Sega CEO Hajime Satomi says he wants to improve the quality of their games moving forward. That could mean a lot of things. It's nice to hear, but what they do next with their games is the real answer.
Walking the High Path – Remembering DROD: Deadly Rooms of Death
Back in 2008 I checked the Caravel Games’ forums every day. I had made new friends there, posted my first reviews there and, on occasion, made a spectacular ass of myself. Caravel’s only product, Deadly Rooms of Death, or DROD, was my most played game in those days. I had found it, as most forum members around that time had, at popular freeware/abandonware site Home of the Underdogs, on which DROD was the highest ranking puzzle game until the site’s closure in 2009. Home of the Underdogs was as much a museum of interesting, forgotten oddities as it was a way to get free games, and Caravel’s forums were populated by people more interested in sitting down to solve an interesting puzzle than in finding the next big thrill.
Deadly Rooms of Death, first published by Webfoot Interactive in 1997 and developed by Erik Hermansen, is a turn-based puzzle dungeon crawler and notoriously difficult to explain, though extremely easy to learn. The player character Beethro takes up two spaces, one for the actual character and one for the sword. Every turn is a step in one of eight directions, a pass or a 45 degree sword turn, and is followed immediately by every enemy taking its own turn. Each enemy type reacts predictably, and no part of DROD is random. The player is killed if a monster touches Beethro, while the monster is killed if it touches the sword. Once every monster has been killed, the room is cleared and the player can progress, given that they’re able to leave the room. Once all rooms are cleared, the area’s blue door opens, usually giving easy access to the next area.
While mastering the basic combat is satisfying, most rooms are puzzles made using DROD’s ever-increasing amount of obstacles and enemy types. In one level, you’ll have to manipulate an impossible-to-win fencing match to make your opponent kill an out-of-reach monster, while in another you’ll navigate a maze of primed bombs read to go off with a touch of your sword. The puzzle variety is fantastic and the official levels tend to have the right mix of challenging but never frustrating levels.
The puzzles have a great flair for the dramatic and are backed up by a surprisingly intriguing story with lore that gets stranger every game, but much of the reason to play lies outside of the official levels. Every version of DROD includes a full level editor, and this is where the community really shines. DROD has a staggering amount of user made levels, many of which rival the quality of the official games. Each hold is rated by fans according to quality and difficulty and are available for download on the game’s main site. They can all be played with either a full or demo version of the game, meaning that all content not strictly created by Caravel is and will remain free. The release of every new game is followed by a surge of new levels, as people test the limits of the game’s new mechanics, doing far more than could be done in a single release.
Every few months I update my version of the game, download a few new levels and spend a week’s worth of evenings underground. I’ll make a pot of coffee, laugh at a surreal cutscene and mull over a set of puzzles for an hour. If I should ever get stuck, the same people online six years ago still frequent the in-game chat, and are still willing to help anyone with an interesting or difficult level. Suddenly, it’s 2008 again.
The sixth and final DROD game, The Second Sky, will be released this April. The original trilogy can be purchased for $10 at Good Old Games, and an updated version of the first game can be played for free in a browser. The prequel, Guntrho and the Epic Blunder, and the RPG spin-off, Tendry’s Tale, are currently available only from Caravel Game’s site.