Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Adventure of the Week: Castle (1981)

Castle is another escape-the-castle adventure involving a wizard's curse, written by Robert Zdybel and published by the Atari Program Exchange for the company's 8-bit computers, circa 1981.  (All of these games start up with the same COPYRIGHT ATARI 1981 notice, and I'm starting to wonder if it's really just the engine's built-in notice and these games were released over a longer period of time.) 


Castle uses the standard Atari Program eXchange engine written in-house at Atari, with all the attendant quirks I've been noting while working my way through these games in recent weeks.

Interested readers are, of course, encouraged to escape the Castle before reading about my experience below.  The game isn't overly difficult, but figuring out how some of the pieces are supposed to fit together isn't always straightforward, and the APX parser's approach gets in the way here and there -- the player tends to have to hunt for the location where an object can be used as intended.  In any case, be advised that if you have any interest in experiencing this adventure firsthand, you may want to go away and do that, as there will surely be...

***** SPOILERS AHEAD! *****

We begin in a large open courtyard -- our imprisonment being rather informal, it seems -- near a beautiful fountain.  There's quite a bit of detailed, evocative text in this game, which suggests the map may not be very large.  We have nothing in inventory, so we'll explore the large stone arches in all directions.

Heading North leads us into a Banquet Hall, where moldy remains of the last dinner served suggest a hasty departure.  There is a parchment lunch sack lying here, and we're told that it has a grease spot in one corner.  I try to TAKE SACK and TAKE LUNCH SACK, unsuccessfully, but TAKE LUNCH works.  OPEN LUNCH reveals a tuna sandwich, a banana, and a liverwurst cookie.

East of the banquet hall is the Scullery, where we see a large, half-full bottle of water that looks potable.  Zdybel's text in this game works around the engine's lack of a typical EXAMINE verb, so it pays to read the room descriptions in detail while the objects are in situ to pick up important details. 

South of the scullery is the Ladies Quarters, where cobweb-covered feather beds once hosted the castle's female staff.  We can return to the courtyard to the west, but I'll continue south into the Bunk Room, apparently abandoned by the Royal Guard.  An Elven steel sword here suggests that the author had recently played ZORK, what with the lunch sack we found earlier and the blue glow we see before us.  We'll TAKE SWORD too.

West of the bunk room is the Great Gate, where a thick drawbridge secures the castle.  An iron crank probably controls the great drawbridge, but we'll keep exploring, confirming that we can return to the courtyard to the north.  The map is straightforward so far, and geographically consistent -- it appears the courtyard is surrounded by a ring of 9 rooms, all connected in the expected fashion.

Continuing West of the Great Gate, we find a Guardhouse containing a brass oil lamp, so we'll TAKE LAMP as custom dictates.  A forbidding staircase leads into unknown territory below, so we'll keep ZORK in mind and continue exploring to pick up any other worthwhile adventuring accessories before we go down there.

A Small Grate secured by a heavy, padlocked iron chain lies to the north of the guardhouse, west of the courtyard.  It appears we could go west if the chain was removed, but for now we'll have to go north to what should be the last room in this area.  This is the Great Staircase, leading upward, but we're warned that The ageing [sic] stairs are showing signs of neglect and just might not hold your weight

I'll take the risk and head Up to the Chapel, where we see a broken-down pipe organ and a wall of stained glass.  PLAY ORGAN isn't recognized by the parser, so that's probably not something we need to pursue. 

This upper floor seems similar to the first, with the chapel in the northeast corner.  I'll tour in clockwise direction again to visit the Council Chambers, with a wrought-iron grating covering a window cut from the stone; the King's Chamber, with a moldy mattress and a passage upward that's currently blocked for some unstated reason; and a Sitting Room with a potted plant crying for "Water" -- another clear influence, this time from Crowther and Woods' Colossal Cave.  In the southeast corner of this floor is the Queen's Chamber, with a magically fresh-looking blueberry and raisin cupcake on hand (though we must TAKE CAKE, TAKE CUPCAKE doesn't work) and a route up to the Lookout, a breathtaking view with no other exits.  West of the Queen's Chamber is the Sewing Room, and in the southwest corner is a Small Stairwell with a staircase leading up into unfathomable mist, so we can't climb it at the moment.  (I later discover that the sewing room seems to exist solely to allow for a joke about early computing hardware logic gate technology -- HINT here suggests that the new Enchanted Castle Limited (ECL for short) represents a major improvement over the TTL series.)  There's also a Great Hall connecting the small stairwell to the chapel, and we can go up from the chapel into the Bell Tower to acquire a small sack of birdseed if we TAKE BIRDSEED, TAKE SACK and TAKE SEED don't work.  We can't RING BELL either.

Before I go down into the darkness below the guardhouse, I try to TURN CRANK at the great gate, to no avail as it's rusted in place.  I try to OIL CRANK with the oil from the lamp, also unsuccessfully, and I also fail to USE OIL and OPEN LAMP.

So we'll continue mapping -- I head down into the darkness, TURNON LAMP (a verb peculiar to the APX engine) and find myself in the Gaol, where a grinning, armed, presumably animated skeleton blocks our way and guards the tempting ring of keys lying on the floor.  I try to KILL SKELETON and ATTACK SKELETON, but USE SWORD is the only way to dispatch him as the blow smashes the dancing skeleton into a hundred small pieces.  We can't TAKE KEYS or TAKE RING, so the ring of keys on the floor appears to be strictly decorative in nature.

