Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Adventure of the Week: Dragon's Keep (1984)

One of the reasons I write these posts (in addition to enjoying most of these experiences) is that I learn so much while doing the research -- I thought I had a passing knowledge of most major adventure game publishers' libraries, but I completely missed the existence of Dragon's Keep, a 1984 "Junior Adventure for ages 7 & up" published by none other than Sierra On-Line.  It was programmed by Dave Scruton, and written by Mike and Rae Lynn MacChesney, with graphics by Al and Margaret Lowe (yep, Leisure Suit Larry creator Al Lowe -- he also did graphics for several Sierra Disney titles before becoming a designer in his own right.)

We're playing the Atari 400/800 version here; the game was also published for the Apple II and Commodore 64.  Emulation was a little bit tricky to get running -- I had to boot with BASIC disabled on an XL system and turn on artifacted colors, unusual for an Atari title though common on the Apple II.  At startup, the game prompts us to report back on the displayed color, as artifacted colors can vary, and as artifacting also varies among four different Atari 8-bit graphics chipsets, I have no idea if the colors in my screenshots here are even close to what was intended.

Dragon's Keep
does not appear to use any of Sierra's standard engines, and the graphics were created with Penguin Software's Graphics Magician tool.  It's not a parser-based game, but more of a choose-your-own-adventure title, which may explain why it's not well-known.

Feel free to check this one out before reading my playthrough notes, but this isn't a particularly challenging game so you won't really miss out on much if you skip ahead.  There isn't really much to spoil here, as the puzzles are simple and the map is straightforward, but I'll include the usual disclaimer that there will definitely be...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

Before the game proper begins, we're presented with a little interactive exercise that can be skipped if we've played before.  The onscreen instructions tell us to press the space bar to select the 1, 2, and 3 options to change the screen colors and See a surprise!, an option that plays some music and draws a moire pattern in the Atari computer's high-res mode.  I opted to skip the option for more practice at this point, but this odd interface design is important and kind of awkward even for junior computer users -- we don't type the number of the numbered option we want, we have to hit space bar to iterate through the options and then hit RETURN.

In the intro text we learn that some Animals are trapped in the house and in other places by the Magic Dragon.  Darn that Magic Dragon!  Sounds like we'll be doing a Putt-Putt to rescue the trapped animals.  The next screen reads, "You should let all of the animals go," which makes it sound like the player is somehow to blame, and then we learn that "You can't let an animal go if the Dragon is in the same picture as the animal."  Seems straightforward enough.

We can press the F key at any time to see a list of all the freed animals -- the target list is remarkably non-specific (in the classical sense) and classifies the animals simply as Dog, Bird, Fish, Bear, Rabbit, Turtle, Monkey, Cow, Puppy, Calf, Hen, Squirrel, Cat, Raccoon, Frog, and Pig.

We begin in front of the house, with three simple choices -- Go in the house, Climb the ladder, or Go around to the back yard.  My habit in these situations is to case the exterior before barging in, so I chose the third option.

The dragon always appears visually onscreen just as he does on the title screen, and he's here, harassing the fish in the pond in the backyard, so we can't let the fish go just yet -- we have to go to the downstairs hall or the field on the right instead.  (Because the same dragon image is used regardless of the player's perspective, the dragon seems to change its size rather dramatically at will -- later on, looking behind a trunk, he appears to be about the size of a wall socket, while outdoors he can be as big as a cow or several times the size of a train.)

Heading into the field, we find a bear sleeping here, tied up with a rope, so we have to untie it before we can wake the bear.  Actually, trying to wake the bear produces a bit of nannying -- That is not a good idea! Bears can hurt you.  Maybe you can help him without waking him.  Untying the rope instead allows us to earn some hyperbolic praise: The bear woke up and went to the zoo.  You are really good at this game.  So there are no death scenarios in this game, most likely.

From the field, we can go to the field with the tree or to the zoo, or back to the back yard. Climbing the tree, we discover a monkey, and as the dragon is not around we can simply Let the monkey go.  The text here might have been more carefully considered, as we learn that The monkey went down and ran away.  He was very happy.  Um.  Now we can Jump down or Be careful and climb down -- of course, we can really only climb carefully down, as if we try to jump, we get more ill-considered advice:

Let's keep making our way around the property and head to the barn to the right of the tree.  For the sake of maintaining interactivity, we have a new option to Eat an apple from the tree while we're here: MMMMMM! That tasted good. What do we do now?

