Playing Castlequest (1980), Part 1

Earlier this week I posted that the source code for Castlequest (Holtzman and Kershenblatt, 1980) had been found — Castlequest exhumed!” (2021-03-09). By now it’s totally playable (at least if you have the ability to install GNU Fortran).

I had been seeking Castlequest because I had fond memories of the game on GEnie. I vaguely remembered the wandering werewolf, and the vampire in the attic that you have to kill with a tomato stake before the sun sets… But it turns out that the game is actually much much longer than I ever knew as a kid! I’m going to try the “All the Adventures” thing here, and describe my experience replaying the game this week.

This post contains major spoilers for all plot points and puzzles!

For softer spoilers, you might check out this thread on where some people are playing through the game, asking and giving hints as they go.

Immediately prior to playing, I’d just spent three days transcribing the source code, so I’d seen literally every line of the game — and yet I was still relatively unspoiled. Where Crowther and Woods’ Adventure uses a lot of comments and mnemonic variable names, Castlequest tends to use opaque numbers. Here’s Adventure:

        IF(.NOT.TOTING(OBJ))GOTO 2011
        CALL RSPEAK(30)
        IF(CLOSED)GOTO 19000

And here’s Castlequest:

C     ---THROW---
      IF (ROOM .EQ. 47 .AND. OBJECT .EQ. 26) GOTO 391
      IF (OBJECT .EQ. 16) GOTO 241
      IF (OBJECT .NE. 25) GOTO 240
           IF (ITEMS(25) .NE. -1) GOTO 720
           NUMB = NUMB - 1
           IF (ROOM  .NE. 1) GOTO 232
           IF (SHUTTR .EQ. 0) GOTO 238
               WIND1 = 3
                ITEMS(25) = 0
               GOTO 25

Both games use a smattering of named global variables: Adventure has CLOSED, Castlequest has SHUTTR and WIND1. But Adventure also uses mnemonic names for its items (BIRD, ROD) and named predicates such as HERE(SNAKE) in lieu of most room numbers, whereas Castlequest uses simple magic numbers (25 for the flask of acid, 1 for the bedroom). Finally, Adventure uses named helper functions such as TOTING(ROD) and DSTROY(SNAKE), where Castlequest open-codes ITEMS(25) .NE. -1 (-1 being the magic “in my inventory” room number) and ITEMS(25) = 0 (0 being the magic “nowhere/destroyed” room number).

So I was spoiled really only in that I’d seen all the messages (so I knew to throw acid on the bars, and I knew to melt the glacier and give something smokable to the cyclops and tie the rope to the bed), and in that I had seen all the verbs and nouns in the game, like, once. As for how all the rooms would connect together, I was totally in the dark.

The early game (a.k.a. what I knew from GEnie)

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?
> NO

It’s mildly noteworthy that the instructions are split onto three pages. The second line of the instructions is lifted straight from Adventure: “I will be your eyes and hands. Direct me with commands of 1 or 2 words.” Holtzman was a fan of Adventure, but had never seen its source code; therefore (as we’ve seen) the code of Castlequest looks pretty different. (I’ll do a post on the code sometime.)

You awake in aforementioned remote castle:

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.
You are in a dim corridor lit by gaslight.  Doors exit
to the east and west.  A stairway leads down.
> D
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 game doesn’t recognize GET as a verb, so you have to TAKE everything. T is recognized as a shorthand. We can LOAD the gun with the bullet in order to SHOOT any wandering werewolves that pester us.

The exits of the castle’s rooms are all clearly and un-trickily marked; we quickly map the bedroom, hallway, parlor, armory, dining room, kitchen, pantry, foyer, workshop, smoking room, laundry room, storage room, upstairs hallway, library, boudoir, L-shaped corridor, and mirror maze. Yes, this castle (or Victorian mansion or whatever it is) comes with a mirror maze! But the maze is just one room, and wandering randomly always seems to lead you out into a random room of the castle — never anywhere new.

In the process, you find a silver cross and a Cuban cigar; the gun-with-silver-bullet, a bloody axe, some tasty food, an empty bottle (did I mention Holtzman was a fan of Adventure?), some “reusable matches” and kerosene, writing paper and a quill pen, and a book in the library that you can’t seem to do much with.

This is the library.  All four walls are lined with bookcases.
The room is brightly lit, although there is no apparent source
of light.
A copy of Shakespeare's "HAMLET" lies on the desk.
Sorry, but you don't have your library card.
A literary classic, but we don't have time to read.

However, there must be something special about this book.

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.
The butler is motioning that he wants to write you a note.
The butler is holding out a note.
"The master loves Shakespeare".

