Dun Darach is an arcade adventure published in 1985 by Gargoyle Games for the ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC computers.
The background history is based on Celtic folklore about the hero Cuchulainn, and his battles against the people of Connachta in ancient Ireland. “Dun Darach” or “Dún na nDarach” means “Oak Fort” in the Irish language. The game is a prequel to the 1984 game Tir Na Nog as the story takes place before that game, when Cuchulainn was still alive.
One day Cuchulainn was travelling home from a battle with the Connachta with his companion Loeg the charioteer. On the way, they stopped off at an inn and Loeg was persuaded to help a beautiful young woman named Skar whose chariot was damaged. Cuchulainn took refreshment at the inn and on leaving realised Loeg was missing. He later discovered that Skar is a sorceress and ally of the Connachta and had taken Loeg to the timeless Secret City of Dun Darach in retribution for the death of Prince Amhair. Cuchulainn went on a long search for the mysterious city and eventually discovered it and entered Dun Darach to find Loeg.
Dun Darach is an arcade adventure with interface and presentation nearly identical to Tir Na Nog or Marsport based on collecting objects, solving puzzles based on word puns or lateral thinking and interacting with other characters wandering through the city. The animation is in the same standard as Tir Na Nog, although there is no parallax scrolling. Since the game can take many hours to complete, there is support for saving its state to cassette tape.
Of course even WITH the inlay card, Dun Darach was pretty mystifying. Here’s a brief segment of the plot: “following a battle against the Conachta, Cuchulainn the Great was returning home to Muirmethne in company of his faithful charioteer, Loeg.” Yes, it’s fantasy names galore. It transpires that luckless Loeg was whisked away to the eponymous city by a naughty sorceress, so you (playing as Cuchulainn) must rescue him. Not too confusing, on the whole.
Baffled helplessness only sets in after the game dumps you in a street with a compass and some cash. Where to go, what to do – it’s up to you. Entirely up to you, because the manual certainly isn’t going to offer any handy hints. The freedom to tramp around the huge network of neatly rendered (and helpfully signposted) streets, and enter a wide assortment of shops, is absolute. Sometimes other lost souls will cross your path, and these characters may offer aid in return for incentives. But many will not.
Much like Lords of Midnight, Dun Darach abandons the player in its world and hopes they become suitably hooked. Although there are bewildering, semi-linear tasks to accomplish (apparently), finding what they are is another matter entirely. As soon as a task is accidentally stumbled upon, interest increases, but there’s a nagging feeling that a few helpful pointers could have turned this intriguingly open experience into an exceptional one.