Thursday, December 31, 2015

Game 207: Dungeons of Death (1983)

Dungeons of Death
Independently developed; published by Aardvark Software
Released 1983 for Commodore VIC-20 and TRS-80; re-released in 1984 for Commodore 64 as Dungeons of Magdarr
Date Started: 27 December 2015
Date Ended:
27 December 2015
Total Hours: 4
Reload Count: 0
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 9
Ranking at Time of Posting: 3/204 (1%)

We've hit a milestone, folks. Dungeons of Death is officially the worst RPG--perhaps even the worst game--that I've ever played. It has the elements necessary to to be considered an RPG for the purposes of my blog and literally not a single frill or original idea on top of that. There would have been no reason to play it even if it was the only game available for your platform. It's so bad that I feel like I need to apologize for even blogging about it.

What passes for dungeon exploration.
That I was able to play this game at all, I owe to ("have to blame" might be the better term) Antonello Molella over that the Archeogaming blog and his associate, a coder going by the name "Flavioweb." Antonello not only managed to get someone to rip him a copy of this rare game, but with Flavioweb's help, he fixed a corruption that otherwise rendered the game completely unplayable, instead making it only marginally unplayable.

The game's "back story." I love that it asks if you want to enter the dungeon, as if there was any other reason to start the game. (If you say no, it dumps you to the prompt.)
In broad strokes, the game sounds like another boring Dungeons and Dragons knock-off that we've seen a million times in the early 1980s. For vague reasons having to do with fortune and glory, a party of up to 6 adventurers enters a multi-leveled dungeon and fights goblins and stuff. Races are human, dwarf, elf, and halfling; classes are fighter, ranger, cleric, wizard, and thief; attributes are strength, intelligence, dexterity, constitution, and charisma. We don't even need to look at the manual for this part, although the game has a single innovation in that the character has to be invited to play as a ranger if the attributes are good enough; you otherwise can't select the class during character creation.
During character creation, stats are rolled on a scale of 9 to 18. You specify race, sex, class, and name. You get a random amount of gold and use it to buy a small selection of weapons and armor with the usual class restrictions. You enter the dungeon and fight the bad guys. Periodically, you escape back to the Inn of the Red Dragon, level up, and spend your accumulated gold on new equipment.
So far, it sounds trite and derivative, but not actively bad. So how does the game manage to screw up this basic concept? Let me enumerate the ways:

1. The worst production values in the history of RPG-dom--specifically, 20 pages of this in the game manual:
The all caps is a special bonus. There's no attempt at a background or framing story except that your characters have heard there are riches in the unnamed dungeon.
2. No validation rules on prompts. When the game asks you what your race and class are, you'd better spell "HALFLING" and "WIZARD" correctly, because the game will happily allow you to create a HAFLING WIRZAD. The resulting character seems to have no class restrictions, so I don't know exactly what the game thinks he is.

3. The worst interface ever. You navigate the dungeon through a series of "yes" or "no" questions rather than being able to actually, you know, move. Do you want to progress down the hallway? Do you want to enter the room? Do you want to search the room? Do you want to leave the room? By the same door you came in? Answering "no" about progressing down a hallway makes the game assume that you want to leave the dungeon. You can't cast spells, use items, or even view characters or their inventories while exploring.
Let it hit you in the ass on the way out?
3. The lamest combat ever. When you encounter enemies, the game gives you no indication of how many you face, only how many you've already killed. You have to specify what weapon your character wants to use every round, even if you only have one. You have to hit unnecessary keys to activate combat and see the results. The wizard has only one spell at a time--"Magic Missile" on early levels, "Fireball"  and "Death" on higher ones. Only at the end of combat can your cleric cast healing spells on your characters, but the game doesn't show you their current health levels, so you had to be paying attention during combat.
4. Horrible error-trapping. Practically every errant keypress sends you to the prompt.

5. A bunch of inventory items that do nothing. You can buy cloaks, boots, lanterns, oil, rations, and several other bits of adventuring gear that have no purpose in the game, nor even any set of commands that would allow you to view, equip, or use them.

