Review: FTL's "Dungeon Master" (1987)

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Matt Barton's picture

Dungeon Master: The Atari STDungeon Master: Dungeon Master (Atari ST Version) FTL's Dungeon Master, released in 1987 for the Atari ST and a year later for the Amiga, represents a defining moment in the evolution of the computer role-playing game. Although it is certainly not the first 3D real-time computer role playing game (see Dungeons of Daggorath), it's probably the first such game to really hit the mainstream. It was the #1 best selling product on the Atari ST platform, and remains one of the best-known and playable of the early CRPGs. Indeed, I've recently become addicted to the game and will probably not be happy until I've completed it! What I intend to do here is discuss some of the game's more innovative features and try to get at what makes this game so endearing and important.

Many fans of the game were impressed that the storyline was penned by a "real" novelist, one Nancy Holder (one is reminded of the hype surrounding Raymond E. Feist's Krondor games). This story is presented in the game's manual (in italics, of course), and goes on for nearly 20 pages. I suppose it might be "gripping" for those who enjoy artful prose like, "The figure visibly jerked." Suffice it to say, it's a fetch quest for the "Firestaff." Hey, at least it's not an orb.

Perhaps one interesting twist is that the party will be made up of adventurers who have already met their demise in the dungeon. It's your job to either resurrect or reincarnate up to four of these fallen heroes to do your dirty work. It's a nice conceit that probably could've offered substantial replay value--but, ultimately, the only real differences among the heroes are their stats and blocky little portrait. Then again, it's certainly possible for a player to dream up whatever story he or she wishes for the heroes (I'm not sure when it became so unusual for developers to expect more imagination from their gamers!)

From what I've managed to gather, the only version of the game that features an end sequence is the PC port. I've made it to the fourth dungeon and have seen no real evidence of a meta-narrative or internal references to any of the folks mentioned in the story (we could contrast this game with the story-intensive Krondor games mentioned earlier). Fortunately, this isn't the kind of game that needs an intriguing story to engage the player.

Suffice it to say, there are 14 monster, puzzle, and trap-infested levels that you need to explore. Doing so will take time, strategy, and persistence--they don't call it a dungeon crawler for nothing!

By 1987, the CRPG was a fairly well-developed genre of computer game. There were several popular series, such as Origin's Ultima, Sir-Tech's Wizardry, and Electronic Arts' Bard's Tale, and SSI's first Gold Box game, Pool of Radiance, would show up just a year later. While some of these games offered first-person, 3D perspective and "random encounters" that could happen even if the player was away from the keyboard, they were primarily "turn-based" games. In other words, game time proceeded in discrete segments, a setup which was great for strategy but not so good for generating tension and anxiety. What FTL Games did with Dungeon Master was to return to the arcade-like action of earlier 3D games like the aforementioned Dungeons of Daggorath and 3D Monster Maze.

The Door Trick: If you can't beat'm with brawn, try closing a door on their heads!The Door Trick: If you can't beat'm with brawn, try closing a door on their heads!The monsters living in the dungeons in Dungeon Master don't just stand around as the player explores the dungeon. They roam about, picking up objects and tracking the player. Furthermore, they don't wait for the player to make decisions during combat. It's up to the player to plan ahead, and be ready to move the mouse quite furiously once the action begins. The combat sequences demand a great deal of attention and reflexes from the sweaty-palmed player. Those familiar with NES games like Final Fantasy know something of the speed and precision this game requires.

Dungeon Master is also one of the first CRPGs to make extensive use of the mouse as an input device. In the Atari ST version, this is implemented somewhat clumsily, with the directional keys located on-screen. To move about, players have to continuously click these buttons with the mouse, which gets tiresome pretty quickly. The Amiga version improves on this by allowing movement with the numeric keypad (there also two "rotate" buttons that come in very handy). Everything else is controlled via a fairly intuitive system of left and right-button mouse clicks. Although a bit overwhelming at first, after fifteen minutes or so, the system begins to make sense and everything falls into place.

