Throwback Thursday: Dungeon Keeper series

My first experience with game developer Bullfrog was playing Populous II on my Super Nintendo. After solely experiencing shooters, 2-D platformers, RPGs, beat ’em ups, and racing in MODE 7, a game where I got to play god was thrilling. Later, as a burgeoning PC gamer, I would play Bullfrog’s Syndicate, commanding my small squad of cyborg assassins around isometric cityscapes to execute targets. It was exhilarating to have that kind of control within what felt like a living world. So when Bullfrog released Dungeon Keeper in 1997, it was a foregone conclusion that I would end up playing it.

Beware, the Lord of the Land approaches!

For its time, Dungeon Keeper was the most unique real-time strategy game around, offering a blend of meaningful city building with standard RTS conventions, like raising an army to annihilate the opponent. What was so engrossing, however, was the organic ecosystem the players created with their dungeons. For instance, if you needed to set a trap somewhere, it didn’t just instantaneously appear where you pointed or even get built there. Instead, it had to be dragged there by a worker. But before it could be dragged there, it had to be created. But before it could be created, there had to be the proper room to build it with the proper builder ready to work. But the builder also had his own needs, like food and sleep, so you had to make sure there were other rooms that would satisfy those. So even though you needed a trap as soon as possible, you first had to make sure that your dungeon took care of its supply chain, or else you might find your builders and other necessary workers wandering the dungeon, looking for ways to take care of themselves. It’s a simple concept, but executed so well that Dungeon Keeper is still a great source of nostalgia for the lucky few who got to play it during its heyday.

Like most real-time strategies, the overall concept of the game is to build a base – in this case, a dungeon – and overwhelm the opponent or successfully survive an attack. The game takes place completely underground, but your victories affect the condition of the overworld map, blighting the land as you progress through the levels. As the Dungeon Keeper, you command a work force of magical imps that will execute your orders, like excavating dirt blocks on which you can then construct hallways or various rooms. Each room serves different purposes in maintaining your supply chain. The Lair is where your minions sleep and recuperate health. The Hatchery is how your minions stay fed. The Library is where Warlocks research spells and other upgrades. And so on and so forth. The different kinds of rooms you build attract different minions through a dungeon portal, like the Workshop attracting Trolls and the Training Room attracting Salamanders. Since you have a relatively low population cap, it’s important to decide what minions to aim for and what minions to kick out.

At the heart of your dungeon is the, er, Dungeon Heart. If this falls, then you effectively failed the level. Conversely, destroying your enemy’s Dungeon Heart eliminates them from the map. And while there are enemy keepers sending the same types of minions you have against you, a persistent threat are the heroes of the land, comprised of dwarves, giants, wizards, and others. Herein lies much of the charm of Dungeon Keeper – you actually got to play the bad guy and had a good time doing it. Moreover, you weren’t just an unseen force controlling the world – you had a physical presence in the form of a disembodied evil-looking hand that doubled as your pointer. And if you needed to encourage your imps or minions to move faster, then all you had to do was slap them with your evil hand. Remember slapping your pet in Black & White? Both games were made by the same guy.

To thwart attackers, you reinforce your walls to prevent tunneling and build doors and traps in your hallways in case of a breach. When it’s time to fight, you can literally pick up your minions (who dangle from your on-screen hand) and drop them in front of attackers and watch them battle it out. If you want to participate, then you can cast spells that hurt the enemy or heal your minions, provided your Warlocks have researched the spells. One spell in particular lets you possess a minion and turn the game into an FPS of sorts, allowing you to experience the game through the eyes of your underling. This game really had it all! Typically, before the level is completed, you have to deal with the Lord of the Land, which is announced by the perfectly voice-casted Mentor played by Richard Ridings.

Dungeon Keeper wasn’t very difficult, but what it lacked in challenge, it made up for in style and character. And Richard Riding’s delivery of the Mentor announcing events was spot on. You certainly felt like you had a demon as your assistant. Whatever shortcomings Dungeon Keeper had, the richness of the game world was never lacking, and it truly felt like Bullfrog had caught lightning in a bottle.

