The scratching noise of unseen talons skittering on stone bricks echoes to you. The acrid odor of mildew and rot curls its evil way up your nose. Down here in the depths of the dungeon there’s only you, your party, your meager supplies, and all manner of unseen terrors waiting to strike from the shadows. This is the Dungeon Crawl, and it’s a pervasive genre with numerous releases for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. In this article we’ll cover Eldritch Outhouses, Fantasy-scape Cities, Hidden Temples, and Crafty Castles. Though this could technically count as a Western-styled RPG list, there are enough Japanese-developed games in the same style to separate that distinction.
Eye of the Beholder is a classic. Originally developed by Westwood, it was ported to the SNES by Capcom. One of the few games capable of interaction with the SNES Mouse, it’s a standard first person dungeon crawler based on the 2nd edition rules of Dungeons and Dragons. The story itself is simple—a group of four adventurers are sent into the sewers of Waterdeep in pursuit of an ancient evil that slumbers beneath the ground. Upon entering, they are caught in a cave-in. Time is ticking—with only limited supplies, the adventurers must descend to the depths and fight their way out.
Despite its simple premise, EotB is tons of fun. There are multiple classes and races you can pick for your characters, though an astute player will usually ensure he brings a rogue, a healer-type, and a mage. (Perhaps even a gnome if they want to read the runes decked on the walls.) The battle and movement system is complex. One is advised to have copious amounts of graphing paper on-hand before they begin, as there is no auto-map function. The game is also a bit of a Guide Dang It, as there is no in-game tutorial, and despite the basic fantasy dressing, DnD 2e is a difficult beast to contend with even in digital format. Attacking is done by right-clicking the weapons in the boxes; even right-clicking spells with the SNES mouse is required to send them jetting into the distance.
Play, or Stay Away: Play! EotB set the standard for first person dungeon crawls when it released and this port has a slight graphical and musical upgrade in comparison to the original. (At least according to this reviewer’s memory.) There is tons of fun to be had exploring the Sewers of Waterdeep, and understanding the system’s origin will help you understand some of the games it inspired, such as the Legends of Grimrock series.
Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra
Hoo boy, where to begin here? Might and Magic III is a first-person dungeon crawler. Much like EotB you roam around on a grid in a fantasy world. The mechanics in the game are complex, the lore is thick, and the UI is nigh-on incomprehensible without a manual. After playing through and exploring much of the starting city, I found myself attacking a door by accident which summoned a Mooserat, which quickly sent my entire party to its doom.
Then I spent some time analyzing the manual. The game begins in Fountainhead, a mystical city enslaved by the Rat Overlord. There is a plot involving planes of existence, islands, and an ongoing pursuit of a bad guy, but as I’m more of an outsider to the series and this was my first go I’m missing some of the finer details.
The game is gorgeous. Battles are turn-based as opposed to EotB’s real-time combat. There are also not rows, so all combatants have a chance to attack the foes equally. The manual has a list of over seventy-two spells. Darkened dungeons must be lit with the Light spell; having wandered into a forbidden temple and found it pitch-black, I found a skeleton at its center after using said spell. He proceeded to greet me coldly, summon a friend, and send my party to hell. Game over two. So it’s difficult, to be sure.
MM3 is gorgeous, though. Creatures are fully-animated. Backgrounds are pretty, with your starting area looking like a crystalline water shrine. The auto-map feature comes in handy. It’s also designed for the SNES mouse function.
Play, or Stay Away: If you’re looking for a meaty, weighty dungeon crawl with non-standard story or enemies, do Play. There’s enough depth and complexity to make it well worth the many hours it will ultimately take the player to proceed.
Different than many of your standard first-person dungeon crawls, Arcana is a strange beast. You play as a boy named Rooks, the last Card Master, in an episodic adventure format. He can summon elemental spirits and use elemental card attacks in battle while skulking through various temples and dungeons. Unlike the previous games on the list, Arcana is a character-driven story; unlike most Western RPGs where one steps into a role and the NPCs address the player, the character of Rooks is the protagonist, and the NPCs communicate with him. As Rooks is a Card Master the whole game plays with the aesthetic: within dungeons, cutscenes, and more, most everything is a Card of one sort or another.
Battles are turn-based, and as with most typical RPGs, Rooks starts out with a pocketful of change and not much else. Careful treks to the dungeons and back to the nearest village allow your characters to gain more gold and outfit themselves even further. Monsters are gorgeous and fully animated, although my one grip is as a Card game, why isn’t there an option to actually, I don’t know, trap the monsters?
Play, or Stay Away: Definitely play. Removing the imposing character creation option allows you to dive, almost instantaneously, into this dungeon crawler. Having an extra party member be a Summon Creature adds some extra pizzazz to what could have been a by the numbers fantasy quest.
Oh, Drakkhen. I’m not going to make fun of you, though that would be quite easy. I have many frustrating, painful, confusing memories of Drakkhen from my childhood that I had to reapproach as I played. Having learned my lesson from first-person crawls with M&M3, I sat and played through the in-game tutorial. Gone were my confused days of clicking the wrong button. I looked into stats and began to pick up parts of the scenery, equipping them as necessary. My characters started to survive this time as I explored the mythical quadri-elemental, bipolar realm of the Drakkhen. I started to have fun!
And then I smashed into a tombstone and a huge black-headed cat from Hades laser-blasted my party to pieces while incinerating my armor. I forgot to save. I also had forgotten about the random evil that lurks in the overworld.
There are a lot of upsides to Drakkhen. It takes advantage of the Mode-7 chip to ensure you are exploring an actual 3D world. It also has a fairly unique story. It’s first-person for all movement outside of dungeons, which is frequent. It has a day and night system which impacts the music and ecosystem in the overworld, for what little there is. And dungeons are genuinely puzzling.
Some downsides: fighting is done automatically, so it’s basically random rolls and sometimes your characters get caught on scenery as they wander around in frightened circles. The Map in-game tells you where you are but not where you’re pointed, which isn’t the worst. It is, however, a pain, especially since encounters on the overworld are frequent and can kill you if you’re not prepared.
Play, or Stay Away: I’m torn between Stay Away and Play. I have a lot of fond yet frustrating memories of this game. Yet I am more familiar with RPGs of its ilk and, if I had the time, I could happily see myself devoting many hours more to it. However, it’s definitely a dense nut to penetrate. I would say Play if you’re a hardcore RPG enthusiast.