Saturday, January 30, 2016

Game 11: Dungeon Campaign (1978): Victory!


Dungeon Campaign, designed by Robert Clardy, was release by Synergistic Software in 1978 (a date confirmed by Clardy himself, despite the copyright on the title screen saying 1979).  Much like Beneath Apple Manor (which I played previously), it's a maze-based dungeon exploration game, almost a proto-Roguelike.  The game was explicitly based on Dragon Maze, which was one of the programming examples given in the Apple II documentation.  Dragon Maze featured a randomly drawn maze, and the goal of the game was to escape before the titular dragon caught you.  It's not hard to see the influence.

A screen shot from Dragon Maze.

I wasn't able to find a manual for Dungeon Campaign (assuming that one ever existed).  The closest there is to a backstory is this, taken from the back of the game box:  "Dungeon Campaign is a game of high adventure wherein the player directs an expeditionary force as it ventures into an underground labyrinth.  The catacombs are filled with treasures and hazards, poisonous vapors and evil necromancers, stairways and pitfalls, sorcerous devices and an incredible assortment of monstrous inhabitants.  The dungeon's monsters may pursue or wait in ambush.  They have a variety of powers, strengths and modes of attack, and they become increasingly dangerous in battle as lower levels are reached.  As the secrets of the dungeon are uncovered by your force, a color-coded map is generated until you find your way safely out with your treasures."  It's pretty self-explanatory, and about all that's needed for a game of this type.

Epic.

The game begins by generating all four levels of the dungeon.  They're generated on the screen right in front of you, meaning that people with a good memory (or a quick drawing-hand, or a screen cap) will be able to navigate more easily.  Not that it makes much difference; the stairs up and down aren't marked, so even if you know every detail of the maze you still won't know where to go.  The only level worth memorising is the fourth, because the exit is clearly marked at the bottom of the screen.

Generating the map.

You control a party of 15 men, as well as one elf and one dwarf.  The influence of early Dungeons & Dragons is strongly felt here, as in those days the game was geared towards larger parties with lots of hirelings and henchmen.  The number of men you have determines how strong you are in combat, and also doubles as a form of hit points.  When all your men are dead, the game is over.  I never lost all of my men during the course of a legitimate game.  I managed to get to the death screen shown below, but I really had to work at it.

"Hmm, where is it... birthday, get well, wedding... Ah, here we go, dungeon massacre."

Movement in the game takes some getting used to.  Instead of using the arrow keys, you have to press L, R, U and D for Left, Right, Up and Down.  Thankfully the game is turn-based, so fumbling over the keys rarely results in anything drastic or fatal.

There are plenty of hazards to be found in the game.  The most common are monsters, which appear next to you before they attack.  Some are faster than you, but there are others that you can escape from simply by moving in a different direction.  There's a decent variety of monsters: orcs, skeletons, basilisks, cyclopses, and the usual assortment of D&D-inspired beasties.  There doesn't appear to be much of a difference between any of them.  There's no tactical component to combat at all: you simply take turns attacking until one side is dead.  The main novelty is that you attack by hitting the space bar as numbers scroll by at the bottom of the screen.  It gives at least a small feeling that you're able to influence the battle, even if in practice the numbers go too quickly.  Monsters can kill anywhere between 1 and 3 men a round, while the party needs two successful attacks to wipe out any band of monsters.

(When the game begins, your strength in battle is equal to the number of men you have.  I noticed that after winning one battle this number is doubled, and after winning another it is tripled.  The multiplier increases for every battle you win, which is a nice simple method of advancement.)

Triumphing over some werewolves.

Also fairly common are the various dangers that can transport you to different levels, or to a different place on the same level.  Pits will dump you on a lower level.  You can also wake up a Necromancer or a Pteridactyl (sic) that will teleport you.  None of these are particularly worrying.  Dropping a level or two just brings you closer to the exit on level 4, and none of the levels are particularly more dangerous than the others.  Being transported back to an earlier level is more irritating, especially when you are trying to escape level 4.  You can avoid these dangers by using the jump command to skip over the square they are on.

The most interesting dangers encountered are the special monsters that awaken if you linger for too long on the same level.  On the first two levels you will awaken a dragon, which is easy to avoid.  Level three features a giant serpent, which moves around in real time and is a bit more difficult to get away from.  Level four's boss is a spectre, which can move through walls and makes a beeline directly for your party.  This guy is pretty much impossible to get away from, unless you're able to climb some nearby stairs.  Fortunately, none of these monsters is all that deadly.  If one of them touches you, it drags away one of your men (the dragon eats two).  Losing one guy isn't that big a deal unless you're numbers are already depleted.

In addition to the various monsters, there are gas traps.  When you stumble into one a countdown begins, and you have to escape before it counts down to zero.  The timer never resets, so if it goes down to 3 before you escape, it will start at 3 if you go back into the gas.  If you are caught in the gas when the timer reaches zero, one of your men will die every second.

Being gassed to death.

Treasure (measured in "quadroons") can be hard to find, but persistence pays off.  As far as I can tell, you find treasure by using the Search command, but there are no clues as to it's location.  I've only been able to find treasure by hitting Search on every square I pass through, and hoping for the best.  A strange quirk of the game that I've noticed is that some treasures become visible when you are transported back to a level that you've already explored.  I'm not sure why, but it's a handy way of tracking it down.

The only mystery remaining in this game is the dwarf that accompanies the party.  I think I have the elf figured out; normally when you move next to a hazard you are warned about it, and I stopped getting those warnings after my elf died.  I haven't had a game where the dwarf died, though, so I'm a but mystified.  (A look over at CRPG Addict tells me that if the dwarf dies, your automap stops updating.  Sounds unpleasant.)

Dungeon Campaign isn't a great game, but it does have its merits.  Probably the greatest of these is that it's short: a game should only take around ten to twenty minutes.  Like most primitive RPGs, it is focused more on the resource management elements of early D&D, and less on tactical combat and story.  It does well for what it is, but it's not likely to command your attention for long.

Final Rating:

Story & Setting: None and none.  Oh, I guess it does have a setting, but a featureless four-level maze is hardly the stuff of legends.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters & Monsters: There are no characters to speak of, and most of the monsters are distinguishable by name only.  The special monsters that appear are cool, but not cool enough to merit an extra point.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Aesthetics: It's a Lo-Res Apple game, so it's rather more functional than pretty.  There are some well-placed sound-effects, such as the fanfare when you escape the dungeon, and the ascending and descending  scales when you go up or down stairs.  Still, it's primitive stuff.  Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: The game does what it does very well, but it's awfully simplistic.  There are no tactics to combat, and not much to the other dangers either.  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: I found it quite difficult to die in this game, which is unusual for games of this vintage.  It's also quite a short game, and making it to the exit on level 4 poses little trouble.  The main challenge comes from locating treasure, and even that's not too hard.  Rating: 2 out of 7.

Innovation: As one of the first RPGs I have to score it highly, but most of what it does isn't carried forward by later games in the genre.  Rating: 5.

Fun: It is amusing for a short time, but as I said above, it didn't hold my interest for long.  It's main strength is that a game doesn't take very long.  Rating: 3.

No bonus point for Dungeon Campaign, as I doubt I'll play it again.  The scores above add up to 16, for a final score of 32.

Final Rating: 32 out of 100.

Next: Next I'll be tackling the text adventure Voyage to Atlantis, which has the distinction of having been programmed by a twelve-year-old boy.  I'm looking forward to this one.

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