08/11/2014

CASTLE OF DECEIT (NES)

If I was forced to guess I'd have said Castle of Deceit was a He-Man playset that I never owned as a child - Skeletor's summer house, perhaps - but apparently it's an unlicensed NES game, released in 1994 by a developer called Bunch Games. Well, I'm here now, I suppose I should take a look at it.


The reason for the Castle of Deceit's name is revealed - far from being an actual fortified structure, it's a sandcastle someone's built atop a stack of old tractor tyres. That's definitely deceitful. You can't say "come over to my place, I live in a castle" and then take your date back to a pile of sand sprinkled over worn-out rubber.


Good lord, what a horrendous typeface. That's what I'd imagine the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man's handwriting would look like, only squashed down and pixellated. This text box is all the in-game information about Castle of Deceit's plot that you're going to get, and it's the usual stuff: evil is rising, scattered magical items can stop the evil, collect the items and save the day. Then it ends with the rather curt order to "BEGIN NOW." I'm doing it, okay? Geez, there's no need to be rude about it.
There's apparently a bit more backstory in the games manual, revealing that the main character's name is Cebo, who must defeat the living hallucinations of the once-powerful mystic Phfax. Nice to see that Castle of Deceit's creators used the classic fantasy fiction method of naming characters by dropping a sack of nails onto a keyboard, although for that true sword-and-sorcery flavour they should have added in a few unnecessary hyphens and apostrophes. Ce-Bo and Ph'fax would have been much better, don't you think?


Wow. Cebo the wizard is not quite the imposing master of the arcane arts that I was hoping he would be. If it wasn't for the fact he can shoot a sparkly little projectile out of his wand I wouldn't believe he was a wizard at all and not just some unfortunate child on his way to a costume party who was press-ganged into destroying the forces of evil, forces such as those terrifying, blood-curdling floating doilys. But Cebo can launch magical bolts, and he can jump, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the core gameplay of Castle of Deceit - it's a platform-hopping, monster-zapping adventure, with added key-collecting and door-opening bits.


It's all very straightforward. Don't fall down pits, because Cebo only knows one spell and it sure as hell ain't "levitate," pick up the keys and move through doors until you reach the boss. There are plenty of enemies about, too, and they represent Castle of Deceit's biggest departure from normal NES action-platforming tropes because some of them dodge your attacks. It sounds ludicrous to be surprised by bad guys trying to not get killed, but think about it: in all the famous NES action franchises - Super Mario, Mega Man, Castlevania and so on - the enemies make no attempts at self-preservation. They either follow set patterns or make a bee-line for the hero. Medusa Heads don't fly around Simon Belmont's whip, Goomba's don't dodge to the side when they see Mario's boot hurtling out of the sky. The only enemy with this kind of behaviour that springs to mind is Red Arremer from Ghosts n' Goblins, so there's a neat encapsulation of Castle of Deceit's combat for you - imagine a version of Ghosts 'n Goblins where Red Arremers make up 60% of the enemy troops.


Sometimes you can use the enemy's desire to not be murdered to your advantage, like in the case of these flying eyeballs. They move vertically through the platforms and if you try to shoot them they'll zip out of the way, but if you jump up and fire above them they'll flee far enough downwards that you can make your way past. Had this idea been fleshed out a little more, with Cebo using his magic to corral monsters into safer areas rather than having to kill them, it could have made for an interesting twist on the genre, but sadly while these opportunities for spook wranglin' do exist they're few and far between, and Castle of Deceit spends a lot of it's time trying to kill Cebo with floods of enemies that can pass straight through walls and floors.


The stages in this game aren't big, and this first one is only a few screens across (although you do have to go from one end to the other and back again) so it's not long before you encounter boss number one: a bug. A flying bug that attacks by either firing paisley swirls or, if it's feeling particularly sassy, tiny little skulls that must have been harvested from the faerie folk of the forest. The big change in the boss fight is that Cebo is firing upwards / into the screen instead of horizontally, and a warm round of applause goes to Bunch Games for making Cebo fire constantly if you hold down the button, but there's not much to this or any other boss fight in the game: clamp your thumb down on the fire button and try to keep Cebo out of harm's way as much as possible. Don't linger at the bottom of the screen, however tempting that may seem, because the boss will fly down and crash into you. Once the bug has been dealt with, don't stop paying attention because any projectiles left on the screen will still be there after the boss has disappeared and it would be very upsetting to die during the small window of time between killing the boss and walking through the exit door, he said with an air of bitter knowledge learned through personal misery.


