The Vault: Blow the Dust Off

The Vault

This article contains explicit references to 3.5″ Floppy drives. Parental supervision may be required.

Years ago, PC gamers were a different breed than they are today. They booted from DOS! They struggled with installations! They wrote their own autoexec.bat files and liked it! (ECHO Sure did! — Pete)

Now, depending on your PC literacy and/or age, this article will induce various feelings. It is doubtful many PC gamers today even know what DOS is, or the true horror of forgetting to backup an autoexec. More important is the idea that a game wouldn’t work correctly out of the box. Sometimes a gamer had to work for his or her already-hard-earned prize. At least, this was true for many cases at the dawn of the CD era (haha). But the ancient game covered here did not come on a CD. No, this game came on floppy disks. 3.5″ floppy disks, to be exact. Several of them, to be even more exact.

Dungeon Hack was a game developed in 1993 by DreamForge Entertainment (now extinct) and published by Strategic Simulations, Inc., a company that was later acquired by Ubisoft and whose name is now also extinct. In order to fully appreciate this game, a little history lesson is necessary, but those who need no explanation of the origin of Rogue and roguelikes should feel free to fast forward.

Graphics shmaphics. This was art.

Graphics shmaphics. This was art.

“Amulet of Yendor.” This was the grand prize of an ASCII-based game called Hack that was developed  and released in 1982 by high-school students (Did you feel accomplished today? Bet you don’t anymore!). Based on Rogue, it improved on the formula for the classic random-dungeon generator with “shops” and eventually a crisper interface where walls were actually connected and, somehow, the monsters were as scary as they are in Doom despite being made up of nothing but alphanumeric characters.

Again, the hallmarks of the game are familiar to anyone who has played a roguelike: randomly generated dungeons, extremely difficult gameplay, and permanent death – if your character died, any saved progress was also erased. This is a concept many modern gamers detest, but it was unavoidable with these games; no option yet existed to remove this “feature.”

Fast forward to the early ’90s. Dungeon Hack claimed that it is essentially a spiritual successor to Hack, and this claim was quickly validated. The game had it all: random dungeons, the option for permanent character death, and a difficulty level to make the original proud. What made Dungeon Hack so attractive was all the modern trappings that got added, namely the graphics engine and the setting.

The graphic engine was based on SSI’s own Eye of the Beholder series, another ancient game with a similar play style — Sega CD and SNES fans might recognize one of its ports. Situated in a “3D” dungeon, players never saw themselves but observed the halls of the dungeon from the first-person perspective of their avatar. The dungeon portion occupied about a third of the screen; the remainder was devoted to your avatar’s equipment, inventory, map, and navigational interface. All actions could be completed with the mouse, from attacking monsters to eating food to walking about in a stupefied daze. Below all of this was a text window where the happenings of the game were displayed.

The setting, on the other hand, was peculiar. While the game was received with moderate praise, of note was its lack of story. This lack was intentional; the game was not meant to win Narrative of the Year. Instead, it used a standard premise of “floating lady seeks magic orb, has location, sends hero off on ultimate fetch quest.” This is all told in a stunning opening sequence complete with voice acting that may leave you breathless; however, this concludes the story. Your hero enters the dungeon and bam – that’s it.

Passing over the opening sequence, though, introduces the player to the next interesting tidbit: this is a Dungeons & Dragons game! Yes, this game bears the “official” trademark of a D&D game — specifically, it was based on the second edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons ruleset, and its popular Forgotten Realms setting! *breath*.

For story, this means nothing. What this really means is that your character and his subsequent adventures will be subjected to a very specific set of rules and regulations that, despite their complexity, do a good job of representing core play mechanics. Unfortunately, they are also what contributes (at first) to the very high difficulty found in the game. Hitting monsters and the like is a challenge to start out, and it’s quite an achievement to just get past the first floor, though this can be somewhat modified by taking advantage of the diffuculty setting at the start of the game.

Dungeon Hack featured one of the most comprehensive character creation tools of all time.

Dungeon Hack featured one of the most comprehensive character creation tools of all time.

Speaking of character creation, aside from all those facial feature toggle bars found in modern games one will rarely have such control over their character in an RPG as seen in Dungeon Hack’s creation interface. Of course, you could select one of the pre-generated characters, but D&D in general prides itself on letting players create.

The creation screen risks becoming a mess but is actually fairly organized. You choose from any of the seven base classes – your typical Fighter or Cleric stuff – OR from several of the combined class options. Want to be a sneaky fighter? The Fighter/Thief is for you! Magic and healing your thing? Try the Cleric/Mage! It was these sort of games that gave a great kickstart to the mixing of playstyles that (Western) RPGs now lean towards (ignoring the contribution from Final Fantasy’s Red Mage). Beyond class are the usual choices of gender, race, and overall disposition towards obeying the law and thoughts on puppy-kicking evils, though class options limit your race — not that you ever see yourself.

Where the true control is revealed is in your character’s statistics. Most ensuing games (minus various hacks) refuse to allow you to make the Übermensch, yet this game has no problem with the maxing of all available stats. Note that the manual actually says there’s nothing to stop you from maxing out all the stats, but it’s more fun to make a character with a flaw or two! Whether you agree or not is irrelevant, as the game still gives you the choice to either set your own stats or randomly generate them.

Gameplay is standard stuff for a roguelike; anyone familiar with the popular freeware resurrection NetHack knows that random dungeon generation makes for great replayability. You wander the sometimes-varying halls of the dungeon searching for monsters to test your new blade on, traps to avoid, and perhaps the stairs down to continue the quest for the ever-elusive Orb. Get lost? Not a problem! The map is fully expandable with a key, compass, and enough details to get you back on track to 100% completion. Note that random usually means random and forever lost, but Dungeon Hack also includes the neat feature of saving the “dungeon seed,” a series of characters that allow anyone with the game to copy them in and play an exact replica of the dungeon you ransacked.

They cackle and laugh too. Very scary.

They cackle and laugh too. Very scary.

In terms of ancient-ness, Dungeon Hack is pretty high up there – but fear not, for the Internet abides. Finding a copy to download and play for free usually is not difficult in the slightest; for those new to emulators or those with 64-bit operating systems, DOSBOX is the way to go. Getting it to work takes a small amount of effort, I will admit; however, once you get the game going, before you start adventuring, you might feel it… that quiet, small, satisfaction that comes from having gotten your game to work and you feel the hands of all those PC gamers before you on your shoulders encouraging you.

Dungeons await!

Note: I sampled a few of the treasures Google offered to me AKA the first few search results for Dungeon Hack. The ones I tried appeared legitimate; my computer remains virus-free and anything I installed to play the game was easily removable. I have an actual copy of the game, though; still, 3.5″ floppy drives are a pain!

(Obligatory legal disclaimer: Dungeon Hack is considered by most to be an “abandonware” title these days, which means that it’s no longer supported by the developer/publisher — in this case because they no longer exist. As such, its copyright status is somewhat questionable, so use caution and common sense when attempting to track down a copy, and try to use a legitimate or officially-authorized copy if one is available. Got it? Good. Love you. — Pete)

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The Vault is our weekly delve into gaming history to seek out the underappreciated and overlooked classics of yore, hosted this time around by Mike Geib. Follow Mike on Twitter here.

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