In 1987, video and computer games were still in their infancy. Most of the top titles of that time were either particularly original, such as the hit puzzle Boulder Dash (1984), the life simulation Alter Ego or the first The Legend of Zelda (both 1986). Or they shone with a sophisticated presentation, see the 3D eye candy Rescue on Fractalus (1984), the elaborately produced sports game World Games (1986) or the action classic Wizball (1987).
Role-playing games in particular had to contend with prejudice, being difficult to access and not looking particularly pretty. Whether Ultima with its bird's eye view or Wizardry with its sparse 3D graphics (both from 1981) – the RPGs of the early days of the game seemed complicated and simple to outsiders. Only Interplay's The Bard's Tale (1985) surprised with chic animated monster portraits, but was otherwise as stiff and sedate for the layperson as the competition. In short: In the 1980s, a title that combined content-related and technical innovations was in vain, especially in the role-playing genre. Until 1987 Dungeon Master appeared – and turned the game world upside down. But one after the other.
An ambitious project
Doug Bell and Andy Jaros met at the University of California in the early 1980s and became friends. Together they played role-playing games on the Apple II computer; they were particularly taken with the RPG pioneers Ultima and Wizardry already mentioned. Bell quickly realized how much potential the programs had – and that the content could be improved a lot. "I thought I could write a better game than Ultima," he recalled talking to the 2007 English speaking retro gamers, The duo immediately founded their own studio and christened their debut project Crystal Dragon, which was also to be released for the Apple II. However, because the development time dragged on, the two ran out of money at some point. They needed an investor, or more specifically, an established software house where they could do their job.
Fortunately, Bell and Jaros didn't have to look far: with the development studio Faster Than Light (FTL Games), founded by Wayne Holder in 1982, they found the ideal partner. There, the decision was made to program Crystal Dragon exclusively for the newly announced 16-bit Atari ST home computer and to rename it Dungeon Master. The final product was released at the end of 1987, had a development period of over six years and was reminiscent of Wizardry at first glance: Here and there, the player marched with a four-person heroine through a multi-story dungeon and lumped rows of monsters, the level of difficulty with everyone Floor continuously attracted.
But already graphically Dungeon Master stood out clearly from the competition, because the bare rooms and walls of the altogether 14 levels seemed much more plastic and the game even showed off with a multi-stage lighting system when a torch slowly burned down and the surroundings were only sparsely lit accordingly. No wonder: Bell and Jaros exploited the technical possibilities of the Atari ST mercilessly, which is why owners of 8-bit systems like the still popular Commodore 64 fell by the wayside and Dungeon Master became the symbol for the triumphal march of 16-bit technology has been.
RPG revolution in real time
The dungeon crawler also entered completely new paths in a playful way. It started with the character system, which was independent of experience points: the four – either male and / or female – party members could be divided into four classes: warrior, ninja, magician and priest. However, the player was not restricted to one class for his characters – the skill system based on "Learning by Doing" allowed them to be ranked in parallel in several disciplines. So, for example, if you let your character strike again and again with a melee weapon, you would improve your status as a warrior, and you would gain strength and endurance points. On the other hand, if she regularly covered the enemy with fireballs, you increased her wizard rank and wisdom value, and so on. This system later took advantage of numerous other role-playing games, from The Elder Scrolls to towards World of Warcraft,
Nevertheless, you have three options: Either you get an old original game on Ebay and Co. Alternatively, you use CSBWin, a faithful copy of the Atari ST original along with Chaos Strikes Back for Windows, Linxus and Mac. You can find them on the website Dungeon Master Encyclopaedia, There is also an unofficial dungeon master remake called Return to Chaos by George Gilbert. The complete package includes Dungeon Master, Chaos Strikes Back and Dungeon Master 2: Skullkeep. It works flawlessly on modern PC systems and even includes an editor with which you can create your own adventures. However, the legal status of the title is controversial because Return to Chaos does not have an official license. In addition, the links on Gilbert's homepage have long been dead, which is why you are also on the Dungeon Master Encyclopaedia have to dodge. However, the latter two options should be used with caution – download only at your own risk! Above all, however, the makers refrained from the random struggles that were common in the genre to date. In Dungeon Master, enemy creatures wandered through the dim corridors in real time regardless of the player. Accordingly, you were in danger even if you just stopped in a corner and / or rested in an apparently safe place. The opponent AI was simply revolutionary in 1987: Not only that the player recognized monsters like mummies, mushrooms, ghosts, skeletons or golems from a distance and saw them running towards him, the opponents could also pursue him, pinch him and attack from different sides. And if a fight became too hot, it sometimes happened that the enemy took his legs in his hand and fled.
