Saturday, November 21, 2015

Game 204: Shadowkeep (1984)

Shadowkeep is a uniquely odd game: a first-person dungeon crawler in the mode of Wizardry but with a text interface reminiscent of adventures like Zork. We've seen this dynamic before in Dungeons of Daggorath (1982), but not taken to this extreme, where you can string together commands like CHET GET THE SWORD AND GIVE IT TO IRENE THEN LIGHT A TORCH.

It has aspirations to be epic: four game disks, constantly overwritten with the party's progress; up to 9 party members; 25 dungeon levels; and an original set of races, classes, and monsters. To help market the game, the publisher, Trillium (a subsidiary of Spinnaker Software), hired Alan Dean Foster to write a novelization. I bought a copy. It's not half bad, especially given how little source material the author had to work with. I'll talk a little about that next time.

Unfortunately, this was an era in which epic games could be conceived but not really delivered. In many ways, it is the perfect 1984 game: created after several years of commercial RPGs had managed to build a fanbase and to create expectations for the genre, but before the 1985/1986 appearance of the giants--e.g., The Bard's Tale, Ultima IV, Might & Magic, Phantasie, Starflight--that would together establish the standards.

The plot is boilerplate. A big tower used to be occupied by a good wizard named Nacomedon, but a demon named Dal'Brad came along, imprisoned Nacomedon in a crystal, took over the tower, and began using it for "evil madness." As the tower's malign influence spread, heroes of the three major races--Roos, Thalidars, Zhis'ta, and humans--tried to brave the tower, but they all died. The current party is the world's last chance.

The adventure begins in an inn, where the player can create up to 20 characters, 9 of whom will adventure at any given time. The characters can be male or female (males have higher strength; females higher dexterity), four races, and five classes: warriors, monks, runemages, shadowmages, and necromancers. Oddly, when I went to name my first character "Chester," the bartender yelled at me that that was a reserved word.

This had better pay off later.

Ultimately lacking the stamina to come up with a theme for 9 different character names, I made use of the Random Name Generator that commenter Marc Campbell/LordKarnov42 made for me years ago.

You have to give the creators points for some originality on the races Roos are literally intelligent kangaroos, and Zhis'ta are evolved lizards. Thalidars are basically elves.

I'm willing to bet this is the only RPG in which you can role-play a kangaroo.
The combination of race, sex, and class come together to define your attributes: strength, intelligence, dexterity, leadership, power, and hit points. You can adjust the starting scores from a pool of bonus points. These statistics, in turn, adjust your percentages in attack, parry, magic, searching, and opening skills. As it does everywhere else, the game's interface slows down this whole process, and it can take easily 30-40 minutes to create a quick party. The leader is designated as the character with the highest "leadership" skill; he performs command by default unless another character is specified.

The innkeeper, Raddath, also serves as an equipment-seller, healer, and raiser of the dead, so it's clear that the party will be returning to the starting point throughout the adventure. Characters start with a random amount of gold from about 25-100, but they also have a decent selection of starting weapons, armor, salves, and spells, so it seemed to me a better choice to just save my money for some of the expensive magic items that I can buy later. Later, I revised this opinion, as difficult early combats made me realize that I needed all the advantages I could get early on. There don't seem to be any weapon or armor restrictions on the races and classes.

I'll have to return later for most of this stuff.
Once in the dungeon, the fun really begins--and yes, I mean that a bit sarcastically. The tediousness of the text-only interface becomes clear before you've even left the first room, where you have to LIGHT TORCH and then make sure you READY weapons and WEAR armor for each character in sequence, but first you have to check the INVENTORY for each character to see what they have. Since the party names don't remain on the screen, you have to frequently LOOK PARTY to remind yourself what you called them. There are no abbreviations except for movement commands (F, B, L, R), and since the game recognizes more than 400 words, you have to constantly refer to the documentation.

