Sunday 24 June 2012

Dark Castle

A few months ago, the horrendous Mega Drive (and CD-i) release of Dark Castle was roasted by the Angry Video Game Nerd for horrific controls and stupid design, and a good deed was probably done for the world.

Unfortunately, the AVGN show isn't always well informed. Turns out there's a second opinion on the internet coming from the Macintosh fans. Dark Castle, a classic? It has sequels? It has a following? Oh no!

You can tell I'm unemployed - this is far too much effort for a blog nobody reads. Anyway turns out that despite being barfed onto the Mega Drive and CD-i in 1991, Dark Castle was never actually destined for console release. Dig a bit deeper into its history and you'll find the game began its life five years prior, attempting to give purpose to black and white Macintosh computers.

Yes, Dark Castle was quite a popular game among Mac enthusiasts for a while, and perhaps surprisingly, you can actually see why when playing this version of the game. Turns out that crappy looking noise-fest on the Mega Drive translated into something quite revolutionary on the Mac, and most importantly, something that was a great deal more playable.

Unfortunately, emulating such a system is the opposite of revolutionary. It took me the best part of an hour to get Dark Castle to run, and this was after advice aimed to prevent sessions six times as long. You see, classic Mac games found online are often stored as .sea.hqx files, a format only readable by StuffIt Expander. This is the Mac equivalent of a compressed zip, created in the days before cross-OS standards, which for unknown reasons remains a common sight today.

There are two methods to decompress these files. You can either do it via your host operating system which requires an install (no thanks), or do the job on your emulated machine (good luck with that). And of course don't forget - the format was completely changed after version 5.0, so newer archives won't work with older expanders. Regardless, Mac emulation usually requires juggling operating systems and hard disks until you find a combination which works - it's no wonder these games get left behind.

Questions will of course be raised as to why I bothered to tackle Dark Castle at all. Well surprisingly... it's actually half decent on the Mac. Despite the two-colour display, the world is drawn at a much higher resolution than on other systems, and isn't plagued by poor controls. It's honestly hard to believe this came from the mid-80s - after playing this version, Dark Castle doesn't seem so bad to me anymore.

For the record, Dark Castle is often considered by many to be an atrocious game. The basic aim is the defeat the "black knight", which involves traversing across various static screens collecting a fireball and a shield and tackling the guy head-on. To achieve this you're tasked with throwing rocks at re-spawning enemies, navigating the often awkward scenery, and trying not to get debilitated when your character trips over.

There is a reliance on pixel-perfect accuracy and quick reactions, something which often failed to translate well when brought to other systems. In fact, Mac version aside, Dark Castle has been almost universally panned for twenty-five years for being horrible, so it's undeniably interesting to find a version which works.

One of the big differences between computer and console releases of Dark Castle is your character's throwing mechanic. On the Mac, throwing is dictated by the mouse, which leads to a greater level of accuracy than with awkward gamepad controls (the default scheme is the now widely used WASD and mouse combo - forward thinking!). The higher resolution also leads to more freedom - you're less likely to come into contact with foes, and you're given more time to react to them, leading to a much more enjoyable experience than most other versions.

One of Dark Castle's selling points was the use of sampled audio, still a rare sight in 1986. Though the constant squarking of enemies can lead to mental breakdowns, the sound quality is far superior on the Mac than the attempts seen on other systems. Compared to the DOS version (which stutters whenever speech turns up) the Mac copy seems leagues ahead, and I imagine similar stories can be found when comparing it to the Amiga and Commodore 64 ports. And they say Macs aren't for gaming.

Also, despite its blatant limitations, Mac Dark Castle looks a great deal better than its console counterparts despite only having two colours to play with. Certainly it makes better use of two colours than the DOS port does with sixteen, and in fact there is a plethora of Windows 3.1 games which fare worse than this in terms of graphics - it's really quite astonishing for a computer game released in 1986.

Nevertheless Dark Castle is a brutal game which will certainly lack appeal when viewed by younger audiences. The controls are a bit stiff, the deaths are cheap and nothing here compares to modern gaming standards, but it's easy to see why this game might have had an appeal once upon a time. Moreover, it's easy to see why it received a sequel in Beyond Dark Castle, and a couple of remakes in Color Dark Castle and Return to Dark Castle - I definitely expected it to suck much more.

So if you find yourself in a moment of madness and feel the need to play Dark Castle, aim solely for the Mac version because everything else sucks. It'll be a painful experience (not least because emulation is so tedious), but it's a nice history lesson all the same.

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