Editorial | 2/20/2011 at 11:59 PM

Co-Op Classics: Tunnels of Doom

Like many kids who grew up in the 1980s, I was first exposed to a computer at school.  I had played Pong since I was very young, and our family had an Atari with all sorts of games, but still, there was something quite different about a computer.  I must admit I was quite hooked from my first experience.  One summer, my parents sent me to a week long "camp" where, to my delight, I took a course on programming computer games.  I actually managed to produce a short and fairly pedestrian adaptation of the arcade classic Moon Patrol, over the span of that week.  At the end of the class, though, all I had to show for my work was a dot matrix printout of the program on green and white striped paper.  All of the excitement and hard work were for naught, and I was a bit glum about the course coming to a close.

My parents must have noticed my depression, because it was only a few months later when they gave me one of the greatest gifts I ever received: a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A computer.  At this point in its lifespan, the TI-99/4A was selling at a tremendous discount, being driven off the market by rival Commodore.  That didn't matter one bit to me, as I was now the proud owner of a home computer of my very own.  You could program the computer in TI-BASIC, which was similar to the BASIC I had used in my summer camp class.  I pored over the manual, picked up magazines that had programs I could type in myself, and even hooked up my cassette recorder to save data on.  While the TI-99/4A was an amazing computer system, it also played some excellent video games as well, using a cartridge port reminiscent of the old Atari.

One of my most beloved titles for my TI-99/4A was Tunnels of Doom.  It should come to no surprise to longtime readers here at Co-Optimus, or anyone who just read how excited I was to go to programming "camp" for a week in the summer, that I was a nerd as a kid.  It was practically a requirement of nerdhood in the 1980s that you played Dungeons & Dragons.  While other kids played kickball or chased girls at recess, my friends and I rolled dice and tracked hit points underneath the jungle gym.  Tunnels of Doom combined my love for swords and sorcery with my obsession with computers.  It was a very early, very primitive iteration of the computer role playing game, a genre that has been amazingly popular for almost three decades of video game history.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: as the game begins, you choose to create a fighter, mage, or thief, and up to four characters can travel together at a time.  Exploration takes place in a 3D, first person perspective, and the party of adventurers crawls through the dungeon interacting with fountains, doors, and the like.  From time to time, monsters appear, and the action switches to a top down viewpoint.  Each character takes turns moving and attacking, casting spells, or using items and the monsters do the same.  Hit points are lost and gained, magic is used, and the monsters are finally defeated.  At this point, the perspective swaps again and the band of explorers can resume their dungeon crawl.  For the modern player, there's nothing new here at all.

But, for the time, these ideas were fresh and exciting.  First person perspective was almost unheard of, as DOOM and it's legion of followers were over a decade away.  This was realism as it had never been seen before for most players.  Goblins, oozes, dragons... these were the same creatures that populated my favorite books and role-playing sessions, yet they were on the screen, controlled not by a Dungeon Master but by the computer itself.  This was mind-blowing stuff for my poor preteen brain, and though I didn't know it at the time, Tunnels of Doom would be but the first in a long line of dungeon-crawling RPGs I would play through the following years.

You are probably wondering where the co-op comes in.  To be honest, the cooperative elements in Tunnels of Doom were fairly light, especially compared to modern games.  Four different players could control different characters, taking turns at the keyboard when it was their characters turn to act.  The real teamwork came in coordinating the attack plan with one another.  The fighters would move in to close range combat, while the rogue and the mage ran from direct confrontation to attack at a safe distance.  That's a paradigm that has worked from SSI's famous Gold Box computer games, to Baldur's Gate, down to modern MMOs like World of Warcraft.  

While only one player could control the party's movement in exploration mode, there was definitely a sense of cooperation when everyone made decisions as to the best direction in which to proceed.  I didn't get to play Tunnels of Doom in co-op very often, sadly, as my friends and little brother had little patience for the rather lengthy dungeons.  But it's clear to me now that the option of cooperation between multiple players was one more area in which the game was innovative.  

My TI-99/4A served me very well for many years.  By the time I was in high school in 1989, the poor unit had been used so much that it was literally falling apart, and I got even more fun out of it when I dismantled it before we threw it out.  I've owned a computer of some sort ever since.  For each system I've owned through the years, role playing games like Tunnels of Doom have been among my favorites.  It may not look like much to modern eyes, but Tunnels of Doom got a lot right, and shares many features with modern RPGs.  Not bad for a game that's going on thirty years old!