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Review of "The Eternal Castle", a really cool sci-fi videogame made in the style of 2-Bit CGA Graphics

Scified2019-07-04 04:52:42
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A few months ago, browsing through Steam’s popular new releases, a game caught my eye… It was apparently a Remaster of a very old game, done with the same graphics style as the original. I saw a couple of stills from the game and my first reaction was to think: “Man, these are some ugly colors and graphics”, but I kept seeing more stills and there was something kind of attractive about them, the simplicity of the design and the composition of the elements on the screen appeared to have been very well thought out.

The game is called “The Eternal Castle [REMASTERED]”, and in the product description stated that it was a remake of a classic 1987 game of the same name… Now, I’m not a walking encyclopedia of videogame data, but I have a fair share of knowledge on the subject and something about that statement was kind of off… A classic? I never ever heard of this game before; even though I’m not really very familiar with a lot of video games from the pre NES 8-Bit era, at least I know a good bunch of them by name, but this one didn’t ring a bell, at all.

So, I had to read and dig up a little and what do you know… It turns out the whole thing was a little bit of a meta joke. The “classic” game didn’t exist, it was just a neat joke made by the developers to give their game an extra aura of nostalgia (I assume); I read in another article about the game that this could be taken as “pretentious bullshit” but I take it as a funny and ingenious little gag, somewhat akin to how the Cohen Brothers put that iconic opening text in “Fargo” stating it was based on a true story, only to be later revealed that it actually wasn’t (there were a couple of small details that were based on true incidents but the vast majority of the film was completely made up).

The game is made with the color palette of IBM’s CGA (Color Graphics Adapter), the first hardware that could display color graphics on an IBM PC. As a graphic designer, I definitely believe someone at IBM for some nefarious reason purposely selected the four most horrendous colors they could use for the hardware to display. Generally, the CGA displayed colors in two modes: the somewhat infamous (and horrible looking) cyan, magenta, black and white; and the other one (which is also bad but not SO bad) was red, green, yellow and black.

As I said, given that my very first experiences with videogames harken back to the original 8-Bit Nintendo NES, I never experienced most of the videogames of the 2-Bit CGA era, but I still could somewhat remember a couple of games I played in our family computer that used those garish colors… Most games I played had “normal” color palettes, great games like “Another World”, “Battle Chess”, “Star Wars: Tie Fighter” or  “Golden Axe”; but I distinctly remember having played a game with that ghastly cyan and magenta color scheme, a crappy platformer I really disliked. I tried to search for it, I googled dozens of 2 Bit CGA videogames but for the life of me couldn’t find it. But I digress. Because of this, I really don’t have a lot of nostalgia for this color scheme, as I do with the 8-Bit or 16-bit era of graphics. Still, looking through the still images of “The Eternal Castle” on Steam, they really had a unique charm, and when I saw these super pixelated images in motion in the trailer for the game, it really piqued my interest; the animation was really smooth and well done, and the game seems pretty obviously and heavily inspired by “Another World”, one of my favorite games of all time.

Some time passed by and every once in a while, those images, that I initially found so unappealing and ugly, popped back up into my brain again and again, until I said to myself “Okay, I need to play that damn game”.

So, I bought it, installed it and booted it up. There are some mild spoilers in my rundown of the game so beware.

The game starts with a garish block of text that covers the whole goddam screen and is barely readable… Again, the graphic designer in me wanted to scream in despair. I had to squint my eyes so hard to be able to read that damn monolith of text that my eyeballs almost popped out of my sockets. What was even more aggravating is that immediately after that huge wall of text, two more lines of text appeared, and although they were still pixelated, they were perfectly readable… Why couldn’t they have used THAT FONT for the prior screen?

Anyways, the story is kind of weird and hard to follow. Apparently, many years in the future mankind had built some kind of space colonization units throughout space to allow for humans to survive outside a polluted and war-torn earth, but terrorist attacks shot down most of these stations. The remaining few that were still operational sent scavengers units back to earth to gather the resources needed for their continuing survival on these stations. One of these units was sent but it never came back; you play as a soldier who is trying to save the person that was sent to earth in that unit. It’s like a mixture between “Wall-E”, “Elysium” and “Oblivion”.

The game is divided into five stages: the intro stage, three areas you can choose in any order you like, and the final level, the titular “Eternal Castle”. Each stage ends with a boss battle. There are platforming segments, light puzzle elements, and combat sections mixed up which give a nice variety to the game. Given my initial impression based on the images on the Steam page, I thought the mechanics of the game were going to be way more simple and outdated, but the game actually has quite a few bells and whistles: you have numerous weapons to choose from, some ranged and some melee, you have upgradable gear and different power-ups for your character, you have a stamina bar, a life bar, a tracker that gives you information about how far are you from your destination, save points, collectibles, cinematics, chase sequences, among other things. I was pleasantly surprised by the presence of all these elements.

