The 15 finest dungeon games
8th Feb 2012 | 17:30
2011 may have been a dire year for everything else, but it was a corking one for dungeons. What better place to escape the woes of economic meltdown than somewhere dank, dark, foetid and virtual, populated by rats, bats, giant spiders, reanimated skeletons and copious demons, and studded with treasure chests? For dungeon-divers, it was a vintage year.
So, we thought it would be fun to share with you our favourite games for dungeon-trawling, starting with the most recent ones before working our way back through the annals of dungeon history.
1. Dark Souls
From Software's fearsomely hard opus, with its refusal to compromise in any manner whatsoever, has rightly been hailed as one of the finest RPGs ever. And more or less the whole game is one big dungeon - it begins with your character locked in a cell, and every building in the game is made from moss-encrusted, dripping grey virtual stone. If you're looking for the definition of a proper RPG, Dark Souls is it - any true aficionado of dungeons will tell you that. And that, when you're playing it, you die roughly as many times as in every game you've ever played before, all added together. Possibly the most enjoyable game ever - if you're a major-league masochist.
2. Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
It's hard to think of a meatier or more epic game than Skyrim, and with more than 150 dungeons in the game, Bethesda was really spoiling us. They weren't just generic, either, plonked down to break the monotony of traversing lush, fertile countryside and meticulously designed towns. Oh no: the vast majority of them had keenly observed storylines, and offered sufficient rewards for us to become obsessed with visiting them all. Indeed, given Skyrim's overarching scope, you could probably spend an entire virtual lifetime checking them all out.
3. Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Shigeru Miyamoto's latest opus may have only arrived in time for the Wii's death-throes, but by crikey, it was a mighty fine game. And most of the different areas of its game world had at least one dungeon to traverse. In true Zelda style, doing so mainly involved some wildly inventive puzzle-solving, coupled with taking out a vast array of enemies. But above all, mini-bosses and big bosses which really took some dispatching. Ambience-wise, Skyward Sword's dungeons may not be the most forbidding ones you'll come across. But take it from us: they're great fun to tramp around, and are deeply memorable.
This 2010 game was more of an action-adventure affair than an RPG - we described it as the love-child of Zelda and God of War. It was at its most Zelda-like when you found yourself in its dungeons: each one of which required you to master a new weapon and wrap up proceedings by defeating a boss. In terms of atmosphere, though, there was no comparison: you played War, one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and proceedings sufficiently grim to do justice to such an illustrious bringer of the end of days.
5. Dante's Inferno
Hell would have to be the ultimate dungeon - and particularly when presented with all of its nine circles present and correct, as visualised in the 14th century by Dante Alighieri. Electronic Arts' take on Dante's poem, with its gameplay perhaps a bit too redolent of God of War, generated a rather mixed response, but developer Visceral, of Dead Space fame, pulled out all the stops as far as character design was concerned, with some of the squelchiest, most repulsive-looking bosses and demons ever. Indeed, key members of the development team had worked on the Hellboy and Hellraiser films, and if you're a fan of those, you'll love Dante's Inferno.
6. Demon's Souls
From Software established its irresistibly fierce RPG blueprint with 2009's Demon's Souls, which was generally described as a proper dungeon-crawler. With its slightly tricksy mechanics involving areas filled with black, oozing fog and a sort of limbo you get sent to whenever you die (which occurs with near-ridiculous frequency), its general ambience was, if anything, even more bleak and chilling than that of Dark Souls. Which, of course, is one of the key things we dungeon-lovers crave.
7. Dragon Age: Origins
Bioware's unholy struggle with Bethesda to be crowned as top dog among RPG developers really kicked with Dragon Age: Origins, a conventional fantasy-RPG every bit as epic in its scope as an Elder Scrolls game. Its game world was so huge and varied, featuring countless towns and immaculately realised geography, that its dungeons, to be fair, never took centre stage. But nevertheless, they were huge, atmospheric and involving - and the game, along with its successor, Dragon Age II, really cemented Bioware's lofty reputation.
