Review: Texas Instruments' "Tunnels of Doom" (1982)

Matt Barton's picture

Tracing the history of the modern computer role-playing game can take us to some interesting machines and even more interesting games. Tunnels of Doom, released in 1982 for Texas Instruments' TI-99/4A computer, is a very early attempt to adapt the conventions of table top D&D roleplaying games to the home computer. I was surprised to see how many of the game's features ended up in later games, especially SSI's popular Gold Box series. While the game is one of the less accessible titles for most modern gamers, it was one of the best-selling games for the TI-99/4A and is quite interesting from an historical perspective.

Tunnels of Doom is a "dual perspective" CRPG featuring 3D, first-person perspective while exploring dungeons, and a top-down, map-based perspective while engaged in combat. It's a setup that would be duplicated and refined in SSI's Gold Box games. It's an innovative setup, but the game suffers from a lackluster storyline, simplistic graphics, and awkward controls--facts that may account for this game's relative obscurity in the CRPG canon.

Story
There are two modules available with the game, and judging by the manual, my guess is that the developers planned to release more expansions. Unfortunately, the developer (Kevin Kenney) was laid off by Texas Instruments shortly after the game was released. The modules that made it in were "Pennies and Prizes" and "Quest for the King." The first of these is a very simple tutorial without any creatures--players have to find prizes sprinkled throughout the dungeon. The second is the stereotypical "rescue the king" quest with the added onus of having to find his magical orb of power. Like so many of the early CRPGs, spinning an engaging narrative was not the developer's strong suit.

Engine and Interface
I'll be honest, here. The complicated and awkward interface of this game makes it seem almost hopelessly dated in 2006. Part of the problem is the cumbersome nature of the TI-99/4A hardware itself, which had a proprietary keyboard-shortcut layout and no arrow keys. Although playing this game was easy enough on the original hardware, it's a bit tricky on an emulator. In any case, players will need to have the manual or at least a reference handy if they hope to get anywhere in the game. Of course, in 1982, developers were still struggling to find a "common language" for graphical interfaces, and gamers often discovered that they would have to learn a whole new set of conventions for every game--particularly one as ambitious as Tunnels of Doom. Suffice it to say, learning how to play this game takes considerable time and patience.

Combat Mode: Two party members are trapped behind the gate and must use ranged weapons.Combat Mode: Two party members are trapped behind the gate and must use ranged weapons.On the plus side, the complicated controls do allow for more precise direction of the characters than in many such games. This is support for up to four players and three classes (fighter, wizard, rogue), inventory management, ranged weapons, magic scrolls, and thieving abilities. Some of the more interesting abilities include listening at a door for sounds of monsters and negotiating with them during combat. The party will also find vaults secured by combination locks. These locks must be opened by the party's thief, who ends up playing a game of high-low to guess the right number. The party can also find useful items lying about and plenty of gold, which can be traded for items in the general store. Fountains and statues produce random effects. Another big help is the automapping feature, which eliminates the need for graph paper.

The combat scenes are quite interesting. They are turn-based and allow for a significant amount of strategy. How you move and attack with your characters is important, of course, but it's also critical to think a few moves ahead--much like chess. There is no way to attack diagonally, but the ability to use use ranged weapons ensures that the characters bringing up the rear will still get a chance to help quash baddies. In a few hours of play, I encountered wolves, oozes, and spiders, though apparently there are much more powerful creatures deeper in the dungeon. Some of them can even use magic! In short, it's a logical and fairly realistic combat system that is definitely one of the game's finest features.

Dungeon Exploration Mode: The bright colors don't make for a very frightening dungeon!Dungeon Exploration Mode: The bright colors don't make for a very frightening dungeon!Graphics and Sound
Graphically speaking, the most impressive feat is the 3D, first-person perspective displayed while the party is exploring dungeons. Though obviously simplistic by today's standards, it was a major step up from the wire-frame style of earlier games like Dungeons of Daggorath or the first Wizardry. However, the bright color scheme seems to contrast sharply with what we might expect from a dungeon--they are nothing like the dark, dank corridors of so many fantasy stories. The combat scenes are abstract and symbolic, but effective. Sound-wise, there are several entertaining ditties sprinkled throughout the game, especially during the colorful intro screen and while ascending and descending stairs.