Movement throughout the game is slow. You wouldn't think having to hit the ENTER key after ever command would be so annoying, but it is. F-ENTER, R-ENTER, F-ENTER, F-ENTER, L-ENTER, and so forth. When monsters appear, there's a slight delay before an animation shows them approaching the party. In that slight delay, it's easy to accidentally hit "F," intending to move forward again, which the game helpfully interprets as (F)IGHT as soon as the encounter menu appears. Even worse, if you intend to move (R)ight next, and hit that before you realize an encounter is occurring, the party will "run screaming" from the monsters.

The parser is impressive. I'm not sure what the maximum length of a string of commands is, but it's well beyond what I'd be willing to type. You can type something like CHESTER PICK UP THE HAMMER AND PUT THE GREAT SWORD ON THE ANVIL AND STRIKE THE GREAT SWORD WITH THE HAMMER AND DROP THE HAMMER. The manual takes great pride in this capability. The problem is, I'm not sure why you'd want to do so many things in succession without pausing to check and make sure the action did what you intended first. Moreover, if you mistype a word or the game otherwise misinterprets it, it simply ignores what it doesn't understand. If I type, CHESTR TOUCH THE ALTAR and the game doesn't recognize that person, it will have the lead character touch the altar instead.

This did nothing until I figured out that you have to type "CAST HEAL SPELL ON WA."

In a similar vein, there's a neat ability to string together movement commands. If you've already made your map and you just want to get somewhere fast, you can type something like F, F, R, F, F, L, F, L, F, R, F and the game will execute them all in sequence. Now if a wandering monster shows up in the middle of the sequence, no problem. Once the combat is over, the game will faithfully pick up where it left off and continue moving you--except by then you generally don't want to keep moving, because you'd rather pick up the defeated monster's dropped treasure. Now you have to wait to get where you were originally going, then turn around and go get it.

The party fights three human warriors and a troll.
In combat, characters have options similar to Wizardry: attack, defend, cast a spell, invoke an item (a command the game surely got from Daggorath), change items, or change the party order. Technically, there are three attack/defend options: put everything into "attack twice," adopt a more conservative "attack & parry," or "parry only," but this adds only slightly to the tactical options. As in Wizardry, only the first three characters can attack in melee range. Unlike Wizardry, Shadowkeep doesn't cycle you through each character; you have to manually select them one at a time, hitting ENTER after each option. And naturally there are no "default" actions; you have to set something for every character unless you want him to "do nothing." At least the game remembers actions from a previous round.

Lining up our attacks.

At the beginning, chances of hitting anyone in combat with default equipment, and chances of spellcasters successfully casting, runs less than 25%, leading to a lot of wasted power. After a couple of early character deaths, I realized my party was too imbalanced towards spellcasting. My original party was two warriors, two monks, two runemages, two shadowmages, and one necromancer; when I tried a second time, I went with three warriors, two monks, two runemasters, and one each of the other spellcasters. (The spellcasting classes are mostly differentiated by what spells they can cast, although they also have varying levels of other skills like searching.) I also took the opportunity, in making the new party, to name them things like "WA" and "WB" (Warrior A and B) so I wouldn't have to remember everyone's name.

When combat begins, you have to wait and watch the enemies approach one-by-one. I know there's going to be at least three enemies in this combat, because if there's only two, the second one walks up the middle instead of the right.
Shadowkeep invests a lot in what it thinks are good graphics. It boast about its "high-resolution animation" in the start-up screens and the manual, and indeed every time you encounter a party of monsters, it insists on forcing you to watch as they walk up to the party one by one. All combat actions have accompanying animations. Even transitioning between different menus in the store forces you to wait as Raddath whisks you from one storage room to another (and for whatever reason changes into something like an otyugh during the process), with accompanying changes in the graphics. The problem is, I don't think I would have been impressed with these graphics even in 1984. Coupled with the length of time it takes to enter the commands, Shadowkeep ends up being slow and needlessly complicated where Wizardry was brisk and simple.

I have no idea what this was necessary.

The final problem with the game is one of character development: there isn't any. There's no experience and no leveling. The only method of getting stronger comes from improving your equipment, which means the only reason to fight monsters is to get their gold. Thus, the game technically doesn't qualify as an RPG under my definitions, but this is one of those cases where it seems absurd to call it anything else despite the deficiency.

