Friday, April 17, 2015

Unearthed Treasures: The Castle (SG-1000 / MSX)

I've been deeply immersed in the medium's history for more than a decade now, yet I continue to stand in amazement at how much the fully formed picture differs from the one my mind once rendered. I mean, it doesn't seem like all that long ago when I was dead certain that Sega's first home console was the Sega Master System--that curious black trapezoid I remembered best for its bright, colorful games and those weird checkered cases. And I had the whole story worked out in my head: Arcade-game-maker Sega watched on as the NES enjoyed great success and decided to get in on the action by releasing the Master System ("the Sega," as we called it), a graphically superior 8-bit console that vied for attention with its unique game library but ultimately wound up wallowing in obscurity.

"But wait!" a voice soon cried out from the pages of history. "You're forgetting something!"

Mr. P: "What would that be?"

"The SG-1000!"

Mr. P: "The what?"

"The SG-1000," it explained, "Sega's first foray into the console market."

My journey into gaming's history had been marked by one astonishing discovery after another, but there were very few that managed to shock me quite like the uncovering of the SG-1000. "Wait--Sega had another 8-bit console that predated the Master System?" I questioned, almost in disbelief. "And it came out on the same day as the Famicom in Japan?! That's nuts!" All I could wonder was how I never heard of SG-1000 before then and how its coinciding release somehow avoided becoming common knowledge. The console has been an object of fascination for me ever since.

Truthfully, I wasn't so much interested in its in actual game library until recently. What initially turned me off was that its games looked more like those I'd seen running on the ColecoVision, which I hardly considered capable of reproducing the NES-equivalent "8-bit" games I was hoping to see. But now that my mind has since been pried wide open by the crowbar of enlightenment, and I stand here at the pinnacle of my appreciation for video games in all of their wonderfully divergent forms, it seems like a good a time as any for me to dive right into the depths of the SG-1000. 

First up is The Castle, which caught my eye a while back when I was browsing through the Video Game Museum's SG-1000 section. At the time, I thought it looked remarkably similar to an NES game I'd seen called Castlequest, which led me to assume that it was a "lesser port" and easy to disregard in light of my plan to one day assess the real deal. Though, once I learned that it was instead a defining predecessor--the product of a specified technology that sought to unmistakably render its world--The Castle seemed like the perfect jumping-on point for my first experience with the SG-1000. 

Let's see how it goes! 

Right off the bat, The Castle reminds me a lot of Nuts & Milk in how it wastes no time conveying an old computer-game aesthetic, which might be hinting toward its true origin. It's simple-looking (solid black background and limited graphical detail) and there isn't much in the way of animation, but The Castle has an immediate charm to it--a contagious sense of whimsy I wasn't expecting to emanate from the game in the moments before its characters sprung into action at the touch of the d-pad. I've always had the knack for gauging a game's quality with even a limited sampling of it, and I have a good feeling about this one based on what I've seen on the first screen.

The action moves very slowly, which would have been cause to cut my visit short had I not quickly realized that the game had a built-in solution. More on that in a bit.

The unnamed hero (who I assume is here to rescue someone) has no apparent offensive maneuvers at his disposal, but he does possesses amazing jumping ability--the little fellow essentially able to float and hover in the air for prolonged periods, switching from left to right on the fly. The height and duration of a jump is dependent upon how long the button is held down; he can hang up there long enough to switch directions several times, affording me plenty of time to decide upon a desirable point of descent. There are a lot of exceptionally cramped hallways in this castle, so I can see where I'll be needing to get a feel for the timing and nuance of these jumps, especially when it comes to the close-quarter avoidance of enemies. 

Really, the jumping mechanic felt unwieldy at first--my initial thoughts being that it might inevitably reveal itself to be the biggest deterrent to my progress--but it started making more sense the more I experimented with it. It's actually kind of fun to just jump around and float all about willy-nilly, though I can see the accompanying modulating, droning sound effect growing irritating over time.

Basically, the goal is to find color-coded keys and use them to unlock the corresponding doors. The action flows from room to room though not always linearly; like HAL Lab's Eggerland 2, the world, itself, is a giant puzzle, its construction demanding that the hero backtrack to previous rooms and use alternate access points to progress past obstacles that were insurmountable from other points of entry (maybe the top portion of a room contains a block that needs to be pushed down to the lower level). The map found early on reveals that the castle is 100 rooms deep, which is either good or bad news depending upon the intricacy of its design and how the difficulty grows from here.

