It was the game that set @Bhaal_Spawn on her path to enlightenment – or as most of us know it, hopeless computer game addiction.
Dungeon Master is probably the first game I remember really caring about. In this first-person, real-time, role-playing dungeon exploration game, you were in control of a party of adventurers seeking fortune and glory in the spooky depths of the trap and monster-filled dungeons of Lord Chaos. It was tile based, meaning you moved your whole party of four characters one square at a time: forwards, backwards, left or right, like four chess rooks trapped in a single pawn’s body. Despite these simple mechanics, it’s still one of the most engaging games I’ve ever played.
A first taste of gaming
The precise year I first tried Dungeon Master is hard to say – but this was Kent in the late 80s and I was around seven or eight. Tears for Fears were on the radio and I spent most of my spare time with my head in a Transformers comic, punching or being punched by my brother, or sketching characters from comics in my room overlooking our garden. Everybody Wants to Rule the World may have been the words sung on the radio, but I was content to mind my own business at home and be a bit of a hermit.
I had friends at primary school; I was fortunate that people seemed to like me and I could make people laugh, but deep down I didn’t feel at all confident, particularly in larger groups. I distinctly recall sitting at my classroom desk at the start of a term and thinking “from now on, I’m going to be confident”. It never worked out, of course.
Developer and publisher
My best friend, a giant of a boy, was called Paul. We used to make up stories where he was a robot and I was his master, and he’d carry me about on his shoulders, weaving in and out of the kids playing football. We would be the ones who would rather chat about cartoons in the corner at the school disco or would be playing on his Nintendo Game and Watch on a bench outside at lunch break with some of our other classmates. He lived just around the corner from school.
One day, he must have invited me round to play on his new computer for the first time. It was an Atari ST, although I didn’t know anything about PCs, Amigas or the likes of the NES at the time. I do remember that the only time I’d ever played computer games before would have been at my cousin’s house in Derbyshire (where they had all the best Game and Watch machines, Pong and some terrifying machine that projected a kind of uber Space Invaders onto the wall), on Duck Hunt with my dad in the pub, or on the Dover to Calais ferry, which blinked such invitingly bright lights.
I remember looking at that little buzzy bee Atari ST mouse pointer – which, by the way, is incredibly cute – and being quickly hooked on seeing what this new machine could do. Every day after school, or at least what felt like every day, my mum would let me walk round to my friend’s house with her and I’d be dropped off for a couple of hours of gaming. Mainly I’d just watch my friend play whatever demo he’d recently found on the cover of a magazine, but I also enjoyed Double Dragon, Elf, Rampage, Gauntlet 2 and things like that.
Becoming the Dungeon Master
The Atari ST opened up a whole treasure chest of newness like that for me – but the game that really reeled me in and locked the lid was like nothing I’d seen before. There were no guns, aliens or men to beat up; no platforms to jump; no bosses to thump; you viewed the game world through your own eyes!
Dungeon Master opened in classic fashion: a jolly-great big door and a massive doorbell, as if for you to say “Hello, we’ve come to kill everything and steal all your treasure.” “Oh dear. You’d better come in.” “Thanks…”
Inside is the character creation, where you designed your party of adventurers. I say design; although you could edit and make your own, after stepping through the entrance of the game, you were placed in a small dungeon in which you walked alone through a sort of rogue’s gallery. You picked four characters from a motley crew of weirdoes all displayed on the wall, as if they were frozen in time within pictures forever.
Even this little touch of the strange was a tiny little piece of magic – just something extra to make the world believable.
Plunging into the dungeon
Once you gathered your party, you adventured forth. The difficulty level was reasonably smooth – the labyrinth started small and simple and the first puzzles you encountered were your common pressure-plate-to-open-the-door-style tricks; you weighed them down with something useless and proceeded.
The first monsters you came up against properly were these weird, radioactive-green breathing mushrooms, which wheezed at you. The hilarious thing about them was that they not only looked utterly disgusting, but they were completely delicious! Kill one, and they left behind slippery slices of toadstool for your characters to greedily chomp on. Yum! You could even hurl the pieces to kill more of them – literally, it was delicious irony.
So, yes, that’s right, you needed to feed your characters, so food was an important part of your inventory. Each of your four characters was a massive glutton, so you needed to stock up on food and also store water in water skins, which was a separate resource requirement.
Other items you might find along the way included weapons, armour, coins, maps and mini-clues or story scrolls. Although there wasn’t really any plot to speak of, you did find occasional notes – puzzle clues, really – but these added to the atmosphere too.
The further you went in Dungeon Master, the harder it got. From humble beginnings, great works were wrought – and the deeper you progressed, the more fiendish and totally bizarre the shenanigans got. Multiple pit traps and teleporters would flabbergast and confound you and had you sweeping the mouse away in disgust. Illusionary walls and hidden doors would surprise and befuddle you into submission. Object-related puzzles and riddles would leave you chewing the end of your map-making pencil and casting your arms into the air in silent surrender to the mind-bending nature of your surroundings.
But the environment was the least of your worries.
Unleash the beasts
After being attacked by juicy garden flora, you could expect to bash a wide variety of absolute numpties over the head. Sometimes even literally; you could hit a door switch to have it repeatedly bosh a mummy on the noggin until it died. Giant scorpions terrified, yellow spiders creeped you out, then there were the blue hillbilly things carrying clubs, and those strange worms that poisoned you – it was all there.
