Tunnels of Doom
Texas Instruments (developer and publisher)Released 1982 for TI-99 series computers
Kevin Kenney (author)
Kevin Kenney (author)
Date Started: 9 March 2014
Date Ended: 9 March 2014
Date Ended: 9 March 2014
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 21
Ranking at Time of Posting: 37/142 (26%)
Final Rating: 21
Ranking at Time of Posting: 37/142 (26%)
Tunnels of Doom is the subject of many fond remembrances by people who were 10 in 1982 and had a TI-99. I can see why. It offers innovative elements, good use of sound, and fun encounters, and its party-based combat screen might be the most tactical combat system we'd seen (in 1982) outside of Wizardry. It certainly deserved a look.
I don't know that I'd recommend it for a 2014 player. It involves learning an emulator that isn't necessary for many other games (the only other RPGs I can find for a TI-99 are Legends and Legends II), mastering a keyboard layout that makes no sense except on a native keyboard, and getting an RPG experience that isn't exactly going to draw your attention away from Dark Souls. Fortunately, that's what I'm here for.
|The TI-99/4A keyboard. There were no separate arrow keys, so the game uses the ESDX cluster for movement and the FCTN combinations for "proceed" and "back."|
Tunnels of Doom was one of dozens of programs (but the only RPG) written internally at Texas Instruments as a way to promote the computer. Technically, Tunnels of Doom is the name for the overall game engine, and the idea was there would be multiple scenarios playable under that engine. The game shipped with two of them: Pennies and Prizes and Quest of the King. The former was a children's game that featured collecting treasure but no enemies. The latter is what people remember as the core game. In it, you lead a party of up to four characters in a quest to find both a kidnapped king and his magic Orb of Power. You have a limited number of turns to accomplish these tasks.
The player has a lot of control over the game's difficulty. You get to determine how many floors the game has (from up to 10), the overall game difficultly (easy, medium, hard), and how many characters to include in the party. A multi-character party can include fighters, thieves, and wizards, or you can adventure with a solo "hero" who has the abilities of all classes. Fighters can use any weapons and armor, thieves have a trap-avoidance ability, and wizards can use scrolls. You have to repeatedly reference your characters' names in-game when assigning items and taking actions, so it's best not to name them things like "Mxyzptlk."
The top level of the dungeon has a general store where you initially equip your characters from a pool of gold. Theoretically, you can return to it later to buy better equipment, but it's usually best not to waste the time.
|Buying stuff at the beginning of the game.|
Once you set the parameters, the dungeon levels are randomly-generated and seeded. They consist of a bunch of twisty corridors, which you explore in first-person view . . .
. . . ending in rooms that you explore in third-person view. In this, they are similar to what we'll later see in Ultima IV and V. The game gets a lot of praise for using color in an era in which the typical dungeon crawler used wireframe graphics, but to me the color doesn't really add to any substance. I rather prefer the bare-bones wireframes, and the bleak sense they convey, to traveling through pastel-colored dungeons.
|This room contained one of the objects of my quest.|
Rooms might contain any of the following:
- Enemies to fight
- Miscellaneous treasures
- Treasure chests, which might contain armor, weapons, gold, scrolls, or maps of the level
- Vaults to open
- Secret doors leading to unmapped parts of the level
- Fountains, which randomly increase or decrease attributes
- "Living statues," which take money to identify unidentified magic items
|Donating money to a living statue to identify that "unknown scroll."|
In combat, this is one of the few games of the era in which you didn't just hit (F)ight and hope for the best. Each character gets a movement action and an attack action each round. There are some tactics associated with maneuvering party members into melee range or staying in missile range, swapping magic items between characters, and conserving magic scrolls for when you really need them. It isn't anything earth-shattering, but it does anticipate the more complex iconographic combat systems we'd see in SSI games, including Wizard's Crown, Shard of Spring, and ultimately the Gold Box series.
|Fighting two "evil manes."|
Characters level quite slowly as they accumulate experience, gaining 5 hit points for every new level, but rarely exceeding in character levels the number of levels in the dungeon. Characters don't "die" in the game. If their wounds exceed their hit points, they'll become "disabled." At that point, they can be healed by fountains or by purchasing healing at the general store, or slowly by eating rations. The dynamic makes it more likely that you'll lose the game because the quest times out than because of full-party death.
