Inchoate TI/99-4A nostalgic: Tunnels of Doom

So hey kids, you’re running out to buy a copy of Dragon Quest IX today, right? You’d danged well better be, because it’s the single best original RPG ever made for the DS, slightly edging out Etrian Odyssey and The World Ends With You — although I will admit that my appreciation for DQIX stems from the same love for free-form exploration and skill-building (in which story is largely incidental) that drives my Etrian fandom. Those who are into the whole RPG thing for a dramatic Final Fantasy-style epic tale should be warned that DQIX may leave them cold.

For my money, though, DQIX gets down more to the fundamentals of what RPGs are really about than the vast majority of efforts flowing from Japan these days. And from the west, now that I think about it. Which makes me frustrated, once again, that I pretty much missed out on all RPGs prior to Nintendo’s release of the original Dragon Warrior in 1989… through no fault or disinterest of my own.

My first real introduction to RPGs, so far as I can recall, came one night when I was about 7 and my family went to the next town over to have dinner with some friends of my parents. Their oldest son (who was maybe five years older than me) was sitting at his family’s TI/99-4A, moving slowly through a 3D maze and occasionally switching over to fight sketchily rendered monsters in a top-down view. It looked kind of amazing — much slower than the arcade games I was used to, but also richer in content. I watched for a few minutes before he had to shut down for supper.

I never did see that game again. Despite the proliferation of 99-4As in the Lubbock school system, that early ’80s Dungeons & Dragons panic that people joke about was alive and well in West Texas; on more than one occasion my church youth group was dragged next door to the auditorium at the local Christian college to hear a police detective lecture about the evils of D&D. It was hard enough to convince teachers that we totally needed games for the classroom’s TI, but a game clearly based on Satan’s own tabletop game? Fuhgeddaboutit. And the only computer my family had prior to around 1992 or so was a Coleco ADAM, which was sadly RPG-deficient. So I had to make do with Dragon Warrior. Ah, but what might have been.

Eventually I deduced that RPG I saw so fleetingly was Tunnels of Doom, another bit of techno-wizardry on the 99-4A: It somehow managed to create faux 3D Wizardry-style corridors on the system’s character-based display, which is sort of like serving up a Benihana feast using only a toaster. I don’t think I’d really have the stomach to play the original game these days, though, but I don’t have to: Some kind soul has been gracious enough to create a Java-based remake of Tunnels of Doom. Maybe this would be the perfect time to go back to the beginning and discover the RPG experience I might have enjoyed under different circumstances.

Just as soon as I complete all the post-game content from DQIX. And play through Etrian Odyssey III. And finally play Persona 3. And… hmmm. Come to think of it, maybe it’s best to leave that alternate timeline in a Schrödinger-approved quantum state.

EPILOGUE: Apparently that D&D-fearing detective ended up becoming mayor pro tem a few years ago. In someone’s mind, I’m sure that means the good guys won.

12 thoughts on “Inchoate TI/99-4A nostalgic: Tunnels of Doom

  1. I am of course still champing at the bit waiting for the 23rd’s release of DQ9, but if things are as you say, I’d probably give TWEWY the edge simply because it holds huge appeal for both the DQ system-ey fans and the FF drama-ey fans. It’s greatly enjoyable, regardless of how you approach it and which RPG itch you want it to scratch. Or at least covers more bases than most! Thankfully I, like many of us at TT, enjoy RPGs from a fair few angles and so expect to be enjoying DQ9 just as thoroughly.

  2. It IS pretty good so far. I’ve only just started though. I was kind of on the fence about picking it up, but the gobs and gobs of praise heaped onto it by Parish and others convinced me. So far it seems like I’m not going to be disappointed.

  3. Okay, I am still excited, but my first reaction to DQ9 is roughly: “AUUUGH! Ridiculous, unneeded, meaningless exposition is the bane of modern RPGs!” This should be handled by a page of text and two minutes of in game exposition, not making me wait for half an hour to actually play. Just sayin’.

  4. Someday when I have free time, I will totally do a Let’s Play of Tunnels of Doom. I played the hell out of the game when I was a kid, and still randomly go back to it every few years…

  5. Play Ultima 1 instead. No less an authority than Lord British’s hagiography(The Book of Ultima) claims Ultima was being ripped off left and right in Japan in the 80’s.

  6. I was a little scared about this one, since it seemed 90% of the coverage before it came out focused on the multiplayer, which is a feature I’m just not going to have the opportunity to put much time into.

    But I’m about 4 hours in and I’m glad to see that really, it’s a pretty much still a traditional single player Dragon Quest…granted one with more options for customization.

    I’m definitely hooked already.

  7. I totally remember the lecture about the evils of D and D back in my school. I really wish I would have kept the Ditto sheet that had “what to look out for” etc.

    Most of my early RPG playing came on an Apple IIe. Fortunately my parents didn’t care enough to worry about evil D & D or even check up on what I was playing. I spent a lot of time with various Licensed D&D games on the Apple II and later the PC. I had a lot of code wheels:)

  8. I thought I remember you singing Strange Journey’s praises at some point, so you’re saying DQ, EO and World Ends With You all outclass it?

    And uh, apologies for ignoring the rest of this interesting post only to respond with a dumb “you think X > Y???” comment.

  9. Tunnels of Doom was actually the first RPG I ever played. During summers I would go visit my younger cousin for months. He had a TI-99(?) and I remember we played this game endlessly. We each took turns controlling 2 characters (the max was 4 IIRC) but we were so damn young we never managed to figure out the vault puzzle to finish the game.

    Thanks, this post flooded my mind with some good memories. Now I might just dive into deluge of nostalgia and check out that Java conversion. Maybe I’ll finally be able to figure out that damn vault puzzle.

  10. Early RPGs could be so much more engrossing than their modern descendants, especially when they offered so little A/V input that your brain would inevitably fabricate a backstory as you went along. “Hmm, this cave certainly has a lot of dragons in it! Could this be the ancient dragon capital, sunk beneath the earth by the evil wizard at the end of the game as punishment for defying his awesome power?”

  11. I came across your post on a link from Penny Arcade today (07/14/2010) and couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the art from “Tunnels of Doom”. That was, hands down, my favorite game from my old TI-99/4A. I spent hours with that. I wasn’t aware of the Java remake; thanks for that link!

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