You’re taking your time on this one Keeper. Scared?

Dungeon Keeper 2 was released in 1999, but I didn’t actually play it in earnest until 2001. In 1999, PC building still seemed like a daunting task that required more research and money than I was willing to invest. So my PC was just a 486 without a discrete graphics card, and Dungeon Keeper 2 was a fully 3-D game, exchanging most of the sprites from the first game for polygons. No matter how many settings I reduced, I couldn’t get the game to be anything more than a slideshow.

When I finally had a decent rig, I fell in love with the Dungeon Keeper series all over again. Dungeon Keeper 2 was basically Dungeon Keeper 1, but with refinements that brought the living ecosystem even more to life. For instance, you could no longer max out minion levels by leaving them in the Training Room. Instead, they could level up to 4, and then you would have to drop them into the new Combat Pit for real fights to the death. When they fell in battle, an imp would drag them back to their lair to recuperate. The sense of real-world simulation was so strong that defeating the enemy sometimes felt like an option rather than a requirement.

Some have criticized Dungeon Keeper 2 for not offering much in the way of new features over the previous title. However, more of the same was just fine by me, because the refinements were so meaningful. You now had different ways to torture captives. You could also build a casino that either fooled your minions out of their salaries, sending money back to your coffers, or let your minions actually win jackpots, which would trigger the song Disco Inferno to play and your minions to dance. The most impactful refinement, however, was Richard Ridings’ reprise as the Mentor. He had truly carved out a character and felt like an evil butler who was just as likely to mock and criticize you as he was to announce events. Moreover, the Mentor broke out of the game and into real life when he would make comments about your lack of activity or how late in the evening you were playing and tell you to go to bed.

Bullfrog did tack on a bit of plot surrounding the agenda of an overworld ruler that had devised a way to keep underworld minions from ever escaping the dark bowels of the world. As a dungeon keeper, you were tasked with finding Portal Gems that would unlock the path to the world above. When you finally destroyed the last guardians (in a cutscene), you watched as your most powerful minion squinted into the wall of light that led to the overworld, and I couldn’t wait to see what came next in Dungeon Keeper 3.

Welcome back, Keeper!

In 2000, Bullfrog announced that Dungeon Keeper 3 was canceled. Unfortunately, I missed that announcement and held out hope that I’d see the series continue. In 2014, it did, but not in any way that fans of the originals would find satisfying. Dungeon Keeper had been turned into a mobile game complete with a rap song by Dan Bull.

Developer Mythic did their best to walk the razor’s edge between creating a Clash of Clans clone and creating an homage to the original Dungeon Keeper series. The result was something that didn’t please anyone in the long run. When I saw this new incarnation of one of my favorite games, I naturally gave it a chance, and despite how much of a grind some of the actions were, like a taking a full day to dig out some dirt blocks, I tolerated it as part of mobile gaming.

As a mobile Dungeon Keeper emulating Clash of Clans, the game was vastly different from its namesake. Since your dungeon was only attacked when you were away from it, you couldn’t command minions to defend your base. Instead, your rooms defended themselves. At times, the game felt more like Dungeon Keeper Tower Defense. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed wasting time raiding other bases and building up my own. It wasn’t until I got to higher level dungeons that I lost my taste for the game.

Changes kept being made to the game that made it impossible to defend your base. Reinforced walls became extremely resource demanding, forcing all players to raid each other exclusively for Stone. But since everyone was pouring Stone into walls, no one had Stone. Matchmaking was also constantly being toyed with. One day I could find dungeons that were on par with mine, the next day I was facing dungeons that I never had a chance of defeating. Some players were now maintaining a “baby dungeon” that they never upgraded to prevent being matched against more powerful dungeons. This allowed them to score more stars during tournaments. I gave up playing shortly after.

It’s always a shame when fantastic IPs from yesteryear are turned into the cash grabs of today. In the case of the Dungeon Keeper series, this one was a heartbreaker.