Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Game 384: Catacombs (1981) and Dungeon (1979): Won!

Not many games can fit all of their vital instructions on the title screen.

United Kingdom
J. K. Greye Software (developer and original publisher); Melbourne House (U.S. publisher)
Released in 1981 for ZX81 and Timex TS1000
Date Started: 10 October 2020
Date Ended: 10 October 2020
Total Hours: 1
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
From a modern perspective, the most interesting thing about Catacombs is that it seems to have been copied from Brian Sawyer's Dungeon (1979) for the Commodore PET. In both games, you engage in exploration of a randomly-generated dungeon level, picking up gold and fighting off (or, more accurately, usually dying at the clutches of) randomly-generated monsters. Both titles ultimately owe their lineage to Beneath Apple Manor (1978), the famous pre-Rogue proto-roguelike, but Catacombs has more directly in common with Dungeon than Manor.
A typical Catacombs screen. An orc (O) guards treasure (£) in the room I (*) am about to enter. Food (F) and treasure (£) await me on the other side of the dungeon.
That said, neither game is worth talking about much. Both were released on tape for not-quite-yet-ready microcomputers, making their gameplay elements even more limited than Manor. Their lack of inventories makes neither game a full RPG under my definitions, and Catacombs even cuts the "experience" statistic that Dungeon offered.
A comparable screen from Dungeon.
This is my first experience with the ZX81, and it wasn't a pleasant one. I'm not sure if that's because of the platform, the game, or the emulator. I found that I have to be extremely careful about what keys I press, even when the screen suggests that you press "any key," because a lot of them dump you out of the program and into the command line. I found the keys unresponsive, and the emulator hung lots of times while loading the program.

After the introductory screen, the game goes black while it randomly generates the dungeon. Almost half the time, it never awakens from its coma and requires a reboot. In those cases where it does come back, your character, an asterisk, begins in a random room with a random amount of strength ranging from roughly 100 to 200. Strength is your only statistic, and it measures literal strength, hit points, and hunger. In service of that latter duty, it begins depleting at a rate of about 1 per second as soon as the game begins. You can find food to bump it back up, but in general not enough to make up for the amount of time it takes to find the food in the first place. I died far more often from depletion of strength from hunger than from actual combat.
The only commands are movement. You automatically fight monsters when you move into them and automatically pick up gold and food when you move on top of it. As for movement, here is the key cluster:
1 7 2
5   8
4 6 3 
The symbols next to the numbers are the justification for this insanity.
This seemingly insane arrangement actually has a bit of logic, as the numbers correspond with arrows and positional symbols in the ZX81 keyboard. That doesn't make it any easier to navigate, though, especially when the game doesn't respond to your keypresses about a third of the time. As you move, more of the dungeon becomes exposed via the "fog of war" effect common to roguelikes.
Starting positions of monsters like orcs, "minataurs," serpents, and dragons is part of the random generation. As you get close, they're represented by letters, and the game gives you their strength value. Once you step on their square or they step on yours, combat ensues. The monster and the character trade blows, with damage done each round commensurate with the difference between strength values. If you manage to kill the monster, you get a bump in strength.
Exchanging blows in combat.
There are two major factors that convince me the author was using Dungeon as a template. First, both games, in their random generation of levels, create rooms that are unconnected to other rooms by corridors. To reach them, you have to tunnel through the dungeon walls, at a greater cost of strength per round. Second, both games feature monsters that offer to go away for half your gold if you're in danger of dying from them. These two things seem too odd and specific to have been developed independently, and I don't think either was present in Manor.
Catacombs has a couple of other gameplay features that I found in the code though never experienced in the game itself. One is the occasional trap that requires you to guess a number between 1 and 5 to escape. The other is a phantom who offers to raise your strength for 100 gold pieces. There's also a warlock that appears to cast a spell that has a certain probability of killing you instantly.
Stuck in a trap.
In Dungeon, when you finish the level, you've finished the game, but Catacombs lets you find an exit from each level and carry your character to the next randomly-generated one. There is otherwise no way to win the game. You keep collecting gold and food and fighting until you inevitably get killed by a monster or hunger.
Exits let you start the whole futile process anew.
J. K. Greye was a 1980s developer and publisher of ZX81 and ZX Spectrum games, the most famous of which was probably 3D Monster Maze (1981), offered on some sites as the "first 3D game for home computers." John K. Greye himself seems to have written Catacombs. It was the developer's one attempt at an RPG.
Giant ants are the one enemy you don't face.
While I was in the process of researching and playing this game, I also fired up Dungeon to compare the elements. Comments on the original entry had included some commenters who argued that the game does have a winning condition--collecting all the gold--and that you can move between isolated rooms by tunneling through the empty space with the SHIFT key. I had previously tried this and found that SHIFT-move did nothing for me.
A long-awaited "win" of Dungeon (1979). The only way you can really tell it's a win is that there are no more letters "G."
I gave it another shot now and found that SHIFT-move does occasionally move you through walls. It's just very inconsistent. I discovered that if you get a running "charge" towards the wall, you're more likely to penetrate it than if you start from standing next to it, but otherwise I couldn't find any rhyme or reason. But with a little luck, I was able to get it to work long enough on one level to finish collecting all the gold and "win" the level. This causes the game to immediately stop, display your statistics, fill in the rest of the level map (if you haven't already), and ask if you want to play again. Since the same things happen if you die, it's not much of a "win," but I'll happily take the statistic.


