Monday, June 17, 2024

Game 519: Dungeon of Doom (1980)

Dungeon of Doom
United States
Argon Games (developer and publisher)
Released 1980 for Apple II
Date Started: 7 June 2024
Date Ended: 16 June 2024
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Completely user-definable, so I guess moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: 15
Ranking at time of posting: 97/521 (19%) 
Both El Explorador de RPG and I had this game as "missing" for a couple of years (he had found an ad for it but couldn't find the game) before it was rescued from oblivion by a commenter named John Brown, who found it in a "random local Apple II lot he purchased." He sent El Explorador images of the box and manual but not the game itself. However, Mr. Brown did ultimately provide a disk copy to YouTuber "DefaultGen" who subsequently made a video about it and uploaded it to the Internet Archive, which commenter Busca brought to my attention. It's a good video, at least as informative as anything you're going to read here.
The game was created by Stephen G. Walburn and Robert J. McCredie, two old-school wargamers who created several tactical board games, including Shoot-Out: Gunfights in the Spirit of the Old West (1980), Space Warrior (1980), and Husky: Invasion of Sicily (1981). They were also Dungeons & Dragons fans and were, like many such fans, interested in how to bring D&D gameplay to the microcomputer.
The game isn't just the first commercial party-based RPG; it allows up to 12 members!
Their answer, Dungeon of Doom, technically breaks our previous understanding of a couple of "firsts." It takes the spot previously held by Wizardry (1981) as the first traditional commercial RPG to feature multiple characters in a party. (I have to throw "traditional" in there because technically 1978's The Magic Tower is the first, but it's not really a normal RPG.) Perhaps more important, it robs Tunnels of Doom (1982) of the distinction of the first RPG with multi-character combat on a top-down tactical grid. This is not to say that any later authors were influenced by Dungeon of Doom (though it would be fun to think that Tunnels was, given the name), but as DefaultGen says in his video: "Any CRPG that came before Ultima and Wizardry set a blueprint to follow is by default an interesting game."
The game relies a lot on the honesty and external record-keeping of the player. As the game begins, you're invited to create a party of anywhere from 1 to 12 fighters, mages and clerics. That's a pretty broad range. Even crazier, you can create characters of any level, statistics, and gear (within certain maximums) that you want. The game uses D&D attributes: strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, and charisma, all within the 3-18 range, including the percentile statistic for characters with 18 strength. Nothing stops you from creating a character with all 18s. If there's a character level limit, I never found it; it let me create a Level 9,999 character when I tried. [Ed. The maximum is in fact 32,766.] You define your own hit points, but they're capped at 8 times your level for fighters, 6 times your level for clerics, and 4 times your level for mages--essentially the "hit dice" system from D&D. I can't imagine what charisma does in the game; intelligence and wisdom may affect spell power.
Exploring a corridor.
You also specify your equipment during character creation. You can choose armor from leather, chain, and plate, and give it an enchantment of up to +5. You can choose to carry a shield, up to +5. You select two weapons from a short list (sword, two-handed sword, mace, dagger, bow, crossbow, sling), all of which can be enchanted up to +5.
In all of this flexibility, the game reminds me a bit of Dunjonquest (1979) which similarly allowed players to type in their own characters and expected them to keep track of them between sessions. I think clearly players were supposed to create basic characters and work them up, although a relatively powerful party of five characters (three fighters, a cleric, and a mage), all levels 5-9 with no piece of equipment less than +3, comes on the disk.
Available commands as you explore a corridor.
When you enter the game proper, you're thrust into a large, 6-level, 3D maze. The levels are all 40 x 40, using a "worm tunnel" configuration (i.e., walls have actual space). The corridors are in a fixed configuration, but the room locations are randomized. The entry is always in the southeast corner, and the exit is always in the northwest corner. I haven't compared the exact lines of code, but the graphics look exactly like Silas Warner's Escape! (1978) for the Apple II.
You navigate through the dungeon with the FBLR keys. (The game has a quirk by which you cannot just turn; you can only turn and step forward, which makes navigation a little awkward.) You occasionally find a door that you can E)nter, thus initiating battle with whatever denizens are in there. Random battles can occur in the hallways, too, but you never get any treasure from those, while you do get treasure from the "room" battles.
Deciding whether to enter a room to my left.
The battles are the heart of the game. They're all with exactly one monster type, drawn from the typical D&D list: gnolls, orcs, trolls, ochre jellies, dragons, and so forth. The manual boasts that there are 141 different types. You may face up to a couple of dozen enemies per battle, so you either want to bring a large party or a strong one.
As combat begins, enemies are scattered randomly across a very large battlefield (40 x 40 for rooms, 20 x 40 for corridors), which is also populated with as many "obstacles" as there are monsters. If you entered a room, the party members are clustered off-screen, below the southern doorway, and you have to enter the room one by one. It's sometimes tough to get out of each other's ways. If the battle is a random one in a corridor, the party starts scattered randomly.
