown. Each is guarded by a dragon that takes several hits to kill. If you manage to unite the crown, the game "rewards" you with an overland shot showing a crown sitting on top of Cloudy Mountain. The challenge is to then try again at the next-highest difficulty level.
If the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Cartridge was an RPG, it would be the first console RPG. Since it's not, that distinction seems to go to DragonStomper for the Atari 2600, which I'll play eventually. Anyway, the cartridge only took me three hours to win--one to figure out the Nostalgia Intellivison emulator, one to master the controls, and one to win (albeit on the easiest level)--so I figured I'd write about it anyway. [Later edit: I was wrong; I actually won it on the second-highest level. I was forgetting that the numeric keypad keys are reversed.] There is honestly not the slightest reason to play this game today, especially if you first played it when you were four years old and remember it as the greatest game ever. Like trying to watch Knight Rider or Three's Company today, it will spoil your memories.
I never had an Intellivision as a kid and thus have no rose-colored memories about it. I was reading about the controller...
...and I have to say that I find it a bit baffling. My understanding is that you controlled the dial with the thumb of one hand while operating the keypad with the other. The dial is innovative, I grant, and a precursor to the left navigation sticks of modern controllers, but why on earth would they orient the keypad so that it was above the dial instead of to its right? I can't imagine playing with your hands on top of each other is very comfortable or intuitive. The emulator uses the arrow keys to maneuver, rendering 16 potential directions into just 4, but the keypad maps well to the numeric keypad, if upside-down.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is credited to Tom Loughry, who developed several games for Mattel before moving to Accolade in the late 1980s. Other than the sequel to this game, Treasures of Tarmin, we won't see him again, as he seems to have specialized in racing and sports games.
On my GIMLET scale, the Cartridge ties with Braminar as the lowest-rated game ever, at 9. It was hurt by 0s in the key "Character Creation and Development," "NPCs," "Equipment," and "Economy" categories. But at least it served to produce a blog entry during a few days when I didn't have time to play Champions of Krynn.
A lot of people see similarities between this game and the old Adventure cartridge for the Atari 2600, particularly since this game was called Adventure before getting the AD&D license. I think the similarities are there, but slight. It's more interesting to compare it to the computer RPGs that came out in 1981 and 1982. By this year, we already had Wizardry and Wizardry II, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Ultima I and Ultima II, and Telengard (the latter of which most resembles this game graphically). Any one of them better exemplifies the AD&D spirit, offering a greater depth of gameplay, than the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Cartridge. We can debate when console RPGs finally caught up with computer RPGs, or if they ever did, but it's clear that in these early days, they had a long, long way to go.