Towards the end of the game, you encountered strange Beholder rip-offs and then, the piece de resistance: the dragon. I still remember the first time I saw one.
It was a Saturday, we were about nine and my friend and I were at his house alone. It was very cramped – one of those thin, old Victorian terraces. We rarely ate when playing on the computer (who needs food when you have fun), and we usually dispensed with the sofa too, where his dad would often sit chain smoking behind us. Instead we’d kneel on the carpet (I can still sense its coarse, scratchy feeling on my legs), sitting not a couple of feet away from the small CRT television.
We were alone, there was no music in the house and maybe just the sound of a passing car outside the window as the only light source, although it was quite a bright day. With Paul’s house being so close to our primary school, we’d sometimes even go back there during lunch break and I’d chat to his mum, but this was the weekend and the adults were out shopping.
The dragon took us by surprise. It doesn’t move fast, or at least I don’t remember it moving, but it was in a large open area, where it loomed out of the dark and was just… huge. More out of excitement than fear, we both yelled (or maybe it was just me). My friend went to hit escape or something, anything just to pause the game, but instead our characters just started screaming and dying in fire. With a thrill of panic, I grabbed my friend’s hand and tore out of the house, away from the carnage and into his garden, where we wound up lying on the grass, laughing our heads off; “Did you see it? Oh my god!”
While monsters were like nothing I’d seen before, the magic system to Dungeon Master was also incredibly far ahead of its time – it worked similarly to the Ultima Underworld magic system, in that you didn’t just click an icon to fire off a spell. Instead, you had to know the ‘recipe’ for a spell, in terms of the words used to utter it. You’d find the runes needed to cast spells not in the manual, but in the dungeon itself.
For example, one of the most important spells – the light spell which you needed to use periodically – was cast by clicking two runes in a particular order; this was found on a scroll early on. Once you found a spell scroll, you had to go grab a pen and paper (and I mean literally – get up and go and find one, don’t be lazy!) so you don’t forget how to cast it. Naturally, this made any right-thinking person feel exactly like a wizard with a huge beard.
Skills to raise the thrills
Playing Dungeon Master was always fun – but on occasion I had the whip cracked at me like an Ancient Egyptian slave driver. You see, each of your characters had a base amount of magic and health, as well as a starting level for fighter, wizard, etc. Obviously, the characters with the most mana focused on magic at the back, while the ones with higher fighting ability would be on the front row. But all characters could cast spells and all characters could fight. Pow! Anyway, their abilities progressed at a rate determined by how much they used them.
Basically, it was just like in Skyrim; if a character cast a lot of spells, swung a lot of swords, or made a lot of potions, they were going to gain ability in those skills. If she knitted all day, she’d end up a grandmaster in making dragon motif sweaters!
Which led me to my ‘job’: while my friend made lunch, I often had to sit at the ST, attacking thin air for half an hour, or even an hour, in an attempt to gain experience. I mean, how exciting is that? I’d be sitting there on the carpet, clicking sword, clicking swing, sword, swing: “Whoosh”, “Whoosh”… for what seemed like forever.
So, that sounds dull. But I didn’t see it that way at the time. No, see, we were ‘training’. Yes, totally.
That’s how dedicated we were to this game. It had us spending hours doing nothing but casting light spells or swinging swords in a dead end somewhere, silently nibbling our sandwiches and nodding in mutual appreciation if a level was gained.
A lasting legacy
You know a game is important if it influences what you do in day-to-day life, and with Dungeon Master, it undoubtedly inspired the first fan-art I ever did of a game. I played Top Trumps with my brother on car journeys – for the uninitiated, it’s a card game where each card represents a character with differing strengths and weaknesses out of 100 points. You would take it in turns to play a card and pick a skill to play – a sort of very simplistic Pokémon card game.
So over the course of several days I created my own deck of Top Trumps. So, there was the Screamer mushrooms – Fear Factor 5, Strength 15, deliciousness 57. Yum. Obviously Chaos was the top card, with top magic, strength etc… but he had to have his weakness; he was not very delicious.
But that was the game: a simple dungeon crawler to younger gamers now, perhaps, but for me, my friend and countless others, it represented mystery, exploration, and a journey into a whole new world.
It would be a couple of years before my dad considered getting a computer. I begged him to buy an Atari ST, pointing out you could even make games on it – you didn’t just have to play them! Obviously, I had no idea that games were not at the front of his mind at all. He bought a display-model 2086 from Dixons, with Intel 086 processor (a lightning-slow 8Mhz), with 640KB of RAM and a whoppingly small 32MB hard drive.
But, in a concession to little me, he did promise to buy me a computer game – the game I ended up with was Castle Master. It wasn’t Dungeon Master by any stretch of the imagination, but it was mine. And I would come downstairs in my PJs at 6am to play it at the PC table in the corner of our dining room.
My love for PC gaming was born there, but the fires were first lit by the Atari ST and Dungeon Master, which I’m forever grateful for!
- Amazing graphics for the time
- Superb level design, intrigue and puzzles
- Truly ground-breaking
- The décor never changed – I hope you like grey stone walls
- No automap – but c’mon! That was half the fun
- You couldn’t just dip in and out once a blue moon – you needed to pay attention
Dungeon Master is a masterful dungeon exploration game, with varied and imaginative monsters and puzzles, with a unique magic and skill system.