Dark Castle CD-i title screen

Philips CD-i Review: Dark Castle

Dark Castle was originally an adventure platform game released in 1986 for the Macintosh. It was developed and published by Silicon Beach Software and was praised for being “one of the best arcade games that was released for the Macintosh” [1]. The game was also praised for executing a basic concept very well and has slick animation and realistic digitized sound [2].

The game was ported to several consoles, PC, and even mobile. In addition to all of the ports, Dark Castle received two sequels. While some of the ports retained the gameplay of the original, some did not. Enter Dark Castle for the Philips CD-i. The CD-i version was developed by Silicon Beach Software, Inc. (presumably the same team, but I’m not certain) and published by Philips Media and ultimately released in 1992.

Story

Prince Duncan sets out to stop the Black Knight from terrorizing the inhabitants of a local town. In order to do this, Prince Duncan must traverse the Black Knight’s castle and its maze-like layout. The player starts the game in the Great Hall of the castle. What makes this hall great? I’m not entirely sure, but if you start up the game during specific holidays (e.g. Christmas) the Great Hall will have a Christmas tree… So there’s that.

The Great Hall acts as a safe hub area that connects the four different towers/sections of the castle. The four different areas are: Fireball, Shield, Trouble, and Black Knight. Visiting all four areas is not necessarily required in order to face the Black Knight, but it is highly recommended.

There are different types of doors throughout the castle as well. Question Mark doors will take you to either the Trouble or Fireball areas of the castle. There is a friendly wizard living inside the Question Mark door area for the player to find. Finding him will allow you to shoot fireballs. The Shield door leads to a magical shield. The Skull door leads you to the Black Knight. Make sure you’ve come prepared to fight him though. He’s no pushover. The Shield door is rumored to contain a magical shield.

Gameplay

You start with 5 lives and you’re going to need every single one of them. The instruction manual even gives you an indication that this game is going to challenge you in ways you couldn’t even imagine [3].

Dark Castle CD-i Review screenshot 1
Jeez Silicon Beach Software…

Once you’ve selected a door to enter the game changes to the 2D platformer. Think of the NES Castlevania games. There are enemies stationed in every room throughout the castle. The enemies range from basic creatures such as rats, bats, and guards but there are also some fantastical creatures thrown in as well such as gargoyles, dragons, and mutants. Anyone who has played this game will remember the awful noise the mutants make during normal gameplay.

This game does not pull any punches. You’re greeted by bats, rats, and mutants within the first few areas of the game. The bats will fly straight at Duncan and will knock him over and take one of your lives. The best bet is to run from these enemies until you locate an item to defend yourself. To make the game even harder, trying to quickly change direction while running is not easy.

When attempting to descend to lower ledges, the player may feel the urge to jump down. If he player jumps from too high, s/he risks loses a life as Duncan will fall over and get dizzy. Falling is not good in general, but it also allows enemies a chance to reach you and take one of your lives.

There are actually different types of jumps as well. Doing a standing jump will help you reach a high ledge, but it spells doom if you’re trying to get to a lower ledge. Downward jumps will help you to reach lower ledges but are no go for reaching higher ground. You can also jump long distances by getting a running start.

Dark Castle CD-i Review screenshot 2
Nya nya nya nya!

I mentioned before that Duncan can find items to defend himself with. Bags of rocks are littered throughout the castle. Duncan is able to carry 80 rocks with him at one time. Using the rocks, however, takes a bit of knowhow and patience. First, the character must be standing still. Next press up or down for Duncan to move his arm around in a circle. Once you think you’re aiming at an enemy, press the fire button to let er rip! Eventually the rocks are replaced by fireballs.

The player may also find bottles of elixir lying about the castle. The elixirs are useful if you are bitten by a plague-ridden bat or rat. If you don’t have an elixir, it’s instant death. Luckily, there is no limit to the amount of elixirs Duncan can hold so grab as many as you can.

You can earn more lives if you collect enough points. The CD-i features two gameplay modes – Beginning mode and Advanced mode. Every 5,000 points gets you an extra life in Beginning Mode and every 10,000 points gets you an extra life in Advanced Mode. I’ve only tried the game in Beginning mode… so I’m not sure how much more difficult the game gets on Advanced Mode.

Dark Castle CD-i Review screenshot 3
En garde!

Upon reaching The Black Knight, you will see him sitting on a throne high above the stage. He lazily sits there as you scramble around. Don’t get careless though, he’s served an endless supply of drinks and will not hesitate to throw the mug at you. There are also rats along most of the ledges. The goal is to pull on five chains to dump the Black Knight into the pit below.

If you manage to defeat the Black Knight you get to watch Prince Duncan dance his heart out.

Critique

This game is garbage. Now, I’m known for hyperbole in my daily life, but I’m being serious with this. This game is one of the worst games that I’ve played. The gameplay is not fun. I’m all for a challenging gameplay experience, but when the challenge comes from bad gameplay mechanics, that’s where I draw the line.

As mentioned before, performing the wrong jump off of ledges causes Duncan to fall and get dizzy. While Duncan is spinning around, he’s open to attack. Once you get hit by an enemy while you’re dizzy, you lose a life and have to start the area over. It’s easy to get flustered in the beginning stages where you have to go down ledges and there are enemies flying around. I also experienced a delay when jumping. This made it hard to time jumps where you have to grab on to ropes.

Aiming at enemies is also a herculean task. As I mentioned in the Gameplay section, Duncan has to be standing still in order to precisely aim. To add to the frustration, the enemies are moving nonstop. So you’ll likely miss the first couple of times and ultimately get hit by the enemy you’re trying to hit (especially if it’s flying).

The music is bad/nonexistent and the noises that the enemies make are very annoying. The music only plays when you enter new areas and then stops during the gameplay. You’re then left with Duncan making noises as he moves and enemy chatter.

The graphics are bad for the CD-i as well. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “But hyper, don’t all of the CD-i games have bad graphics?” While I won’t deny the system had its fair share of odd graphics… Looking at you, cutscenes from Link: The Faces of Evil, Zelda: Wand of Gamelon, and Hotel Mario, the in-game graphics for those games are quite nice. Also, the system itself is home to quite a few games with great graphics and gameplay such as Dragon’s Lair, Tetris, and The Apprentice. Heck, even the aforementioned games Hotel Mario, Link: The Faces of Evil, and Zelda: Wand of Gamelon have good gameplay.

Sorry to break out the soapbox. On to the Verdict.

Dark Castle CD-i Review screenshot
Amazing graphics! Light red on pink!

Verdict

This game is simply not fun. This doesn’t even qualify as a “so bad it’s good” kind of experience. I bought this game on sale at a thrift store for less than $1 and I still paid too much for it. The only saving grace for this game is that it’s able to be beaten in a few minutes if you go through the Black Knight’s door. But, this assumes you already know the gameplay mechanics and are comfortable with them. Give this game a hard pass.

I give Dark Castle for the Philips CD-i 1 annoying mutant out of 5.

References
[1] Boosman, Frank (November 1986). “Macintosh Windows”. Computer Gaming World. No. 32. pp. 15, 42. Retrieved 17 April 2016.

[2] Shapiro, Ezra (December 1986). “Stocking Stuffers”. BYTE. p. 321. Retrieved 9 May 2015.

[3] Silicon Beach Software. (1992). Dark Castle Instruction Manual (p. 2).

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