Dungeon Master offers an interesting party creation system. Rather than allowing the player to create his own characters from scratch, they are chosen from mirrors in the "Hall of Champions." There are a great many possible heroes to choose from. There are four basic character classes (fighter, ninja, priest, and wizard), but many characters are hybrids of two or more. Later in the game, players will gain more expertise in these areas by practicing the corresponding skills; casting lots of wizard spells, for instance, will build up that skill, whereas throwing lots of shurikens will spike the ninja skill. Furthermore, rather than rely on a number-based system of levels, the characters go through stages like "novice," "journeyman," and "artisan." It's a very intuitive and logical system that reminded me quite strongly of that in the Elder Scrolls games (which seem to me to be an almost direct descendant).

Another interesting aspect of Dungeon Master is the magic system. Rather than memorizing spells or choosing them from a menu, players cast spells by combining strings of symbols. Although there are thousands and thousands of possible combinations, only certain strings have effects. Wizards or priests must start off casting a new spell at a very weak level, only gradually gaining the skills to really do impressive magic. Players learn new spells either by trial and error or finding scrolls sprinkled throughout the dungeon. These scrolls contain "spell recipes" that the player can look-up in the manual and put to use. However, I'm sure that many players will prefer to find the spell listings in an online FAQ (or hunt down the original clue book).

Players can also enhance their characters by finding armor, weapons, and magical items. Some of these items are acquired by killing monsters, but others are hidden in secret rooms or just lying about on the floor. Unfortunately, here again players will no doubt want a FAQ or cluebook, since there is no way of telling in-game which items are better than others (save doing some very complicated math!) (Note: The manual claims that eventually characters will be able to provide more info about items when they examine them, but I've yet to reach this point).

Finally, adding to the game's realism is the need to find food and water. Most games that try to incorporate eating and drinking do so in a thoroughly irritating fashion, with players spending more time worried about acquiring sustenance than slaughtering orcs. Thankfully, the characters use up these resources pretty slowly, and there is an abundance (at least on the early levels) of food and water available (do you really want to eat that turkey leg that's been sitting on the floor of this dungeon for God knows how long? Sure!) Players can usually get food from the corpses of fallen creatures as well, though this food doesn't have as strong an effect. Another bit of "realism" is your player's vulnerability to wounding. Every so often during a battle, a character will take enough damage to one of his or her body parts; the wound reduces the character's stats and must be healed with a potion. It's a small thing, but does add just another bit of complexity to an already involving game.

One thing I noticed after playing this game for awhile was the sheer interface intensity of playing this game. Although it's really fair to call it a "clickfest" like Diablo, there is very little "automatic" here. Even while not engaged in combat, you're either eating, drinking, making potions, swapping out torches, shuffling inventories, preparing spells, or healing. All of this requires an extraordinary amount of mousing, but also a good deal of concentration. In short, you're either "in the zone" while playing this game, or you're monster meat.

Puzzles, Maps, and Secrets
In addition to a fairly standard assortment of monsters, there are quite a few puzzles here to challenge a wily player. Most of these seem to involve various arrangements of pressure plates, though others require special items to activate.

Dungeon Master is also a map maker's delight, so if you're into that kind of thing, break out the graph paper and get to work. Personally, I must prefer an auto-mapping system, but there are plenty of maps online to let lazy folks like me to get through. Unfortunately, most maps also spell out the locations of the many secret rooms, so it's a trade-off. Obviously, it's quite a thrill to stumble into a secret treasure room and get some of the very-rare magical items that'll give you an edge in combat. The fact that even so vital an item as the compass was in one of those secret rooms really makes it necessary to kick every wall.

While the puzzles I encountered weren't exactly of Myst quality, they provide a nice diversion from the hack and slash. There are also lots of small buttons and levers for players to keep an eye out for, as well as cryptic (or not so cryptic) inscriptions to provide clues.

Graphics and Sound
So far, I've played the Atari ST and Amiga versions of this game, and must admit that I much prefer the latter. For one thing, the ability to use the numeric keypad is a huge boon (ST fans, please chime in if there's a way to do this with the ST version). The graphics are perhaps a bit better on the Amiga, but not enough to make a difference.

