Aged probably no more than 6, I looked on in excitement and fear at the Amiga monitor. My parents were playing Dungeon Master again, it’s labyrinthine dungeons, fiendish puzzles, stunning graphics (for the time) and always death, waiting around the next corner.
Dungeon Master was a pivotal game of my childhood, it taught me how real and immersive games could actually get, despite computer limitations. Using a 2D perspective trick, it could render a seemingly 3D environment as if seen from the eyes of the player. This of course was an illusion, but it did it so effectively, that it stood out back then with hugely impressive visuals. It wasn’t just nice to look at though; featuring groundbreaking level design and puzzle concepts, being brutally difficult but still rewarding; there was something about it that left a lasting impression on you. It was a little like the Dark Souls of it’s day.
Although there had been other well known ‘dungeon crawler’ games (as they came to be known) like Bard’s Tale and Wizardry, it was DM that really culminated the best attributes of the genre, distilling it into what is in my opinion the best of the lot, even to this day. It’s no coincidence that Almost Human’s ‘Legend of Grimrock’ in 2012, cited Dungeon Master as large inspiration and something that is clearly evident having finished Grimrock and noticing many ‘tips of the hat’ to DM’s puzzles, mechanics and creatures. All those puzzles of putting an item on a pressure plate to close a pit, or placing a torch in a wall sconce to open a secret door hearken back to this era.
DM was in fact the largest selling title of all time for the Atari ST, whose version differed only mildly from that of the Amiga, with the latter featuring improved 3D sound effects where most noticeably, you can hear creatures moving around with unnerving effect.
Using the free Amiga emulator WinUAE the past week, I have finally finished Dungeon Master after all these years. I loved every second of it, scarily so, because I was telling myself continually throughout, “why am I playing a 27 year old game in this day and age?”. Irrespective of the answer, I had more fun playing it then most state of the art games I have played recently! Why? Well, many reasons, the challenge and immersion are two, but ultimately, I guess I’m a pretty hardcore gamer and there’s just something about playing old school classic RPG’s, a charm or ambiance if you like, akin to rolling that dice in a pen and paper D&D game. I’m sure many can empathize with that.
Dungeon Master does have a story and plot, though sparse and not a driving force for the progression of the game. It revolves around having to descend into the depth of the mysterious dungeon and find an artifact known as the ‘Firestaff’, as tasked by your master ‘Lord Order’. Ultimately, if your party survive the horrors long enough, you come across writings detailing the evils that will occur should you complete this quest and instead come to realise that you must descend to the deepest depths of the dungeon, combine the staff with the ‘power gem’ and defeat ‘Lord Chaos’ (think Sauron), restoring ‘Balance’ to the world.
You start the journey in the ‘Hall of Champions’, a place at the start of the dungeon where you can look upon windows on the walls and see magically suspended heroes, whom you can either ‘resurrect’ or ‘reincarnate’ to join your party, up to a total of four party members. Resurrection ensures the character maintains it’s identity, combat skills and experiences whereas reincarnation allows you to rename the character, forfeiting their skill set, but gifting them enhanced physical attributes so to enhance learning and allow you to shape the character as you see fit. Ultimately, the tried and tested composition of two fighters at the front, a priest and a wizard at the back worked wonders for my play-through, though having four ‘jack-of-all-trades’ is viable too. As 2012’s Grimrock, the party moves through the dungeon in 1st-person view in a 2 by 2 formation, meaning that only the two members of your party at the front can reach enemies with melee weapons, with the back two having to rely on ranged, throwing weapons and spell casting. Consequently, only the front two will take damage from the front, and if a ‘baddie’ creeps up behind you, your squishy casters won’t be very happy. Part of the the games meta strategy, involves you being able to change your players around in the formation at any time e.g if your front fighters get wounded, you can swap them out with the back.
The predominate theme of the game is undoubtedly ‘survival’. Staying alive is really, really not an easy thing unless you have learned the tricks and techniques generally gained after many horrible deaths, whether that be to the jaws of giant worms, starvation or plummeting down a pit arriving several levels lower than you could possibly hope to deal with. The only items you have at your disposal are those you find along the way, and that way is strewn with illusory walls, guarded chests, locked doors and secret passages that without consulting a guide or a printed map, you have little chance of ever finding yourself (hand holding pfff who needs it?). Even basic concepts we all take for granted in games today such as being able to SEE, is a premeditated game mechanic in dungeon master, where the dungeons are pitch black without a light source and torches are scarce, making the use of a wizard or others with the skills to cast ‘light’ spells essential.