The next big plus point over other genre representatives was user guidance. Instead of overwhelming the player with tedious keyboard commands and cryptic abbreviations, FTL relied on a simple mouse control with drag & drop system and easily recognizable icons. For example, you could take a stone off the floor with a click of the mouse and either pack it into the inventory or throw it straight ahead. If the player found a weapon, he placed it in one of the hands shown at the top of the screen and equipped one of his characters. A torch automatically caught fire and lit up the immediate surroundings in a matter of seconds – in many other role-playing games of the 1980s, at least two to three commands were necessary to achieve the same effect.
The intuitive controls of Dungeon Master were ideally suited for easy to tricky puzzles. Simple example: The player came across a locked gate and spied a floor switch in the background. He couldn't reach it on foot, but he could throw a stone through the bars. This consequently landed on the counter that opened the door. In general, the interaction with the environment was new and exciting. Typical Dungeon Master: If an opponent was currently under a lattice door, you could lower it at the push of a button and thus crush the enemy.
The battles against the numerous monsters were carried out according to a no less intuitive scheme: on the right-hand side of the picture you could see the currently equipped weapons of his heroes and hit at the push of a button. So you could attack with a specific hero as well as perform one blow after the other in seconds. The characters had to eat regularly – the Ultima series sends their regards – so as not to starve and die of thirst. However, unlike the competition, there was no bad number on the basis of which one should estimate the available rations. Instead, the player packed cheese, bread or apples individually into the inventory. Macabre: Some creatures killed left pieces of meat that also served as food.
The complex magic system was similarly innovative: The instructions listed a total of 24 runes, which in turn were divided into four categories. Each spell required a rune from two or four of these categories. The manual did not reveal effective combinations; you had to look for the appropriate scrolls in the game.
Thanks to all of these innovations and the mechanics that are gradually becoming self-explanatory, FTL created a completely new game experience in Dungeon Master. The real-time factor alone, in combination with the graphics tailored to 16-bit systems, created a spectacular atmosphere. It hardly bothered anyone that the history of the failed experiment by the magician Gray Lord (whose evil half later turned out to be the game's final boss) was primarily told in the manual. In the game itself, you just stumbled across text messages drawn on the wall. An interesting anecdote on the side: The 18-page story behind Dungeon Master was written by Nancy Holder, the wife of FTL founder and dungeon master producer Wayne Holder. She later wrote stories for comics, among other things and TV series like Buffy, Sabrina or Smallville.
Dungeon Master was a huge success at the time: In the first year after its release, it sold over 40,000 copies and the developers won numerous Game of the Year prizes. According to Retro Gamern, every second Atari-ST owner had an original copy of the game, which was also due to the sophisticated copy protection. So it was only a matter of time before the fans wanted a successor. But this should be a long time coming …
Something that takes a long time …
Initially, numerous implementations for other platforms appeared in the course of the following years. FTL took porting very seriously in order to deliver the best possible result for the respective platform. The version for the Commodore Amiga missed about improved stereo sound effects; the PC version even included a sound adapter for the parallel port, so that MS-DOS users could not only hear creak and beep sounds. The adaptations for various Japanese systems also received a lot of attention: while the FM Towns version from 1989 boasted a full-fledged CD soundtrack, owners of the Sharp X68000 enjoyed a slightly improved graphics.
Source: Moby Games
FTL put a lot of effort into the implementation for the PC engine, which appeared in 1992 under the name Dungeon Master: Theron's Quest. It had a rewritten frame story and its own animated intro. The adventure no longer played in a single dungeon, but in several small labyrinths, the design of which was largely based on the original. Purists, however, complained about the reduced claim because some of the many spells and monsters were missing. In parallel with the conversions, FTL was working on Dungeon Master: Chaos Strikes Back – Expansion Set # 1 (1989), which was released again for the Atari ST. It was not a direct sequel, but a self-proclaimed addon. Theoretically, Chaos Strikes Back could run without the main game, but no complete instructions were included. Therefore, the player needed those from Dungeon Master, for example because of the rune list.
Regardless of this, Chaos Strikes Back was clearly aimed at professionals. Right from the start, you stood in a room without lighting and were surrounded by voracious giant worms in seconds. Only those who instinctively conjured up light saw both the dagger and the torches on the ground. In general, you were stuck without fighting magic, which also only knew the predecessor. As well as the chaos strikes back was well received by fans and the trade press, it was very similar to the original and in terms of content it was really nothing more than a stand-alone addon with a crisp level of difficulty. The wish for a "correct" sequel was therefore retained and FTL finally announced it shortly afterwards. However, the release date of the second dungeon epic has been postponed over and over again over the years. In any case, the company did not honor its company name Faster Than Light ("Faster Than Light").
