I was utterly terrified of this game when it first hit home computers back in 1987: At the time this is what “realistic” looked like, a 3D space where monsters freely roamed the endless stone corridors, where violent aggressors could catch your party unawares and then swiftly turn them into a pile of bones, where bizarre enemies would steal your hard-won items out of your hands or attack you while you slept. It turns out not much has changed for me in the decades that have passed since I first ducked behind my dad at the sight of one of Lord Chaos’ minions drawing near: seeing the surrounding light dim as your last functional torch starts to burn out and monsters can be heard closing in from behind remains an unsettling experience at any age.
As with many older games Dungeon Master begins not at the title screen but within the pages of the manual, and in keeping with these historical expectations Dungeon Master’s opens not with a set of instructions on how to insert the disc and get the game running but a full page illustration of the Grey Lord’s laboratory and a short story that not only sets the scene but takes the time to give canonical explanations as to why you can choose just four champions to take with you, why the god-like personifications of order and chaos can’t just fight it out directly, and even goes to the trouble of taking you through a flashback that explains exactly what’s going on in that unforgettable cover illustration. It’s only eighteen pages long so there’s a lot to cover in a short amount of time but every word has been chosen to provide context and meaning for prospective adventurers – and reading it again as a Megami Tensei-playing adult I enjoyed the previously-missed nod towards extreme order being considered just as harmful an outcome as extreme chaos.
Between the lore in the manual and the suffocating atmosphere found in the game – dead heroes trapped in glass, spells created from runes alone, the silent spinner plates that’ll make inattentive players lose their way and ominous messages carved into the walls – the game couldn’t help but leave an enormous impression on everyone who came into contact with it, spawning three official sequels of its own (Chaos Strikes Back, Dungeon Master II, and the Japan-and-Saturn-only Dungeon Master Nexus) as well as many famous attempts to adapt this winning formula (Eye of the Beholder, Black Crypt) in the years that followed. On modern systems the spirit of this trendsetter is best captured by the Legend of Grimrock duology, both of which do an excellent job of mimicking the feel of their floppy-based forefathers without skimping on expected modern conveniences or losing their own identities to hollow fanservice.
So what does a Dungeon Master style game feel like anyway? I’d say it’s perhaps best described as “A difficult and haunting dive into a maze filled with monsters”, with that sense of being under constant pressure just as integral to the experience as all the tricks and traps encountered along the way. Now this being an eighties game, and an eighties computer game to boot, you’d be forgiven for thinking “difficulty” could be accurately translated as “unfair” and yes, the game does have a few hair-pulling grey-key-on-grey-floor moments as well as false walls and mysterious hint scrolls, but actually it’s much more accurate to call it “intimidating by design”. Much like Shadow Tower this is a game that has absolutely no problem with leaving your surviving party members scrabbling around in the dark, starving, thirsty, and dragging around the bones of their deceased allies. Did you drop an item you need? Did you miss something important? Oh, that’s a shame says Dungeon Master before doing absolutely nothing to help you get out of the mess you can only blame yourself for getting in to. Not that it ever tries to be consciously cruel: By the start of the third floor two of my four party members had inventories filled to bursting with food and everyone was wearing better armour than they started with and carrying a few spares too, but those bags filled with apples and cheese wheels (it always amuses my how those are shown complete on the floor but the instant you pick them up a slice is missing, as if someone’s taken a cheeky bite before stowing it away) never feel like a comfortable safety net – especially when you realise your only alternative foodstuff is raw monster flesh. It may be a practical source of nutrition and in infinite supply (while most monsters are one-offs placed in a specific starting location there are invisible “generators” placed on a few floors to ensure a constant number of edible enemies are available to the player) the concept of hacking away at something that’s trying to kill you before scooping up their remains for later is deeply unpleasant and only serves to underline the fleeting nature of your more palatable supplies.
The game’s puzzles fall into the same mould of being dangerously unfriendly without being unkind, the numerous hint scrolls and wall carvings you can find scattered across the dungeon are often obtuse but never misleading and can save you a lot of time and trouble if you manage to figure them out. The same can be said of the undetectable “spinner” plates that turn you around in the game’s stone-walled tunnels – before you reach the first area that uses them you can find a compass that’ll help you keep your sense of direction, and if you miss that you can either drop an item you’re carrying to mark where you’ve been or even cast a spell that’ll leave a trail of magical footprints as you walk around – there’s always some way to think your way out of the mess you’re in, to take what the game’s left lying around for you and use it to your advantage. Nothing goes to waste, especially when you’re playing a game with a non-traditional experience system that allows anyone to do anything so long as they get the practise in. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to put the old guy with the impressive beard and flowing robes on your front line just because you found an extra shield, but if you do give someone a sword or have them reciting spells the game will keep track of it and they will improve over time, allowing you the opportunity to adapt to what you find instead of coming across some throwing stars or a magical staff and not bothering to even look at them because you know there’s no-one in your team with the skills to use them effectively.