As is par for games of this type, many of The Castle's puzzle rooms are built around pushing blocks (which come in a variety of forms) and positioning them in certain ways. Early on, I had to place a toaster-looking block near the edge of a conveyor belt, finagling it so that no part of the block encroached upon the conveyor's surface lest it would be carried over to the underside of an alcove, where it became useless; I overshot the first time, losing my block to the conveyor's influence, which required that I reset the block to its default position by exiting and reentering the room--another standard room-to-room-puzzler mechanic.

All of this entering and reentering would be a tedious process were the game captive to this slow pace, but the designers thankfully thought to provide remedy in the implementation a speed-up option as assigned to Button 1; that is, you can conveniently adjust the speed to "hyper" in instances where all you want to do is get from point A to B in a hurry. Moving at an increased speed makes the platforming aspect feel a bit more perilous, but I'm still afforded more than enough airtime to compensate for any miscalculations and recover with time to spare.

The items seen hovering all about the castle are merely points symbols, none of them offering any in the way of power-ups. Well, so far, at least.

I have to say that there's been a pervading sense of intimidation filling the air because I've read in advance that it's possible to become permanently stuck if you accidentally block off an exit or fall into a room from above and find that you lack the necessary keys to escape; it's been recommended that I first meticulously scan each new room, discerning any potential inescapable scenarios, before springing to action. Also, as I've learned after failing to effectively leap over spikes in an attempt to procure a green potion, hearts are a measure of lives and not units of health; it turns out that the green potions function as 1ups, so snagging the jar on my second attempt only served to complete what was a wash.

In the spirit of similarly lighthearted puzzlers, The Castle's music is cheery but repetitive, the game's single stage theme measuring in at about 14 seconds (or 9 seconds if hyper mode is currently activated) and played on an endless loop. Whether or not the music drives me insane will depend upon how maddening the game's puzzles become and how long I have to listen to it while I stand there idly and consider possible solutions. I could always pause the game (Button 3) and strategize in silence, sure, but The Castle's puzzles are constructed in a way to where observing the room's separate parts in motion is an important element of any planning phase. And I have every intention of heeding the advice to carefully scan each room beforehand, because this game has gotten nasty in a hurry.

Some of the more-action-based rooms are specifically constructed to test the player's command of the jumping physics. Such challenges include tough wraparound jumps and those where you have to finesse your way along sloped ceiling structures if you hope to reach the heights necessary to clear the many spike-lined obstructions. Keeping tabs on the patrolling enemies at the same time is crucial, too, since they tend to factor into the equation, and contact with them also spells instant death; the only way to eliminate them from the picture is to ram them with blocks, assuming the room you're in actually contains any. The good news is that enemies that have been killed via ramming or squishing never return, their presence no longer factoring into your puzzle-solving or the game at large.

And that's what The Castle is all about from this point on: Solving elaborate puzzles and learning to time your jumps in order to work around spiky obstacles and enemies, which come in three separate flavors--patrolling (their class including knights, pirates, hairy vikings and wizards), stationary (for now limited to strange multi-tentacled plant creatures that wriggle around for a few seconds before temporarily wilting), and homing (like the sparsely encountered flaming entities whose movement you have to manipulate by using the room's contouring as a buffer). It's not the smartest AI at work here, really; in some instances, the enemies almost immediately kill themselves by walking into spikes and wandering near the piston-like platforms, either side of which can squish them against a surface; this is most true of the viking enemies, the only in their class who can wander off their assigned platforms and directly interrupt your platforming efforts.

Also, I sense that it's important that I not waste keys on doors that can otherwise be navigated around. I'm not sure if every key was intended to be used, or if I can run out of them, so I've taken to memorizing the locations of each room's doorways, scouting for instances where it isn't necessary to have more than one entrance unlocked.

I lost a lot of time trying to find ways to circumvent what I feared were deadly electrical currents. They weren't anything of the sort, instead a pair of red and blue wires that violently rotate at timed intervals; for whatever reason, you can only stand on them as they spin, and you'll otherwise fall directly through them when they're static (blocks are exempt from the wires' questionable physics, retaining their position atop them in either state). I've also found that you can die if you're overlapping the wires at the moment they become active, and I can already envision the type of puzzles that will surely be built around this mechanic.

Also, I've lost another life upon learning that moving-platforming momentum doesn't exist and you have to instead manually advance in sequence to a blue moving platform if you wish to retain your position atop it. Oh, and I died because I bumped into the side of one of the other moving platforms as I was falling, which is great because, really, the spikes and the pirates and the wires and the rest of the instant-death traps weren't quite worrisome enough on their own. Thanks, game!

