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Horror Obscura 2018: Dark Castle (Mega Drive/Genesis)

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In the past Horror Oscura I have explored games which are focused around horror and the use of horror in games you would not class as a horror title.  This year I wanted to go back to my childhood and re-visit one of my biggest horrors: Dark Castle on the Sega Mega Drive (Genesis in North America).

Back in my childhood I was scanning the cheapest of the used Mega Drive titles in the retailer “GAME” on the South Coast of England when I came a came across Dark Castle. This was back in the 90s, I saved up my cash long and hard to treat myself to a video game. At a young age I was drawn to dark themes and games that just weren’t well known so Dark Castle, matched that category. Looking at the box now though one may question what I was thinking. The front of the box has a gargoyle on it stuck like old Clip Art on a background of a castle entrance. Not particularly appealing. The back of the box quotes, “climb the ramparts of the Dark Castle and dethrone the Black Knight.” An interesting quote but not a lot to go on. Keep in mind in the UK the back of the box often had a very short description of the game in multiple European languages. The instruction manual also included translation for 6 European languages. Flipping the back of the box over I guess it was the screen shots that appealed. Pictures of a eyeball creatures with hands, zombies looking monsters. Back then the game cost me £12.99 (the price sticker is still on my copy to this day), some may consider that a horror to itself.

So what is this game about? Dark Castle is a 2D adventure platformer. The game is presented as single screen levels most of which you just need to reach the end to survive. Some will require you to solve some head scratching puzzles. As young Duncan your objective is pretty simple: defeat the Dark Knight. However, to do this you need to complete three quests as outlined in the instruction manual titled “Trouble,” “Fireball,” and “Shield.” Completing the latter two will give you a item that will help you in your quest, more on these later. When you begin the game you are literally presented with four doors. Two doors have a “?” the other two “BK” with a shield. BK of course stands for Black Knight. If you are brave enough you could just attempt to take on the Black Knight and finish the game super fast, this goes against what the instructions advises but it can be done. Not so easy if you choose the Hard difficulty setting though. If you go in blind in the game you just have a choose a door and hope for the best.

The instruction manual helps with controls and a few minor hints but the game very much leaves things to you to figure out. It is this where lies your love or the game or hatred. I used to compare this game to Another World (Out of this World in North America), a game that required a lot of trial and error to figure out the correct path through. Gameplay mechanics and tricks are not clear but through many many deaths you’ll eventually figure out the ideal route through the game. The question is do you have the patience to keep re trying over and over again. Once you loose all your lives it’s back to the beginning buddy.

The game will present you with one music score for the entire duration of play. That is Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. A fine piece of music indeed but not so great if it’s all your listening to in a 16-Bit Mega Drive game you reaching for that mute button and wanting to listen to a episode of GH101 in the background instead.

When I was younger I struggled initially with this game. The controls were very unusual. The jump button was A, not C, which I was more used to in most Mega Drive titles. The game doesn’t let you re-map the buttons. The C button throws rocks, a task quite unusual as Duncan’s arm indicates the approximate direction of the thrown rocks, which you can control with the Up and Down buttons on the D-pad. Tapping C will make Duncan lob a rock in the arms general direction accompanied by rather amusing grunt noise that still makes me giggle to this day. B basically allows you to pick stuff up (mostly rock bags or elixirs) and pull levers. Elixir doesn’t function as amazingly as a JRPG, they act as your health against little enemies like bats and rats. The vast majority of enemies will kill fragile Duncan in a single hit.

Let’s take some time to talk about the highlights of each quest. Although you are free to choose your route through the game. It’s in your best interest to take on the quests Shield and Fireball, in that order. The Shield might just be the easiest quest in the game, but that does not mean it’s a cake walk. The main highlight in this quest is the second level screen with the dragon. Although the big horror looks scary from one end of the screen it’s actually one of the easier hazards of the game. Your lead to think you need to tip a bucket of water on its head which requires you to take extra steps to accomplish. But, if your patient you can literally run past the beast onto the next screen. Once you claim the shield at the end of the quest this allows Duncan to be temporarily invincible, a very handy ability moving forward.

Fireball is the quest that will make most laugh on its final screen. You are in a cave that has graffiti on the wall “gamers rule” and “Saddam was here.” Both just seem out of place, but maybe the developers just wanted to have some fun. Your reward for reaching the wizard is your rocks will turn into fireballs which will kill all enemies (except the Black Knight) and prevent some from respawing.

If you fall down a pit (or choose one of the ? Doors) you will end up in the quest Trouble.  Falling down a pit results in Duncan’s dizzy animation accompanied by amusing sound effects, which you will laugh at. You will probably see this quest more than you would like to as there are a lot of pits in Dark Castle. The part of the quest that stands out most is a executioner whipping some prisoners. You may be silly and miss the keys he is guarding in the bottom right corner of the screen. If you proceed through the level screens without the key you will get to a locked door and probably proceed to bash your head on a coffee table. This may also be while I’m so stupid today.