Concluding Thoughts
Not all "retro" games are as playable today as Space Invaders or even 3D Monster Maze. Games like Tunnels of Doom have a much more significant learning curve, and it's not very clear why a modern gamer would wish to put up with such cumbersome control schemes just to hack some "ooze" to death. In most cases, the retrogames that have aged most gracefully are those that are easily-grasped, yet continue to offer new challenges. For every Sword of Fargoal there are dozens (if not hundreds!) of utterly forgettable titles. Nevertheless, it's important to recognize where modern gems like Baldur's Gate can trace their ancestry, and an innovative game deserves merit whether or not it's still fun to play. A game historian, particularly one interested in the roots of the CRPG, should see what Tunnels of Doom has to offer. In much the same way that watching old and "naive" films give us some insights into the history of the cinema, playing this game offers players a much richer understanding of the genre. After all, seeing what some developers "did wrong" is often just as enlightening as understanding what the best games did right--it's the flaws in these games that really illustrate our gaming heritage.

Links
Tunnels of Doom Tribute Page: Fan site with lots of info about the game and an interview with the developer.
Tunnels of Doom Reboot: A modern remake of the game in Java (still in development).

Comments

Bill Loguidice
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Tunnels of Doom and Obscurity

One of the nice things about Tunnels of Doom was that there were a plethora of amateur, semi-pro and pro-level expansion packs released for the core game. Of course this wouldn't have been possible without third party level editors/game creators, but as with the modern version of Neverwinter Nights for the PC, it was the community that made the game as much as the original author(s).

The game is "obscure" to the outside world much like the TI-99/4A platform (hell, most people weren't even aware there was a TI-99/4 prior to that!), but like other games on the platform, such as Alpiner and Parsec, much beloved by those who actually had one of the computers. It's a shame TI was never able to release to TI-99/8, which would have been a tremendous 8-bit computer along the lines of the TRS-80 CoCo 3, as that would have given the platform 64K to work with rather than the oft-used stock 16K. Obviously the ColecoVision and Adam have very similar graphics capabilities to the TI, and the advantage of the extra memory was clear when games were written to take advantage of the Adam, which featured considerably more memory over the stock ColecoVision. Of course what would have been the upgraded TI graphics chip in the TI-99/8 appeared in the little-known Tomy Tutor, which itself suffered from having only 16K of RAM, again limiting the potential of the visuals.

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)
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Matt Barton
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Expansions

Now that is interesting, Bill. After reading the game's manual, I assumed that the game came with some sort of level editor to let users create their own dungeons, but I noticed that it wasn't released until 1983 by some company named Asgard Software. Apparently the editor was written by a Chicago police officer named John Behnke, and other folks made tidy profits selling their levels at TI-99 conventions.

I was able to dig up a little more info about the game here. With randomly generated dungeons, you'd get some great replay value out of it (somewhat like Rogue or Sword of Fargoal).

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Bill Loguidice
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Interesting site. It's my

Interesting site. It's my understanding that the expansions that were released by fans ranged from the simple to the complex, going as far as re-doing all the sprites. I of course have the game cartridge and module tapes and disks. I'm not sure if I have any of the extra expansions, though I bet I do as I have a ton of disks and tapes that I have to go through still. Of course, typical me to be sitting on such a wonderful potential game and not getting a chance to explore it. Hopefully, if all goes well, my free time will actually free up in the next couple of months, if you know what I mean. I have many plans for that time that is otherwise occupied.

I know Buck was a huge contemporary fan of the game. Too bad he's not still around to share some thoughts with us on it.

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)
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Matt Barton
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Sad Indeed! Please, let's have some more comments!

Yes, it is quite sad. I really appreciate it when you folks offer comments and draw us into great discussions about these old retro games. I hope that the folks who have been posting comments will continue to do so, and other folks who haven't jumped in yet will get involved! Remember: Only YOU can make this a great site. We can't do it alone. Bill, Mark, and I do our best to offer you top-quality retrogaming material as frequently as possible, but if no one is there to urge us on, what's the point?

C'mon, folks. Quit taking us for granted and help us make this site better by offering us your own thoughts, anecdotes, questions, and comments! Believe it or not, even a simple "Great article!" comment can boost our egos and let us know that you folks appreciate all the hard work we're putting into this site.

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Sprickett
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Walk down memory lane

I cut my gaming teeth on this game, although I didn't get to play in nearly as much as I wanted to. My cousin bought it with his TI when they were selling the machines for $99. I have great memories of my limited time with it, and it was probably single handedly responsible for making me think about gaming 24/7 when I was younger.

