Retro: Dungeon Keeper

By Alec Meer on February 19th, 2008 at 9:58 pm.

One of your creatures is annoyed. Guess who.

Often mis-described as a management title, Bullfrog’s last game before collapsing into a mess of sequels (and eventual death) is much closer to real-time strategy. You build a base, harvest resources and train an army. The same old song. The difference is this is an RTS that fights against you, that actively resists your feeble attempts to control it. It’s like driving a car with three wheels, no suspension and a crazy shouting hobo in the passenger seat. It is entirely unwilling, and it’ll take any opportunity to steer itself onto the pavement and mow down a few dozen pedestrians. That is, of course, the charm of Dungeon Keeper.

You need a bigger Treasure Room.

For all its aggressive marketing about being evil, mustering the forces of darkness against the sickening purity of goodly mankind, really this was nothing more than Mad Magazine does Mordor. Instead, DK is about bitterness and discontent, about making the best of a bad hand. (There’s a gag in there, somewhere).

You can’t entirely control which monsters join your dungeon, so the army you field is the army you’re given. You can’t entirely control where your army goes – deposit your grumbling troops on battle frontlines, and there’s a strong chance they’ll just turn around and wander off home. You can’t entirely control what traps and doors your Bile Demons and Trolls build. You can’t entirely control whether your army trains itself up to level 10 or not, so the fighting-fit force you though you had ready turns out to be a cartel of puny, overfed nothings.

You can’t even entirely control your Imps, magical slaves that wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for your life-granting hand. Some twisted wiring in their tiny walnut brains means that even dropping them directly in front in the tunnel you want dug can’t stop them running halfway across the map to some more minor objective, and usually straight into the arms (and teeth, claws and fireballs) of the enemy.

Your creatures are falling in battle.

Most of all, you can’t control the Horned Reaper. My most recent return to Dungeon Keeper, a game I’ve gladly revisited in most years since its 1997 release, saw me constructing an entire secondary dungeon soley for this most fearsome of DK’s denizens. Unexpectedly seized by uncontrollable rage, keeping him in genpop meant certain death for the rest of my precious horde. But Horny is too powerful an asset to dispose of for the trifling matter of mass fratricide. And so I dilgently set aside a second fortress, just for him – a bed, food and a treasure room. His rage never dimmed – and no doubt was heightened by this lonely prison of luxury – but he was there when I needed him. The ultimate weapon to let loose upon intruders, regardless that’d he’d unthinkingly take his scythe to any of my other creatures that stumbled into the fray. Horny’s a nutter, but he’s my nutter.

All these unhelpful helpers, all these deliberate obstacles, make triumph in DK an enormously satisfying thing: you’ve rolled with its weird punches. More conventional strategy simply bombards you with impossible odds until sheer reflex and hotkey memorisation wins the day. There’s much less mechanical challenge to DK – it’s built upon a fairly simple set of rules, and never approaches the heights of frenetic attention-seeking of a Starcraft or Supreme Commander – but there is that sense of being a king stood masterfully atop a shifting sea of chaos. Your subjects hate you as much as the enemy hates you. No-one wants you to win but you. You go, you.

Your creatures are fighting amongst themselves.

So much of DK’s violence and economy, the staples of RTS, happens regardless of you. Somehow, this seems more involving than the usual rigmarole of go exactly there, build exactly here. In the middle of a towering inferno, you’re the guy rushing around with a tiny fire extinguisher. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Battles seem to be incomprehensible screaming carnage, but really they involve complex decision-making. Cast electro-zap spell here, pull wounded Troll out there, drop level 2 Warlock in there (and hope for the best), lock door here to keep helpless imps from straying into the crossfire… Dungeon Keeper is glorious panic, but, with its neatly-ordered underground lairs and single-minded purpose, is so much more focused than its spiritual sequel Black & White.

Much as I may adore it though, Dungeon Keeper just isn’t cool. There’s a nerdiness to its humour – it’s all silly-voiced high fantasy pastiche rather than having anything smart and subversive to say about this most-overused of gaming universes. That’s why it’s not thought of with anywhere near the same reverence as Bullfrog’s earlier strategy experiment, Syndicate.

DK didn’t hitch a ride on some timely cyberpunk bandwagon, it didn’t do much to offend even the most highly-strung parent and it certainly, for all its heavy-handed marketing campaign, didn’t much live up to its high concept of being the evil guy. PG-13 nods to S&M was as twisted as DK got. So, it’s easily considered a safe experiment for Bullfrog. Placing rooms and building armies – this was Bullfrog as Bullfrog does, notably one of their first games since being subsumed into EA’s cold-eyed mass, and their last to involve Peter Molyneux. Post-DK, Bullfrog’s path would be one of sequels and collapse.

