Warning : Spoilers ahead!
Once upon a time there was a Hall Of Champions. And through the Hall Of Champions, beyond the cheese, the bread and the corn on the cob, was a dark dark stairway. And down the dark dark stairway was a dark dark dungeon. And lurking in the bowels of the dark dark dungeon was Lord Chaos and his evil minions.
Surviving Chaos's dungeon, required one who was truely, a dungeon master.
Dungeon Master was one of the earlier games to be released on the ST, and it successfully combined a variety of genres. Being based around the D&D formula it became a forerunner for games like DOOM and Wolfenstein3D which had their reign through the mid 1990s. Similarly, DM presented the player with a 3D labyrinth with puzzles and monsters galore, and a seemingly endless assortment of food items, objects and weaponry that could be used to aid one's progress and be victorious in battles.
One of the defining features were realtime battles, the prospect of which successfully evoked fear and intensity whenever he stumbled into opposition unsuspectingly. He would learn how to tackle each kind of opponent - that some creatures could be defeated easily with hand weaponry, while others beast dealt with through a magical fireball assault, or even a retreat. On top of all of this, the player needed to learn how to cast magic, by routinely practicing the incantations written on the scrolls he found every so often.
Food and water were also in short supply, so the player had to ration them fiercely, and scavenge whatever flesh he could from the beasts he slayed, as well as finding safe hiding places to sleep and recover when tired or injured.
DM is based around 13 floors which are joined by stairways. Initially, each floor is a self contained level where progress is forwards, but beyond level 5 the game develops a non-linear structure that necessitates the making of maps and moving up and down between several floors.
THE HALL OF CHAMPIONS: You play the role of four heroes which you revive from the hall of champions. Select these carefully. They come Fighting, Ninja, Wizard and Priest skills. Fighting units are good in heavy weapon combat because they are stronger and can absorb blows more effectively. Ninjas are good with precision weapons that increase damage through better judgement and faster reflexes. Wizards offer offensive magics and mastery of the elements, while Priestly skills offer gentle magics to your group, eg, divine protection, healing, and pacification of the enemy. The two main skills here are Fighting and Wizardry skills. They are the most important and most frequently used. Priest and Ninja skills on the other hand are less visibly useful, but serve to aid and ease victory in battle.
The extreme lightweight units can't effectively engage in fighting combat, or carry loads, and do tire easily. They are vulnerable and require protection. Extreme heavyweight units are often unable to do or learn any magics. The units to be resurrected into the group is upto personal choice, but as a guideline, the grades of expertise begin: Neophyte, Novice, Apprentice, Journeyman, Craftsman, Artisan, Adept, Expert, Master-1, Master-2, Master-3, Master-4, Master-5, Master-6, Archmaster.
The Champions are: Iaido Ruyito Chiburi, Zed Duke Of Banville, Chani Sayyadina Sihaya, Hawk The Fearless, Boris Wizard Of Baldor, Alex Ander, Nabi The Prophet, Hissssa Lizar Of Makan, Gothmog, Sonja She Devil, Leyla Shadowseek, Mophus The Healer, Wuuf The Bika, Stamm Bladecaster, Azizi Johari, Leif The Valiant, Tiggy Tamal, Wu Tse Son Of Heaven, Daroou, Halk The Barbarian, Syra Child Of Nature, Gando Thurfoot, Linflas, and Elija Lion Of Yaitopya.
THE CREATURES: On descending the stairway and onto the first floor, you will meet creatures in roughly this order:
1. Mummies. The white bandage wrapped humanoid figures tend to dominate the early levels. They should not be feared, but be cautious if they appear in a large group. They move at medium speed and deliver light damage with a relatively quick reload. You may tackle them with hand weapons, light power fireballs, poison gas, or by shutting doors on their heads. As with all creatures, avoid getting yourself cornered.
2. Screamers. Small docile tree shaped things that shriek when attacking. They move slowly, and cause light damage with a relatively long reload time. I recommend tackling them with low power fireballs or chop them with heavy hand weapons. The remains are 'Screamer Slices', which are very nutritious for their light weight so are a valuable (and essential) food resource.
3. Rock Piles. These strange looking things are very slow movers, and I don't enjoy coming up against them because they take a while to destroy and I have come to see them as little more than nuisances that get in the way. Even though they can cause medium damage, have a poisonous bite, and are toughened to the point that blade weapons do little damage to them, they are easily dealt with a couple of medium power fireballs. Their remains are rocks which can be used as contingency throwing weapons in desperate situations, or to preserve mana.
