Straight-up: Dungeon Master (DM) is the first of its kind and its level of innovation is staggering.
It is the first-ever first-person 3D RPG real-time dungeon crawler. It all started here, my brothers and sisters. It is the pioneer of a niche genre for hard-core fantasy and puzzle gamers, and the game has a deeply devoted fanbase all over the world even to this day.
“When this came out, it was mind blowing.” — GHostLPs
The game launched for the Atari ST all the way back in 1987 (its copyright dates back to 1986). And its immediate success soon had it being ported to various platforms including the Amiga in 1988. Other than a few minor color differences, rightly or wrongly the port was pixel-perfect everywhere it went. The game was almost platform agnostic. Not a bad thing, really, as this “universal translation” allows everyone to speak the same language around the game and not get caught up in confusing differences or pissing contests.
Is it the best dungeon crawler created? Not necessarily, but that still doesn’t make the game any less awe inspiring.
And it was a jaw dropper regardless of the platform you were using as it so intensely and completely reimagined the core dungeoning experience creating a realism that was shocking. Plus, the game is really pretty fantastic.
FTL took one of the core experiences of Dungeons and Dragons and placed all of the weight technology and their creativity could muster squarely on the table, crushing all previous expectations into a whole new paradigm. You still needed to map this dungeon with paper and pencil. But now you could SEE everything you were doing with uncanny precision and realism.
It’s hard to overstate just how special this new view of reality was in 1987-89.
Prior to DM’s release, CRPGs generally consisted in some form or fashion of the following:
- MAP: An overhead aerial map or ‘world’ view, where your character (or party) could be viewed in almost stick-man fashion to travel across vast distances, exploring various terrain, towns (typically found without roads), and experience random monster encounters along the way.
- 3D PICTURE FRAME: A small 3-dimensional representation in a small window in the upper left-corner of your screen. This window afforded gamers a close-up view of enemy and NPC portraits, town streets and buildings as well as dungeon corridors.
- STATS: The vast majority of the screen was typically saved for character stats, party actions or storyline updates. Story updates were however usually rather thin, as most of that was saved for the paper manual found in the box when you bought the game.
- DUNGEONS: In the very early days of Ultima, dungeons would be visualized as black and white stick drawings, almost like vector scan screens. Flat-shaded color 3D dungeons started to appear in Ultima III (1983), but for the most part dungeons were tall and rather skinny underground towers. They could have hidden walls and traps and chests with treasure and, of course, menacing monsters to stop you along the way.
- COMBAT: SSI and the Gold Box games did introduce an excellent and innovative tactical group fighting system, but over the course of several years they never evolved it or changed it very much. But beyond SSI’s cool and unique approach, most everything was turn based. Tell the machine what you want to do, and wait for the results. Repeat.
With the introduction of Dungeon Master, all of the previous experiences were literally wiped away except for the 3D dungeon view. And in this new world, the amount of re-thinking of how a dungeon could be experienced seems almost unthinkable for the time.
For starters. the mazes were made to be (relatively speaking) vast domains rendered in intricate detail. The map grids grew from an average of 16x16 to more than double the size, allowing for much more complexity in the designs.
Next, FTL brought the concept of real-time lighting, where your torches or light spells would slowly decay and leave you in a pit of literal darkness. And if you were done with a torch? You could literally just drop it at your feet to use as a marker (it would stay there permanently in your game and not disappear), or you could throw it down a hallway in disgust. You could watch that torch fly away and get smaller until it vanished in the darkness and finally land somewhere, depending on your strength. You’d even hear the torch land in the distance. Simply amazing.
To that end everything is real-time.
If you just stand in the corner of the dungeon your characters will slowly grow hungry and thirsty and your light spells will fizzle out.
No doubt some guys in Austin, TX
, were inspired by DM and took games to a whole new level 6 years later
based on what they’d seen.