This region of dreaming underlings is ruled by the beautiful Lady Catherine. She's kind, and fair, and doesn't imprison or torture her subjects...for some reason.

On the other hand, it was the last great roar of a giant, just before he had his legs chopped off. I think of it in the same breath as X-COM, which is doubtless enough to draw gasps of horror from some. It doesn’t come close to either the tightness or the fullness of Julian Gollop’s masterwork, but, to teenage me then and to adult me now, it seems its equal for sense of place. Silly but not too silly, characterful without quite submitting to stereotype, it felt like a fully-realised world in the same way that first X-COM did.

Dungeon Keeper’s a game I can always go back to, a place that’s totally familiar, and one of those games I can’t entirely unhook from base nostalgia. If I seem a little maudlin about it, that’s why – I can’t seem to find that one great, perfect argument to make for it, to identify some gosh-wow element, obvious or otherwise, to sell it to those who didn’t play or didn’t respect it. I can only write a silly little love letter to it.

[Should you wish to revisit it and are able to locate a copy, I can attest to Dungeon Keeper still functioning just fine in Windows Vista (though not the 64-bit version) with Win 2000 compatibility mode turned on, bar a mucky colour issue which is fixed by alt-tabbing out and then back in again.]

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62 Comments »

  1. The_B says:

    I still mourn for the loss of the DK 3 that never was. Only Evil Genius got anywhere near reigniting my love of masochism.

  2. Khab says:

    Does anyone know if this is playable on XP at all? I’ve still got my copy lying around somewhere… I got the urge from reading this. :)

  3. Thiefsie says:

    DK and Thief, my two probably mostest favouritist games of allest times. Ah…. the memories. Just the talking between missions keeps me so entertained.

    Just… Wonderful. The hybrid genre benchmark for a long time. Brilliant.

  4. Gendal says:

    In retrospect I guess it was kind of an RTS, an RTS in reverse. You didn’t go to them, they came to you, aka Base building for Better Homes & Gardens.

    That’s probably why I loved it so much, the whole construction and improvement angle where you built something rather than the mad scramble to generate units for a rush.

  5. Kell says:

    This is cute, a nostalgic letter to the Horny One :P
    I too have played Dungeon Keeper almost every year since first diving into it. Which is to say, for about a decade ( and I wasn’t a teenager when it was released ).
    I always play it in the winter, preferably by candlelight. Such delicious hand-crafted design and spooky stygian subterranean atmosphere.
    I think you overstate the level of panic in the experience. It’s only in the later levels that panic-play becomes unavoidable. Until then, I always followed the reliable tactic of hoarding warlocks until they finished their bookwork, then consigning them to prison to rise as skeletons. Instant army, of almost mechanically efficient soldiers.
    I’m a romantic necromantic.

  6. Butler` says:

    Original, exceptionally well designed and written – an absolute gaming gem that will forever reside on my “all time favorites” list.

    You can all have your Fallouts and your X-COMs, for me DK had it all.

  7. FraggleRock says:

    It’s the witching hour, all curses are half price!

    Full of masterful detail!

  8. dartt says:

    I loved DK too.

    Building a second dungeon for Horny never irritated me as it felt so ceremonial to unlock the three levels of gates leading to the lair whenever a disgusting hero tunneled in to my base.

    I once borrowed a friends DK strategy guide, it had a table for each unit showing their likes and dislikes, Horny didn’t like anything!

  9. Jeremy says:

    Ah, the fond memories!

  10. John O'Kane says:

    Clearly Startopia is a homage to Dungeon Keeper. So if you want your fix, try that.

  11. Seniath says:

    I two was prone to creating dungeon within dungeon within dungeon for the old Horny. Unbolting each door felt oddly akin to raising the DEFCON level.

  12. terry says:

    The only game that springs to mind is the woefully underappreciated Evil Genius? Classic DK style albeit a lot of the fun you have is down to sadistic traps :)

    And nthing Startopia – I have only recently managed to track down a copy and it is fantastic, each storyline mission introduces gameplay elements so smoothly that the full scope of what the game involves is obscured and progress tantalises you into taking on greater and greater challenges. Definitely up there in my all time top 10 (along with Syndicate ;)

    Also just as a sarky PS Lords of Chaos was better than X:Com ;)

  13. Incognito_gbg says:

    This is really one of the finest RTS-games ever made. It is such a relief not being able to control the minions directly and through that distance one from the tiresome micromanagement that otherwise plague the genre. The status-screen during combat is pure genius.

