Dungeons of Daggorath (1982, TRS)

By CRPG Addict / January 15, 2014

Please note that this review contains major spoilers.

"Daggorath", like every other bloody thing in this genre, comes from Tolkien. I guess it means "battles" in Elvish.

Irene has never been much of a CRPG enthusiast, but when she was a girl, her parents took her to Radio Shack for her birthday and said she could pick out anything she wanted. She chose a game to play on her father's TRS-80 Color Computer. Over a decade later, once she realized she had inadvertently married a CRPG addict, she asked me if I knew it. She couldn't remember the name.

"You went through this dungeon, and you could hear monsters growling at you nearby. Sometimes they'd come up behind you, or you'd hear them through a door. You had this constantly-thumping heartbeat and it would get faster and faster when you fought, and if it got too fast, the screen would fade out and you'd die. It was really scary. I used to shriek while I was playing it."

   It didn't sound familiar, and there was no Google, Wikipedia, or MobyGames at the time, so we left it a mystery. Years later, I remembered the conversation and did a search for the appropriate terms. She recognized the title right away.  We downloaded it and started playing it with the computer attached to the TV, and boy was it an experience.

Her: "Can't you hear that?! He's coming for you! Go to the end of that corridor and turn around! Turn around! Oh, my god, it's getting louder!"

Me: "Okay, just calm d—"

Her: "There he is! Hit him! Hit him! Your heart is getting faster! Run away! Run away! Oh, you're going to die!" [Dives under a blanket]

   This type of hair-raising, blood-rushing, frenetic, visceral action is rare in CRPGs in general, and particularly rare in 1982. It is the most notable achievement of Dungeons of Daggorath, which might be the first game to combine tile-based movement with real-time actionfive years before Dungeon Master would make this dynamic famous.

A typical Daggorath screenshot. I'm standing in front of an up ladder on Level 3. An armored knight — a very tough enemy — occupies my square. The floor is strewn with items — a torch, a shield, and a sword. I'm holding a bronze shield in my left hand and an iron sword in my right. My opponent is wasting time picking up items from the floor, so I'm trying to land as many attacks with my right hand (hence the "A R") as possible.

   There isn't very much to the game, but what it does, it does well. The player navigates a five-level dungeon with a goal to ultimately kill an ancient wizard who has recently returned to power and is threatening a nearby peaceful village. The graphics are all wireframe, not dissimilar to Akalabeth from a couple years earlier.
   The game uses a text-based interface in which you type commands like MOVE, TURN, ATTACK, USE, and STOW. Most of the commands, other than movement, apply to the RIGHT or LEFT hands. So to get ready at the beginning of the game by taking your wooden sword from your backpack and putting it in your right hand, you'd use "PULL RIGHT WOODEN SWORD". To use this sword to then attack a creature, it's "ATTACK RIGHT". Fortunately, the game allows for some abbreviations. Each word need only have enough letters to distinguish a unique command or object, and you don't need to specify item descriptions if you only have one of them. So instead of "PULL RIGHT WOODEN SWORD", you can just type "P R SW". Just "M" is enough to execute forward movements, and "T R", "T L", and "T A" are enough to turn right, turn left, and turn around. These abbreviations are important because everything's happening in real time, and you don't want to be accidentally typing "ATTCK" when you go to attack a monster. Even with the abbreviations, I often get tripped up by the game not reading the SPACE bar in between commands. "AR" accomplishes nothing.

The opening sequence of commands is always the same: pull the torch from the backpack into your left hand; pull the sword from the backpack into your right hand; use the torch. I started with a snake right in front of me, so I immediately begin attacking with the weapon in my right hand.

   The persistent heartbeat is perhaps the most memorable aspect of the game. It serves as both a health meter and a fatigue meter, but you never see a numeric value and you have to listen to gauge your overall health. There's no playing this game with the sound off. When you're just at rest, not attacking anything or moving, your heart plugs along at a healthy 80 beats per minute, but move forward five times quickly, and suddenly you're up to 140. Attacking a creature — or getting hit by one — might increase the rate 10 or 20 percent. Exert yourself too much and you find yourself in uncontrollable fibrillation, followed by unconsciousness or death.
   The speed at which you enter commands makes a huge difference in your heart rate. If you plan to walk down a hallway of five squares, waiting a couple seconds between each "M" gets you to the end with a relatively sedate pulse. If you enter those commands in quick succession, it's like you just sprinted down the hall. (This is true early in the game, at least. By the end, you've developed enough that movement isn't much of an issue.)
   The limited mechanics in the game support a surprising number of combat tactics — tactics you must adopt to survive, since most enemies are far more powerful than you, and simply standing in front of them, exchanging blows, is suicide. Some of these tactics I figured out on my own, others I learned from spoilers [ > ]. These include:

