Thursday, June 10, 2021

Game 73: Dark Castle

Name:Dark Castle
Publisher:Silicon Beach Software
Developer:Silicon Beach Software
Time:1 hour 30 minutes

I couldn't do it, I couldn't beat Dark Castle. Its one thing to be unreasonably hard, but its another to mess with what little progress I can make. I've seen about 75% of the game, but taking that last 25% and actually beating it is just soul-draining. But let's not kid ourselves, if Dark Castle was good it would have some kind of trick so you don't feel like you're pointlessly playing the same screens over and over again. It doesn't, so I don't feel like I missed much.

Dark Castle does deserve plenty of credit. Most of its contemporaries had either had no aiming or simple 8-directional shooting. While I'm sure something later could prove me wrong, by what has survived in public conscience, Dark Castle is the first on a path to the kind of system something like Abuse would eventually use, the ideal side-scrolling shooting system. As it plays, it shares more with artillery style games like Scorched Earth than anything else.
It was a necessary misstep, however. While the extreme trial and era wasn't uncommon in the era, especially in Mac games, mouse aiming was uncommon. Its hard to imagine why someone wouldn't just try point and click, but such things would be more complicated with the way arcing works with rocks in this game. So in a way, that misstep was mandated by the artistic choices the developer made. At least that's what it looks like without understanding the true technical issues of such things. Today, its obvious that a Dark Castle-style game would take more effort, but that's not necessarily true then.
But the big problem here is the difficulty. The way the game is set up, everything kills you and its going to if you're not careful. Except a few falls which teleport you to a different room. That is when the game switches gears from difficult to obnoxious. But the thing is that without the massive difficulty, I would have beaten this already. So I understand why its there, a game that costs over 20$ needs to have something that makes it cost that much. But honestly, for most of it, I didn't feel that bad about the game. Its just the series of rooms, Trouble, that pushed me over the edge.

There are four series of rooms, named after where they take you to, Fireball, Shield, Black Knight and Trouble. Fireball and Shield give you items, Black Knight is the final boss. Trouble is exactly what it sounds like. Unlike the other series of rooms, the end goal is the door you start off in. You're supposed to go down some stairs, climb up a rope, jump across some more, knock out a special guard, take a key that isn't trapped (its random) and return to where you started. Along with the usual assortment of vermin and skeletons. The fun part is that everything that would be a pit trap in a different game, takes you to the last part of Trouble. So you can't avoid this screen.

But let's examine that difficulty, outside of that part. Its still very cheap in places. Oh, sure, everyone and their dog were making the player a one-hit kill back in the day, and this game does offer a few situations where you can escape instant death. But enemies respawn, which is a no-no in my book. Enemies that you stun are honestly easier to fight than enemies you can kill. Then there's the player character himself. He mostly controls well, except...he falls over everything. knocked out enemies, gaps in the floor. Is the intent humor? I probably take games too seriously in general, since I'm not much for the humor in most games, but, I could probably handle this situation better than the character I'm playing as. I don't mean that as a tough guy take either, this PC is a joke.
Now there are ways to alleviate some of the difficulty, as later you get a shield and a fireball attack...but by the time you've gotten those you're well on your way to actually winning the game, so you've already figured out how to pass most of the levels. When you need those you're getting assaulted by noise and enemies you don't know how to deal with.

Dark Castle is known more for its ports to other systems. Most of these all make the game measurably worse in some aspects. The DOS version, to my understanding, while looking impressive for CGA, uses keyboard aiming, which isn't ideal. The Genesis and CD-i versions limit the controls, making moving around harder, aiming harder, and arguably make the game look worse. The CD-i in particular looks awful and doesn't even show the full screen. The rest all at least look worse. Dark Castle is one of those games that only looks good in B&W.

You get rocks that are later upgraded into fireballs. With the latter, you can kill enemies you couldn't before. But either way, these are all just temporary solutions, since enemies respawn like crazy. 1/10

You have a nice variety of enemies, with one tiny flaw. Most of them just exist as things blocking your path. They either sit around or jump around the screen, and everything's a one-hit kill. 2/10


Its nice figuring out all the little tricks you need to do to win levels, but some aspects make this game really frustrating. There are pits on several levels, and instead of killing you, like the long falls elsewhere, you get deposited in one specific level you need a key to get out of. 3/10

Player Agency:
The player has reasonable freedom of movement and aim, although the clockwise aiming function is awkward to use. What isn't good is how our hero is constantly getting dizzy or tripping over things, like some kind of bad precursor to cinematic platforming. I shouldn't have to jump over a small dip in the ground. 4/10

Rare interactions with the environment, usually for puzzles. 1/10

The spooky castle environment loses its special castle charm whenever you start fighting enemies. Most of the enemies feel too cutesy to be here, and the general stupid humor tone ruins whatever they were going for. 3/10

Very nice B&W graphics. Most of the ports lose this, but some pick up their own charm. The background is moody, but doesn't quite capture the feel of the old horror movies its trying to emulate, too much white. The monsters are simplistic, but well-animated. 6/10

Is the story about some random dude, or a prince, taking out the Black Knight. It doesn't really matter, since it doesn't show up in-game. 0/10

The only music is Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Depending on what version it is, you hear it throughout the game. The rest of the sound is mostly weird voice samples and strange sound effects. Some of them feel borderline trolling. 1/10

That's 21. I'm going to dock 2 points because this game is using difficulty to extend its length way beyond what it needs to be. So, a final rating of 19. Putting this in the realm of solid, but very noticeable issues that can ruin it for some. As this got ported to other systems its qualities became gradually removed. Usually either the graphics or the controls suffer, but the CD-i version is notable for being worse in both respects. Huzzah for that.

Glowing praise is not rare for this game, usually on the Mac, no surprise there, since this is a big nostalgia game there. There was one on the Genesis that astounded me, given that it is worse on the Genesis. But this gets vicious in the negative reviews. Beyond the infamous Angry Video Game Nerd video, we have a whole host of comparisons that I don't really feel like repeating here. Suffice to say that a lot of people did not care for this.

Next up is...I dunno. I feel like playing a racing game.

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