Dark Castle review
Prior to purchasing Dark Castle, I'd seen a number of online reviews that agreed it is easily the worst Mega Drive game ever made and quite possibly one of the worst games in existence. With this in mind, when I was at a car-boot sale with my mate Stu and we found a copy of Dark Castle (with a box and manual, no less) I wasn't prepared to spend anything more than a pound on it. The dodgy-looking seller offered it to me for two pounds and described it as a 'retro classic' - I quickly informed him that the game is by no means a classic (much to the amusement of the other buyers) and offered him 50p, which he took. At the time, I saw this as some kind of minor victory.
I would love to be able to tell you that I got the game for 50p, that I played it for a bit, decided it was 'a bit rubbish', and then just left it to gather dust on my games shelf. Seriously, I would love to be able to end the review there. However, I simply cannot do this, for two very important reasons - first, this game is so damn awful that I just have to tell you about it, and second, I was wrong about the price of the game; I may have got it down from £2 to 50p, but trust me, after playing the game for more than five minutes I realised I'd far prefer to have my 50-pence piece back in my wallet than have this steaming turd sitting in my Mega Drive.
Where do I begin? Seriously, where can I possibly start when trying to talk about Dark Castle? This is a game where everything - the sound, the music, the graphics, the controls, the story... I could go on - is so hilariously and infuriatingly terrible that it's just impossible to know where to start. Perhaps the best thing to do is to start from when I first put the game in my Mega Drive, picked up a controller, and turned the console on.
The screenshot above is, as you might imagine, the title screen. As title screens go, it's not that bad - there's even a decent lightning effect, and you have that classic organ theme from Dracula playing, and to be fair it's not a bad 16-bit rendition. However, there's one problem with the song - it is the only song in the entire game, and it NEVER STOPS PLAYING. While we're on the topic of audio, the sound in this game has to be heard to be believed. I'm being serious here, words just don't explain it well enough, but I'll try - basically, the guy you play as makes a ridiculous amount of stupid noises, and they all sound like they were recorded using radio equipment from the 1930s. If you do anything in the game - jump, fall down some stairs, get hit by a rat - the guy will say something like 'WOAH!' or 'OOOOOOOOOOOH!' or 'BLEEEERRRRR!' and it gets old and painful within about 20 seconds of play. Combine the vomit-inducing sound effects with the never-ending music and you have possibly the strongest reason ever to use the mute button on your remote control.
I briefly touched on the character you play as earlier, so let me elaborate. Let's get one thing out in the open here - this guy is stupidest, weakest moron you will ever play as in a computer game. Honestly, you - and I mean you personally - have more special abilities than this guy. Never before have I seen a playable game character who becomes completely uncontrollable and spins round going 'WOOERRR!' for a full 5 seconds after falling from a two-foot drop. Never before have I seen a playable game character whose primary weapon against a number of deadly enemies is a sack full of rocks. Never before have I seen a playable game character who is just so slow, so bad at jumping, and basically just so totally inept in every single way as the protagonist in Dark Castle. The best way I can put it is by describing a situation that has occurred several times while playing the game. Basically, if at any time you decide to jump down or up a set of stairs, no matter how small they are (even if we're talking like two steps that lead up to a door), the character will jump, land safely on the stairs, and then for absolutely no reason he will ROLL BACK DOWN THEM AND DIE. The first time this happened to me, I just sat there for a few minutes in total silence, incapable of believing what I had just seen and genuinely terrified to continue playing.
Other flaws with the main character include tripping over everything (tiny bumps in the floor, dead enemies, and sometimes he will literally just fall over for no reason) and the fact he is so weak that if he is merely touched around three times by a rat he collapses and dies. In fact, in one room you stumble across three prisoners who are being whipped endlessly while chained to a wall. Theoretically you could leave the game running in this room forever and these prisoners would never die, but if you attract the torturer's attention and get whipped just once you die instantly. That the character you play as dies immediately when subjected to the same form of torture that three starving and heavily-beaten prisoners can withstand for the rest of time says it all, really. In the world of video games, this is the guy that Mario, Link and Solid Snake would beat up after class just for the hell of it.
