One of the really nice things about being a big, successful publisher like Electronic Arts is the opportunities it gives you for cross-promotion.Every copy of Madden or Road Rash you sell can be packaged with a small catalog full of ads for your other games.People will look at it and think, “Hey, I liked NHL ’94, and I liked Might and Magic; so I bet I’d like Dark Castle, too.”The downside to this approach is that it can cost you customers in the long run because once they actually play Dark Castle, those people will probably become become Amish just to make sure they never have to play a Genesis again.
Dark Castle began its life as a Mac game in 1986, and at the time it seemed like a dazzling technical achievement. You know what else seemed like pretty impressive technology back then? Trapper Keepers. So… yeah. Anyway, EA later converted to the Genesis and released in 1991.It was mildly popular on the Mac, but considering that most of the other “games” available for the Mac in the mid ‘80s were either about munching numbers or ill-fated trips to Oregon, Dark Castle’s relative popularity may have been just a bit misleading. Electronic Arts had some good fortune converting PC games to the Genesis, but most of those games, like Populous and Starflight, were pretty unique compared to the rest of the Genny’s library. Dark Castle was a horribly designed platformer with God-awful control. The Genesis had like a million of those, and the other ones usually at least had a movie license.
In the game, you play as Prince Duncan and attempt to navigate the titular fortress in order to face the Black Knight.Being a spectacular dumbass, you endeavor to do this armed only with a bag of rocks, with the plan to obtain a magic shield and fireball spell during your explorations of the castle.Sure, it’s only a Dark Castle, filled with traps, monsters and your worst enemy.Why not take your time and make a few extra stops to pick up all your equipment after you get there?
Mr. Mullet ponders whether to try his luck in the mystery rooms, or just take the middle door to Burger King.
As silly as that plotline is, story is really a small part of any Genesis game, and DC’s most significant flaws lie elsewhere.The biggest problem is control.And level design.And graphics.And sound.
The castle is broken down into 4 areas, creatively named Shield, Fireball, Black Knight and Trouble.Each area is then broken out into 3 or 4 stages that you must progress through.Except that you probably never will, because this is one of the most unfair games you’ll ever come across.Each stage contains multiple enemies that can kill you instantly by touching you, and your only defense is to throw rocks at them, which are difficult to aim.Rather than simply pressing the direction you wish to throw the rock, moving up or down makes clockwise-counterclockwise adjustments to your arm’s angle, and pressing the button throws a rock.Killing each enemy requires a fair amount of trial and error, which would be fine if all your enemies were asleep or didn’t move around much.It doesn’t work as well when they are kind of fast and trying to kill you.Also, your arm remains pointed at whatever angle it was last aimed, which not only makes the game harder, but also looks ridiculous.
If you throw a rock at a high flying enemy, you’ll probably spend the rest of the stage holding your arm up as though you were carrying the imaginary torch in the opening ceremonies of the Crazy People Olympics.
And should you run out of rocks, you’re really in trouble.There are plenty of extra bags of rocks lying around, but I never figured out how to pick them up.My best guess is that they forgot that button when they converted the game over to the Genesis (the only copies of the game I could find were cartridge only, apparently not too many collectors felt the need to preserve Dark Castle’s instructions or original box for posterity).Of course, that’s the least of the game’s control problems.Walking off even the most minuscule edge (including ones so small you don’t always see them right away) will cause your character to fall down and become stunned for several seconds, which almost always means getting eaten by bats.You can jump, but you have no control over how far, so every time you press the button your character launches himself like a world class track and field champion.This means that you’ll have to find to exact right spot to jump from or risk leaping way past your intended target, to almost certain death either from falling or from landing on some enemy.There have been games that were successful despite putting similar control limitations on your characters (think Jumpman or Pitfall!), but those games accommodated for it by allowing you a little bit of leeway.With it’s brutal controls and unforgiving level designs, Dark Castle is basically handing you a jumbo crayon and asking you to paint the Mona Lisa.