Friday, February 9, 2024

Game 501: Crypt (1985)

United States
Independently developed
Released 1985 for the PLATO mainframe at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Date Started: 4 January 2024
Date Ended: 7 February 2024
Total Hours: 13
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
For years, I reported that Josh Tabin's Camelot (1983) was the last PLATO RPG, but that was before our friend El Explorador de RPG turned up two more, Crypt and The Wilderness, both from 1985. Both are based on earlier games, but Crypt is unique among PLATO RPGs in that its inspiration was a non-PLATO game. It is an adaptation of Rogue (1980), though I don't know if its inspiration was one of the mainframe versions or the 1985 Epyx release. 
(If you're just arriving on the blog now, PLATO was an educational mainframe installed at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in the 1960s. Although meant for educational programs, students created CRPGs on it shortly after the release of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. Many of its games inspired commercial CRPGs including Wizardry. Start here for a summary of these games.)
There's no author credit on Crypt's main screen, but I learned from a contemporary player that it was written by Greg Janusz, one of the contributors to the earlier Avatar (1979). I believe Janusz was at the university from 1981 to 1985, so his contributions to the earlier game would have been post-release.
Beginning a new game of Crypt.
Except for a few additions, modifications, and simplifications, Crypt plays exactly like Rogue. It is a multi-leveled dungeon crawler in which death is permanent. (And on the mainframe, there's no way, or no way that I know of, to cheat by backing up the character file.) You start on Level 1, a generic adventurer with 14 strength, 2 units of food, a flail, a bow, and 25 arrows. Each level is randomized for each game, both in structure and in composition of enemies and objects. It is fun, nerve-racking, frustrating, exhilarating, and highly replayable. 
These are the main differences from Rogue:
  • The game uses graphics, albeit simple ones, instead of ASCII characters for the player, walls, traps, and objects. Monsters are still represented by letters.
  • Weapons are simplified. There are only three: bows, flails, and swords. They can be found cursed or regular, and regular ones can be between +0 and +2. You can enchant them up to +7. Armor consists only of leather, chain, or plate plus a single type of shield.
  • You get a lot more potential wearables. In addition to armor and shields, you can find amulets, anklets, bracelets, brooches, clasps, crosses, crystals, earrings, fobs, lockets, medals, medallions, necklaces, pendants, rings, scarabs, stars, and trinkets. If there's any limit to how many of these can be worn, I never reached it. Each item is enchanted with a different benefit, randomized for each game, such as enhanced regeneration, see invisible, strength, invulnerability (extra armor class), and agility (improves accuracy).
  • Like Rogue, the game has usable potions, staves, and scrolls, each with a generic descriptor randomized for each game. Staves are differentiated by wood (e.g., birch, cedar, poplar), potions by color (e.g., cherry, maroon, sapphire), and scrolls by nonsense phrases. Once you identify one, you know what all others of its type do. Crypt has some effects that I don't remember seeing in Rogue, however, including Scrolls of Life Absorption, Mithril Plating, Flaming Weapon, and Holy Barrier; and Potions of Quicken Heart, Stone Walking, and Super-Hearing. 
The scroll of "odlaw ivby" turns out to be a Scroll of Mapping.
  • Although the two games share some enemies (e.g., jackals, bats, orcs, zombies), Crypt's bestiary is mostly original to the game, including aardvarks, vampire spiders, quartz demons, living rocks, flying lions, hemlock fairies, ice barons, frost drakes, and fog lords.
  • I feel like there are fewer enemy special attacks in Crypt. For instance, there's nothing that destroys weapons or armor like Rogue's rust monsters. There's also no poison. Special attacks here include confuse, stun, burn, freeze, drain strength, drain experience, drain charges, and eat silver. Some enemies are also invisible.
  • Commands are simplified. This is probably one of the few things I disliked about the PLATO version. Instead of separate commands for w)ielding weapons, W)earing armor, Q)uaffing potions, and R)eading scrolls, there's one all-purpose U)se command. Instead of a single i)nventory, there are separate commands to view w)eapons, g)arments, p)otions, and s)crolls. On the plus side, the last inventory option you selected remains at the bottom of the screen. Capital letters denote items equipped.
