Friday, March 25, 2022

Game 452: Catacombs of the Phantoms (1981)

I only ever met one phantom.
Catacombs of the Phantoms
United States
Independently developed; published in Softside magazine.
Released 1981 for Atari 800
Date Started: 19 March 2022
Date Ended: 20 March 2022
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
Catacombs, credited to Tom Plassman, appears as type-in code in the June 1981 edition of SoftSide magazine for the Atari 800. The backstory is that a young man looking for adventure in the town of Petiteville is told, by an old wizard, of the Golden Goddess of Power, hidden in the catacombs beneath the town by the sorcerer Agalinta. The wizard warns the protagonist that the only ways out of the catacombs are death, finding the Golden Goddess, or finding "nature's entrance." He gives the boy a bag of three magical worms that can bore through stone and drop him to a lower catacomb.
The game is all-text. On each screen, you learn the room number and a list of rooms that you can access from here. You also learn any monsters or treasures in the room. Control is solely through typing in a number that conforms with your action: the room number to move to a different room, 77 to fight a monster, 88 to search a chest, 99 to drink from a fountain, 102 to use a worm, and 200 to leave via the "natural exit" in Room 0. The game is meant to be short, as there's no save option.
A typical room in Catacombs.

Comparable screen in The Devil's Dungeon.

Comparable screen from Caverns of Mordia.
If this all sounds familiar, it's because the game is plagiarized, but the question is from what previous game it is plagiarized. The most obvious answer is The Devil's Dungeon (1978), a game that also appeared as type-in code in C. William Engel's Stimulating Simulations. As you may remember from that review, a more complex version of The Devil's Dungeon appeared in 1980 in Australia as Caverns of Mordia by Hans Coster. In an e-mail to me, Coster insisted that he wrote the game from scratch with no reference to The Devil's Dungeon, but he said that earlier versions of the game had been traded around for years before he decided to publish it commercially, leading to the possibility, however remote, that one had made its way to Florida and inspired Engel's code (Engel died in 2011). I found that idea frankly doubtful, but now Catacombs complicates things. We have to wrestle now with four possibilities.

  1. An early version of Mordia made its way across the Atlantic. Engel plagiarized it for The Devil's Dungeon. Plassman also got hold of it and plagiarized it for Catacombs.
  2. An early version of Mordia made its way across the Atlantic. Engel plagiarized it for The Devil's Dungeon. Plassman plagiarized Dungeon for Catacombs.
  3. Engel's Devil's Dungeon was first. Coster built on it for Mordia. Plassman plagiarized it for Catacombs.
  4. Engel's Devil's Dungeon was first. Coster built on it for Mordia. Plassman got hold of either the published Mordia or an earlier circulation and plagiarized it for Catacombs.
I hate including #3 and #4 since Dr. Coster told me directly that Mordia was his original work, but it's been 40 years, and it's possible that he forgot he started with the Dungeon base, particularly when Mordia added so much to it. #1 and #2 seem unlikely just because some early version of Mordia would have had to make its way over here in 1977 (Engel's code was published in January 1978). 
Plassman offers his story and code.
But Catacombs actually makes #1 more credible, as there are ways that it's closer to Mordia than Dungeon. For instance:
  • Both Mordia (M) and Catacombs (C) give the attributes as strength and agility, while Dungeon (D) uses strength and speed.
  • D continually scrolls its action, where as C and M both refresh for each new room.
  • Both M and C repeat the character's name on each room screen; D does not.
  • Both M and C have a main quest, and in both games a wizard sets you on it. In D, your quest is only to acquire gold, and you seek out the dungeon on your own.
  • D just has you encounter generic "monsters"; M and C name specific monsters, with some overlap among types. Admittedly, these types are pretty common: orcs, goblins, and demons.
  • Finally, Plassman's code does not look anything like Engel's, which also had an Atari 800 version. Why would you plagiarize a game but write all new code for the same machine?
The only question in my mind is whether Plassman copied the published version of Mordia from the previous year (though published solely in Australia) or some earlier version that may have also inspired Engel. There is some evidence for the latter. Catacombs lacks a lot of the advanced features found in the published Mordia. It has no inventory, rooms full of gas, natural disasters, or graphics, all of which spiced up the action in Mordia. It's almost as if it was based on a more primitive version of Mordia, just as Dr. Coster asserted must have been floating around prior to its official publication. In sum, #1 looks at least as likely as #4.
As in most cases of plagiarism, the author is not completely without innovation. Catacombs introduces some mechanics not seen in its predecessors. A mysterious, sexy phantom (of the title) appears occasionally to give you clues and assistance. There are occasional fountains that can be drunk from for healing. Rooms can have treasure chests, which can have fire traps, limiting the amount of gold you can collect at once. You find additional codes as you explore, randomized for each new game, such as a code that uses a "gargoyle stoning" potion and one that uses a magic mirror to detect if the Golden Goddess is on the level. 
The titular phantom gives me some help.
Win or lose, the game is pretty quick. It only supports 4 levels and 59 rooms. But it's also hard. You have to carefully evaluate the monster's statistics compared to your own, only attack those monsters with less than half your health, and flee the others. Fleeing gives them a chance to swipe at you, so I found it was best to make a node map and annotate monster locations so I didn't encounter them twice if I could avoid it.
If combat goes for more than one round, the enemy is probably too hard for you to be fighting.
Every once in a while, you find a fountain. If you drink from the fountain, you get increases to your strength commensurate with the number of experience points you've earned in combat and increases in agility commensurate with the amount of gold you've managed to loot. 
My first attempt at the big boss goes poorly.
The Golden Goddess is in a random room guarded by a giant with nearly 300 strength and nearly 60 agility. You want to have as close to that in your own stats before taking it on. Once you've defeated the monster, you can wish your way home with the artifact.
I win!
I gave it some 1s and 2s across the board (except for 0 in equipment) for a final score of 11, better than the 6 I gave The Devil's Dungeon but not as good as the 20 I gave Caverns of Mordia. I think I have identified the Tom Plassman who wrote the game, and I've sent out an inquiry, but I haven't heard back yet at the time of this entry.


