Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Game 423: Dragon Quest (1983)

The little-known first game in the popular Square Enix series begins.
Dragon Quest
United States
Independently developed; Midwest computing (publisher)
Released 1983 for Atari 800
Date Started: 22 June 2021
Date Ended: 23 June 2021
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: 16
Ranking at Time of Posting: 84/428 (20%)
Here's a fun coincidence: In 1981, 13-year-old Brian Reynolds wrote Quest 1, a simplified version of Dunjonquest, and published it as code in Softside magazine. Although not an epic game, it had some interesting features. Much later, he achieved renown as a strategy game designer whose credits include the Age of Empires series. Two years later, 17-year old Matt Pritchard created a more complex game called Dragon Quest starting with the Quest 1 code. Although still not an epic game, it had some interesting advancements. Much later, Pritchard achieved renown as a strategy game designer whose credits include the Age of Empires series. 
I would have been delighted if it turned out they worked in adjacent offices and never knew their common background, but alas, Pritchard told me that he never met Reynolds, the two having worked on different titles while at different companies.
Quest 1 is reasonably well-traveled ground for us at this point. We saw how its code was adapted to Super Quest (1983), Dungeons, Dragons, and Other Perils (1984), and Cavequest (1985). I missed Dragon Quest on my first and second passes through 1983, but someone alerted me to it a few years ago. The titles are characterized by fairly simple character creation, a "menu store" to which the character repeatedly returns, inventories of arrows and holy water, monsters with weaknesses to certain weapons, a small maze to explore for treasure, and action-oriented combat.
To this, Dragon Quest adds:
  • A main quest involving rescuing a prince or princess (the opposite sex of your character) from a dragon.
  • Graphics instead of ASCII characters.
  • Teleportation doors that you have to search for. These take you into parts of the dungeon unconnected by maps to the rest.
  • An intelligence statistic that determines your success in searching for secret doors.
  • More rooms--about 100 to Quest 1's 58.
  • A bargaining mechanic with the merchant by which he jacks up the price if you try to lowball him.
  • Some interesting room configurations.
  • A special enemy called a "flagship" capable of blasting you with a cannonade (no other enemy has a ranged attack), even through walls. 
  • A few spells.
Strength and dexterity look good, but that intelligence is going to be a problem.
The one-page manual has been lost to time, but the general story is that you've descended into Mt. Dellega to find fame and fortune and to rescue a prince or princess from a dragon. You roll attributes, name the character, and choose race (human, elf, dwarf) and sex. There's a brief stop at a store--where a beginning character really can't afford anything--before you hit the dungeon. The way back to the store is always in the first room you enter, but you have to L)ook for it, as you do with other secret doors in the game. The player has to return frequently to the store to spend his found wealth on arrows, magic arrows, healing potions, and holy water. Unlike some Quest variants, there are no weapons and armor to buy.
All you get for a backstory.
The dungeon has a fixed layout and composition. Each room typically has one enemy and one treasure. In Quest 1, you always killed enemies in one hit, but there might be a stack of anywhere from 1-15 of them in the same room. Here, that's re-cast as a single enemy who might have anywhere between 1-15 "strength." Even after you kill the fixed enemy, "wandering monsters" can show up at any time in any room. Foes include goblins, orcs, kobolds, skeletons, wraiths, and mummies.
I'm fighting a ship in a room with an odd configuration. A treasure awaits.
You earn experience from kills, but experience doesn't really do anything for you. There are no levels and you never gain attributes. It seems to me as the game went on, enemies got more difficult and wandering enemies appeared faster, which might be a consequence of experience. I think the statistic is more of a "point" score than experience in the classic sense.
The lack of armor is particularly felt. Your goal as you explore the rooms is to avoid ever having to F)ight in melee combat, as even the basest enemies can suddenly deliver 60% damage in one round. Only a couple are capable of ranged attacks, however, so you want to kill them at a distance with arrows and holy water. In most Quest variants, enemies can only be damaged by a particular type of weapon--for instance, undead can only be damaged by magic arrows or holy water--but in this game, it appears that everyone will take damage from both types of arrows. A regular arrow might do 1-2 damage, a magic arrow 2-3, and a vial of holy water 3-4. Holy water always seems to hit, too, whereas even high-dexterity characters miss about 50% of their shots with arrows, but it can only be used on undead. Combat becomes an economics game. One vial of holy water, three magic arrows, and 7.5 regular arrows all sell for the same price. What's the most efficient way to knock down that zombie with a strength of 3? Healing potions fully restore you but cost 50 gold, so it's better to expend your missiles than get caught in a melee fight.
Shooting an arrow at a giant rat. With a strength of 11, it's going to take a lot of arrows.
Treasures are usually worth gold, which the game automatically converts for you. Occasionally, you get something worthless. Sometimes, you get arrows, potions, or holy water.
Searching for secret doors is one of the more difficult parts of the game. They're not so much "secret doors" as "portals"--that is, they don't appear in existing walls, but rather as doors in the blank space of the map. They warp you to new areas. To find them, you have to pound away at the "L" key, and even then, your intelligence has to be high. A low-intelligence character may never be able to return to the store because he can never find the way back. Wandering monsters appear frequently while you're searching. 
A secret door will get me into that inner area.
One of the more interesting elements of this variant is the spell system, although out of five supposed spells, I only ever found #1 and #3. You have to figure out what they do through experimentation. #1 is a "kill" spell that blasts the enemy with damage. #3 is an "imprisonment" spell that circles the enemy in a wall. That's original. 
I didn't feel like fighting this giant, so I just boxed him in.
Once you find all the treasures, the dungeon resets the next time you visit the store (which is also the only place you can save) and leave again. The monsters get harder and the treasures more rewarding with each reset. But you have a maximum number of arrows (magic and normal combined), and soon it's taking half your quiver just to kill one enemy. Because of the high treasure values, you can afford to buy more, but it's a pain to keep returning to the store.
My map of the dungeon. The treasure and monster annotations only hold for the first iteration of the dungeon.
I was unable to find the princess. The best I can figure is that the way is via two rooms that I mapped at the bottom of the map. A teleporter takes you to the west room. The room immediately to its east has north and south exits, but they simply warp you back to the opposite side of the same map. The author told me he thought there was some trick to those passages, but I'm afraid I couldn't figure it out.
Dragon Quest was independently developed by Matt Pritchard, then a high school student living in Michigan. He sold it through a local company called Midwest Software and perhaps sold 20-25 copies. It got good reviews from the Michigan Atari Computer Enthusiasts. I Skyped with Pritchard one evening in June, and we had a long conversation about his experience in the gaming industry in general. He was a little abashed at having obviously cribbed the base code from Quest 1, although he pointed out that it was a social norm of the time. He later dropped out of college to start a company making business software and earned the nickname "The Optimizer" for his high-efficiency assembly code. In the mid-1990s, he produced MODE X, a "library of high-performance assembler routines for setting, accessing, and manipulating the undocumented 256 color modes available in all VGA adaptors." This earned him "special" thanks credits on a variety of games, including Karl Quappe (1994), Velcro Mind (1995), and Battle of the Eras (1995). 

