Dungeon Master on the Atari ST

Dungeon_Master_Box_ArtThis is the one. This is probably my favourite game of all time ever. There are other games I’ve spent longer playing- Championship Manager being the one that springs immediately to mind- but I don’t think there is a game that either holds such a place in my affections or had as profound an affect on me as FTL’s Dungeon Master. Heck, even though it ran fine on my 520STFM, those poor buggers with Amigas had to wait ages and then they needed a meg of RAM to even play it!

Dungeon Master came out in 1987, which worked incredibly well for me in terms of the fantasy genre it slotted in to. A year earlier, at the age of 11, I’d made the jump from reading kids and young adult books into adult literature. Specifically I’d started on Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Richard Laymon in the horror genre and was happily devouring Dragonlance novels, Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant and Mordant’s Need series, along with some Raymond Feist. Back then his Riftworld stuff was still brilliant. And yes, I had my David Eddings phase. I’m not too proud to admit it.

beholderThe point is though, I was primed for something like Dungeon Master- a game where you could resurrect a  party of heroes and guide them through dungeons full of monsters of all shapes and sizes. Although I didn’t realise it at the time (Dungeons & Dragons never really took off where I grew up and to this day I’ve still to play an Ultima game), a lot of the monsters like the Beholders existed in other genre pieces but it was all fresh and exciting to me!

st action coverI can remember playing Dungeon Master to completion several times before it’s sequel Chaos Strikes Back came out. Chaos Strikes Back was originally intended to be an expansion pack to Dungeon Master, simply adding more levels, but as time passed it grew into a full game. The wait was excruciating. You couldn’t simply go online and look up a release date back then and there was no way a 12 year old me was actually going to talk to someone in a shop, so every month when I got ST Action I experienced that hot sinking feeling of disappointment in the pit of my stomach until one month, February 1990 to be precise, they had a review of Chaos Strikes Back.

Chaos Strikes back was fun, and it even contained an editor that allowed you to alter the pixel portraits of your warriors. Being 15 and hormonal, I obviously used it to render topless portraits of my all female band of heroes. It’s not quite as bad as the depths my brother plumbed, he named an entire Sensi Soccer team after girls he fancied at school but it’s up there. Chaos Strikes back wasn’t as much fun as Dungeon Master though. Whether it was the non linear nature of the mazes, or simply that the wait had been too long, Chaos just wasn’t quite as good.

Dungeon Master though is still a game I occasionally return to. Over the last 25 years I’ve played it through sporadically, first with a team of four, then for the challenge with just one character and at one point I even did a marathon session with one character, and managed to play it all the way though without dying once in one go. Let me tell you, I couldn’t do that now.

It wasn’t the first proper first person game (I’m going to ignore 3D Monster Maze on the ZX81 and games of that ilk) as far as I’m concerned because there wasn’t free movement. In Dungeon Master you moved forward, left, right and back across “invisible tiles”- you didn’t have proper 360 degree movement. It was however incredibly atmospheric.

I’ve been reticent about including this in our retro gaming adventure as I’m not entirely sure it’s the sort of game that Sam will like- I was three or four years older than him when I played it- and it is sort of like an unofficial niece or nephew to me. Every time I play it I think to myself, I should see more of it because it’s fun…

So let’s fire up Hatari (we were having mouse issues under Windows 10 with my old favourite emulator Steem) and get going…

Sam: Woah! That whoosh was sudden!

Me: The FTL logo certainly makes you jump doesn’t it? I think that sums up Dungeon Master in a way. There’s not a great deal of sound and what there is often makes you jump! In fact, the games so quite, I once read that the ST used to randomly access it’s disc drive so you would get worried it was loading a monster or something!

Sam: The what? Disk?

Me: It’s difficult to explain without a working Atari ST but you know how the old blu ray player makes a lot of clunking noises when you load a disc? Imagine that happening at random quiet bits during the game and that you’re playing in the dark. It used to make me jump.

Sam: You’re a scaredy cat!

Me: We’ll see, click on the green button to enter, and we’ll get going shall we?

Sam: Okay Dad.

Because I haven’t quite twigged Hatari out yet, it’s completely emulating things 100% accurately, including disc loading times. Sam goes off and makes himself a ham sandwich while he’s waiting. It’s not even remotely appropriate but there you go. Eventually we’re presented with the start of the dungeon and the entrance to the Hall of Champions.

Sam: What do we do now then Daddy?

Me: We have to look at all the heroes and their various attributes and try to work out which ones make a good team.

That was a big mistake. What I should have said was “pick the first four characters you walk past”. Sam has an uncanny ability to make choosing anything into an endurance discipline. I once spent nearly an hour in Smiths while he deliberated over which comic to have and he’s not getting better with age. Eons past. The ice retreats, civilisations rise and fall, the ice encroaches again, bringing a new ice age. More time passes and we enter an interglacial period. 

Sam: Oooh look a lizard man called “Hissssa Lizar of Makan”. He looks cool but he’s got a silly name.

Me: Well if you don’t like his name, don’t hit the resurrect button, hit the reincarnate one. That way you can rename him.

Sam: Oh yes! Guess what I’m going to call him?

Me: Considering you wanted to call our chickens Doctor Who Chicken, and our cat Doctor Who Cat, I’m going to guess at Doctor Who Lizard?

Nope not even remotely close:


Me: Jeff?

