Castle (1981)   6 comments

It’s been a while since we’ve visited the APX (Atari® Program Exchange) so it’s time to give it another try, with a work by Robert Zdybel who also wrote Alien Egg; I don’t know if Castle or that game came first.

While the gameplay in Alien Egg wasn’t impressive, it had a fun sense of attitude.

This is where the rest of the crew slept before their mysterious and untimely disappearance.
There are several bunks against one of the bulkheads. All of the are neatly made and empty.


This is where the Captain used to bunk before HIS mysterious and untimely disappearance.

This one doesn’t quite have the sense of attitude, but it does feel written; there’s at least gesturing towards environment-as-storytelling. For Alien Egg, I also wrote the parser was “suffering” and looking back after finishing, I can’t say anything has changed, but I got a little more used to the particular quirks. (I’ll mark these spots when they come up as Parser Oddities #1 through #5.)

You got a wizard mad for mysterious reasons and you’re now trapped in a magical castle. So this one is Escape rather than Treasure Hunt. The map is sensibly laid out in levels, and feels more modern than a lot of what I’ve seen for 1981; I suspect the author was aiming for easy difficulty which accidentally led to this.

I mentioned environment-as-storytelling; rather than the castle we’ve been teleported to being generic, it gives the impression of having suffered some catastrophe, with snippets of life interrupted.

There’s no “payout” — in a modern game you’d expect some sort of climax where the player discovers What Really Happened, but the mystery remains a mystery even at the end.

Look, a Zork reference! Unless I’m forgetting something, this is the first commercial game we’ve seen where one has appeared.

I suppose if there was a longer windup, this would bother me, but the game is relatively short and clearly focused on just escape. The rough sequence of puzzles is

1.) Find a lamp and a sword clearly codged from Zork, and go down into a gaol.

Parser Oddity #1: The command GET doesn’t work, so GET LAMP is impossible. You have to TAKE LAMP instead.

Parser Oddity #2: The lamp is hard to turn on: LIGHT, ACTIVATE, and SWITCH don’t work. The right command is from the instructions: TURNON, all one word.

Once the room is lit, you see a skeleton there you can destroy.

Parser Oddity #3: ATTACK SKELETON and KILL SKELETON don’t work; you have to SWING SWORD, which shatters the skeleton into pieces.

2.) Find some runes and try to read them; the game, short on details, says YOU HAVEN’T DONE SOMETHING ELSE YET. There aren’t many other objects to play with, but there is a cupcake from elsewhere in the castle.

Parser Oddity #4:The CUPCAKE can only be referred to it as a CAKE. I automatically left the room and went back in once I realized I was having noun trouble to see the “short name” and plowed on through rather than lingering. This is a little like seasoned adventure players ignoring clearly gauche design decisions that non-acolytes baffle over; consider, for example, a player with many saved games and a reflexive ability to rewind time vs. a player who keeps only one save file.

Eat the cupcake by typing (sigh) EAT CAKE and you get an “Elvish feeling” which is sufficient to read the runic script.


This is a cute variation on the usual puzzle: the right command is SAY AND.

This opens a “potion room” by a vault with a door that is too heavy to open. A helpful potion sits nearby. Drinking the potion gives you strength and you can OPEN VAULT. The vault is empty except for a note mentioning a secret under a mattress.

3.) The king’s chambers have a mattress, where looking underneath reveals an amulet. Typing INSERT AMULET (indicated by the note, and it has to be exactly that) opens a room the chamber of the king’s mistress and a hungry-looking bird. Feeding the bird (with birdseed from elsewhere) gets a magic word. The magic word then opens up another room to a wizard’s tower, with a spellbook.

(It’s incidentally possible to solve #3 early without the note, albeit with more verb trouble on using the amulet, making getting into the vault anticlimactic.)

4.) Trying to type READ BOOK in most places just indicates it is being read in the wrong place. I found my way back to the vault, which had a suspicious looking portrait, and READ BOOK led to…

…my getting very stuck.

Parser Oddity #5: Just like Alien Egg, this game features the occasional vague message when something doesn’t work, like SOMETHING IS IN YOUR WAY, but in most cases with Castle, it isn’t hard to puzzle out what’s going on. Except: on this puzzle in particular, I’m still not even sure how the player character would know they are in the right room. It’s like the computer-narrator is composed of two entities, one for straight narrative, one for meta-narrative error messages given in ALL CAPS. The meta-messages aren’t even intended to be read as “in-game-universe”, I guess, except the messages reflect acts that usually are narrated in-universe, like noting a particular exit is closed? I might be overthinking this one.

This is the only point I needed to reach for hints. The book requires the lamp be turned off (TURNOFF LAMP). Then the book reveals the word XANADU in fiery letters.

The key then opens the front door to the castle and leads to escape.

The game doesn’t “end” here; you just have to assume the victory and quit the game on your own.

You might think the parser oddities would hurt the game more; writing them out, they look pretty bad (and the CUPCAKE isn’t the only object with noun trouble). It really helped that the target was easy rather than hard difficulty; rather than being stuck and mired in place and getting pushed repeatedly with the same puzzle and constantly wondering if the parser was the trouble, I was able to skate through.

Posted September 8, 2020 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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6 responses to “Castle (1981)

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  1. So hang on. Since the tradition inherited from Tolkien is that “Elvish swords” glow in the presence of goblins/orcs/danger, yet the Bunk Room description says the sword glows pale blue even though it seems there’s no danger nearby… is there an unintended implication that the player theirself is a goblin/orc/(humans are dangerous)?

    Eat the cupcake by typing (sigh) EAT CAKE and you get an “Elvish feeling”

    Mmm. Clearly we’ve all had the wrong picture of lembas all along.

  2. It is a pitty all these games are suffering of parser oddities derived of each isolated author developing his or her own parsing “technology”.

    • I’d recommend this one (not my “everyone” list but my “for adventure fans” list) if it weren’t for the parser. I guess a remake wouldn’t be *too* difficult. Hmmmm.

  3. For the purpose of my own blog I listened to a few interview by Zdybel,

    Apparently, Castle was not really meant to be released, but the first APX catalog needed to be fleshed out to be attractive, so Zdybel and the Atari crew used everything they had laying around. Zdybel alone authored 4 games of the first APX catalog under his name, and another game under someone else’s name from what I understand.


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