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Retro Dreams: 1980 D&D Computer Labyrinth Game
On a recent family trip, I endeavored to unearth an electronic old school fantasy treasure from my past that had been haunting my waking dreams as of late - Mattel’s “Dungeons & Dragons Computer Labyrinth Game” from 1980.
Fortunately, the Gnome keepers of the dragon flame (my young nephews) were able to locate the bequeathed contents in short order. You see, they had become possessors several years back when my father got tired of the failure-to-launch big boxes of my and my brother’s kid stuff in his garage and shipped them to a random son - which happened in this case to be my brother. That’s ok though, because I got his My Little Pony collection through this mercurial quirk of fate. Kidding.
Seeing the battered moth-eaten box flooded me with nostalgia of the excitement when I unwrapped this game on a special holiday so many years ago.
Right there across the polychromatic-front-cover-dragon reads:
“An electronic fantasy adventure for 1 or 2 warriors”
Now, how could any game that says that not be cool? But wait, the side of the box reveals more!
“Find and steal the dragon’s treasure. Exciting electronic sounds guide you through the labyrinth, warn you when the dragon wakes. A game of strategy and high adventure, played on an electronic, touch-sensitive board.”
“High Adventure” indeed! What of the back of the box, you ask?
“A GAME OF STRATEGY: Play alone or against a rival warrior and the dragon computer”. 2 skill levels”
“A GAME OF SKILL: Find your way through the labyrinth on a touch-sensitive electronic board. Electronic sounds help you locate labyrinth walls. Walls shift with each new game.”
“A GAME OF ADVENTURE: Watch out! Electronic sounds tell you the dragon is after you. Find and stela the treasure before the dragon gets you, and you win!”
Buried in the “GAME INCLUDES” fine print, reads:
“3 plastic markers - 2 for secret rooms, 1 for treasure room”
Strategy, Skill, Adventure, 2-player option, treasure, a covetous hunting dragon, electronic sounds, shifting walls, secret rooms, AND a “DRAGON COMPUTER”!? Can you imagine, in a time before personal computers, when a mere calculator could cost $20 ($74 in today’s dollars!) and when nascent game consoles like the Atari 2600 were barely out to have obtained something like this?
The game originally cost $50 in 1980 (that’s $183 in 2023 dollars), but my parents found it at Kay Bee Toys for only $19.99, which even though quite a savings, was still not cheap.
I imagine they found it on clearance a year or two after its initial debut, which is so cool. I mean, $183 was an insane price for a kid’s toy, so I bet a lot of these sat unsold for quite a while.
Here’s the inspiring TV commercial I remember:
To embrace the digital revolution, TSR granted Mattel an exclusive license in the summer of 1980 to produce electronic games based on the D&D/AD&D brand.
“At the Consumer Electronics Show in 1981, Gary Gygax [creator of D&D] was on hand to demonstrate the next product in Mattel’s line up, the D&D Computer Labyrinth Game.” - excerpt from the book “Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History”
Wow! The game “board” itself looks so incredible - shaped like a castle with 4 corner turrets.
The game pieces include shiny diecast metal miniatures of 2 warriors, a dragon, a treasure chest along with red plastic slitted walls and green plastic room markers.
I remember when I played this as a kid - my heartrate accelerating, palms sweating, and being so nervous whenever I would wake the dragon (sometimes after the first move!) There was no stopping his onslaught after that point. At the end of every one of your turns you would then hear his flying electronic sound, knowing he was moving 1 square closer to you, waiting, always waiting with bated breath to hear if the dreaded attack sound followed . . . “AH-uhh,AH-uhh,AH-uhh”
So, my box is looking great, but what of the contents within? Did everything survive the ravages of house moves, moths, and scorching Florida garage storage?
Pristine! Just like I remember it. Check out the super-cool old school style illustrations on the touch-sensitive squares.
Guess where the game pieces are - in a seamless drawer built into the board! Such neat engineering.
Ah, there they are - the diecast pieces not as shiny as they used to be (who of us is?), but they’re there - along with the other pieces and an AMAZINGLY illustrated instruction manual.
I even have all 50 out of 50 walls! (Pat self on back for taking care of my things as a kid)
But can this bird still fly?
Find a (good) 9-volt battery.
Plug it in.
Turn on the switch.
Darn, time to start troubleshooting.
Turns out, the circuit board has some corroded traces - almost certainly due to past storage with a battery that leaked its acid.
Stored with battery. (Un-pat back)
Oh, to hear the sounds of the waking/stalking/attacking dragon once again! Is this dream dead after we have come so far?
What kind of defeatist attitude is that, Adventurer?
I shall quest for the requisite formulaic components, and if need be, employ a wizard to repair this corroded castle of cash crusading.
Here’s one such wizard, Cameron Kaiser, who documents the nuts and volts of this beloved game: http://oldvcr.blogspot.com/2023/01/here-be-four-bits-of-dragons-mattel.html
In the meantime, I want to share with you a bit of what this game was like in its glory, so check out this excellent video I found online by Jon of GenXGrownUp!
Jon gives an overview of the box, contents, sounds and gameplay. I totally dig it and am so glad I found his YouTube channel. As a fellow Gen Xer, I know I’m going to spend A LOT of time consuming his other videos (he has over 800 so far!) and re-living the toys, games and culture of the ‘70s and ‘80s!
This game didn’t get the best of reviews back in the day, especially since it was so expensive, didn’t really capture the richness of “real-life” D&D, and also because it went head-to-head with Dark Tower electronic game. Here’s one of the kinder reviews that’s fun to read:
But even though the reviews were mixed, it had quite an influence on those who played it and even today still draws many who always wanted it (My Precious!!!) or who are curious about such an incredible piece of old school fantasy history that existed at the threshold of the digital revolution. Here are several great blog articles of other fellow adventurers who reminisced about it:
SUPER-COOL ALERT: If you want to give the game a go yourself, and don’t want to hunt it down on eBay (or repair your broken one like me), you can play a simulator at dndlabyrinth.com !!! It’s like playing it for real, with photographic illustration and sound effect accuracy - the only element I found missing is guessing where the dragon is by marking it with the figurine - but the dragon does show up on the board when you’re attacked, so really, it’s almost 100% like the real thing. You can even play 2-players. Thank you, oh Nameless Developer!
You know, I just realized this: I thought my introduction to Dungeons & Dragons was through the Endless Quest gamebook series which I encountered at the Scholastic Bookmobile around 1982, but now realize this electronic game pre-dated even that fortuitous encounter!
This computer labyrinth served to cultivate a love of Dungeons & Dragons in me that led seamlessly to those wonderful D&D Endless Quest books, the Cartoon D&D series on Saturday mornings, D&D action figures, and the D&D RPG boxed sets and AD&D volumes that I eventually willed into my possession. Did it even play a part in my eventual career in tech support? It’s definitely possible.
I used to take apart all my electronic toys to see what made them tick (and hardly EVER had extra parts when putting them back together). In a way, I’m perversely glad I finally got the chance to crack this labyrinth open!
It seems there was no getting around the influence of Dungeons & Dragons if you were a kid in the early ‘80s. I’m not complaining though.
It’s no wonder flashbacks and retro dreams of these fantastical products of yore still flash through my mind on occasion. They brought me joy back then, and now decades later, uncovered & reclaimed, they bring true joy once again.
Dragon attack anxiety aside, I can’t help but be grateful for these dreams. Please don’t wake me up.
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(Featuring artwork from Luke Eidenschink & Clyde Caldwell!)