8. World Of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade
We could have put Blizzard's original game or any of its expansion packs into this round-up, but The Burning Crusade received particular acclaim for the quality of its dungeons. Blizzard clearly put a lot of effort into TBC's dungeons. Even the smaller ones offered much more of a challenge - and were much moiré memorable - than before, and while they were designed for groups of 5 to 25, you could clean most of them out with a group of 10 players, rather than the unwieldy near-20 required previously. One suspects that many people developed a lifelong love of dungeons in The Burning Crusade.
9. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
As with Skyrim, Bethesda Softworks didn't skimp on the dungeons when it designed Oblivion. Although there weren't as many as there are in Skyrim, if you cleared them out, left them for a few days and levelled up a bit, you could go back to them and find that everything in them had respawned, complete with trickier enemies. Dungeons with replay value -- now that's a great concept. Small wonder that Oblivion was hailed as the best conventional RPG ever when it came out in 2006. We reckon it still holds up pretty impressively, even against the best RPGs that modern technology can buy.
10. Dungeon Siege
Gas Powered Games' PC RPG put the emphasis on action, drawing comparisons with both Diablo and Ultima. As the name suggests, it was heavy on the dungeons. While it may not have had the most sophisticated storyline, it impressed by not taking itself too seriously - fart-gags and the like abounded. If you were tempted to revisit Dungeon Siege these days, you'd find it dated, so should probably best head to one of its two sequels. But dungeon-completists will find plenty to keep themselves occupied within its dank environs.
11. Baldur's Gate
This is where it all started for BioWare: it was the first game they ever made. Even so, it had a pretty major impact, generally being hailed as setting new standards for RPGs. It had a certain stamp of authenticity, too, conforming to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebook. Its ambitiousness dictated that it was set in a believable world, so dungeons weren't entirely to the fore; nevertheless, there were some large and epic ones to be trawled. For Drs Muzyka and Zeschuk, Baldur's Gate may have been juvenilia - but you wouldn't have though that when you played it.
12. Dungeon Keeper
Dungeon keeper, Peter Molyneux's last game before flogging Bullfrog and establishing Lionhead, is an absolute must-have for any self-respecting dungeon enthusiast. Even now, frankly, it seems odd - it was a real-time strategy, and cleverly turned the tables by putting you in charge of protecting a dungeon from pesky hero types. With your trusty imps, you must cultivate monsters; building different types of rooms was key to realising your dastardly aims of reducing a lovely kingdom to ruin and decay. Typically for one of Molyneux's games, Dungeon Keeper was laugh-out-loud funny and, apart from its sequel (Dungeon Keeper 3 was touted but never appeared), it remains a unique oddity. If you can get past the ancient graphics, it's well worth checking out even now.
The game that put Blizzard on the map was the ultimate dungeon-diver's wet-dream: it sent you through no fewer than 16 dungeons, on your quest to enter hell itself. Which, of course, was fantastically good fun. But the main reason behind the game's phenomenal success was that it paved the way for WoW by encouraging groups of players to matchmake and hack-n-slash their way through those dungeons co-operatively. Without doubt one of the games that changed the world. A world that still awaits Diablo III - come on Blizzard, pull your fingers out...
14. Ultima Underworld
Ultima Underworld's subtitle - The Stygian Abyss - gave an inkling that it might be heavy on the dungeons, and indeed it didn't disappoint on that front. The first Ultima game without any input from Richard Garriott (although Warren Spector was involved as producer), it was also the first proper RPG with a first-person perspective. In other words, it's a great big slab of dungeon history. The likes of Ken Levine and CliffyB have cited it as an influence. Years ahead of its time.
15. Dungeon Master
Time to head back to the Stone Age of videogames: 1987, to be precise. A time when RPGs were turn-based and graphics resembled bad ASCII art. But not Dungeon Master. Released for the mighty Atari ST (it was the ST's best-selling game ever), it broke ground by being both real-time and 3D (after a fashion). If you're looking for the point at which RPGs as we know them were born, then Dungeon Master is it - its influence has been acknowledged by a number of faithful fan-made ports to more modern platforms. Given that Dungeon Master's dungeons were the first ones that actually looked convincing (and therefore possessed that essential scuzzy atmosphere), you could argue that all of those dungeons you've trawled over the years could be traced back to here.