Monday, February 4, 2013

Game 85: Dungeon (1979)

How far title screens have come in 10 years.

United States
Independently developed; published in CURSOR, a tape-based magazine
Released in 1979 for Commodore PET
Date Started: 13 February 2013
Date Ended: 10 October 2020
Total Hours: 5
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 6
Ranking at Game #382: 3/382 (1%)
Over the past couple of months, we've taken a look at a couple of pre-Rogue roguelikes for the Apple II: Beneath Apple Manor and Dungeon Campaign, both from 1978. I was lucky enough that both developers commented on my postings for those games, and in both the gameplay and the comments, we get a picture of the earliest emergence of commercial RPGs. Both of these Apple II games were inspired by a very simple maze-crawler called Dragon Maze, but flavored with the programmers' own enthusiasm for Dungeons & Dragons.

Similar developers were at work on other platforms, and one of the earliest and crudest offerings is Dungeon (1979) for the Commodore PET. Released in 1977, the PET is the earliest Commodore model that can truly be called a "PC" (the previous KIM-1 was just a board). I never owned one; my first PC purchase was the TRS-80 in 1982, followed by the Commodore VIC-20 in 1984. (Yes, by then the C64 was already out. I was always chronically behind the times in my computer purchases. My only Mac-owning period was from 1992-1997, right in the middle of Apple's decline and before its big resurgence.)

The Commodore PET 2001. Note the tiny keyboard and built-in tape drive. Later models would have floppy disk drives.

According to MobyGames, the PET supported nine CRPGs before its demise, including three of the Dunjonquest entries (which would later be gathered into the Temple of Apshai trilogy), a variant of StarQuest: Rescue at Rigel (which I deemed a non-CRPG), a variant of Telengard, a variant of Wizard's Castle, and a game called Dragon's Eye that was also available on the Apple II and Atari 8-bit. There are, however, two CRPGs only available for the PET: Dungeon and Dungeon of Death, both released in 1979.

Dungeon was distributed via an electronic (tape-based) magazine called CURSOR, published by The Code Works, that ran from 1978 to 1982. Each "issue" came with a few electronic articles and a selection of programs. If the original distribution came with any kind of back story, it's been lost to time, but the subtitle of the game--"Search for Gold in the Ancient Ruins"--tells you just about all you need to know.

Dungeon is not terribly dissimilar to Bob Clardy's Dungeon Campaign, and like the Apple II games I played in December and January, it really is on the cusp of anything we can properly call a CRPG. When you begin the game, it takes 60 seconds to build a random maze and populates it with monsters and gold. The confines of the maze reveal themselves square-by-square as you travel through them (directional movement, which includes diagonals, are your only major inputs to the game). The player has only three attributes: hit points, experience, and gold.

This is an interesting homage. Was the developer aware of Zork, which had been around noncommercially since 1977 but which wouldn't be released commercially until 1980, or was he like the Zork team inspired by Jack Vance's Dying Earth series?

As you move through the dungeon, you encounter monsters annotated by their number of hit points (e.g., "a snake with 30 hit points"). If you move your PC (represented by a black dot) on top of the enemy, the game automatically makes random combat rolls and tells you the outcome, which might be the death of either party or a loss of hit points, or an offer from the enemy to depart for half your gold. If you defeat the enemy, you gain his hit points in "experience," and your own hit points increase. (The only other games I can think of in which you gain hit points for killing enemies are Akalabeth and Ultima I.)

Monsters I've encountered include grues, dragons, snakes, spiders, and nuibuses (no idea). They're not the only danger, though: you lose one hit point for every three movement steps, so you can't dally. The monsters seem to get progressively more difficult as the character increases in levels, so every victory means an increased chance you'll die next time.

Upon your death, the game reveals the entirety of the dungeon, which really isn't that big. The detached areas would seem to suggest there are secret doors or teleporters, but I haven't been able to find any in my explorations. In fact, a couple of times, I've gotten stuck in small areas (like the one at the top center of the screen shot below) with no way to progress.

