Monday, April 8, 2024

Game 509: Labyrinth (1980)

United States
Released 1980 for the PLATO mainframe at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign
Date Started: 4 April 2024
Date Ended: 7 April 2024
Total Hours: 6
Difficulty: Easy (2.0/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at time of posting: (to come later)
It's amazing how, this far in my chronology, I'm still not quite done with the PLATO games. I could almost believe that people are somehow going back in time just to invent new ones for me. Ha ha! Seriously, Randy Harmelink and Michael Wei: In 1980, I should be in Mrs. Biedenharn's third-grade class at Prairie Creek Elementary School any weekday. Drop me some stock tips and convince me never to go to Tulsa.
[Ed. I got so caught up in a stupid joke that I forgot to credit El Explorador de RPG, whose coverage of the game alerted me to it in the first place.
Labyrinth is a somewhat significant game, too, because it's the only PLATO game (so far) to offer the single-player experience of The Dungeon (1975) and The Game of Dungeons (1975) but in the context of a first-person interface. It takes obvious inspiration from the previous first-person games--Moria (1975), Oubliette (1977), and Avatar (1979)--which were all intended for multiple characters playing in parties. A PLATO player who wanted to navigate from his character's point of view otherwise had to wait until Camelot (1982), which--although doing its own thing quite well--didn't precisely replicate the experience of the earlier dungeon crawlers.
In the labyrinth, doing pretty well. I have a gnome "charmee" to protect me and I'm just facing one orc.
(If you're a new reader and already lost, some quick history: The earliest computer role-playing games that we know about were developed by students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign on the university's educational mainframe, called PLATO. Many of them were adapted commercially in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but because the mainframe had more power than any microcomputer of the era, the PLATO games tend to offer advanced features that we don't see in the microcomputer market until the late 1980s. To learn more, see my entry on "The Earliest CRPGs," which I intend to update as soon as I finish this one.) 
Like most PLATO games, Labyrinth benefits from extensive documentation, but there's no backstory.
The game begins with a simple character creation process. You choose from 11 races: dwarf, elf, gnoll, gnome, goblin, hobbit, human, kobold, ogre, orc, and troll. The ability to play monstrous races was likely inspired by Oubliette. You set a sex and an alignment from lawful, neutral, and chaotic (again, Oubliette). Based on your choices, the game rolls values for strength, intelligence, wisdom, constitution, dexterity, and charm. You give your character a name and password and then start the game with 2,000 gold pieces. You may note there's no selection of class. Just like the original Dungeon, every character is a generic fighter/cleric/magic-user/thief.
Creating a new character.
You appear in the menu town at the top of the dungeon, where you can visit the hostel, play in a casino (also drawn from Oubliette), buy and sell weapons and armor, buy and sell magic scrolls, buy and sell monster companions, pay to increase your attributes, and buy "adventuring supplies" (basically food). There isn't much for a Level 1 character to do but buy a staff (250 gold) or dirk (500) or gamble everything on a single hand of blackjack for a more expensive weapon. Some notes on the town level:
  • The hostel is where you rest to restore health and magic. You have to pay per point restored.
  • The "weapons" store sells both weapons and armor, which took me a few levels to realize, as the first page only has weapons. Weapons range from a staff (250) to a mace (21,340). There are also a couple of shields, three types of body armor, three types of helmets, boots, a cloak, gauntlets, a ring, and separate bits of armor for arms, legs, and neck.
Some of the weapon store options.
  • You have to buy magic scrolls to be able to cast spells. When you outgrow your spells, you can sell the scrolls back. There are 30 spells in the game, organized into 15 levels, ranging from "Level Detection" (250 gold) to "Teleport" (1 million gold). 
  • The casino offers a simplified version of blackjack in which there is no splitting, doubling down, or insurance, and the dealer wins on a tie.
Perhaps the game's most interesting contribution is the ability to buy or charm monsters to your team. They're called "charmees." You can have up to two at once. You either pay for them in the monster shop or charm them with a bard song or a "Charm" spell. If you charm the monster yourself, you can bring it back up to the surface and sell it to the shop. I'm not sure I've ever seen that dynamic in another RPG.
If you use them in combat, they get to attack after you do, adding a bonus to your damage. They do run away eventually, though.
Once you're healed and outfitted, it's time to hit the dungeon. It's presented in a very small first-person wireframe view. Movement is with the WAXD keys--lowercase for regular movement, caps for going through doors or secret doors. The levels are procedurally generated, and according to the help file, they go down to Level 500,000. Each level has multiple 14 x 14 sections, and I think they may generate indefinitely. Each section has at least one staircase--the staircase is used for both up and down travel--and the game remembers what section you were in when you took the stairs.
I don't know what "scylla" meant to the author, but this definitely isn't the same creature that the Greeks envisioned.
As far as I can tell, the entire navigable part of the dungeon is superfluous, since all of your encounters are random. You can just take the stairs to whatever level you think you can handle, then walk back and forth to generate all the encounters you need. The stairs themselves are always a safe zone, so you really just need one other square.
In the dungeon, you meet monsters of four types: beast, human, mythical, and undead. Until you get pretty far down (dozens of levels), you only meet one at a time. Combats may last one or more rounds. Each round, you have options to try to charm the creature with a bard song (which pits your charm against his intelligence), cast a spell, fight, evade, use an item, hide and let your charmees do the fighting, pray for help, or trick the monster. The last option comes from Moria and causes instant death if your intelligence beats his intelligence. 
About one in six monsters drops gold or a chest. You can also just find gold or chests randomly. Chests and their options are similar to The Game of Dungeons: They can have traps, which can be detected and disarmed. Chests may have magic items in them, including stuff you can buy and stuff that you can't, principally magic weapons and armor and potions. Potions have a variety of potential effects, including increasing attributes, poison, aging, and polymorphing you into a different character. You can try to sip potions to test them before drinking.
Guess I should have sipped that potion.
Every successful combat action gives you experience, which counts downwards from the amount you need for your next level. Every gold piece you bring to the surface also gives experience (which goes back to The Dungeon). When you level up, your attributes increase.
The game is pretty easy as long as you don't try to head downstairs too fast (although see the strategy below). It's easy enough that I managed to survive until character Level 6 before I realized a) the shop sells armor; you just have to page past the weapons; and b) after you buy weapons and armor, you actually have to equip them. I had been fighting naked with my bare hands the entire time and still never felt in much danger. 

