Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Game 388: Dungeon Escape (1980)

Dungeon Escape 
United States
Independently developed; published by Computer Shack
Released in 1980 for the TRS-80
Date Started: 5 November 2020
Date Ended: 8 November 2020
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Dungeon Escape is a recently-rediscovered Dark Age entry that, like Beneath Apple Manor (1978) or Dungeon (1979) for the Commodore PET, vaguely anticipates the roguelike genre. You explore a single-screen, randomly generated dungeon by slowly uncovering the "fog of war"; you find creatures and items in the various rooms; and there's a leprechaun who appears now and then to piss you off. The similarities mostly end there; Escape certainly has none of the tactics of Rogue, nor the permadeath, and a lack of character development makes it technically fail my definition of an RPG. By the time I determined that for sure, it was mostly over.
Escape begins with the creation of a fighter, thief, or mage character. Fighters are best in melee combat. Mages start with a selection of "Teleport," "Fireball," and "Locate Stone" spells. Thieves are somewhere in between. They can cast spells, but they don't start with any. Once this brief character creation process is finished, the character finds himself on Level 1 of a three-level dungeon from which he must escape.
During the setup, you get to specify the speed of a "ghost" that follows you through the dungeon, Pac-Man-like, and kills you instantly if he catches up with you. The problem is that the interface becomes essentially unusable whenever a ghost is present. The game can't read "inputs" from both you and the ghost at the same time, so it ignores half of yours if the ghost happens to be moving at the same time, and it makes simple tasks a nightmare. Fortunately, you also have the option to eschew the ghost entirely. The game is difficult enough without it.
Getting caught by the ghost is no fun.
Once the game begins, random numbers rule the day. Everything from the contents of a room, whether you encounter or escape a trap, whether you hit or dodge in combat, and what direction the next turn of the corridor takes, are all dependent on a series of numbers generated from a random seed. Reload and do something slightly differently, and you might not only encounter different monsters in the next room, but you might also completely change the dungeon configuration.
Ultimately, each level consists of a number of rooms connected by corridors. Nothing much happens in the corridors. Rooms usually contain monsters. They're made up of the usual Dungeons and Dragons bestiary--gnolls, orcs, kobolds, zombies, skeletons, and so forth--but with a couple of creative additions like "shadow slaves" and "intelligent mushrooms," which can briefly paralyze you. Combat is somewhat action-oriented. You and the enemy trade blows, but on the game's own timer. You can only act (attack, thrust, parry, or cast a spell) when the game invites you to do so, and you only have a fixed amount of time to respond. If you hit any key during the monster's term, the game notes that you "acted out of order," and gives the monster a free round.
An orc strikes me during his turn.
Combats are pretty tough at the outset; sometimes up to eight or ten enemies line up to kill you in the same room. You start with six "elixirs," and you find more as you explore. However, these are dangerous to use in-combat because there's a chance that the elixir is not a healing elixir but a sleep draught or poison or a teleportation potion.
Once combat is over, you can R)ummage (search) the room for items, including gold, weapon upgrades, cloak upgrades, elixirs, and incantations. Weapons and cloaks will upgrade to +3, but there's a chance they might be cursed, too. Incantations can also be cursed and damage you with lightning bolts.
I hit the mother-lode in this room.
Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the game is the frequent use of traps. These include spear traps that damage you and may be poisoned (requiring a second roll to see if you die from poison), smoke traps that put you to sleep, poison gas traps, cave-ins that close an exit, and leprechauns that steal your map (blanking what you've filled in already), cloak, or elixirs. Once the game notifies you that you detect a trap, you have a short time to arrow out of the room before it goes off. 
I narrowly survive a poison trap.
The game rolls for the presence of a trap every round, not including combat rounds. So the moment you finish combat, it rolls for a trap. If it doesn't find one, but you spend a round in the room picking up an item, it rolls again for a trap. Drink a potion, roll for a trap. Traps come up so often--about a quarter to a third of the time--that you frequently have to flee a room where just won a long combat, abandoning items behind you (they're never there when you return).
The ultimate goal on each dungeon level is to find some magic stones, return to the level's starting point, and get carried to the next level (or, in the case of Level 3, out of the game). There are two stones to find on Level 1, four on Level 2, and six on Level 3. The game alerts you with a flash and a tone when you're in a room with a stone, and the "Locate Stones" spell helps you find those rooms faster. There are usually more rooms with stones than strictly needed, probably because it's possible for the dungeon configuration to leave some of the rooms isolated except for a lucky teleport. And speaking of teleports, rooms with stones often have teleport traps, sending you to another part of the dungeon before you can pick them up.
To win the game, you mostly have to buck the stacked odds or just reload a lot. If this were a real RPG, it would make sense to fully explore each level because you'd get stronger as you did so. Here, you break even at best. You find elixirs at about the same rate you use them. Weapons are as likely to be cursed as not. You might as well do your best to make your stay as short as possible. To discourage such speedruns, the game includes a "score" that counts down as you waste time but generally increases as you kill and find things, particularly gold.
A ghost shows up on Level 3 even though I didn't ask for one.
I found Level 3 quite hard. You have to find six stones, and in my case several of them were in teleportation rooms. Meanwhile, late in the level, the game decided to ignore my "no ghost" preference and stuck one in there anyway. I had to reload many times. But eventually I won, at which point the dungeon "collapsed" and I got a message that I had escaped.
Is this the author speaking directly?
There's hardly any point in GIMLETing these Dark Age titles. I gave it a 15, doing best with a 3 in "gameplay" (short, decent challenge), 1s and 2s in most other categories, 0s in "game world" and "NPCs." It was one of many games feeling out the new genre and vying to establish its conventions.  

