Sunday, June 5, 2011

Castiglione Goes Crawling in the Dungeons of Daggorath

I recently acquired a copy of Frozen Synapse but I've found I've not been able to play it as much as I would like due to the distraction of other games.

Just what other games could distract me from the pleasure of watching little neon colored men get mowed down by shotgun, rifle and RPG fire?

It may surprise you to know that I've been spending a lot of my gaming time playing Dungeons of Daggorath, Mazogs, 3D Monster Maze, Virus and 1k MazezaM as these are games for what are considered to be extinct platforms: Dungeons of Daggorath is a game for the Tandy Color Computer while the others are games for the ZX81.

I've already discussed 3D Monster Maze (I'm amazed at how startled I still get when I get caught by the Tyrannosaurus Rex) and I'll discuss Mazogs, Virus, 1k MazezaM and, yes, Frozen Synapse, in due time, but today I'd like to talk about Dungeons of Daggorath.

Dungeons of Daggorath was written by Douglas J. Morgan and Keith S. Kiyohara with sounds by Phil Landmeier and it was released in 1982 for the Tandy Color Computer, also known as the TRS-80 Color Computer or, more simply, the CoCo.

Someone looking at Dungeons of Daggorath could be forgiven for sniffing and saying, “What's the big deal? It's basically Akalabeth and Akalabeth predates it by two or three years (depending on who you talk to).”

Except for the fact that they'd be wrong.

In the case of Dungeons of Daggorath, there is literally more here than meets the eye.

What differentiates Dungeons of Daggorath from Akalabeth (and other computer role-playing games of its day) is its innovative use of sound. Audio cues provide you with clues of when monsters are near. And a virtual heartbeat gives you an indication of the physical state of your character: The faster your heartbeat, the more fatigued and/or injured your character. If your heartbeat gets fast enough, you'll either pass out (which could be bad) or die. Performing actions can result in fatigue. Obviously, getting hit by a monster can result in injury. Initially, you're a bit of a weakling in the game: Taking a few steps can tire you to such an extent that you may wish your character had gone through The Biggest Loser before entering the dungeon and you will have to be very careful when joining battle but with each monster you defeat, the stronger your character gets.

When you hear a monster, especially when your heartbeat indicates that you're in a bad way and really should be resting and not fighting, your anxiety level can begin to creep up, making for very immersive gameplay.

Dungeons of Daggorath's use of sound was groundbreaking but possibly because it was only released on the Tandy Color Computer and never ported to other systems, it seems to have been unknown outside the CoCo community. You have to remember, back then there was no internet (at least as far as the general public was concerned) and if something wasn't in your World Book Encyclopedia or in the Encyclopaedia Britannica down at your public library, you were basically out of options when it came to finding out about stuff.

With the exception of its use of sound, Dungeons of Daggorath is pretty pedestrian. It features first-person wire-frame 3D graphics similar to those used in the dungeon-crawling sequences in Akalabeth and the first Ultima. The storyline is cliched, involving a quest to find and kill an evil wizard but, hey, the greatest science fiction film of all time involved the rather cliched storyline of a simple farm boy saving the galaxy, so we probably shouldn't be so quick to turn our nose up at cliches.

We also shouldn't turn up our nose because the game is still a heck of a lot of fun, mainly because of those sounds I've been blabbering about. Where other contemporary computer role-playing games hewed closely to the model of their pencil and paper forefathers, Dungeons of Daggorath took advantage of what the medium that it was designed for had to offer. There were no hit points, no attributes displayed in the game, although they existed under the hood, so to speak. Your heartbeat replaced the hit point counter and the sound made by approaching monsters added to the atmosphere of the game as well as providing useful information that the player could use to make informed decisions.

Modern gamers may remark that sound effects announcing approaching enemies are nothing special and have been around for a while. For example, in Half Life, which was released in 1998, if you heard something that sounded like someone trying to hack up a furball while laughing at something really funny, you knew zombies were nearby. In F.E.A.R., if you heard voices distorted by radio static asking if anyone has seen anything, you knew you were about to get into a John Woo'esque firefight. In S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, if you heard someone yelling something nasty in Russian, you could rest assured that the someone in question would probably soon be lobbing bullets at your head.

However, when Dungeons of Daggorath was released, this was pretty cutting edge stuff. One should also note that in all of the above games, with the possible exception of F.E.A.R. , the sound effects marking the approach of bad guys are probably more a side effect of the games's physics engines rather than the result of conscious design decisions regarding gameplay. And Dungeons of Daggorath's almost exclusive use of sound to inform the player of the state of his character is something that just has to be experienced to fully appreciate its impact.

With all this being said, you may be wondering what, if anything, is wrong with the game.

I would be remiss not to mention the game's rather bizarre interface. Dungeons of Daggorath is a real-time game. However, its interface is that of a text adventure. While one can use abbreviations for all of the commands, the commands neither follow the standard used by text adventures since Colossal Cave Adventure nor are they intuitive.