Note something missing from this character sheet. Attack, parry, magic, search, and open seem to be functions of attributes and equipment. They don't seem to increase with use.
If there's one redeeming thing about Shadowkeep, it's going to be in the special encounters and puzzles. For 90% of the first level, I was using only movement commands and combat choices, but occasionally I ran into a special room that required me to puzzle through some of the other 400 words that the game interprets. These moments offered a depth to the adventuring that we rarely see in RPGs of the era. They included:

  • An altar. On the wall nearby, a rune (readable only to my runemages) signaled "Life." After some experimentation, it appears that the altar takes donations of gold and other valuables. Commands like OFFER 1000 GOLDENS TO ALTAR and PUT ORNATE RING ON ALTAR would cause those objects to vanish. Nothing seemed to change among my party members, but I suspect I need to wait for someone to die and put his or her body on the altar and make the donation for resurrection.
  • A smithy with a hammer and anvil. I could pick up the hammer but not walk anywhere with it in my possession. Through some trial and error, I realized that if I put a weapon on the anvil and banged it a bit with the hammer, an asterisk appeared next to the weapon in the inventory. I think this means it's enhanced or magical. The weapons I treated this way do seem to perform better in combat.
Figuring this out was rewarding.
  • A rubbish pile. Repeated SEARCHing using the character with the highest search skill yielded an ornate ring. I'm not sure what it does.
A metaphor for my entire project.
  • Something that the game calls a podium when it really means "pedestal." It has a depression on it that would seem to require some kind of gem or crystal. I had expected to find one in the dungeon, but when I didn't, I returned to the innkeeper's shop and found that he sold several promising-sounding artifacts, including a Gem of Power and a Black Crystal. I bought the cheapest (the Black Crystal) and put it on the pedestal, and sure enough the entire room lit up. I don't know exactly what that did, though. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to take the gem or leave it there.
A "podium" also isn't the same thing as a "lectern." A podium is what a speaker stands on, not behind.
Now, if you're really stumped about what to do on a level, the back page of the game manual has quick hints for each level. For level 1, the hint is "PODIUMS: GEM OR CRYSTAL DEPRESSION." Unfortunately, it doesn't help with the question about whether to then take the gem or crystal. To cover all bases, I bought a second crystal. I took the first and left the second on the "podium."

In an odd deviation from the norm, you don't have to explore each level--at least, not the first nine--to find the stairs up. Instead, each level is spun off a central staircase. It looks like you can visit the first four freely, in any order. On Levels 5-9, the entrance to the level is blocked by a door that can't be opened until you accomplish something on the previous level. I assume that further staircases will be found somewhere on Level 9.

For this first session, I mapped only the first level, which was 16 x 16 and wrapped back on itself. A single inaccessible square gave me some heartburn, but I searched extensively for secret doors and found nothing. The game is extremely fond of one-way walls and doors, and I was constantly having to find new routes back to previously-explored areas when the walls closed behind me.

The game's first level.
Monsters on the first floor consisted of goblins, human warriors, trolls, and "deathsheep." I came close a couple of times, but none of my characters died in the first session. It did take about 3 hours to map the first level owing to the slowness of movement and combat.

I also went up to Level 4 for some time, but I didn't find the enemies notably harder. When the game offers no character development except equipment upgrades, it can't scale the enemies too fast.

Level 4 enemies. The developer needed to work on spelling. A "barguest" is what I am in New Orleans.

