Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Dark Castle: Are You Sure Mac Done it This Way?

When I finished up Tracker, and was putting all the usual info into my spreadsheets, I was struck by the realization that the last thirty or so games I had been playing were all generally bad. Oh, there were exceptions, certainly, but most of them were not. It takes a special kind of madman to play through all the games in a certain genre to begin with, but I was not the kind of madman to want to play endless trash. The last game I picked randomly was a Dr. Brain title, but in that case, it was because I had spent a long time getting it to work and there were no guarantees it would work for me ever again. I guess its similar here, but Dark Castle is something I've been meaning to play properly for a long time.

Best known for its Sega Genesis and Philips CD-i versions, which were covered by the Angry Video Game Nerd. They had infamously bad controls, in which you aimed rocks via the gamepad in a circle fashion. It was quite difficult to use properly. Surely, the Macintosh original doesn't have that problem. Surely.

Of course it does. Its not as bad...but its still not good. It aims in the same manner, its just controlled more smoothly via the mouse. This doesn't change the fundamental issues this game had. Namely, being incredibly difficult, the player character being a dunce, respawning enemies, and the game seemingly mocking you for not getting it right. See, if you don't know, the PC trips over a slight drop in elevation. What is this random bit of realism doing in my mostly arcade-style action game? The real advantage the Macintosh version has is the down and duck functions are mapped to two different buttons. This matters, because the game actually suggests you press multiple directions, so you can move more quickly. This is vital to your existence.

The story is that Duncan, a local prince, has volunteered to fight the Black Knight in his Dark Castle. That's the story. You can just go straight to him, but you need items held in different rooms or you'll get killed. And to get those items, you need luck, or you'll be killed. You'll probably be killed. The "beginner" setting is a lie, you have four lives, no saves, and any advantage beginner provides is such a small thing that offering difficulty settings is pointless. I'm told it adds more enemies, which is what difficulty usually does, but here that feels like a slap in the face.

So, three paths forward. First, I'm going to talk about the Shield path, or as far as I got this session. The first screen you have to get past a guard throwing boulders in a set path. Its like Donkey Kong. I don't like Donkey Kong. I can stand a short sequence of it if I'm forced to, but in a game with one-hit kills and a collection of other downers? It doesn't help that I have to kill these multi-handed creatures beforehand. You can't kill the guard, either, he's there forever. This is an awkward sequence, but its definitely doable.

The dragon here seems oddly cartoony for the rest of the game

Shield 2 is an outside level. Here I have to deal with a dragon. And bats. Bats are the worst enemy in this game, they respawn constantly, like everything else, but they have a threat range of the entire level. So, I have to jam a bunch of rocks at them, run past, throw more rocks, go up the ladder, hoping the dragon is breathing fire at that moment, to reach the top. This isn't where the level ends, no I have to pour water on the dragon, and in an incredibly precise sequence, run past him. The more I play it, the more I suspect I'm playing the 1986 version of I Wanna Be the Guy.

Trouble, hyuk, hyuk, hyuk. This level exposes another problem this game has. You can't shoot while moving or on a set of stairs. While this level isn't the absolute worst in regards to this, it is quite a sheer cliff. You have to time it right so the guy who pops out in the lower left doesn't get back up and throw a spear at you, while also making sure you don't touch a rat. It is quite doable after some practice.
Which leads to Trouble 2. I didn't get very far in this one because on my first life I didn't see the bats and on my second life I missed a jump. I only had two lives when I reached here. I'd wager this is no Pitfall though.
Fireball is the most infamous of the rooms, leading to a different flock of bats and the things that make a really annoying sound. Its hard to describe properly, but imagine someone mimicking a small child laughing mockingly, but very badly. To be honest its not that bad, perhaps its just because its the one I've spent the most time on. This leads to...
Fireball 2 is precision platforming, in a game that is fiercely willing to screw you over. There are only two bats here, but that's all this level needs. Think on that for a second. There are three jumps, that the game graciously told me I could do. Regular jump, running jump, and down jump. The last isn't jumping down, you just have a shorter jumping arc. Once you get used to the controls, its not too bad. Reminds me of a bad sequence in the Men in Black game, except that one was worse than this. Boy, I wonder why I hate platforming in games so much...
Fireball 3 is hell. You have to jump on a series of platforms moving down the river while rocks are falling from above. I don't know how to deal with this at all yet. This game, man, this game.

That's as far as I got in each stage so far, I'm probably going to complete each one individually before finally reaching the Black Knight, but this is not the improvement I was told it was. Checking the AVGN episode, I've gone just about as far as he did. Perhaps he went a little further in places.

This Session: 1 hour

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