I don't know if there's a way to win the game. I checked out a few YouTube videos of gameplay (examples here and here; I would have made one, but it would have been redundant), and none of the players "won." They just eventually died. The after-death maps don't seem to show any obvious exits (the "Gs" are gold symbols and everything else is a monster.) I'm going to assume the goal is just to survive as long as you can.

Dungeon is credited to Brian Sawyer, an employee of The Code Works. He appears on four other games published in the same way--via CURSOR tapes--including a skiing simulator, a firefighting simulator, and an action game called Joust. I tried to track him down but his name is very common and I didn't really get anywhere. MobyGames has 100 other games attributed to The Code Works, none of them CRPGs. I don't know if Dungeon left much of a legacy, but at least one site I reviewed sees some similarities between it and Sword of Fargoal (1982).

For me, this exercise was primarily valuable for learning the VICE emulator, which includes applications for the PET, the VIC-20, and the Commodore 64. I want to check out Dungeon of Death next because it's supposed to be a variant of either the PLATO dnd or Daniel Lawrence's DND. I have managed to find a manual, and it actually abbreviates the game "DND" (for--I'm not kidding--"Dungeon of Death"). Alas, I have not been able to find a download of the actual game. It doesn't seem to have any videos on YouTube or screenshots on MobyGames, both of which are signs that it was lost to the ages.

What interests me about the three pre-Rogue quasi-roguelikes I've tried recently (Beneath Apple Manor, Dungeon Campaign, and Dungeon) is that they're significantly less sophisticated than the PLATO games developed several years prior. As I noted in my reviews of The Dungeon/pedit5 and The Game of Dungeons/dnd, both from 1975, these are reasonably advanced games, with multiple attributes, character levels, inventories, and complex random encounters. Oubliette from 1977 had multiple characters. The first commercial games from 1978 and 1979 pale in comparison to what a bunch of kids were able to accomplish under the radar, in between classes, for their friends. This says a lot about both the technology of the times and what motivates people to develop truly excellent programs.
A "winning" screen.
Edit from 10 October 2020: As comments covered, the game does have a "winning" condition: collecting all the gold on the level. At that point, the entire level is drawn and the player is asked if he wants to play again. Achieving this means crossing through the wall space between disconnected areas, which sometimes works if you hold down SHIFT while moving in the appropriate direction. I revisited the game and won it while comparing it to Catacombs (1981) for the ZX81.


  1. I sincerily appreciate your continued coverage of the first era of crpgs.

    1. I'm kicking myself for not starting out this way. I didn't know what the hell I was doing back in 2010.

    2. Hindsight is 20/20, if not better.

    3. In some cases it is as good as 20/5!

  2. These early games are interesting, even if they are all very similar in execution. The evolution of the CRPG has mirrored the evolution of the table-top RPG in a lot of ways.

  3. I also appreciate your exploration of these games. I just appreciate the simple graphics and lack of music. It allows for better use of imagination and my turntable has a better soundtrack. Modern games will never have the charm of these old things. I think you put your finger on it when you commented how these were done for fun by programmers rather than for profit.

  4. I too appreciate detouring through the early ones, and non-PC platforms. The analysis in the final paragraph is quite valuable. I remember the simple, simple games on the earliest home computers, and the mainframe games indeed seem much more sophisticated, much more so than I'd associate with the era. So it's important to point that out.

    Btw, I've really enjoyed reading the blog post-Uukrul (which I still haven't finished, and haven't read the postings yet), just haven't had the time to comment. Hero's Quest and some of the less great games were especially fun to read about.


    1. Glad you're still around. Hero's Quest wasn't my favorite game to play (although it wasn't far), but it was certainly one of my favorites to write about.

  5. But weren't pedit5 etc. running on mainframes and written by students of programming, whereas other games were running on the weakest early PCs, for which very little software and programming culture was built up?

    1. That's kind of what I was trying to hint at in my closing sentence, although I'm just guessing. I'd have to talk to some folks around at the time to get their perspectives. But yes, my sense is that you are correct.

    2. I wonder how much more processing power the machine they wrote pedit5 for had over a commodore 64, actually.

  6. Whenever I see a photo of a Commodore PET 2001, I can't help but think it wouldn't look out of place on a desk somewhere in the original series of Star Trek.