None of these items have any purpose whatsoever.
But the worst part I've saved for last: the game has no save ability, so you have to keep track of your character's statistics, experience, and equipment yourself, manually, on a paper character sheet. The game's character program continually generates a 16-character code that stores your character's current statistics and inventory. You have to enter it every time you enter the dungeon and every time you return to the inn.

After character creation, you're given three screens of statistics to manually write on the character's chart (helpfully included).
You see, I play computer RPGs so I don't have to do all this myself.
As you leave the dungeon, the game tells you what experience, gold, and items you collected. When it transitions back to the town program, you have to recite all this data back to the game. 

As I leave the dungeon, the game tells me how I did...

...and I faithfully pass on this information to the town program. I have to remember how much gold I had when I entered the dungeon, since the game doesn't bother to track that at all.
When you return to the dungeon, you have to go through this all again.
Not only does this take too long to be fun, but of course, you can tell the game whatever you want. I earned 10,000 experience points! I found a million gold! Do I have a Ring of Protection +5? Sure I do! Did someone die in the dungeon? Sure looks alive to me! The process of selling and buying items is particularly ridiculous, because the game just takes your word about what items you already possess and how much gold you have.
Sure he does!

(By the way, if anyone's interested, I used Wizards of the Coast's official D&D character name generator to create the names for my party. It produced, without a doubt, the worst character names I've ever seen: Belendithas the Dwarf Fighter--I had to shorten it to 8 characters; Cruril the Elf Mage; Jannys the Halfling Thief; and Stoaga the Human Cleric.)
Fortunately, the game seems to lack a main quest--I'm going to ignore some throw-away in the manual about diamonds--so having experienced its tedium for a couple of hours, I'm going to call it quits.

The game can't even let me search my defeated foes without being creepy about it.
I give this one a 9 on the GIMLET. It isn't technically the worst score I've ever awarded, but it's the worst awarded to a game that I couldn't have rejected for not meeting my definition of an RPG in the first place.

At first, I thought the Inn of the Red Dragon had a really cool symbol, but then I realized it's just two chairs and a table.
Dungeons of Death was written by Dave Frederiksen and published by Michigan-based Aardvark Software. Aardvark--which also went under the name British Intelligence for a period--offered a library of text adventures, arcade games, and RPGs that, to be blunt, simply aren't very good. By one account, Rodger Olsen started the company after writing some games for his children and convincing himself they were good enough to market. The company seems to have focused on quantity over quality, and "crude" is the adjective most associated with its titles in game databases. (When a single person is listed as the author of 17 different software titles in two years, you don't hold out a lot of hope for features.) I originally had two other Aardvark titles on my list--Quest (1982) and Wizard's Tower (1983)--but after some investigation, it appears that not only are they the same game, but they're blatant knock-offs of Robert Clardy's Wilderness Campaign (1979). In any event, neither is RPG enough for my blog.
Credit where it's due: the cover art is pretty metal.
Aardvark's catalog promised a Commodore 64 release of Dungeons of Death that never seems to have happened. (Its absence was covered by both Games That Weren't and Archeogaming; let it not be said that no one cares more about RPG trivia than me.) Antonello Molella guessed that it never appeared because Aardvark decided to update and re-name it as Dungeons of Magdarr, and I think he's correct.

The question is whether Dungeons of Magdarr is different enough from Dungeons of Death for me to consider it a different game. The answer is not quite, but it does solve some of the problems inherent in Dungeons of Death and thus earns a slightly higher score.

The differences start right on the main screen:

Screw you, Dave Frederiksen, right? I mean, clearly these authors had to re-code it, but still--not even a nod?

The substantive manual text is the same, as is the selection of races, classes, and attributes, and the basic character creation process. Equipment costs more but you get more starting gold. While the game still gives you the 16-character code and encourages you to record the character's statistics on a sheet of paper, it does also save the character to the disk.

Character creation in the update. Note the option to "enter the player into the archives."

Once in the dungeon, you navigate a more standard wireframe third-person view (though drawn ineptly so the lines don't connect) with the greater than (>) and less than (<) keys to turn and the SPACE bar to move forward.