  1. Congrats to two more wins

    1. Well, one. I think I have to put Catacombs as "N/A" for a winning condition.

  2. I wish I could access the world of nostalgia that Britons of a certain vintage have for these microcomputers. I have not seen a single game for the Spectrum et. al. that looked even a bit enjoyable, unless it were a port of a DOS or Apple II game.

    1. For many Russians, ZX Spectrum was the first computer, too (mine was a 48K version, and later a 128K one, with a cool built-in sound chip). At the very least, Dizzy series is excellent (the graphics get an upgrade several times, my favourite is Dizzy 4). Saboteur 1 & 2 are other great games. Target: Renegade 2 is an excellent beat-em-up, Way of the Exploding Fist is an unique "slow" fighting game, where you don't just mash buttons, but watch your opponent for an opening. Laser Squad is a predecessor to X-Com games. Batty is one of the best Arkanoid versions I've ever seen before the release of Breakout.

      Speccy had a lot of good games - just not RPGs.

    2. Yes, the British computer game scene was quite vibrant and had some excellent games, but the heavy emphasis on cassette tapes as the storage of choice means that some genres are under-represented, and rpgs is one of them.

    3. Laser Squad is one of my favorite games. Played it first on an Amstrad CPC and then when I got it for my Atari ST I didn't even mins the subpar graphics the gameplay is so good...

    4. The thing is that the speccy was made to a budget, so per much everything in it is a bit rubbish. It didn’t really have a disk drive option - at least not until the very end of its life with the Amstrad version. For most people in the UK, they’re fond of it as really it was all most people had. The BBC (which isn’t too different to the Apple ][) was far too expensive outside of schools, and the C64 was a harder sell. It also didn’t help that even the C64 users tended not to have drives since they cost the same as the computer. I got lucky with having a C128 with a drive, but there were very few disk based games you could buy for it. So that’s why people have nostalgia for it, despite the Spectrum really not being good

    5. The Lords of Midnight originated on ZX Spectrum, by the way. A lot of people enjoyed it.

    6. Russia only got Spectrum around the start of 90's, so we had a lot of machines with disk drives! And a lot of pirate compilation floppies with 10-20 games each :) I fondly remember going to the market with my father to buy a new disk or even two. The floppies were generic, with a small, barely readable piece of paper describing contents (only names of the games), so, really, you were in for a surprise most of the time. The ride back on a city train was always filled with anticipation: I tried to imagine what each game was just from looking at its name. We often went to that market in the late autumn or in the winter, so I also tried to keep the disk under my jacket, so it would not freeze and I could insert it into the drive the moment I got home - I don't know how true it was, but my father told me if the disk got cold I would have to wait for it to warm up, or the drive might break it (actually, I think, he said this because he wanted me to have a dinner and some rest before running to the computer, but it was no use!).