A few other notes:

  • If enemies surprise you, your party enters combat with the character order scrambled. This means that every character needs a melee weapon equipped in case he suddenly needs to be pressed into melee service.
  • There is no sound in the game.
  • No command allows you to turn around. You can back up, but if you want to turn around, you have to hit "R" or "L" twice.
  • The game has a sleep system by which you re-gain hit points and spell points. Sleeping in the main dungeon seems to carry about a 30% risk of interruption by monsters, but you're perfectly safe sleeping on the staircase.
  • The amount of gold dropped by slain enemies seems to be dependent on the number of enemies. On Level 1, I routinely got gold in multiples of 51 (e.g., 102 for two enemies, 204 for 4 enemies). Enemies occasionally drop items as well.
  • When torches run out, they turn into "soggy sticks," which can be used as weapons.
  • When you encounter  monsters, there's a "negotiate" option. If it's successful, monsters drop their treasure as they leave. If unsuccessful, they get a free combat round.
Since combat does nothing for you, this is a real bonus when it works.
Shadowkeep has some interesting ideas, but I'm not sure it's going to be worth playing this for 25 levels. (I'd be happy to break my "no cheating" rule for this one and just follow online maps, but none seem to exist.) The combination of a tedious interface and a lack of character development really kills my enthusiasm for the game. On the other hand, the special encounters and puzzles are mildly intriguing and worth mapping a couple more levels. Next time, I'll have more about the book and the developer's background.

What happened to Martian Dreams? The short answer is that I'm still experiencing that save game problem with Martian Dreams, and I can't get around it. No matter what I do, after a certain amount of time passes, I hit CTRL-S and the game freezes up. At that point, I'm unable to save any further progress in the game even if I quit and reload. It's happened with two versions in a row, and I've exhausted any solution that I can think of. Message boards report the same problem repeatedly, and no one has offered a permanent solution yet.

Hence, I am waiting until next week to continue with Martian Dreams, as I will be home all week and thus can keep the emulator running indefinitely.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Game 203: The Black Sage (1980)

The Black Sage 
Poly-Versa-Technology (developer and publisher)
Released 1980 for Apple II
Date Started: 17 November 2015
Date Ended:
17 November 2015
Total Hours: 3
Reload Count: 16 (I was screwing around a lot)
Difficulty: Moderate (3/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 
I know that a couple of days ago, I said I was going to save some of the new RPGs on "Keith's list" for later, and I truly did intend to do that. But then I started playing The Black Sage, just to verify it met my criteria, and damned if this goofy little game didn't strike my mood perfectly. I played all the way to the end in a single session, frequently laughing, sometimes with the game and sometimes at the game. It is perhaps important to the story to know that I was in Denver, where the altitude and things can cloud your judgement.

This dragon looks like he gets it.

The Black Sage is subtitled "an Ogres & Orcs adventure," a phrase that led me to a session of fruitless Googling before I concluded that the game is, in fact, the only "Ogres & Orcs adventure." Perhaps some of my more experienced readers can fill in the blanks if I missed something, but it doesn't appear that there was ever a tabletop RPG of the name. This makes it all the more weird that the game refers you to the "Ogres and Orcs rule book" (that's not my typo; the game can't decide whether there's an ampersand or a full word in the middle) if you're confused about any of the mechanics.

Exploring the rooms of the Black Sage's castle. This map and the dragon on the sub-title screen are the only graphics in the game. There is no sound at all.
The game begins by rolling you a character--with random values for strength, IQ, luck, dexterity, constitution, and charisma--and asking whether you like the character. The "Y/N" option at this point seems to be the same as hundreds of other RPGs, in which hitting "N" will generate a new series of statistics. But this game has a surprise for you:

This cracked me up and made me want to keep playing. You had to be there.
This is all too bad because something seems broken with the random generator. Every time I started the game anew, I got the same "random" statistics, so there was no choice but to like the character: a kind-of weak, really dumb, but spry and healthy adventurer.

The character begins the game with 1,000 gold pieces to outfit himself. He can select from a variety of swords, shields, hafted (two-handed) weapon, armor, and spells. All but one weapon has a strength requirement above 12, so I was forced to choose a cutlass for my primary weapon. I was similarly restricted to a "normal" shield. This left me plenty of money for spells, of which there are four: "What a Blast," "Where For Art Thou," "Seal Shut," and "Detect Magic." Alas, I lacked the rule book necessary to describe the uses of each of the spells, but I basically figured it out.