  14. Dinger says:

    Evil genius had the artwork, a cool feel, and some hysterical traps, but it failed to deliver. Why? In part, it failed to execute: bugs and micromanagement made the game tasking. And, in part, the incredibly detailed lair clashed with the rather abstract “acts of infamy”.

    Ultimately, dungeons and evil bases differ fundamentally: the running gag of dungeons is that they don’t have a purpose for existing beyond being a hunting preserve for adventurers. You can trace the lineage back of the “Dungeon” to the Mines of Morea, or heck, to Lord Byron’s graffito on the shores of Lac Leman if you like, and you can argue that the great “dungeons” of the RPG genre have a purpose for existing. Still, the majority of dungeons exist for adventurers to go in and loot.

    Evil Bases are different. They’re there to provide a lot of flash at the end of a spy movie, sure. And they have become cliches of the genre. But they serve a purpose. Dr. No’s island base had a giant laser thingy to kill lots of people. The Moonraker space station was set up as an ark for the select few to escape the genocide being wreaked down below, and so on…

    Ultimately, Evil Genius failed because it failed to give meaning to the island base. The island base should be instrumental in performing acts of infamy, not merely for capturing dudes. Alternatively, they coulda done an X-Com number and let you perform Acts of Infamy on remote locations…

    Oh yeah, and those superagents were annoying. I didn’t play it long enough to get rid of them. When you did via an act of infamy, were you treated to something satisfying, or was it in abstract too?

  15. wiper says:

    Okay, this was a really good piece. I mean, really good. It’s been a long while since I last played Dungeon Keeper, and while I’ve always had a strong fondness for it, I never really considered why, beyond the inherent amusement of being a (very British) camp fantasy villain – an appeal which Fable and Overlord both tapped into, from a very different perspective.

    But this little retrospective pointed out the endearing qualities of DK that I’d never really thought about – the benefits of giving your minions the same sort of unpredictability as the staff, faulty rides and visitors in Theme Park: the joy of near-chaos. Thanks for writing this, Mr Meer!

    On the other hand, it’s now made me want to play Dungeon Keeper, the nearest copy of which is, of course, in the wrong city. Damn you, Alec!

  16. James G says:

    Ahh, Dungeon Keeper, what a fantastic game. It dripped atmosphere, and a strange sense of humour. Hidden treats, like the full moon levels, made the game feel truely special.

    One oft overlooked quality of the game was the sound effects and music. The patter of your imps feet, disgruntled sounds of your monsters, and the constant dripping of water. Not to mention the tapping as heroes tried to break into your dungeon, the slow progression until they broke through, and the voice declared… “Your creatures are under attack!”

  17. Alec Meer says:

    Yeah, the sound design is incredible. Did another retro piece on DK for PC Gamer a couple of years back (which I can’t post here due to rights issues) mostly talking about that.

    Personal favourite: the screams of the Warlocks when you drop ‘em back to ground.

  18. RichPowers says:

    Funny you guys should mention Evil Genius, which I just uninstalled last night. I keep telling myself it won’t replace DK3, but I never listen. And my stubbornness is rewarded by frustration, frustration at a game that came close to being awesome but simply gave up.

    Evil Genius minions are unbelievably stupid, which would be acceptable, if not annoying, if you could directly control them. But you can’t, so they’re left to wonder around like idiots. After my precious high-level minions were swiftly and mercilessly slaughtered by some super agent, I gave up my plans for world domination and instead settled for dominating some Nazi bastards in Battlefield 1942.

    Too bad DK2 won’t work on my WinXP rig. Really enjoyed that game back in the day, especially wondering around in first person.

  19. Kieron Gillen says:

    Terry: Lords of Chaos so wasn’t better than X-COM. It wasn’t even better than Chaos.

    KG

  20. Coleman says:

    You guys are constantly making me want to go back to the old classics…

  21. Arathain says:

    I finished DK. May not sound like much, but I finish few games, particularly RTS or management style games. They are, in essence, fairly repetitive, and I get distracted easily from such things. I loved every minute of DK. Literally.

    The FPS possession thingy may not have been all that useful in fights, confusing as they were, but I adored exploring my dungeon.

  22. Morte says:

    Bloody warlocks, always starting a rebellion if there are more than two of them. Stick ‘em in the prison and convert them to skeletons, that’s what I say.

    First person was good for scouting with a ghost…

  23. terry says:

    KG: I was about to be outraged and rebutt your comment but then I remembered the visceral “blip-blip-blip” of spellcasting and the colour cyclings of terrible magic and am left only with a heartful of regret :(

  24. Kieron Gillen says:

    Chaos’ probably is my favourite game ever, admitedly.