Another part of the game that pleasantly surprised me was the audio; the sound design of the game was really great. The synthesized audio was, like the visuals, made to sound just like the games that inspired this one, but I suspect that the sound design in this game is somewhat more advanced and detailed that what could have been done in the actual CGA games from the eighties (I could be wrong though because, again, I barely played any games from that era). You can clearly hear the rain, the music, the barks of the dogs, the sounds of the zombies, the explosions and gunshots of the war zone, the punches, etc, etc.

You begin your play in the intro level and you immediately find yourself hanging from a tree with your parachute, and you have to immediately start to swing yourself back and forth until you fall to the ground, just as you had to swing your cage in a level of “Another World” to make it crash and free yourself. One of the first things I noticed is how incredibly well achieved is the “cinematic” feel of the game; despite the very limited color palette, the animation is really smooth, and the graphics are well designed. Just like many cinematic platformers like “Another World” or “Flashback”, which puts a priority on realistic walking and jumping animations above snappy and responsive controls, it takes time to get used to the clunky movement of your character, but it didn’t take long, at least for me, to get the hang of it. This first level transpires in a desolated wasteland and then in some kind of laboratory. It’s a fairly short stage that’s mainly designed to show you the ropes of the mechanics and let you practice and try out your characters abilities. I really liked the animation on the boss; actually, most of the bosses in the game I thought were done really, really well.

The second level I played was the Unholy Church. This one plays out in a creepy swamp, a cemetery, and then the titular Unholy Church. It obviously reminded me of the old NES “Castlevania” games. The stage was cool but there were parts in the swamp where it was incredibly difficult to make out the enemies, and it was also difficult to know if you were punching them or not. There was a really cool part in this level where you transform into one of the creatures, which reminded me a lot to that part in “Limbo” when a larva stuck to your head and affected your movement. This kind of gimmicky elements goes a great way to give these kinds of games some needed variety. The boss was cool and creepy, except it was kind of annoying to wait for the whole intro animation of it to be done every time I died and went up to him again.

The next level I selected was the Ancient Ruins. This was the third stage that used the cyan & magenta color combination I dreaded so much, and even though, as I stated before, the graphics of the game despite their minimalistic nature are very well designed, this color palette was really outstaying its welcome for me (thankfully, the remaining levels mixed that up). Anyways, this was another level that started in a barren wasteland scenery but later it transpired inside a building, then on top of other buildings, and finally in an ancient temple filled with traps. Here you had to traverse a maze of doors and stairs, looking for levers which opened gates. Apart from some naughty stuff you find some characters doing in the building, the disco area, and an Indiana Jones-inspired boulder chase sequence, this was the most bland and generic level for me. Even the boss was kind of “meh” and unmemorable compared with the others.

The next level I visited was the Forgotten City, probably my favorite out of all of them. The first thing that immediately popped was the visual palette change, for which I was IMMENSELY grateful; the colors used in this stage were teal, orange, black and white (there’s a tiny part of the level that still has the cyan/magenta palette, but the majority of it has the teal and orange one). Even though I was having a really good time with the game, I think I could never truly embrace the cyan/magenta palette… A couple of times while playing through those stages I think my brain started to send signals to inform me that he needed to rest and “look” at something else for a while. Well, in contrast, this level use of teal and orange is WAY more pleasing to the eyes… In fact teal and orange are what is known as “complementary colors”, meaning that they go very well together, so much so that this combination is heavily used in movie poster designs and in the lighting of movies themselves. Just because of that I was already pleasantly surprised, but what was to follow got even cooler and cooler.

This level transpired in a war-torn area, were two factions of people were battling each other. The level encouraged long ranged combat, which was a nice departure from the previous ones. Here you will find a variety of weapons that are really fun to try out. One of the most fun parts is when you´re approaching and eventually enter the trenches and get in the middle of the war; the sound of the explosions and gunfire really got my blood pumping. Here you had to try to take cover while advancing and to stay together with your allies.

Now, despite the fact that this was becoming my favorite level, I encountered a couple of annoying bugs here for the first time in my playthrough of the game. In the first one, just as I entered some underground sewers after the trenches, I fell down and for some reason a huge group of allies fell down with me, literally like a hundred of them (suddenly I was greatly reminded of “Lemmings”), which understandably made the game super slow and stuttery, and I could barely move; soon after I died, and the screen went white and it got stuck like that, so I had to Ctrl Alt Delete my way out of the game. Thankfully, when I started it again, I appeared in the last checkpoint without any problem. In another part of the underground structure, I went through a wall I obviously shouldn’t have been able to go through and my character got stuck and then died. All in all, I think these were the only bugs I encountered in the whole game, so it wasn’t super annoying… I find it funny though that I encountered them in what was becoming my favorite level.