  1. What's with all these obscure type-in games lately?
    Are you punishing yourself for not being an Avatar of Virtue when it comes to thoughts about Native Americans?

    1. I tried to use March to sweep up a bunch of low-hanging fruit and clear up the "back" list. Halfway through the month, I realized it was impossible because people are adding games to the databases faster than I can play them. But I'd already written most of the posts.

    2. Wait people are STILL adding games to the pre-93 database faster than you can play them. Is it like - always - or did someone find a secret stash and upload it somewhere.

      I guess I am on a better niche from that point of view :).

    3. You'd be surprised at the amount of games not listed on Mobygames yet! I tend to make sure I have the genre and release info right so I can give some proof to the approvers on Mobygames before submitting a game, but I already reached 52 submitted games since I started submitting there.

      Mine are mostly 90s and 00s titles though.

    4. This is probably largely my going, since most of the games Chet has played recently were ones I added to Mobygames. Mobygames remains VERY incomplete for pre 1990 games. I've added nearly 3,000 over the last few years, and I'd probably need to add another 10,000 games to get close to completely documenting all the pre 1990 computer games.

    5. Damned, now I get this image in my mind of a dung beetle forever rolling a giant ball of dung up a hill...

    6. how do you add games to the list? I want to make Chet suffer by finding new games! LOL.

      there were 10,000 games pre-1990? I was an 80s kid. Where were these games? I just remember going to Babbages to buy games.

    7. Go to Mobygames. Check if the game you found is already in their database. If it isn't, click on the contribution button and fill out all the information. Good luck!

    8. Hey Dungy, could you give percentage of those thousands of games in genre (RPG/arcade/simulation/wargames/other) ?

    9. It's probably 80-90%+ arcade games, and another 10% being being graphic and text adventures. RPGs represent a VERY small proportion, maybe 2 - 3%.

      As for where these games are. Well, they're everywhere. But it somewhat depends on the system. Almost all magazine type-in games are NOT listed on Mobygames. As well, monthly mail order cassettes and disks are virtually non-existent.

      As for stuff that was released in a box and sold in stores, well I've covered almost all of that now. When I first started about 4 years ago, if you did an eBay search for 8-bit Atari, Apple II, C64, or CoCo games, there was a LOT of stuff that popped up that wasn't on Mobygames. That almost never happens now.

