“I listened a lot to my players and kept making enhancements to the game to fix problems, to challenge them, and to keep them going. If anyone managed to win, I immediately found out how, and ‘enhanced’ the game to make it harder. I once vowed it was ‘unbeatable’, and a week later a friend of mine beat it! His character, ‘Iggy’, was placed into the game as ‘The Evil Iggy’, and immortalized… And of course, I went in and plugged up the trick he used to win…”
– Robert Alan Koeneke,
First released in 1983, Moria started out as a Rogue clone for University of Oklahoma’s VAX-11/780 minicomputer. As the development went on, the game started to differ significantly from its predecessor: the setting became Tolkien’s Middle-Earth and the objective was to kill the Balrog.
More importantly, Moria introduced several gameplay innovations that would later become essential to a certain subgenre of roguelikes: a town with shops at the top of the dungeon, scrolling multiple-screen maps, spells, artifact items with special properties, character classes and races and the need to carry a source of light.
At the beginning of each game, a new character must be created. Race, class and sex are chosen by the player while all the stats as well as the character’s background are randomized (the game allows rerolling so one shouldn’t worry too much). From then on, Moria is pure dungeon crawling with occasional trips back to the town in order to sell useless equipment and buy better one, replenish food and torches and identify unknown items.
The game (as well as other inspired by it) is focused mostly on combat and exploration and doesn’t feature NetHack’s item-based puzzles or ADOM’s quests – like Rogue before it, it’s all about getting to the bottom of the dungeon while fighting against hordes of monsters. Levels (with the exception of a town) in Moria don’t persist – when you return to the dungeon floor you’ve visited, it will be generated anew.
Moria’s interface differs a bit from the one of Rogue: this time, playing area occupies the right side of the screen, with the character information placed on the left. There are also a few graphical differences like the walls being denoted by a hash sign and the inequality signs being used for staircases. The game is played through a text terminal (with the usual possibility of playing the game remotely through telnet or ssh) and controlled with the keyboard. The control scheme might be a problem for laptop owners as most versions of Moria are controlled with the numpad, without the possibility of using arrow keys or the vi-style controls.
Unfortunatelly, Moria is an early roguelike and it suffers from many of the same problems a player might encounter with Rogue or Hack: it’s difficult while not being complex enough to provide you a way of preparing yourself for the worst encounters. That would be enough to make your survival in any game dependent on the mercy of random number generator but Moria takes it a few steps further: while the game was being developed, each new version was supposed to be a challenge for the veteran players who’ve managed to beat the previous ones. As a result, Moria’s difficulty makes the game unwelcoming even to those who’ve played roguelikes before and don’t have a problem with procedurally generated levels, permanent death and high level of difficulty.
After being abandoned in 1987 by its original creator Robert Alan Koeneke, the game lived on as Unix Moria – or uMoria – a port that thanks to being written in C provided new players with the possibility of playing Moria on different hardware (contrary to what the name suggests, uMoria can be played on systems other than Unix, e.g. MS-DOS). This is by far the most popular version of Moria and the one that inspired the creation of games such as Castle of the Winds, Angband and even Diablo.
Nowadays, the popularity of Moria and uMoria has been far surpassed by the derivative titles, especially Angband (in fact, the subgenre of roguelikes that has been codified by this game is often described Angband-like). While it’s sad that such an important game in the history of CRPGs is being overlooked, it’s easy to see why: Angband is extremely faithful to the gameplay and setting (although this time players are tasked with defeating Morgoth) of original Moria while greatly improving it and expanding upon it. It’s simply a better game that, while still challenging, won’t scare off less experienced players.
While everyone with an interest in roguelike games should play a few sessions of Moria to experience an important part of the genre’s history, chances are that more fun will be had with games that descended from it. MM