My research turned up some interesting things about the author and company. Bill Dunlevy is a relatively well-known programmer who became most famous for Time Bandit (1983), an action game that anticipated the similar Gauntlet (1985). In the three years that he was active he also wrote Jovian (1982), Cyborg (1982), Cashman (1983), and Assault (1983). He was still in high school in Waterford, Michigan when he wrote Dungeon Escape, brought it to a computer club, and attracted the interest of a local photographer named Gordon Monnier. Monnier converted half his photography office into a new company, Computer Shack, and began publishing Dunlevy's games. The company changed its name to MichTron in 1984. Ultimately, at the height of their success, Monnier began making weird businesses decisions, reneged on contracts with his programmers, and forced most of them, like Dunlevy, to quit. I get most of this from The Timelord's Handbook, a clue book for Time Bandit published by Harry Lafnear, the graphic designer for the game, in 2010--twenty-seven years after the program was released. From his LinkedIn profile, I gather that Dunlevy got a bachelor's degree in computer science from the University of Michigan after his time as a game developer and went on to a successful career writing software for environmental, healthcare, and automobile companies.
If you happened to check in during the weekend, you might have seen that I originally posted a BRIEF on the game but ran into a glitch that prevented me from continuing. The game was pretty annoying to get running in the first place. Of all the machines and emulators that I've had to learn for this project, I'm probably weakest with the TRS-80. I don't know how to solve a lot of its problems, particularly since my chosen emulator (TRS32, which I paid for) chooses all the settings itself whenever you auto-start a disk. Meanwhile, almost all of the downloads for Dungeon Escape were just the original basic file, not the original basic file on disk, which TRS32 needs to run.
Commenter Dungy sent me his version on a bootable disk. It worked, but it also had some notable changes from the ones that I had found online. The title screen was different, and Dungy's version seemed to have a lot more traps than the original one I tried to play. I wonder if the game wasn't originally easier, causing Dunlevy to put in more hazards.
That clears 1980 once again, but I'm sure that other long-forgotten proto-RPGs from this era will continue to be found.


  1. So this game doesn´t keep the game well redrawn? Major programming flaw. Sloppy programming and rushing jobs to market has plagued the world of computing all this time, and still. Developers hate editing/debugging. Always been true and in the worst cases, the bug never truly get resolved.

    1. Or emulation issues. We would have to find contemporary reviews to see if the issue existed also back in the day.

  2. The choice of Fighter, Thief and Magic User for character class immediately made me think of Quest for Glory! Can't be many other games that use "magic user" over "wizard" or such?

    1. IIRC, OD&D, Basic D&D and AD&D 1st Ed used the Magic-User term for the main arcane caster class; 2nd Ed AD&D used Mage and 3rd uses Wizard. Almost certainly any computer game of that era is going to draw heavily on the (A)D&D system for at least some influence.

    2. Wow, there are people out there who think Quest for Glory invented the awkward "magic user" phrase? That was Gary Gygax's, who legendarily despised wizards. He considered them overpowered since they had the ability to control everyone who came near them. All any wizard needed was a wand and suddenly you're doing what he tells you. That's why they have d4 hit dice and no combat ability.

