I don’t remember the first text based adventure game I ever played. It seems like the sort of thing I should know given my love for the genre, but the title has vanished from my memory. Because of this I suspect, the games have attained something of a towering, mythical status in my mind. They are like Lovecraft’s “Great Old Ones,” titanic, slumbering beings that are simply waiting to awaken and exert their power over me. Yes. I am that kind of dork.
I love them for many of the same reasons that I love Choose Your Own Adventure Stories and role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons. There’s something immensely satisfying about being thrown into a fantasy adventure and then being handed control over the story, with nothing but your imagination providing the graphics.
Some of the genre’s early titles were the digital heirs of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s classic Dungeons and Dragons game. Take Dungeon of Death, designed by Instant Software and released in 1979 for the Commodore PET. The game borrowed liberally from its influences (even referring to itself as DND in the manual, suggesting that the name came from Dungeon of Death). The player explored 12 levels of dungeons, finding treasure and battling monsters along the way. Your quest? To find the Holy Grail, which was guarded in the final dungeon by the dragon Smaug (remember what I said about liberal usage of its influences?). Among the other monsters you would face as you traversed the perils of the dungeon were: vampires, Death, a Rust Monster, the Evil Man, Balrogs and Ringwraiths.
A small graphic appeared at the bottom of the screen, showing where you were in the dungeon. When you encountered a chest you were presented with four options: open, carefully open, magic spell (which could help you learn if the chest was safe), or leave it. Monsters provided five options: fight, evade, magic spell, run (& drop gold), and give up. Unlike other text based games, where you typed the direction you wanted to move, you moved through Dungeon of Death by using the computer’s number pad.
Players battled the monsters by using the spells Eye of Newt, Mind Blast, Fireball, Dispel, Charm, and Sleep. The game’s manual provided the percentage of effectiveness each spell had on each monster. Besides the dangers presented by monsters, the player had to worry about booby trapped treasure chests and invisible pits. You also had to worry about harmful potions like poison, degeneration, and a love potion which made you fall in love with the monster you were battling (and lose the fight as a result).
As in games like Dungeons and Dragons, you started the game with a set of ability stats like strength, agility, wisdom, and experience. To progress through the later levels it was necessary to gradually increase your stats, and you would need to get them as high as possible. According to the game’s manual, just to meet with Smaug “takes almost 100 powers.” The best way to gain the needed experience was to complete a level and then return to the surface where the computer would give you a new experience level, higher power, and access to more spells.
Once you reached Smaug, you were unable to to cast spells, evade, give up, or run away. Your only option was to stand and fight. Kill or Be Killed. If you won, you had to return to the surface with the Holy Grail to complete your quest.
While better games in the genre would be made (the highly successful Temple of Apshai was released the same year), the game remains notable as one of the earliest examples of RPG style gaming for the home computer.
The below video demonstrates gameplay (though it erroneously lists the game’s release date as 1978).