Finally, we have the Black Knight and the highlight of course is the final boss himself. He sits at the top of the screen drinking beer and throwing empty cups at you accompanied by a sound effect of disgust. To beat him you have to pull five levers scattered around the level. The Black Knight screens and falls a bit like Donkey Kong at the end of the original arcade game. Finally you get your reward of a simple “Well Done!” style screen. What did you expect, a parade?

Since this was the only game I had for a few months I did persevere with the game. On and off for a few months I gradually learned the patterns of the enemies and hazards. I got to grips with some crazy game mechanics and I figured out the ideal path. After much persistence, I defeated the Black Knight and won the game. Now it’s fair to say this idea could be applied to any video game. Stick with it long enough and you will learn to love it. Once you know the route you can get through the game in a very short space of time. I used to be told I if only I put 25 hours into Final Fantasy XIII I would eventually see the good in it. What I will say about Dark Castle is it often felt like it called to me. I really enjoyed discovering for myself the tricks to puzzles and figuring things out. Back then I had no internet and no magazine I read at the time ever published hints on the game. So the sense of accomplishment when you figured things out was pretty huge.

For the time Dark Castle was actually quite well praised by the gaming press but much of that probably contributes to it being released on multiple computer platforms like the Atari ST, Amiga, MS-DOS, Mac and others. The Mega Drive was the only console version [Editor’s note: Fred just found out there’s also a CD-i version, which he has to check out]. When held up to screenshots of the other versions it looks pretty good, but graphically compared to other Mega Drive titles it looked kinda simple and lacking artistic depth.

Moving to today the internet doesn’t look back to kindly on Dark Castle. A simple search on YouTube will show popular internet personalities tear it to shreds. Much of the critique given to the games controls, dated graphics, and frustrating difficulty. It’s hard to expect people to have the patience for a game like this these days what with so many other gaming distractions now. That been said there is a small amount of videos I found of people speedrunning through the game. So people are still keen to take up the Dark Castle challenge and record their success.

So where is the horror in all this, you may ask? I guess the true horror of Dark Castle lies in the gamers’ willingness not to give up and press on. Not let the laughing eye balls get to you. Not let your own frustrations get the better of you. Maybe this is that feeling Dark Souls players promote so much about not giving up, a game series I’m yet to understand myself. I don’t think Dark Castle is a terrible game. Just misunderstood with frustrating game mechanics. It tried something different that didn’t click with many gamers and as a result of that is kinda buried by history. I guess my copy sticks around as a badge of honour that I’m not terrible at every game because I finished Dark Castle. That and whenever I think of those sound effects of laughing eye ball monsters and the disgusted Black Knight I do smile inside.

Dark Castle occupies a place in the horror of game difficulty and while you may want to throw that controller and give up. Those that persist will triumph. I guess there is a wise life lesson in here, but Dark Castle is a video game, not a life goal. Or is it?

Written by jamalais

October 29, 2018 at 11:00 am

2 Responses

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  1. I’ve never played this game before, but when I was a youngin’, there was a time when the only gaming-capable thing we had in the house was an old black and white Mac my mom bought from work. I had exactly two games for it: some behind-the-ship, pseudo 3D space shooter (can’t remember the title) and Beyond Dark Castle, which I think was actually a sequel to this. It was all I had, just like you, so I played the ever-loving snot out of it, though I never did manage to beat it. I absolutely loved the game, yet I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone else that played it. Seeing the negative reviews online (that you mentioned) about this version was the first time I ever heard anyone else talk about the games. To me, seeing this franchise in color is so weird, and the aiming mechanic does sound kind of awkward. On the Mac, you controlled the character’s arm by just moving the mouse around. Worked really well…at least, in my memory it did, haha. Someday I’m gonna have to get this thing running through emulation and play it again. Anyway, just wanted to let you know you’re not the only one in the pro-Dark Castle dugout. XD

    Here’s a clip of the version I played:

    Strip Mahjong

    November 5, 2018 at 9:00 pm

    • Oh wait! I technically had three games on that computer, bwaha. That’s an even better story. So that Mac I talked about was the first computer we ever had at my home, so I would just fiddle with it in amazement at times, digging around in the files for no real reason, seeing what I came across. Again, my Mom bought this from work, so someone else had used it before (dude’s name was still registered to it). Anyway, one day while digging around randomly through the files on it I stumbled across an erotic text adventure game called “Leather Goddess of Phobos”. Boy did that blow my young male mind, lol. I don’t remember quite as much about that game, but I remember it started in a bar with your character drinking beer. You kept getting messages saying you had to pee, and walking into either the men’s or women’s room chose your character’s gender. Then…I think you get abducted by aliens or something?? I can’t really remember. I kind of HOPE that’s what happened, though, because that sounds a lot like the opening of Prey and I want to believe that sequence was a homage to LGP, haha.

      Strip Mahjong

      November 5, 2018 at 9:12 pm

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