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When castles were dark and pixels were black and white

Recently, while browsing Michael Tsai’s blog, I came across a link to a chapter from The Secret History of Mac Gaming, a book by Richard Moss.

This particular chapter dealt with the making of Dark Castle, one of the earliest Mac video games. It’s a pretty amazing tale of life in the early days of home computing. For example, on the founding of the company that released Dark Castle:

Not one to be discouraged, Jackson withdrew most of his life savings, bought a Lisa, signed up for the Apple developer program, and founded the company Silicon Beach Software in mid-1984. He then met with seventeen-year-old Jonathan Gay and made a deal. Gay wouldn’t get any money up front, but he’d get royalties on sales of a Macintosh game that he’d program on weekends.

Reading the chapter brought back memories of playing both Dark Castle and its more-aggravating successor, Beyond Dark Castle. These side-scrolling platformers were fun, frustrating, and rewarding—a great mix for video games of any era. I wondered if it was possible to play them today, 30-plus years later…and of course, it was.

The semi-modern fully-legal way

Way back in 2011, Return to Dark Castle was released. This game includes all the levels from both original games, remastered in color, along with many new levels, missions, enemies, and hidden areas.

The game is still available in the Mac App Store (for $10), and runs fine in High Sierra. Amazingly, the game has never received an update since its original release in the App Store in 2011—there’s no “What’s New” section at all.

Warning: The game is 32-bit, not 64-bit, so unless it receives an update, it won’t run if you upgrade to macOS 10.14 when it’s released this fall. Given the historical lack of updates, I’m not holding my breath for a 64-bit conversion. Consider this before you plop down $10 for it.

I own the game and it plays quite nicely, very much with the mechanics of the original. And the updated artwork is very nicely done. However, it either has to run in full screen mode—which is a bit much on a 27″ iMac—or in a relatively tiny window; this is actual size:

Because you need to move and click the mouse to play, I wind up clicking outside the window quite often in non-full-screen mode. You also can’t just play the classic games as they were; their levels are integrated into the new combined game.

And while they’ve done a great job with color and sounds and modernization, doing those things means this game isn’t really Dark Castle. Which leads to…

The ancient probably-not-legal way

While searching for Dark Castle information, I found a blog post, Play Dark Castle on OS X and Windows, that explains how to run the original version using a Mac emulator. Even better, the post includes a link to download an archive with everything you need to play: the emulator, the operating system, and the games.

I tried it, and it works great—the first screenshot above is from the game. There’s only one caveat: In High Sierra, I couldn’t get the bundled version of the mini vMac emulator to work; it just said it couldn’t read the ROM image.

To solve that, I downloaded the newest version of mini vMac, overwriting the one that came with the download. Once I did that, the games ran great–original sound, original graphics, and the original gameplay I remember from my youth.

The emulator includes a zoom mode, which doubles the window size, and makes it just about right on the 27″ iMac. I still occasionally click outside the window, but if I remember to hide my other windows first, then I’ve only switched to Finder, and it’s easy enough to click back in.

If you liked the original games, or want to get a taste of what video gaming was for us old fogies back in the day, check out Dark Castle.

2 Comments

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    1. archive.org may face the same legal questions, because it’s still a Mac emulator that needs a real Mac ROM to run—and as far as I know, Apple never licensed the ROM for use outside a real Mac.

      I don’t think it really matters, given the age of the products involved, but it’s not clear.

      -rob.

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