Perhaps I'm being unfair on this guy, because it is afterall you that control his every move. It should come as no surprise to hear that Dark Castle's controls are some of the worst in video game history. You will honestly never play a game where you die as many times for completely unfair reasons as you do in Dark Castle, and the above screenshot is a perfect example of this. Getting your character to jump and grab on to one of those ropes is a sheer nightmare, as your timing and accuracy needs to be practically perfect to succeed. In most platform games (not that this can really be called a platform game) you can have a character clearly jump further than he needs to to grab a rope, but once he's made contact with the rope the game will automatically stop him jumping any further and he'll be swinging nicely - think of any given level in Donkey Kong Country and you'll know what I'm talking about. Not so, however, in Dark Castle - if you overshoot your jump, the character won't grab the rope as he flies past as would happen in any other game or, indeed, as you would in real life. Instead, he sails past, suddenly stops dead in mid-air, goes 'WOAH!' and falls COMPLETELY VERTICALLY DOWNWARDS. Also, you see those dark brown ropes? Well, they're not ropes, and if you try to grab one the main character will just fail to grab it and fall down. Nothing in either the manual or the game explains this - it's just a beginner's trap, one of those awful things in games which every single person is going to attempt to do the first time they play, only to be punished unfairly. Dark Castle is just full of things like this, and it feels like every single room you enter needs to be played 20 times before you either get what you're supposed to do or are aware of the seemingly invisible and unexplained traps.
I guess I should briefly elaborate on the game's structure. The game is split into a number of different rooms, each with their own objective - usually you just have to get to the exit either by solving some mind-numbingly tedious puzzle or by making a few awkward jumps. There are three main areas in the game (plus a fourth which is the Dungeon area, but you only go there if you accidentally fall down a screen or mess up) which can be accessed by three doors in the castle's lobby. Each area has an overall objective which you can achieve if you get to the final room in the area - the Shield area is a relatively easy quest to get, remarkably, a shield. The Black Knight area leads to the game's final (and, thinking about it, only) boss. Finally, the Fireball area is a frustrating quest to receive the ability to chuck fireballs, which you obtain from a wizard who lives in a dungeon. Not only are the fireballs absolutely useless (they are, as far as I can tell, exactly the same as the rocks) but the dungeon itself has some of the strangest and most worrying in-game graphics I have ever seen. Think I'm exaggerating? Take a look at this:
I promise you I haven't edited this picture. Yes, that's right, the game genuinely has a room that says 'GAMERS RULE' and 'SADDAM WAS HERE' written on the walls. I really don't know what to say - is this meant to be funny? Witty? Subversive? I really have no idea what they were going for, but I know what I make of it - it's an absolute load of balls.
Talking about Dark Castle for this long is starting to make me feel ill, so I'll skip to the chase. After collecting the shield (you need it to protect yourself from some sort of flying monkey that screeches at you and drops you into the Dungeon area) you painfully make your way through the Black Knight area, until you finally get to fight the dreaded Black Knight himself. After such a boring and awfully-programmed game, you'd be forgiven for imaging the last fight would be very tedious. But you know what? You'd be wrong. The last fight is exceptionally tedious. What do the words 'Black Knight' make you think of? Perhaps some menacing, evil warrior who carries a huge mace or a badass sword, or generally just some worthy adversary who will offer you some sort of duel. However, the fight with Dark Castle's Black Knight is like nothing you could possibly have imagined. Why is this?
Because it is highly unlikely you would have imagined that Dark Castle's Black Knight sits on a throne at the top of the screen drinking endless mugs of ale from a drinks dispenser and then throws said mugs at you as his only means of attack.
There are no words to describe how you feel at this point in the game. I mean... look at it! It feels like the programmers just gave up entirely at this point and decided to make the Black Knight an alcoholic just for the hell of it. It isn't even very clear what you're supposed to do here - the Black Knight is invincible and his mug attack is deadly. Only after watching a video online of someone completing the game did I realise you're supposed to pull the five levers around the room, and doing this somehow causes the platform below the Black Knight to wobble and thus sends him falling to his doom. Except, this isn't what happens - the platform wobbles but the throne the Black Knight is sitting on stays motionless. The platform then stops wobbling, there is at least a 2-second pause, and then the Black Knight gets up and jumps to his doom. The world's worst ending occurs immediately afterwards (a tiny text box appears basically saying 'well done') and then the game automatically resets. You are left feeling cheated, dirty, and very alone.
So that's Dark Castle for you. If you ever see this game at a car-boot sale or if you know of a decent emulation site and are curious just do yourself a favour and never play this game. The terrible controls, the pitiful sound effects, the rubbish... everything, will haunt you forever. Once you play Dark Castle, you can never go back.