SNES A Day 202: Dungeon Master

Approximate Release Month: June 1993
Genre: RPG
Developer: FTL Games
Publisher: JVC

PC-style dungeon crawlers like Dungeon Master aren’t common on the Super Nintendo.

This is the kind of RPG that necessitates dusting off some graph paper and making maps by hand. I spent several hours bumbling about and never found the exit to the first floor. Part of the reason for that was I didn’t pick up a torch early on, so I was Mr. Magooing it in the dark for a while. Not knowing what I was doing in Dungeon Master was common.

And it’s to the game’s credit that I didn’t find that frustrating. Like most games from 1993, there’s no in-game tutorial or guiding hand to help with the basics. That’s what the manual was for. The basic controls are intuitive enough that not knowing the little shortcuts and tricks you can do feels clunky rather than frustrating. For example, the d-pad controls the cursor on the screen. You can use the B button to interact with items in the first-person dungeon window, and you can move through the dungeon by pressing the arrow keys at the bottom right. That’s a kludgy system, but it works. Later, while playing, I discovered that the Select button toggles “MOVE MODE” so the d-pad and shoulder buttons directly control movement. I had several little revelations along those lines.

Dungeon Master starts in the Hall of Adventures. There are over 20 characters to choose from, and you can customize your party as you see fit. The party always adventures in a two-by-two formation, which you can see and adjust at the bottom right of the screen. Characters in the back can’t use melee attacks, so I always went with two fighters in the front and an archer and mage in the back. The mage was a bit of a waste since I never figured out how to use the magic system. They can throw ninja stars just fine, though.

The design of the dungeon is impressive. I wouldn’t describe this game as a looker, but it’s atmospheric. As I mentioned above, I did not have a torch at first, so everything was dark. There’s no music, but there are noises. Usually, it is just a water drip echoing through the halls, but sometimes there will be other noises that could be an enemy or a trap. Or it might be nothing. And because the game is in first-person and the movement is tile-based, the stereo sound can let you know where sounds are coming from. It’s very well done for a decades-old console game.

The biggest annoyance I had with Dungeon Master is how the game isn’t as responsive as it should be. I’m sure it was a feat for the developers to port a game of this size and scope to the SNES and its controller, but it doesn’t run very well. I had many button presses either not happen at all or be counted twice. It happens a lot, and I found it frustrating to take damage because my party decided to walk directly into a wall.

But still, this is an impressive game that took me a bit to enjoy. For patient players who want a complex dungeon crawler, with all that entails, Dungeon Master is an easy recommendation. For the rest, Arcana might be a more relaxed experience, but it’s not the same.

Next week: I spent so much time as a kid poring over the Where’s Waldo books. I’m curious as to how The Great Waldo Search adapts that experience.

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