One of the most memorable mechanics which is still pretty innovative today is the magic system. To the right side of the screen are a bunch of runic symbols. The boxed game’s manual documented an alphabet of these symbols describing there purpose. As you cast a spell you first choose a rune representing the ‘power’ of the spell, would you cast a short duration spell or a potent offensive spell for instance? Then sequentially you chose the spells ‘elemental influence’, ‘form’ and ‘alignment’. It all sounds rather complicated but when you know off by heart that a weak fireball is LO FUL IR and a potent healing potion is PAL VI, it starts to become second nature, especially when you realise you can drop the power level if your priest is low on mana and make a weaker healing potion like LO VI for instance. In combat, you would be expected to click these runes in the correct order at the heat of the moment, you soon realised that if you didn’t ‘get gud’ and memorise them, then you simply got ‘dead’. In a funny kind of way, it really did feel like you were learning magic and having to go through the motions to learn and cast the spells your party depended on and I love that.
Other mechanics such as food and drink meters for each character really puts that hanging dread over your party for the entirety of the game, since you never know when your next meal is coming up and when you’ll see a fountain again to refill your water skins. Realising your lost deep somewhere with no water left and down to your last couple of hunks of meat is pretty terrifying. Luckily though, some of the critters are edible if you can kill them, ‘Screamer Slice’, ‘Worm Round’ or ‘Dragon Steak’ anyone? Yum!
Having finally finished the game after all these years, I felt an immense sense of accomplishment because it’s a game that I grew up thinking was simply too tough for me to contend with, and to be fair, me being less than 10, it probably was! The end showdown with Lord Chaos is no simple matter. Once you have collected all the ‘Ra keys’, broken into the vault of the Firestaff, defeated it’s Stone Golem guardians and retrieved it, you then have to descend to the last level, defeat a wingless dragon and free the power gem with a spell you better have learned along the way or your buggered! (*cough* Google). You then must combine the staff with the gem, creating an ultimate weapon and then go back up a level and find Lord Chaos. Using the staff’s power you must surround him with ‘Fluxcages’ and finally ‘Fuse’ him to restore ‘Lord Balance’ and beat the game. If that sounds straightforward, it really isn’t, especially considering even if you do figure this all out on your own from a subtle hint in an very well hidden scroll, you have to do all this while being attacked by demons, black flame elementals and Chaos himself flinging fireballs at your face!
I’m currently now playing through it’s sequel ‘Chaos Strikes Back’ (Yes…it really IS called that) and it is unbelievably hard, as in Dark Souls has nothing, not a bean compared to this in terms of difficulty. CSM will eat you alive and then spit out your regurgitated remains for a second helping. Firstly, the sequel starts at the same difficultly level that DM ends at. You can import your characters which you may think will help and sure enough it does a little, but little prepares you for the first 10 seconds of the game which pretty much goes like this:
“Ok, let’s go, hmm it’s pitch black…where am I? My party is naked with no weapons…I can hear things moving around me…let me cast a light spell. That’s better! SHIT there’s four armoured worms in here with me and no exits…no wait, SIX worms…EIGHT….I’m surrounded…can’t move….DEAD.”
That’s your first taste of Chaos Strikes Back, shoved into an infested pit of worms with no weapons and no obvious way out, but like Dark Souls, I still love it.
As reported in 2012 in a Rock, Paper, Shotgun article here, one chap amazingly spent 6 months, eight hours a day of his own time, programming 120,000 lines of code to port the Atari ST version, creating a C++ executable version that runs today on any modern PC. It can be found here free: Chaos Strikes Back for Windows (and Linux, MacOS X, Pocket PC)
For those used to emulators, by getting hold of the Amiga .adf ROM file (basically an image of the game disk), you can run it in WinUAE (my personal preference for the better sounds) but ultimately, only ex-Amiga junkies would likely do this over the ported PC version :D.
Dungeon Master is a truly iconic game that has undoubtedly influenced many great games, not just across the dungeon-crawler and RPG genres like the classic ‘Eye of the Beholder’ series or recently the ‘Legend of Grimrock’, but also modern popular AAA titles such as the Elder Scrolls. It’s a testament to it’s influence that the game still has it’s own updated Encyclopedia site: http://dmweb.free.fr/ and even an online message forum with an active and thriving community: http://www.dungeon-master.com/forum/.
I would encourage anyone who is curious about classic RPG’s games, interested in why modern games are like they are and all that jazz to check out old titles like Dungeon Master, because although the graphics leave much to be desired by today’s standards, the game play is still truly as good as it ever was. It’s clear there is still much to wonder and marvel at, in both game design and execution in this old gem.