4. Blue Ogres (aka Trolin). These blue neanderthals typically go around in herds. They are fast movers, carry clubs and can cause heavy damage with a fast reload time. As long as you keep your distance you are safe. They are best destroyed with medium power fireballs. It is unwise to engage them in hand to hand combat, but if your mana is exhausted, they will respond favourably to a blitzkrieg of clubs and rocks.
5. Giant Wasp. Very Fast - you can't easily run away from it. Causes quite heavy damage because of its fast reload time and poisonous sting. Either trap it behind a door and leave it alone, or destroy it close range with a combination of magic and weaponry.
6. Magenta Worm. These are as tough as the rock piles but more agile and more fierce, with poisonous teeth. Two or three level-3 fireballs are enough to destroy a pair of them - and they usually go around in pairs. On their own they are more cowardly, and relentless aggression causes them to turn their tails and slither away. Their remains are edible 'Worm Rounds', which although no where near as nutritious as screamer slices, are better than nothing. I prefer to eat this up at the time of slaying it rather than carry it around. They don't have quite the same piquant flavour as Klingon Gaak though.
7. Ghost. These are fast moving and deliver moderate damage. They cannot be destroyed with conventional tactics. These ethereal entities must be banished with an anti-elemental spell.
8. Swamp Slime. These unpleasant looking things are relentless, can attack at distance, and can reduce your health rapidly. You should use a single heavy fireball to destroy them.
9. Coatl. These strange snake-like flying things are similar to the wasps but twice as hard. You need plenty of armour and some prepared magics to safely eliminate them.
10. Skeleton. These are reminiscent of the mummies as they too are humanoid figures that operate in gangs. But just like with many other creatures in this pit, your own apprehension is your greatest enemy. Spare them nothing, and they'll soon be destroyed. They leave behind primitive wooden shields that may be useful for armouring units in your party.
11. Wizard Eye. Flying eye that throws fireballs at you. Your wizards should throw fireballs or your ninjas throw projectile weapons at them , but be quick. Take cover around a nearby corner, jump out, shoot and jump back. Fireballs are deadly.
Creatures you will meet in the latter half of the game are: Giggler, Stone Golem, Ruster, Vexirk, Giant Rat, Scorpion, Water Elemental, Animated Armour, Oitu, Materializer, Black Flame, Demon, Red Dragon, and Lord Chaos.
THE MAGICKAL ARTS: The magics in the game are based around uttering a collection of verbs/symbols that draw from the caster's mana reserves. Although the player can experiment with random combinations of these verbs, more often than not, he will be uttering nonsense and wasting his mana. Workable spells are written on scrolls that can be found within the dungeon. Some, like magical healing and poison cures, need to be bottled into a flask to make up a potion. Repetitively casting magics (or attempting to do so) will give the caster experience, and slowly raise his level from a Novice upto an Archmaster. This journey gives him a steadily increasing mana reserve, the ability to cast more potent spells, a higher mana regeneration (wisdom), and access to the most arcane spells.
The first of the verbs/symbols is POWER. This verb determines the strength of a spell, such as the explosive damage of a fireball, or the brightness and duration of magical illumination. There are six power levels, and novices will struggle with the lowest of these powers initially. By the end of the first floor, your wizards should be capable of routinely generating level 3 fireballs, and you should aim to have all six levels mastered by around the halfway point in the dungeon.
The second verb is the Element used in the spell. YA VI OH and FUL are taken from metaphysical theory - the natural order from ground level up we have Earth, Water, Air and Fire, as well as two new ones - DES and ZO. DES can be thought of as 'space', and ZO as 'nihility'. Not surprisingly, fireballs utilise elemental fire.
The third verb is the Form, and comprises an arcane set of verbs: VEN EW KATH IR BRO & GOR. Roughly translated these are: Poison, Creature, Explosion, Levity, Benefactor, Adversary. Verb four is the Allignment verb, which is equally arcane: KU ROS DAIN NETA RA SAR. These roughly translate to Martial, Dexterity, Wizardly, Priestly, Order, Disorder. But verbs three and four are not necessary in all spells.