Some crude graphics are offered for monsters, but combat mechanics are otherwise identical, and there's actually less information (such as your current hit point total) available on the combat screen than in the predecessor.
You can also check inventory and status from the exploration screen. Upon return to the surface (called the Inn of Golden Dreams here, instead of the Inn of the Red Dragon), the game automatically records your stats instead of forcing you to do it (and allowing you to cheat). This renders the whole 16-character code superfluous, but the game gives it to you anyway.
You can feel the programmers desperately trying to patch what made Dungeons of Death a broken game, but there's only so much you can do with Dungeons of Death to start with. Essentially, in Dungeons of Magdarr, the authors took a trite, derivative game with no purpose and a horrible, buggy interface and improved it until it was just a trite, derivative game with no purpose. Nonetheless, this version earns an extra couple of GIMLET points for its improved interface and less tortured gameplay and winds up with 12.
Dungeons of Death retailed for $14.95 on cassette and $19.95 on disk, or around $35.00 and $45.00, respectively, in 2015 dollars. Magdarr bumped up to $24.95, or about $60.00 today. I suspect most of Aardvark's business came from people too shy to return things.
I don't want to rag on a game too harshly if it was independently developed by a programmer who honestly tried his best. But if you start offering games for sale commercially, I expect you to have a sense of the overall market. If you ask $20 for a game like this the same year that Ultima III came out, years after games like Dunjonquest and Wizardry showed you how to do it much, much better; if you can't even be bothered to come up with a framing story for the game; if your programming skill is so limited you can't even pass data between programs and essentially require users to manually record their own hex values--you deserve a little bit of scorn.

Let's move on to something more interesting while I continue to get slapped around in Disciples of Steel.


  1. I doubt this author 'gave his best'. He knew the time was ripe for selling cRPGs, and since there was not that much competition at the time, he wagered people were desperate enough to give him money even for crap like this.

  2. Think I played this on my TI-83 in statistics class 15 years ago...

  3. "Not only does this take too long to be fun, but of course, you can tell the game whatever you want. I earned 10,000 experience points! I found a million gold!"

    The password-saving system would later return in some early NES games, before a battery backup feature became standard. The NES RPG Swords and Serpents used passwords, as did the NES action game Demon Sword.

    NES players today can easily look up save-game passwords that allow them to cheat, or skip to the endgame.

    Some DVD-based games (typically the "visual novel" genre) also used password saves, simply because your standard DVD player generally doesn't have the capacity to record data. Two that I know of are "Hourglass Summer" and "Dragonia".

    1. Password saves not only lingered on until the middle of the SNES era (due to the high extra cost of the battery-backed RAM used for game saves), but made a resurgence in the Playstation 1 era as an alternative to buying memory cards. Done properly, they work fine as long as you accept the possibility of somebody getting codes for later areas (or, potentially even more interesting, figuring out how the codes work and generating a valid code that would not normally be possible, giving you combinations of abilities otherwise unavailable), but they are a bit tedious, and RPGs quickly became more complex than a password system can handle.

    2. I hope I was clear that the issue goes beyond password saves here. Basically, there are separate programs that run the town and the dungeon, and the game has no way to pass information between them. Thus, you need the password not just to save for later play but to transition between the two programs.

      Meanwhile, since neither program knows what happened in the other, the game has to explicitly ask you so that it knows how to generate the password. This is different, and worse, than simply giving players the ability to hack the password code. The player here doesn't even need to put in that kind of effort--he can just lie directly about how many experience points he earned and how much gold he found in the other program.

    3. When I was 11 a friend and I randomly entered characters into the password loader for the action/adventure game Jurassic Park. Improbably, one of the codes we entered was for the end game cutscene. Those odds must have been pretty slim.

    4. IIRC the Apple II versions of Apshai had something like this. The inkeeper would ask you if you already had a character. If you answered "Y" it would simply quiz you on your stats and equipment.

  4. Once in the dungeon, you navigate a more standard wireframe third-person view (though drawn ineptly so the lines don't connect) - I think it has more to do with using ASCII symbols for graphics than with ineptitude. But then again, perhaps the very fact of using ASCII at that time was already a sign of ineptitude.