  • If you drop items, they're gone for good.
  • Instead of gold, you find silver.
  • Crypt has vending machines, fountains, pools, braziers, statues, and wards, as below.
  • There are no secret areas or locked doors. There are generally no corridors, just a bunch of interconnected rooms. There is no consideration of lighting.
  • You don't see a specific armor class in the interface, just a qualitative assessment (e.g. "poor," "average," "excellent").
Perhaps most important, instead of finding the Amulet of Yendor and returning to the surface, the player here is asked to find a magic pool that will teleport him out of the dungeon. The pool has a chance of appearing on any dungeon level after 50. However, in the nine years and 26,769 games played since it launched on Cyber1 in 2015, only three people (and four characters) have won the game. A more modest goal, as El Explorador also concluded in his coverage, is to get into the Hall of Fame, which lists only the 36 top scorers since 2015.
Finally, it's important to remember that Crypt is based on Rogue, not NetHack. You can't gain intrinsics by eating corpses here. There's no blessing system, no artifact weapons and armor, no spells, no clever interplay between items. There are deadly traps, a starvation system with scarce food to find, no way to backtrack, and no particular reason to linger on early dungeon levels.
The object is to become powerful and get a good placement (like #24) in the records. Getting out of the crypt is almost an afterthought.
The game starts off extremely difficult, gets easier once you gain a few character levels and resources, then becomes essentially impossible as you reach the lower dungeon levels. Surviving Level 1 (both dungeon level and character level) is relatively difficult, as when the game starts, you have only 10 hit points and no special resources. You can't outrun enemies, so the best you can do is hope that the game doesn't spawn too many of them at once. Hit points regenerate while you wait, so if you can pause for a while between battles, you can hopefully survive to Level 2 or 3, at which point player skill and care take a far greater role.
One of the things I've always liked about the Rogue/NetHack line is that equipment isn't gated by dungeon level. You have an equal chance of finding awesome stuff on Level 1 as Level 50. Luck on the early dungeon levels thus goes a long way. I found that my characters most likely to survive were ones who found some decent armor pieces on early floors and maybe a couple of scrolls to enhance them. Finding one or two early Potions of Giant Strength (each increases strength by 1) was also a good predictor of long-term survival. Also important is having the hit dice go your way when you level up the first few times. Gaining 8 or 10 hit points between character Levels 1 and 2 is a lot more helpful than gaining 1 or 2. Finally, dungeon levels vary a lot in size, and you want bigger levels early in the game to gain more experience on easy monsters and find more treasures.
The items that make up my "very good" armor.
If you make it to dungeon Level 4 or 5, you've probably found a few staves, potions, and scrolls. For potions and scrolls, you can generally figure out what they do by using them right away. Crypt has some items with negative effects (e.g., summon a monster, slow yourself, curse, weaken), but you can usually find ways to mitigate them later, and once you've used one, you've identified all the others of that type. Anyway, once you've identified a few by using them the first time, then found them "for real" a second time, you have resources to escape from near-death if it happens to come along. Staves of Lightning Bolt kill most early-game monsters; Staves of Sleep, Slowness, or Befuddling can let you make a getaway. Potions of Healing restore all hit points; Potions of Haste and Shadow Form will let you escape most foes. Scrolls of Teleporting, Time Stop, and Life Absorption can be life-savers for obvious reasons.
Fighting a bladesman on dungeon Level 32. Note the combination of identified and unidentified items in my weapon inventory.
There are so many items, though--18 wearable items, 27 types of scrolls, 18 types of potions, 16 types of staves--that you never know what each game will bring. Swords are supposedly the best weapons, but some of my characters got into the 20s for their dungeon levels and yet never found a single sword. Other characters found swords on Level 1 and managed to enchant them three or four times before they died. My best character made it to dungeon Level 38 but still hadn't found a third of the potions and scrolls by the time he died. 