These are some of the potions you can make using an empty flask. The incantation listed here should be proceeded by a power symbol of your choice:
- Make flask into a venom bomb: DES VEN
- Bottle of poison: ZO VEN
- Magical Shield potion: YA BRO
- Poison cure potion: VI BRO
- Health resortation: VI
- Stamina restoration: YA
- Mana restoration: ZO BRO RA
- Strength: FUL BRO KU (governs carrying strength and strength in melee action)
- Vitality: YA BRO NETA (governs speed of recovery)
- Dexterity: OH BRO ROS (governs ninja skills)
- Wisdom: YA BRO DAIN (governs mana regeneration)
Some other spells you make cast are:
- Poison Cloud: FUL IR
- Lightning: OH KATH RA
- Plasma: ZO KATH RA
- Illumination: FUL
- Strong Illumination: OH IR RA
- Darkness: OH IR SAR
- Anti Elemental: DES EW
- Magical shield: YA IR
- Anti-magic shield: YA BRO
- Fire shield: FUL BRO NETA
- Remotely operate doors: ZO
- Magical footprints: YA BRO ROS
- Invisibility: OH EW SAR
- Invisible walls: OH EW RA
Graphics, Sound & Gameplay
The game is controlled via the mouse (and the keys if you choose). The controls are possibly the weakest area of the game because I find that the interface feels awkward or unresponsive at times, the graphics update is rather slow, and the game loading and saving times are rather slow too. But even with these impediments it remains a very playable game. Remember that it is an adventure game that is supposed to take weeks to solve, so a couple of extra minutes waiting time here and there are surely tolerable!
Considering there are just 16 colours, the graphics is superb, and there is an immense amount of work gone into the graphics. Just think about all of the objects, all of the beasts, drawn both nearby and in the distance, and facing one way or the other way. Think about the greys of the walls, and all of the artistic 'doodads' like slime marks on the floors, or black rings hanging on the walls. Even though the rendering time is a little slow from one frame to the next, the quality is high enough to compensate and earn full marks.
My only other minor complaint is that the wall/floor graphics are repetitive. I appreciate that there are two variations used to signify movement, and in this sense it is better than some dungeon master clones which use just one.
Sound is a selection of noises to accompany melee, pain, explosions, and clattering doors and switches operating. Although the labyrinth is basically silent, with no screams or distant footsteps audible, and no in-game music (and no initial theme music), the silence is certainly eerie at times, and that is possibly a bonus. The range of sounds seems limited though - when compared to the volume of graphics, that is.
DM is arguably one of the most complex games ever to be written for the ST, and would have required a coordination of programming skill, graphic artistry, and structural design.
By almost every poll, Dungeon Master has consistently reigned the best game on the Atari ever since it was released. It also appeared on the Amiga, SNES, AppleII-GS, X-68k and the PC, but didn't have as significant an impact on users of these machines. Even so, 20 years on it still has dedicated fans and websites. I still have my original disk.
The year of production was 1987, and acknowledge that this was very early on in the ST's life - less than 2 years since its birth, and four years before of the peak of commercial investment. Whether its success can be attributed to luck or to genius, Dungeon Master nevertheless became established as the benchmark for personal computer adventure games.
Dungeon Master is built around a seemingly timeless formula. Ancient civilisations made a tradition of telling stories about how some lone hero suffered a lengthy journey, struggled with his fears and his sense of physical inadequacy, but was eventually victorious in battle against awesome beasts and forces of evil. These traditions continued and were built upon throughout the medieval and victorian ages with the inclusion of witchcraft and alchemy. In the twentieth century we saw a healthy investment in these ideas with horror films like King Kong, the Dr Frankenstein saga and the rise of vampires and the undead. In the 1970s and 1980s it was revived into a game form with Dungeons and Dragons, and digitised onto mainframes. After Dungeon Master came Doom, and the successful Warcraft series, which interestingly, many people consider to be the best PC game so far made.
It is clear that Dungeon Master is summarily one chapter in the long standing human tradition of hyperbolic battle stories, and duly symbolises the human need to seize control of his environment, if not in reality, then fantasy will suffice.
I wouldn't call dungeon master my favourite ST game, because I find the dungeon environment quickly tiring, but it is certainly in my top 10 for sentimental reasons if nothing else. It has entertained me enough to still be thinking about it 20 years on, and I believe that the best epitaph I can write is...
"Dungeon master stands out as the one ST game that is worthy of the most respect."
- Graphics: 10
- Sound: 9
- Gameplay: 10
- Overall: 10