Friday, October 14, 2022

Game 470: Labyrinth (1991)

A quick, pleasant roguelite.
United States
Independently developed; published by Softdisk (via Loadstar 128 magazine)
Released in 1991 for Commodore 128
Date Started: 11 October 2022 
Date Ended: 11 October 2022
Total Hours: 3
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: 17
Ranking at Time of Posting: 120/483 (25%)
Labyrinth is an afternoon RPG published via the Loadstar 128 diskmag. It is one of only two RPGs on my list made solely for the Commodore 128, although I suspect that there are more diskmag and independent titles waiting to be discovered. Labyrinth takes one or two joystick-wielding players on a trip through a six-level dungeon with no greater goal than to amass as much gold and experience as you can before making it back to the exit.
Players can choose from a large number of character classes: bard, berserker, druid, gladiator, paladin, ranger, rogue, swashbuckler, warlock, warrior, warrior monk, wizard, dwarf, dwarrowbur, elf, faerie, gnome, molok, and orc. Each of these classes has a different combination of starting levels with the game's various skills and attributes: speed, prowess, agility, strength, health, will, perception, charm, and special abilities and spells. Each also starts with a different weapon and armor kit. In addition to choosing one or two players, the player can choose a difficulty level from "hard" and "very hard."
Selecting a character.
Gameplay begins on Level 1 of a six-level dungeon, randomly generated for each new game. Each dungeon level fits onto a single 80-column screen. With its top-down perspective and fog-of-war, Labyrinth looks a bit like a roguelike, and indeed it has many roguelike features, including permadeath. However, there are a few simplifications of roguelike mechanics. Rooms are revealed in large chunks rather than in a small radius around the character. Enemies don't appear on the map; you encounter them suddenly at fixed locations (usually as you enter a room). Combat takes place on a separate screen. And there is no complexity associated with inventory.
My rogue character sets out. He could "win" by going right back up those stairs.
When you encounter an enemy, the game first determines who has the advantage (this is based partly on the character's perception level). If it's you, you get a pre-combat screen that allows you to use an item (salve, potion, or scroll), cast a spell, parley, engage in battle, or flee. If talking is successful, it usually results in the enemy offering to let you go in exchange for gold. Successful hiding (which only shows up for characters with stealth skills) gives you the option to backstab the enemy.
Once in combat, your options each round are to attack, parry, charge, flee, use an item, cast a spell, or parley. "Parry" puts more of your effort into defense that round and "Charge" puts more into offense.
Combat options.
Enemies are drawn mostly from Dungeons & Dragons and include goblins and kobolds on the first level; werewolves, ghouls, and gargoyles on the middle levels; and hydras and sorcerers on the bottom levels. Playing on "very hard" increases the number of tougher encounters on earlier levels. A few of the enemies have special attacks, like poison and attribute-draining, but in general the higher-level monsters just hit harder. I believe the number of enemies on each level is fixed.
Killing enemies gives you experience, but you don't see the specific count. Every once in a while your overall level goes up. You start at novice, and you can rise three ranks during the game, to experienced, veteran, and master. There are more enemies in the game than you need to max out your level.
One character's level late in the game.
Enemies never drop anything, but occasionally you find chests, which may be trapped. They contain some combination of gold, scrolls, potions, salves, and special weapons and armor. Salves always heal, but you never know what potions or scrolls are going to do when you use them. A potion could heal, protect, or do nothing; a scroll could cast "Fire Bolt" or "Turn Undead" (among several other possibilities in both cases). Clerics and warlocks have a "scroll lore" skill that lets them assess what a scroll will do.
Successful use of a scroll paralyzed a gargoyle.
The "hard" version of the game has a shop on Level 1 or 2 where you can purchase scrolls, potions, and salves, plus get your hit points healed. The latter option would be more useful if it also healed endurance, which tends to drop in tandem with hit points.
Each dungeon randomly distributes one magic sword, one set of gauntlets, one magic ring, one magic cloak, one pair of boots, and one wand. These items are all equipped automatically if you find them, and they increase attack and defense ability in predictable ways.
My inventory has many of the special items.
The game does a particularly good job balancing the strengths and weaknesses of the many classes. The berserker isn't going to negotiate his way out of any encounter and is rarely successful using scrolls, but he can go charging through the first levels of the dungeon with impunity. The druid can parley most encounters, anticipate what scrolls will do, and cast "Entangle," "Fade," and "Wrath" in combat. The ranger can shoot an arrow or two at an enemy before melee combat begins. The rogue can disarm most traps on chests, will get the advantage in most encounters, and can hide and backstab. I didn't get a chance to feel out all the classes, but their various combinations of abilities and skills give Labyrinth a lot of replayability.
The ranger fires an arrow before combat begins.
There is no real winning condition. Each time you enter, you're trying to leave with the highest score possible, but to "win" you could go up the stairs immediately after the game begins. Technically, the manual says that you're supposed to make it to Level 6 before turning around and heading back to the surface, but if you do, the "congratulations" screen doesn't look any different than if you only explored Level 1. Scoring is based on gold, items collected, level achieved, and time spent. In a two-player game, players get score bonuses for being the first to go down a stairway.
On "hard," the game isn't overly deadly as long as you don't press downward too fast. What makes it particularly easy is that you can sleep between combats and completely restore your health and endurance. I was never attacked by enemies while sleeping. What can happen is that gremlins filch your gold while you're sleeping, sometimes several times per slumber. This naturally reduces your score. On "very hard," individual combats can be deadly enough that even fully restoring between them doesn't necessarily save you.
My best score is pretty low because gremlins stole most of my gold.
I give Labyrinth a 17 on the GIMLET. It does particularly well in "Gameplay" (4) for being short, to-the-point, and replayable. Its second-best score is a 3 in "Character Creation and Development" for the wide variety of characters, despite any other creation options and limited development. It's hurt by having no game world and no NPCs (0s).
There is no sound during gameplay, but there is a music score that samples from a variety of classical compositions, including Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King" and Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." I didn't enjoy the all-joystick interface as much as I would have enjoyed a comparable keyboard one, but I recognize it makes sense for two players. If you have to have an all-joystick interface, this one works pretty well. One thing that I like is that the default selection on the menu that pops up when you hit the joystick button is "Oops!" This lets you immediately exit the menu if you hit the button accidentally.
The main screen of the diskmag.
Labyrinth was written by Jon Mattson, a prolific Loadstar contributor with at least a couple dozen Commodore 64 and 128 titles to his credit. They include at least one other RPG, Knight's Quest (1991), which is also on my list. Mattson came from a tabletop RPG background and was a frequent contributor to Dragon magazine in the 1980s. I can't find any evidence that he stayed in the industry after the collapse of Commodore.
Labyrinth is competently programmed and not a bad way to spend a few hours. If I'd had a subscription to Loadstar 128 in 1991, I would have been delighted when each issue came and offered a few hours' diversion like this. I look forward to Knight's Quest.