On top of all this, FTL brought an ingenious (and at times insidious) level of puzzles that required solving in order to either get to the next level in the dungeon (14 levels in all) let alone finish the game. I have to think some of these puzzles were devised to sell clue books.
A typical puzzle would work something like this:
You walk through a maze of corridors where every wall looks the same. Somewhere in-between the bricks of a normal looking wall is a tiny little gray button, the size of just a few pixels that you can only see if you face the wall directly. Push the button. Soundlessly, somewhere around the corner (or behind from whence you just came) a wall would vanish to reveal a secret room. Find that room. There, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a tiny white key on a white floor (dick move, FTL!). Pick up that key and take it to a door half-way across the maze to open a locked door that can only be opened with that key. Once that door is opened… a horde of skeletons pours out!
Death and confusion around every corner. That’s the game. And it creates a huge amount of tension in a very good way.
As with almost all adventure games of the time, there is virtually no story to be found in the game itself. Dungeon Master came boxed with an excellent and rather thick manual which you are expected to read if you want any kind of backstory or understanding as to why you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s worth reading just to help get into the mood.
You need to kill Lord Chaos, and he’s way down at the bottom of this hellish dungeon. Find him, kill him, win.
Beyond the 3D environment you get to explore, gamers were also introduced to a completely new user interface (UI) that is simply remarkable in its innovations and uniqueness.
It’s a little cumbersome at first as it provides an incredible amount of interactions to learn. Luckily, the first few levels of the dungeon are mercifully tame monster-wise. So you should have enough time to get your bearings with the UI without too much frustration.
The UI is organized into three main regions.
A top row
, where each of your four characters are represented showing what’s in each of their hands as well as their total health, stamina and mana. To the right of this you see a top-down view of your four characters and how they are positioned in the party in a 2x2 grid (front row, back row, left, right). The two at the top of your screen are your “front row” and do all of the melee fighting. The two in the back should be your priest (cleric) and magic user, mostly there to heal and cast fireballs (and lots of light spells in the beginning). You can actually click and drag them into new positions in the party, too, which is so nice to see the mouse controls used in this way.
Down the far right side of the screen
there are three more sections. The first is for casting spells and is quite frankly both powerfully ingenious and mind boggling at first. Users must choose spell power levels (based on character stats as well as mana cost), then mix various magical words through the use of tiny unique symbols (following this?) in specific orders to cast spells. And without writing down found scrolls along the way on scratch paper and learning the names for symbols, you’ll be so lost quickly. But it was as if FTL took the part of D&D everyone always takes for granted and made it fucking real! I was wary of the concept at first, but soon grew to really love it. Once you “get it,” it’s pretty mind blowing.
Ex: say you find an empty glass flask. You put that in your priest’s (right) hand and cast a healing potion spell. Two clicks later you’ve suddenly got a blue vial of healing potion ready to drink. Completely awesome. My priest at one point must have looked like a blue juice factory when looking at her inventory.
In other words, you’re not watching the screen telling you that your magic users are memorizing spells during rest periods. YOU are memorizing spells!
And those empty flasks? You can put water in them, too, if you need a little extra in your backpack. Everything is just so well thought out.
Below spells you’re offered an area for melee combat choices (which also have implications on how your characters increase their skills), and below that on-screen direction arrows for movement. You never really use those, other than visual feedback for what your fingers are doing on the keyboard. In some ways this felt a bit like extra UI that could have been incorporated with the character boxes across the top of the screen, but it’s clean and easy to use. Having it next to the spell section is nice and convenient, too.
The main viewport
is the 3D view of your surroundings. DM takes the little portal of your world from past (and some future) CRPGs and increases its size 4x
. And, if you click on one of your characters along the top row, the main viewport switches to a very clean and intuitive character inventory screen. More on this screen - which you’ll probably use more than you want to - in a moment.
Laughably, in the game box FTL presents a note card on thick card stock to set down next to your keyboard so you don’t forget the keystrokes. Except, there hardly are any! So the card is almost empty and is basically useless. No idea why they felt the need to include it in the box back in the day… Maybe it was passive aggressive bragging that most of the game was mouse-driven.
