When it comes to the history of PC RPGs, the first person dungeon crawler is surely one of its most important chapters. It's a tradition that started with games like Akalabeth
(1980) and Wizardry
(1981) and lives on today either strongly evolved (The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
, 2006) or in a relatively pure and unchanged way as a niche genre (Orcs & Elves, Etrian Odyssey
, both 2007). I'd like to talk about two specific games from this tradition that were so unique, different and groundbreaking that they changed not only the genre but the world of video games as a whole. The first one is called Dungeon Master.
In the beginning, RPGs were incredibly abstract, frustrating and complicated, suited exclusively for hardcore nerds. The majority of RPGs prior to 1987 is virtually unplayable today. Most of the them were ugly, unforgiving, completely turn-based and controlled with dozens of keyboard commands. Here is an in-game screenshot of Wizardry IV: The Return of Werdna
Looks like fun, doesn't it? Of course not all of the games looked like that, but I just want to give you an impression of the general experience.
Toward the end of the decade things started to change, one reason being the rise of console RPGs like Dragon Quest, Phantasy Star
and Final Fantasy
(sure, the early iterations of these seem pretty unplayable today too, but they were still very accessible compared to the contemporary Wizardry
games) another being the advent of more powerful PCs like the Atari ST and the Amiga.
In 1987 FTL released what would become the best-selling game on the Atari ST: Dungeon Master
. It was later ported to Amiga, DOS and even SNES and FM Towns. The whole game took place in one big dungeon; at the beginning the player entered the "Hall of Heroes" where he could choose up to four adventurers that were magically trapped in mirrors to form a four-member party. His goal: Lead the party deeper and deeper into the dungeon to find and destroy the evil Lord Chaos.
So what's so special about it? Well, first of all Dungeon Master
established a new, realistic sense of time and space in the genre. Instead of being turn-based, everything played out in real-time, which led to action-oriented battles that still remained tactical, largely because enemies didn't just pop up randomly - they physically moved around in the dungeon themselves. You could for example hear or see them in the distance, shoot an arrow and retreat - and so could they. Another important aspect was the fact that you were able to make use of your enviroment, like throwing things that were laying around at enemies or even sqashing them with the closing mechanism of a heavy steel door.
Apart from the realistic sandbox gameplay the most groundbreaking feature was the intuitive interface. Dungeon Master
could be played entirely with the mouse, no keyboard commands necessary. The cursor was shaped like a hand and used liked one when interacting with the gameworld. Everything was done by clicking, dragging and dropping and basically completely self-explanatory.
Another new and refreshing aspect was the magic system. Spells were formed by combining various symbols, including one that determined the strength of the spell. Nearly everyone could use magic, but only the characters with enough practice and magic points were able to pull of the really powerful versions of the spells.
Practice is the word that leads us to the experience system that was again very intuitive. You weren't getting experience points for every killed enemy, instead your actions influenced your skills. If you used healing spells a lot, you would become a better priest; if you used your sword a lot, you would become a better warrior. It was a realistic approach that let you tweak your stats by practicing: Pick up and throw a really heavy stone often enough and you would become stronger. This concept would be used later by other games like Final Fantasy II
or the Elder Scrolls
FTL released two sequels, Chaos Strikes Back
in 1989 and Dungeon Master II: The Legend of Skullkeep
in 1994, but beside the official sequels they were billions of clones and epigones, most famously the Eye of the Beholder
series. Thanks to the large fanbase of the game there are also a lot of ports and remakes, so if you want to play Dungeon Master
today, you shouldn't have much of a problem. My personal favorite is Return to Chaos
by George Gilbert, which is a faithfully recreated 1:1 remake for Windows that looks, sounds and feels exactly like the original and optionally enhances it subtly. It also includes Chaos Strikes Back
and even Dungeon Master II
To close on a personal note: Dungeon Master
was the first RPG I ever played (Man, those mummies creeped me out as a kid) and when I replayed some time ago, I noticed that it is still extremely intriguing and addictive today (and even quite scary). The graphics have aged really well too, despite the fact that the stone walls of the dungeon look the same during the whole game. In short, I love this game. And to reference yesterdays Mother's Day - it's also one of the favorite games of my mom, so its greatness is pretty much official.
Don't miss Part 2, where I will talk about the one first person dungeon crawling RPG that finally surpassed
Dungeon Master in terms of influence and changed the face of video gaming forever.