Monday, March 17, 2014

Game 140: Tunnels of Doom (1982)

Tunnels of Doom
United States
Texas Instruments (developer and publisher)
Kevin Kenney (author)
Released 1982 for TI-99 series computers
Date Started: 9 March 2014
Date Ended: 9 March 2014
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: 21
Ranking at Time of Posting: 37/142 (26%)

Tunnels of Doom is the subject of many fond remembrances by people who were 10 in 1982 and had a TI-99. I can see why. It offers innovative elements, good use of sound, and fun encounters, and its party-based combat screen might be the most tactical combat system we'd seen (in 1982) outside of Wizardry. It certainly deserved a look.

A shot from the game's room/combat screen. My three characters are facing a giant rat. GID, the leader/fighter, has 18 hit points damage against his 20 hit points total, so he's not doing so well. GET, my thief, is the active character, and he's targeting the giant rat with a crossbow. The + under his icon indicates he has a pretty good chance of hitting it. When we defeat it, we have a treasure chest to look forward to, and the fountain in the middle of the room may provide healing.

I don't know that I'd recommend it for a 2014 player. It involves learning an emulator that isn't necessary for many other games (the only other RPGs I can find for a TI-99 are Legends and Legends II), mastering a keyboard layout that makes no sense except on a native keyboard, and getting an RPG experience that isn't exactly going to draw your attention away from Dark Souls. Fortunately, that's what I'm here for.

The TI-99/4A keyboard. There were no separate arrow keys, so the game uses the ESDX cluster for movement and the FCTN combinations for "proceed" and "back."

Tunnels of Doom was one of dozens of programs (but the only RPG) written internally at Texas Instruments as a way to promote the computer. Technically, Tunnels of Doom is the name for the overall game engine, and the idea was there would be multiple scenarios playable under that engine. The game shipped with two of them: Pennies and Prizes and Quest of the King. The former was a children's game that featured collecting treasure but no enemies. The latter is what people remember as the core game. In it, you lead a party of up to four characters in a quest to find both a kidnapped king and his magic Orb of Power. You have a limited number of turns to accomplish these tasks.

The player has a lot of control over the game's difficulty. You get to determine how many floors the game has (from up to 10), the overall game difficulty (easy, medium, hard), and how many characters to include in the party. A multi-character party can include fighters, thieves, and wizards, or you can adventure with a solo "hero" who has the abilities of all classes. Fighters can use any weapons and armor, thieves have a trap-avoidance ability, and wizards can use scrolls. You have to repeatedly reference your characters' names in-game when assigning items and taking actions, so it's best not to name them things like "Mxyzptlk."

Character creation.

The top level of the dungeon has a general store where you initially equip your characters from a pool of gold. Theoretically, you can return to it later to buy better equipment, but it's usually best not to waste the time.

Buying stuff at the beginning of the game.

Once you set the parameters, the dungeon levels are randomly-generated and seeded. They consist of a bunch of twisty corridors, which you explore in first-person view . . .

. . . ending in rooms that you explore in third-person view. In this, they are similar to what we'll later see in Ultima IV and V. The game gets a lot of praise for using color in an era in which the typical dungeon crawler used wireframe graphics, but to me the color doesn't really add to any substance. I rather prefer the bare-bones wireframes, and the bleak sense they convey, to traveling through pastel-colored dungeons.

This room contained one of the objects of my quest.

Rooms might contain any of the following:

  • Enemies to fight
  • Miscellaneous treasures
  • Treasure chests, which might contain armor, weapons, gold, scrolls, or maps of the level
  • Vaults to open
  • Secret doors leading to unmapped parts of the level
  • Fountains, which randomly increase or decrease attributes
  • "Living statues," which take money to identify unidentified magic items

Donating money to a living statue to identify that "untried scroll."

In combat, this is one of the few games of the era in which you didn't just hit (F)ight and hope for the best. Each character gets a movement action and an attack action each round. There are some tactics associated with maneuvering party members into melee range or staying in missile range, swapping magic items between characters, and conserving magic scrolls for when you really need them. It isn't anything earth-shattering, but it does anticipate the more complex iconographic combat systems we'd see in SSI games, including Wizard's Crown, Shard of Spring, and ultimately the Gold Box series.

Fighting two "evil manes."