It’s not enough to look around for helpful items and ominous messages written on the walls though – you’ll need to keep your ears open as well if you want to survive. There’s no mood-setting music in the game and only sparse sound effects so you spend a lot of your time wandering around in total silence – which has the odd effect of making everything you do hear feel like a momentous life threatening occasion. Opening a door isn’t normally the sort of in-game activity you’d find yourself bracing for but here it becomes a real event, not only because of the unknown horrors you might be unleashing upon yourself but because the loud sound that grate makes after you turn your key in the lock – perhaps the only sound you’ve heard in quite a while – seems loud enough to reverberate throughout the whole dungeon. This is also why the monster screams (hardware/disc space limitations mean these effects are always some sort of manufactured screech or other wholly unnatural noise rather than a distorted bear roar or digitally altered human groan) and the sound of their footsteps nearby are guaranteed to set you on edge – everything you can hear is information, and everything you can hear will probably put you in danger. At the time Dungeon Master came out to have this sort of in-game freedom backed up by sounds and visuals that accurately represented everything your characters could see and hear was nothing less than revolutionary: When this was getting reviewed by magazines the original R-Type was a new arcade game, Minelvaton Saga was a perfectly acceptable console RPG, and first version of the first Dragon Quest was about a year old. Needless to say games were pretty basic back then but it’s almost shocking how far ahead of the curve Dungeon Master was: The manual goes to great lengths (with diagrams!) to explain what would now be considered standard UI features such as pressing X to close a window or using the cursor to pick items up and then place them in a character’s inventory – it even mentions what to do should you have that cutting-edge piece of modern computer technology, a two-button mouse (If you were wondering the official advice is it’s this: ignore the right mouse button, should you be lucky enough to have one).
Once you take away that oppressive atmosphere and start to break down the puzzles it’s quite surprising how basic it all is – drop something on the pressure plate, press the button, pull the lever, find the key, die to the monster, repeat until you see the next set of stairs then start all over again – but never feels like it. The restrictive nature of Dungeon Master’s setting allows the game to focus on doing just one thing – locking the player in a devious multi-level maze filled with monsters that will probably kill them – and doing it well without any fancy embellishments to distract players from the task at hand. This is a game you can play for a month and never find yourself frustratedly asking why that burly NPC from before couldn’t tag along to make your life easier because there are no NPCs to meet in the first place, and there’s no well-written but repetitive party chatter to remind you that you’re just clicking on icons in a videogame because nobody ever speaks. You also can’t pick-pocket weapons out of a monster’s hands, work your way through the romance options of a dialogue tree, or engage in any form of crafting but you never notice because the game never poses a problem that could be easily solved by something you can’t do. Here you can bash (some) wooden doors down or pick their locks if you have the skills and equipment to do so. You can shoot projectile weapons at enemies through the large holes in a metal gate. You can safely climb down a pit if you’ve got a rope with you. The in-game systems even get in on the mood, with magic requiring you to not only know your “ful” symbol from your “vi” but understand something of the workings behind these runes too: The manual dedicates a whole chapter to theoretical magic and the origin and usage of each individual symbol! And it’s not page after page of nice-but-useless filler either, if you take what’s written in there on board it really does give you in-character hints on how to construct spells that really work. In terms of practicality nothing beats printing out a full list of incantations pulled from the internet (or copied from the back of a magazine), but being able to take theory written as if coming from the game’s “Grey Lord” himself and then go on to apply that knowledge within the game with meaningful results really makes it feel like you’re mastering a lost art. It’s not a truly reactive system – the game’s working with a set list of spells and you can’t personally tweak them beyond selecting their power level – but the fictitious logic at work’s plain to see and adds a whole new layer immersion to an already enthralling game. You can’t do all that much in Dungeon Master, but as every logical and reasonable interaction between the dungeon and the player’s items and abilities has been thought of and accounted for before you even set foot in the place it feels far more “whole” than something that on paper is more expansive but shows its seams to the player more often.
Historically important games like this tend to fall by the wayside as the years roll on: They tend to be done well enough to kick things off but are ultimately surpassed as developers hone their craft and improved technology allows for more ambitious and imaginative ideas to take centre stage. Dungeon Master doesn’t feel like a has-been at all, not even after many years spent playing all of the games that followed in its wake or coming back to it semi-fresh all these decades later. This is a game confident enough in itself to not just take you through a great adventure but play with you along the way: There’s a simple puzzle early on that has you trying to read a distant message only to discover that the wall only has “This wall says nothing” written on it, and a “Make a wish” riddle that has you tossing a coin into a nearby fountain. There are moments that would be considered unacceptable by modern standards but those are – for a computer game from the eighties – few and far between. However with non-European developers generally following Wizardry’s classic formula the special sort of real-time exploration/survival/puzzle mix found in Dungeon Master has ended up as something of a genre dead-end – it felt like games of this sort were everywhere in those Atari vs Commodore days and nothing could possibly change that, but they appear to have largely died with the hardware outside of a few enthusiast-driven exceptions. The one bit of good news here is Dungeon Master was such a huge hit at the time it ended up competently and officially ported to a wide range of formats (want to play it on the X68k or SNES? You can!), so this is one important artifact from a bygone era that’s actually still quite easy to get your hands on without breaking the bank.