Castlequest (1979-1980)   5 comments

In ye olden times, known as the 1980s through the 1990s, there were a number of online services that someone could direct one’s modem towards (if you were splurging in the mid-80s, at an awesomely powerful 1200 bits per second) including GEnie (General Electric Network for Information Exchange).

From a 1991 ad.

GEnie was particularly famous for multiplayer text-based games like GemStone III, but also had single player ones including (according to this letter sent to Jason Scott):

Black Dragon… descend through the dungeon and slay the black dragon
Castle Quest… dungeon adventure
Original Adventure… classic text adventure game
Adventure 550… advanced version of adventure
Dor Sageth… dungeon adventure

Black Dragon, Castle Quest and Dor Sageth have been lost ever since GEnie closed in 1999.

Of course, I’m making this post, and that’s because as of 2021 Castlequest has been found, due to the efforts of Arthur O’Dwyer and the two authors: Mike Holtzman and Mark Kershenblatt. You can read Arthur’s full narrative here as to what happened, but the short version is that back in 1981 Mike had the foresight to send the entire FORTRAN source code of the game to the US Copyright Office. After a lengthy back-and-forth, Mark Kershenblatt managed to get the document in its entirety, which Arthur then typed in by hand. (This is the first I know of a game being rescued by simply getting source code from the USCO. Incidentally, another lost game, The Pits, has a USCO entry.)

The actual writing of the game took place on a mainframe, and Mark estimated the work happened “between September 1979 and May 1980” although the source code is dated February 1980. Using my first-available-to-someone-outside-of-the-authors convention I might be able to shelve this with 1979, but I’m going to stick with 1980 (as also given on the IFDB entry for this game).

Enough noodling about, let’s try the game! (The IFDB link I gave has a link to a version compiled for Windows if you want to try it yourself, or if you’re on a different platform you can follow Arthur O’Dwyer’s instructions here.) For ease of reading I have boldfaced my commands and changed the spacing (the original screen width seems to be 60, but I merged the text into paragraphs).

Welcome to CASTLEQUEST!! Would you like instructions?

You are in a remote castle somewhere in Eastern Europe. I will be your eyes and hands. Direct me with words such as “LOOK”, “TAKE”, or “DROP”. To move, enter compass points (N,NE,E,SE,S,SW,W,NW), UP, or DOWN. To get a list of what you are carrying, say “INVENTORY”. To save the current game so it can be finished later say “SAVE”. Say “RESTORE” as your first command to finish a game that had been saved.

The object of the game is to find the master of the castle and kill him, while accumulating as many treasures as possible. You get maximum points for depositing the treasures in the vault. Notice that the descriptions of treasures have an exclamation point. Be wary, as many dangers await you in in the castle.

Would you like more detailed instructions?

To supress the long room descriptions, type “BRIEF”. To return to the long room descriptions, use the command “LONG”. “SCORE” will give you your present score in the game. “HELP” will give you a hint about an object in the room, but it will cost you some points. To end your explorations, say “QUIT”. Good luck. (you’ll need it).

Would you like more detailed instructions?

To aid you in your travels, you may ask for a hint by saying “HINT object”, where “object” is the item that you need help with (e.g. “HELP CROSS”). Saying “HELP ROOM” will give you some help concerning the room you’re in.

You are in a large, tarnished brass bed in an old, musty bedroom. cobwebs hang from the ceiling. A few rays of light filter through the shutters. There is a nightstand nearby with a single wooden drawer. The door west creaks in the breeze. A macabre portrait hangs to the left of an empty fireplace.

The shutters are closed.

There is a silver bullet here.

Before I make some observations, I should mention Arthur O’Dwyer has a “bug bounty” for any typos ($5 each), but he’s trying to preserve any spelling mistakes as in the original. So “supress” is indeed spelled that way in the original PDF, and “cobwebs” starts a sentence but is lowercase. I’m not going to hunt for any more typos past this point myself (I’m trying to play the game without spoilers) but it’s faintly possible one of you reading this might spot a money-making bug just by reading my play transcript.

So, observations: the instructions clearly have some cribbing from the text of Crowther/Woods Adventure although apparently the authors didn’t refer at all to Adventure’s original source code. We see the technique that happened in Hezarin of having one foot in a treasure hunt and one foot in a kill-the-nemesis plot, and of course, it’s probably Dracula again.

Also, it’s clear we have a mainframe game, as the environmental painting in text includes details most home computer games of 1980 excise for space (the door creaking in the breeze, rays of light filtering through shutters).


Do WHAT with the BULLET ??



Surely those in 1980 would know GET would be the iconic word here, as in GET LAMP, right? Whenever I hit a game that only recognizes TAKE rather than GET it takes me about halfway through the game before I finally stop getting error messages.


The shutter is open, but there are bars over the window.

Something on the ground outside is glistening brightly.

Incidentally, how did we get here? We’re starting inside the spooky castle. Is there some plot we missed where the details are important (like The Count) or should we just roll with it?

Going back to the room description, it mentions a “drawer”:


There is a silver cross in the drawer!