    3. Hmmm, the comments in this blog post seem to contradict the idea that Gygax "hated" wizards, specifically this bit:

      "I did take the time to ask Luke Gygax (who was also around at the origin of the game as well as the origin of Mordenkainen), and was told that Gary loved magic-users, and that’s why his favorite character (Mordy) was of that class."

      Personally it seems more plausible to me that Gygax, or any RPG developer, would make fledgling wizards/magic-users weak as a way of balancing the game. They become extraordinarily powerful at high levels, able to wipe out an entire army with a few spells.

      I don't know that it was necessary to deprive them of the ability to use swords and other strong weapons, though. High fantasy is full of sword-wielding wizards.

      I like Lloyd Alexander's solution to the wizard problem: the most powerful "good" wizard in the world could do just about anything -- except take a life, which would instantly forfeit his powers.

    4. Here's Tim Kask, one of the first employees of TSR and editor of Dragon magazine:

      "Gary simply could not understand why anybody would want to be Gandalf or Saruman. Why wouldn't they want to be Conan or you know whatever? Gary hated the idea of a campaign run by wizards which is why wizards are as as weak as they are. Because if they weren't they would run the campaign. Give that guy one wand
      and now you're doing whatever he tells you. And human nature being what it is, campaigns would end up in the toilet."

    5. It looks more like Gygax hated the idea of wizards controlling everything and not the class itself. Plus couldn't understand the idea of anyone wanting the game to be "easy mode", which high level casters often did.

      The above comment makes it look like he thought everyone wanted a challenge in D&D. Which is why his and his friends wizards ended up mostly being backstory.

      From what I understand, he had to go to extremes to challenge his players' wizards in his campaign. Like the original Castle Greyhawk adventure which is barely known about, but I've heard was almost as nasty as the Tomb of Horrors, originally created for a tournament to see how far your party could get before being wiped, just to challenge them.

    6. "Wow, there are people out there who think Quest for Glory invented the awkward "magic user" phrase?"

      Where did I even imply that I thought they had invented it? I had never seen it in a game before 1989, and hadn't played any D&D until much later either.

    7. I got what you were saying, Andy. It is funny that this game and QfG use ONLY those three classes and use the same names besides.

      It's funny overall how so many RPGs treat "thief" as a hybrid class between a fighter and a magic-user. I almost wish they had continued that tradition, so that in RPG-dom, a "vagrant" is a cross between a fighter and a priest and an "arsonist" is a priest/magic user.

    8. I remember Tunnels&Trolls rules explaining that "rogue" in the context of the game's classes means "rogue wizard" and not, well, rogues.

    9. There are quite a few kind of hybrid ones in standard D&D now (some have presumably been there a long time), like your Druid, Paladin, Ranger, etc.? But I like the idea of the "arsonist" and might have to try that whenever I'm able to play D&D again.

    10. Right. I'm not talking about D&D so much as the more limited adaptations in CRPGs, particularly early ones. My point was that "thief" is sort-of doubly abstracted in those CRPGs. The term is abstracted in the first place in tabletop RPGs, where the "thief" is less someone who STEALS and more someone who uses associated skills during exploration. If I'm not mistake, his jack-of-all-trades nature meant that he could use some limited magic in the form of scrolls (or did that come along in a later edition)?

      CRPG developers, meanwhile, implemented the class but often had little or no mechanics for the use of thieving skills. Instead, they bluntly interpreted the use of limited magic by making the class a fighter/mage hybrid. This is quite different from tabletop D&D's conception of a "thief," which itself is quite different from the reality of a "thief."

    11. Yes; thieves in 1E/2E D&D have access to a skill system that other classes don't. Thieves in 3E and up are a high-damage melee combatant via dirty fighting. The latter is commonly implemented in CRPGs, the former not so much.

      Both of them can use magical items meant for other classes, although this has a decent chance of backfiring. Meaning that in tabletop at least, they usually leave this to the "real" casters.

      An obvious origin is The Hobbit, wherein the dwarves insist on bringing a "burglar" in their adventuring party, who indeed does not end up doing a lot of burgling.

    12. I'd say the RPG thief/rogue is basically a manifestation of the trickster archetype from mythology. After all, many of the mythic heroes (e.g. Odysseus) did do a whole lot of stealing and cheting.

    13. No, Odysseus did not do a "whole lot of stealing". Not at all.

    14. But the wily Odysseus did a whole lot of cheting. That's how badass he was.

    15. If the rogue class were based on Odysseus's cheting, then it would get the ability to build wooden horses.

  3. This sounds like an emulator issue. Emulators typically use the most recent version of their hardware's operating system, and software like this usually is coded for a particular version that was current at the time. I bet it works fine on vintage equipment.