Every once in a while, while transitioning floors, you find a vending machine with three out of four potential buttons. Yellow buttons cost nothing to push, but they cause a random effect, including some bad things, and I don't think they're worth it. Red buttons take 50 silver and let you identify an item. Purple buttons take 250 silver and let you recharge a staff. Blue buttons cost 1000 silver and will enchant one of your armor pieces by one level. Silver (and gems, which are worth 50 silver) otherwise has no use except in calculating your final position.
Hitting  a vending machine. Note how large this level is compared to some of the others.
In addition to vending machines, you can find fountains which have a variable chance of increasing your strength, adding to your hit point total, or creating a powerful enemy. There are "pools" that can do some of the same things, including the winning pool, which of course I never saw. There are braziers and statues that don't seem to do anything, and some rooms are guarded by "wards" that explode if you walk on them, damaging you and destroying some of your equipment, unless you have an item of Magic Shattering or a Scroll of Dispel Magic.
Entering a room to find the equivalent of a "treasure zoo."
I should mention that you can't see what's happening in Crypt's various rooms until you enter those rooms. Until you walk through the door, you don't know if the room has no enemies or ten of them. Once you show yourself, they become alert and head right for you, even passing through the door if you try to retreat (they otherwise don't usually cross through doors until you do). Some rooms are like the "treasure zoos" of NetHack, with multiple enemies and multiple treasures. A lot tends to happen at doors. You poke your head in, see the foes, back up, and let them come to you one at a time. If there's nothing in a room, there's often no reason to even enter it, since there are never any secret doors. By walking around empty rooms, you just increase your chances of getting exposed to traps.
Chester walks into a confusion trap.
As you level up, you not only gain more hit points but you start to regenerate them faster. By character Level 12, you're regenerating one per step, and you start to feel invincible. By then, though, you're in the mid-20s when it comes to the dungeon level, and luck--specifically, bad luck--starts playing a major role again. You run into enemies like vampires capable of draining your experience. There are a lot of invisible enemies, so you have to watch your hit points carefully as you wander through the rooms, lest a phantom starts hacking at you without your knowledge. Eventually, you meet foes like krakens and titans who seem capable of destroying your hit point total in two punches regardless of your armor class. One good thing about the original Rogue is that you never get blasted with befuddlingly deadly magic out of nowhere. You always see exactly what killed you here.
I first started playing Crypt early in the year. I lost a lot of characters on Level 1 but got a respectable number down to dungeon Level 25 or below. Unfortunately, I kept dying just shy of reaching spot #36 on the leaderboard. (When it comes to the leaderboard, there's a huge variety in character experience but not much in dungeon level. I'm not sure exactly what the formula is that determines whether you make it, but it seems to consider dungeon level first, then character experience, then silver.) Then, the other day, I found myself on dungeon Level 30 with over 25,000 experience, and I knew I was going to make it. This character had been particularly lucky with armor and armor enhancement scrolls, and I had an "incredible" defense ability. I'd made it to character Level 14, had a couple of strength enhancements, and had a lot of wearables (though I hadn't identified many of them yet). Most enemies were dying in one or two hits.
At some point, I noticed something that I only ever experience playing roguelike and Souls-like games (which otherwise have little in common): I become so sure that I'm going to die any minute that I stop trying to avoid it. It's like I'm saying, "We both know what's going to happen. No sense beating around the bush. Might as well get it over with." I start playing carelessly and getting paradoxically annoyed when an enemy misses. "Stop toying with me," I want to tell the necromancer/Crucible Knight/Wizard of Yendor. "Just do it." At those moments, I have to take a deep breath, remind myself that the game is winnable, and start taking care again.
So I did that with Crypt and managed to get down to dungeon Level 38. I had some bad luck with vampires--honestly, everybody hates level draining and yet every author feels that he has to include it--but managed to recover most of my lost experience. I was at full health when I went to look through the door. Right in front of the door was a gas trap that sapped about a third of my hit points. Then, when I went to step through the door, I was blocked. It turns out I was blocked by a titan, who brought his club down and, despite my "incredible" defense ability, took away the rest of my hit points with one whack. I had plenty of staves, potions, and scrolls that could have helped if I had just seen it coming.
That feels better than being killed by an aardvark.
I ended up at #24 in the Hall of Fame (technically, the "records"), and I'm sorry to report to El Explorador, who had been at #36, that I nudged him off. 
There I am! I guess in three more levels, I would have had an Elven Prince to worry about.
In a GIMLET, Crypt gets:
  • 0 points for the game world. It doesn't even make up a framing story.
  • 2 points for character creation and development. There's no creation, and there are limited ways to develop with only one attribute, but leveling is satisfying and rewarding.
  • 0 points for no NPC interaction.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. It does a typically competent roguelike job of programming special attacks and defenses into its wide variety of foes, and it has a few non-combat encounters that add a little flavor to the game.
  • 3 points for magic and combat. There's no magic, but like any roguelike, it has more combat tactics than you might expect given the simplicity of the combat interface, particularly when it comes to the use of items.
  • 6 points for equipment, a strong point of most roguelikes. There is a huge variety of things to find and identify, and judicious use of those items is really the key to long-term survival.
  • 1 point for the economy, which if not for the vending machines would be nothing.
  • 2 points for a main quest, but otherwise no side quests, alternate endings, or role-playing.
  • 2 points for graphics, sound, and interface. There's no sound, but the graphics are functional enough. As for the interface, I wish it had just gone with roguelike conventions instead of trying to simplify the controls, which made them more confusing.
The "Help" file provides instructions on the keys.
  • 6 points for gameplay. Crypt is a highly addictive roguelike. It offers a solid roguelike challenge. Its smallish levels make for relatively brisk gameplay even if you take care (my "winning" character took less than 4 hours), and it's highly replayable.
That gives us a final score of 26, which is 2 points higher than I gave Rogue, although its rating was subject to early-blog weirdness and inconsistencies (a 5 in "graphics, sound, and interface!?"). It's also 2 points higher than I rated the near-identical Rogue Clone of 1986. It appears I liked equipment a bit better in Crypt as well as overall gameplay. In my early years, I tended to regard roguelikes as "too hard," but I've come to realize that being hard is their purpose. Frankly, I can appreciate a high difficulty in Rogue, in which a successful game lasts only a few hours, more than, say, Angband, where you have the same permadeath in a 100-hour game.
I did have quite a bit of fun with this one. Even after finishing this entry, I kept starting new characters hoping to get a little further. It's pretty impressive that the game has been played nearly 30,000 times since it appeared on Cyber1 in 2015. Some anonymous fan has even created a slick web page that offers a full rundown of the game's enemies, levels, and equipment.
Thanks again to El Explorador for letting me know about this one. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what the story is with Shadow of Yserbius, so I may have to move on to the next game . . . which happens to be the next edition of NetHack. I guess this was good practice.


