Dragonstomper – an incredibly stupid title for a game. Yet, it is probably the most accomplished roleplaying game on its host system. The Atari 2600 being mostly known for single screen, simplistic arcade games, Atari's Adventure is still considered as quite an accomplishment in terms of complexity. Dragonstomper offers complexity and depth a full order of magnitude beyond. At least.
The game starts its player off in the wilderness, spanning several screens in x and y direction. The landscape features forests, swamps and lakes, with villages, temples and castles as signs of human civilization. The first objective is to reach the city. The bridge guard will not let you pass unless you are carrying the right item, if you bribe him or if you fight him. He's incredibly tough, so you better arrange to get your letter of transit. Though where to find it? Time is precious, especially since those random monster encounters will drain character stats pretty fast. Good thing there are also items to replenish health etc. to a degree.
The city level serves as a welcome opportunity to take a small break in non-hostile surroundings. Using the gold hopefully collected previously, the objective is to buy the equipment necessary or at least helpful in the last section. Though what will that be? One of the different potions? Some rope? Melee or ranged weapons? Maybe even hire some mercenaries to accompany you?
Then, finally, you five into the eponymous dragon's cave which is another impressively long level. Scrolling only in one direction this time, the challenge here is to circumvent or overcome various traps before finally encountering the dragon itself. To either slay it or defeat it the sneaky way.
How could such a thing even be possible on the Atari 2600 with its 128 bytes (!) of RAM? Well, the comparison with regular games on the system is rather unfair, because admittedly, Starpath produced and sold a hardware extension to make this possible. The Supercharger plugged into the regular module slot, but enabled connection to a tape drive. This allowed for much larger amounts of storage space than regular modules. To enable tape loading, an extra 6kB RAM (!) was included in the Supercharger as well. Nevertheless, the device was sold for a mere $70. Technically, it did put the already ageing system to a new level, as Dragonstomper illustrates.
Graphics are sharp and detailed. Monsters, featuring genre staples such as snakes, demons, ghouls and spiders, are clearly recognisable directly on the map. Key events are announced through short musical interludes. Although the map itself remains the same, the location of items is randomized each time. Likely, the effects of potions and staves are randomly determined at the start. Roguelike style. Small puzzles circle around the obvious, such as finding and using keys, but sometimes even offer alternate solutions. Didn't bring a rope? Well, you can still jump down that chasm.
Behind all that, there is a simple, but fully functioning character system. Based on stats for dexterity and strength, they are key in the turn-based encounters which even allow for different basic tactics of simply fighting, using items or running away. All this works through an almost ingenious control scheme which uses the four joystick directions to perform selections inside multiple choice menus.
Yes, Dragonstomper is no Ultima. But it is much closer to it than anyone would have considered feasible before. At the same time, it is much more accessible and will not rob its player of days and weeks of their lifetime. It is not just a technical marvel, but a well-designed game. Bravo!
Apart from this one, the Supercharger library remained unfortunately rather bland. Overall only a dozen games were made and of those, most are lightly enhanced remakes of already existing arcade standards. The most interesting one beyond Dragonstomper remains one which finally actually never saw the light of day in its original form. After buying Starpath, Epyx developed the unpublished prototype of Sweat: The Decathlon Game into their famous Summer Games. The rest, as they say, is history.
Comments (1) [Post comment]