There are no real multiplayer options, save the ability to shout messages to other players. 
I get a message from myself.
That's about the size of it. You keep going into the dungeon, to lower and lower levels, fighting monsters, leveling up, gaining riches, buying improvements, trying to achieve the highest rank possible before you die of old age. (There's some talk in the notes files about a possible secret ending in which you escape from the dungeon, but this is uncorroborated.) There are several characters in the Hall of Fame who achieved the maximum level of 127 (with 127 in each attribute), but you could keep earning experience and gold indefinitely.
Several players have talked about their strategies in the notes file. I had some luck with the "deep dive" strategy--jumping immediately down to Level 100,000 (or something else ridiculously low) and hoping to evade monsters long enough to find a treasure on the floor. (I don't care how old or primitive the game is, there's always a moment of sheer joy when I pull off a stunt like this and it works.) Nine out of ten characters doing this die practically immediately, but the 10th rises to character Level 8 or 9 from the gold in a single chest, and he can buy most of the best stuff at that point, including an "Invisibility" scroll, which in turn makes it easier to find chests without having to fight monsters. I got to Level 10 this way, but money can only take you so far. Most of the highest-rated players have hundreds if not thousands of game days. 
I made it to position #75!
The title screen credits the game to Randy Harmelink and Michael Wei. Mr. Harmelink unfortunately passed away in 2022 after a long illness. I haven't been able to identify Michael Wei, but he did turn up in the conversation in the notes files earlier this year, and I've invited him to visit or contact me. A note on the main page suggests that the game was lost at some point but recovered in 1993.
It's not a terrible game--it's at least as fun as most of the so-called DND variants that we saw on microcomputers throughout the 1980s--but the loss of multiple party members, guilds, a main quest, and other features seems a step back from the earlier PLATO games. Still, it's a bit of a mystery why this one is never mentioned in PLATO histories and the others are.