To that end, I used the number keypad on my keyboard for the movement controls with my left hand. My right controlled the mouse (clicking on the main viewport, or elsewhere to control characters). As such I had to slide my keyboard to the left of where I’d normally let it sit. Not a big deal, but took a little getting used to at first.
We are Theron “An astral projection of his physical form.” We need to go and and find the fire staff and… go read the manual if you care. Frankly, the story is really only to set the scene and identify the goals. The story really doesn’t doesn’t exist anywhere throughout the game itself save for the occasional messages and hints found carved into the walls. To that end, it’s not very important. A bit of a missed opportunity, but frankly most dungeon crawlers address the story in only the hand-waviest of ways. It’s all about adventuring in the dungeons, monsters and really mean puzzles. The end.
To start the actual game, you are offered the chance to select four ‘Champions’ from a small maze to form a party of adventurers. This piece right here immediately reminded me of the Commodore 64 classic Legacy of the Ancients, where you walk through a maze to view and access worlds through framed pictures hanging on dungeon walls. Similarly, what look like paintings on the walls in DM actually hold characters inside waiting to be resurrected and used.
Each champion has his or her (or its) own proficiencies to start the game. And there are four main classes: Fighters - fight with a melee weapon, Ninjas - throw and hit things bare-handed, Priests - make healing potions for the most part, and Wizards - casting spells and especially fireballs. As your sub-skills go up, you unlock different abilities (and gain access to better weapons you find along the way).
But what’s simply fascinating about DM is each of your characters has the ability to be trained up across all four classes, almost equally. By the time I was halfway through the game, I’d gotten all of my characters (except one) to be highly proficient in every single class type. Even the dwarf fighter, Stamm, who has no mana.
But I discovered on a whim that if you give him mana potions, he can cast 1st and 2nd level light spells, which if done enough times makes him level up in Magic! I made him my light/torch bitch when he wasn’t bashing skulls. By the time I finished the game he was a 7th level magic user (out of 15). Not too shabby, Stamm!
The encumbrance portion of the game can get to be a drag at times, especially for new gamers who don’t know what’s important to keep and what’s OK to drop (most everything). In general, I tried to keep every new item I ran across, and pretty quickly our characters would become encumbered. That inventory screen I mentioned earlier? Gorgeous UI design. But man I started to hate dragging things around in it. Pick up a new key or chicken leg, and suddenly one of my characters is now encumbered and everyone walks slower. That encumbered feeling? It’s like when you play a game that feels like it is running too slowly. FTL literally slows down your movements. It was so annoying.
As related to encumbrance, part of the realism and charm of the game is its real-time aspects: light, food and water. But this can also be a total drag when you don’t know what you’re doing. So you wind up hoarding food, which fills up your inventory and slows your character movements in the dungeon - to an annoying level where the responsiveness of the key strokes accurately slows down and you bounce into walls. Taking damage, of course. The issues of light go away after you’ve leveled up your characters a bit. If only there were food and water spells, like in Black Crypt, to eliminate that bit from the mental algebra, too, as there are plenty of other things to worry about.
Kind of sucks to be deep in the bowels of the dungeon suddenly worrying about sourcing water from several levels above that you’ve already finished.
On top of that - and this is bad - when you pick up a new weapon or new piece of armor, you’re NEVER given that item’s stats! You have no idea what damage it can do, nor what kind of defense it might provide. There is no stat for you to do the mental math anywhere. You only get to see how heavy it is and how now, usually, you have to drop other things.
Luckily, there is an online Wiki
where the code has been scoured over and these details revealed. Use it.
Use the Wiki, Luke. Not a fan of hiding that info to the gamer during play at all
There is literally no reason I could find to ever level up ninja skills. There is also no real reason to ever carry a bow (except for one puzzle) or a cross bow. Range weapons are not only cumbersome but they eat up your inventory to a ridiculous level - one arrow per slot?? quivers be damned - and they inflict almost no damage at all. After you use the bow with one of the earlier puzzles, forget about them and focus on spells and potions for your back row. Total waste of time and space.