(Side note: I was at least 30, and already a Shakespeare fan of many years, before I realized that the word "wherefore" means "why" and not "where." Juliet is asking why Romeo is who he is, not where he is. This game is using it wrong.)

After outfitting yourself, the game verifies that you "are equipped the best you can be considering limitations of money and strength." To the unwary player, this sounds like an invitation to return to the equipment store and get more stuff. Ha. Instead, a "no" answer causes you to lose 2 IQ points and sends you forward to the next question: whether you want to enter the adventure. If you say "no," you're dumped to the prompt with a "why did you run this program stupid!!"

This game really enjoys messing with you.
A "yes" finds you in the Black Sage's castle, a high-resolution fortress of 34 interconnected, numbered rooms. As you enter, the game offers you a hint as to what room the Sage occupies. In what is probably another failure of the random number generator, I always got the same hint:

I still don't know whether this is so you can avoid him or find him.
The "figure in skating" is, of course, an 8, and Bo Derek, as Dudley Moore learned in 1979, is a 10. That meant I should look for the Sage in room 18.

Each room in the castle supplies a random encounter that, although goofy, generally gives you more role-playing options than the typical CRPG. For instance, the first room of the castle pits you against a sleeping ogre. You can try to "sneek" by him, slit his throat with a dagger, wake him up and fight him, or wake him up and talk to him. Success with each of these methods depends largely on your attributes. Sneaking requires you to make a saving throw based on luck, assassinating him rolls against your dexterity, fighting him takes you to standard combat (dependent largely on strength), and waking him up for a conversation...well, that leads to instant death here, but in similar scenarios it rolls against your charisma.

In this particular case, slitting his throat is the most rewarding because you get experience for both the successful action and the ogre's death, as well as 10 mithril pieces from the ogre. But it's not always that easy.

A lot of the options are jokes. In a couple of cases you can "stand and wait," which does nothing except require you to "hit any key when you want to stop standing around and waiting." In at least one encounter, choosing the option to "throw up" dumps you to the prompt with the admonishment that "that is absolutely disgusting; you will no longer mess up my castle." In one encounter, a "low-level commoner standing in front of you" turns out to be you in a mirror, and any offensive action ends up killing you. A "successful" charisma roll against a beautiful sorceress results in her falling in love with you and imprisoning you forever.

Here are a few of the many rooms:

Successfully dueling them rewards you with money and experience; talking to them (and passing a charisma roll) leads them to show you a few tips and increases your dexterity and charisma.

Throwing a coin in the well gives you an attribute bump.

Say what you want about the game, but I'm pretty sure I've never encountered this in another RPG.

Hmmm...there only seems to be one "good" role-playing choice here.

Ah, lesson learned.
When you do have to fight, the game rolls a series of statistics, shown in the shot below, that ultimately determine the damage to your constitution. I didn't find that straight-up combat with most fixed creatures was survivable for more than a couple of fights. You really want to play this more as an adventure game than a traditional RPG.

A lot of the encounters add or subtract from your attributes, and "solving" some of the rooms properly gives you clues that help in other rooms, including this one that explains a way to get out of the castle.

In almost every room, at least one option leads to instant death (or instant dumping you to the prompt), and I suspect that someone playing this honestly would have to restart about a dozen times before successfully navigating the small castle. (The game offers no save ability.) I liberally used save states and probably re-loaded twice that many times screwing around with the various options.

You get screens like this one a lot. I thought it was very funny at the time.
Revisiting a room generally finds it empty, although occasionally there's a random monster like an orc or hobgoblin in there. In contrast to the fixed encounters, the random ones are usually easily beaten in combat.

This is one of the times I laughed at the game. Even accounting for various possibilities, the language could have been less tortured.
The Black Sage himself resides in Room 18, near the middle of the castle. If the goal is to defeat him, I'm not sure how you do that. Even visiting his room after successfully exploring all the other ones, the only options lead to him freezing you in place with a spell and demanding "the amount of gold that you are worth." If you offer too little gold, you lose attributes before he kicks you out of the room. If you offer a moderate amount, he takes it and nothing changes. If you offer all your gold, he releases you and lets you keep it "for being so generous."

