And so we have it. My all-time favourite game. It's held onto the top spot for just under 20 years now, and weathered powerful attacks on its position from some of the other games in this list. Whenever I come back to it though I find it as compelling, fresh and addictive as ever. I've lost count of the number of times I've completed it yet I still relish every new start. It's a masterpiece of design, presentation and interface. It's smart and scary. It's amazing.
A friend of mine lent this to me - it must have been in early 1988 - along with some other games for the Atari ST. He didn't think much of it but thought I might like it. I watched my brother struggle with it for a bit, get killed by the first creature and dismiss it, but there was something there that fascinated me and I found myself loading it up whenever I could get onto the ST. Soon I was raving about it to my friend, who then gave it another shot and fell as much in love with it as I did.
I hadn't played anything like this before. A realtime environment, cunningly designed and filled with monsters, puzzles and riches. A freeform character levelling system and a seamless interface that had you interacting directly with the environment via the disembodied hand-cursor. That interface lent a strong sense of connection to the game along with the clean visuals, with every option no more that a couple of clicks away.
The magic system was rooted in a common-sense reality, made up of runes representing different forms, elements, alignments, etc. The specific spells were drip-fed to you as you progressed deeper, but a bit of savvy thinking and experimentation would unlock their power much sooner - if you had the resources to handle them. Characters progressed and became more proficient in the actions they practised. You could concentrate one characters' efforts towards destructive magic, another towards mélee combat, or have them Jack-of-all-trades. You could take one, two, three or four champions with you.
The design of the dungeon itself was a work of genius. After a fairly linear first half, the deeper levels opened up in all kinds of ways, and interconnected via a series of hidden stairways. The feeling of immersion in the place was absolute. I remember the first time I journeyed down to the deepest levels, and having the overwhelming sense that the entrance was a distant, unreachable memory. Each new descent brought a new creature or two to the roster, and a new challenge in dealing with them. The most ferocious and deadly of all reserved for the 14th, deepest level.
I remember level 12, keeping my starving party alive on stamina and health potions potions while battling against Chaos Knights. I remember jumping out of my chair on hearing a Magenta Worm attack me from the side. I remember the weird calm in the centre that is level 7, the epic battle against a room packed full of giant rats on level 9, which provided me with an almost endless supply of food. Most of all though I remember the final confrontation with Lord Chaos - a desperate, nerve-wracking test of dexterity that had my heart pounding as hard as any arcade game.
Dungeon Master lives on thanks to a couple of remake projects - the original games included in their entirety but with the capacity for total customization. The groundwork laid down by the interface has been put to amazing use by some talented individuals, keeping both the original game alive and expanding its potential. It's the kind of game that encourages that level of dedication and following, and I for one am grateful to be part of it.