A History of Dandy Dungeon
by Jack Palevich
People have been asking me for a history
of the Dandy Dungeon video game. Here's what I
Thesis of Terror
Dandy was originally written in the fall of 1982 as "Thesis of Terror", my MIT
bachelor's thesis. Dandy Dungeon was actually my back-up thesis
proposal. My thesis advisor laughed at my orignal thesis proposal, which was
to write an Atari 800 emulator for the MIT Lisp Machine. (He laughed at the
economic absurdity of using a $100,000 Lisp machine to emulate a $800 home
computer.) In retrospect it's too bad that he laughed -- it would have been
cool to have written one of the first personal computer emulators.
The original "Thesis of Terror" concept was a two-computer,
five-person game, consisting of four "adventure party" players sharing a
collaborative view of the game on an Atari 800
home computer, and a fifth player acting as dungeon master controlling the
action from a separate computer. In my mind the fifth player would act like
a paper-and-pencil game DM, moving the story along and triggering events like
attack-waves of monsters.
The two machines communicated using serial ports. However, time constraints
meant that the interactive dungeon master role was never implemented. The
dungeon-master's machine, a Hewlett-Packard Pascal Workstation,
was used solely as a file server, sending new maps to the Atari on demand.
The game engine was inspired by John Conway's Game of Life. Life is a cellular
automata. Each "turn" the game examines each cell of the grid that makes
up the playfield, and decides whether or not that cell should be "live" or
"dead". In Dandy this same basic mechanism is used, but
the rules are more complicated. For example the rule that provided monster
AI was: "if the cell has a monster, and there is an empty cell adjacent to the
monster in the direction of the closest player, erase the monster in the
current cell, and draw it in the empty cell."
This algorithm was easy to implement using the limited resources of the Atari
800. It took the same time to run no matter how many monsters were currently on
the map. It also had the desirable property that any dungeon that could be drawn
in the editor would run correctly and efficiently. The level designer did not
have to worry about "correct" placement of the monsters or generators to ensure
that the map would work.
The gameplay design of Thesis of Terror was influenced by the Tolkein "Hobbit"
and "Lord of the Rings" books and the fantasy pencil-and-paper game
Dungeons and Dragons. However, I have a confession to make: I have never
actually played D&D. My excuse was that I was living out of the USA from
'73 to '76, which was the height of D&D's popularity among my friends.
When I returned to the US, they were all tired of it, and didn't want to play.
I bought a set of the game manuals, and read thru them, but never had a chance
to actually play.
Later, at my college dorm (MIT's New House II), I saw some dorm-mates play
D&D campaigns in the lounge. But I was too busy playing and writing
computer games to play D&D for myself.
The original name of my game was "Thesis of Terror". There was no actual
terror involved, except perhaps for my own terror at having to write a thesis.
When I commercialized the game I changed the name to "Dandy", as a play on the
phonetic pronunciation of "D and D", which at the time was a generic term for
dungeon adventure role-playing games.
Video Game Inspirations
There were several video games that served as inspiration for Dandy.
contributed the idea of the smart bomb (potions)
- Several half-forgotten
maze-exploration arcade games contributed the idea of using keys to unlock
- Vector Pool was a game I wrote for the Exidy Sorcerer home computer. It
sold a total of 10 copies. :-) It had a randomized, grid-based level design,
where the ASCII character in each screen position affected what happened to
the "ball" that bounced around the screen.
Never Heard of Rogue
Contrary to what you might expect, Dandy was not influenced by any of the
Roguelike games, because I was unaware of Rogue at the time Dandy was designed.
I had of course played the famous text adventure games "Adventure" and "Zork",
but had not yet seen a rogue-like game.
You can tell that I hadn't had any experience with Rogue-likes because Dandy
has just one kind of monster, in three levels of strength. If I had played
Rogue I think I would have borrowed the idea of many different kinds of
monsters, as well as the idea of randomized dungeons.
Co-designer Joel Gluck
Thesis of Terror's gameplay was designed with help from Joel Gluck, who was a
freshman at MIT at the time. Gluck designed several of the levels in the game.
He also invented some of the common idioms of Dandy-style games. For example,
he designed the "funnel trap", where treasure was placed in such a way that the
players would run to the treasure, causing a wall of monsters placed just off
screen to activate and charge on the party.
Joel designed many other video games, both before and after helping me with
Dandy. He's a remarkably clever game designer, and his games deserve to be
I was lucky to be developing Dandy while living in a dorm. I was assured of
a steady stream of dorm-mates to help playtest my game.
Several changes were made to the gameplay as a result of playtesting:
- Early versions of the game allowed players to shoot each other, but this
was removed after testing showed that when the players discovered that they
could hurt each other, the game quickly degenerated into a chaotic free-for-all.
Dead players originally had to sit out the rest of the game. But testing
revealed that parties would start the game over when one member died,
so that the whole party could continue to play together. To keep the game
going, the revival heart was added.
After graduating from MIT in January of '83, I got a dream job working for
Atari in the Atari Research division. I was hired to help design an operating
system for the unreleased Atari Rainbow personal computer. Besides helping with
the OS, I also wrote device drivers for the GPU and audio chips that were being
developed for that computer.
While working at Atari, I continued developing the game. I cleaned up the code
during the period from February to May 1983. The major changes were:
- The name was switched from "Thesis of Terror" to Dandy.
- The dungeon-master's computer was removed, instead files were stored on
the Atari 800's floppy disk. The dungeon master's role was reduced to laying
out the maps and saving them to floppy disk.
- Another change was to remove the ability to return to higher levels of the
dungeon. This change was made after play-testing revealed that nobody ever
went up to previous levels, except by mistake. Removing this feature sped up
level changes, because the maze state no longer had to be written out to disk
before the next level was loaded. It also enabled the game to work on cassette
tape as well as on disk; on the tape version the cassette tape was stopped
between levels, and then started up again to load the next level.
Dandy vs. Gauntlet
Gauntlet is an Atari arcade game that looks a lot like a polished and expanded
version of Dandy dungeon. As far as I know, it was developed by Atari Coin-op
developers who had seen my game and decied to make their own version.
When Gauntlet was released, it caught me by surprise. By that time I had left
Atari and left the video game industry. I contacted Atari and took legal steps
to ensure that my rights to sell and further develop the original Dandy game
were protected. I also requested that my name appear in the Gauntlet credits
as the original game designer. Atari demurred on the later point, claiming
that it would be too expensive to update the ROMs.
I foolishly agreed with that. In retrospect I should have
insisted that I be credited on updated versions of the ROM (of which there
were probably several) and on sequels and ports (of which there were many).
As a consolation prize I did negotiate a full-sized Gauntlet arcade game, which
I kept and enjoyed for many years.
Stuck in a Rut
I've ported Dandy to a bunch of different environments over the years. I have
collected some of the implementations on github:
Dandy Dungeon Source Code
It's not that I'm obsessed with Dandy, it's just that it's easy for me to
dash off an implementation in a few days. Other people might implement "Pong"
or "Asteroids" for similar reasons.