My first treasure! Also, my first indication this is the sort of game where you can refer to “scenery objects”, that is, objects given inside the paragraph description — by contrast, every item you could use in Crowther/Woods Adventure was separated out. This can be both good and bad; it adds a little richness to the world where it feels like the player is directly interacting with the environment, but it also means being thorough requires combing through every “object” that gets mentioned, including ones that don’t really exist in code, just in the prose of the room description. Consider the “macabre portrait” that also gets mentioned:


Do WHAT with the PORTRAIT ??


Do WHAT with the PORTRAIT ??


TAKE what???


Do WHAT with the PORTRAIT ??

The “TAKE what???” is a good signal — it means that object doesn’t exist at all to be referred to, even as hidden scenery. That doesn’t mean the portrait is completely a red herring; it may just be it slides via secret button or the like but the parser just never lets you refer to it directly.

I realized from here it would be wise to get a verb list early, so I went through my standard set, applying it to the cross:


That would be a neat trick.


Do WHAT with the CROSS ??


You can’t be serious.

The “Do WHAT with the” message seems to indicate “no verb found”.

Noteworthy: no moving, pushing, turning, etc. Not going to fiddle with secret things much, I suppose. STAB mentions you don’t have a sword, and CROSS and SHOW are both verbs I might have had trouble coming up with on the spot. (I bet we SHOW CROSS at some point. Just a feeling.)

Moving on, here’s the map as far as I can access it:

You are in the parlor, an old fashioned sitting room. A display case of dueling pistols hangs over the mantle. Stairs lead up to a dimly lit corridor. Open double doors lead west. Two wide hallways lead north and south.

There is some “HORROR HOTEL” writing paper here.

There is an old gun here.

The gun can be loaded with the silver bullet. I’ve run across a werewolf but it hasn’t stayed around long enough for me to take a shot.

A nasty werewolf lunges at you, takes a swipe at your neck, misses and runs away.

A sampling of some other locations:

You are in the foyer. An umbrella near the door is dripping on the thick pile carpet. A black cape is draped neatly over the banister of a grand staircase leading up. A magnificentl archway leads north. Corridors lead south and southeast, a small hallway heads west, and a narrow stairway goes down.

The butler is sound asleep.

(You can’t refer to the umbrella or the cape.)

You are in the workshop. A myriad of tools clutter the workbench and surrounding tables. A thick layer of sawdust covers the floor. Footprints in the sawdust indicate that you are not alone.

There is a heavy steel grappling hook here.

You are at the side of a dirt road that runs north and south. Fresh tracks in the road seem to indicate that a horse-drawn carriage has passed here recently. A narrow path leads east.


You are at the bank of a wide moat which surrounds the castle. A small town can be seen far in the distance. The road goes south.

Off to the side is an old rowboat.




You are on the far side of the moat. You can see a full view of the castle here in all its deadly splendor. A small town can be glimpsed far off in the distance. An old sign nailed to a tree reads:

(I’m not sure what else to do here; the rowboat is too big to take into the castle.)

You are now in the kitchen. Twelve Swanson’s frozen entrees rest on the counter, below a microwave oven. “THE BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO COOKING” lies on a small table. A swinging door exits south. Other doors lead east and north.

Somebody left some tasty food here.

So far my full inventory is: Silver bullet, Bloody hatchet, Wooden stake, Writing paper, Rowboat, Grappling Hook, Empty bottle, Silver cross, Old gun, Tasty food. Other than the odd bit with the moat above, I’ve run across a locked door and a boarded door (the hatchet doesn’t work to chop it) and the window at the start can be broken but there are bars that I can’t (yet) remove. I’d say the obstacles are fairly ordinary so far? There does seem to be a time limit, although I haven’t tested yet if sunset is game over, the endgame with a vampire, or something else:

You’d better hurry. The sun is setting.

I only have 25 points so far, out of ????. I’m not worried yet; I only have just got the feel of the surroundings, and there’s the built-in “HINT object” or “HELP room” feature I have yet to try if I get stuck.

Posted March 25, 2021 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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5 responses to “Castlequest (1979-1980)

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  1. This is just such an amazing blog post that I’m going to sink to my knees now and begin the chant; “We’re not worthy!” Who is with me? Jason I loved this one. Great catch

  2. Climb the tree across the moat?

    • Somehow I missed replying to this. Unfortunately, you can’t refer to the tree. That bit does turn out to be important, but you have to get later in the game (will get to it in my next post)

  3. “T” is an abbreviation for “TAKE”. That said, I also falls in the “GET” trap half the time…

    It was I that made the initial listing on IFDB and there was not much thought about the year. I essantially used the year that Arthur used. It could certainly be changed to 1979 without offending anybody (at least not me).

    I’ve played the game all the way to the finish so, I’m happy to report, there’s no game-breaking bug from the transcription.

    • IFDB does year of publishing, so 1980 is correct.

      The reason I do “first available” is a lot of these early mainframe games had revisions long after they were “done” — kind of like how Nethack’s most recent official release was 2020, but it would be bizarre to wait on playing it until 2020. In the case of Zork, I believe there were some 1981 tweaks, so the Zork mainframe would be played *after* Zork I.

      Unfortunately this leads to lots of close calls where I’m not sure where something belongs, but once we get out of the mainframe era for the most part the year of release and the year anyone got to see a game will be the same. When there’s date ambiguity I try to explain in the text, and I consider the “single date” list for All the Adventures to be more of a rough guide.

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