More than 10 million Apple IIs were sold during the computer’s lifetime, but even with such a large user base spread around the world, some Apple II software fell off the radar after its heyday and has yet to be rediscovered in our archive-minded 21st century. Many users’ floppy disk collections were forgotten, given away, left in the attic or thrown in the garbage.
Amongst the disappeared software until very recently was Dragon Fire, a 1981 dungeon maze RPG by Rodney Nelson. In my teens I had a buggy, pirated copy of this game which I played quite often. It was certainly addictive, but I never fully understood how it worked and I never did win it by finding and slaying the eponymous dragon. Cut to the early 2000s: While culling my Apple II floppy collection, and before I had learned how easy it is to clean a grubby 5.25 inch disk, I made the mistake of throwing my grubby copy of Dragon Fire in the bin. Almost a decade later when it next occurred to me that I wanted to play “that dungeon maze game” again, I didn’t have it and couldn’t find it elsewhere. Nor could anyone else, apparently. Discussion on Apple II forums revealed that people had been looking for a copy of Dragon Fire for a long time.
There are moments in life when the stars don’t line up to help you solve a problem like this. This was not one of those moments, probably because some frequenters of comp.sys.apple2 are capable of shoving the stars into place. The game was identified, located on eBay in its box with the instructions, purchased and cracked anew, all within the space of a few weeks from me posting a blundery forum message about it along the lines of: “There’s this maze game I remember playing. I’ll describe it and then you tell me if you’ve seen it…” For doing the purchasing and cracking of the game and the scanning of its materials, the Apple II community can again thank the ever vigilant Antoine Vignau.
My return to Dragon Fire after the period of the missing years was exciting and inevitably a bit nostalgic, but also surprising in some important ways. My memories of the game turned out not to have been rose-tinted; Dragon Fire is still an addictive and very replayable adventure today, thanks to good design and a generous bank of randomised dungeon content. It was novel in its day for having a stated agenda of trying to bring some of the more imaginative aspects of tabletop RPGs to computer gaming, rather than just the mathematical and die-rolling ones which computers are obviously good at. Given its simple gameplay and 1981 vintage, Dragon Fire couldn’t realistically move too far in that direction, but it certainly pointed in that direction. The 35 page manual explicitly encourages the player to try to think the thoughts of their character as they explore the dungeon, to consider its otherworldly atmosphere.
The goal of the game is to explore the 10 level dungeon which is the lair of the awful dragon Salmadon, kill the dragon, survive to tell the tale and bring back as much loot as possible. Your prime stats, randomly rolled at the start of a new game, are Strength and Constitution. The former determines your prowess in combat, the latter your hit points. Based on the scores assigned to you by fate, you can then choose from one of five characters to play. The Warrior and Huntress are strength oriented, the Wizard and Dwarf are constitution oriented, and the Elf is arguably the mop-up character to play if your die rolls don’t suit anyone else. You then take your randomly generated funds, purchase some weapons and armour, maybe even a horse if you’re particularly rich, and finally plunge into the bright, lo-res graphic splendour of Salmadon’s lair.
The levels of the dungeon are viewed from overhead and consist of screen-filling mazes of doors and corridors, with the stairs you entered by on the right side of the screen and the stairs down to the next level over on the left. Your character is represented by a white cursor which you can move around with the I, J, K and M keys. The twin threats to your existence are the monsters which lurk behind almost every door in the dungeon and the slow but steady drain on another of your character’s stats, your Life Points. You lose a point for every step you take, another one every time you dawdle, and potentially a whole lot if you ever have to brute force a door open. Random events also strike which can will easily wreck your game: a cave-in blocking your passage, poisonous gas coming out of the wall, wandering monsters forcing you into unwanted fights, etc.
The experience points you gain by killing monsters can be fed back into your Constitution and Life Points each time you reach the next staircase, thus the challenge of the game is to balance progression through the dungeon with requisite amounts of monster-bashing so that you can keep your stats popped up long enough to survive to reach the dragon.