1. Carrying a bunch of extra inventory items, dropping them in a square, and waiting. When a monster arrives, he will reliably use round after round to pick up your dropped items instead of attacking. He'll only attack when there are no more items on the floor. You can use this time to land plenty of your own attacks, hopefully killing him before the inventory disappears. (Some monsters pick up equipment very rapidly, though, making this tactic impossible for them.) When he dies, all the items get strewn on the floor again, and the process repeats. Like the later Dungeon Master, you can fight from the inventory screen, making this process a little easier.

Attacking from the inventory screen while the "!CREATURE!" wastes time picking up the items on the floor. Levels 2 and 4 reverse the black and white in the images.

2. Hit and run tactics. This requires careful timing and fast typing. You wait for the enemy to land in your square and ATTACK just as he arrives. Then, before he can land his own blow, you MOVE ahead a square or two, wait, and repeat. It's difficult to get the timing right, and inevitably I screw it up if I have to do it more than six or seven times in a row. There are some monsters for which one screw-up means a reload. This tactic is also tough when there are a lot of enemies in the area.

3. Adopting a "pet". There are a few monsters whose attacks essentially do nothing to you, even on Level 1. Since only one monster will occupy a square at a time, you can stand in their squares and take a rest break between killing tougher monsters. If you combine this with hit and run — leave the "pet" square, attack the enemy, retreat to the pet — you'll be relatively safe. You can drag the pet around with you by just moving slowly and allowing him to catch up.

These monsters are lined up to attack, but they can't as long as the spider is in my square.

   You can't afford to stay mellow and take things too slow in between fights. Taking long breaks between movements may keep your heart rate down, but a) enemies still move and will happily chase you down, and b) there are a limited supply of torches in the dungeon, and you're pretty well screwed if you run out.
   A couple of other mechanics make Daggorath memorable. First, you hear enemies when they're nearby. Each makes a unique sound: a staticky noise for vipers (I think it's supposed to simulate rattling), a kind-of thudding sounds for stone giants, a squeaking for spiders. These sounds grow louder as the creature gets closer to your position, a dynamic responsible for a lot of the game's tension. Second, the torch effects are fairly advanced for a game with wireframe graphics. There are three types of torches, each with different brightness levels, each illuminating a different number of squares ahead of you. Broken lines effectively denote partially-illuminated squares. "Dark" squares are denoted with lines of sparse dots. As the torch burns on, it loses its illumination power, and more of the lines become dotted. It's an impressive effect given the relative paucity of graphics in the first place.

The world goes dark as my torch runs out. Or maybe I'm dying. I forget which.

   As you explore the dungeon, you find weapon and item upgrades, including swords, shields, rings, and scrolls. To enjoy the full benefits of an item, you first have to REVEAL it, a command whose success depends on your level. Even after magic items are revealed, you have to use the INCANT command to release their power.

My late-game inventory. Note that I've just used the INCANT command to turn my Ring of Joule to an Energy Ring. Good to know that James Prescott Joule exists in this medieval fantasy kingdom.

   Slaying enemies promotes a steady but invisible increase in the player's level. You start to notice that you don't become quite as winded from movement and attacks, and you can take on tougher enemies. REVEAL starts to work more often. But you never find out a specific level number, experience point number, or hit point total. Playing this game is thus much more of a sensory experience than a cold assessment of mathematics. The screenshots really don't do it justice; I recommend you check out a YouTube video [ > ] to get a full sense of the game.
   A downside to Dungeons of Daggorath is that the game is completely deterministic and rather unforgiving of mistakes. Each level has the same monsters, and same items, every time you play. You always find a Ring of Vulcan on the first level and a Ring of Rhime on the second. Each has exactly three charges. You need them for a "fake" wizard that appears on Level 3, so if you blow them attacking other creatures, you probably won't be able to progress in the game.
   The only ability you have to "mix it up" is to return to Level 1 from Level 2 or to Level 2 from Level 3. In either case, the game punishes you for backtracking by throwing very difficult monsters at you — monsters that might take 40-50 hits to kill, and that might kill you in a single hit. Even using the tactics above, it's hard to land 30-40 blows in a row without making a mistake. Still, if you can do it, killing these additional monsters significantly increases your power and better equips you to handle the lower levels. It's fun to watch your power grow — to see monsters that used to take 20 hits fall in 15, then ten, then five, then two.

