In contrast to the traditional turn-based approach that was, in 1987, most common, Dungeon Master added real-time combat elements (akin to Active Time Battle). Other factors in immersiveness were the use of sound effects to indicate when a creature was nearby, and (primitive) dynamic lighting. Abstract Dungeons and Dragons style experience points and levels were eschewed in favor of a system where the characters' skills were improved directly via using them. Dungeon Master was not the first game to introduce these features. Dungeons of Daggorath for the TRS-80 Color Computer first employed them in 1982. Dungeon Master was, however, responsible for popularizing these elements. Other features of Dungeon Master included allowing players to directly manipulate objects and the environment by clicking the mouse in the enlarged first-person view. It also introduced some novel control methods including the spell casting system, which involved learning sequences of runes which represented the form and function of a spell's effect. For example, a fireball spell was created by mixing the fire symbol with the wing symbol. This kind of attention to detail and focus on the user interface was typical of the game and helped create an often captivating sense of craft and ingenuity.
While many previous games such as Alternate Reality: The Dungeon, The Bard's Tale, Ultima and Wizardry offered Dungeons & Dragons-style role-playing, Dungeon Master established several new standards for role-playing video games and first-person video games in general.
Another factor in its popularity may have been the imaginative mythology, with players often reporting a nurturing identity with their chosen characters. Nancy Holder, wife of producer Wayne Holder, wrote the storyline in the manual (from a base scenario suggested by Michael Newton and the FTL team). She is a successful novelist, and has written for television series including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and Smallville.
Many reviewers considered Dungeon Master as the best example of its genre, despite the many clone that arrived to challenge it. First of these was Bloodwych (1989), featuring similar gameplay but adding a mode allowing two simultaneous players on one machine. Other notable clones included Captive and Eye of the Beholder.
Originally, Dungeon Master was started with the name Crystal Dragon coded in Pascal, and targeted the Apple II platform. Doug Bell and Andy Jaros (Artwork) began development in their development studio PVC Dragon, before they joined in 1983 FTL Games. It was finished there in C programming language and published in 1987 for the Atari ST first. A slightly updated Amiga version was released the following year, which was the first video game to use 3D sound effects.
Dungeon Master was ported later to many platforms like PC, Apple IIGS, TurboGrafx-CD, SNES, Sharp X68000, PC-9801 and FM Towns. The game was also translated from English into German, French, Japanese, Chinese and Korean.
According to "The Definitive CDTV Retrospective: Part II" by Peter Olafson, Dungeon Master was ported to the Amiga CDTV but this version was never completed because FTL could not obtain reliable information from Commodore about saving games to memory cards. Dungeon Master was also ported to Macintosh but never released. There exists a prototype for the Atari Lynx under the name Dungeon Slayers.
The packaging cover art was designed and illustrated by David R. Darrow, for which Andy Jaros posed as the leftmost character pulling on the torch. The woman in the scene was Darrow's wife, Andrea, and the muscular man in the background is unknown, but hired by Darrow from a local fitness club. The painting itself is 25 to 30 inches high and doesn’t contain the word "Master". Darrow’s painting portrays a scene from the prologue in the manual for Dungeon Master. It shows the three (or four) main characters' last few minutes alive, and is a portrayal of the player’s challenge to defeat the antagonist, Lord Chaos. The heroes in the painting are Halk the Barbarian, Syra Child of Nature, Alex Ander – and Nabi the Prophet who’s been reduced to a bunch of skulls.
A soundtrack album, titled Dungeon Master: The Album, was released later. This album featured music composed by Darrell Harvey, Rex Baca, and Kip Martin. The original ST version and its faithful Amiga and PC ports contain no music. The album features music composed for the FM Towns game, as well as FM Towns version of Chaos Strikes Back, and some original tracks that were inspired by the games.
While Dungeon Master itself was inspired by early Ultima games, it was also itself the source of inspiration for the later Ultima Underworld game. Game journalist Niko Nirvi wrote that no 3D role-playing title before Ultima Underworld (1992) could challenge Dungeon Master as a game.