      Some systems are poorly represented due to lack of interest, like the TRS-80, the TRS-80 CoCo, and the VIC-20 and PET. I'd say the system that still needs the most love is the VIC-20 because I haven't started working on it yet.

    10. I wonder why so many games are grouped under 'arcade' when they're (probably) platformers, shmups, sport sims, tetris-likes, and so forth.

    11. I should have said Action instead of Arcade.

      Still, about 1/2 of the PC games created in the early 80s are just clones of their arcade equivalent.

    12. Dungy's opinion that its 90% arcade games is probably close to being correct. You would not believe how many clones of games there are around.
      Which is sort of why Chet is doing better than he thinks he is. As of this writing nobody's added any new RPGs for the '80s to Mobygames for several days, so its clearly not hopeless.

    13. Semi-tangentially, I'm uncertain how Wikipedia's list would be of relevance to the project at this point (barring games that have already been played or are yet to come). Wouldn't anything unknown from 1993 and before be, more or less by definition, non-notable by Wikipedia's standards? In other words, can anyone add anything pre-1994 to the Wikipedia list at this point without it being immediately deleted by the self-described deletionists over there?

    14. I think these obscure little BRIEFS have been pretty interesting. Probably nice to get away from the longer ones every now and then!

    15. Interestingly, the new policy of only going by Mobygames wouldn't thwart the seemingly greatest contributor to Chet's load...

    16. PK, the Wikipedia articles titled "List of Role-Playing Video Games" doesn't require articles on games added to the list.

      Morpheus, is there a way to search MobyGames for titles added after a particular date?

    17. Ah Dungy, you must be Hoeksmas ! Thank you again for sending me the manual of Armor Assault. Also, you did put on mobygames some forgotten jewels (eg Starbase Hyperion... for Exidy Sorcerer for my niche) that I would have totally missed without you.

      On the other hand, checking 10+ type-in games to check whether they would qualify as wargames (and for Chet, the same for RPG but more like 50+ I guess) was tedious :).

    18. PK, the Wikipedia articles titled "List of Role-Playing Video Games" doesn't require articles on games added to the list.

      Noted, but the criteria -- both on the main "List of role-playing video games" page and on almost all the subpages -- seem to demand commercial RPGs. At the very least that would exclude the type-in games you've been encountering, among other things like freeware.

      (Right now that may sound to you like a feature, rather than a bug, but that aside...)

      The one exception is 1975-1985, which is interesting -- that subpage doesn't have the "commercial" language. I expect what they really mean is "commercial and/or notable", which is fine, but I don't think the non-comprehensiveness of Wikipedia's list is due to lack of effort; I think it's by design, and any attempt to make it comprehensive in the way that Mobygames is would be stamped out by trigger-happy editors.

      Put differently, I may be wrong, but I don't think they'd tolerate a list full of redlinks to BASIC type-in games, or even the likes of Gates of Delirium.

    19. I'm not sure that type-in games should ever have been on my list in the first place. But if your'e point is that I'm unlikely to find something on Wikipedia that isn't on MobyGames, you're probably right.

    20. @Addict, no, I'm just going by the recently added on the homepage. Which wouldn't help in the rare event someone updates a genre to include RPG, considering how much noise is on the recently updated.

      On the whole Wikipedia thing, wouldn't that depend upon finding enough "valid" sources that call a game a RPG? Or if a game is reevaluated and called a RPG by modern journalists.

    21. On the whole Wikipedia thing, wouldn't that depend upon finding enough "valid" sources that call a game a RPG?

      You're certainly correct that, as a tertiary source by design, Wikipedia is all about what (allegedly) reputable sources say about something, rather than the truth of that claim. (If Hydlide, Zelda, Metroid, etc. are described by an outside source as RPGs, then RPGs they are.)

      That said, I'm really talking about the criteria on Wikipedia for lists of things, which are really unclear. The list itself has to be notable, but the criteria for inclusion on that list are not well-documented at all. The set of pages the Addict referenced are a mess in that regard, since non-commercial efforts are included (among other reasons).

      @Addict: That's pretty much my point, yeah. I don't see how anything will be added to Wikipedia that fulfills the criteria of (1) not played already, (2) not on your list already, (3) from the era you've already covered. And I think adding commercial but non-notable games would, despite meeting WP's alleged criteria, get a lot of pushback; those lists look curated to me, not comprehensive.