  1. AlphabeticalAnonymousApril 8, 2024 at 12:22 PM

    Neat find and fun description, as always.

    I have to think the 'charmee' idea (aside from setting up lots of potentially satisfying puns) feels a tad odd nowadays. Consider: trick someone to follow you for a while, then turn around and sell them into bondage ... oof! No wonder they frequently run away.

    1. I don't know, it just made me think of a slightly more capitalist version of Pokemon. I guess it depends on how sentient these enemies are.

  2. Mordor The Depths of Dejenol (1995) borrows a lot of features from MUDS, including the charm/sell/buy monsters.
    It was one or my favorite games in m'y youth, even managed to buy it from Europe at the Time.

    1. I was also going to mention Mordor! It's been so long since I played it though. I look forward to seeing it on this blog.

  3. More PLATO? Sure... let me hop in my TARDIS...

    The 70s would be a most interesting time to visit and see PLATO in action.

  4. This feels like the earliest game you've covered to have these kind of borderline Pokémon mechanics, but I could be missing something.

    1. Has there been a game Chet's covered with some kind of mon mechanics? I don't remember Chet describing a game with a mechanic like that, but I probably missed it.

    2. Hmm, I also don't remember any, unless things like pets in Nethack or friendly or summoned monsters in BT count. But I don't think you can develop the latter and I'm pretty sure you can't sell either one.

      The earliest games I can think of with a more developed mechanic of collecting/adding different monsters/creatures to your team (and more than one at a time) or even focusing on it would be the first ones of the game series that must not be named (alias (S)MT) and those would only show up here if Chet covered them in spite of being console-only AND just available in English via fan translations.

  5. Man, there are a lot more of these PLATO games then I thought. I can't imagine writing full games on 1970s hardware using freaking assembly.

    1. If I'm not mistaken, most of PLATO games were made with the native and relatively high-level native language (TUTOR) that had support for things like simple graphics and UI.

      In a way, those students had it much easier than the first authors of games for microcomputers, which had to cope with much more limited hardware and basically no tools.

    2. Considering how common it is for students to slack off, and how it's rumored that some teachers don't want to be teaching, I can imagine a considerable number finding programming their own game far more interesting, even if it were assembly.

  6. No doubt `baguettes' is referring to jewelry, but I can't shake the image of a gnoll running through the dungeon, madly cramming chunks of bread down its maw.

  7. No GIMLET? Probably not necessary but you show the game as ended on the 7th with the “to come later” bit.

  8. Another game in which you leave me behind in the Hall of Fame... and with 0 days of play, which I have more than 2,000 due to the time I spent mapping for nothing, because as you said, it is not necessary to get away from the stairs.

    Regarding the game, it is curious that nothing is remembered about it when in a 1984 Antic magazine in which they cover the Atari cartridge to connect to PLATO, the featured games are empire, airfight, moria, drygulch and labyrinth. All other known games, even drygulch despite being missing.

    1. "the Atari cartridge to connect to PLATO"?

      Oh, so the PLATO systems were accessed from home computers, too? Didn't know that.

      This is fascinating:

      It's a forum thread from 2018 were people are patching the ROM file of the Atari PLATO cartridge to get it to run with the Cyber1 server. It's fun to watch the enthusiasm increasing with each breakthrough.

      On page 15 of the thread, this effort (specifically of Thomas Cherryhomes) led to the establishment of, which is another PLATO server like Cyber1, specifically for users who connect to it with old home computers (or their emulators), and with some efforts to provide a more user friendly experience.

    2. Oh, that's the server where I played Bugs and Drugs. I didn't know its origins. You can play that and other games with a guest account without having to wait to be signed up, although I don't know if the characters will be saved between sessions.

    3. You're not left behind anymore, Explorador. My character died. It was smart of you to leave a living character on the server after your coverage was finished.


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