Catacomb for DOS

Catacomb Title Screen

Catacomb Title Screen

Catacomb was created by the legendary John Carmack in 1989 for the Softdisk company before he and others formed iD software. It was one of many games created for the Gamer’s Edge subscription series that SoftDisk was distributing at the time. Catacomb is a 2D scrolling action game that is sort of similar to Gauntlet. You are a magician by the name of Petton Everhail who has to collect treasure. Like many games of its era, the story isn’t really all that important to the game play.

Finding a key

Finding a key

Catacomb supports both EGA and CGA graphics, both of which are quite attractive and work quite well even on old hardware. I believe the reason for this is two-fold. It looks like the game scrolls a whole tile width or height at a time, it also appears that only changes to the game area are drawn. These two techniques combined mean that the amount of drawing required to update the screen would be minimal, especially given the minimalist design.

Sound support is provided only through the PC speaker, and you get the usual sorts of sounds. It’s certainly not stellar compared to what hardware available at the time could do, but quite comparable to many other PC games released at the time.

High Score

High Score

I’ve not played Gauntlet so it is hard to make a good comparison, but I’ll do the best I can based on what I’ve seen of it online. Catacomb is similar to Gauntlet in that it is a top-down shooter in which you navigate dungeons to retrieve treasure, but has some distinguishing features of its own. Unlike Gauntlet your health doesn’t decrease constantly, I suspect because it doesn’t need to eat your quarters (or 20c pieces here in Oz). Also you can carry a number of health potions to use at any time, which are fairly generously scattered around levels. The levels make more use of hidden secret shoot able walls, many of which you have to find in order to complete the level.

Level Exit

Level Exit

The game has some puzzle elements, you frequently must find keys and open doors in a specific order to get to the level exit. If you happen to do it the wrong way you can end up stuck, unable to open any further doors, your only option being restarting the entire game. There are no continues or lives, so this also happens if you die, making Catacomb a little bit Rogue-like.

Enemy Horde

Enemy Horde

It plays quite fast even on old machines, your fireballs travel the full distance of the screen quickly, and monsters will come at you in swarms just as fast. Luckily you can shoot quickly and you can charge your shots into a super fireball, which kills many monsters quickly. There are two spells, Bolt and Nuke, which honestly I have not had much call to use, but they would be handy for getting out of a jam. Bolt fires a powerful lightning bolt which can kill tougher enemies quicker, and Nuke fires normal bolts in all directions at once.

Red Teddy Bears?!

Red Teddy Bears?!

Catacombs controls are for the most part quite good. Moving, shooting and strafing (something relatively new at the time) all work quite well and use keys that feel easy to use together. However the keys for drinking potions and spells aren’t all that well placed. The key placement basically leads to a delay whilst you move your hands to hit the key for potions or special attacks. Fortunately this usually isn’t a big problem.

Don't believe everything you read.

Don’t believe everything you read.

Because of the excellent arcade action and exploration you should certainly give this game a try. The action is still fun today, and later levels can get quite challenging. It’s certainly one of the best action games of it’s era for DOS, and could be considered a classic. It’s pretty easy to find and get running under dosbox, so if you have time I’d recommend you give it a go.


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