In an interview about The Making of Karateka, a wonderful interactive documentary and game-about-a-game, Chris Kohler of Digital Eclipse notes that, based on the company’s data, people don’t actually play the games inside “classics” collections. Maybe they spend 5 minutes inside a few games they remember, but that’s about it. Presenting classic games, exactly as they were when they arrived, can be historically important but often falls short of real engagement.
That’s why it’s a thrill to see (as first spotted by PC Gamer) a triumphant 1.0 release from KeeperFX, an open source “remake and fan expansion” of Dungeon Keeper, the 1997 Bullfrog strategy game that had players take on the other side of a dungeon crawl. The project had already, over 15 years, carried the game quite far, giving it modern Windows support, hi-res support, and loads of bugfixes and quality-of-life improvements. Now, says the team, all the original code from the original executable has been rewritten, freeing them up to change whatever they want in the future. There can be more than 2,048 “things” on the map, maps can have more than 85 square tiles, and scripting and mods can go much further.
But take note: “Ownership of the original game is still and will always be required for copyright reasons.” You can, like I did earlier today, rectify that with a $6 GOG purchase, at least while it’s on sale today. After downloading KeeperFX, you unpack it, run its launcher, point it to where you’ve installed the original Dungeon Keeper, and launch it. And then you get ready to click.
I distinctly remember trying to play Dungeon Keeper a few years ago after reading one retrospective or another about how it was, like many titles from Bullfrog and game designer Peter Molyneux, hugely influential on so many games. I gave Dungeon Keeper more than 5 minutes, but clicking over and over again on sprites that looked like graphical errors (while listening to audio samples from the Sound Blaster heyday) grew old before an hour was out. Computers had changed, I had changed, and I no longer felt like beating my head against a heavily pixelated wall.
Loading up KeeperFX felt instead like I was playing an homage to Dungeon Keeper in the best possible sense. I guessed about half the game’s shortcuts, could easily configure the rest, and wasn’t surprised by how any button or keyboard click responded. The art style was the same, but on a 4K monitor, the game wasn’t painful to look at, and it ran at a pace that didn’t feel like a retro race car. The primary campaign and its tutorials are still a bit opaque, but the game feels smoothed out. The release notes for 1.0 and prior versions suggest a lot of little tweaks to both enemy and drone behavior and perhaps some more fair behavior by the computer opponents. Nothing is spelled out, but unlike my first foray, learning as I go doesn’t feel quite so cumbersome.
I only intended to play one map of KeeperFX for the purposes of this post, but I ended up playing … a few more than that. Each level in the primary campaign introduces a new mechanic, some new voiceovers, and a non-patronizing increase in difficulty. That’s in addition to the little jolts of nostalgia for that late-90s Bullfrog mix of dark humor, deep systems, and deeply rewarding strategy challenges.
Current IP holder Electronic Arts hasn’t done much with Dungeon Keeper, besides rework it into a micro-transaction sinkhole so bad that regulators demanded it stop calling itself “free to play.” Molyneux said back in 2008 that, while he’d love a chance to take another crack at Syndicate, Populous, or perhaps Dungeon Keeper, he wouldn’t hold his breath waiting for EA to call. “I’ve got no qualms of somebody else doing it,” Molyneux told VideoGamer.com. “I’d just love to see it updated, the concept kept alive.”
KeeperFX, and projects like it, are keeping foundational old games alive beyond simply shoving their code awkwardly forward into our era. It deserves praise, maybe a few bucks, and as few roadblocks as possible to doing so.
Listing image by KeeperFX