With no clear way to defeat the Sage, the goal just seems to be to get out of the dungeon with some riches, which include a large diamond and a magic sword. I found three methods of exiting the place, one of which doesn't even give you a choice when you find it.

This blew my mind. It took me a while to articulate why it wouldn't work.
Upon exiting, you can sell or keep your riches. If you got enough experience to advance to Level 2, you can choose to increase your attributes by varying amounts.

Since the game ends after leveling up, this doesn't really qualify as character development.
After you save your character...that's it. There's no way to "load" a character in this game, so I can only imagine that the author intended to write more Ogres & Orcs adventures in which you could use the saved and leveled characters. I can't find any evidence that any other games were produced in the series.

Even this one is about as obscure as it could be. Its publisher is "Poly-Versa-Technology"; Googling the company shows no results not attached to The Black Sage. Was it a real company? Was The Black Sage even really "published"? It feels like something a wise-ass but somewhat skilled teenager programmed in his high school lab. The written manual that accompanied the game probably had more clues, but it seems to have been lost to the ages.

A couple of days ago, I thought this was the best game ever, but luckily I descended from 5,280 feet before calculating the GIMLET. I give it a 13. It gets 1s in almost everything except I liked the encounter system (3) and the gameplay was short and challenging enough (3). So far, both of the games to offer detailed encounter menus have been somewhat juvenile humor titles (the other one that I can think of is Girlfriend Construction Set). Why haven't real RPGs adopted this dynamic? Some of the Gold Box titles perhaps come closest.

Even though there's one more pre-1984 game on the updated list--1981's Doom Cavern--I'll be returning to my listed rotation for now, adding it as soon as I clear off one of the others. Even though my initial reaction to Keith's attempt to "help" me was somewhat negative, quickly burning through a couple of early titles has really helped ease me back into regular blogging.


Since I'm back to managing the blog on a daily basis again, I've disabled comment moderation. Your comments should appear automatically now. I'm still getting a lot of comment spam, but I'll just try to deal with it when it happens.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Game 202: Super Dungeon (1979)

Super Dungeon
Programma Software (publisher)
Released 1979 for Apple II
Date Started: 16 November 2015
Date Ended:
17 November 2015
Total Hours: 4
Reload Count: 0
Difficulty: Easy (2/5)
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later) 

A few months ago, a commenter named Keith (AKA, the Golden Age Arcade Historian) did one of those things that I both really want you to do and kind-of don't want you to do: he sent me a list of a bunch of RPGs that aren't on MobyGames or Wikipedia, the two major lists that I used to compose my master game list. When you have a "to do" list of 2,000 items, the last thing you want is for someone to give you 20 more tasks. On the other hand, when you created the list specifically because you want to do those things, you could regard 20 extra items as like a bonus. I go back and forth.

In this case, when he first sent the list, I didn't want to hear about all these additional games, so I wrote back and said I wasn't sure they all met my criteria. I thought that would make him go away. Instead, he personally investigated each game, verified which ones met my criteria, and sent me a new list with annotations. F@%# you, Keith. And, of course, thank you, Keith.

There are only couple of pre-1984 games on the list, so it won't affect my playlist dramatically. The first one is Programma International's Super Dungeon (1979). All bipolar joking aside, I'm grateful for Keith's list for this entry alone. Even if we're generous about what constitutes an RPG, and even if we include several Dunjonquest variants as separate games, we still only have a dozen commercial RPGs before 1980. The discovery of another one is a major event.

The moment I fired up Super Dungeon, I thought I had stumbled upon a small scandal. I immediately recognized the approach to gameplay, the low-res graphics--in many places, even the literal text--as identical to Level-10's Dragon Fire, a 1981 game that I covered back in 2013 and praised for originality. I was about to revoke all the good things I said about Dragon Fire and expose it as a fraud. After further analysis, it appears they came from the same author: Rodney Nelsen of Thornton, Colorado. Although Nelsen isn't credited with Super Dungeon in-game, he is listed as the author in a 1980 Programma catalog (incorrectly spelling his last name "Nelson").

