By Tyler Lubben / February 12th, 2015
|Title||Castle in the Darkness
|Release Date||February 5, 2015|
When Josh handed Castle in the Darkness off to me, I was going in almost completely green. Sure, I had read the interview he did with Matt Kap, the game’s creator, and I had seen the odd video or two, but, when I actually fired the game up, I had no idea what I was in for. As a kid of the 80s and 90s, I’m no stranger to retro style games (having played them before they were classified as “retro”), but I tend to consider it a bygone era that most developers don’t cater to anymore. That said, Kap is definitely someone who understands what this genre can offer, delivering a fantastic mix of beautiful pixelated art, outstanding music and some of the toughest gameplay that I’ve experienced this side of 1001 Spikes.
As is often the case with retro style games, Castle in the Darkness has a simple plot. One night, the king of Alexandria falls ill. Suspecting foul deeds may be afoot, the kingdom’s knights are put on alert in case some dark foe tries to make a move while the king is vulnerable. Well, someone was right on the money, because, sure enough, an evil sorcerer does attack Alexandria. Unfortunately, even with this prior warning, the sorcerer’s forces easily steamroll the knights and overrun the kingdom. You play as one of these knights, waking up to find that both the king and the princess are missing and all your brothers-in-arms dead. You then embark on a quest to storm the titular castle and bring the sorcerer to justice.
The game’s control layout is simple – emulating that of an old NES game. You can move left and right, jump and attack. Holding the attack button will also allow you to charge a magic ability and release for a powerful blast, once you unlock that ability. The controls may be simple, but they are tight! There’s very little sliding around when trying to start or stop walking, and jump controls are amazingly responsive. And that’s good, because the gameplay itself can be pretty unforgiving. Things start out easily enough, with standard enemies like slowly shambling zombies and bones-tossing skeletons, as well as some pretty simple platforming areas that don’t present much of a challenge. However, early on, your health is incredibly low, and you can be killed with just a few hits. You’ll have be extremely careful, especially around the early bosses, as it only takes a couple mistakes before you’re sent back your last save point.
Fortunately, the rewards come fast and often. Almost every single boss that you fight (which are plentiful) drops a heart after you defeat them, slightly increasing your maximum HP. You can also find additional weapons and armor throughout your travels that will increase your ability to deal and take damage. Melee weapons – usually swords – stab out ahead of the character when you attack. You’ll also find other special weapons like an axe that will fly out in an arc not unlike the axe from the Castlevania games, or a Boomerang that will let you attack from a distance. The output of these attacks is directly related to your ability to mash the button, so the enemies you come across can be as easy or hard as your own ability to damage them allows.
One of the keys to making a great retro game is capturing the art and musical styles of the time, so I was incredibly pleased to find that Castle in the Darkness almost feels as though it’s come straight out of an NES game. One of the interesting things I found while playing through the game is that you don’t actually start anywhere near the sorcerer’s castle. You actually start in the city of Alexandria, and must travel through the wilderness before you even start raiding the enemy base. I mention this because the trek that players must make through these different areas offers such a variety of locations, enemy designs and musical tracks that you never get bored of what you’re doing. From towns to forests to flooded caves and the various sections of the castle itself, every area has a unique look and sound that makes just about every location a joy to travel through.
The sorcerer’s evil forces, too, are just about as unique as the locations they inhabit. With very few exceptions, each area has specific enemy types that you won’t find in any other section. When the game does do a little palette swapping, the differently-colored enemies have some new feature to them that keeps players on their toes, such as leaving smaller enemies behind after they’re defeated. Not only that, but many of these foes were obviously inspired by the games of yesteryear, in some cases, challenging gamers’ preconceived notions of what they know about those games. Key among these is a fairy-like enemy that looks almost identical to the life-restoring fairy found in the original Legend of Zelda. Longtime fans of that series will know that touching this character will net them a large health boost. However, in Castle in the Darkness, doing this will only result in a hit to your health bar, with a rude “HEY! LISTEN!” dialogue box appearing on the screen for good measure. You quickly learn that there are not many friends to make in this game! Not just Zelda, but players will find references to plenty of other classic games, including Castlevania, Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man, as well as easter eggs related to other NICALiS-published titles like Cave Story.
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