GameSpite Journal 11 | Dark Castle

Silicon Beach Software | Mac | 1986

Dark Castle was undoubtedly a stand-out title of home computer gaming in its time. Filled with sumptuous black-and-white pixel art, clear sampled sound effects far beyond its contemporaries, and an innovative mouse-aiming system, the story of Duncan’s quest to topple the Black Knight was a feast for the senses. It was a perfect showcase for the young Macintosh platform.

So why did I, a fledgling Mac enthusiast, never get more than a few screens into the game? Well, part of the problem was the competition. See, 1986 was also the era of the NES and Super Mario Brothers. With its lower TV resolution and simple sound chips, there was no way Mario could compete with the something like Dark Castle on the level of sheer artistry. And yet, Mario... was in color.

That’s not the whole story, obviously; even when I was 10, shiny colors weren’t everything. But Mario had acrobatic capabilities that poor Duncan, saddled with relatively realistic physical constraints, could only dream of. Duncan leapt awkwardly where Mario bounced with abandon. He got dizzy bumping into a wall or tripping over a small ledge, while Mario dropped off mushrooms five times his height with nary a thought. And though Duncan could toss his rocky ammunition in more than a dozen different arcs, Mario’s quick handling made even his single-direction bouncing fireball seem more versatile.

In short, where the authors of Dark Castle made an incredibly artful game in the slow-paced PC platformer vein, the wizards at Nintendo had mastered accessibility and the elusive “fun factor” that would define their games for generations. With that, they shifted my gaming allegiance to the family room TV for years.

These days I’m still a Mac aficionado by day but a console gamer by night. But what of Dark Castle? Freed from comparisons to its 8-bit contemporaries, how does it stand up as a pretty bit of historical gaming? Let’s fire up the old Macintosh System 6 emulator and find out.

The graphics are still pretty sweet, in a retro sort of way. I have a soft spot for quality pixel art, and this game has it in spades -- while the sprites are decent, the backgrounds are amazing. The sampled sounds no longer have the wow factor they once did, and some of the critter noises get pretty repetitive, but the opening “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” organ riff still sounds impressive and sets the tone perfectly.

Unfortunately, part of the reason it’s so perfect is that the piece has been traditionally associated with doom and despair -- which is what awaited my attempts at actually playing the game. Duncan is as awkward and vulnerable as ever, and an extra couple decades of video game practice don’t seem to have improved my chances of keeping him alive. And while you have a lot of control over the aim of his rocks or fireballs, the exacting hit detection and small enemy sprites (darn bats) often make projectile combat an exercise in frustration -- which is unfortunate, since those projectiles are the only offense he has.

The thing is, I can now see that its very deliberate pace is a conscious part of the game’s design. Instead of a quick romp through an extensive kingdom, the Black Knight’s castle and surroundings are a puzzle. Not that you’re ever pushing blocks or anything, but each screen must be studied and approached cautiously to get your fragile hero to the other side. In a game with only 14 rooms or so (disk space was tight back then), this pace makes sense, and satisfying victories can be had on a room-by-room basis. Once you’ve truly mastered an area, speedy runs through it are both possible and exhilarating, but would require amazing luck without lots of practice.

Alas, the intervening decades don’t seem to have improved my patience a lot either, and after a few hard-fought rooms followed by game overs, I find it running out. Dark Castle is a brilliant piece of art that pulls off a particular style of stolid platforming quite well—but for now I think I’m heading back to my console system for a break.

By Ben Elgin | April 22, 2012 | Previous: Company of Heroes | Next: Dawn of War II