Friday, January 10, 2020

Adventure: Castle of Terror (1984)

I've had a little bit of adventuring time available in recent weeks, and I ended up tackling Beam Software's Castle of Terror, published in 1984 for the Commodore 64 and Spectrum ZX computers.  It's an illustrated text adventure with a parser (of sorts), room illustrations (that take considerable time to draw), and a design that inspired legendary frustration in its day.

I played Castle of Terror via the Antstream game service that launched last year -- recently the company has been adding a nice selection of obscure Commodore 64 and Spectrum ZX text adventures to supplement its growing selection of vintage arcade games and Megadrive titles.  When I started this blog I honestly had no clue how many hundreds of text adventures had been created for the early home computers, and I appreciate the curation-by-default Anstream provides.  Sometimes a smaller selection makes for an easier decision, especially now that the platform has added a save game feature.

I'm playing the Commodore 64 version, and the title screen shows off a design technique that was somewhat specific to the U.K. approach, probably because the more color-limited Spectrum ZX was so popular there.  This title screen uses relatively high-resolution outlines, with blockier color underneath -- the ZX had to make do with relatively blocky color tiles, but the C-64 version is able to apply color at half resolution, making for a strikingly detailed image by 8-bit standards.

As always, I'm going to share my experience in full detail... and while normally I warn fellow adventurers away from the inevitable spoilers, this is one title you might want to know more about for the sake of adjusting your expectations.  So consider this a half-hearted warning of...


After we hit ENTER on the title screen, we find ourselves in a field where workers toil away with a few pixels' worth of incidental animation, and pleasant background music, atmospheric though no touch on the SID-powered C64's best.

I decide to head South to the location of the Duck Inn; just trying to get my bearings, I continue S to the old church grounds, and S again to a fresh grave.  EXAMINE GRAVE reveals a bit of bone, and EXAMINE BONE reveals it seems to be a bit of skull.  I'll take it along just in case, per tradition.

I wander around a bit -- we can see a foreboding castle along the north-south road from the village, and can enter a mill where there's a grindstone that might come in handy.  The map isn't very consistent geographically -- there are lots of approximate connections along the cardinal directions, and interiors seem to allow any direction as an exit, though it's entirely consistent and mappable.

I enter the mill and try to GRIND BONE or PUT BONE ON GRINDSTONE, but the parser doesn't grasp my intent.  There's a ladder onscreen, but trying to CLIMB LADDER only causes me to fall off, and EXAMINE LADDER reveals the bottom rung is broken.  We can't FIX RUNG or REPAIR RUNG but we can TAKE RUNG -- it might come in handy as a stake, now that I think of it, or rather that I allow my brain to remain preoccupied by the game's title screen.  But EXAMINE RUNG suggests it's the same size as a stay from the dray (wagon) parked outside the Duck Inn.

I haven't been inside the Inn yet, so let's go check it out.  There are some villagers grouped in a cluster of mobbish, limited interactivity, and the text also calls our attention to an old man.  Unfortunately, the parser will not allow us to TALK MAN, but if we try to TALK it asks us to whom we wish to speak... MAN doesn't yield a response, but TALK TO MAN allows him to ask us to buy him a tankard of ale.  Of course, we discover that You have no money with which to buy ale,  should we foolishly try to BUY ALE.

Wandering around some more, I find a small cottage north of the mill and enter, TAKEing a KNIFE from the kitchen table (though it is only revealed after we EXAMINE TABLE.)  Can we do anything with the dray outside the inn?  We can't LOCK DRAY (using the rung as a locking pin) or PULL DRAY or TAKE DRAY (It is too big!)

We can't ENTER CHURCH or GO CHURCH but if we EXAMINE CHURCH we find a dusty cross, always good to have on hand when these sorts of title screens are about.  Though EXAMINE CROSS reveals it is made of gold, so if we have to collect treasures it may be handy on that count as well.

There's a gatehouse (apparently near the castle?) with a WHEEL we can TURN to... lower the drawbridge, rather reducing its effectiveness as a security measure.  But trying to enter the castle by going N at this point results in our immediate demise, as an iron gate crashes down and sends pieces of our body hurtling down the cliff into the river below!  So it's a good thing I saved right before trying that!

The parser doesn't recognize THROW, so my ideas about triggering the trap somehow are for nought.  We can't GO RIVER or GO MOAT, as those destinations are unrecognized.  I can't BUY ALE with the gold cross or SELL CROSS to anyone in the inn.  What else?  Oh, if we HELP VILLAGERS in the field where we started, they thank us and pay us a coin.

Now we can return to the Duck Inn, BUY ALE... except, no, I forgot to TAKE COIN earlier, so I have to go back and get it, which I can do even though the room description never mentions it is just lying there.  (This will later prove to be something I should have paid more attention to.) 