These demon things start to appear if you backtrack. They're crazy hard. I died taking this screenshot.

   Dying in Daggorath is a memorable experience. It can happen from enemies' blows, attacking too quickly, or even just running down a corridor too fast. Your heartbeat gets faster and faster and suddenly the world fades. About half the time this happens, you only fall unconscious, and after a few seconds, the world comes back into focus. Often, there's an enemy standing in front of you when this happens, and he immediately pounds you back into a coma. Regardless, it's a wonderfully tense period in which you're wondering if you've died or if you'll shake it off and live to fight a little longer.

I died before taking this screenshot.

   My wife's reaction to this game might be a little extreme, but I allow that it's pretty crazy. My own pulse often matches my character's, and if the game featured permadeath, I think it might have been responsible for at least a few legitimate heart attacks. Fortunately, you can save and reload anywhere, even in the middle of combat, which takes a lot of the edge off. I recognize that saving and reloading was not a trivial process in 1982, however, and the type of "save-scumming" I did to win the game wouldn't have been possible, or would have taken a lot longer, with tape drives.
   Irene and I had played quite a bit of the game back in 2011, and I was going to offer a posting on it then, but the game kept crashing my computer (the computer I had at the time had some kind of persistent video problem; Netflix often crashed it, too). I have to confess that we didn't follow my normal rules, and we quite liberally looked at spoilers. Thus, I went into this recent session knowing exactly what I needed to do to beat the game. Knowing it would take a while, I started several weeks ago, and the timing worked out well.

My map of Level 1.

   I started to map the 32 x 32 levels, but I ultimately realized it was unnecessary. There are no items or special encounters to find by exploring every corner of the map, and you can kill almost every monster on a level by just finding a central area and waiting for them to come to you. Also, on Level 2, you find a couple of "Vision Scrolls" that provide an automap.

The game's automap of Level 2.

   The purpose of the first two levels is simply to collect all the valuable items — particularly two solar torches, an iron sword, and the two magic rings — and to kill all the monsters to develop your character. On Level 3, you face tougher monsters and a "fake" version of the wizard. Killing him is necessary to progress to Level 4, but it's not easy. He only falls to magic attacks — specifically, the rings — and if you're not a high enough level when you encounter him, you can burn through both rings without killing him. Oh, and he's capable of killing you in one blow, so you can't let him get an attack in. Also, he doesn't pick up items like the other monsters, so that tactic doesn't work.

Waiting until the wizard is in your square before incanting your ring is suicide. I died taking this screenshot.

   The rings are an odd game element. When you find them and REVEAL them, they have names like "Ring of Vulcan", "Ring of Rhime", and "Ring of Joule". Each has three charges, but before you can use their magical powers, you have to INCANT a magic word. The manual is vague about this process and doesn't give you the magic words; it was only through spoilers that I understood that INCANT FIRE activates the Ring of Vulcan and INCANT ICE turns on the Ring of Rhime. I mean, it makes sense given their names, once you know the theme, but it's still pretty tough for the novice player to figure out.
   Level 3 also features scorpions, which may make my "Most Annoying CRPG Enemies" list. You can't see them with the pine (lowest level) torch. If they're in your square, you can see them with a lunar torch. Only the two solar torches allow you to see them coming at a distance. If they get into your square and have a chance to attack, they kill you in one hit. I must have reloaded 30 times because of these bastards.
   You get automatically teleported to Level 4 when you kill the fake version of the wizard, and you're stripped of all items except what you were carrying in your hands at the time. I found this level to be the most difficult, as it's loaded with tough monsters, and hard to find a place to escape and rest, or even find a break long enough to try any of the standard combat tactics. There was a lot of reloading for me on this level. When the dust clears, you have an Elvish Sword, a Mithril Shield, a "Joule Ring" (responds to INCANT ENERGY), and a "Thews" potion (increases strength). It's time to take on the wizard.