The sound in both games is a bit limited. You spend the majority of your time in silence, though when monsters are near you can hear them shuffling about. Supposedly, the Amiga version was the first to offer "3D Sound Effects," and I remember reading reviews asking players to wear headphones to intensify them. At any rate, I didn't notice much with my surround sound system, and I'm not so sure what all the fuss was about.

One aspect of the graphics I especially like is the character screens. It's logically laid out (in the sort of paper-doll setup common in many of the Might and Magic games), and each item has a unique graphic.

Dungeon Master (Amiga): An innovative, mouse-driven "paper doll" system for managing inventory and survival needs.Dungeon Master (Amiga): An innovative, mouse-driven "paper doll" system for managing inventory and survival needs.The dungeon walls tend to all look the same, a fact that makes it tricky to keep one's bearings (I managed to find a compass that has proven its weight in gold!). The monsters look convincing enough, though at this early stage I've yet to encounter much more than mummies, "screamers," and "magenta worms." However, there are 27 creatures in the game, many with special powers or weaknesses that call for smart tactics. Check out this page for a list of them. There's everything from beholders ("Wizard Eyes") to dragons to keep D&D fans happy.

I noticed no music in either version, though apparently the FM Towns game features quite a nice soundtrack. This fact doesn't bother me, since I'm quite happy playing my own music instead. Besides, we all know how repetitive a twelve-second melody can get after about the 50,000th repetition.

Other Thoughts
One thing I can definitely say about Dungeon Master is that it remains quite playable even in 2006. This is one of those rare titles that can really get its hooks into you. At first, the game is only just interesting enough to keep you playing for a few more minutes--the old, "just a bit more, then I'll go do something else" vibe. However, once you start leveling up and getting a feel for how the game works, you're in the for the long haul.

Most of the older CRPGs are all but unplayable today thanks to a cumbersome interface and snail-pacing. I've tried to go back and play classics like SSI's Gold Box series many times and found myself questioning my sanity--why put up with such an outmoded control scheme? I'm sure that many of today's CRPGs will suffer a similar fate, particularly ones that rely too heavily on extended "tutorial" segments and take forever to get moving. There is something to be said for a CRPG like The Sword of Fargoal that gets you up and running in just a few minutes. Games with more elaborate and non-intuitive rules and interfaces tend to age rather ungracefully. Dungeon Master is somewhere in between these extremes. True, you will need to print out a copy of the manual in order to cast spells and probably a hint site to help you choose equipment, but beyond that, the rest is "easy to learn; hard to master."

In the end, what's so impressive about Dungeon Master is what's relatively unimpressive about the many CRPGs that follow it--they've barely innovated on the paradigm set by FTL in 1987! Indeed, I've seen plenty of modern games fall short of the standard set by Dungeon Master (Ruins of Myth Drannor, anyone?). Although it's not without its flaws, a CRPG designer could do worse than to carefully study FTL's interface.

If you're ready to give Dungeon Master a try yourself, you have lots of options. There's a Java version for folks who don't want to bother with emulation. However, as long as you're going to the trouble, you might as well go back to the roots. The Dungeon Master & Chaos Encyclopedia has the ROMs for each release, and it's pretty easy to get an Atari ST or an Amiga emulator up and running. The game worked beautifully in Win-UAE, though it was a bit tricky getting the ST roms working in Steem (I blame this on my ignorance concerning the ST platform rather than the emulator or ROM, however). As I mentioned earlier, the Amiga version allows movement with the numeric keypad, which is much easier than moving the pointer each time you want to move. However, a purist will definitely want the ST version, since that's where it all got started.

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Charlie (not verified)
Hi Simon!

I lost your number and wondered if you might read this.....

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JM (not verified)

You can of course use the keyboard to control the movement including the 90° turn. This worked out of the box on Atari ST 512 or 1024. To be honest the game is unplayable otherise.

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