Game 355: The Devil’s Dungeon (1978)

From The CRPG Addict


Since there’s no in-game title, here’s the title from the printed instructions.

         
The Devil’s Dungeon

United States
Written and published as code by C. William Engel
Versions released for BASIC computers (1978), Atari 800 (1979), Commodore VIC-20 (1983), Apple II (1984), TI-99 (1984), and Commodore 64 (1984)
Date Started: 4 February 2020
Date Ended: 4 February 2020
Total Hours: 1
Difficulty: Very Easy (1/5) in the sense that you can escape and “win” from the opening screen; Hard (4/5) in the sense that it’s hard to stay alive if you choose to keep exploring
Final Rating: (To come later)

Ranking at Time of Posting: (To come later)

This is one of a couple of very brief “clean up” entries that you’re going to see this week, spaced not so far apart as my usual longer entries. The purpose here is to sweep up some 1970s titles that linger on my master list even though I should have gotten to them sooner.

The Devil’s Dungeon has dogged me for a few years, and I occasionally get e-mails about it. I understand why. If it was a 1977 game, as many web sites (including MobyGames) allege, and if it was an RPG and if it was actually sold as a game, it would be perhaps the first commercial RPG. Indeed, my colleague and occasional commenter Keith Smith wrote an article in 2015 questioning whether it was, in fact, the first commercial CRPG. When Smith wrote to me about the question, I dismissed it as such, but after reading his coverage, I realized I was a bit hasty. For various reasons, I am reluctant to call it the first commercial CRPG, but for various reasons it isn’t exactly not, either.
        

The cover for the Atari 800 version of the program.

         
The game was a creation (perhaps–see below) of C. William Engel, professor of Mathematics Education at the University of South Florida in Tampa. In 1977, Engel self-published Stimulating Simulations: Ten Unique Programs in BASIC for the Computer Hobbyist. The 64-page book consists of 8 BASIC programs that the reader could type into a TRS-80 or whatever other computer he had that used conventional BASIC. The programs included Art Auction, Gone Fishing, Space Flight, and Business Management. The goal was to teach the reader to program, with a particular focus on statistical simulation and probability.

The Devil’s Dungeon is not one of the original 10 programs, but Engel soon found a commercial publisher for Stimulating Simulations in Hayden Books of New Jersey, and gussied-up versions followed for the Atari 800 in 1979, the Commodore VIC-20 in 1983, and the Apple II, TI-99, and Commodore 64 in 1984. The Devil’s Dungeon appears in all of these editions. Whether the game counts as the earliest RPGs thus depends first on whether we count type-it-yourself code as actual software.
           

Gameplay consists of moving from room to room.

         
Then we have the date. Evidence from ads shows that Engel was selling The Devil’s Dungeon as a 15-page standalone publication as early as February 1978. I have yet to find a copy of this book, but enough web sites, including Google Books, give the specific date of 10 January 1978 that I suspect that’s what appeared on the original publication itself. The 1977 date given by many web sites is a confusion based on the copyright date in several editions of Stimulating Simulations, which list both the original copyright (1977, with no Devil’s Dungeon) and the publication dates of those specific editions (1979-1984). So while the game was not published in 1977–which would have put it in stores a full year before any other candidate–it was published so early in 1978 that it’s hard to imagine any of the other candidates beats it.
       

A February 1978 ad for the pre-Hayden Books version of Stimulating Simulations. Note that The Devil’s Dungeon is “also available” at the bottom.

          
Third, there’s the question of whether the game is even an RPG. If you wonder whether something printed on a few pages for a reader to type could possibly be much of a game, your skepticism is well-founded. The game reminds me in a weird way of Andrew Greenberg’s Star Saga (1988), where most of the “game” was in the printed book and the computer was simply used for the probabilities and calculations. Here, you need the book for the backstory and instructions. The computer program just keeps track of your strength, speed, experience, and gold. So it does have attributes. And those attributes do increase with experience and they are used to determine success in combat. And you do have a single piece of “equipment” that you can you use when you want. It’s like someone looked at my requirements and made a game that technically meets them . . . but come on.
       

“Character development” consists of buying speed and strength with experience.

