Bits from my personal collection – The Caverns of Freitag, influential but forgotten

In the mid-to-late ’80s, I had a love affair with simple action roleplaying dungeon and castle crawlers. While more intricate games like the Ultima and Wizardry series existed I always came back to the simple games, games that could be played and enjoyed in whatever short time available. An obscure Apple II game I for some time have been wanting to dig into is David Shapiro’s 1982 title The Caverns of Freitag, a game that fills the premise of a simple action roleplaying game.

When 14-year-old David Shapiro got an Apple II from his dad in 1979 he immediately knew that his future was in programming and game development. While he knew about computers and to some extent about rudimentary programming his fascination soon turned into an obsession and led him to learn both Apple BASIC and 6502 Assembly Language. The Apple II was a very capable machine but not many tools were available for doing graphics, and the few typically required the nearly $1000 expensive Apple II Graphics Tablet. Shapiro wanted to create graphics but didn’t have the means to acquire a tablet of his own. Whatever software available was more or less useless without it and consequently, he went on to create his own graphics tools with the option to draw the pixels either by keyboard or joystick.

In early 1982 BYTE Magazine was about to do an article on the large amount of public domain software available for the Apple II and Shapiro wanted his graphic package, Dr. Cat’s Grafix Disk, to be public domain and distributed freely to anyone with an interest. The editor of the magazine talked Shapiro into announcing it as where people could send him a floppy and a cheque for $8 and he would make a copy and ship it back. Many of the tools created were in many ways superior to what else was commercially available and the package, initially to be offered for free, earned him around $4.000 dollars.

Back in 1980 one of Shapiro’s friends had persuaded him to buy a modem to get access to the Indiana state university network and message boards. Shapiro, a Dr. Who fan and fascinated with author and illustrator Mark RogersSamurai Cat character, initially used the two online handles Dr. Who and The Samurai Cat when traversing online. Later he combined the two to Dr. Cat, a name he would use in all of his published software in one way or another.

By 1982, at age 17, Shapiro was a college sophomore. His dorm room was dominated by the two computers he had brought with him, one of which being his trusty Apple II. In between classes, he wrote what would become his first commercially released game. Inspired by his many Dungeons & Dragons sessions in middle- and high school, Richard Garriott‘s first Ultima title, and earlier Rogue games, he in BASIC with some Assembly Language routines wrote The Caverns of Freitag, a small yet intricate designed turn-based action roleplaying maze game. Shapiro used his own developed tools for graphics and sound. Using his own shape editor, he drew an 80×80 pixel maze which then translated into blocks of walls of the maze. While the layout of the maze never changed, the 14 different types of monsters, treasure chests, and healers were all spawned randomly. Shapiro, cleverly added multiple levels of zooms, displaying the playfield up close with graphics and the birds-eye overviews in the Apple computers textmode.

When Shapiro deemed the game complete he mailed it to Brøderbund, one of the biggest publishers of the time. While founder and president Doug Carlston was positive he wanted some changes and general improvements for his company to publish it. Shapiro knew the adjustments would make for a better game but at the time he just wanted the game published, earn royalties, and get on with a second and better game. The game was sent to Ed Zaron‘s MUSE Software on the east coast. While MUSE Software had made a name for itself with Silas Warner‘s 1981 successful title Castle Wolfenstein, the company didn’t have the marketing or distribution outreach that of Brøderbund. Nonetheless, MUSE Software was a serious player in the early industry and the two parties came to an agreement on royalties. The Caverns of Freitag was released for the Apple II in 1982.

David Shapiro’s The Caverns of Freitag was initially presented to Brøderbund but ended up being published by Ed Zaron’s MUSE Software for the Apple II in 1982

By 1983 boxed packaging was becoming the industry standard and MUSE Software re-released many of its titles, including The Caverns of Freitag

The Caverns of Freitag sold somewhere between 3.000 and 4.000 copies, while a far cry from the most successful titles of the era, it earned Saphiro enough money to convince him to drop out of college to pursue a career in game development.

While simple, The Caverns of Freitag had some clever design ideas. The game focused more on fast-paced action than the roleplaying aspect.
The player, a Techhu warrior, had to navigate through the caverns, battling numerous different guarding monsters, trying to reach the inner depth where the evil dragon, Freitag, lives.
While turn-based, every turn was defined by a timer which could be defined at the beginning of a game. Playing with a low timer meant you only had a very short time to make out your move, setting it apart from most other games in the genre

The likes of Ultima and Wizardry were vastly larger in scope, with much greater depth and complexity, and were already solidified with consumers as the roleplaying games to play. The modest success of The Caverns of Freitag soon let it into obscurity, in the U.S. that is. A copy of Shapiro’s game reached Yoshio Kiya, an employee with Nihon Falcom, Japan’s official Apple II distributor.
In 1984 Kiya copied the game’s concept to create the highly influential Dragon Slayer, released by Nihon Falcom in Japan for the NEC PC-8800 series of home computers. Dragon Slayer is now often referred to as one of the earliest and most influential action-roleplaying games but its success, which later on spawned hugely successful franchises like Xanadu, Ys, and The Legend of Zelda should be found in young Shapiro’s The Cavern of Freitag.

After a short stint at Angelsoft Shapiro joined Penguin Software in 1983 where he worked on the company’s games and popular graphic packages. In 1986 he joined Richard Garriot at Origin Systems and came to work on a number of Ultima titles, including the remake of Ultima I and a large portion of the characters and dialogues of Ultima VI. Shapiro stayed with the Garriotts and Origin Systems for five years.

In 1991 Shapiro founded the independent gaming company Dragon’s Eye Productions, Inc. which in 1994 launched DragonSpires, one of the Internet’s first graphics-based multi-user dungeons. The game focused on social relationships and peaceful community-building over combat and violence and the originality gained interest from multiple venture capital firms as well as from Origin Systems. The interest led to a remake called Furcadia which opened for the public in December of 1996.

Sources: Reddit AMA with David Shapiro, Matt Chat 361 Interview, Medium, Wikipedia, BYTE Magazine Feb. 1982…

3 thoughts on “Bits from my personal collection – The Caverns of Freitag, influential but forgotten

  1. Early Japanese RPG games developers were inspired by Westerners developers, mostly US developers. So the story you told about this game is consistent and interesting. It’s weird to think that Japanese videogame industry that started everything with Space Invaders and Pac-Man is greatly indebted with early Westeners developers.

    1. Thanks for your comment. It is indeed interesting, especially when we consider how the world back then was nowhere near as interconnected as today. The many popular Japanese coin-op games arriving on American soil around 1980 and the American pop culture which in general swept across the globe surely helped influence the young industry on both sides of the Pacific. At the dawn of the ’80s, Brøderbund imported a number of Japanese games for the personal computer. The Japanese connection essentially helped establish Brøderbund and put it on the path to becoming one of the biggest software houses in the world. The interaction between the US and Japan, while in some cases obscured, can’t be disregarded.

      1. In those not so far days the interaction was not so clear because of a small part of Japanese videogames were imported, especially in Italy where I live. Parallel import was high priced because independent importers were so greedy 😜 Nowadays almost all videogames are imported but Japanese developers adjusted theirs videogames to Westeners expectations. In the 16 bit era you can easily distinguish a Brit videogame, US videogame and Japanese were so different. Nowadays videogames are a lot better, but we loose a bit of differences of cultural “flavour”.

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