Friday, 15 July 2016

Missed Classic 25: Dragon’s Keep (1982)

Written by Joe Pranevich

Is that dragon a sock puppet?

One of the things that I love about “Missed Classics” is that they give us a chance to dig into the history of the games that we love, by playing some of the classic games that inspired them. We can better understand trends, follow the career path of prominent designers, and tell the story of how our great games became great. I feel so much more prepared to talk about a game like Cruise for a Corpse or Sherlock Holmes (coming soon!) because we’ve looked at games like Mystery House, Witness, and The Colonel’s Bequest. I also have a vaguely OCD-need to be a completist, but at least (I hope!) it’s an interesting trip.

That brings us to today’s Missed Classic: 1982’s Dragon’s Keep, best remembered for being Al Lowe’s very first game. We’ve already looked at two of his later children’s games (Winnie the Pooh and The Black Cauldron), but we need to rewind much further. Before embarking on his game design career, Al Lowe was a 36-year old public school teacher and musician who wanted to teach himself programming. As an educator, it may have been a natural choice for him to make his first halting steps as a designer by sticking to what he knew: building fun and educational activities for kids. The outcome of his programming experiments were two games, Dragon’s Keep and Troll’s Tale, as well as a new career.

I’m pretty sure it’s a sock puppet.

Al’s path did not begin at Sierra, but at a small software company in Fresno, California. Sunnyside Soft was in every way a garage-based company, consisting entirely of two husband/wife pairs: Al and his wife, plus Mike and Ray Lynn MacChesney. Is it a coincidence that the company shared its name with the local high school, Sunnyside High? I have no idea. In the original Apple II release, Al is credited for the programming, while Mike is given the writing credit. Subsequent releases credit all four with text and graphics, so I’m not quite sure where the truth lies. I hope we’ll see some of Al’s trademark humor in the final product.

We’ve already written quite a bit about Al’s future career path, but his three compatriots deserve a deeper look. After this game, all four of them collaborated again on Troll’s Tale (1982) before the company was gobbled up by Sierra On-Line. After that, Margaret Lowe would transition to music and is credited on both Police Quest and King’s Quest III. Mike and Ray Lynn’s only other game credit will be 1984’s Gefling Adventure, one of two adaptations Sierra would make of Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal. I hope to eventually take a deeper look at that, but I believe that it was a kids’ version to complement the much more difficult Dark Crystal game developed by Roberta Williams.

Sierra’s box art. Not a sock puppet.

I’m not sure exactly how Al’s games came to the attention of Ken and Roberta Williams, but they did and the rest is history. According to a comment by Mr. Lowe on MOCAGH, Roberta was impressed by how much his graphical design looked like her games. Unlike with Sierra’s purchase of Cranston Manor Adventure (a story that I hope to tell very soon), they left this game entirely intact. Their sole modification (other than stamping a “Hi-Res Learning” series moniker on the box) was to include two bonuses with the game: a map and sticker set. The map would make exploration easier (as well as teach valuable map-reading skills), while the stickers would serve as a helpful reminder which animals were found and where they were. It seems a bit cheesy, but this was a game for seven-year olds!

Are these Sierra’s first “feelies”?

Rather than give a play-by-play, it will be simpler to just explain the game as a whole. It’s a very basic game-- exactly as you would expect for second graders-- but also fun. It’s easy to see why Sierra would have been impressed! The game engine is an earlier version of the the one that we saw in Winnie the Pooh: each screen gives you a set of up to three options to be selected with the keyboard. Some of the options explore or interact with the room you are in, while others are places to go. Players can toggle between them with the spacebar and select with the “enter” key. Unlike the latter game, you can’t use the number keys to jump to a selection, but otherwise the mechanic is identical. As the game is quite brief, there’s also no save game feature.

The adventure begins!

The plot is basic: sixteen animals have been captured by a dragon. Your job is to find and rescue them all. But rather than exploring a castle (as “keep” implies), the dragon lives a comfortable suburban life in a two-story ranch. Any backstory I might cook up for this is likely to be far darker than the game itself, so I’m just going to imagine that the dragon purchased the home at a good price and parted amicably with its former occupants. The only puzzle in the game is the exploration itself. Many of the animals are hidden behind furniture or in secret rooms, so you have to try all of the things that you can do in every location. A complicating factor is that you cannot rescue any animal while the dragon is in the room, but he’s only an annoyance. The dragon doesn’t hurt you (or the animals) in any way and just leaving and re-entering a room is usually enough for him to wander off.

The dragon prowls the bedroom.

Exploring the house is straight-forward. Just to give one example of how the animal-hunting goes, in the living room there is a “magic hat”. If you move it, you can find a secret passage which eventually leads to a “secret room with a pig”. You can then shout “Boo!” at the pig and it runs off, effectively rescued. Why it is more scared of you yelling “boo” than a dragon is unclear, but it’s enough that you get the points for it. The rest of the house isn’t so different: a birdcage hidden behind a picture, a cat in a toybox, a dog behind a chair, a rabbit in a hat, etc. Other than that secret passage, the whole house is arranged predictably and there’s no trick to finding and fiddling with everything. That isn’t to say there aren’t fun little elements, there are! The elevator has a party mode, for example, where the lights flash and where the dragon goes to have a good time. We only get that in text, of course, but it’s little flourishes like that that make the game fun.