To date Dungeon Master retains a small but faithful following online, with several fan-made ports and remakes available or in development. Notable reception received a faithful reconstruction of the Atari ST version, called "CSBWin", which was released in 2001. Reverse engineered in six months work from the original by Paul R. Stevens, the available source code of CSBwin lead to many ports for modern platforms like Windows and Linux. In 2014 Christophe Fontanel released another reverse engineering project which tries to recreate all existing versions and ports.
Dungeon Master debuted on 15 December 1987 on the Atari ST, and by early 1988 was a strong seller, becoming the best-selling game for the computer of all time; Bell estimated that at one point more than half of all Atari ST owners had purchased the game. Because of FTL's sophisticated copy protection, many who otherwise pirated their software had to purchase Dungeon Master to play the game. The Amiga version was the first prominent game to require 1 MB of RAM, likely causing many to purchase additional memory; at least one manufacturer of Amiga memory bundled Dungeon Master with its memory-expansion kit. As with Wizardry, many others offered for sale strategy guides, game trainers, and map editors, competing with FTL's own hint book.
Hosea Battles, Jr. of Computer Gaming World in 1988 praised the attention to detail in the dungeons' graphics, allowing players to "practically feel the damp chill of the dungeons portrayed", as well as those of the monsters, including the multiple facial expressions on the ogres. The magazine said the control system works "extremely well" and "one's adrenaline really flows because the game is in real-time." The reviewer also praised the extensive use of sound effects, uncommon to RPGs. He complained that the manual does not describe monsters or their attributes, of a "frustrating" shortage of food and water replenishments and that the lack of a map makes the game "extremely difficult". He called the game "fantastic" and said "It is a welcome addition to any fantasy player's library. Those who want a good fantasy/role-playing game will love this one." Scorpia stated in the magazine in 1992 that the newly released IBM PC version's graphics "are surprisingly good, all things considered" despite the game's age, but wrote that "No endgame has ever given me so much trouble or frustration". Although she believed that the game "is still eminently worth playing, even years later[, and] still has something to offer the seasoned adventurer", because of the endgame Scorpia "can't give it a blanket recommendation". In 1993 she stated that "the game still holds up well after seven years, even graphically, and is worth playing today", but because of the ending was "not for the easily-frustrated".
Computer and Video Games in 1988 called the story a "cliché" but praised the graphics, sound and controls. The reviewer said Dungeon Master is an example of a title which "changes the way we think about games" and a "must for all roleplayers". Antic called the game as "revolutionary" as Zork and Flight Simulator II, citing "spectacular" graphics and stating that the game was "almost worth buying for the sound-effects alone". Despite the "commonplace" story "where once again, an Evil Wizard has taken over control of the world", the magazine advised readers to "buy this game". Advanced Computing Entertainment said the graphics are "largely repetitive" but "wonderfully drawn" and wrote the "Sound is sparse but the effects are great." The reviewer called it a "thrilling game with plenty in it to keep you searching, fighting and pondering for a long time." He summarised the game as a "huge, immensely playable and very atmospheric mixture of role-playing and adventure. If you've been looking for a real-time role-playing game that manages to keep you interested for long periods of time, then your prayers have been answered." The Games Machine wrote: "the innovative character selection system and icon display are both neatly implemented and quick to use", praised the "superb" atmosphere - enhanced by the spare but apt sound effects - and called the game universe "believable because of its details". The magazine praised the color and clarity of the monster graphics and the shading of the surroundings. It called the story and setting a "wholly engrossing scenario [which] creates a complete world which can be manipulated at will: its depth fully reflects the two years it took to program it. The presentation - an interesting and evocative novella neither too involved to prove turbid not too short to be unhelpful - is superb." The reviewer summarised: "Dungeon Master is a role-player's dream, but capable of providing a good deal of enjoyment for any ST owner."