For example, to see what you are carrying, you don't type “INVENTORY” but “EXAMINE”. Instead of typing “USE TORCH” or “LIGHT TORCH” to light your torch, you must type “PULL LEFT [or RIGHT] TORCH” (or “P L T” for short), to first pull your torch out of your backpack and hold it in your left hand, and then “USE LEFT” (or “U L”), to light it. To attack a monster, instead of typing “ATTACK SPIDER [or whatever monster deserves killing]”, you would type “ATTACK RIGHT” (or “A R”), assuming you're holding a weapon in your right hand (if you were holding a weapon in your left hand, you would type “ATTACK LEFT” or “A L”).

Speaking of torches, if you light a torch, it's suddenly “consumed” so if you were holding a torch in your left hand, you would find your left hand curiously empty after you've lit the torch. I guess the game assumes you're wearing one of these

except instead of an electric torch, you're wearing an honest to God flaming torch on your head.

Personally, this seems a little dangerous, but if you're crawling through underground caverns populated by stone giants and smiling blobs, I guess this is small potatoes.

A stone giant – or judging by the way it's leaning over, a stoned giant

Run away! It's a smiling blob! Don't let its boyish grin fool you, this thing is a killer!

The sound, while innovative for its time, may seem rather quaint to modern ears, especially considering how the sound of a monster being vanquished sounds more like an enemy tank getting blown up in Atari's Battlezone rather than any sort of blood curdling scream that one would expect of a monster giving up the ghost.

Now, for the $64,000 question. How can one play Dungeons of Daggorath nowadays, assuming one doesn't have access to a Tandy Color Computer and a Dungeons of Daggorath cartridge?

A good place to start is this web-site which states (correctly IMHO) that the easiest and fastest way to get started playing Dungeons of Daggorath is by using the Return of Coco emulator. I've tested it out and it runs fine in 64-bit Windows and on a 32-bit Linux system using Wine. The only downside is that you can't save your games due to the unfinished state of the emulator. So, unless you're willing to set aside a weekend and spend that weekend popping NoDoz, you probably won't be able to play the game to completion. However, if you just want to sample the gameplay about which I've been gushing, it's a viable option.

By the way, if you choose to use the Return of Coco emulator, you will probably want to go to the View menu and enable either the No Artifacts or Perfect Artifacts settings since the game as viewed in the default Simple Artifacts setting may induce nausea. Personally, I prefer the No Artifacts setting since the result is a cleaner display which reminds me of the monochrome monitor on my old Apple II+.

If you wish to get serious and attempt to play the game to completion, there is only one option as far as I have been able to determine: The MESS emulator.

MESS, as described in this web-site, is a mess to set-up. The instructions provided here for installing MESS and Dungeons of Daggorath are also woefully out of date. However, once it is set up, the Windows version runs Dungeons of Daggorath flawlessly (I had some stability issues with the Linux version of MESS). Whether you choose to install MESS will depend on whether you believe that Paris (or Dungeons of Daggorath in this case) vaut bien un MESS.

Setting up MESS and Dungeons of Daggorath goes as follows:
  1. Download the most recent version of MESS
  2. Download the ROMS for MESS at
  3. Install MESS. If you're running on Windows, installation is as simple as unzipping what you downloaded in step 1. If you're running on Linux, installation can be a bit more involved and you would be well served by reading the section in the MESS manual on installing MESS
  4. Unzip the ROMS in the same folder where you installed MESS in the following subfolder: roms/coco2/
  5. You can run Dungeons of Daggorath from a command line interface by typing: mess coco2 -cart roms/coco2/DUNGEONS.ROM
To save the game using MESS, you must:
  1. Hit SCROLL LOCK, P and then TAB to pause the game and get into MESS's internal UI
  2. Go into File Manager and select Cassette, select the folder where you want your game to be saved and then go to [create] and enter the name of your save game file in New Image Name
  3. Go into Tape Control and select Record
  4. Return to Dungeons of Daggorath and type ZSAVE”[save file name]”. Note that you must enter the double quotes although they won't show up on the screen of the emulated CoCo when you type them
  5. Once Dungeons of Daggorath is done saving the game, go back into MESS's internal UI using the instructions in step 1 and go into Tape Control and select Stop
Pretty easy, right? If you're interested, MESS saves your save game file as a .wav file so you can play it on a media player if you're curious about what people in the 70's and 80's heard when they played their program tapes in their audio cassette players.

Loading a saved game involves the following steps:
  1. In Dungeons of Daggorath, type ZLOAD”[save file name]”
  2. Go into MESS's internal UI, go into Tape Control, select Rewind and then Play
  3. Return to Dungeons of Daggorath and wait until the saved game is loaded
  4. Once the game is loaded, return to MESS's internal UI, go into Tape Control and select Stop
Anyone who is interested in playing Dungeons of Daggorath would be well served by first reading the manual, which is available at and here.

Given its rather idiosyncratic interface, this is definitely a game where RTFM applies.

Happy dungeon-crawling!


  1. I have a coco. Is it possible to record the game as a WAV sound and post it somewhere for download? My coco is currently connected to my laptop and I like to run programs from there.

  2. Dungeons of Daggorath was released as a ROM cart and not a cassette tape so converting it to a WAV file is not straightforward. However, it may be possible since someone converted it to a .dsk file to run on the Return of CoCo emulator.