    1. One of Commodore's biggest advertisements used the Man himself: William Shatner, who reportedly knew nothing of computers and had little interest in the PET.

      Apparently, the PET he was given does appear in an early eighties Star Trek movie, but I forget which one.

    2. I don't know if Shatner did an ad for the PET, but I remember hearing about some 80s commercial he did for Commodore. A Youtube search reveals one for the VIC-20. Perhaps this is the ad your were thinking of.

  7. One of my first inspirations for getting into computer gaming was PLATO. There were some excellent games on it circa 1976. They also had educational aspects - You navigated using polar coordinates in SPASIM and had to cope with acceleration and deceleration.

    While my first computer was a CP/M S-100 bus system I built, I also acquired a used 8K Commodore PET and subscribed to CURSOR. They managed to fit some pretty good games in that 8K of RAM. One I remember was RATRUN, a first-person perspective 3D maze in which you were a rat trying to find the piece of cheese. Yep, 3D FP PoV in 8K of memory! I had gone to school (UCSB) with the CURSOR editors - Glen Fisher and Ron Jeffries - but I didn't know they were involved until I started getting the tapes.

    Why didn't I get one of the first Apple ]['s? They used your TV set as the monitor, and I didn't own a TV. Besides, my brother had an IMSAI CP/M system, so we could share software. But I'd have gotten into games several years earlier if I had started with the Apple.

    1. Corey, where did you encounter PLATO, and do you remember the games you were able to play on it?

      I was hoping to hear from a PET owner. Glad to hear SOME nostalgia for this platform. I guess my reaction to it is the same as when someone born in 1985 runs into an Apple II emulator, or someone born in 1990 is asked to use DOS.

    2. For what it's worth, I was born in 1985, and I "learned to type"* on a IIe in elementary school.

      *I already knew how to type, so I just played pirate copies of Spy Hunter, Oregon Trail, and some Mario knock-off. I'm pretty sure they were originally confiscated from some other student.

  8. Errrmmm, "both release28d in 1979."

    1. Likely a consequence of having too many windows open and not realizing which one had the focus. Meanwhile, somewhere, is a document claiming that my father was born in 19.

  9. Apropos of nothing, of course (I is a Gadfly for a reason, I suppose) but I started out with a Vic-20. Rapidly upgraded to a C64 but after upgrading the Vic to a massive FOUR k of RAM :) Ah, good memories of the C64.

    Anyway, just to note, the urge to program dungeon games and dungeon crawlers still lives on in gaming. I was just playing a game called Deepfall Dungeon ( and it's a cool mega-retro dungeon crawl. Take away the modern graphics and it would fit right in to the old 1981-era dungron crawlers.

    Ah, nostalgia and being murdered by horrible flesh-hungry beasts. Good times! Good times.

  10. I found a rather bizarre reference to Brian Sawyer and this game with 2 addresses. Based on a quick internet search, it appears his relatives still live in Santa Barbara. You might be able to use this information to locate Brian if you were so inclined.

    1. I live in LA now. Thanks for keeping Dungeon alive! - Brian S.

  11. Unrelated to the topic at hand, I am happy to say I finally caught up to your present postings! Work, vacations on sunny Mexican beaches, and then being sick as a dog had put me rather far behind.

  12. I remember playing this game on the PET my Dad bought when I was 8 years old. I thought it was pretty awesome. But not as much fun as playing the original Adventure/Colossal Cave on the mainframe in his office.

    I have found memories of putting in the tapes, and fast forwarding/rewinding to the appropriate game and hearing the steady whir when I pressed play. Good times...

  13. I love that you just gloss over "an action game called Joust", like no one would have heard of it. That game is classic. I played so much of that in the arcade.

    1. I still play it regularly through emulation :)

    2. Not Joust the arcade game where you ride awesome flying ostriches, Joust the commodore game written by Brian Sawyer.


    3. I was going to comment on that. I used to play the DOS version against my brothers. You would share a keyboard, using a few keys on each side to control your bird.