Kati Hamza of Zzap!64 said of the Amiga version: "The first-person perspective ensures an incredibly realistic atmosphere - you just can't help really getting into the feeling of walking through damp echoing caverns looking for ghosts." The reviewer also said: "The puzzles are incredibly devious, the spell system is really flexible and the need to practise magic and spells gives the whole thing that extra-special depth." The reviewer asserted: "This has to be the most amazing game of all-time, anywhere, ever". In the same issue Gordon Houghton said: "This is just about the most incredible game I've ever seen. When you pick it up you find you lose whole days of your life." He said: "The best time to play it is late at night in a room by yourself - it's guaranteed to scare the life out of you. It's like Gauntlet in 3D, but about a hundred times better. If you enjoy arcade adventures, RPGs or combat games, but it: it's the perfect combination of all three." Reviewer Maff Evans professed to be little enthused by RPGs generally but said "I know a brilliant game when I see one and this is a brilliant game." He praised the scares delivered by ambushing monsters and said "you'd have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to be affected by the atmosphere". The magazine complained that saving games is "a bit laboured" but praised the "extremely detailed and accessible" controls, "interactive, detailed and extremely atmospheric" scenery and said the clarity of the graphics made the game an unusually accessible RPG. It summarized: "you'll be playing for months" and said Dungeon Master was "The best game we've ever seen".
Also reviewing the Amiga version, Graham Kinsey of Amazing Computing wrote that Dungeon Master "completely blows away any other RPG on the Amiga market today, and may do for some time". Dave Eriksson of Amiga Computing praised the "brilliant" graphics, sound effects and replay-value and said "Dungeon Master is the most stunning role-playing game I have seen on the Amiga". Antic's Amiga Plus felt the game "captures the essence of Dungeons & Dragons role-playing games". The reviewer praised the "dazzling" graphics, called the user-friendly controls "a real joy" and said the game was the "best graphics adventure for the Amiga to date." Your Amiga called the sound "extremely well done" and said the "most striking feature of the game is the attention to detail". The reviewer said called the game "amazing" and recommended: "If you never buy another game, by [sic] this one."
Andy Smith of Advanced Computing Entertainment several months after its release called Dungeon Master "one of the all time classics" and said "What makes Dungeon Master really special (apart from the marvellous 3D graphics and eerie sound effects) are the puzzles". The game was reviewed in 1988 in Dragon #136 by Hartley, Patricia, and Kirk Lesser in "The Role of Computers" column. The reviewers gave the game 4½ out of 5 stars. The Lessers reviewed the PC/MS-DOS version in 1993 in Dragon #195, giving this version 5 stars. In 1997, ten years after release, Dungeon Master got again a 5 from 5 stars score in a review.
In 1990 the game received the second-highest number of votes in a survey of Computer Gaming World readers' "All-Time Favorites".
Dungeon Master received the Special Award for Artistic Achievement from Computer Gaming World when it was initially released. It achieved the top place in the magazine's game rankings system, and was entered into its hall of fame in November 1989.
The following is a comprehensive list of awards received by the game.Special Award for Artistic Achievement awarded in 1988 by Computer Gaming World
Adventure Game of the Year, 1988 — UK Software Industry Awards
Best Selling Atari ST Title, 1988 — UK Software Industry Awards
Best Role Playing Game, 1988 — PowerPlay Magazine (German)
Best Role Playing Game, 1988 — Tilt Magazine
Best Sound Effects, 1988 — Tilt Magazine
Game of the Year, 1988 — Computer Play Magazine
Best Atari ST Game, 1988 — Computer Play Magazine
Game of the Year, 1988 — 4th Generation Magazine (French)
"Golden Sword" Award ,1988 — The Adventurer's Club of the UK
Best Role Playing Game, 1988 — The Adventurer's Club of the UK
"Beastie Award", 1988 — Dragon Magazine
Best Atari ST Title, 1988 — Dragon Magazine
Best Game, 1989 — Amiga World Magazine
Best Role Playing Game, 1989 — Amiga World Magazine
Best Amiga Game, 1989 — Game Player's Magazine
Best Amiga Game, 1989 — Datormagazin (Swedish)
"Beastie Award" Best Apple //GS Title, 1989 — Dragon Magazine
Best Game, 1989 — Info Magazine
Best of the Amiga, 1989 — Compute magazine
Inducted as an original member in the Computer Gaming World Hall of Fame in 1989
Designated as one of the 100 Best Games by PowerPlay Magazine (German, January 1990)
16th best game of all time in Amiga Power (May 1991)