Characters level quite slowly as they accumulate experience, gaining 5 hit points for every new level, but rarely exceeding in character levels the number of levels in the dungeon. Characters don't "die" in the game. If their wounds exceed their hit points, they'll become "disabled." At that point, they can be healed by fountains or by purchasing healing at the general store, or slowly by eating rations. The dynamic makes it more likely that you'll lose the game because the quest times out than because of full-party death.

The "character status" window.

The number of turns you have available to complete the quest is dependent on the number of dungeon levels and the difficulty. Each turn comprises 10 steps (including checking secret doors and listening at doors), so you don't want to waste time.

The game is one of the first to feature an automap. I found a level map in one of the rooms, so the part that I've yet to explore is in blue.

There are two gameplay elements in Tunnels of Doom that I've seen in no other games in my chronology. The first is the ability to "listen at doors" before you enter rooms. If there's a monster in the room, the action will produce the sound normally made by that monster in combat. Since it's hard to record notes about a sound, my scratchpad is filled with entries like:

  • "Boop-dit-dit-dit-dit" = Lizard
  • High-pitched "do-do-do" = Rat

While theoretically this is a fun dynamic, there's really no way to "prepare" for a specific combat, and you really have to search all the rooms for your quest objects, so listening has limited utility.

The second element is a fun mechanism by which you open vaults, where you usually find your quest objects. The game tells you that the combination to the vault consists of, for instance, "three digits between 1 and 4," and you have to try various combinations (212, 321, etc.). After each try, the game tells you whether you're high or low, and how many of the digits you got correctly. Through a process of deduction, you figure out the right combination. Every false try has a chance of damaging the character (though rogues usually, or always, evade this). It's a fun little mini-game.

A successful lockpicking. I got lucky with a couple of my guesses.

The gameplay is thus a non-boring process of methodically exploring the dungeon corridors, looking for the two quest items, treasures, and stairs to take you between levels. You need to keep checking your "party status" to see how much time you have left and hope for the best.

My quest status. I have 200 movements left to find the king.

I won twice, once with a hero in an "easy" dungeon of one level, and once with a party of three in a "medium" dungeon of 3 levels. It isn't all that hard, though of course it would be a lot harder on a "hard" dungeon of 10 levels. If anyone expected me to do that, I'm sorry to let you down. It's not a bad game, but I feel like I uncovered its mysteries on the four hours I spent on it.

The victory screen takes place back at the dungeon entrance. Notice the down stairs and the little store.

I get why TI-99 owners from the early 1980s felt this was a gem, but today it's interesting solely as a curio. It only scores a 18 on my GIMLET, hurt by a lack of any story and NPCs (0 on both) and unimaginative enemies (1). It does best in the "equipment" (3) and overall "gameplay" (4) categories, the latter for its quick pace, user-defined level of difficulty, and lots of replayability. It gets a 2 everywhere else. [Edit: in consideration of features I didn't experience, I increased the "encounters and foes" and "economy" ratings to 3, increasing the overall score to 21 overall.]

A fan named Ed Burns created a tribute page several years ago, in which he includes an interview with author Kevin Kenney. Kenney indicates that he was the primary author on two other TI games, Hunt the Wumpus and A-Maze-ing (the latter two both adapted from other sources). Shortly after Tunnels of Doom, he was laid off as part of a large downsizing, although he worked under contract to create another Tunnels module that was never released. He says he drew from tabletop Dungeons & Dragons, Akalabeth, and Wizardry in his design for the game. Finally, he notes that the extremely thorough documentation was a point of pride for TI at the time.

I do wonder whether the game had any influence on either Origin or SSI. The approach to corridors and rooms is very similar to what we see in Ultima IV and V (and, to a lesser extent, III), and the combat system is similar to what we see in Ultima III, Wizard's Crown, and Shard of Spring. On the other hand, these developments could be seen as natural evolutions of the developers' own titles, and it's not like the Tunnels features are so unique that no one could have developed them independently.

In 1985 or 1986, a Chicago police officer named John Behnke created a Tunnels of Doom Editor that allowed users to create their own adventures using the Tunnels engine. According to Matt Barton's Dungeons & Desktops (extract available here), it is this editor, and the modules created with it--such as one set in a K-Mart and one set on the Enterprise--that "most people remember" about the game, but I wasn't able to find many such remembrances online. I don't know how widely these fan modules were disseminated.

If you want to check it out yourself, you can get the Classic99 emulator here; it comes with Tunnels of Doom, so you don't have to hunt down the ROMs. I'm assured it's all legal somehow. The emulator doesn't support save states, so no cheating. Or you can check out Howard Kistler's "reboot" of the game for Windows.