      Now talking about it I have a craving to play it.

    4. Ahh thanks Jason, that does not look nearly as fun as the Joust we were all thinking.

    5. To make it more confusing, there WAS a C64 version of the one with the flying birds.

  14. We used PETs when I was in high school. The first computer I programmed on in BASIC :) Ahh memories...

  15. Thanks so much for posting this. This game really captured my imagination when I was a young elementary school student with access to a Commodore PET. The grues weren't much chop, but a snake - now that was cause for panic.

    I taught myself BASIC on those PETs. That was my first exposure to computer programming.

    One of my friends and I were so captivated by this game that we spent a few afternoons hand-copying the source code to looseleaf paper, so we could take it home and study it. (The elementary school had a few PETs, but no printers). Looking back, that memory really makes me smile.

  16. This was one of my earliest gaming memories, and certainly my first CRPG. It, combined with Sword of Fargoal, would be the primary influences when I developed Caverns of Xaskazien decades later, and now Caverns of Xaskazien II. I've looked for details on Dungeon for years and find it funny and fitting that the first in depth information I should find on the game would be here on the CRPG Addict!

    BTW, in reference to your isolated room problem in Dungeon - I remember seeing an older kid playing and using what, even then, I considered a cheat. He was holding down SHIFT or maybe CTRL and moving about - it allowed him to move outside the walls of the dungeon to other areas. He claimed it was his character using a secret passage, but I assumed at the time it was a bug, because otherwise your character could, in essence, create a secret passage whenever he wanted.


    1. Good lord. Every game, no matter how obscure, seems to have inspired someone! Thanks for coming by to share your recollections. I look forward to checking out Caverns of Xaskazien in a few years.

  17. Ok, weird.

    I've been reading CRPG addict for a bit over a year. I started from the beginning and by reading one or two entries with my coffee in the morning I'm currently up to this.

    In the evenings lately I've been reading old Compute! magazines, which started life mainly oriented on the CBM PET. Just yesterday I saw an ad for CURSOR tape magazine. Today I read this entry. Freaky!

    Love the blog. Never underestimate how much easier it is to write software with a megabyte of RAM (Plato) vs 8k, or even 40k.

  18. You can definitely go through walls by holding a special PET key. I couldn't find an equivalent key on my current windows machine, so I reprogrammed the game to allow passing through walls. In the regular game, the downside to passing through the dead space was that you would lose hit points as you go and I don't believe you can heal up (pressing 5). I had played this game back in 5th and 6th grade, and it is what got me into Computer Science. It's awesome! Just got done a few rounds.

    1. It's always nice to hear from a fan of the most obscure games.

  19. Having been a sad act and reverse-engineered it, I can answer a few questions.

    (1) The game size is defined by screen memory, I think it's designed for an 8k PET, which isn't much (7167 bytes free) The game is 'played' on the screen memory and there's a map in other memory which is revealed as the game goes on, so that grabs another 1k of RAM. The program is 4.5k.
    (2) There's no secret doors or teleporters
    (3) The game has an option where if you Shift+Move you walk through the space outside the rooms/passages, this costs you hit points. You could if you were very unlucky, have rooms none of which were connected.
    (4) There's no code for hanging about costing you HP. Actually doing nothing (pressing 5) gains you HP. There may of course be different versions. On mine it will nag you to move but not actually do anything about it.
    (5) The monster strength is generated from your HP as you suggest but also your Experience, so the game will get harder whatever
    (6) You can win. There are 11 gold pieces in the game, randomly placed (the reverse G's). If you collect all of these you get the same display as in the picture (where it shows the number of kills) which you can get by pressing 'Q', there's no "YOU HAVE WON" message though, the game just ends and reveals the whole map.

    1. Thanks for clearing up a few things, Paul! Based on your comments, I was going to try again to get a winning screen, but now I can't get the game properly working as I did before. I'll just have to leave it unsolved, but I did change my "won?" column to "no" instead of "N/A."

    2. Okay, so I just wasted a bunch of time trying to get a winning screen for this silly game. No keyboard combination whatsoever allowed me to move outside of the walls, let alone anything as simple as SHIFT-Move. Since you don't get a "won" message anyway, just the same "play again?" that you get for losing, I'm shifting this back to "N/A".