Sam: Jeff.

Me: Jeff??

Sam: Jeff.

The Jeff loop goes on for some time until I’m not completely convinced that the word Jeff is even real any more.

Me: Right Sam, technically we can add three more warriors to our roster but I suggest that given it’s over an hour since we booted it up, it’s probably time we actually went in to the Dungeon. Before you get horrendously bored.

Sam: Where do I go then?

Me: Keep on taking the left turn until you get to a door.

We make it to the door and pick up a few clothes and bits and bobs. We only experience the banging into a wall grunt noise about 50 times.

Me: Problem with the controls Sam?

Sam: it’s not like Minecraft where you can use the mouse and keys to move, you have to hit the stupid buttons on the screen! And it’s so slow to move, I keep on hitting the wall!

Even after all these years the controls still seem intuitive to me but I suppose I played this well before Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. Controls like that are second nature to Sam because it’s what he’s grown up with.

Me: Okay Sam, how about I control it, and you tell me what to do? Would that work better?

Sam: Yes!

This is more like it! I’m properly at home again and loving it. Except I’m not.

Me: Sam, do you really want me to go down that corridor? That’s the one we came from.

Sam: No it’s not.

Me: Yes it is.

Sam: Do it.

Me: Oh look, those are the stairs we just came down about 15 seconds ago. There’s a surprise.

It turns out the endless patience I like to consider myself having isn’t really as long as I’d thought.

Sam: I don’t know how that happened, the stairs were in the other direction.

Me: Hmmm. Lets go the other way shall we? Oh look, a portcullis and what’s that behind it? Looks like a…

Sam: [excitedly] It’s a Mummy! All wrapped up in bangages! Let’s kill it!

The door makes a really loud clanking noise as it goes up. The mummy comes towards us and I press the button to make the door bang down on it. Then Jeff starts thwacking it with the club we’re using. It soon disappears in the familiar puff of dust. In Dungeon Master, relatively few monsters leave any residue when they’re dead, as the game has to remember where all the bits are. Chaos Knights leave their armour, Screamers (see below) leave some edible bits and so on but a lot of them just vanish in a grey puff.

Sam: That was cool. The mummies look good but they’re not very well animated are they?

Me: Not brilliantly animated, you’re right. Cartoons were pretty rubbishly animated back then though, so overall we didn’t really mind. Right, let’s claim our booty. I’m going to do some magic!

The screen gets imperceptibly lighter as Jeff does a 1st level FUL spell. The effect is partially ruined by having to sleep between the picking of the strength level and then selecting FUL as our character doesn’t quite have enough mana to do both steps in one go. Sam is predictably underwhelmed.

Sam: Is that it? That’s…rubbish.

Me: We’re underground, with only a finite number of torches to light the way. Being able to cast magic spells is a great way to make it light. The more you practice, the better you get, like you and your drumming. Eventually we’ll be able to do level 7 fireballs, which are awesome.

Sam: Hmm.

DMCSB-Creature-ScreamerJeff wanders around for what seems like quite a long period of time collecting keys- the emerald, topaz, steel and the solid key are all collected in fairly short order, only requiring a bit of back tracking when the solid key is missed due to being exactly the same colour as the cracks in the floor. We’re introduced to pressure pads, switches, and locked doors during this bit of exploration, all key features going forwards. We finally unlock the third door to be presented with a screamer. For the uninitiated, a screamer is basically a carnivorous mobile tree, that makes a screaming noise when it attacks. When killed it gives a couple of edible screamer slices, which are useful for eating.

Sam: What is THAT?

Me: It’s a screamer.

Sam: It’s rubbish, that’s what it is. Hit it with Jeff’s sword.

By this point, Jeff is armed with one of the several falchions that we’ve found lying around. Dungeon Master was pretty much responsible for my entire knowledge of medieval weaponry, and is consequently also responsible for me misidentifying a flail as a morningstar until very recently.

Sam: [crowing] It’s dead. Oh yes, Jeff is the best, oh yes!

We open the final fourth door and go through, finding another screamer which we likewise despatch. A bit of jigging about, another key, some pressure pads and we’re faced with 4 screamers that we retreat around a room hacking until they’re all dead. Jeff is carrying far too much and his stamina is flagging. I suggest Jeff has a nap.

Sam: Okay, lets sleep.

We sleep. Jeff dies in his sleep with a scream and a set of bones.

Me: Ah, probably some more screamers about, who attacked us in our sleep and killed us.

Sam: When do re respawn?

Me: Ah.

Sam: Daaaad?

Me: You don’t respawn. You’re dead. You can start again from the last time you manually saved it but I don’t think we have saved it. I wasn’t expecting to die here to be honest.

Sam: You mean we’ve got to start again?

Me: Afraid so.

Sam: No we haven’t! What a stupid game! I’m not going through all that again, and Jeff’s dead!

Sam gets up and leaves in a mixture of frustration and slight upset. Upset that Jeff is properly dead, all the experience he has gained is gone. Jeff is no more. Jeff is an ex-lizard.

And thus ends our adventure with Dungeon Master. I’m gutted. This is my favourite game of all time but it hasn’t worked for Sam. Perhaps the pace is wrong, he’s too young or the mechanic is too archaic for kids today but I’m properly disappointed.

Oh well, I’m sure I’ll recover but before next week, perhaps I should reincarnate Jeff again and just see if I can finish the game properly…

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