  1. "There are two gameplay elements in Tunnels of Doom that I've seen in no other games in my chronology. The first is the ability to "listen at doors" before you enter rooms."

    Do you mean until that point in your chronology? Because you can also listen at doors in Dark Heart of Uukrul.

    I'm looking forward to Tunnels & Trolls. I've heard a lot of good things about it and it has a few interesting featurs, but I never got into it myself.

    1. I'd forgotten about that in DHoU. Even so, it was a different dynamic, not dependent upon sound the way that ToD is.

    2. I'd have thought that Dungeons of Daggorath did a better job at that.

    3. DoD did an equally good job at using sound, but monster freely roamed the hallways, so there was no specific dynamic to "stop and listen at doors before deciding if you want to enter."

  2. This seems like a surprisingly good game. I've never heard of it before, which is somewhat to be expected considering it's age, but it seems like it would have been a really fun game at the time.

    I find myself fond of the graphics in this one. I disagree a bout the wireframe graphics being superior. I feel that the colors give it a little more joy to look at. In fact, I find wireframe graphics somewhat hard to reconcile with. Despite Wizardry being one of my favorite franchises, I rarely revisit any game before Wizardry VI.

  3. You should really try it with a slightly bigger dungeon. A 5 level dungeon doesn't take too long to play, but is a lot more fun. Really deep dungeons can be pretty challenging, even on easy.

    Here are some other points:

    (1) You only need to enter the first letter of your character's name, as long as they are all different. Text completion in 1982! It really makes the game better. You can name a character Melchizedek if you want, but don't have a Methuselah too.

    (2) Don't forget to break in to rooms with the B key. This ensures that your whole party is in the room and ready to fight. Your screenshot shows the back row stuck in the hallway.

    (3) There are 2 more general stores if you have a big enough dungeon. They are on floor 4 and floor 8. They have a few new items for sale, but everything is much more expensive.

    (4) The living statues get greedier the deeper you go.

    (5) The above to points mean that the economy is never really out of whack. You never hit a stage with a ton of useless gold.

    (6) There are magic items that increase your weapon stats. Honing stones for weapons, repair for armour, and Reflex Draught for armour bonus. The items are completely random, so this makes for a big variation in difficulty between games. 3 or 4 honing stones make for a pretty easy game, but sometimes you don't get any.

    (7) There are monsters that decrease your weapon stats. It really increases the tension when you only have a little time left to find the king and the orb and a monster turns your trusty battle axe in to something with the attack power of a short sword. No time to go back to the store, so you'd best soldier on and hope to find a decent weapon in the next chest.

    (8) After you find the quest items, the number of wandering monsters increases greatly. You've got to fight your way back to the surface.

    (9) The pastel dungeon walls get darker and darker the deeper you go. It looks all light and cheerful on floors 1 and 2, slightly less so on floors 3 and 4. Things start to get gloomy and dank on floor 5.

    All of this adds up to a game that is remarkably fun. They got the play balance right. There is real tension in this game. Experienced players will usually win on easy, but not always. Hard is well named. You can play a full game in and afternoon, but I find myself going back again and again.

    1. A '1' on the monsters? Did you ever check the monster statistic screen? (Press '3' while in combat) Monsters have special attacks and a lot of variety not present in other games. That's a lot deeper than Akalabeth or Ultima I and II were, when monsters just had hit points.

      Also, you see new monsters the deeper you go, while there's only around 16 different graphic sets, there's over 50 monster types in the game.

    2. Thank you both for the additional context and filling in some of the holes that I didn't get to experience. I'm not motivated to play any more of the game, but I did increase the GIMLET score slightly.

    3. Just try a 1 character game that goes to level 9. Use any honing stones that you find on your crossbow, but don't use up all your ammo too soon. The time will fly, and you'll be surpised how much you are enjoying yourself, if you survive.

  4. Hopefully the T&T game will incorporate most of the rules from the pencil and paper game. Ken St. Andre used the rules for Mercenaries,Spies & Private Eyes, which was influenced by T&T, to design the engine for Wasteland. Both paper games were simple yet allowed for interesting and complex play and translate well to CRPGs.

  5. OMG... Thank you so much for finding this gem. Since I started reading your blog (still catching up in 2012 now) I have been trying to remember the game that took up so much of my time on my TI99. When I loaded this page to do some catching up the opening picture made me pause and then I became very excited when I realized what it was. Now I must find it so I may replay it this evening.