      As for the type-in games, no argument there (in the Alford plea sense), but they sure are fun to read about!

    22. (I suppose my point is really that, contra the FAQ, contributions to Wikipedia won't be evaluated according to the site's definition of an RPG, as it doesn't really have one: it relies on what "reliable sources" say. Its filter is notability and press coverage -- plus commercial release, except pre-1985 it would seem -- rather than RPG mechanics. So directing folks to document obscure games on Wikipedia is likely to waste everyone's time, I'm sorry to say.)

    23. Back in the '80s, money in games didn't work the way it did now, so you had to publish an absolute ton of them to break even. Early '80s, you're talking about cheap clones or variants on bigger-name arcades games. By the late '80s, you'd be getting into the high era of shovelware. I remember an indie bookstore near me that had a table packed full of $5 floppy disks (I still have a bunch; they seem oddly resistant to being ripped with modern hardware - some slightly non-standard formatting to squeeze a few more kb into them)

  2. I get the feeling that the difference between the four scenarios may be somewhat academic, since I'm under the impression that at such an early point in the infancy of computer gaming, there weren't really established norms yet for where the line was drawn between homage and plagiarism.

    Type-in BASIC programs also share at least a little (if infant) philosophy with the open-source movement to come later, in that the source code (obviously) was disclosed and the end user was often encouraged to retrofit the supplied code to their liking (I vaguely remember some of those type-in books even having suggestions for alterations).

    There's a few other, more famous, instances of this sort of thing you've covered before in the past that I recall, e.g. the lineage of PLATO's The Game of Dungeons to Daniel Lawrence's DND on the DEC to Bill Knight (R.O. Software)'s clone of it for DOS and Telengard; and even more famously, how much of what became Wizardry was more or less directly lifted from Oubliette on the PLATO.

    And, of course, all of them were plagiarizing TSR's Dungeons & Dragons to some degree, as well.

    1. Yeah, in some cases it wouldn't even be conceived of as "plagiarism" -- part of the whole point was to show how to write a game of that type, so people could copy the database structure / overall code concept and make their own game with that as the base.

    2. I suspect that what was happening from a sociological standpoint was very different from what was happening from a legal standpoint. Although social norms among programmers might have involved liberal sharing, I doubt Softside would have published the program if they'd known its provenance.

      With my students, I use the term "plagiarism" if they copy someone else's work. In writing about RPGs, I'm a bit more conservative, but I still have no problem using it if you're SELLING someone else's work.

    3. The Adventure System (by The Alternate Source) is really cheeky in this respect. It reversed-engineered the Scott Adams database system, made its own utilities, then sold them together as a package where you were supposed to get a license from The Alternate Source if you wanted to sell the games you made commercially.

    4. I absolutely agree there, Chet, and of course I'd also point out that regardless of whatever social norms about liberal sharing may have existed, there were absolutely people in that era who were more assertive about defending their creations than others, like Bill Gates or (for a more gaming-specific example) Richard Garriott.

      It never really *stops* being relevant in the hobbyist programming space either; for every creator that freely shares their content with the hobbyist community they're a part of, you can probably find another who is zealously protective of their work and asserts their rights against people who appropriate it without permission or credit. You could probably write an entire book just on the subject of drama over plagiarism/asset theft in the Skyrim modding or RPG Maker communities, for instance.

    5. There's a lot of drama around that kind of thing in many modding communities. Some modders are very open about sharing their work, while others get really angry and defensive when people use their stuff.

      I made a few Thief fan missions, and my attitude is very open. If someone wants to grab my missions and use them as a base for their own, be my guest. I even wrote that into the readme: feel free to re-use anything you see in here! We're all modders doing this for free and for fun, content by the community for the community. Why would I be opposed to others modifying my work when that's the whole point of the modding scene?

      But there are others who get extremely possessive about their work. It's not very common in the Thief mapper scene, but I've seen it happen with Skyrim modders, for example. People explicitly stating that nobody can use their custom assets in their own mods, and sometimes even people withdrawing their contributions from a larger mod because they got butthurt over something.

      I don't get that attitude. Modding is about making new content for a game you love so you and everyone else in the scene can have more fun with it.