    KG

  25. Cabbs says:

    Ahhh, Dungeon Keeper. I cannot remember how many hours this game consumed, or how many times I finished it. Still got the box and everything.

    If I remember correctly, the cancelling of DK3 was not a bad thing. EA were throwing around terms like “accessibility”, “conventional RTS” and/or other such tosh.

  26. Andrew says:

    I loved Dungeon Keeper to bits.

    Don’t have a copy myself, though. I borrowed my cousin’s copy and played it to death, then gave it back.

    I should really try to track it down because it was so incredibly good.

    Startopia is still amazing these days too. And it still looks really good, graphically, despite being 7 years old.

  27. The_B says:

    I demand a Retrospective of Startopia. It must be done.

  28. Will says:

    Goddamn I loved this game. No, love this game; present tense. I can’t for the bloody life of me get the 3D mode to work on my PC nowadays, though.

    When I was young, preteen, I picked up the Deeper Dungeons for five quid at an underground videogame store in my home town, not realising it was an addon pack. I bought the original game a few weeks later, after begging me mum, and have been happy ever since.

  29. Ben Hazell says:

    One of my favourite parts of DK was being able to precicely create the environment – when you dug out and fortified your lair you could construct elaborate mazes and layers of traps that you could always fall back to.

    Converting the Avatar to my cause in the Torture chamber, then setting him against his re-incarnated self is one of my proudest gaming moments. Sadly they could both heal faster than damage I think, so I threw in Horny to win.

    Now does anyone have an mp3 of the intro music?

  30. malkav11 says:

    I really loved what little of Dungeon Keeper I managed to play back in the day. Unfortunately I can’t seem to make the sound work nowadays and it just isn’t the same without the sneering descriptions of each new realm.

    DK2 had most of the same gameplay enjoyment, but thematically was less interesting, and it didn’t hold me for terribly long.

    Startopia’s on Gametap, for those of you who can get it.

  31. Nezz says:

    The praise is deserved if the game is considered merely as a quirky RTS, but considering what I wanted it to be, and what it was advertised as — SimDungeon / Rogue Reverse — it was a disappointment. Building intricate dungeons and defending your creation against invading heroes were unique and interesting mechanics, but they were far too quickly overshadowed by hectic RTSing against rival keepers, which, I thought, was the weakest part of the whole concept.

  32. po says:

    Was rather easy once I got hold of a level 9 vampire and had a run of ‘take creature to next level’ crates. Possess vampire, walk him to the enemy’s dungeon heart, thump, thump, thump, next level.

    Certainly had it’s own set of tactics, like the wall building rush, where you micro-manage imps to grab as much territory/portals/gold as possible, locking out the enemy with reinforced walls, and building a labyrinth outside your front door (because heroes don’t come through the walls once they’ve found an entrance, instead they’ll happily walk down corridors full of traps and magical doors).

  33. beeber says:

    I want a DK remake for the DS – unleashing Horny on the train would be great! (That sentence sounds sooooo wrong…)

    PC-wise, the article has made me want to replay Startopia not DK oddly enough. Probably because I never finished it. Hope it works in Vista.

  34. Frans Coehoorn says:

    Some thing I remember now: was the Avatar (the guy you have to kill eventually) THE Avatar from the Ultima series? Would be a nice stab to Origin if that were the case now right?

    Great game by the way. Like most Bullfrog games actually. Magic Carpet anyone? Theme Hospital? Syndicate (but you guys at RPS already did a retro about that game)!

  35. Crispy says:

    Good God I need to play some Dungeon Keeper! Such a great game!

    Q: Is it possible to play 4-way DK today on 2000/XP/Vista?

    Q2: How?

    Q3: Are there any legit Abandonia-style downloads for this? (I might still have the disc but it would take some looking)

    Q4: Why hasn’t EA seen sense and ‘ported’ this game to current gen or even ported it to DS/PSP/XBL?

    Q5: When do we get a Magic Carpet retrospective? In fact, maybe you could just tie in a big ol’ Bullfrog bumper-feature to tie in with EA’s ‘apology

  36. Lucky says:

    Found this in a flea market some time ago. Didn’t manage to get it to work under Vista though for some reason.

  37. mister k says:

    I created a two avatar army on the final level, who went in and destroyed the enemy keeper who is otherwise a tiresome thorn in my side….

  38. Butler` says:

    - I agree with the sound design verdict; I couldn’t name a game since that has used sound better.

    - DK2 not working on XP is a crime,, I tried and tried again, but persistent crashes ruined my efforts. Although not quite as hard hitting as its predecessor, it still shares a lot of its perks.

    - I never tried Startopia, but will look into obtaining a copy based on what I’ve read here – thanks!