  20. "I don't know if there's a way to win the game..." - I've managed to clear out the whole dungeon recently. It seems that there is nothing to do after that, so I guess this is a win of sorts. Postgame map indeed shows some isolated areas, but I don't think there is a way to reach them. More likely the author, knowing about this issue, decided to overlook it because of the game's briefness - even if you got a small dungeon, you'll probably roll a new one in five minutes.

  21. Ah, should've read all the comments before posting. Paul Robson answered most of the questions.

  22. I found this from PET FUN AND GAMES. I don't know if it's related to the description in Cursor Magazine 15 or not.


    By Brian Sawyer

    The evil magician Trent has transported you
    into the depths of some long-abandoned
    dungeons. The dungeons have been taken
    over by a large collection of monsters, each with
    its own hoard of gold. Trent has agreed to release
    you from his power if (and only if) you somehow
    get all the gold away from the monsters.

    The dungeons themselves are the usual run-
    of-the-mill dungeons — dank, dark, dismal, and
    decrepit. These dungeons have a novelty,
    however. Being long-abandoned, several
    passages have caved in, blocking the route to the
    rooms they once led into. Trent has foreseen this,
    and has given you a way to pass through walls.
    Also, the various creatures have been there a
    long time (feeding on those unwise enough to
    come in seeking gold) and no longer fit through
    the doorways. Finally, the spell Trent used to put
    you there won't permit you to leave. Only he can
    get you out.

    On the screen, youMl see a map of the
    dungeon, drawn as you travel about (your
    movement is controlled by the numeric keypad).
    Your position is marked with a dot. Gold, as you
    find it, is marked with a "G." The various sorts
    of creatures are marked with various sorts of
    markers. Open space is shown as white, and
    doors as grey squares. Walls are shown as black.

    Again, nothing will show up on the screen until
    you find it in the dungeon.

    In addition to the map, lines of information are
    kept on the screen. They show your hit points,
    your experience points, and how much gold you

    Hit points measure how much strength you
    have (zero means you're dead). Wandering about
    doing nothing uses up a few hit points; battling a
    monster uses up a great many. You may rest if
    your hit points get too low, but do so in a safe
    place. The monsters find resting humans to be
    just as tasty as any other kind.

    Experience points indicate how good you are at
    surviving. The more creatures you defeat, the
    higher your experience points go. The more
    experience points you get, the easier it is to defeat
    creatures of a given strength.

    To move, use the numeric pad in the usual
    fashion. To pick up gold, move on top of it. To
    attack a creature, move on top of it. If you want to
    move through the wall, press [SHIFT] with the
    appropriate number. (Walking through walls uses
    up more energy, and more hit points, than
    walking through open space.) If you want to quit
    (and suffer whatever other torments Trent can
    devise), press [Q].

    As the Boy Scouts say, be prepared.

    1. That definitely sounds like this game, and moreover it establishes the "winning condition." I just wish I could get to those isolated rooms.

    2. That looks correct. The listings in the "PET Fun and Games" book were adapted from the original programs published in CURSOR.

      The CURSOR tapes came with a little flyer (usually two pages long), and fortunately all 30 issues have been scanned and archived. The original flavour text read:

      "The evil magician Trent has transported you into the depths of a set of dungeons filled with various bloodthirsty creatures. There is a way to escape: you must find (and take) all the gold hidden there (which is protected by those beasts mentioned before). However, the magician who constructed the dungeons was particularly fiendish: some of the rooms have no way in (except through the walls). Those rooms may have gold in them, too."

      So it looks like they fleshed out the description a bit for the book.

  23. I know this is a little late, but I've been going through the original source of DUNGEON and implementing it in Python. I've learned a few things and I have a github where I've annotated the original source, as well as shared my python implementation.

    You can get to those isolated rooms! If you hit the shift key and the number pad, you can move in those blank spaces. It takes up 2 HP per move, as opposed to the "move 3 spaces, loose 1 HP" mechanic.