Aaaaaaaand losing all of my lives after working my way through roughly 25% of the castle reveals a harrowing-but-not-unexpected truth: The draining of your stock results in a definitive Game Over. No checkpoints. No continues. I'm going to have to spend at least another hour getting back to where I was and then, somehow, find a way to endure all the way to room number 100. Considering how easy it is to lose lives in clumps, I don't like my chances.

It's definitely not a good idea to fall into a pit that leads back to an earlier-explored section of the castle, I've found, since the only result will be copious amounts of backtracking. Though, it's still safer than dropping down into a room I haven't yet visited, since there's still the possibility of becoming permanently stuck via a lack of necessary keys. It's seems more viable to first check the rooms found to the left and the right, though at this point I've become increasingly fearful that any move might precipitate my perma-death. 

And, well, now it seems that I've reached an impasse--a crazily constructed room that requires the utilization of moving platforms as launchpads for navigating through a tight space surrounded by spikes, the nuance of which is insanely difficult to get a handle on. I Game Over again. On my third attempt--mostly because I've been traumatized by what just happened--I decide to move in the opposite direction and explore more of the castle's lower-right portion. It's here that I find what looks to be the game's first genuine power-up--a scuba tank placed above a water pool whose touch proves deadly; my expectation was that the scuba tank would allow me to freely wade through water from here on out, but it instead grants only temporary invincibility, allowing me to trek across three of four rooms worth of the castle's water-filled lower extremities before its effect expires. I discovered this the hard way when the music escalated and the invincibility soon wore off, killing me as I dawdled about, collecting items.

Thankfully, the game was nice enough to grant me a few extra seconds of invincibility upon restarting, which saved me from another permanent Game Over. This watery path terminates near a locked cell of an imprisoned fairy I saw fluttering about a while back, when I passed through this room's top level. My guess was that the fairy's rescue would be worth nothing more than a larger-than-normal points-boost, but it it instead prompts a short Japanese-language dialogue scene wherein the fairy entrusts me with a red key--a color of key I haven't yet seen.

This detour, while fruitful, has only delayed the inevitable, as all roads lead back to that dreaded spike room. Fearing that another Game Over is nigh after another hour of work, I seek guidance from the only full play-through of The Castle on Youtube. It seems that the purple machine found in the room before will regularly emit rainbows whose absorption also grants invincibility, but I find that the effect is so short-lived that I can't even make it to the spikes in time. Am I on my own with this? I mean, I don't know how the guy in the video is leaping through the narrow passage without touching the spikes. I blow through almost all of my lives before I figure out that you can simply jump from the front part of the top platform and squeeze through the passage by appying a very specific type of finesse that's anomalous to everything I've known about the controls thus far. Whatever.

As I near the final-third of The Castle, it begins ramping up the nastiness, introducing new tricks like falling-block rooms that have to be navigated around and cleared in your first attempt, lest you'll become permanently trapped after the blocks seal off all possible exit points; also, I learn that blocks, too, can be squashed by pistons and forever eliminated from the equation, potentially crippling my ability to complete a puzzle and furthermore the actual game. The bulk of these final 20 rooms features complicated block puzzles, which like those in Adventures of Lolo entail pushing blocks halfway and finding the correct permutation for stacking them on top of one another; some require split-second timing and precision platforming in addition.

That I can't find ways to backroute any one of these puzzles shows how much thought went into their construction; they're cleverly designed and appropriately perplexing--some of them, like those that revolve around using weighted towing devices to move blocks about the room, standing among the craftiest, most-brain-busting I've seen in my long puzzle-game history.

Unfortunately, the castle's design soon decides to turn evil, its every other room suddenly a one-and-done block-faller. Hell--there's even a room where collecting the items can doom you because their horizontal arrangement functions as a "platform," which is your first hint that they possess such a quality; if you didn't know that such a mechanic existed--and odds are you probably didn't--you might collect the items without thinking. It's gotten so ridiculous that I've had no choice but to turn to save-states at this point, because there's no way I'm going to spend two hours at a time working my way back to this specific area every time I mess up. 

Oh, and you don't have everything you need by the time you reach this point, you're screwed. You can backtrack through earlier parts of the castle in search of missing keys, yes, but you'll be unable to fully retrace your steps because scuba gear doesn't respawn and you'll have no way to pass through the water sections whose navigation is necessary. Had I not been compiling save-states, effectively recording each step of the adventure, I might have sworn the game off for good after it fell back on such a terrible design choice.

A few more hours of hellish puzzles lead me to the final room, where a princess can be seen being held captive behind a red door. Thank goodness that my thorough exploration yielded enough red keys; to make it this far and come up one key short might have spelled the end of my sanity. And what's my reward for beating one of the most mentally and psychically taxing puzzle-platformers I've ever played? The hero hops up a few steps and embraces the princess, and then the pair then turns toward the camera as hearts form over their heads, visually affirming their love. The end. Thank you for playing. Please enjoy the title screen.


