Back in 2014, fans of 1997's Dungeon Keeper couldn't hold back their enthusiasm over the prospect of this classic PC game rebooting for mobile platforms. And really, it's hard to blame them: Peter Molyneux's addictive dungeon-building sim has been begging for a proper update for well over a decade.
This enthusiasm deflated nearly instantly when EA revealed the true form of this new Dungeon Keeper: A free-to-play game with obnoxious paywalls standing between the player and some very basic actions. F2P can work well when developers design a game from the ground up with monetization in mind, but EA Mythic simply took the existing parts of Dungeon Keeper and propped up a series of tollbooths. In an interview with the BBC, Molyneux couldn't bite his tongue when the conversation wandered to how EA tampered with one of his babies: "I felt myself turning round saying, 'What? This is ridiculous. I just want to make a dungeon. I don't want to schedule it on my alarm clock for six days to come back for a block to be chipped.'"
As I pointed out in my comfort food games piece on Theme Hospital, these days, it's easy to see Peter Molyneux as an overambitious dreamer who makes big promises and can't quite finish what he starts. That may be true of his 21st century career, but the decade preceding Y2K saw the developer create some of the most brilliantly unique and fun experiences PC gaming has to offer. Given Molyneux's trajectory, in retrospect, it's more than a little sad his last game with Bullfrog Productions—which he left to form the troubled Lionhead Studios—would ultimately be his best. In its finest moments, Dungeon Keeper perfectly emblemizes Molyneux's output in the '90s: It's a wholly original idea injected with some ambitious and unexpected elements, leading to an experience that's dangerously addictive.
Of course, Molyneux didn't stumble upon Dungeon Keeper's formula by accident. In a nutshell, it mashes together two of the most popular genres in PC gaming at the time: RTSes and god games. As a titular dungeon keeper, you're tasked with bringing corruption to the land by building a series of dangerous labyrinths underneath it, which lure in your typical RPG heroes in search of gold and glory. And your actions all work within a surprisingly addictive gameplay loop: send your army of imps out in search for gold, use said gold to build rooms and spawn new and deadly creations, rinse and repeat. Oh, and while all this is happening, the good guys will be steadily working their way towards your Dungeon Heart—which, if destroyed, will end your game—so you'd better get a move on.
Even though you're building a dungeon, Dungeon Keeper also asks you to bit of exploring, as well. Since each new level brings its own uncharted tract of underground land, much of the game past the initial building stage involves scouting areas that can be just as dangerous for you as they are for invading heroes. And, as with any good RTS, your resources in any given stage are ostensibly finite, so when Dungeon Keeper starts getting more devious, you may need to restart a few times to figure out which aspects of your lair to prioritize.
Even with these elements in place, Dungeon Keeper wouldn't be Dungeon Keeper without its glossy coat of humor that can only be called "cheeky"—this is a British production, after all. While your presence in the world amounts to a twitchy, disembodied hand, your perpetually annoyed assistant provides more than enough personality. If something is going wrong in your Dungeon, he can't help but bark out a call to action dripping with contempt—and when it's time for your troops to grab their share of your loot, he proudly announces "IT IS PAYDAY." Every piece of Dungeon Keeper is laced with dark humor, from the gleefully malevolent mission briefings, which detail the ruin you will soon bring to a peaceful populace, to the leather-clad dominatrix units that whip your troops into shape in their torture chambers.
True to the spirit of Peter Molyneux, Dungeon Keeper falters under its own weighty ambition at times. At its best, the combat can be described as messy, as the sprite-based units often congeal into visual chaos in the midst of action—when you're dealing with unique units in possession of their own strengths, weaknesses, levels, and abilities, keeping track of these variables in the heat of battle can prove difficult. And, at times, Dungeon Keeper explores certain paths its admittedly impressive engine clearly isn't ready for. The fact that you can possess any unit and explore your dungeon from a first-person perspective stands as a very cool addition, but things quickly fall apart when as soon as you're tasked with doing more than simply wandering around while inside a minion's body.
Dungeon Keeper would return without Molyneux in 1999 with Dungeon Keeper 2—which did much to clean up the original's messiness—but, to date, nothing has felt quite like the original. And even though you can play modern games like Dungeons 2 that build off of Dungeon Keeper's premise, both games from the Bullfrog series can be purchased from Good Old Games for less than $10; and, thanks to the magic of DOSBox, you shouldn't have any problems running them on modern machines. Until some Stardew Valley-style savior arrives to fill the void, Dungeon Keeper is still worth taking a trip back to the '90s.