    7. I had a Spectrum in the day and there were a lot of good games on it that I still remember with affection. (It wasn't big on RPGs though.) Knight Lore, Doomdark's Revenge, Jet Set Willy... to name but a few.

      A ZX81 would be a step too far back for me, though...

    8. Oh, I forgot Bard's Tale which was ported. Having to rewind the tape level by level to go back up certainly committed you to dungeon exploration. (Going down was easy as the levels were on the tape in sequence with short gaps between them.)

    9. A Spectrum+ (it had a hard plastic black keyboard) was my first computer, but I cannot name for the life or me a single specific game I played on it.

      I was really young, my memories of it are a fuzzy and jumbled mix of ugly platformers and nondescript action games.

      It's weird, people usually have some feeling of nostalgia towards their first console or computer (and I do have it for the C64 that replaced it), but the Spectrum really left no trace for me.

    10. This is a problem of video game documentation and the lack of critical analysis for these games (crpgaddict is the ONLY place that does analysis based on some explained metrics to crpgs) so most of the reviews and analysis mix the "this game is good" with "this game is important" and "this game is canon" and "this game is nostalgia".

      I don't think Saboteur or Knight Lore are good games nowadays. I do think Jet Pac is incredibly fun, Atic Atac is the best Ultimate game and that Head Over Heels is the only filmation game I find proper fun.

      My favourite though is Soldier of Fortune. There were a bunch of proto metroidvanias [though that is a totally underserved name as Metroid invented nothing but refined it] that still are fun, some decent shoot en ups but yeah, think of it as a budget experimental era.

    11. @MaxEd Nice to hear this was an international phenomen. Same here, German version. Though it was C64 with me, the experience (and the anticipation) was the same. Good times...

    12. @Carlos I think codifying the important tropes of a genre in a single place is worth something. Ultima didn't really "invent" much either, except really cool manuals, but each new installment was the first to put those tropes in the same place, at the same time, in a way that made sense. There are earlier games that deserve credit for individual aspects of course, some of them even better than the early Ultimas, but Ultima itself turned them into a consistent formula as opposed to clones or random experiments.

    13. thing is, Alex, I consider Ultima 1 to be a fantastic game. I tried it two years ago and in no time I understood the mechanics and what it was expected from me. And I found it so fun.

      In that sense, the C64 had way better games, of course.

    14. Eh, different strokes. I imagine my opinion on Metroid is the opposite of yours just like with U1.

    15. I'm pretty sure the name of Metroidvania comes more from the Castlevania side of things, considering the first one that had that gameplay came out in the late 90s and the genre name came later. As for Ultima 1, my general experience with it is it's a fun basic action game. Thing is, my experience was colored by my expectations for the era being extremely low. It's certainly not a bad game, and probably would have been amazing at the time, but these days there's so many games that have improved on it that there's no real reason to go back to it beyond historical curiosity

    16. actually wrong! Metroidvania was defined on the Castlevania side of things by the Symphony of the Night entry, which was the first one with proper rpg elements and puzzley exploration. Metroid was really a refinement of that adventure/action genre that was growing up during the 80s (in the Spectrum there are hundred of those examples with use of objects, collecting of weapons, exploration and more or less elaborate puzzle solving).

      I like Metroid quite a lot, though now I would only recommend approaching it through the GBA remake Metroid Zero (which is a beauty). But of course I don't judge it compared to modern takes on the genre, I judge it comparing to Alchemist, Fairlight, Legend of Zelda, Below the Root, Underwurdle.

    17. I'd have to respectfully but wholeheartedly disagree. As much as I like Zero Mission, I can't ignore the fact that it introduces many soft roadblocks not present in the original and has a poorly executed stealth sequence tacked on after the main game to boot. I mean, the game literally forces you to get the Power Grip, and before picking up the Screw Attack the only way into lower Norfair is a single wall-jump passage that doesn't feel natural at all because they decided to line the original path with Speed Boost blocks. For all its opacity, the original Metroid is more freeform and more compelling.