Before I give my final thoughts, though, I'd like to take a look at the MSX version, which I believe to be the original. It has to be, I figure, because the SG-1000-version's title screen includes the line "reprogrammed by Sega," which is obvious proof of an altered work. Mainly, I want to find out if Sega made any significant changes to the game's engine. Let's see.

Well, it looks and plays almost identically, but are some minor differences: For one, its omnipresent stage has a slightly different composition and otherwise varies in terms of tempo and tone, the piece more deliberately paced and higher in pitch. It's the same deal with the modulated sound effect for jumping, which is more drawn out and thus tougher on the ears. The game's action also moves comparatively slower though only by a bit.

The biggest oversight, I find, is that you have to continue holding down the keyboard's left Control button to remain in hyper mode where in the SG-1000 version you could lock in your desired speed with the press of a button. Considering that MSX controllers did have more than one button, the decision to map the input separately doesn't make any sense; trying to handle both a joystick and a keyboard at the same time is completely unintuitive. It still plays competently, but having to lean forward and keep my pinky pressed against the keyboard to access an important function is cumbersome and uncomfortable.

However, I'd stop short of calling the SG-1000 port the definitive version because of its omission of one of the MSX original's best features: A convenient self-destruct command that allows you to reset a room if you find yourself in an inescapable scenario; it drains one life from your stock, yes, but it's a better solution than having to restart the entire game! It's strange that Sega thought to jettison the feature entirely. 

And that's the deciding factor: Do I want more-intuitive controls or a time-saving room-reset feature? In an era where save-states effectively negate the need for painful backtracking, I choose a superior control-scheme and the SG-1000 version. Besides--the MSX's reset feature doesn't resolve the predicament of single-use scuba gear, which still leaves the possibility for perma-death. It's not that much of an advantage when you think about it.

The Castle, to me, was a revelation. Something about its screenshots made me suspect that it would be middling in quality, but it's actually one of the most ambitious puzzle-platformers I've played on older consoles. The problem is that the game isn't at all thoughtfully designed, its interconnected structure formulated with cruel intentions; it's not a flaw that you can fall back to an earlier portion of the castle and become permanently stuck--it's an intentional design choice, which speaks to the mindset of game developers in the mid-80s. They didn't want you to finish their games in one go; you were meant to take months--and even years--to acquire the knowledge and skill necessary to make it through their games in one piece.

That's the best way I could describe The Castle, which comes to us from a much different era--a time when games had absolutely no regard for your time or your mental health. When they put you through hell and demanded that you sacrifice whole days of your life to their cause. When they threw you to the wolves with a short stick your only weapon. The Castle's simple, charming exterior belies a monstrously challenging puzzle game that is all at once brutal, unforgiving and unapologetic--emotionally taxing in a way that modern games could or should never be. It's the kind of game that made sense when life was largely free from distraction--when you had all day to stare at a computer monitor and laboriously plot every pixel of every movement. When you didn't have 1,000 cable channels simultaneously vying for your viewership. When there were no Twitter feeds to follow and no Twitch personalities to keep tabs on. When there was only you, the game, and a bond built on torment.

Back then, it made sense to spend two hours at a time desperately attempting to reach the finale of a game that long tormented me. And if I failed, I could try again the next day. But what about now? Are games like The Castle worth that level of time-sink at this point in my life, when the days seem shorter and there's so much else to do? The answer is a resounding "Yes!"" For me, it's always worth it to rediscover old games. To pop open a window on a quiet, breezy spring evening and permeate the air with the bleeps and the bloops of long-lost games that yearned to share their inspirational whimsy. Oh, sure--I had one of my favorite Twitch channels quietly playing in the background as I drudged my way through room after room of The Castle, but only to reconcile the fact that the two disparate eras are equally relevant to me. 

Old games, man. You gotta love 'em.


  1. The game does seem to be functionally the same as Castle Excellent/Castlequest. I really do enjoy those old action-puzzlers like this one and others like Solomon's Key.

    Sega sure does have a strange history when it comes to consoles, doesn't it? They seemed like such a powerhouse in the mid-90s, but in hindsight I think the MegaDrive/Genesis was really their only major success.

  2. Well, Sega was an arcade company at heart, and its consoles were built with those sensibilities in mind. I'd even suggest that there's a correlation between the fall of arcades and Sega's exit from the console scene.

    Maybe those fancy game journalists will one day explore such a possibility. You know--right after they figure out what an "SG-1000" is.