Combat begins. The party is all off-screen, below the door. There are three enemies and three obstacles on the screen. If I try hard, I can tell which is which because the enemies are a bit darker.
The game cycles through the party members in order, first allowing them to move, with the number of movement points defined by dexterity and armor. During this round, you can also switch weapons or pass. After that, there's a combat round in which every character can fire a missile weapon, attack with a melee weapon (if in range), or cast a spell (if a spellcaster). Enemies go in turn after the characters. Despite the large variety of enemies, they never cast spells or hit you with special attacks or conditions. I don't think any of them even have missile weapons.
A couple of rounds later, I've established "ranks" to the left and right of the door. One of the enemies has reached my left rank; two more are approaching my right.
There are no individual spells in the game. In combat, spellcasters just cast a generic offensive spell. You specify the "force" level (limited by character level) from 1-5. Clerics can cast these offensive spells, too, but are better off saving their spell power for healing outside of combat.
Every round, there's a 10% chance you'll be offered an opportunity to withdraw, which if taken gives the enemies one free whack at the party members on their way out the door.
This combat system sounds good on paper--it's the ancestor of every tactical, grid-based combat system we've ever seen. In practice, a few things make it a bit excruciating. One of the elements is relatively unique to me as a colorblind player: the only way party members, obstacles, and enemies are distinguished using the low-resolution graphics is by color. I had trouble distinguishing enemies (which I believe are orange) from obstacles (yellow) and certain party members that had close colors.
Make what you can of this image. Looking at it now, I don't know where Erk is, nor the monster he hit.
Second, movement is with this key arrangement . . .
1 2 3
4    6
7 8 9
. . . which looks like it ought to be easy to master, but I had to have an image as a constant reference.
Third, the battlefield is just too big. It takes multiple rounds even to get close to monsters, especially if you're all coming through the south door. You might think that you could alleviate this problem by using missile weapons and spells exclusively, which gets us into the most serious problem: When you want to use a missile weapon, the game cycles through all of the enemies on the screen, telling you their numbers, so that you can specify which enemy number you want to shoot. There's no "random" or "closest" option. The cycle lingers on each enemy for about 1 second, so if you're fighting a party of 12 gnolls, you have to sit there for 12 seconds as the game shows you and numbers each one. If the next character wants to fire his missile weapon, you have to wait those 12 seconds again. 
The game cycles through the available targets.
Naturally, you can speed things up with an emulator, but even with CPU speed cranked, large battles can easily take 20-30 minutes.
The size of the battlefield also makes the "obstacle" system a bit irrelevant, since even with large enemy parties, there aren't enough obstacles to create walls, channels, or other configurations that might be exploited by either you or your foes.
If you manage to clear out the enemies, the party gets a number of experience points. If the enemies are in a room, you also get treasure, which can be represented as copper, silver, gold, gems, or jewels. The game breaks from D&D by making copper worth 1/100 of a gold piece (I believe it was 1/50 in OD&D and 1/200 in AD&D1). Gems are worth a fixed 233 gold pieces and jewels are worth a fixed 1,419 gold pieces.
You're also limited by how much you can carry.
There are 78 rooms per dungeon level, and the game keeps track of which ones you've cleared. When the party is spent, you can exit the dungeon by returning to the original staircase. At this point, you want to note your accumulated experience points and treasure. Because when you re-enter the dungeon, you'll be expected to make manual adjustments to your characters based on the experience and equipment tables offered in the game manual. Once you edit your characters, you can re-enter the dungeon.
You manually "buy" upgrades by subtracting their costs from your treasure pool.
While making your way through the hallways, you can check your progress with the M)ap command, which draws an automap column by column. When I set the emulator to "Use Authentic Machine Speed," the map took 92 seconds to draw. That must have been fun as an original player. I guess it stops you from abusing the map.
The map of the first level.
The game offers a couple other navigation tricks tied to a spellcaster's power. High enough casters can cast "Change Level" to move to a different level or "Teleportation" to move to a specific point on the same level. Lower levels theoretically mean harder monsters, although I didn't notice much of a correlation. The game also leaves a couple of troubleshooting codes for the player to use, and the manual explicitly tells you the password to use them. You can restock a level with CTRL-R, move to a new level (without spending spell points) with CTRL-N, and check your current coordinates with CTRL-P.
There's no plot to the game, no story, no winning condition. It's not a huge feat to make it to the final square (the doorway to the non-existent seventh level) when you can teleport yourself there. I suppose it would be a huge feat to clear all 468 rooms, but you'd have to be mental. 
As far as you can go.
Overall, Dungeon of Doom needed a little work to be truly enjoyable. But it did a couple of things for the first time and thus deserves to be remembered for those achievements alone.