At the barn, we can enter, return to the field, or dig a hole under the barn.  Digging produces a huge worm that was in his tunnel.  The light frightens him.  Put him back gently.  Apparently the worm is not one of the captive animals, though it's not clear how we can discern this beyond the fact he isn't on our official list.  Inside the barn is a cow, whom we can feed or let go -- well, we can't actually feed her, because There is not any food here.  Maybe the cow can find her own food.  It seems unlikely that this highly domesticated large mammal, totally dependent on human assistance to relieve her artificially-selected hyperactive milk production system, can actually thrive or survive in the wild, but our only real option is to let her go.  The cow says MOOOOO! Then she goes outside.  Keep going.  We can defy the author's voice for a moment by opting to Lie down and take a nap -- there's no time element here so it's just something to do.

The dragon is not actively guarding the animals, it seems; he just wanders randomly around the map whether there's a resident critter in any location or not.  We're free to make our way back to the field and visit the zoo... where we find... a calf in the bear's cage?  We'd better let the calf out -- which is encouraged as the bear could come back any time -- as we kick ourselves for assuming that a wild bear would just go to the zoo and get himself locked in a cage, without negotiating for travel privileges when he feels like it.  Four animals down, twelve to go!

From the zoo we can travel to to a river, which contains no animals about but leads to a mountain with a train at its base.  we can take the train to the train station and go out to the bus stop... where we find a puppy tied to the bus sign!  Fortunately He finds his owner immediately after we untie him, and doesn't go running wildly around amongst the speeding buses and trains, seeing as we've not made any effort to see if he's supervised.  One imagines the owner is not too pleased with our "help."

Having done our questionable deed for the day, we can now take the bus to the school, where we find ourselves in your classroom.  We can Ask the teacher for help, but The teacher does not know about dragons and can't help you.  It is now lunch time.  We can opt to take our lunch out of our desk, and lo and behold, there's a frog in there!  One wonders how the dragon is keeping all of these creatures under its thrall, and his own existence a secret, hiding them in such public places.  We can easily Save the frog -- The frog hops away.  You eat lunch and fall asleep.

Maybe the dragon has been hiding in plain sight; the teacher is obviously not paying much attention to anything, as when we finally wake up, You are looking at your desk and the only option is to Look to see if anyone is still here -- and of course, it's now an empty classroom, with one lone child sleeping at a desk after everyone else has packed up and gone home.  We can either go back to the bus stop or directly back to the house at this point, which is convenient, but I'll take the long way back, just to confirm that it's possible.

The dragon is no longer lurking about near the back yard pond, so we can let the fish go in the river.  Now it's time to enter the house and look for the remaining animals.  In the downstairs hall, we can look behind the trunk and the picture, or go upstairs.  There's nothing behind the trunk, but behind the picture is a caged bird.  We have no food to feed him, so that option is useless, but we can open the cage and let him go.  Only 8 animals left to rescue / find!

Going upstairs and then down the elevator, we are in a secret room with a pig.  Ah, that crafty dragon with his secret pig room!  We don't have an option to let the pig go, but we can Shout BOO!  and The pig grunts and runs out.  He must be afraid of the dragon.  Smart pig.  Apparently dragons go BOO!

Venturing further into the dark surrounding the secret room, we can travel upward through a hole where... we can Put the magic basket on the table???  This somehow reveals that we are in the front room of the house, and we can go back below by removing the basket again.  Anyway, here we can look behind a picture or a chair.

Behind the chair is a dog that's tied up.  He appears to be a cartoon dog, so we'll presume he's friendly, and that that the knife conveniently sitting nearby is only for purposes of cutting his rope (the game has no inventory system.)  Once we've done this, we can no longer look behind the picture in the room, as that option has vanished, so I hope there was nothing there we were meant to see.