Trying again, we can BUY ALE, but when we TALK TO MAN, he just finishes his drink and bangs his empty tankard on the table... quite a trick, as when we try to TAKE TANKARD it's already in our inventory.  So now we have... a tankard.  EXAMINE TANKARD indicates it's got ale in it.  Oh!  We have to GIVE ALE TO MAN (GIVE ALE doesn't work) to hear his tale of woe regarding his missing daughter.  He concludes by giving us a key that he indicates will help us enter the castle, before returning to his deep, dissolute depression.  Progress!

But how do we use the key?  I can't UNLOCK DOOR or UNLOCK GATE, and merely possessing the key doesn't prevent our death by iron gate.  Ah -- we have to LOCK WHEEL, as it has a place for a locking pin, and this keeps the gate at bay.

To the North of the drawbridge we find a wooden door, and after we UNLOCK DOOR with the key... the game prompts us to enter the MASTER disk for a load.  And on Antstream, this doesn't seem to happen?  Oh.  No, it does -- but it's a faithful emulation of the C64's notoriously sluggish disk drive, and it takes a minute or two (of a streamed black screen) for the game to finish loading and resume.  This is part of the authentic vintage gaming experience I sincerely do not miss.

It seems the game is technically cut into two sections -- while we do retain our inventory from the pre-castle section, the parser's vocabulary actually changes up quite a bit.  We find ourselves inside the castle's entrance hall, with exits east and west apparently guarded by knights.  We can still go East and visit a cobweb-covered banquet hall, and E again to the Gallery, where we can go downstairs to the Armoury.  Here we can TAKE SPEAR, but we can only carry one weapon at a time, so I hope I'm making the right choice by ignoring the axe and sword.  Heading back toward the entrance hall, there are only a few paths to explore -- we can try to go Up from the banquet hall, but eerie footsteps force us to turn back.

Heading W of the entrance hall leads to the Library, where a knight statue really does block progress further west.  Trying to TAKE BOOK reveals the kind of secret passage we were not hoping to find, as a trapdoor opens up in the floor and sends us tumbling into the dungeon.  But we're not immediately dead, so let's keep exploring.

Walking south, we find the skeletal body of another adventurer, clutching a piece of paper with a small dagger near his hand.  READ PAPER yields "Beware the living dead - they never sleep", almost certainly a vampire reference in these pre-Walking Dead days.  We can TAKE DAGGER -- and examination reveals it has some twine threads on it?

The next bit of tunnel as we continue S contains a spider's web -- and trying to TAKE WEB gets us fatally bitten, but at least when we restart we're not all the way back at the beginning of the game, just at the castle entrance (thankfully, to avoid further disk swapping.)  Since we're here, I'll fill in the map a bit -- but there's not really anywhere else to go, as we can't even head north of the entrance hall.  So we're probably working our way toward the game's finale.

We can ignore the spider's web, as it turns out, and just continue south, where we encounter two knights whose crossed swords block our passage through a wooden door back north.  A staircase leads up, but we'll explore to the south and east first to find an impassable pit occupied by the corpse of another failed rescuer. U turns out to lead us back to the banquet hall, though we can't go back down that way so I have no idea how this geography really works.

There don't seem to be a lot of puzzles here.  Can we KILL KNIGHTS?  No, but the parser will let us attempt to KILL KNIGHT -- though they still respond in the plural, and are too strong, beating us back.  What about the knight in the library?  KILL KNIGHT suggests there is no room to use the spear.  Returning to the armory and fetching the axe instead, it develops that we can't control the axe very well at all in close quarters.  One more try with the sword -- well, we're able to engage now, but we get cut badly with no protection.  We can do that repeatedly, though, so perhaps it's not really going to be fatal.

I can't do any better against the knights downstairs with the sword, but revisiting the pit I discover that while we can't JUMP PIT or JUMP EAST, we can LEAP to cross the pit, emerging outdoors near the river.  But we can't go anywhere from here -- SWIM and LEAP are both discouraged though not fatal -- so this is probably more of an endgame escape route.

Back to the knights, then... aha!  We can TAKE SHIELD in the armory, and maybe that will help (these items are not described in the text but are sort of visible onscreen.)  We still can't KILL KNIGHT in the library -- though we don't get cut with the shield in hand, we don't do him any damage either.  We don't fare any better against the knights in the dungeon.

EXAMINE SHIELD suggests it protects the body but not the legs?  Ah, we have to return to the armory, DROP SHIELD and TAKE ARMOUR (using the U.K. spelling.)  We still can't take out the library knight, nor the knights in the dungeon.  Man!  Hmmm... further experimentation establishes that we can't use the axe on the library knight, but it is effective against the guys blocking the gate.  Unfortunately, this only wins us passage back to the spiderweb room, and does nothing to protect us from the spider's deadly venom.  And with the armour on, we're too heavy and can't leap the pit to escape.

So it feels like we can explore a bit more freely, but I don't see any obvious puzzles to deal with.  I might have to look for a solution, as I seem to be a getting a bit stuck.

