The trouble with favourite games is that eventually they end, and you have to find something new to play. Not so with Dungeon Hack from Dreamforge Interntainment and SSI, an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition game from 1993 that could potentially last you forever.
Dungeon Hack is essentially a roguelike from a period of time when no-one except the most dedicated had ever heard the term “roguelike”. Classic roguelikes such as Moria, Angband and NetHack existed — and dungeon crawlers were a known quantity — but the fact the Internet hadn’t yet fully blossomed into the monster it is today meant that they weren’t particularly widespread. And thus the term “roguelike” was not particularly widely known.
But Dungeon Hack is absolutely a roguelike. You take control of a single character, you delve into a dungeon with the aim of retrieving a specific treasure at the bottom of it, said dungeon is randomly generated, there’s a whole lot of combat and you are just as likely to die of starvation as you are from monster-inflicted wounds.
The difference is that Dungeon Hack eschews the ASCII interface of the early roguelikes in favour of a 256-colour VGA interface heavily inspired by Westwood Studios’ work on the Eye of the Beholder series — some well-regarded dungeon crawlers with fixed maps — from two years earlier.
You navigate the dungeon from a first-person perspective, moving by “step” on a grid and turning by 90 degrees at a time. Monsters move in real-time, and combat involves making attacks and waiting for a short cooldown period before striking again. Objects can be picked up from the floor and equipped, placed in the inventory or thrown, and the player can interact directly with the game world by clicking in the first-person window — this is necessary to press buttons, pull levers, insert keys into locks and solve various other puzzles.
You have an automap — still a bit of a rarity at this point in dungeon crawler history, and very welcome in this game; you can even print it out if you so desire. Said automap shows the position of objects you’ve left behind as well as monsters, and each floor of the dungeon fits within a set area, so by looking for “blank” spaces on the map that you haven’t filled in yet, you can figure out where else you need to go, where the exit might be and whether or not there are any illusionary walls that you’ll have to deal with.
By far the best thing about Dungeon Hack, though, is its customisability. While you can just fire this game up and start with some predefined settings and characters, the most appealing aspect is taking control of your experience.
First of all you go through a full Advanced Dungeons & Dragons character creation process, which allows you to either go with randomised stats or those you assign yourself. You can choose one of a range of different classes — including dual-class and multi-class characters — along with race, gender and alignment. Then you can pick from a selection of spectacularly ugly faces to represent your hero — sadly there doesn’t appear to be an easy way to import your own — and prepare yourself for your adventure.
And that adventure can be fully customised, too. As well as three preset difficulty levels, there’s a full Custom option that allows you to adjust pretty much everything about the game mechanics. Dungeon depth can be set between 10 and 25 floors depending on how long you want your game to be — assuming you’re successful. Monster difficulty and population can be set. The likelihood you’ll run into traps, switches and locked doors can be chosen. Underwater levels can be turned on or off, as can magic-nullifying zones, illusionary walls and other potentially annoying features.
And, crucially, you can choose whether or not you play with the “Character Death Real” option, thereby turning Dungeon Hack into a true roguelike. Yes; play with this option enabled as God intended, and if you die in the dungeon, you die in real life. Sorry, I mean if you die in the dungeon, your save game gets wiped and you have to start all over again.
This is, of course, enormously frustrating when it happens, but also makes Dungeon Hack infinitely more tense and exciting, especially once you start making a bit of progress, acquiring some phat loot and levelling up a bit. But equally, if you just want to play the game a bit more like a conventional dungeon crawler of the period, you can do that too — this is a good way to get to know the game in its early hours.
Dungeon Hack drew some criticism when it was originally released for its relative lack of plot — the only narrative in the game comes in the form of a delightfully overacted “talkie” intro sequence, and an ending that you’re very unlikely to see for quite some time — but that’s primarily because, as noted above, no-one really knew what a roguelike was. Thus we have a rare example of a game that is probably a lot more palatable to a modern audience than it was when it was first released — and a highly enjoyable take on the roguelike genre with a pleasant D&D twist to it all.
Dungeon Hack is a lot of fun, and is very welcome as a game that you can dip in and out of between more substantial experiences. If you just fancy hacking and slashing your way through some monsters and getting lost in a labyrinthine dungeon, you can fire this up and be off on an adventure in a matter of moments.
But there’s enough substance and variety here to keep you coming back time after time — you may be able to beat a 10-level game with a maxed-out roid-raging fighter who is constantly tripping over vast piles of treasure, but how far can you make it as a mage with fully randomised stats in a 25-level dungeon, half of which is underwater?
For the dungeon crawling enthusiast, Dungeon Hack is an essential. And thankfully, you can easily nab a copy for yourself today thanks to the lovely people at GOG.com — click here to pick it up for yourself.