The library to the right contains books, of course, and leads to the kitchen and another room to the right.  We can read a book which suggests that THE HEN IS AT THE TRAIN STATION.  Hmmmm.  The room to the right contains a computer -- underneath it is a turtle, probably one of those turtle graphics we heard so much about at the time.  We can turn the turtle around, which sends him walking slowly towards the door, and apparently counts as a rescue, though it seems like he's got a longer road to travel than most of his co-prisoners.

Nearby is an office, which suspiciously contains a magician's hat, inside of which is a rabbit we can free (we can also opt to Close our eyes briefly while looking at the hat, to no apparent end.)  We can also put the hat on after freeing the rabbit -- I'm not sure whether this was meant to sound sarcastic, but the response is: The hat falls over your eyes, it is way too big. Good job!! 

Four animals left!  The kitchen contains Nothing here!, right up front -- it's just a junction between the office, library and downstairs hall.  Back upstairs we go, to visit the playroom and the boy's bedroom (apparently the dragon has plans to kidnap a human at some point also.)  There's a cat in the boy's toy box, though the dragon showed up there in my playthrough so I couldn't free him until I left the room and came back.  The dragon appears to wander the map in a logical, connected fashion, though I couldn't really tell if his movement is random or programmed.

Now that the cat is freed, we can go from the boy's bedroom down a ladder or onto the roof, so let's see what's out there.  There's a squirrel on the roof, who doesn't look particularly captive, but we can Let the squirrel go anyway.  Now we'll go back inside and visit the playroom and the adjoining bathroom (rather an inconvenient location, though I don't imagine the dragon cares).  There's a raccoon hiding out in the playhouse, and he's easy enough to free as long as the dragon isn't putting in a random appearance.

We have only one animal left to rescue -- presumably the hen at the train station --  but we should check out the bathroom just for fun.  By coincidence, a sign on the bathroom ceiling reads, TAKE THE ELEVATOR FOR FUN!  So apparently the dragon was running some sort of porcine adult enterprise in his secret room, which suddenly makes some of the dialogue in Deliverance a lot more sensible.

Time to go back to the train station and see how we missed the hen on our first visit.  Ah, we have to choose from our limited options to Lie down and take a nap there -- I hadn't bothered to try that before -- and somehow, from wherever we're lying down, we can see the hen.  We can indulge in a round of Old MacDonald Had Some Issues by opting to Watch the hen lay eggs, though fortunately She won't do it because she is afraid of the dragon.  We just have to pick her up, and victory is ours!  The only problem I had is that the victory message blinks by so quickly that it took me two tries (after considerable replaying) to get a good screenshot -- it's kind of a ripoff for young early readers who have invested the time to finish the game if they can't read the entire message in time!

My experience with Dragon's Keep was entertaining for all the wrong reasons, but it's an interesting historical attempt at making adventure gaming more accessible for younger gamers, from a major publisher with a vested interest in growing that market.  And in some ways, the design of Dragon's Keep predates the likes of The Manhole -- there's not much challenge here, but there is some value in exploring the game's world.  And as there are victory conditions, there is an actual end to the game, something that other exploratory games for kids often lack.  I enjoyed taking a gander at it and seeing what it was all about.  Onward!


  1. Dragon's Keep does not appear to use any of Sierra's standard engines

    Au contraire, Sierra was just in the awkward intermediary stage between Mystery House text parser games and King's Quest SCI parser games; you can catch this engine in action in no less than four places, I think -- Troll's Tale, Mickey's Space Adventure, and Winnie the Pooh in the Hundred Acre Woods are all basically re-skins of this game. Possibly the simpler of the Dark Crystal games also. Most notable for the "I can't believe they assigned Al Lowe the valuable Disney account" factor, but they are solid enough for what they are -- multiple-choice illustrated treasure hunts for kids.

    1. Ah, thanks for the information, Rowan! I haven't played any of the other games in this series, and was guessing that the simple multiple-choice interface and the use of Penguin's graphics software instead of either Ken Williams' early tablet mechanism or something like SCI's vector-and-fill system implied a platform-specific code approach.

  2. This was my favorite computer game when I was in elementary school.

  3. This was my favorite computer game when I was in elementary school. I loved being able to explore inside and outside the house, and eventually I figured out how to rescue all the animals in just 19 moves. LOVED this game. My kids would probably think it strange, though!

    1. Glad this game provided good memories for you -- thanks for stopping by!