I tried to track down the authors to no avail. Both had a number of board game credits in the early 1980s and then kind of disappeared. Argon Games seems to have existed for this one title. Oddly, what is still around is the Triangle Simulation Society, credited with play-testing. This North Carolina-based group is into board games and wargames, and it's easy to imagine that Walburn and McCredie were probably members. [Ed. I later got some information that Mr. Walburn died of a heart attack in 1986. I was able to reach Mr. McCredie through his daughter, and he read the article and said he appreciated it. He said Mr. Walburn did all the programming on Dungeons of Doom, but Mr. McCredie helped out with concept and design.]
The box art is credited to a Craig Lindholm.
El Explorador de RPG also released an entry on the game today, so make sure you check out his coverage for things I may have missed, or for a more analytical view overall.


  1. This is an interesting one... I do wonder if Kevin Kinney may have played it and used it as a model for Tunnels of Doom.
    The 3D dungeon and 2D tactical combat line up, and that box art is similar to the TOD title screen, albeit from a different angle.
    He mentioned in an interview he was a member of a board wargaming club as well.

    1. No kidding... it looks much like Tunnels!

      They must have published under the Argon imprint given the "nobility" of the game.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I think I'd get used to the numeric movement keys quickly since the Gold Box games use the same and unless you I haven't played 500+ other games with different keys for directions to remember.

    But without plot or story and given the other drawbacks and limitations you mention, that would not be enough for me to give this a shot, despite its historical interest.

    1. ...Did the Gold Box games use that? Because that arrangement looks like a *phone keypad* arrangement, not a computer's numeric keypad. They're flipped vertically.

    2. You're right, my bad. The computer keypad indeed has 7-8-9 in the top row and 1-2-3 at the bottom - and that's what the GB games used for the corresponding movement directions, together with 4 & 6.

  4. Oh! Great find by the two of you!

    Interesting to see a RPG from the "please be honest" school of game design. There were a handful of early computer wargames (eg: Battle of the Bulge: St Vith) that asked you to indicate yourself which units were out of supply by checking the rules and the situation of the map. Similarly, several games by Paul Murray (which you know for a number of early SSI RPGs) asked you whether you wanted to solve battles "outside" of the game, and if so to please input the results :).

    I guess that's not very different from using cheat codes in Doom or Age of Empires :).

    1. It also reminds me of the Magnavox Odyssey games which were also a mix of real-life things and the console; none of the games were playable without screen overlays and a good number of them also required other objects that came with the system.

  5. The map reminds me a lot of Dragon Maze (from Bob Bishop) which was used as base code for Beneath Apple Manor and Dungeon Campaign. Maybe it showed up here too?

    1. I don't think so, the map is fixed and the same for all levels, so it is not randomly generated like in those games. What is randomly distributed are the doors to the rooms.

      By the way, great article and I'm sorry you couldn't contact the authors, Chet. I know that at least Walburn belonged to the Triangle Simulation Society because I found references to their participation in several games at their meetings. Maybe he can be located through them, have you contacted them?

    2. As we discussed by email, I did reach out to them and got some additional information, which I pasted above.

  6. The box art reminds me of Dungeon Master, funnily enough.

  7. "If there's a character level limit, I never found it;"

    What about character level 10'000?

    1. Or above 65535, i.e. 2^16-1.

    2. It is, in fact, 32766. If you try to create a Level 32,767 character, you get an error.

    3. Assembly language hobbyistJune 21, 2024 at 5:09 PM

      That would suggest the value is stored as a signed integer (15 bits for the value, one for the sign). Can you input a negative number for the level?

  8. Your assessment of the colours of yellow and orange is correct, and seemed difficult for me to differentiate on a white background. I have no colour hindrance to my sight that I'm aware of.

    An interesting early piece saved from obscurity. It belongs in a museum.

    141 monsters is impressive, even as stats with no abilities

    1. According to El Explorador's coverage, the actual number of monsters is 131 despite what the manual says. Still impressive, I guess.


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