  1. Ahhh, using cherry potions to kill aardvarks and hemlock fairies. What a time to be alive! And, of course, the Addict makes the Hall of Fame. Ho hum, another accolade.

  2. With this, NetHack and Dungeon Hack coming up (almost) in a row, I imagine you're gonna be sick to your stomach of random dungeons by the end of the month 😅

  3. Some paragraphs became confusing to read, because you seemed to use the terms 'character level' and 'dungeon level' interchangeably.

    Wouldn't maybe 'level' and 'floor' have worked better in context, even if the game says otherwise?

    1. I went back through and clarified where I thought it was ambiguous.

  4. To me, those PLATO games are like a great social paradigm proving that students will rather do anything, literally the most complex and arduous tasks, before they really start studying ;)

    1. Just this week, I played a few hours of Crypt instead of turning in a discussion board posting on time, so it holds 40 years later.

  5. "I ended up at #24 in the Hall of Fame (technically, the "records"), and I'm sorry to report to El Explorador, who had been at #36, that I nudged him off. "

    Ouch, I would play again to try to regain my place in the Hall of Fame, but I'm afraid the first time it was a matter of luck... Of course, my end was also a matter of bad luck, because I started a new level of dungeon cornered in a "treasure zoo".

    By the way, I don't know if you received my email, but I recommend trying the game Dragons by Bruce Nesmith. The experience reminded me a lot of PLATO games like dnd, but with roguelike graphics, and in its own way equally addictive.

    1. "Dragons by Bruce Nesmith" seems to be totally unsearchable, but while looking for this I found what appears (to me, someone who has never touched either game) to be an explanation of why Baldur's Gate 3 is good and Starfield is not:

    2. I did get it. I'm sorry I didn't reply yet; I've gotten way behind in email and I have a bad habit of responding to the most recent first. I'll definitely put it on the list.