  1. So glad to see one of the games I submitted to your list getting reviewed! I'm glad it turned out to be an enjoyable one and am also looking forward to Knight's Quest.

    1. Ah, shoot, Tristan. I meant to mention you in the next. Thank you for bringing Mattson's games to my attention.

  2. Might fall short of "hidden gem" status, but this sounds like a delightful little game, and the sort of thing that justifies the backtracking posts.

  3. "dwarrowbur" produced zero Google hits about an hour ago, and I'm delighted to see that it now returns just this page.
    Sounds like a fun game for its length and I'm tempted to try it with one of the more obscure classes/races.

    1. There needs to be a neologism for games that have no search results but their post on this blog. Add it to the glossary.

    2. I just assumed it was a Tolkien reference.

    3. Is the drarrowbur a burgler? I wonder if he might have deliberately mangled that part from "The Hobbit" where Bilbo says he's "a bur--a hobbit," which the trolls interpret as "a burrahobbit."

    4. I thought it might be related to a dwarf as it appears next to them (the classes are not in alphabetical order otherwise). But the dwarrowbur has the best values in speed, perception and charm, with archery, stealth and detrap as abilities, and a staff as a weapon. Sound more like a Robin Hood figure.

      (Man, I spent half an hour looking for what loadstar disk this was on, and now I see it's right there in the screenshot)

    5. Well, in The Lord of the Rings, "dwarrow" simply means "dwarf" (the Westron name of Moria was the "Dwarrowdelf", or "dwarven delving"). I don't know exactly what the "bur" is meant to be there, but it could well be intended to reference the "burahobbit" line.

    6. Given the skill and stat set, which closely resembles that of a tabletop RPG halfling/hobbit, and the lack of any other obvious 'halfling' class, I think that's what the 'dwarrowbur' must be.

  4. I'm surprised to see no references to the 1986 film also names Labyrinth.

    1. Not everything has to be a reference. People are allowed to have their own ideas, you know. Labyrinth had more to do with the Minotaur back then than any Hollywood film. The Labyrinth film was a flop, people were staying away in droves to miss David Bowie in a fright wig.

    2. Wow, you make up falsehoods to bash really everything, don't you?

    3. It seemed obvious. Not to mention I don't really like the film and don't really understand what people find so appealing about it. Harland isn't wrong--it did poorly in its original box office run and it got polarized reviews.

    4. I don't understand why the merits and commercial success of this movie are discussed. "Labyrinth" is a generic term describing a (specific type of) maze and at least in Chet's description of the game I do not see anything (except the dungeon 'maze' itself) which would point to a reference to the movie that just happens to have the same name because it's (also) about a labyrinth.

      Whether a movie was a box office or critical hit might have an impact on the probability of it being referenced in other media, but without any hint beyond the generic name that's not really relevant in my view. The same could be said about e.g. "Catacombs" (a game covered on this blog and also the title of an earlier movie) and when "Bones" was reviewed, no one thought it might refer to Star Trek's doctor just because of the title since its content simply didn't offer any such connection.

    5. Not to mention, there is of course a 1986 game based on the movie (

    6. I've never seen the movie but it was the first thing that popped into my mind when I saw the title, and I'm well aware of the classical term.

      And yet, I know people of my age who have never heard of David Bowie.

    7. And there are people my age who only know David Bowie because of that movie. No Ziggy Stardust. No Thin White Duke. Only the bloody Goblin King and his big hair and stretch pants.

  5. ...the player can choose a difficulty level from "hard" and "very hard."

    No pretense here ;)

    1. In the very difficult and fun roguelike tower defense hybrid Dungeon of the Endless, the two difficulty levels are Easy and Too Easy. I've only played on Easy but even after 30ish hours I have never managed a win.

  6. The overall structure sounds like it could be pretty fun as a browser or mobile game today. No need for fiddly tactical movement but still some of the interesting elements of a roguelike.

  7. I guess this game has a pretty high BOTHR or Bolingbroke Outcomes-to-Hours Ratio. Or is it low? I can't tell...

    1. One blog post resulting in a win in exchange for just three hours? Sounds like a pretty good ratio to me.


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