    1. In case you missed it, Chet included a link to the emulator + game here in the article in the last paragraph.

  6. I just want to say that that automap is gorgeous. Nicely rendered, useful information (stairs etc.) and differentiates between visited and non-visited places.

    1. Yes, I agree. It did a very good job there.

    2. The game does ding you if you decide to go down a level without finding an actual map of of the level (there's usually two on each level, so if you explore at least half the rooms you have a good chance of finding it). When you go back up it will only show staircase locations.

  7. Looks like the emulator uses some sort of image scaler. :)

    1. Yeah, the Classic99 emulator uses an image scaler by default to smooth things up. You can turn it off, or even turn on NTSC mode if you're nostalgic for color-blurred goodness. :)

  8. This game looks good and seems like it would be a serious contender to any other RPGs in its time, though. I guess the earlier games were only meant to show off what the engine could do and the devs might have hoped that later, unreleased, modules could have a more solid story line.

  9. One other aspect this game has you may have missed... you don't HAVE to fight monsters, necessarily. You can attempt to negotiate with them by pressing the 'N' key at the start of combat.

    If the monsters are willing to negotiate (animals and undead, naturally don't, some are more greedy than others, the monster stat screen tells you the percentage chance) then they'll demand a certain amount of money to leave the party alone.

    If they are in a random corridor they will disappear and not bother the party again. If they're in a room, they stay put and the party can't loot or use any items in the room. So it comes in handy to avoid fights against monsters that offer no useful gain (no treasure in room, no treasure on monster).

    I'm somewhat surprised you missed this feature, did you have a copy of the manual when you played?

    1. Yes. Occasionally, I just miss stuff in the manual or forget to mention things in my posts.

  10. Nice coincidence. For some reason I decided to dust off my old TI-99 4/A this past weekend and fired up Wumpus to see how well it held up. It turned out to be a hit with the kids! Simple and engaging. I didn't have Tunnels of Doom back in the day, looks like it could have been a gem.

  11. I rather like this game. Never actually tried the original- especially not back in the day when I was very young. Well, I was 23/24 when I bought my c-64. But I have tried the reboot (some years ago, actually) and it's fun. Nothing I'd base the rest of my crpg playing career upon but then hey! Hasta la vista.

    Oh, as a sidenote, it's 3:44 A.M. PST and between 2 A.M. and 3 A.M. my wife died.

    1. Wow, I'm so sorry. (Second part obviously)

    2. I know she's been in poor health for a while now, but I'm sorry to hear she passed. It's good to still have you around william.

    3. So sorry William. Stay strong. :(

    4. My condolence, man.

      Then again, I know how horribly your wife had suffered from cancer. So, even though the pain of loss is there, it may have been a kind of liberation for both of you.

    5. My condolences.

      Stay strong and keep busy. Good luck.

    6. i am thinking of you, william, wherever you are.

  12. Man, I already miss The False Prophet. It's like it went by so fast - I'm almost forgetting how people thought it was notable after Chet ripped through it! I guess that's what happens when you've played 200 RPGs and have 200 more, right?

    1. More like 200 played, 2000 to go... well, I think this may be the first time Chet's done an epilogue post just messing around in the world. I'm not sure how often that will happen.

    2. I'm thinking he's gonna do it for all sandbox (open world) games with very limitations to what you can (skills/proficiencies/abilities) or cannot do (

      I'm pretty sure Fallout, Arcanum and VtM: Bloodlines are going to burn his brains out with the amount of crazy stuff you could do in the game.

    3. A shame that VtM turns in to a brainless FPS crap right before the end.

    4. Yeah, I think Troika had a lot to say about that because of the pressure they got from Activision to release the game way too early.

      A lot of computer-savvy fan-modders unearthed shitloads of unused contents in the game's codes and tried to finish the game for Troika after their company busted because of the dismal sales from the broken game.

    5. Troika always had problems with release dates and bugs. They kept their team far too small, and thus spent pretty much all their time working late into the night and on weekends, which doesn't lead to good work. Thus, they had brilliant people wasting time on unused content in buggy messes.

  13. Not sure you've looked into it yet, but Chivalry is nothing more than an electronic board game (worse offender than Star Saga). We had this in my house growing up. You name your character, roll the dice, land on certain squares, and play the appropriate mini-game. I just noticed it on your list. Of course, it shouldn't take more than an hour or two complete if you did want to check it out.

