Back when the medium of choice for discriminating game players (or people who did not own an NES) was the 5 1/4" floppy disk, labeling was fairly simplistic. Unlike modern designs covered in game art, labels were commonly white, featuring the title or logo of the game and a copyright. It may sound strange, but the label on the Commodore 64 disk for Dark Castle stands out in my mind more visibly than the game itself.
It was black and glossy. While it was probably not the first colored label I had ever seen (as the game was released in 1987), it feels as though it were. Had it not been for the sheen, it might have been hard to tell there was a sticker of any kind upon it. The title was printed in purple, gothic script and a dark malevolence seemed to emanate from it. I was fascinated by the disk and, despite repeated failure to achieve even the most basic of goals within the game, I continued to load that disk time and again.
Only recently did I discover Dark Castle had later been released by Electronic Arts in 1991 for the Sega Genesis. While improvements were made in graphics and sound, the changes were not as dramatic as one might expect. At its heart, it is still the same game that I played as a small child. But is it the force of evil that I once knew?
Hit the jump to find out.
Upon entering the Dark Castle, the hero isn't in much of a position to defeat Mahatma Ghandi, let alone the Black Knight. His only weapons are stones which he hurls with a wide range of direction, similar to targeting in an artillery duel-style game. The only defense he can manage is to crouch and hope threats pass over his head. He's also an unbelievable wuss. Stepping over what is essentially a curb will cause him to trip on his face. Should he fall roughly half the height of his body, he becomes dizzy and incapacitated for a couple of seconds. Dropping any more than his own height can be fatal.
If he wants to have a fighting chance, he'll have to seek out a shield to protect him from the Black Knight's magic and a wizard who can arm him with fireballs. Earning these gifts means traveling through three screens filled with enemies, jumps and the occasional puzzle.
As you traverse the castle, you will encounter several different types of threats and contact with any of them will result in instant death. The only exception to this are the vermin, rats and bats, which roam the rotting halls. Their plague-ridden bite can be counteracted if the hero possesses curative elixirs found within the game's levels. Everything else, from a fire-breathing dragon to bouncing boulders and the adorable, cyclopean imps, will bring your quest to a premature end.
The most dangerous enemy is the castle itself. There are many threats in the environment, such as trap doors, open pits and false platforms. If you are caught in a trap and it kills you, you got off lucky. The worst that happens is the loss of one life and being forced to start the current screen from the beginning. If a trap is not lethal, however, there's an excellent chance you'll wind up in the dungeon, an area that is appropriately named, "Trouble."
Trouble, unlike the other two main areas leading to the the assault on the Black Knight's keep, has no benefit for the player and cannot be left freely. To proceed, you'll have to steal a key from a whip-wielding executioner at the very bottom and then make your way back up and out. Every time you fall through the floor of any area, you wind up back at the bottom of Trouble and have to work your way out again.
One of the more devious bits of design involves the main hall in which you begin the game. In this room, you have a choice of four passages you may enter. The large door in the center leads to the Black Knight and to hall to the right is marked with a shield, which obviously denotes that power-up. The remaining two to the left have question marks above them. One of these heads towards the fireball spell. The other puts you at the exit of Trouble, locking the door behind you and forcing you to work your way to the bottom to get the key and then back. Which door leads where is randomly determined when you start the game, so the risk of heading the wrong way is fifty-fifty.
There are two major problems with Dark Castle that, from a gameplay perspective, are utterly infuriating. First is a slight delay from the time you input a command until the character follows through. While this is not a particularly fast-paced game, there are moments where timing can be essential and the noticeable delay complicates matters.
The other issue comes from a combination of hit detection and graphical presentation. There are many instances where it's impossible to tell whether or not you can successfully make a jump simply by observation. You may think that you can move from one rope to another without bumping into the post which it is tied to and falling to your doom. It certainly appears as though you are hanging far enough down that there's no way you could possibly collide with that obstruction. Two seconds later, you have inexplicably fallen into Trouble.
If reaching the Black Knight is frustrating, actually fighting him is an exercise in utter madness. Defeating him means pulling five levers which release the pillars supporting his throne. While remaining comfortably seated throughout the battle, he throws beer steins at you. Meanwhile, gargoyles will attempt to swoop down and carry you off. "Where," you ask? Trouble. Where else?
Actually completing this game, even on the easiest of its three difficulty levels, is a satisfying triumph. The satisfaction is short-lived, as the game merely dumps you back in the great hall, minus your gear, to start the whole adventure again on a higher difficulty, but there's still a strong sense of accomplishment.
Dark Castle has some issues that will deter most from playing it, but its charm is undeniable. The sound in this game is really excellent, featuring a mood-perfect MIDI rendition of Bach's "Toccata and Fugue" and quality effects. Death is oddly comical when it happens, with an "unf" sound which comes off as rather silly. The little imps make highly amusing noises too (up until the point at which there are more than two onscreen at once, whereupon it becomes an annoying cacaphony) and lightning is accompanied by a satisfying crack of thunder.
For all its frustration, I can't help but enjoy this one. It didn't take long to remember why I had not played it in at least fifteen years, but the first fifteen minutes were positively joyful. The rest were survived with gritted teeth and determination. By no means is it a bad game, merely a challenging one with a few poor design choices which prevent it from being excellent.