At the same time, the developer competition was not idle and emulated the success of Dungeon Master. In their Hit Eye of the Beholder (1991), Westwood Studios obviously copied the game principle, controls and many elements of the game design from Dungeon Master and also delivered an even more entry-friendly and graphically more modern title. Black Crypt for the Amiga (1992) was also a graphically successful, albeit difficult imitator. But Westwood turned out to be highly productive and published an even better sequel to Eye of the Beholder 2: Legend of Darkmoon in the same year (!). In 1993 followed Lands of Lore, the next title inspired by Dungeon Master, which technically and playfully put another shovel and was to receive two successors in 1997 and 1999, respectively.
… is not always awesome
The first version of Dungeon Master 2: Skullkeep also appeared in 1993, but initially only for the Japanese PC-98 computer. Why of all things for this system? Quite simply: Dungeon Master enjoyed great popularity in Japan and enjoyed cult status there. In 1994, conversions for FM Towns and Sega Mega-CD followed, with only the latter version being translated into English for the European and US markets. Unfortunately, the implementation on Sega's hapless CD-ROM hardware did not look good: it suffered from acute colorlessness and user guidance that was only moderately adapted to the joypad. Theoretically, you could control the game with a mouse, but at that time hardly a mega-drive owner had the optionally available additional peripherals. Another year should pass before Dungeon Master 2 was finally released in an optimized version for the PC. The main reason for the delays sounded promising in principle: FTL had subsequently revised the entire graphics and expanded them to the VGA standard with 256 colors. Nevertheless, you could tell the title of its origin and above all its enormously long development time.
Source: Moby Games
Without a doubt, the competition from Eye of the Beholder to Lands of Lore was prettier and more accessible. FTL stubbornly adhered to old principles that were successful in the past: The developer continued to demand that the game characters had to eat regularly or lose energy when they ran against the wall, and the level of difficulty was increased enormously. Furthermore, the studio drastically increased the output of "renewable" opponents – with the result that the player was confronted with annoying, time-consuming battles even in areas that had already been searched several times. All of this was all the more tragic because the level design and gameplay were as convincing as in the old Dungeon Master. The icon controls also looked a bit awkward compared to newer role-playing games, but the tried-and-tested drag-and-drop principle still worked. Also, one no longer trudged through caves, but at times explored a dark forest. So if you overlooked the stale graphics, you were rewarded with plenty of depth.
Nevertheless, the weak sales of Dungeon Master 2 broke the neck of the FTL Games studio – and certainly did not justify the long development time. The studio closed its doors in 1996 – not least because it hadn't played any other game since Chaos Strikes Back. FTL had obviously rested too much on the success of its predecessor and invested too many resources in the implementation of the most diverse systems.
Pseudo-sequel for Japan
Accordingly, further dungeon master sequels are in short supply to this day. Strictly speaking, there was only one: Dungeon Master Nexus from 1998, which was developed by the Japanese software company Viktor exclusively for Sega Saturn and sold exclusively in the Far East. Dungeon Master Nexus was strongly based on its predecessors, but relied on freely accessible 3D graphics à la Ultima Underworld (1992) – ironically, another revolutionary role-playing game that would probably never have existed without Dungeon Master. Unfortunately, the game design of Dungeon Master Nexus was still limited to a simple box design and would have been possible in this form with the old engine.
Because the Saturn game worked with polygon graphics and textures, it has aged much worse than the other series parts. In addition – like all console versions of Dungeon Master – it suffered from the suboptimal control, which again literally cried out for the use of a mouse and keyboard. Overall, the quality of Dungeon Master Nexus is difficult for us to estimate because it has never been translated into English and there are no reviews outside of Japan.
Even if the dungeon master series has been "dead" for over 20 years, it has nevertheless a firm place in the history of games and has inspired many game makers and titles. And again and again, passionate indie developers dig out the old game principle and publish their own loving homage to Dungeon Master. The best and best-known representatives include the two episodes of Legend of Grimrock (2012 and 2014), in which one can only move in small boxes despite modern 3D graphics and which are reminiscent of the model in both the battles and the puzzles. In addition, games like Vaporum (2017) or Dungeon of Dragon Knight (2019) show that the old principle of Dungeon Master still has charm and its reason to exist today. So Doug Bell, Andy Jaros and the other former FTL employees can at least be sure that despite all the adversity they have created a truly timeless classic.
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