    1. No, I typically don't investigate games much before they arrive in my "current" arrow, so I appreciate the heads up. Any excuse I can find to trim is a good one.

  14. My future husband gave me the TI994a and this game for an engagement present. It was my first computer and RPG that wasn't pencil and paper. 31 years later, we are still married and he can't hassle me when I play WoW for hours on end. He got me started! Thanks for the trip down memory lane!

  15. It wasn't a perfect game by any means (though I used to enjoy it). It didn't compare to something like Wizardry.

    But try and tell me that the Intro music wasn't fantastic for something from the early 80's. That's the thing that stuck in my head the most.

    There's a remake of Tunnels of Doom here:

    It doesn't try to be a 100% faithful remake. They upgraded the graphics, sound, and music to more modern standards. But the mechanics, items, and monsters are as I remember them.

  16. I used to enjoy using the Alertness Bow plus a lot of honing stones. :)

    1. Any chance you'll be hitting up Legends & Legends 2?

      I should play through them now that you showed a link to an emulator I should have success with. Always hate learning new emulators.

    2. They're both on my list for later in the 1980s.

  17. I recently have delved into the TI-99 and have identified several obscure CRPGs and adventures worth checking out since I love the really clunky old ones (like Dungeons of Death / Magdarr). As usual MOCAGH gives a good glimpse into many, but not all of these. Among the notables are Wizard's Lair, Wizard's Revenge (which inspired another modern homebrew sequel), and a number of Tunnels of Doom expansion modules by 3rd party sw makers of the day. I also have (not up at MOCAGH) Catacombs and The Quest which may have been BBS-shared titles. Lastly I have Wizard's Dominion, an obscure 3D maze simple RPG title I picked up years before I had a TI-99, since it was also listed in a Compute's! Gazette ad as being available for the C64.

    1. You're Chet's new favourite person. ^_^

    2. I've taken to watching DOS game videos, including obscure BBS stuff, so I suspect he is going to come to Vancouver one day, agree to let me buy him a drink, then when we met up, punch me in the jaw and walk out.

    3. Wow, I wasn't ever certain the add-ons for Doom of Mondular existed! Sadly no one has turned up in the modern TI community with copies so we probably won't ever know if they were any good. (The base game certainly wasn't.)

      Several of the old Aardvark titles existed for the TI-99/4a, but they're incredibly rare and hard to find; nobody has binaries of them that I'm aware of. At some point I had a copy of "The Quest" back in the 80's/90's but I lost it and no one seems to have it now. From what I heard, most of the games were poor on the TI because they stuck with TI BASIC.

      I started a conversion of Wizard's Tower for the TI at one point, but not sure if I'll ever finish it.

  18. OMG I love that title screen so much! The more I stare at it the more I love it!

  19. I still play this game on the TI-99/4A emulator...35 years later!

  20. Those fan-made expansion packs were sold by Triton Software in the late 80s, after Texas Instruments discontinued support for the 99 line. Triton purchased rights to sell the existing inventory of 99/4 software and peripherals, and created some new ones for the existing customer base.

    I fondly remember playing the expansion themes eagerly, though there were few differences in actual gameplay. Theming, graphical elements, and difficulty would vary between expansions, but it was generally still the same wander-till-you-found-an-item quest.

    However, for a poor boy who couldn't afford an Apple II+ or Nintendo, it did fine.

  21. I played this game back in the early 1980's I think (I was in 5th grade I think). It was my FIRST game. I LOVED it!!!
    I made a list of all the different monsters I encountered (hit points, attacks, etc.). Each monster got a line on the paper. The list was a few pages long!
    The music in the beginning was great, by the way. I think the composer was well known.

    Philip H

  22. Related: there's a kickstarter for the physical collector's edition of a new TI-99 game by one of the frequent commenters here and it's one of the best retro CRPGs I've ever played (it's also on Steam).

    He namechecks Tunnels of Doom right at the beginning of the campaign description so I hope that makes it relevant enough:

    I already have one from the first run, but I'm hoping it gets to the hint guide stretch goal because the game is huge and even though I've beaten it already I know I missed plenty of things.

  23. In this thread, "Pixelpendant" linked his three-part video series on ToD and community-made scenarios made for it; the thread also contains a link to a collection of > 30 ToD games:
    John Behnke recently showed up in the comments to the first video and shared some memories.

    Another thread with the link to a retrospective gameplay video:

    In the comments to this video, there are tips from people who apparently play(ed) this a lot:


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