The gaol lies to the south of the Dungeon proper, with torture implements, strange Elven runes on the wall and a suspiciously less-dusty eastern wall.  I try to READ RUNES but YOU HAVEN'T DONE SOMETHING ELSE YET, and trying to go east suggests something is in the way.  The map down here does not resemble the upper floors -- so far, we can only reach the gaol and the dungeon.

So our map is complete for the moment, and now we can start solving some puzzles.  My first thought proves lucky, as I EAT CAKE and feel a strange Elvish feeling come over you, allowing us to READ RUNES: "SPEAK AND THEN ENTER."  But no magic words I try seem to work, so we probably need to discover the word somehow.

I try to THROW BIRDSEED and OPEN BIRDSEED at the lookout tower, but nothing seems to work.  We can DRINK BOTTLE and EAT LUNCH, for refreshment, but no other results manifest... and I probably should have watered that plant, shouldn't I?  There's no SAVE GAME supported, so I'll have to return to an earlier emulator save state.

WATER PLANT causes the plant to grow to the ceiling, just as we expected, but this seems to have no real impact on the story -- it now bellows for water, but we can observe this only at the moment we water it; otherwise, the plant seems to have disappeared from the world.  Our bottle is also gone, so there appears to be no way to refill it; I'll just restore again and ignore the plant's entreaties for now.

In the King's Chamber, we can LIFT MATTRESS to find a golden amulet with a strange inscription: "You rule the toads of the Short Forest and every newt in Idaho."  There's a Royal Seal on the ceiling, in gold; I try to WEAR AMULET, OPEN AMULET, WAVE AMULET and OPEN SEAL, but the parser doesn't recognize any of these concepts.

In the bell tower, requesting a HINT suggests that the bishop used to feed a flock of birds here.  So I try to SCATTER BIRDSEED, which as I expected doesn't work, and DROP BIRDSEED, which does but not the way I wanted it to.  We can EAT BIRDSEED, which does nothing beyond leaving a bad taste in our mouth and consuming the birdseed, and FEED BIRDS isn't recognized.  It finally dawns on me that I found the birdseed here originally, so the hint is just descriptive.

I'll play some more with the amulet -- the fact we can READ it in the King's Chamber but nowhere else suggests whatever we can do with it must be done there.  LIFT AMULET does nothing to open the seal, but INSERT AMULET does, causing a small step-ladder to extend down from the ceiling.  This leads us to the conveniently located King's Mistress' Chamber, where a yellow canary looks hungry.  I try to FEED CANARY and DROP BIRDSEED, but only FEED BIRD works -- the little bird says, "ARJAYZEE."  That sounds like the author's initials, and likely a magic word. 

SAY ARJAYZEE doesn't work on the dungeon door, but it does thin out the mist in the small stairwell, allowing us to reach the Wizard's Tower.  A thin black spellbook is here, but we can't READ BOOK in this location, so we'll just TAKE BOOK for now.

We can't read it in the dungeon either.  Just for fun, I try taking the "SPEAK AND THEN ENTER" clue literally and SAY AND -- and lo and behold, the wall fades into a thinning mist!  Now we can enter the Potion Room, with a gigantic vault door to the north.  There's a flask of blue fluid here with a faded label, but I have to leave and reenter the room to learn that the parser calls this a POTION, not a FLASK or a FLUID

READ POTION suggests it's called "OLD IRONBENDERS STRENGTH EXTRACT," and DRINK POTION suggests it lives up to its name.  With our newly acquired power we can OPEN VAULT and enter the King's Vault.  There's a note here, reading: "... under my mattress, simply insert it into the ceiling and the secret room will appear."  So... wow, that was a lot of work for something we've already learned.  And our new strength doesn't allow us to BEND BARS in the council chamber or BREAK CHAIN at the small grate to create a new exit.

So where can we READ BOOK?  In the Potion Room, we get a different response -- YOU HAVEN'T DONE SOMETHING ELSE YET.  It turns out this is very much like the black-light puzzle in Wizard's Gold -- we have to TURNOFF LAMP before we can read fiery script revealing another magic word: "XANADU."  We can SAY XANADU right here, as luck would have it, and the potion room's eastern wall disappears.

Now we can reach the Wizard's Treasure Room, where a small silver key is encrusted with gems and inscribed in gold.  This is partially a gag, as the key says, "Harvard" rather than the more common "Yale."   But the key itself should be useful, and proves to be as we return to the Small Grate, UNLOCK CHAIN here, and open up a passage to the west, out of the castle.  Victory is ours!

Castle is clearly derivative of some classic adventure games that preceded it, but after borrowing quite a bit of their flavor it goes off in its own direction.  The puzzles are nested a little bit too linearly, especially at the end, but there are a few interesting red herrings designed to raise questions in the player's mind and trip up the experienced adventurer, and Mr. Zdybel wrote some nicely atmospheric text.  I think this is the last of the APX games to use this engine, and I've enjoyed working my way through these adventures on summer afternoons.


  1. The game's manual has a copyright date of 1981 so this may well be an accurate date: http://www.mocagh.org/miscgame/castle-alt-manual.pdf

    1. Ah, that's good information! Thanks, Tony. It's entirely possible that all of these games were released in 1981 -- it just seems a little odd that APX didn't seem to publish any in the following years. But these games didn't take long to develop, even back in the day, and it's possible Atari produced a flurry of adventure games and didn't see enough sales to justify continuing.