  24. I think I can shed some light on the mystery of the "shifted number" failures, and it has to do with emulation.

    On a full modern keyboard, there are two sets of number keys: one set along the top row, and a second set on the numeric keypad. Early PET keyboards did not have numbers on the top keyboard row—just punctuation marks—so while a modern keyboard treats SHIFT-4 and $ as the same key combination, the PET sees these as two different sets of keys. From the PET's point of view, SHIFT-4 is only SHIFT-4 if it's the correct 4. (Computers are very picky.) I've found that using keypad numbers instead of the top row numbers fixes this problem.

    Timing is funny sometimes. I'd just finished writing up this game here:
    when I stumbled upon this page. (I'd read a bunch of other CRPG reviews in the past, but was surprised to find DUNGEON here...)

    1. I don't know, Myles. I think I would have noticed the consistency of the game working with the numberpad but not the top row numbers. Instead, I remember it being maddeningly inconsistent with the same keys. But I can't find the game file anymore, so I can't say for sure.

    2. I do have the game file, so I loaded it into VICE to play around with it a bit. I stand by my previous observations, with one minor caveat: there seems to be some weirdness with the keyboard buffering, so you actually have to wait for your move to finish before the PET will accept the next keypress. Normally you could "type ahead" a few steps but instead the controls feel mushy. I didn't look at the listing to figure out why, but I think I do agree with you that even the correct keys do feel "maddeningly inconsistent" as a result.
      There's also a well-known bug that affects PETs with later BASIC ROM (v4.0) revisions. Robin of the YouTube channel 8-Bit Show-and-Tell did a pretty nifty video where he tracks down the bug and fixes it.
      Anyone who wants to play around with this game file can find the bug-fixed version by searching for "cursor dungeon fixed".

    3. Brian was using some magic numbers that are built into the PET to make various things work - he used it for timing how long to build the dungeon, for example. It's been about 4 years since I looked at that code, but I remember there were weird things going on. In some ways, Brian's code felt like an exploration of "what could be done" and it has some bugs. Including the movement bug, the monster "AI" bug and a couple of other odd bits I found when I was going through the code to convert it to Python.

    4. Well, it definitely sounds like the mystery is solved. Thank you, Myles.


I welcome all comments about the material in this blog, and I generally do not censor them. However, please follow these rules:

1. Do not link to any commercial entities, including Kickstarter campaigns, unless they're directly relevant to the material in the associated blog posting. (For instance, that GOG is selling the particular game I'm playing is relevant; that Steam is having a sale this week on other games is not.) This also includes user names that link to advertising.

2. Please avoid profanity and vulgar language. I don't want my blog flagged by too many filters. I will delete comments containing profanity on a case-by-case basis.

3. NO ANONYMOUS COMMENTS. It makes it impossible to tell who's who in a thread. If you don't want to log in to Google to comment, either a) choose the "Name/URL" option, pick a name for yourself, and just leave the URL blank, or b) sign your anonymous comment with a preferred user name in the text of the comment itself.

4. I appreciate if you use ROT13 for explicit spoilers for the current game and upcoming games. Please at least mention "ROT13" in the comment so we don't get a lot of replies saying "what is that gibberish?"

5. Comments on my blog are not a place for slurs against any race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, or mental or physical disability. I will delete these on a case-by-case basis depending on my interpretation of what constitutes a "slur."

Blogger has a way of "eating" comments, so I highly recommend that you copy your words to the clipboard before submitting, just in case.

I read all comments, no matter how old the entry. So do many of my subscribers. Reader comments on "old" games continue to supplement our understanding of them. As such, all comment threads on this blog are live and active unless I specifically turn them off. There is no such thing as "necro-posting" on this blog, and thus no need to use that term.

I will delete any comments that simply point out typos. If you want to use the commenting system to alert me to them, great, I appreciate it, but there's no reason to leave such comments preserved for posterity.

I'm sorry for any difficulty commenting. I turn moderation on and off and "word verification" on and off frequently depending on the volume of spam I'm receiving. I only use either when spam gets out of control, so I appreciate your patience with both moderation tools.