Into the dun­geon

PC GAMER (UK) - - Feature -

Al­most all RPGs of this era were fan­tasy based, though there were a few ex­cep­tions like Origin’s car-based Au­to­duel (1985, based on Steve Jack­son Games’ Car Wars) and Starflight (1986), which swapped the tra­di­tional party for the crew of a space­ship on a quest to ex­plore the uni­verse and find out why the stars of the galaxy are flar­ing and de­stroy­ing ev­ery­thing around. (It would later in­spire the won­der­ful Star Control 2, as well as be one of the lynch­pins for BioWare’s Mass Ef­fect se­ries.)

This shouldn’t, how­ever, be much of a sur­prise. Fan­tasy worlds were easy to both pro­duce and to un­der­stand – the dif­fer­ence be­tween a short­sword and a broadsword be­ing easy to parse. They also didn’t re­quire much in the way of story, which was good, be­cause they rarely of­fered much more than go forth and slay the Bad Dude/re­trieve the Golden What­ever/res­cue the Generic Princess. That wasn’t their fault, and it wasn’t sim­ply that no­body wanted to tell sto­ries. It was that do­ing so was dif­fi­cult.

Most games of this era didn’t have the disk space for text. A 5¼ inch floppy disk held around 720KB of data. Its more com­pact suc­ces­sor, the 3 ½ inch floppy, held about 1.2MB. The more floppy disks a game needed, the more ex­pen­sive it was to pro­duce. This is why, for ex­am­ple, the first Eye of the

Be­holder doesn’t have an end­ing se­quence. One was planned, but it would have re­quired an ex­tra disk. The pub­lisher said no. In­stead, your re­ward for get­ting to the end was a quick burst of text go­ing, more or less, ‘well done you won’ (the Amiga ver­sion re­tained the cin­e­matic, so you can find it on YouTube now if you still feel ripped off ).

Some games found ways around this prob­lem. Waste­land, for in­stance, re­leased in 1987, came with a printed book that re­sem­bled a Choose Your Own Ad­ven­ture. The idea was that when you reached a crit­i­cal part, the game told you which para­graph to read. This saved space on the disks for more maps, graph­ics and other good stuff that RPGs re­ally needed.

Most games got around it by shrug­ging and not wor­ry­ing about it at all. Dun­geon crawl­ing was what peo­ple ex­pected from these games, and dun­geon crawl­ing is what they got. 1987’s Dun­geon Mas­ter, for in­stance, which of­fered a huge 3D

view­ing win­dow on the dun­geon (re­drawn in chunks, step by step, not a fluid 3D en­gine), real-time com­bat, rune-based magic, and seem­ingly end­less maps to ex­plore. To put ex­pec­ta­tions into con­text, this was a time when any­thing 3D was im­pres­sive, and a game could make waves by let­ting you go out­side – even when ‘out­side’ meant paint­ing the ceil­ing blue, re­plac­ing the dun­geon walls with trees, and claim­ing it was a par­tic­u­larly dense for­est. The trick was still work­ing by 1993’s Dun­geon Mas­ter II:

The Leg­end of Skul­l­keep and West­wood’s Lands of Lore, de­spite games like The Bard’s Tale long hav­ing ex­per­i­mented with ‘dun­geons’ that were, say, the streets of a mon­ster in­fested town, and even the UK TV show Knight­mare, which went a cou­ple of sea­sons in­side com­puter-painted dun­geons be­fore ‘up­grad­ing’ to lo­ca­tion footage. The gen­eral rule was that dun­geons could be first per­son, but over­worlds were top down. We craved the day when that would change; when a com­pany like Origin would an­nounce Ul­tima Over­world to go along with its beloved, dun­geon-ex­plor­ing Un­der­world brand.

1 ragonStrike Waste­land

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