Back when I was playing this as a teen with no access to the instructions, I could never understand why, after I got a few levels into the dungeon, that (a) all the monsters started to become significantly tougher at the same time that (b) I was being given fewer and fewer points to spend on my stats between each level. It seemed like a mathematical equation that was impossible to ever solve in my favour. I feel dumb admitting now that I simply didn’t realise that it was the killing of the monsters that earned you the points you got to spend. So as I had started avoiding tough-looking monsters, I was basically choking off my own supply of experience points. One thing I’ve learned in returning to Salmadon’s lair after all these years is that I’m plainly much more perceptive about game systems as an adult than I was as a teen.
The chance to bash another monster for experience points arrives every time you fling open a door in the dungeon. The display switches to the text screen where you are presented with a description of the new room, followed by a list of any treasure there and the stats of the resident monster. If you fight, the constitution scores of you and your foe are displayed in adjacent panels and you can choose to trade blows one at a time with sound effects or to confidently (or fool-hardily) commit to a faster, automated and silent fight to the death. On any of the game’s five skill levels, it’s pretty safe to duel a monster whose strength is equal to or less than yours. When the monster is stronger than you, you need to make a tactical call as to whether you can still win based on more specific stat comparisons. The margin for error in these predictions is slimmer the higher the difficulty you’re playing on. As with any good game, the more you play, the better you get at making the calls.
It is actually in the moment prior to battle though, the one in which the game describes your location in the style of a text adventure game, that Dragon Fire does the majority of its imaginative work. The pool of possible room descriptions is extremely large and you can hear the disk drive churning through all the data before it plucks one out. The qualities of the room that is ultimately chosen have no real effect on gameplay, but the fact of each room having a unique description is what differentiates Dragon Fire from all of its contemporaries and a great many games which came after. It tries to create the sensation that you are moving through a dungeon which is being generated and described to you by your DM (Dungeon Master) on-the-fly, but still with a significant degree of specificity. It doesn’t matter that you will soon be returned to the lo-res overhead view because the medium of text temporarily allows for the use of as much imagination as the game’s author can muster to describe the place you’ve found yourself in, rather than leaving the dungeon aesthetic up to the low budget of what the Apple II’s graphics can represent.
Unfortunately for Dragon Fire’s original intentions, by the time you’ve killed your first dragon you will probably have ridden out so many of the game’s lengthy automated battles that you will have ceased to read the room descriptions, which, after all, haven’t been affecting the gameplay. But by the time you’ve reached this point, those descriptions will have already succeeded in imbuing the experience of playing Dragon Fire with a good dose of that imaginative role-playing atmosphere that author Rodney Nelson talks up in the manual for the game.
Considering the amount of time I spent playing Dragon Fire in my youth, finding that I was able to beat it on the highest difficulty level within a few days of gaining access to this new crack was a little surprising. However it should be pointed out that there’s a difference between just completing the game and completing the game with a very high score. The latter is not too hard to do on Novice, but is very hard to do on a high difficulty level. Each saved game hogs (unnecessarily) a whole DOS 3.3 disk, and you will need to do some judicious saving to maximise your chances of survival, remembering that even the most experienced adventurer is subject to freak game-wrecking incidents like cave-ins. You will also need a lot of patience to ride out the longer battles deep in the game, at which point both you and your enemy might have hundreds or even thousands of constitution points to hew through. Playing the game on an emulator with toggleable speed definitely makes this aspect of combat more tolerable than it is on a real Apple II.
I really enjoyed returning to Dragon Fire after all this time. It is fundamentally a good game, not just something I remember as being good. To my 2011 eyes, its interface is certainly unforgiving (don’t typo on the level up screens – you might end up wasting your experience points) and the length of the deep-in-the-game battles is unwieldy, but otherwise, the game remains a very fine mix of maze exploration, RPG tactics and dangerous random surprises. The presence of the room descriptions is a dated feature, but one which shows how forward thinking this 1981 game was in its aim of bringing some of the more imaginative aspects of tabletop RPGing to a microcomputer. Dragon Fire is definitely not a game which feels like it hails from 1981.