Ben Yates
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Joined: 12/09/2006
To the reviewer: IIRC,

To the reviewer:
IIRC, Fctn-7 for Help (this was "Aid" on a TI)

And, of course the higher levels of a dungeon are lighter! It gets darker the lower you go!
What I loved about the TOD game was the magic - the scrolls, wands, touchstones. Players had experience and luck that affected combat. See the "+"'s in the combat screen above? Two "+"'s is very lucky, a "-" is unlucky.

It had party order, trading between party members, up to 51 monsters, with two attacks available (regular and magic). I bought a couple of "Game Packs" for the TOD module that were very excellent. Including Doctor Who and K-Mart games... I even wrote a couple myself, using the TOD Editor by John Behnke.

I love the use of sprites for the ranged weapons, the excellent sound effects, and the well-done graphics. Nothing quite as beautiful as walking down a hall with hallways branching off as you approach a fountain in the distance!

And don't forget the "sub-quest". On each level, you must find a map (two exist on every floor) to descend a level. If you don't find a map and ascend a floor then come back down, the map function will only show the rooms you visited and the paths will disappear. Plus the quest objects themselves are usually "timed" to destruct. And they can be on different levels, although the "Quest for the King" put both on the same level, the bottom floor.

If you ever get down to floor 10, check out the dragons! Or the Wyverns...

Matt Barton
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Ben Yates wrote:If you ever
Ben Yates wrote:

If you ever get down to floor 10, check out the dragons! Or the Wyverns...

Wow, thanks for all the great info, Ben. That's what I love about this site--it puts me in touch with so many knowledgeable people who grew up with these games!

I'd read a bit about the ToD editor, but couldn't seem to find any of the modules (I guess we'd call them "Expansion Packs" today) that were actually sold for the game. I'd love to learn more about them, because it's obviously a very early example of the whole "expansion pack" phenomenon that we get in games like Neverwinter Nights, Baldur's Gate, and so on.

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adamantyr
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The replay value is what

The replay value is what really makes Tunnels of Doom shine. With 99'ers, when you mention "Doom games", they don't think of Doom, the PC game, they think of Tunnels of Doom. That's what kind of mark it made. In particular because it was the only CRPG on the TI for quite awhile.

Before you heavily criticize the graphics, though, remember that this was 1982. The TI was one of the few microcomputers of that era that could display all its potential colors on screen at once, and they seemed to like light backgrounds a lot. And yeah, the controls are obscure, but frankly, Ultima was worse. I remember trying to play Ultima II without the manual, and it got messy pretty quick.

I'm writing my own disk-based CRPG for the TI-99/4a, and posting up a series of articles on my progress with it. I also review a number of other TI games, and related CRPG's that I used for inspiration in the first part. You can read it at http://www.adamantyr.com/crpg

Bill Loguidice
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adamantyr wrote: I'm writing
adamantyr wrote:

I'm writing my own disk-based CRPG for the TI-99/4a, and posting up a series of articles on my progress with it. I also review a number of other TI games, and related CRPG's that I used for inspiration in the first part. You can read it at http://www.adamantyr.com/crpg

I enjoyed your reviews in part I a great deal. I wasn't aware of many of those games on the TI, despite having a very extensive TI collection.

Good luck with your TI RPG. Keep us informed of the progress. Certainly your targets for constituent gameplay fit in with my own ideas of what a classic-style RPG should be. I'll definitely be in line for a copy when you have it completed!

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Bill Loguidice, Managing Director
Armchair Arcade, Inc.
(A PC Magazine Top 100 Website)
======================================

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yakumo9275
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Joined: 12/26/2006
adamantyr wrote:I'm writing
adamantyr wrote:

I'm writing my own disk-based CRPG for the TI-99/4a, and posting up a series of articles on my progress with it. I also review a number of other TI games, and related CRPG's that I used for inspiration in the first part. You can read it at http://www.adamantyr.com/crpg

nice! I liked your first article, magic candle I is one of my top crpgs ever. (And that gates of delerium is.. is.. thats Ultima iii with less colour! omg! I never saw such a thing... I'm surprised they were never sued by Origin for that)

Since we are talking about TI/99's... I wrote bunyon, the Scott Adams interpreter that plays ti99 adventuer modules on anything you can compile it for. I also updated the compiler (scottcom) so you can write new adventures for the ti99 adventure module/cart.

(both available in the interactive fiction archive under scott adams).

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