The final part of the stage is really cool. So, you get pitted against the “boss” which is a sniper; in this whole section you have to try and keep moving cause if you stay still for too long, he kills you with one shot. After advancing through some more buildings, you get to the final action sequence where you have to chase the Sniper, running and jumping through the rooftops of buildings parkour style all the while a helicopter is chasing you down and firing… A really memorable finale to a really cool level.

Now all I had left was to head on to the Eternal Castle itself. After I clicked on the level, a cinematic of my ship heading towards it played out, but in one scene you could see the ship from the side, and for a moment I thought I had to do something, but before I could react my ship crashed, and I saw I unlocked an achievement called “Kamikaze”, which made me think if I could do something in that sequence… Well, it turns out that I could. I could actually control the ship and avoid smashing it into the ground, but it would have been nice to have ANY sort of indication that this was a playable part of the game and not just a cut scene.

The color pallette changed again in this last level, to a red, green, yellow and black combination (another one of the CGA visual modes). This level consists of a very brief section where you have to kill (or run from) a bunch of creatures, then run from some explosive spiders, and then go against the two final bosses of the game.

The first one is a truly impressive beast, a monstrosity that covers almost the entire screen and reminded me of the massive bosses of memorable games like “Contra” and “Castlevania”. The level of detail in the animation and design of this boss was amazing. It was kind of easy to kill but still, it was super fun and memorable.

Then it all came down to the final boss. This one was a tough mother… This boss was basically a timed puzzle of sorts. You had to quickly try to solve this labyrinthine puzzle before the time´s up and the boss tries to kill you again and again. Trying to frantically align the circles around the lines during the boss fight reminded me somehow of trying desperately to disarm the bombs on time in the infamous damn level in the NES “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” game. Anyways, despite having died many, MANY times, it was a really fun fight and it was a nice change of pace compared to all of the game´s previous bosses.

As for replay value, after you finish the game (the “Dream”) you unlock a sort of “New Game Plus” mode, the catch being that this time, you have to play the game again WITHOUT dying… Yep, permadeath (because now you´re “awake”... apparently). I started to play this mode and despite having just finished the damn game, I naturally died in the very first dumb obstacle that I stumbled upon, and what do you know… The save file, from what I can see, is totally dead, as in, I can’t access it anymore, so apparently I have to finish the game again in a new save slot just to have a chance to… Finish the game again, but without dying (thus unlocking the “Die Hard” achievement), and if you manage to do this you can do it a third time (if you want to unlock the “Hardcore Gamer” achievement)… Yeah, thanks but no thanks.

One cool thing though is that just as I was writing this review, an update for the game went up. I have always thought it is incredibly awesome when developers add new content to a game without charging anything for it; to me this is proof that they really care about their product and the players. In this update called “Lost Memories”, players who have already finished the game can choose between two new modes:

One is called “Sacrifice”, and it’s an insanely difficult mode. In it, you play as some kind of dog… person, and you have to traverse this stage without any checkpoints whatsoever, so every time you die you´re back at the beginning. You at least keep the items you find, and the gates you opened remain unlocked after you die, but still, to start from the beginning every time grew tiresome really quickly for me.

The other mode is called “Duel”, and it’s basically a 1v1 fight with another enemy. There´s not much to this mode really, you are just duking it out with another enemy in an arena.

Also, I started a new game just out of curiosity to play with Eve (I played through the game as Adam), to see if there was any difference in gameplay, but I didn’t see any in the short time I played as her… The only difference was that she could only carry one weapon instead of two for some reason. Isn’t that kind of sexist? Oh well.

So, that was it. All in all, I had a really fun time playing this game. Despite my gripes about the cyan/magenta color palette and some outdated game mechanics, I think this game is really cool, especially for lovers of cinematic platformers.

I would like to end the review quoting an article I read while doing my research to write this piece; the article was about why IBM PC’s early graphics used so ugly colors (it’s a really interesting article, here it is in case anyone wants to check it out)… In it, there was a part where the writer talks about modern games being made with the limitation of using the 2-Bit CGA color palette, and about that, the author states:

“Maybe it seems wasteful—taking a graphics technology with limited modern-day appeal and doing yeoman's work to see how far it can stretch. But in an era when we take things like color and resolution for granted, it's refreshing.

And there are times in the modern day when the graphics get so sophisticated and slick that you need the refresh.

Sometimes, less is more.”

Indeed, sometimes less is more.

Written by Decs (Daniel Castillo S.)Published on 2019-07-04 04:52:42
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