    18. Both the MSX Dracula and Dracula II had rudimentary puzzle elements, and Chi no Rondo incorporated untimed stages and branching paths into an otherwise standard Dracula game.

    19. That was a beautifully respectful and wholehearted disagreement. I just finished Zero Mission in my DS and I was not able to finish the original Metroid ever.

      Also the reason why Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow is my favourite of the saga.

    20. My favorite version of the original Metroid is actually the Famicom Mini release on the Game Boy Advance. It's an emulated release of the Famicom Disk System version, so there's less slowdown and you can save without having to write down lengthy passwords. This version also allows you twice as much time to get the best ending, which is a definite plus. I've probably beat this version even more than the NES version, so if you're having a hard time getting into the first Metroid, it's well worth a look.

      Two things I would keep in mind:
      - Try and limit the number of times you save and resume. This will cut down on the amount of time you spend tediously farming health. Obviously this is easier said than done, but even things like remembering the location of a missile expansion and combining the trip with one for a different powerup can help.
      - Remember to check ceilings as well as floors. I don't want to give away too much, but I will say that the two items that are most likely to affect your enjoyment of the game can only be found by checking the ceiling.

    21. Is that different from the "NES Classic" version for USA? I had that and while I remember battery backup, it was only ever used to save the password so you didn't have to type it in.

      My main problem in the first game is getting lost, though for some reason it never, ever occurred to me to draw my own map. It was (and remains) a foreign concept to me where non-RPGs are concerned.

    22. The NES Classic Series version released in North America is a port of the North American NES release, which utilizes a password system. It also has more simplistic title screen music, sound effects, and enemy patterns (e. g. Ridley's fireballs will only bounce high or low, not both). The biggest differences between the two, gameplay-wise, are that the NES version lets you resume your game at any elevator shaft, not just the starting area, and that it requires you to complete the game in under one hour to get the best ending rather than two.

    23. Growing up in early 90s Russia, I was torn between ZX Spectrum (one of the 48k clones with tape loading everything) and Famicom clones. NES/Famicom games were more colorful and fluid, but Spectrum games were way cheaper. And I can also write programs for it, with lots of type-in material available. Still, both paled in comparison with IBM games like F-19, Civilization and Elite, so after we bought an used PC XT clone in 1993, I was diving head-on into the world of PC gaming (and even more so to non-game uses of the platform, like text editing, graphics and programming in Quick Basic and Turbo Pascal), leaving behind those inferior platforms for anything except maybe a few NES games.

  3. During flight training, my friend had a ZX-80 with a navigation simulator that actually provided pretty good practice for instrument conditions. I think it helped us outperform many of our peers. It's amazing how a quite cursory interface can still hit the critical elements and add real value!

  4. Having played a few ZX81 games, I can safely say that you had one of the better experiences. The worst game I think I've played was on that system. Funnily enough, it was also by JK Greye Software. 3D Defender, which was Defender in 1st person. On a computer that seems to only output text. Didn't control very well either. I'm curious if it really is down to the system just being bad or if Greye Software was typical of low-quality British publishing houses. What was that game with the goose? SRJI? SQRI? The one that wouldn't even boot.

  5. The ZX81 was an extremely weak machine. The whole point of it was to be the cheapest computer on the market, and at £50 for a kit and £70 fully assembled, it succeeded. Unfortunately, that resulted in the system having 1KB of memory by default, along with no dedicated video chip, meaning that you can't both output video and run programs at full speed. The end result is a computer that you really can't do much with, and I don't think that was much different at the time

    1. There's a youtube video about this machine's breathtaking counting speed somewhere. It really tells you all you need to know about this computer.

  6. Neither randomly generated mosnters nor infamous computer keyboards will keep this hero from winning.
    It is men like him who allowed mankind to survive the era of early home computers.

    1. I cannot stop being surprised. It's as if he was mastering a musical instrument no others bear to play.


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