Stage two is the Castle of the Moons. An appropriate name, given that there are multiple moons in the background, but Bunch Games missed an opportunity to fully exploit their non-licensed status by not calling this stage Castle of the Bastard Moths. You can see three of them in the screenshot above, the horrible things whose blue-and-orange colour scheme is the visual equivalent of drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth. The moths are an object lesson in why videogame enemies follow set patterns - because the alternative, to have them bumbling around the screen semi-randomly, is extremely annoying. The moths circle around Cebo in unknowable ecliptical orbits, and so defeating them doesn't feel like a triumph of the player's skill but a momentary confluence of luck, the situation made worse by Cebo not having a period of invincibility after being hit so the moths can park their revolting furry bodies right inside you to sap your health in moments.


At least the brevity of Castle of Deceit's stages means you never have to put up with any enemy for too long, and soon I'd reached the second boss. It's a mantis whose most recent sexual partner got a bit confused after mating and ate his body rather than his head. Thanks, Mrs. Mantis, not I've got a flying mantis head to deal with. No, that wasn't sarcastic: this guy is laughably easy to beat. I stood in the middle of the screen and held the fire button down until it died. I think I may have actually laughed.


Stage three is a little more involved, with Cebo having to make his down through the three levels of the stage by travelling through the various doors and avoiding the cobwebs that, for some bizarre reason, fire projectiles at you when you walk past. There's no indication given that the cobwebs might hurt you or even that they aren't just background scenery, which is nice. Real thoughtful game design, that. See, that time I was being sarcastic.
Despite the webs, stage three is redeemed by it's selection of wonderful enemies, including the always-welcome floating skulls, that thing on the right that looks like someone found an ugly red frog and replaced it's legs with cardboard tubes and the fabulous ghosts.


I mean, just look at this guy! Sorry I didn't know about you last month, buddy, I would have written an article about hooded spectres just to give you the exposure you deserve, and I don't mean exposure to an exorcism. His posture screams "I'm fed up of this shit," throwing his rot-blighted hands up in the air and wailing "oh my god, another baby wizard, Jesus Christ I've had enough of this!" Yeah, I've had enough of this too, my ghostly friend - only three stages in and already Castle of Deceit is wearing out its welcome against the grindstones of repetitive gameplay, frustrating enemies and horrendous sound effects that sound like R2-D2 licking a plug socket.


Still, I can't complain about having a giant skull as a boss, even if it is functionally identical to the previous two bosses. I'm shallow, I admit it. Dragonflies and mantis heads will elicit nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders from me, but skulls? I'm there, man, although my initial excitement has faded now that I've taken a closer look at the boss and realised that it's actually a white bicycle seat with a crude face carved into it. Credit to the developers, that does sound like the result of a mad old wizard's hallucinations.


Things go a bit off-piste here in the Castle of Winds, where multiple factors combine to drain any and all fun out of the game entirely. First and foremost are the eyeball ghosts, tenacious swine that follow Cebo around the level like a Super Mario Boo that's overcome its crippling shyness issues and take multiple hits to kill. That latter thing would be less of an issue if Cebo's projectiles weren't slow and travelled in a straight line instead of a wave pattern. The art of wizardry must really be in the gutter if Cebo is considered its best student.
Then there's the wind that gives the stage its name. Can you see any wind? No, you can't. While that might not be a problem in the real world, we're dealing with a videogame here and if something is going to fling my character across the screen or stop them from moving past a certain point I'd like to be able to see what that something is, please. Some jumps are affected by the wind, some aren't, and only trial, error and memorisation will allow you to figure out which are which, a process not helped by the constant presence of the ghosts, hovering around the player with the unnerving air of the village drug dealer waiting for his underage girlfriend at the school gates.