One of Midwest's promotions for the game, courtesy of the author.
Games were always his first love, so he began interviewing with developers in the late 1990s. Warren Spector at Origin personally turned him down for the Ultima VIII team. He got a job at Ensemble Studios instead and worked on the Age of Empires and Age of Mythology series through the 2000s, then took a position at Valve towards the end of the decade. Today, he serves as the Director of Engineering for Forgotten Empires, which continues to develop the Empires series. He told me he regrets that he never had a chance to work on another RPG, particularly since he is a "huge Fallout fanboy."
Pritchard is in the process of setting up an "Atari 8-bit room" in his house near Seattle, so I happened to write to him just as he re-discovered his old Dragon Quest materials. Unfortunately, we were unable to work out how to trigger the endgame encounter. 
Like its compatriots in the Quest 1 line, Dragon Quest entertains for a few hours, but it's not really much of an RPG specifically. In fact, as this one lacks character development, it technically fails my criteria. In a GIMLET, it earns:
  • 1 points for the game world and its brief backstory.
  • 1 point for character creation and development. That's all for the limited creation, since the character doesn't really develop.
A late game character sheet.
  • 0 for no NPCs.
  • 1 point for some generic foes with no other encounters.
  • 2 points for magic and combat. There aren't any options, but I like what the limited spells did. I don't know why I never found Spells 2, 3, 4, or 6. Maybe you just have to keep resetting the dungeon.
  • 1 point for a limited amount of equipment, but no standard RPG weapons and armor.
Buying items at the market.
  • 2 points for the simple economy. In the early game, finding valuable treasures does feel rewarding.
  • 2 points for a main quest.
  • 3 points for graphics, sound, and interface. The graphics are functional and a bit more colorful than most Quest variants. There are some basic sound effects, and the keyboard inputs are responsive and easy to master.
  • 3 points for gameplay. It gets some credit for replayability, challenge, and user-defined length.
That gives us a final score of 16, which is three points higher than I gave Quest 1. Pritchard asked me how well his game ranked against other Quest variants, and I was forced to tell him honestly that I thought Super Quest did it better, but Dragon Quest might be better than Dungeons, Dragons, and Other Perils. (I had forgotten at the time about Cavequest.) You have to give a break to anything published in the early 1980s, before the giants had clearly set the standards, but this little line of games is already a simplification of another series (Dunjonquest), which itself had somewhat limited gameplay. The gaming world did not need too many variations of it.


