Developer(s): Silicon Beach Software
Publisher: Philips Interactive Media
Dark Castle is an action-adventure game with 14 stages, broken up across four zones, though technically one of the zones is optional. Each playthrough starts with you in the Great Hall, where you can choose between four doors. One door leads to the Shield zone, one to the final Black Knight zone, and the other two may randomly lead to either the Fireball zone or the Trouble zone. It may be possible to complete the game by going straight to Black Knight, but I wouldn’t attempt it. Better to start with Shield to acquire the shield upgrade, then to Fireball for the–you guessed it–fireball upgrade, and avoid Trouble if you can, as it’s merely there for your punishment, not advancement.
For some reason, our hero has decided to storm the Black Knight’s castle armed only with a bag of rocks. Your rocks can kill the many rats and bats you face, but can only stun the walking suits of armor (robots?), and some of the more major enemies are completely unaffected by them. As you explore, you’ll find more bags of rocks, as well as elixirs, each of which lets you survive one rat or bat attack. It’s useful against the rats (and vital in some of the stages where you have to climb ropes that are covered in respawning rats) but useless against the bats, which, if not taken out by a rock, will enter your sprite and just stay there, out of reach of a thrown rock, until you run out of elixirs and die.
As absurd as having a bag of rocks for your only weapon may be, actually throwing the rocks is another problem. Generally speaking the controls in Dark Castle are unintuitive and barely functional. You use the d-pad to aim your arm like it’s a tank turret, and button 1 to throw a rock. Button 2 jumps, with different heights/lengths of jumps depending on if you’re moving the d-pad left or right, or down, or neutral. Pressing up and jump makes you duck. I think I’m going to type that again: pressing up and jump ducks. Once you get the shield, up and jump activates the shield instead (which is strangely a full-body protection aura, but thank goodness it is or it’d be useless). Up and jump is also what you you use to pull switches, chains, or any other world interactions.
The implications of this control scheme are that much of the time you are not doing what you want to be doing. For example, in the final stage, you have to navigate around a large room, pull two levers (to activate a platform) and five chains (to drop the Black Knight off his throne and into, well, I don’t know, let’s say a vat of acid or something). All the while, the Black Knight is constantly drinking out of a mug, belching, and throwing the mug at you. So you have to approach a lever, quickly press up and jump to shield yourself from a mug, then get a little bit closer, and press up and jump again to pull the lever. Sometimes you shield instead of pull the lever, sometimes you pull the lever instead of shield, and sometimes you simply jump for no reason. A similar issue arises when trying to fight bats (or even worse, the gargoyles that periodically fly out in all three Black Knight stages and take you to a different stage) and frantically needing to raise or lower your tank arm while you also happen to be within a few pixels of a staircase or a ladder. If the game controlled reasonably well, it would not be crazy difficult and might even be fun, but it feels absolutely awful.
The graphics are decent, if a little basic. Unlike in the original Macintosh version, they couldn’t fit the entire stage on a single screen, so you often find yourself walking into a death trap or being attacked by an enemy you can’t even see. The only music is between stages, and the sound effects are incredibly annoying. Anytime you touch a wall or fall a couple pixels you get dizzy and go “woah-oh, woah-oh”. There is also an enemy that simply screams “nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah” on a loop. Thankfully the game does have a save feature, which is available between stages or after you run out of lives, so better to only save on the former, as the latter will remember that you last played with no lives and probably low on rocks and elixirs. Though Dark Castle is absolutely not a game I can recommend to someone interested in “fun”, I will say there is something to it that kept me coming back for just one more try, despite all the pains and pitfalls I experienced along the way.
Graphics – 6
Overall very basic, with a few stand-out areas
Sound – 4
Minimal music, and many of the sound effects are actively irritating
Gameplay – 3
Controls are unintuitive, unresponsive, and cumbersome
Value – 6
Though it could be finished quickly if you were good at it, no one could actually be that good at it, so it feels like a full-length game
Reviewer’s Tilt – 5
Despite the number of times I swore in anger (or groaned in misery) at the screen, there was something about it that kept me coming back for just one more try
Final Score – 4.6