    1. C64? Not ASCII, my friend -- PETSCII. It didn't all have to be quite so wretched:

  5. Ahh, possibly the first game on your blog I can be confident is worse than the rpg I wrote in Qbasic for myself about twenty years ago :)
    When you say a dungeons and dragons knock off, do you mean the p+p system in general or one of the early plato type crpg versions?

    1. I meant the PnP system. It doesn't have a lot in common with the DND computer line.

    2. *nods* From the one I did and some of these early ones, I see some things in common. I think this is basically from converting many rules from the p+p version as closely as possible and then adjusting things for balance and making it more interesting. I feel if he had kept this game as his own personal project it would be excusable, but not to actually try and sell it.

  6. Heh. Bill Atkinson, famous for QuickDraw, MacPaint and HyperCard, is supposed to have worked on this? I think not :)

  7. The cover was the one good thing about the original, so of course they changed it for the update...

    1. The cover for the original deserves to be on a better game. The artist isn't credited in the manual, unfortunately.

      Are you eating a worm in your profile pic?

  8. I think that what the programmer(s) managed to do with the vic-20 is admirable. Notice that the computer had only 5Kb RAM (1.5 of which not available for actual code, but used by the system for various things, like the video display).

    I consider this computer nothing short of a fraud. It was impossible to do anything concrete on it.

    1. I should check out the VIC-20 release of Temple of Apshai. I wonder if they had to cut material.

      You make a decent point--perhaps it was the best they could do given the hardware--but that doesn't make the game any better. In any event, I'm still skeptical that it was the best they could do, even with the VIC-20.

    2. Treasure of Tarmin for the Intellivison turned out significantly better than this (GIMLETing at 19) and yet ran on a machine with 1456 bytes of RAM (less than a third of the VIC-20.) I think we're much below the point where we can excuse technical constraints holding back a game's quality.

      Even compared to something like Dragon Slayer or Hydlide, which could be defended for their non-RPGish qualities, this is just so atrociously terrible both as an RPG and as a piece of programming.

      Come to think of it, I don't think we've seen many kusoge RPGs here- although both non-RPG western kusoge and eastern kusoge RPGs existed in the 80's.

    3. The inability to save your character probably had to do with the fact that the Vic-20 had a tape drive instead of a disk drive. Sequential storage is significantly more complicated than Random Access storage.

      Creating a save state to be shared between the town and dungeon executables (themselves probably separated due to memory constraints) on a tape drive is non-trivial (and would be totally annoying as a user too!)

      That said, charging the equivalent of $35 for this broken game is inexcusable. As everyone has commented, it looks and plays like a kid's project from the early 80s.

    4. Tape drives were a pain in the butt. I remember playing the boggit, and each chapter meant playing the tape to a further point. It was more annoying than that sounds, trust me, trying to save data I envision being at least as annoying. At least my pet project, while in qbasic, had the luxury of a hard disk so save game files were easy :D

    5. I am not an expert, but I think that Treasure of Tarmin uses data stored on an external ROM (the cartridge you connect to the console) of 16 Kb. The average intellivision cartrige ROMs have about 8 Kb. In the case of vic-20 all data have to be stored in RAM from a tape.

  9. Wow, I was willing to give the quality of this game a pass, and regarded is a beginner's effort, but then I saw the price...
    Thank you for the entertainment through 2015, Mr. Addict. I'm always looking forward to your posts.

  10. Oh wow this blog is still going strong. I have a LOT of catching up to do. I used to comment here all the time under the name "Zink" like... three or five years ago? I don't remember why I fell out of the habit of reading, but I definitely have to catch up now. I find old game design even more fascinating now than I did then.

    Dungeons of Death seems like someone decided to make a game with the BARE MINIMUM of game mechanics needed to be considered an "RPG" as a... joke, or something. If I stumbled upon this game myself online, I'd probably assume it was made as satire. It's so generic it seems like something a computer program would come up with upon scanning the Wikipedia page for 'CRPG'. I'm shocked it doesn't come in a gray box labeled "ROLE-PLAYING COMPUTER GAME".