The world expands.

Since I was trying to replicate the pre-Sierra experience by not looking at the map, I had a genuine surprise when I realized that you can explore beyond the house! Nearby are some fields, a zoo, your school, a train station and some other things. The design is a bit more surreal compared to the realism of the house, but it’s still fun. That’s also where we find the hardest puzzle of the game: in many of the rooms, there is an option for you to rest which does absolutely nothing (although the game will occasionally poke you for not rushing to rescue the animals). In exactly one location do you find an animal by resting: the train station. The puzzle is tricky enough that there’s a hint in the library for it. It’s a simple thing, but it’s a nice touch. Especially out of the house, it’s not clear exactly how the dragon is keeping any of these animals hostage. For example, you can go to your school and find a frog hidden in your desk. Would the dragon have put the frog there? What exactly did that accomplish? I have no idea. I’m sure I’m overthinking it.

The final animal released!

I did, thank you!

When you find and release the last animal, we get a little ending scene that counts up your moves and thanks you for playing. I started the game over again, hoping to get a different distribution of animals, but it was not to be. Unlike Pooh, this game is not really replayable. All in all, I had a few minutes of fun while procrastinating other work. I expect the game was much more challenging to its target audience.

Time played: 40 min
Deaths / reloads: None. (My Apple II version crashed in my emulator after a certain point, so I completed the game on the Commodore 64 version.)

Now comes the hardest part: rating the game. Before I get to the rating, let me just say that our rating system is not designed for this sort of game. As a simple and fun kids’ game, it succeeds very well! But I know already, this will score very low: we’re judging this game against a bar that it does not aspire to. If Al Lowe ever reads this, I just want to apologize in advance. Let’s run the numbers!

One of the more difficult animals to find.

Puzzles & Solvability: The puzzles in this game are of a simpler sort than we are used to, although it deserves credit for hiding some of the animals in amusing ways. The added complication of not being able to save animals while the dragon is nearby is nice, but in practice I don’t think that ever happened to me. There are no objects to manipulate and pretty much every problem can be solved by trying everything. It’s fun! But I can’t give this more than one point.

Interface & Inventory: This is the first game built with the so-called “Troll’s Tale engine” and it shows a lack of polish, but still an excellent interface for children for the era. (My son prefers a touch screen.) There is no inventory to speak of, but there is a hotkey (“F”) that you can press to see which animals still need to be saved. Let’s go with two points.

Story & Setting: There is no “story” to this game except the main quest to rescue animals from a dragon, but even that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The calf hiding in the bear’s cage at the zoo-- am I really supposed to believe that the dragon had something to do with that? The setting is fun, especially the way it opens up as you explore around the house, but there’s a weird disconnect between the realistic depiction of the house with the more surreal aspects around it. Maybe that was deliberate, but I don’t think I can go higher than two for this category, either.

A crudely-drawn cat, but it does look like the kind of
crude drawings being used for other Sierra adventures

Sounds & Graphics: Sound is minimal, just beeps and boops, while the graphics tended towards a rough simplicity rather than being “good”. Even so, the team did a great job with what they had and the humorous touches work very well. I think this lands right around the other Hi-Res Adventure games: three points.

Environment & Atmosphere: Just like in Pooh, the game is better than the sum of its parts. The surrealism is fun, there is a good smattering of humor, and it all somehow works together. Definitely four points.

Dialog & Acting: The text is minimal, but written well and under some difficult constraints: every word in the game save one (“dragon”) is based on the reading comprehension of a seven-year old. (An included “parents’ guide” does a good job of explaining this.) Even though Al is not credited as a writer, some scenes just cry out that he did them. The secret disco-like area in the elevator where the dragon likes to hang out? Great stuff. Three points.

Final Score

Time to tabulate the final score: 1+2+2+3+4+3/.6 = 25 points! That puts it right at Mission: Asteroid and ahead of The Islands of Beta. That seems just perfect to me. It’s still very low for a Sierra game of that vintage, but our rating system does not treat kids’ games very well. Adventures are serious business!

Up next will be blogging as usual. To stay with the Sierra kick, I have started a review of Cranston Manor, but that may or may not be finished before my next real game, Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective.


  1. I play kids' games so you don't have to!

  2. I'd personally be less forgiving about that cat drawing compared to the others. I sense a first draft that they didn't have time to improve before release.

    1. Not sure what's going on with the pig's face, but at least it's recognizably a pig. I don't think I would have guessed the thing in the toy box was a cat.

    2. Yeah, but this was very typical of Sierra games of that era. Take a look at the review of "Wizard and the Princess" and tell me the art wasn't WORSE:

      I don't know when they got around to hiring artists, but by 1985 the games were looking suitably professional. Maybe we'll see the progression as we work through more of Sierra's back-catalog.

  3. The dragon just looks so damned happy that you're breaking into its home and freeing all of its (pets/planned meals)..