Well, there's one new discovery... for some reason, successfully attacking the knights in the dungeon seems to allow us to go up the stairs from the banquet room.  Here, at last, we find our beautiful rescuee... and the vampire, who we will assume to be her captor and not just her cousin or lover or Instagram consultant, because it is 1984.  This artwork is also striking in its combination of high-resolution pixels and chunky color.


EXAMINE COUNT indicates that the golden cross we are carrying is keeping him at bay: He sees the golden cross and is paralyzed by its dazzling lightEXAMINE GIRL gets her to ask us to help her escape, and TAKE GIRL automatically cuts her ropes with the knife (or the dagger, maybe?)  She also suggests that we can escape by the banks of the river.

A quick trip back the dungeon (we can now travel down from the banquet hall) gets us close to the exit.  Previous fatal experimentation suggests we should DROP ARMOUR and DROP AXE before we try to LEAP across the pit again.  But we can't carry the girl across the pit without support?  Like, a girdle or something hernia-related?  Puzzled, I go upstairs and try to see if we can claim the rope we cut away earlier, but it's not available.  We might as well try to KILL COUNT while we're here, but he simply turns into a bat and flees the room.  Maybe we can use the spider web?  Maybe not... TAKE WEB is still fatal.

SHOW (a verb I only discovered when I tried to threaten the vampire with the cross) in the spider's web room indicates that the object on the floor I couldn't quite make out is in fact a club.  I've already dropped the axe, so I TAKE CLUB, then... CLUB WEB?  No, but TAKE WEB works as long as we have the club instead of using our bare hands.  We now have the web, or do we?  It doesn't show up in inventory, or in the room, but I'll see what happens.  I remember to DROP CLUB before attempting the LEAP, but we're still too heavy.  Time to drop everything but the web (if we even have it, but webs can be difficult to see)... and the girl?

We're still getting told we need support for the girl (insert joke here.)  I discover that we can TAKE WEB repeatedly, and if we've dropped the club in the meanwhile, we get fatally bitten by the owner of the already-cleared web.  So that seems to be a non-useful object.  Oh, dang -- maybe I shouldn't have cut the rope earlier?  But UNTIE MAIDEN still cuts the rope.  And the parser doesn't know how to UNTIE ROPE

Hmmmm.  I try to leave the dagger and knife behind so I can't cut the rope too hastily, but now I get You have nothing with which to cut the ropes which bind her when I try to UNTIE MAIDEN.  Can we THROW MAIDEN across the pit?  Nope, but we couldn't THROW anything in the first section of the game; now the parser clearly recognizes GET ROPE and THROW ROPE but we don't have any rope nor any apparent way to obtain some.

At this point I decided it was time to break down and consult the amazing to see if I can figure out what I'm missing.  #*(#@!  There are actually two mills in the first half of the game -- one of which contains some rope, which is distinct from the rope I'm trying to salvage from the maiden's captivity.

So it's time to restart the game to address my grievous oversight.  The same mill that contains the rung also has the rope, but it's not visible or mentioned unless we request SHOW to get some more details about the room, so I feel decidedly non-guilty about missing it.  I also discover that we have to EXAMINE RUNG to recognize it as a PIN, the two nouns are not interchangeable even if we already know what we need to do with it -- it's a feature or a bug, depending on one's point of view.  A THROW ROPE once we make our way back to the pit immediately takes us back to the jetty by the river, where we still can't SWIM or JUMP, but we can THROW ROPE again to cross the water to victory!

Of course, I've only earned 111 of the possible 290 points -- but Castle of Terror's scoring mechanism is a little strange so I'm not concerned about it.  The walkthrough indicates that I missed opportunities to earn points by repeatedly helping the villagers, eating some soup in the cottage, and pressing the skull in the library, among other non-essentials.  I was more interested to learn that I actually lost points by entering the dungeon the way I did instead of taking a more convoluted route past the knight in the Library, requiring a flint I failed to find near one of the mills.  And it turns out that it's actually impossible to kill the Count, nor is that required to finish the game, which I had accidentally fumbled my way through... apparently a subject of some gaming magazine controversy back in the day!  So I'm satisfied to have seen most of what there is to see here, figured out most of the puzzles on my own, and accidentally ignored a few that don't actually have to be solved to complete the story.

Castle of Terror isn't a game I would recommend to modern adventure gamers, honestly -- while I appreciate that the design offers alternatives and red herrings, the design is frustrating in ways that it need not have been, with invisible items, parser oddities and a partially unresolved plot when all is said and done.  It's very much of its era, for better or worse.  But I really do appreciate Antstream's preservation of the text adventure genre, alongside its flashier streaming content.


  1. Hi, thanks for this article. Question please, I can't seem to find COT on Antstream; has it possibly been removed from their offering since January?

    1. If it disappeared at some point, I see it there now in February 2022. Maybe there was a temporary licensing glitch, I think I played it shortly after it appeared on the service.

  2. This was a great read! Thanks for posting. I feel much less guilty now, for not being any good at these text adventures as a boy.