Any British gamer who had a PC more advanced than a yogurt pot with a bit of string attached must surely remember Dungeon Keeper. While games these days revel in antiheroes or straight up villain protagonists, Dungeon Keeper was among the first to truly let you be the bad guy. Your job was to expand your evil empire, corrupt the land, destroy the heroes, and slap your own soldiers around to keep them in line. Dungeon Keeper was everything good about being bad, and the joy is that it still holds up today. Games as a whole have gotten darker, and protagonists have gotten less heroic. Nevertheless, nothing tops the nefarious satisfaction of being the big bad.
Dungeon Keeper, for those that somehow don’t know, takes a little strategy and sprinkles it over some dark-hearted simulation. The game is split into realms, all of which start with a dungeon heart — the lifeblood of any dungeon that needs protecting at all costs. You start out with a small band of imps, your loyal workers who will dig tunnels, mine gold, and reinforce freshly dug earth to allow you to build rooms. Players will need to dig towards and claim a portal, then build a lair to start attracting creatures to the dungeon. There’s a simple cause-and-effect formula to Dungeon Keeper, where building certain rooms of certain sizes will attract new minions who will fight alongside you. Build a big enough library, and you’ll start to attract warlocks. Should your hatchery fill with delicious chickens, a huge Bile Demon might lend his impressive strength to your cause. Minions can be put to work in rooms so that the army is strengthened, with workshops allowing for new defenses to be built, libraries awarding the player with spells, and training rooms allowing for monsters to level up.
Naturally, resource management is a big part of the experience. Minions will demand payment, and bigger lairs must be created as the army expands. Angry creatures will happily discard their loyalty for you, and woe betide any player unfortunate enough to piss off a Horned Reaper, a powerful creature that requires so much pampering and payment that one false move will send him on a murderous rampage. It’s generally considered a good idea to not try and win his favor.
Dungeon Keeper is one of the earliest games I remember becoming truly obsessed with, and as a kid I only ever had the demo for a very long time. That single level was still enough to keep me captivated, as the simply joy of building the biggest, best dungeon conceivable kept dragging me back, no matter how many times I valiantly slew the champion of the land. Many games can be considered power fantasy, but the sheer megalomaniacal rush of empowerment that comes from utterly dominating an opponent in Dungeon Keeper is comparable to nothing. This is a game that injects pure, malevolent, glee into your brain as you demolish an opposing force and take over everything that your enemy once held dear, mercilessly stabbing any remaining forces in the back as they try to run away. Now that’s power.
As with many Bullfrog games from the nineties, the wonderful art direction and sense of dark humor kept things fun. There was a beautiful sadistic streak to Dungeon Keeper, one that was allowed to pass due to the inherently cartoony nature of the graphics. It may have looked harmless to the untrained eye, but this was a game in which you could torture good and honest people, starve them to death, and employ an army of Dark Mistresses who enjoyed it when you hurt them. Had this game been released nowadays with realistic graphics, one could easily imagine it making Daily Mail headlines and FOX News reports. It’s a brutal, bloody, nasty little game. But it’s just too deliciously amusing to take very seriously.
Dungeon Keeper still holds up today, as far as I’m concerned. Yes, the graphics are rudimentary and the strategy is fairly light, but that’s all part of the charm. I stopped playing a lot of simulation and strategy games when they became almost alienating in their depth and complexity. The original Dungeon Keeper kept things light enough to just have fun — dropping you into a dungeon with gold to mine, secrets to discover, and hapless do-gooders to slaughter. There’s a very basic gratification in secluding one’s self in the dismal depths, silently building an army while the heroes rest easy, then unleashing a glorious slaughter upon the foolish opposition. Bullfrog nailed that feeling perfectly, and I don’t think it’s a feeling that’s been recaptured.
Overlord is possibly the closest modern games have gotten to putting one in the shoes of an evil fantasy warlord, but even then, one never gets to be downright evil. In both games, the player is pit against far more villainous entities making you much more an antihero than an actual baddie. Developers seem almost afraid to have a protagonist without at least some noble trait these days, or at least an adversary that isn’t far worse. Saints Row may be the most fitting spiritual successor, but by the third game, your once-psychotic gang leader was already going up against objectively less heroic military personnel. In Dungeon Keeper, you’re not the lesser of two evils. Your goal is to be the evil. You see something nice and you destroy it, you see a fellow dungeon keeper and you steal everything it has. You’re never good, and you’re never fighting someone worse than you.
Dungeon Keeper had balls, and it’s $5.99 on GOG, as is its larger, graphically improved sequel. By all accounts, both games are worth picking up, but I can’t get over my soft spot for the original.
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