    6. It's not just possible, but relatively easy in programming to clone a product (e.g. Ultima) without having any access to the source code. You just empirically analyze the behavior of the program and reproduce it. Maybe you are a little or a lot off, but no one will probably notice.

      The text of the source code is certainly copyrighted, and the binary generated by the compiler is at least a Derivative Work. But if you don't use any of the assets, and didn't look at the code, it's a clean room reproduction. So I would say "clone" is appropriate, but "plagiarism" to me implies actual copyright infringement; for example, use or access to the original code.

      IANAL, but I do have a 4-digit ID on Slashdot.

      It's also possible that software copyright law has been tightened over the past couple decades since I last read up on it. But, most of the games we are talking about here are more than a couple decades old.

  3. Whatever your frustrations with backlogs, etc., these are very worthwhile posts that I quite enjoy reading. They're self-contained, generally free of meaningful spoilers that could inhibit my fun if I decide to try the game someday, and they shed light on the obscure. In this case, it also illuminates a bit of history as well.

    1. Yes, to each their own. I think this was a very interesting article. The ones describing plot developments of gold box games (etc) I have to push through. For many it's probably the reverse but to me the obscure games hold a lot of interest.

  4. As a medievalist, it is fun seeing the digital version of manuscript analysis in action. Your conclusions appear reasonable. Enjoyed the post.

    1. I like to call it game archeology. Can't wait until it becomes an official academic field, ha.

  5. I am really enjoying this run of ones and dones that you are doing and cleaning up the back log. Its fun to see a new game every couple of days.

  6. Is their the possibility of you being able to combine your academic life with this life of dedication to CRPG's in some sort of History Unit for the University?

    The challenge, however, being the difficulty in maintaining your level of anonymity... sorry, just thinking and typing on the fly.

    Just as I was reading your 4 possible theories, it reminded me of the wealth of knowledge and level of research you've already undertaken.

    Forget the University course, I'll just sit here waiting for you to release a book (or series of books)

    1. The University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) has a formal program of study about video game design. The University of Calgary (Alberta, Canada) was actively collecting vintage video games a few years ago, presumably to support an academic program, but I do not know the specific details.

      I am only very casually following these developments -- I currently work in academia, but as an administrator -- but the few scholarly sources I have seen are focused on more action-oriented games. I am unaware of any academic review of CRPGs, historical or otherwise.

    2. So, my university is (somewhat obnoxiously) kind of a stickler for one having a particular education in order to teach a subject. I proposed classes on Arthurian Literature and jazz history, citing my own expertise, but they won't let me teach either unless I get degrees in something to do with English or music, respectively. Thus, I assume the same would be true about games and game development.

    3. My university has a similar rule. I think it actually comes from our accreditor.I can't even teach courses in my general field (English Lit) in which I didn't do any graduate-level coursework or publish any research.

    4. I think it's partly an issue of academic standards, and partly one of not undercutting their own product (to the degree that their product is credentialing, rather than education), or not giving anything away in the perennial battle against the administration to maintain lines/staffing. SLACs, or small liberal arts colleges, are usually far more flexible in that regard than big public universities.

  7. "Nature's entrance" sounds like a euphemism for the butt.

    1. Most people would have thought the butt was "Nature's Exit".

    2. Nothing says it can't be both

    3. I don't which is correct... butt you made my day laughing so hard.

  8. The existance of a game where you find a Golden Goddess of Power years before the Zelda games even existed is hilarious to me. Now all we need are versions where you find the goddesses of wisdom and courage

  9. >"gargoyle stoning" potion

    I think I know the main ingredient...

  10. Could all those games come from the "Chose your own Adventure" books?
    They were published before the 80' (dont know when in Australia) and follow the same principle:
    you go from one Chapter number to another, you fight monster there. And Agility and Strength are the two characteristic you have, in most of them.

    If you wanted to adapt those book to computer at the time , i guess you couldn't do it in so many different way.

    1. I was thinking the same thing (though I wad thinking of something more like the 'Lone Wolf' gamebooks, which are more RPG-like).

    2. It seems to me that the CYOA books have extensive descriptions and path choices that these games largely lack. Why exactly would these games be based on CYOA instead of being made from scratch? The games are nothing complicated so making them from scratch ain't hard.

  11. Reminds me to my early (and only)attempts at programming.
    Oh C64 Basic, where areth thou.


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