    1. It's almost, but not quite, the desert bus of RPGs

    2. Zink! I wondered what happened to you. The blog isn't just going strong; I think it's gotten better. If we can just get Calibrator and Andy Panthro back again, it'll be like an old-school reunion.

      It's funny, but even my most dedicated, prolific commenters seem to fall off eventually. It's like there's only so much CRPG Addict they can take. Or perhaps I eventually piss them off. Amy... Giauz... william... best of luck wherever you may be.

    3. There is plenty of us, still. Do keep going.

  11. Let's pretend the Red Dragon inn isn't two chairs and a table, but instead a portion of the mask of Boba Fett. Better?

    Curiously, once upon a time my buddy and I used the name Red Dragon while generating Wizardry I characters and got an exceptionally high number of bonus points. After that we re-used that name repeatedly, hoping it would bring good luck. But the only time we got a good score, we'd typoed the name somehow, and got stuck with a character named Red Dargon or something like that.

  12. Funny enough, I JUST picked up the same copy off the same site that you did and figured out how to get it running last night. Dungeons of Death isn't something you play (or even store on your computer) because it's a good game. You give it a whirl because it's like finding the rarest of items, and if you collect RPGs as much as play them, you can pass up downloading this from the site mentioned above. You also have to keep in mind it's basically running on a glorified calculator and this wasn't even on a disk, but a TAPE....

    1. I agree. Escape from Mt. Drash was pretty much the same story.

  13. the game reminds me of "space crusade" that I made on my c64 when I was 9 I think biggest difference being that this game is actually a finished program (if you get what I mean).

  14. This reminds me of the Odyssey 1, which had so many accessories for playing the various games that the actual computer part seemed redundant.

  15. Well, I tried it once on emulation and managed to enter the dungeon. Total confusion. Is it top view like sword of fargoal? 1st perspective like dungeons of Magdarr but just really simple? Side view? ?????!!!!

    So I hits key y to enter a room fight mobs and die. To be fair I only made 1 fighter to do a test run but blarg!!

    If I try again I will make a full party and leave the dungeon and just trick the party out.

    I don't know if the dungeon layout is random or if there are even rooms (note Dungeon of Magdarr and the sequel Search for Magdarr were all hallways. No doors or rooms)

    I'll try to record monsters and items found per level and even hp/Xp for mobs.

    If the game proves too annoying then ill skip to Magdarr. At least those are playable and I've mapped them. (Just never found the diamonds or Magdarr. I did get attacked my 99 spiders though.

    1. Btw, how the hell do you map this game? I heard dungeons were random but I begin to wonder

  16. TRS-80 in the header should specify the TRS-80 Color Computer. Thought I had lucked across a TRS-80 Model I/III CRPG I had missed...

    1. Yeah, Chet sometimes mixes those up. An understandable mistake, but they're definitely two totally different machines -- monochrome business computer with Z80 processor and character graphics vs. low-end home computer with 6809 processor and color graphics, with no mutual compatibility or significant similarities in their architecture.

  17. I was guessing this was made by a student learning BASIC, but it sounds like engine and platform limitations they weren't experienced enough to get past.

    The lack of saving and error checking reminds me of the Starfleet Boomski program my Dad wrote to make playing Starfleet Battles more fun. At least at first, after my Mom tripped over the power cable ending a multi-hour game he took the time to teach himself how writing to disk worked.

  18. I very much enjoyed reading this - thank you. I must admit some part in dredging up interest for this forgotten title which I asked GFW and Antonello to look into some time back as I was an old time player of Wizard's Tower in the day and craved a little more Aardvark crude-ness in RPG obscurity. Thanks for giving it the time of day!

  19. One thing I'm confused about is your comment "There would have been no reason to play it even if it was the only game available for your platform." -- did you mean the VIC-20? If so there is the fun (albeit modern) series Realms of Quest II-III, and also the old standby Temple of Apshai and even Rescue at Rigel.

    1. I was speaking hypothetically, the same way someone might say, "I wouldn't sleep with you even if you were the last man on Earth." I guess I should have used "even if it were" instead of "even if it was."

  20. The original cover reminded me of Bolt Thrower's "In Battle There is No Law".


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