This review isn’t here to tell you how to finish the game. That’s not what this is about. It’s to hopefully express our absolute respect and admiration
for moving the needle so far in one single game. However…
For the curious and greedy, a few SPOILERS below. Skip to ‘Technical Notes’ if you want to stay pure.
It doesn’t really matter who you pick as long as you get one strong fighter type (e.g. Stamm), one more fighter or an “every man jack of all trades” type, a priest and a magic user. But it doesn’t really matter - don’t stress. Because in the early levels there are rooms that spawn weak enemies that you can train all of your characters across every skill set. It’s a grind, but CRPGs are supposed to grind. That’s part of the package.
The flow of the game is odd.
When you get to Level 7 you’ll just run for the exits to Level 8 and ignore it as you don’t have any of the right keys yet. You’ll eventually get down to level 12. where you’ll find a special key from 12 as well as a few “RA” keys. Then you’ll go back all the way up to 7, beat it (scary at first but actually pretty easy once you think it through) then go down to 14 to beat a red dragon and build the Firestaff, then finish on Level 13. Of course! Unlucky 13.
A Trick to Beating Lord Chaos
Learned this trick after failing miserably to defeat him for two days.
Once you enter Lord Chaos’ domain from a long mostly-safe hallway by the stairs, take a hard right. If you follow that wall to the corner of the room you’ll find two 1x1 “cubbies” in the corner. Once Lord Chaos appears, I figured out I could use flux cages to sort of direct him in into the corner (he jumps away from the flux cages). Once he went into one of the cubbies (walls on three sides and one open wall) I could quickly cast Fluxcage on the open wall, which will push him in there and cast it again to lock him in the cell, then Fuse him once he was trapped. Trying to cast Fluxcage around him on all four side in open space… I’m just not good or fast enough to get that done. I know some can, but I couldn’t. But I can always back him into that weird corner and flux one single side. Once that’s done, the game is mine. I never saw this mentioned anywhere, but was stoked to figure it out on my own. It works!
There was a music CD composed for the game. Only one track is actually taken from the game. All of the rest were inspired by it. It's actually pretty fun. You can hear the tracks here
This game was played off an original floppy disk (and new formatted save disk). It was played on an enhanced original A2000 with dual floppy drives. DM supports dual floppies - DF0: for the game and DF1: for the save disk, which is awesome. Initial load times for the game were a bit long, but saves and occasional disk reads were fast and not often. Playing off floppies was generally no big deal, unless you had to reboot. For what the game provides, it’s really efficient even when you play off floppies.
On rare occasions during the red dragon and Lord Chaos scenes, when my party all got hit by a fireball simultaneously and shrieked, the game would sometimes freeze. It wasn’t consistent but did happen, forcing a soft-reboot. Not sure if it was related to the sound effect, or a bug in the code, or what. It wasn’t a consistent issue.
If your party does completely die, you could Restart the game via the disks pretty quickly in most cases and just start at your last save slot.
Incredibly, Dungeon Master only supports ONE FUCKING SAVE SLOT. Are you kidding me? I mean, maybe this game was so old that even with the gazillion innovations this game offered, it didn’t invent multiple save slots. Not sure who did, but it wasn’t FTL. And the save disk surely didn’t have that much data being saved to it.
But since I played this game old school like it was 1988, what I did was let DM format TWO disks
, and I would alternate saves between the two disks and sometimes save both in a row when I was feeling confident of my progress. When things got shaky I’d stagger the saves across those two disks. It worked out just fine and gave me a lot more peace of mind than saving to a single disk.
The original DM disk did not permit an ADF to be pulled naturally.The ADF download found elsewhere on this page appears to be OK, but should be considered as un-tested at this time.