Moreover, it sounds like Super Dungeon might not even be the first. In the same catalog, the game is described as "a SUPER version of the popular Dungeons and Dragons game." I don't know if they're literally referring to the tabletop D&D or some computer predecessor.
The description of a warrior in Super Dungeon (1979)...

...and in Dragon Fire (1981).
In general gameplay, both games are nearly identical. In character creation, you specify a name, and the game automatically rolls for starting strength, constitution, speed, and life points. You then choose a character class--warrior, wizard, elf, dwarf, and hobbit ("huntress" was added and "hobbit" removed for Dragon Fire). The choice of class modifies and in some case balances the initial attribute roles; for instance, warriors get an extra 25 life points and elves gain experience faster with lower strength. The various classes also have strength and weaknesses in terms of what weapons and armor they can use, whether they can safely use secret doors, whether they can open locked doors, and whether they take damage from various traps.

You get a random amount of copper to purchase weapons, armor, healing items, and horses. These aren't "real" inventory items in any sense: you can't equip or drop them after the game starts. Instead, whatever you purchase adds directly to your strength, constitution, life points, armor class, and speed scores. Nonetheless, there are class restrictions on what you can purchase. Wizards can only purchase daggers, for instance, but get an extra 3 strength points to simulate their use of spells in combat.

Purchasing initial equipment.

After inventory acquisition, you enter a randomly-generated, lo-res dungeon in which your character is indicated by a brown square. The style of the dungeon, if not the mechanics of exploring it, seems to have been inspired by Programma's previous Dragon Maze (1978). (Dragon Maze is a non-RPG, but it inspired a couple of RPGs, including this one, Dungeon Campaign, and Beneath Apple Manor.) You move via (U)p, (D)own, (L)eft, and (R)ight commands. Secret doors are blue, locked doors white, and regular doors gray. Different character types take different injury levels when trying to pass through locked or secret doors.

The dungeon in Super Dungeon.
For comparison, the Dragon Fire dungeon.

Every pass through a door brings you to a room with a monster drawn from the Dungeons & Dragons bestiary, including rust monsters, ghouls, stirges [sic], gnolls, doppelgangers, minotaurs, manticores, and gnomes. Crude graphics represent both the monsters and items that you might win if you defeat them. You see their attributes and decide whether to fight or flee. If you fight, combat is an extremely rote affair. Relative speed determines who goes first, and each attack evaluates the monster's strength and armor class against yours (for monsters, strength is both actual strength and hit points) and determines whether you hit and how much damage you do. Some combats might take upwards of 20 rounds, but spamming the ENTER key gets you through them relatively fast.

I fight a chimera in hopes to win that bit of armor.
At the end of combat, you claim the room's treasures, which can include gold, keys to locked and secret doors, magic weapons (necessary for warriors to defeat some enemies), and items that increase your attributes and armor class. Occasionally, you get lucky and find a room with treasure and no combats.

Reward with no risk.

And occasionally, you find a special encounter, such as this room full of coffins that can contain treasure, skeletons, or magic gasses that either increase or decrease attributes.

As you explore, random events can befall the dungeon and damage your attributes, diminish your gold, and screw up your navigation. These include tremors, random teleportation, "witches' spells," thieves, and pits. Higher levels have wandering monsters, but on the first few levels, you only encounter monsters in the rooms. Occasionally, portals appear to allow you a quick exit from the dungeon.
That's not cool.
As you advance in dungeon levels, you're given the opportunity to spend your experience directly on improved constitution and life points.

There is some strategy in how you explore. You lose one life point for every step you take, so you don't want to linger too long before heading for the level's exit. But if you hit the exit too soon, you won't have amassed enough experience to handle the more difficult creatures on the next level (or even replenished what you lost on this level). You need to try to find the right balance and make sure you can advance, if only slightly, in constitution and life points. Fortunately, you can retreat to earlier levels if you need to. You can also save and reload the game at any point.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a lot of point to the game except to accumulate treasure and escape the dungeon whenever you've had enough. At that point, you get a message indicating your overall score, which I suppose you could log for later comparison with yourself and your friends.