If wouldn't be so bad if Cebo's jumping physics were good, but - and it may shock you to learn this about an unlicensed NES platformer - they are not good. Rather than moving in a smooth arc, Cebo's jumps tend to take him upwards, move him horizontally and then have him drift back down to the ground. They're not consistent, either: sometimes he'll clip his stupid pointy hat on a ledge and cease all forward motion, but other times he'll float through the corners of the scenery like it's not there.
Watching Cebo's awkward, jerky motions and underanimated leaps, I realised I'd seen it before, only not in a videogame. Then it hit me: Castle of Deceit is an actual, working version of a videogame made up for a nineties TV show. Imagine an episode of The Simpsons where Bart plays  the latest wizard-based platform game - that game would look identical to Castle of Deceit.


"Okay team, we need to come up with a boss for this wind-themed stage. Anyone got anything appropriately windy?"
"How about a purple boulder with a face carved onto it, a face that wears an expression of such abject misery that you expect the rock to end its own suffering at any moment?"
"Perfect, I love it. Good work, Johnson."


My habit of unintentionally choosing to play platform games that have pointless, dull shoot-em-up levels artlessly wedged into them continues. This is Castle of Deceit's latest and most successful effort to make me hate it, an underwater forced-scrolling section devoid of both entertainment and challenge, which is surprising considering the other stages contained enemies that were more than capable of giving me a hard time. The biggest threat in this stage are the bubbles, because this is a videogame and videogame bubbles are deadly more often than not. Look, I don't make the rules, all right? Bubbles: don't touch 'em. You should stay away from cotton wool and puppies, too, just in case.
Cebo can hold his breath forever, by the way. Is that a magic spell? What kind of wizard school did you go to where the first two spells they taught you were "unspectacular projectile" and "waterbreathing"? Was your tutor Bubble Man? Cebo, you are the worst.


And then you're attacked by a writhing mass of rubbery grey tentacles with the clearest, bluest eyes I've ever longingly gazed into. Seems like we're getting into Phfax's more erotic hallucination material now. Hey, the guy's a magician whose head was stuffed so full of the esoteric mysteries of black magic that it started to leak living delusions, the guy's not going to be interested in the usual grot.


There's a fire themed stage, because there always is, and it's very similar to the first stage only with a warmer, more Autumnal colour palette (and lava). It even contains the same enemies, with minor modifications: the doilys are back but now they're made of asbestos (I assume) and the flying eyeballs are on fire. That's how you vaccinate yourself again molten magma, you see, you set yourself on fire a little bit to build up a resistance to lava.
As ever, the gameplay consists of methodically zapping the monsters and moving through the stage's doors. What do you mean, you don't see any doors? There are two in the above screenshot, c'mon. Do you need some help?


There, I've circled them for you. If you squint, you can just about see the three vertical lines that mark the edges and middle of the door. It's a good job I stumbled upon one of these doors through the combination of blind luck and fat fingers that made me accidentally press up on the joypad while I happened to be standing in front of one, otherwise you and I would never have been able to witness the wonders the wait deeper within the Castle of Deceit.


Wonders like the game's least interesting boss. Congratulations, fireball, you're the least engaging point in an adventure that's most remarkable feature is how forgettable it is.


According to the pre-stage text, this is the Castle of Deceit itself. It's only three screens wide and all you have to do to clear it is to engage in some of the most basic platforming "action" ever brought to life by Nintendo's 8-bit powerhouse. But there's a twist! Sometimes the clouds you have to jump across hurt you when you touch them. I didn't say it was a good twist. If I was a less genteel and restrained person, I might describe this twist in language that would make even the average 13-year-old Call of Duty player blush, but instead I'll draw your attention to the decoration above the castle door. Yeah, the one that looks like an Easter Island statue experiencing an uncomfortable bowel movement, that decoration.


There's no boss guarding the previous stage, so instead you're immediately whisked to the Maze of Possibilities. The most likely possibility is that this maze is going to be a poorly thought out and needlessly opaque slice of gameplay that will represent one more nail in Castle of Deceit's coffin lid, but let's put our cynicism to one side for a moment as I walk though one of these doors.