  1. 3.14 - I wonder if that was on purpose?

    "Warren Spector at Origin personally turned him down for the Ultima VIII team."
    Now that was a bullet dodged.

    If you're still in contact with the author, I'd like to ask what the other spells do - I know roguelikes have already played around with destructible terrain, but I don't recall creation of new terrain until the ones quite a bit after this game - and it's done here for you in such a useful, targeted manner to boot.

    1. Yeah, that imprison spell is pretty cool. Definitely should have been cribbed and used in nethack, it has that vibe. Up to and including bouncing back and imprisoning you. And then using a pickaxe or dig spell to open the wall or dig a hole in the floor, or a teleport spell, or, or, or. The possibilities!

    2. I don't know why I didn't think to ask him that. He'll probably check in here eventually. I'm still hoping he has time at some point to go through his code and tell me how I can get to the end.

    3. While I never saw this in Nethack, imprisonment is a game effect in the modern roguelike Dungeon Crawl (Stone Soup) [DCSS]. DCSS was the first time I ran into this particular but obviously this game predates it. I doubt DCSS developers actually played this game; feels like this idea could have evolved independently.

    4. I've been playing this game and I have found scrolls 1, 2, 3, and 4. I have yet to find scroll 5 which makes me think I've still missed a secret area. I believe the combination of spells 2 and 4 help to solve the game but perhaps I'm overthinking it. Spell 1 - kill spell Spell 2- teleports you to the start location where you can then look for a secret door to leave the castle Spell 3 - is an imprison spell Spell 4 - this is an interesting one - it creates a square but also blasts a hole in 4 different compass directions - you walk through the hole and it can take you immediately to the venor - it is hard to get Scroll 4 too - because you become entrapped in the area so I used scroll 4 to escape. But..now that I have found scroll 2, I am wondering if I reset the game and go back and get 4, use 2 to teleport out of the track, then methodically walk around blasting holes in the wall in certain areas of my map. That is my working theory so far anyway - or will finding the 5th in an odd way teleport you to the princess? The completionist in me won't let me give this one up - yet I'm aware I'm spending way too much time with it lol

  2. $25 was a lot of money in 83. Profit margins on games must have been huge, but piracy probably cut in to them.

    I wonder how profit margins have changed on games over the years. Now they have a team of coders and huge advertising budgets but prices are lower when you factor in inflation.

    1. Of course the market back then was a lot smaller than it is now. But there is a reason why Richard Garriet was able to have a castle and get into space…

    2. Depends on what section of the market you're looking at. AAA? Mid-list devs? Indies?

      You can still make games as a single person and self-publish them like many people did in the 80s and 90s. You can even make it look like a game from that time! It's much easier to reach a large international audience today thanks to services like Steam, which is open to any developer and any kind of game. Even porn games are fair game and there's no quality control (other than user reviews).

      Of course, that also means your game easily gets drowned out in a vast sea of releases. It's harder to be discovered nowadays than it was back in the day.

      But due to the larger market and easier accessibility, I'd say it's much easier to make it as a small indie dev today than it was 40, 30, or 20 years ago.

    3. Right, you have to account for the video game market exploding in the early naughts and being bigger than Hollywood in terms of revenue today.

  3. I wonder if all the monsters are really just adventurers that were just too stupid to find the exit?

  4. Hi, Chest. I see you're playing Dungeon for Atari ST.
    So, I went looking for it on the web and stumbled discovering this game: The Dungeon (for the Acorn Archimededes), a 1993 RPG. It seems it's not on your list, unless you already removed it for some reason.
    Here its wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Dungeon_(1993_video_game)

  5. I just ran it through the CPI calculator and $24.95 in 1983 is equivalent to $69.31 today. That will get you a 40 hour plus AAA game.

  6. "It got good reviews from the Michigan Atari Computer Enthusiasts."

    For anyone interested, this is a link:

    The nationwide ads in 'Antic' mentioned there - slightly different from the promotion pictured above - can be found here:


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