Dungeon Master is a seminal game, no doubt. As the first real-time 3D game, its influence can be seen in countless later games, particularly the Eye of the Beholder series and Ultima Underworld. It shepherds in a new era of gaming, and in the minds of many players, I'm sure that turn-based 3D games like Wizardry and Might & Magic were suddenly lacking.
I can't quite jump on that bandwagon. While I admire the technical innovations of Dungeon Master, I can't honestly say that I enjoyed it more than turn-based CRPGs. The constant frantic clicking got old after a while. ("Many games suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome today," jokes Barton [p. 236], "May have Dungeon Master to blame!")
As I was finishing the game and thinking about the fusion of Order and Chaos into Balance, I began to wonder if the creators of Dungeon Master weren't influenced by L. E. Modesitt's Saga of Recluce series, which features many of the same themes. It turns out that Modesitt's first Recluce book post-dates Dungeon Master by about four years, so I guess not, unless Modesitt was an avid Dungeon Master player. Or is there a third original source? Or is it just a very obvious theme?
With that question lingering, we move on to the GIMLET score.
1. Game world. Reasonably interesting. The manual features a long, novel-like exposition, written by author Nancy Holder (who would later go on to write a bunch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer novelizations). The story sort-of sits in the background, though, with no further overt references until the end of the game, when you encounter Lord Chaos. There's something of a twist ending in that the originator of your quest, Librasius, is himself as evil as Chaos. The order/chaos dichotomy is not one we've seen in a CRPG so far. I'd give the story more points if the game included it better during the gameplay itself. As it is, I'll go with a final score of 6.
2. Character creation and development. Character creation is definitely original, although I'm not sure that this is in a good way. The game really doesn't gain anything by having you select your characters from a "Hall of Heroes" instead of just creating them, and I'm not sure what purpose the developers thought they were serving. Character development, on the other hand (described in this posting), is very satisfying, using a skill use-based system that we won't see again until The Elder Scrolls. Since the best strategy is to develop all of your characters in all of the possible classes, there isn't much of an opportunity to role-play them, and in any event the choice of classes and sexes has no effect on the subsequent game. Final score: 7.
3. NPC interaction. There are no NPCs in the game. This is the game's most disappointing non-feature. Final score: 0.
4. Encounters & foes. I counted something like 25 monsters in the game, and many of them are original to Dungeon Master. Each has a different variety of attacks, defenses, and weaknesses, and figuring these out was part of the strategy. Frustratingly, though, the game doesn't tell you anything about the creatures--not even their names. There is some basic AI: most enemies flee when their hit points dip, and they move out of the way of closing doors (although they can't open doors themselves). Most of the encounters are random, and some enemies do respawn, giving you plenty of opportunity to build up your skills. Final score: 7.
5. Magic and combat. Although the constant flurry of clicks wore me down, I give a lot of credit to the landmark real-time combat system that the game uses. Combat is very tactical, with numerous weapon and magic options, and attack functions that increase with your skills. The magic system is one of the most original encountered, with a combination of runes and mana, and a spell list that only slowly reveals itself. The way you use the game's many spells has a significant impact on the overall experience. Aside from the annoyance of picking up missile weapons one-by-one after each combat, I can hardly think of anything negative to say about it. Final score: 8.
Fun fact: if you cast "see through walls" at the door on the first level, you see Lord Librasius (Order) standing outside.
6. Equipment. My biggest frustration with the game, right up to the end, was a lack of any way to evaluate the equipment. You find a host of magic rings, crowns, and amulets with no clue as to what they do; weapons that give you no indication of their damage; and armor that offers no information about its relative level of protection. It's all trial, error, and guesswork. Perhaps this was supposed to add to the fun, but I found it maddening. Aside from that, there is quite a variety to the equipment you can find and use, particularly the magic items. A little description would have given a high final score, but as it is: Final score: 3.
7. Economy. This pissed me off a bit. The game is rife with jewels, gems, and coins, and I dutifully picked them up and kept them, assuming there would be a place that I could use them later on. Aside from one small vault, there was no reason to hold on to any of these valuables. And there's nowhere else in the game to buy or sell anything. Final score: 1.
8. Quests. The game has one reasonably-compelling main quest, and all of the gameplay is bent on it. There are no side quests, and the main quest--aside from the bad "alternate ending"-- really has only one choice, with no roleplaying opportunities. Final score: 3.
9. Graphics, sound, inputs. All of them are quite good. I wish there had been more keyboard commands and less reliance on the mouse, but this game is notable as the first one to actually use the mouse. As you've seen, graphics and sound, while nowhere near the quality of modern game A/V, are certainly good enough to enjoy the game. The final cutscene is well-animated, the Wilhelm scream that your characters emit upon death is particularly memorable, and I like how you can hear monsters moving in adjacent hallways and creeping up behind you. Final score: 6.
10. Gameplay. This is always tough to assess in a dungeon crawler. Like any of them, the gameplay is almost entirely linear, and it delivers the exact same experience on gameplay. In terms of difficulty and pacing, I think it was a tad too difficult and a tad too long, but only a tad. I won't be eager to replay it, but I'm not sorry I played it once. Final score: 6.
Total ranking: 47. This has it beating Beyond Zork but not Might & Magic, Ultima IV, or Starflight, all of which I agree I enjoyed more. I admire Dungeon Master for its innovations, but despite them I don't think it's a "great" game.
Finishing this game took me damned near a month, although it was an extremely busy month, work-wise. I'm really going to have to hustle if I want to complete 50 games by the end of my blog's first year.