Nope, reactive the Cynicism Matrix and calibrate the Bullshit Gauge to maximum, because this whole stage consist of these five identical doors that you have to walk through in a specific order to reach the end. Does the game give you any hints or clues as to that order? Does it tell you when you've messed up so that you may learn from your mistakes? Did Bunch Games really manage to cock up every single element of this game in the laziest, most half-arsed manner possible? The answer to all those questions is yes. After ten minutes or so I stumbled across the correct sequence of door, and even that didn't feel like a victory because I knew that all it would lead to is more of this game.


Another stage. A very familiar stage, because it's almost identical to stage three but with a different colour scheme. That said, I think it looks really nice - the purple brickwork and the blue-green vines work well together and it seems a much more suitable home for that awesome ghost. It reminds me a little of Kid Icarus, but nicer looking, so a least one thing about Castle of Deceit is better than the same thing in a different game, which is a surprise.


We're into final stretch now, and while it might look intimidating thanks to the plethora of enemies, they start far enough away from Cebo that if you keep firing they'll all drift into your attacks and die before they get close. The real struggle is negotiating the moving platforms - if you try to jump onto them you fall straight through them 90 percent of the time, so instead you have to step delicately onto them when they reach the edge of the pit. The moving platforms also have wings. Did one of the developers think that a floating brick was just too unbelievable in a game about wizards fighting flying eyeballs? Go ahead, slap some wings on it, that'll really help with my immersion.


At last, it's Castle of Deceit's final boss and it really does look like a hallucination so full marks on that front. With the body of a rattlesnake, the tiny, disturbingly human hands of an otter and the expression I make when I wake up in an unfamiliar place and for a moment I can't remember where I am, this boss is unlikely to ascend to the pantheon of legendary NES bosses like Bowser and Ganon, but I am definitely not going to forget him. I will mostly remember him for his snout, which I am unable to see as anything other than two skeletal Pac-Men kissing. The boss' nostrils are their eyes, you see.
Once you've figured out that the boss requires slightly different tactics than the previous end-of-stage "challenges" - you have to shoot off its tail, then its hands and finally its eyes - it's just as easy to defeat as all the others and soon Cebo will have accomplished his goal of, erm... what was I supposed to be doing again?


Oh yeah, restoring the runes that control space and time. I did that, apparently, and for my reward I get this ending. Normally I'd complain about an ending that's 60% black, empty screen space, but honestly I'm just glad that Castle of Deceit is over. No ending sequence could be sweeter than that.


This is an odd game. A bad game, to be sure, but one that's bad in a specific way: it takes the common elements of any given NES hop-n-bop platformer and then gets them all subtly wrong. On a basic level it's almost competent, weird jumping physics aside, but as soon as anything else is added to the mix it flies off the rails. Pseudo-randomly-moving enemies, hazards that you can't see, doors that are almost indistinguishable from the backgrounds, a maze that can't be mapped - all of these things are so close to being viable elements of videogame, but the developer managed to find the factor that makes them enjoyable (or even just bearable) and remove it every time either through a lack of talent or a misguided desire to make Castle of Deceit different from its contemporaries in the most aggravating ways possible. It wasn't quite as bad as I was expecting from an unlicensed NES game, although that side-scrolling stage made it a close call, but I would strongly recommend that if you want to deal with the hallucinations of a mad wizard then you should read an Alan Moore comic instead of playing this.

3 comments:

  1. I always thought the semi-randomly moving enemy thing would be an interesting challenge, but I suppose its nice to be proven wrong here.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think it could be an interesting mechanic if some effort was expended in getting it right (a la Red Arremer) but I'm sure you can imagine how it worked out in this one.

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    2. I think Red Arremer is also helped by good level design. He shows up in the first level on that nice flat plane, all by himself, in what was before this super busy landscape of zombies and other nonsense. You have to figure him out to get by, so once he starts showing up like a normal enemy in later levels, you know the drill. (Not that he's any easier, but hey)

      I very much doubt the guys making this game were willing to put forth that much thought...

      Delete

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