    1. Also, with TRS-80 software you need to be emulating the right computer; the Model III is not fully compatible with the Model I, and a 1980 release might well have been developed on a Model I.

    2. Another possibility is a bad dump. I've encountered Model I/III programs where there were four different copies distributed on the same disk image, and only one would work properly.

    3. I eventually got it working thanks to Dungy, so this is moot, but one of the oddities of the TRS32 emulator is that it chooses the configuration when you boot the disk. Any changes I make to the models, memory, etc., are overwritten when it reboots.

  4. I have not been able to find this game. I don't have a TRS-80 or an emulator, but I would like to look at the BASIC code.
    Do you know where I can get it?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I didn't not have this problem when I played. You might have a faulty emulator setting or a bad copy.

    1. Actually, reviewing my copy of Dungeon Escape, you absolutely have a different version. The title screen is different.

    2. I've just played my copy through to level 3 and have not had any glitching. I sent you a bootable .dsk file that you should be able to emulate without issue. Best of luck.

  6. All comments above this one were left on my original BRIEF entry.

  7. Somehow these low-res monochrome mazes always look like they offer more fun than the game could ever hope to provide.

  8. Thanks to Spelunky 2, run-based games with invincible ghosts that chase you around are back in vogue (or in voguelike, as the case may be). Maybe Dunlevy should take another run at this idea?

    P.S. Enemies that steal your map is a wonderfully spiteful concept. A reminder that many of the earliest RPGs were made by part-time D&D DMs who delighted in finding ways to troll their players.

    1. That kind of behavior was largely confined to the Lake Geneva crowd who know Gygax and Arneson personally. The idea of D&D as a wargame between players and DM didn't translate to the wider world because nobody who got a D&D set for his birthday knew what wargaming was.

      Players mapping the dungeon was actually a hugely important part of D&D. Players were expected to make one, and indeed the rules specified that one player should be designated mapper. If a PC got separated from the group, he couldn't use the map and had to rely on memory.

      Mapping on graph paper was an important part of CRPGs too, well into the 90s.

    2. Anonymous, your comments are welcome; your condescension is not. Mento didn't say anything that necessarily contradicts what you said. A lot of early CRPG developers WERE tabletop players (and DMs), but CRPGs are a different beast with more limited content and mechanics. To artifically extend their length, particularly in these early days, many developers did introduce elements that seem like "trolling their players."

    3. Early editions of D&D are chock full of ways to troll their players, even if they don't know wargaming.

      For instance, you know how werewolves are vulnerable to silver? Yeah, D&D has a "reverse werewolf" that looks just like the real thing, but it's IMMUNE to silver. Knee-slapping hilarious!

    4. Yeah, yeah, and the floor can come alive and eat you. There's just this mentality today that the Lake Geneva version of D&D was the only one that existed, that everyone had a subscription to Dragon magazine, and probably several of the more prominent fanizes too, we all went to Gencon every year, and that if Gygax coughed on a page everyone followed it religiously. Oh, and "the DM loses if the players win, so the DM innovates new ways to screw with them every new session" was how people played.

    5. Player vs DM is a natural - if unhelpful - possible consequence of the D&D rules in all editions, which give players power, encourage them (explicitly or otherwise) to maximise that power, and then ask DMs to arbitrate. Immature players and poor conflict resolution will often lead to a players vs DM environment, and you see it even today in 5E, particularly in groups of young male players.

      And in case they needed explicit encouragement in that from the game, you have modules like Tomb of Horrors and Lost Shrine of Tamoachan being published since almost the beginning of the hobby - and republished today - that take "screw you, players" as their first and only point of engagement.

      It's definitely not how D&D should be played - unless it's the way that everyone at the table *wants* it to be played - but if you're pretending it's some kind of unusual or rare version of the game you simply haven't seen a lot of D&D actually being played.

    6. I could see D&D being played as a sort of one-versus-many board game, where the focus is less on a continued campaign and more on surviving a single adventure. You'd have to do something about magic rules though, because it wouldn't be very exciting for a wizard player to have one Magic Missile for the entire game.

  9. "During the setup, you get to specify the speed of a "ghost" that follows you through the dungeon, Pac-Man-like, and kills you instantly if he catches up with you."

    Reminds me of Wizardry IV.


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