The game's "main quest."

If you're cautious, the game isn't too hard. I managed to make it to Level 5 in about 2 hours of playing, without having to reload. Rather than press my luck, I took advantage of a portal and escaped.

I'm not sure what the "gold deposited" bit is about. I never saw anything that would allow me to "deposit" gold.
While Dragon Fire is identical to Super Dungeon in mechanics, Nelsen did make a number of advances to the game in the intervening years. In particular, the detailed (and random) descriptions that accompany each Dragon Fire room do not appear here; this was perhaps the most memorable element of the latter game. Dragon Fire has a main quest--a dragon to kill on Level 10 (which is also the name of the publisher. I just got that!)--an adjustable difficulty level, a fast combat option, and a detailed, framing story written by later award-winning science fiction author Steve Rasnic Tem.

A couple of features were lost between the two games. Dragon Fire doesn't have secret or barred doors, removing some of the navigation challenge and decreasing the utility of a couple of character classes. Super Dungeon has monsters that only wizards or warriors with magic weapons can defeat; these are gone in Dragon Fire, again reducing the usefulness of the wizard class. I don't remember special encounters like the coffins in Dragon Fire. Finally, Super Dungeon has an extensive in-game manual, moved to a paper manual for Dragon Fire, likely to accommodate all of the detailed room descriptions in the latter game.

The long in-game manual describes all of its elements in detail.
Super Dungeon certainly would have tickled the imagination in 1979, but it doesn't do well on my GIMLET today, earning only 13 points. (Dragon Fire got 18, since it had a back story, quest, and the detailed dungeon descriptions.) It does best (3) in "character creation and development." I like that the choice of class really matters, and I like the way you can spend experience directly on attributes.

Despite the primitiveness of the game, this was always a bit of a thrill.
Super Dungeon is a reasonably good representative of the era. If you look at the 1978 and 1979 commercial RPGs, the list is full of titles--Dungeon Campaign, DUNGEON, Dungeon of Death, Dunjonquest-that feature different graphics and mechanics but the same basic approach to gameplay: roll a basic character and explore a random dungeon looking for treasure, enhancing the experience with your own imagination, with the only overt goal to get out of the dungeon richer than when you went in. (Beneath Apple Manor, The Wizard's Castle, and Wilderness Campaign are slightly different in featuring main quests, but none of them are full RPGs.) It wasn't until the success of Akalabeth, first published in 1979 but not widely released until 1980, that an ending started to become the norm in CRPGs.

Super Dungeon seems to be Rodney Nelsen's first game. I'm not sure what led him to enhance and republish it as Dragon Fire (1981), but Programma International was foundering by then, so perhaps the rights had reverted to Nelsen. I'm not sure whether he had anything to do with Level 10's Alkemstone (1981), a maze-running adventure that delivered clues as to the location of a real-world cache and offered a cash prize of $5,000 to the person who could find it. (As far as anyone knows, it's still out there.) He definitely did participate in Kaves of Karkhan (1981), an in-name sequel to Dragon Fire that is best described as a first-person adventure game rather than an RPG. In 2013, I got half a posting written on it before I realized it met none of my criteria. Nelsen also published a first-person shooter called Tharolian Tunnels through Datamost in 1982, and he appears on the design team of several Carmen Sandiego titles in the 1990s. After that, he disappears into the ether, obscured in Internet searches by many others of the same name. I tried finding him to ask about Super Dungeon and Dragon Fire but have not had any luck.

I'm still going through the rest of Keith's list and adding the ones I agree are RPGs to my master list. For the ones that precede 1984, I'll play them soon (I don't want to have three active lists) but not next. Martian Dreams is on hold until next week for reasons I'll explain later, so you'll probably see me slide into Shadow Keep next.