|The "character status" window.|
The number of turns you have available to complete the quest is dependent on the number of dungeon levels and the difficulty. Each turn comprises 10 steps (including checking secret doors and listening at doors), so you don't want to waste time.
|The game is one of the first to feature an automap. I found a level map in one of the rooms, so the part that I've yet to explore is in blue.|
There are two gameplay elements in Tunnels of Doom that I've seen in no other games in my chronology. The first is the ability to "listen at doors" before you enter rooms. If there's a monster in the room, the action will produce the sound normally made by that monster in combat. Since it's hard to record notes about a sound, my scratchpad is filled with entries like:
- "Boop-dit-dit-dit-dit" = Lizard
- High-pitched "do-do-do" = Rat
While theoretically this is a fun dynamic, there's really no way to "prepare" for a specific combat, and you really have to search all the rooms for your quest objects, so listening has limited utility.
The second element is a fun mechanism by which you open vaults, where you usually find your quest objects. The game tells you that the combination to the vault consists of, for instance, "three digits between 1 and 4," and you have to try various combinations (212, 321, etc.). After each try, the game tells you whether you're high or low, and how many of the digits you got correctly. Through a process of deduction, you figure out the right combination. Every false try has a chance of damaging the character (though rogues usually, or always, evade this). It's a fun little mini-game.
|A successful lockpicking. I got lucky with a couple of my guesses.|
The gameplay is thus a non-boring process of methodically exploring the dungeon corridors, looking for the two quest items, treasures, and stairs to take you between levels. You need to keep checking your "party status" to see how much time you have left and hope for the best.
|My quest status. I have 200 movements left to find the king.|
I won twice, once with a hero in an "easy" dungeon of one level, and once with a party of three in a "medium" dungeon of 3 levels. It isn't all that hard, though of course it would be a lot harder on a "hard" dungeon of 10 levels. If anyone expected me to do that, I'm sorry to let you down. It's not a bad game, but I feel like I uncovered its mysteries on the four hours I spent on it.
|The victory screen takes place back at the dungeon entrance. Notice the down stairs and the little store.|
I get why TI-99 owners from the early 1980s felt this was a gem, but today it's interesting solely as a curio. It only scores a 18 on my GIMLET, hurt by a lack of any story and NPCs (0 on both) and unimaginative enemies (1). It does best in the "equipment" (3) and overall "gameplay" (4) categories, the latter for its quick pace, user-defined level of difficulty, and lots of replayability. It gets a 2 everywhere else. [Edit: in consideration of features I didn't experience, I increased the "encounters and foes" and "economy" ratings to 3, increasing the overall score to 21 overall.]
A fan named Ed Burns created a tribute page several years ago, in which he includes an interview with author Kevin Kenney. Kenney indicates that he was the primary author on two other TI games, Hunt the Wumpus and A-Maze-ing (the latter two both adapted from other sources). Shortly after Tunnels of Doom, he was laid off as part of a large downsizing, although he worked under contract to create another Tunnels module that was never released. He says he drew from tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, Akalabeth, and Wizardry in his design for the game. Finally, he notes that the extremely thorough documentation was a point of pride for TI at the time.
I do wonder whether the game had any influence on either Origin or SSI. The approach to corridors and rooms is very similar to what we see in Ultima IV and V (and, to a lesser extent, III), and the combat system is similar to what we see in Ultima III, Wizard's Crown, and Shard of Spring. On the other hand, these developments could be seen as natural evolutions of the developers' own titles, and it's not like the Tunnels features are so unique that no one could have developed them independently.
In 1985 or 1986, a Chicago police officer named John Behnke created a Tunnels of Doom Editor that allowed users to create their own adventures using the Tunnels engine. According to Matt Barton's Dungeons & Desktops (extract available here), it is this editor, and the modules created with it--such as one set in a K-Mart and one set on the Enterprise--that "most people remember" about the game, but I wasn't able to find many such remembrances online. I don't know how widely these fan modules were disseminated.
If you want to check it out yourself, you can get the Classic99 emulator here; it comes with Tunnels of Doom, so you don't have to hunt down the ROMs. I'm assured it's all legal somehow. The emulator doesn't support save states, so no cheating. Or you can check out Howard Kistler's "reboot" of the game for Windows.