  39. Butler` says:

    Crispy, from what I heard, there was a big internal struggle regarding DK3 (and more recently, any possible reincarnation of the series on newer platforms).

    It’s just one more reason to jump on the “I hate EA” bandwagon.

    R.I.P Bullfrog.

  40. Mark-P says:

    I love DK. It’s just a fantastic experience. I adored the enemy keeper taunts and all the creatures had so much character. I found the AI completely broken on some levels ( as in, it didn’t work at all. The enemy keeper sat there and did nothing ) – perhaps I was missing a patch.

    Startopia is indeed a gem as well, a rather less evil spin on DK in space. It has a lovely blip-bloppy sci-fi ambience and is generally just a joy to play. It never seemed to get the attention it deserved.
    My only complaint is that it ends too early and abruptly. Just as you have been introduced to all the game mechanics you realise that you’ve finished the last mission. :( Development cut short I assume?

  41. Stromko says:

    I loved Dungeon Keeper 2. I didn’t seem to notice anything lost in translation from the original, so that was my favorite of the series. The basic mechanic of digging out a lair and placing rooms and all that, and eventually getting a fighting force to take on invaders, it just feeds some raw, insatiable urge (which is probably why I’ve lost entire weeks to Dwarf Fortress binges).

    I kinda like Evil Genius, but its stability definitely left something to be desired. If I recall I had to make sure to have less than 100 henchmen as that seemed to be the magic number for memory leaks. Startopia just didn’t appeal to me, and still doesn’t. I have a gametap account and haven’t bothered downloading it, probably because the environment of it doesn’t feel as modifiable and freeform.. Though actually, it just has different presentation for the same freedoms so perhaps I should give it a chance next time I’m jonesing for something new.

  42. Smee says:

    Becuase I’m a charitable sort, I’m going to respond to Ben Hazell’s intro song request by uploading the 6-song CD soundtrack rip, along with every single Intro/Outro narration from the Map screen.

    Thanks can be delivered to the usual address.

    http://www.mediafire.com/?enydodtzvzn

  43. Philip says:

    I personally preferred DK2 although this may be because it’s a lot easier to get working with XP than the original, and also plays on my girlfriend’s antiquated laptop – I’m sometime ousted from my gaming PC by her playing Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 or Sims 2…but I digress…

    I felt in the original DK the creatures-dislike-creatures part was overplayed a bit. Maybe I never found that perfect balance (and probably didn’t build enough sleeping quarters), but most of my time was spent breaking up quarrelling minions, rather than killing enemy creatures.

    DK2 also had the “Pet Dungeons”, which were great if you wanted to avoid the whole combat thing and just build.

    Oh, and by the way, *puts on his best narrator voice* – “your dungeon is full of yoghurt”…

  44. Morte says:

    Hmmm…I installed DK2 a few months ago on my XP machines and I’ve had no problems with it. What am I doing wrong?

  45. Solrax says:

    I have to agree with Nezz, I felt it never quite measured up because it seemed I spent too much time fighting other keepers. I wanted to fight Heroes, my virtual doppelgangers who had invaded all those dungeons for all those years before. It’s payback time!

    Or that’s what I had hoped for… Maybe I’m being too hard on it or was at the time, I still have it hanging around, maybe I should give it another try.

  46. Alec Meer says:

    Like I say, DK’s thematic interpretation of ‘evil’ is a terribly shallow one – as part of that, meaningful hero-slaying is given pretty short thrift in favour of RTS-standard like-vs-like battles. Which I was okay with once I’d come to terms with the evil thing not really paying off.

  47. SwiftRanger says:

    DK1 works on XP but you need to google for a few workarounds here and there, I had to use this one for example:

    http://www.ntcompatible.com/Dungeon_Keeper_1_working_under_Windows_XP_t34812.html

    DK2 should work on XP as well, the only thing that bugs me though is that the CGI flicks don’t run at all.

  48. Mr.Brand says:

    Dungeon Keeper and Majesty were the flipsides of the same coin, but I believe Dominus was the very first of this kind:

    http://www.the-underdogs.info/game.php?name=Dominus

  49. ad_hominem says:

    damn, returning to this game on a nice big monitor makes pixels as big as my eye… any way to increase resolution (other than Alt + R)?

  50. Chris Delay says:

    Loved Dungeon Keeper – one of my fav games of all time. In fact, the first project I ever published was not Uplink, as some would believe, but a map editor for DK called Unded (Unofficial Dungeon Keeper Editor). I spent months working on it and had it pretty much fully functioning by the end, months before the official editor was released. I stopped work on it because I wanted to do a game about computer hacking instead :)