The Gulf War. John Major. The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, Kurt Cobain, The abolition of apartheid in South Africa. Britpop. The introduction of GCSEs. OJ Simpson. My first snog. No prize whatsoever will be delivered to the reader who realises that all these earth-shaking events happened after the release of the first Dungeon Master way back in winter of 1986.
A decade, then, since the modern RPG was invented, delivering us from text-based evil with icon-led control, first-person views and a relative accessibility. As if preparing for times to come, or possibly to preserve the macrocosmic balance of the universe, Dungeon Master also shook out of its bag monsters animated in three frames, identical walls and (bleugh) statistics.
Now walk with us through the years. Our feet slog upon the puddly road. Dozens of games from Ishar to Doom swimm pass us like so many superimposed neon signs, cannibalising Dungeon Master's ideas for their own sinister visions as Dick Powell speaks as a voice-over. At length the road ends. We have reached 1995. FTL announce Dungeon Master 2 is ready. And it's - it's - IT'S...
It's Frontier but for RPGs. It differs from its predecessor not nearly enough. The biggest change in DM2 is that it won't run on anything except an A1200 with a hard drive, which is fine by me (after all I wouldn't criticise Sensible Soccer for not running with a joystick). What's more psyche-shatteringly unbelievable is how little it's improved in any other area.
Control, for example, is, well, fairly identical. Four characters, backpacks, arrows for movement icons for slamming the odious opponents with the implements of your heroic wrath (usually swords and clubs and stuff) - the norm for this kind of party-slog.
Conserved from the original Dungeon Master is the rune-based magic system, whereby mixing together magic glyphs and energising them leads to a variety of pyrotechnic effects. In practice most players will learn a fireball and a heal spell and leave it at that but, hey, it's warmly reassuring to have the option.
The graphics are still square-based single-step pseudo-3D, with the tiny addition of a 'half-step' between squares in the manner of Death Mask and Liberation. They've lost any any remote realistic edge they ever possessed, looking now more like preliminary sketches from that ridiculous dodgy Dungeons and Dragons cartoon in the mid-'80s. (Is it just me who abhorred that abomination of a programme? Yeah? Thought so.)
However, the monsters do have more than three animation frames, which is a marginal improvement. Except they all disappear in a cloude of smoke, which just looks ridiculous in the new gore-obsessed post-Mortal Kombat world. A Gloom-style wading-through-your-enemies'-entrails mode would have added to the atmos infinitely.
And sonically it's limited, with pretty poor samples for the monsters' movement and stuff, but, flying in the face of AP's collected wisdom. I proclaim the music to be bearable - full of slow sweeps of mediaevaly keyboards which change every time you enter a new section. Go figure, but kudos for that anyway.
As Dick Powell speaks
Cheerful additions to the game formula include slow reaction speeds and a bugger for your commands. The combination of these wonderful ideas leads to your brave group jumping down holes and running into walls and bushes completely out of your control as the machine idiotically plods through your increasingly frantic mouse clicks trying to catch up.
And banging into objects makes your party lose energy. You'd've thought that someone capable of mastering the arcane parts of magic would have the brains to avoid banging his head against a wall, but no. Oh no. The clots.
The characters. Yes. The fatal fault at the ageing heart of DM2, the characters have no character, existing solely as a handful of statistics and a pack mule for whatever you find. Now pull me up short if I'm wrong, but RPG characters are meant to be men and women of noble spirit who've chosen to risk everything they hold dear to their heart for a possible better future.
They're supposed to be HEROES - people for us to admire, show an interest in, become INVOLVED WITH. They're not, and here Dungeon Master 2 ad I bifurcate like an intelligent twig, supposed to be an eight-legged ass-kicking machine that you COULDN'T CARE LESS ABOUT.
At the start of the game, for instance, you have to awaken a party from a selection of odd-bods who have been frozen in a previous age. To help with his momentous, universe-defining decision you are given a glimpse at their stats. From the exact beginning, the programmers are making sure you know that you're not trying to help an imperilled alternate dimension, but are - hey, C-Monster! Look at these crazy numbers! - PLAYING A COMPUTER GAME.
Call me a dizzy loon, but how about being presented with a teasingly informative description of the warrior in question? Or even a story of their life in (hnngh) stereotypical Tolkienesque blurb? Or would any amount of original thought be too much effort? Sigh.
Another terminal flaw in the game is its confused identity, wallowing aimlessly between 'High' and 'Low' fantasy. Now before that Ed type bloke barges in (Get your hair cut. - Ed) 'Low Fantasy' is personified by gritty realism and flawed characters, and is found digitally in the superlative Legends of Valour and textually in Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant books.
'High Fantasy', meanwhile, is more romanticised: paragons of virtue striding through overblown scenarios and that. Books like Lord of the Rings are good examples, as the isometric sprawl of Legend. DM2 possesses the epic situations and heroic characters of the former, but immediately plunges the player into pouring rain and never-ending battles with insignificant creatures to earn food and find keys. The clash of the mundane and the melodramatic is like a strawberry and horseradish sandwich: unpalatable.
My slug-infested house
Gallingly, there are a selection of wheaty ideas cast among the chaff of laziness. Furniture and boulders can be moved around so your can decorate the interior of the dungeon to your heart's content, as well as allowing for genius puzzles involving a strength potion and some really monolithic rocks. The shops are pretty good too with a chirpily-animated shopkeeper in the best tradition of Mr Benn, though you end up having to move items around individually as in Liberation rather than buying via a sensible many system.
And there are a couple of interesting fights, such as the one where wolves maul you as you're stuck in an adhesive swamp, and the one with the ghosts who phase in and out of existence entertainingly. The magic maps which shows you your surrounding area at the price of a steady drain of magical vitality are quite clever. And I've found no mazes so far, which shows some grasp of game design. (The only point of a maze is to map it. Mapping is stiflingly tedious. Automapping solves this. With automapping there is no point in having mazes, therefore have no mazes. Good work, kids).
The monsters' intelligence has also been improved. While in most of the Dungeon Master clones monsters merely try to walk in a straight line towards you, DM2's protagonists will attempt to outflank you before worrying you with mighty incisors like so many big terriers. But you still can't chat with them, and this is what finally crushes the last humanity from the game, leaving it hollow and soulless in comparison with the sprightly and chaotic Liberation or Legends of Valour.
For a game to possess life we must empathize with the characters contained within, ad the best way to do this is by talking. (And in real life too, you Bosnian crazies - Ed.)
While I was reviewing this, Team 4.5 comrade and sibling Cheesecake visited my slug-infested house, his sparkingly new ("CD32" - Ed) held close to his youthful breast. Everyone in my house entered into the spirit of things and played ("Shadow Fighter" - Ed) all day. It was an intelligent, forward-looking game which had pinched any decent feature from previous beat-'em-ups and then added a couple of nifty ones of its own. And as I st there I just couldn't believe that ("Shadow Fighter" - Ed) and Dungeon Master 2 could exist in the same world. Then I realised they don't.
The programmers of DM2 appear to have spent the last seven years held in stasis and a big vat. While for the rest of time strolled on, they slumbered. They failed to experience the populist charm of Sonic, the brash genocide of Doom, the 3D dungeon-delving of Ultima Underworlds, Legends of Valour's immersive world or the futurist charm of Liberation.
Consequently, when they were revived last year they proceeded to make a straight sequel to the game which they believed they had only that moment finished. They succeeded, it's just that the wrld in which Dungeon Master 2 should have existed doesn't exist anymore. And neither should Dungeon Master 2.