         
The backstory is simply that there’s a lot of gold hidden in a “maze of caves” in an active volcano. Monsters and demons also roam the halls. When you start the game, you have 100 speed, 100 strength, and no gold. The game creates randomized dungeon levels of 16 rooms each, and you spend the game navigating from room to room by pressing the number of the room you want to go to. A room may have a random amount of gold, a monster (unnamed) with a random amount of speed and strength. It may also have demons or poison gas, neither of which can be conquered and instead must be quickly fled. Tremors occasionally re-arrange the dungeon levels while you’re in mid-exploration.

The only “equipment” is a “magic wand” that the player carries and can activate by hitting 99 in any room. The wand destroys monsters and creates a dropoff to lower levels 60% of the time; it backfires and halves your strength and speed 40% of the time.

Room #1 on each level is a “special room,” where you can trade your accumulated experience for an equivalent boost to your speed or strength. You can also leave the dungeon from the room, at which point the game gives you your gold total and dumps you out of the program.
           

“Winning” The Devil’s Dungeon.

        
Commands are simply 0 to fight (if the room has a monster), 1-9 to move between rooms, negative numbers to go down an equivalent number of levels (if the room has a dropoff), 88 to see what rooms you’ve already visited, and 99 to activate the wand or leave the dungeon, depending on what room you’re in. This is one of those few cases where a couple of screenshots tells you all you need to know about the game.

Engel wasn’t trying to entertain with this game; he was trying to teach. His books weren’t just a bunch of code: they contained tables of variables, flow charts, diagrams, and other tools meant to explain how the program works. At the end of each program, he also listed some ideas for both minor and major modifications and upgrades to the base program–challenges for the more advanced coder. For The Devil’s Dungeon, he suggested that a more complicated game would include the purchase of weapons and equipment before starting, named monsters, a variable number of rooms per level, light and dark rooms, and pit traps that dump the player to lower levels.

These suggestions are not coincidentally among the many featured in Caverns of Mordia, a 1980 Australian game for the Apple II that is a “grown up” version of The Devil’s Dungeon. I covered it about a year ago. That Mordia uses Dungeon as a base is 100% clear from the nature of exploration: infinite dungeon levels of up to 16 rooms, Room #1 is a “special room,” you have two attributes (strength and agility in Mordia) and can trade experience for them, there are gas and demons, the wand works the same way, and so forth. But Mordia adds about 200% to the content of the game, including some crude graphics (animated in a couple scenes!), equipment, named monsters, more special encounters, and a main quest.
           

Caverns of Mordia started with a Devil’s Dungeon base but offered a more complete RPG experience.

       
Mordia is so clearly an expanded version of The Devil’s Dungeon that I find it hard to give credence to author Hans Coster’s insistence (in an e-mail to me) that he wrote it from scratch. He says he gave early version of the game away for free before ultimately selling Mordia, but it’s hard to imagine one of those disks making it from Australia to Florida two years ahead of Mordia‘s release, and Dr. Engel then not only plagiarizing the code but dumbing it down at the same time. (Dr. Engel died in 2011, so we can’t ask him.) Mordia makes so much more sense as an additive experience to Dungeon than Dungeon does as a reductive experience of Mordia. It’s easier to believe that Dr. Coster simply doesn’t remember, 40 years later, that he started with The Devil’s Dungeon as a nucleus, particularly when he would have had to add so much to the code. It is a full game where Dungeon isn’t, and if it had been published in 1978, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it the first commercial RPG.

If I had to GIMLET The Devil’s Dungeon, it would earn a 6, tied for the lowest score ever, probably the lowest score possible. I can’t bring myself to give it any points for the game world, encounters, or equipment; even though it technically has them, they’re not fleshed out enough to even make it to “1.” I did give a 1 for character creation and development, combat, economy, quest, graphics and sound, and gameplay.

In the end, while I’m reluctantly forced to admit that it was “sold” before any other RPG we can identify and it does meet my three RPG criteria, it’s still tough to give it the award of “first commercial CRPG,” particularly when this is one of the few cases where even I would have had the skill to create a BASIC game this primitive. While I try to think of a good way out of it, check out my colleague Nathan’s take on the game at “CRPG Adventures,” where he found an amusing way to cheat. Maybe ignore his last sentence before the rating.



Original URL: http://crpgaddict.blogspot.com/2020/02/game-355-devils-dungeon-1978.html