An absurd number of enemies lined up upon my arrival to Level 4. Note all the scorpions. I died taking this screenshot.

   Level 5 was just as hard for me as Level 4. The improved sword was balanced by the fact that it takes a lot more energy to swing. Like his fake counterpart on Level 3, the wizard can easily kill you in one hit. It took me about four hours of continuous play (and lots of reloads) to clear out the ancillary monsters and finally deal with the wizard in a clear corridor. (The "pet" approach would have been a good idea here, but it was late and I wasn't thinking well.)

Duking it out with the wizard. I died taking this screenshot.

   I had to blast him three times with my Energy Ring, retreating and waiting a long time in-between blows; the ring really increases your heart rate. Then, I adopted the hit-and-run tactic to strike at him about 20 times with my Elvish Sword. He killed me a lot during this process. I started to despair that he'd ever die, so it was a great relief when he finally disappeared. Killing him somehow emptied my inventory, but he left behind a ring which, when REVEALED, was called the "Supreme Ring".

Having a good vocabulary is vital to the endgame.

   The walkthrough we had consulted didn't reveal the incantation for this ring, only that it was some synonym for "supreme". I went to Thesaurus.com and tried all the options before hitting it with (FINAL). At that point, the screen faded and presented me with this:

   The implication seems to be that I have become the new wizard of Daggorath. Note that my robe has stars while my predecessor's had a crescent moon.

   Daggorath was developed by DynaMicro, a small San Diego partnership between Douglas J. Morgan and Phillip C. Landmeier. Landmeier's wife, April, apparently designed the graphics for the monsters, and a programmer named Keith Kiyohara worked on some of the code. It was published by Tandy as a proprietary, flagship game for the TRS-80 Color Computer. I tried to get a Color Computer emulator working, but I couldn't seem to get the "save" function to work in any of the three that I tried, and none offered save states. Rather than just keep screwing with it, I decided to play the PC port by Richard Hunerlach [ > ]. I'm always slightly reluctant to play fan ports, since you never know how much they diverge from the original, but having played a little on both the emulator and the port, I think Hunerlach re-created it faithfully.
   Louis Jordan, the host of a fan site for Daggorath, contacted both Morgan and Kiyohara about 12 years ago [ > ] and asked them a few questions on the game. Following this, Morgan granted an open license to reproduce the game to anyone who wanted to [ > ].
   Daggorath seems to have been a one-hit wonder for the entire team. Morgan, the Landmeiers, and Kiyohara aren't credited on any other games — each seems to have gone on to other computer-industry jobs. The game is one of the few released solely for the TRS-80 Color Computer. Another on this small list is its putative sequel, 1988's Castle of Tharoggad (it means "eslttab" in Elvish), created with the involvement of none of the original developers. It replaces the command line interface with an icon interface but otherwise features similar mechanics.
   The buzz on Tharoggad seems to be mostly negative, partly because of its awful graphics and its absurd "save" feature which emulated primitive console games by giving you four passwords, encoded with enough information to restore your position, rather than a true save. I have reluctantly added it to my 1988 list.

   I finished Dungeons of Daggorath in a four-hour push the other night. It was almost hypnotic — the constant sequence of moving, attacking, moving, saving, frequent reloading, all with the headphones pressed over my ears so I could keep track of monster positions and my own heartbeat. When I got the winning screenshot and took the headphones off, the silence of my house at night was crushing. My hands hurt, my mouth was dry, and I was developing what would soon become a blinding headache. I couldn't believe what time the clock was showing me. I can't remember the last time I was so completely absorbed by a game, and that Daggorath could do that with 1982 technology is amazing. I can easily see why the game has such a devoted following 30 years later.
   Nonetheless, playing the game is not an altogether pleasant experience, and the game is not a great CRPG specifically. It lacks a strong sense of a world, NPCs, and an economy. There is no character creation — not even a name — and though I liked the "invisible" character development, the lack of attributes beyond strength/health leaves little to develop. This game might be the most memorable game of the early 1980s, but I'm having a hard time saying I "liked" it, and I don't feel any desire to play it again, or any other game like it, any time soon.
   Unfortunately, I'm going to have to: Irene is very upset that I won the game without her. Sigh. PULL R SWORD. PULL L TORCH. USE L.

Dungeons of Daggorath is Insomnia's 1982 Game of the Year.