    3. Some information about Dragons (and the game itself) can be found here:

    4. Since El Explorador is apparently too modest to link to his own coverage, I'll do so instead - you can find it here (in Spanish as usual, but easily run through a translation tool).

  6. "I become so sure that I'm going to die any minute that I stop trying to avoid it. It's like I'm saying, "We both know what's going to happen. No sense beating around the bush. Might as well get it over with." I start playing carelessly and getting paradoxically annoyed when an enemy misses. "Stop toying with me," I want to tell the necromancer/Crucible Knight/Wizard of Yendor. "Just do it." At those moments, I have to take a deep breath, remind myself that the game is winnable, and start taking care again."

    I cant tell you how many characters I've lost to this sort of fatalism. The strange thing is, you don't tend to 'give up', in other games, on the contrary, you generally demonstrate unflagging tenacity (and it has served this blog well). Similarly, I've been playing TCGs competitively since '98, and I'm there to win until all every last out is exhausted. But misfortune in a roguelike? Time for a doom spiral!

    1. Just out of curiosity, Tristan: Do you play 'Magic: The Gathering' or something more obscure? I have friends playing TCGs in tournaments as well.

    2. I played a lot of tournament MtG back in the day, but I don't play it any more. Other card games I've try-harded at various points include: WoWTCG, Dreamblade, Hearthstone, Duelyst, Kards, Solforge, Elder Scrolls, Epic, and Legends of Runeterra. I've got some of the new Star Wars TCG on pre-order. I don't know how much travelling I'll do for it, but I'll engage the local scene.

  7. So what does the cryptmaster do (top of the first screenshot)? Or are these the people that escaped the crypt?

    1. I believe those are the individuals with current administrative privileges over the lessons.

    2. I personally cannot look at a screen full of characters and treat them as an image and not a text.

  8. Every time I see the screenshots from a Plato game, I´m always struck by how elegant it looks, I really like the font they used for text.

    For those that used it on campus at the time, the first microcomputers must have really felt as a step back in terms of readibility and usability.

    1. I also like the way PLATO games look. Due to the high (for the time) resolution of 512 x 512, they had enough space for a large font and for enough empty space between elements so that the screen didn't feel cramped. Quite a contrast to 320 x 200 DOS games.

      The fact that they're monochrome means that there can't be any garish programmer art palettes, and monochrome icons are much easier to do well than color icons. I especially like the orange color that is usually used in PLATO software (the screenshots above, set to white, are much less appealing to me). And black as a background color is great for atmosphere in general, I think because black might help (or at least, obstruct less) the viewer's imagination to fill in blank areas.

      This would be a suitable art style for modern Roguelike-style games, in my opinion much better than pure ASCII. Nowadays you could adapt the resolution for 16:9 displays by expanding it to e.g. 960 x 540.

      I got the impression that their TUTOR programming environment made it easy to set up screen layouts, and the fact that PLATO was a server-and-terminals system (where the code runs on a server, and the 'dumb' terminals merely send input commands to the server and receive the visual result) means that making a game multiplayer-capable is relatively easy. (Comparable to make a game nowadays which supports local-only multiplayer, i.e. via split screen or a shared screen, but only on one device.) What a great system. It's understandable that this was such a fertile environment.

  9. AlphabeticalAnonymousFebruary 11, 2024 at 2:36 PM

    Man, I cannot get into these Roguelike games. Over the last year I've intermittently played at Rogue and intensively at the newer Brogue -- in neither one have I ever come close to actually winning the game. It starts to feel like a personal failing!

  10. Did the word "booty" had double meaning in the 80es already?

    1. The more vulgar (and etymologically unrelated) version of "booty" dates back to the 1920s.

    2. In the 1990s the Usenet was aflame with the burning question "did Balrogs have wings or not." An equally divisive question could be if what exactly Tolkien had in mind when around 1920 he wrote about Balrogs "with a measureless booty".

    3. As the honored knight of Mix-a-lot said, "I like balrogs and I can't deny / You other hobbits can't deny [...] My anaconda shall not pass unless you got Dat Ass"


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