This old game: Dragonstomper

I originally wrote this post for Crunchable.net.

It’s always possible to win.

This is the assumption modern video games make: that given enough time and effort, you will be able to conquer them. Call it a convention of the genre, a sop to those poor souls who wait in line four hours on release day and plop down $50 sight unseen.

It didn’t used to be that way.

The very first video games — you know, that one you’ve heard about called Pong and that other one you haven’t, Spacewar — were player vs. player only, so the game ended when one person beat the other one. Time and score limits were imposed so bar owners had some hope at recouping their costs on the machine. But as soon as it became you versus the machine itself, winning became nearly impossible. You beat a level; the bad guys became faster, smarter, more numerous until you no longer could hack it. You attained a spot on thehigh score table because you weren’t as much of a loser as everyone else — but you were still a loser. The earth was invaded, your homeland was nuked from orbit, and Donkey Kong got to have his way with your girlfriend.

It was still possible to win sometimes — sort of. You could break the game itself. If you make it to level 256 of Pac-Man, the game crashes and displays a weird half-maze. There’s a bug in Donkey Kong that ends your game if you make it to level 22. You don’t get a polite “Congratulations” screen, but hey — you still won.

It’s probably for the best that the modern video game designer knows all games must have an ending — even the ones that act like old arcade games. Some games now promise bigger and bigger victories, an unbelievable cavalcade of them for $15 a month. There isn’t any real way to lose at these online role-playing games. There’s no Game Over screen. If you die, you get to be a ghost for a while and work for a little bit to reclaim whatever possessions haven’t already been pilfered by some jackass 13 year old on his mom’s Dell.

But there’s something beautiful and almost haunting about a game you were never sure you could have won. Like falling in love with a girl too beautiful and smart to be believed but being too bashful to say the words you want to … to actually see if she’d shoot you down like you know she would …

It’s a shame Dragonstomper got the name it did. It sounds silly and it shouldn’t. It’s sort of a successor to the classic Atari 2600 game Adventure, where you play a humble squire whose goal is to retrieve an item (a chalice in Adventure, an amulet in Dragonstomper) from an evil dragon. The way there is unclear — there’s a whole countryside to explore, with castles to raid and evil spiders to slay, a town where supplies can be purchased, and finally a tunnel that is going to do its damnedest to kill you before you reach the dragon’s lair.

My dad and I would play Atari games together all the time when I was a little kid. Simple lovely games like Ice Hockey and Grand Prix. But Dragonstomper was his game — it used an add-on for the 2600 called the Supercharger that stored games on audio cassettes, and only he knew how to hook it up correctly.

So I got to play sidekick as my dad built up his character’s strength, recruited villagers for his quest, and eventually, after a lot of effort, reached the dragon. The dragon itself was terrifying — it was about three hundred times as big as your humble squire sprite and got to take three attacks for every one you got. Every step he took was accompanied by a menacing Atari 2600 ditty. It felt like every second counted when you fought the dragon.

It fascinated me, the whole game. There seemed to be so many rules working behind the scenes, so many things I didn’t understand — I mean, when you drank a potion, all that would happen was a message reading “FEELS WEIRD” would appear on-screen. What was it doing to you? Could it kill you? Would something happen if you drank more potions?

The thing was, though my dad could get to the dragon pretty reliably after maybe 45 minutes of playing, he always got dragon-stomped. Sometimes he lasted a long time in the battle — there was no way to tell how close he came to slaying the dragon, though. The brave, dumb warriors he had recruited from the town died off one by one, and then there was nothing to do but wait for the hollow dirge that accompanied the “YOU HAVE DIED” message.

Maybe we would have just written it off if it hadn’t been for this sentence in the manual:

The clever Dragonstomper™ can prove he is smarter than the dragon by outwitting him and stealing the amulet. The dragon can then be rehabilitated instead of killed.

The instructions also explained that the amulet was what turned the dragon evil, that somehow it affected its mind. So it obsessed us, the idea of winning without killing the dragon. It made sense — you couldn’t just kill your way through the first level, either. There was a guard blocking the way to the village who was too strong to be fought. You could either bribe him (so the manual claimed — we never did this) or you could present him with identity papers that were hidden in one of the castles. He would then let you through without a fight.

My dad tried all kinds of things to get the dragon to snap out of the trance the amulet had put him under. He tried feeding it the medicine we were supposed to use to cure ourselves when we were hit by poison traps. He gave it elixir, too, because we never figured out what that did or how it was different from regular medicine. He tried to distract it with rubies and sapphires purchased in town. He tried avoiding fighting the dragon entirely and making a dash for the amulet.

Nothing worked. And … eventually we gave up, and I grew up.

Maybe it’s better to never find out what happens when you win. To dream what it would have meant instead of actually winning. To fall asleep and have that girl kiss you … the endings we invent may be better than the ones we live.

The words seem hollow to me as I write them. The singsong of a loser who’s happy to be a loser.

Today I opened an Atari 2600 emulator and started playing for real. I was armed with the best tools the 21st century could give me. A halfway decent guide on the Internet that explains what all the items do, and the ability to save my game at any point and reload every time I screwed up.

Just a few minutes ago, the game told me “YOU KILLED THE DRAGON.” I moved my little squire avatar up the screen to claim the amulet, half-expecting one more challenge, one more monster, one final puzzle, and then …

Well, I won.