The trick is that you have to type OPEN BOOK. If you think to do that:

A skeleton key falls out of the book.

Oh, also, there are six rooms outside the mansion, including a garden where you find a tomato stake handily lying about, and a moat with a rowboat, which you can cross by doing TAKE BOAT and then CROSS MOAT. But on the other side all you find is a sign that says “You can’t reach the village from here”; and it seems to be telling the truth.

Re-entering the house gives a funny pastiche on Adventure’s plover passage:

You are in the garden.
> E
Something you're carrying won't fit into the house.
> E
You're in foyer.

I am fairly confident that I, as a child, never said OPEN BOOK and therefore never found the skeleton key at all, which means the only other room in the game I ever saw is the attic entrance:

You are in a musty room that appears to be an entrance to
an attic.  A small passage leads north and stairs descend
down behind you.
> N
A huge vampire bat hangs from the doorframe and blocks your way.
With what?? Your bare hands??
Attack the bat??  That's gross.  I won't do it.
The blade does not penetrate the bat's thick hide.
The bullet does not penetrate the bat's thick hide.

If you don’t figure out the skeleton key, this is all of the game you will ever see. And that’s exactly what happened to me as a kid! I wonder if this game would have been so memorable if I hadn’t felt so stumped. (The other game that fascinated me in that way was David Malmberg’s World’s Hardest Adventure, which I later disassembled to find that as a kid I’d seen the whole thing and it was just literally impossible to win.)

But notice: we have a stake and we have a vampire bat, and we know that “the object of the game is to find the master of the castle and kill him.” Even though I never managed to solve the puzzle of the bat, I assumed I knew how the game would play out.

Boy, was I wrong.

Killing Count Vlad

Now that we have the skeleton key from the book, we can open a boarded-up door in the kitchen:

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.
> E
The door is boarded up.
The door is boarded up.
> E
The door is closed.
The door opens to a brick wall.  ---DEAD END---
A note on the wall reads "L 8 R 31 L 59".

(Why does our skeleton key work on a boarded-up door? And why doesn’t chopping with the axe work? I don’t know. More on Castlequest’s handling of doors and windows in that code post, whenever I get around to writing it.)

Now let’s go back toward the bedroom:

You're in the parlor.
> U
You have fallen through a trap door and find...
You are in a dark stone E/W passage.

This secret passage for some reason triggers only when you are carrying the key. Down here are another ten rooms, including a torture chamber occupied by a nasty hunchback who seems to work just like the bear in Adventure — you can THROW FOOD and then TAKE HUNCHBACK to have him follow you around. (He doesn’t seem to do anything except ward off one werewolf attack and then die.) Item-wise, we find a flask of acid, an acetylene torch, a rope, and “a small pool of blood.” We can FILL BOTTLE from the pool — did I mention Holtzman was a fan of Adventure? — and then:

A huge vampire bat hangs from the doorframe and blocks your way.
The bat gulps down the blood and flitters away.
> N
You are in an old attic filled with old-fashioned clothes, a pile
of newspapers and some antiques.  An entrance to a cedar closet
is to the east and there is a door to a crawlspace to the west.
> W
A combination lock bars the door.

We use the combination from the kitchen. (Mark Kershenblatt tells me that 8-31-59 is Mike Holtzman’s birthday. Compare David Long’s New Adventure, in which a safe is opened with the combination 7-22-34 — the date John Dillinger was shot.)

The lock is now open.
> W
You are crawling along a low passage that leads east and west.
> W
It is now pitch dark. If you procede you may stumble and fall.
> E
You fall in the dark and break your neck.
My, My.  You seem to have bitten the dust.
I can attempt to reincarnate you, but I'm
not very good at it. Should I try?

Castlequest doesn’t play around with random numbers here. If you walk in the dark, you’re dead! And when you die, your inventory is scattered randomly about the house — which is so annoying to deal with that I can’t imagine anyone not just restarting (or restoring to their last save) on death.

Restart or restore, get the brass lamp from the cedar closet, and try again:

> W
You are in the chamber of the master of the castle,
Count Vladimir!  Pictures depicting scenes of tranquil
Transylvanian countrysides line the walls.  A huge
portrait of Vladimir's brother, Count Dracula, hangs
upon the near wall.  In the center of the room is a
large, ominous, mahogany coffin.
The coffin is closed.
The Count is asleep in the coffin.
The Count sits up and prepares for breakfast-namely you!
The vampire clutches at the stake and dies,
leaving only a pile of dust.
A note materializes on the wall which reads:
EMERGENCY EXIT--The mirror maze will lead you
to the locked door.  The exit lies within.

Remember the dim corridor outside our bedroom? There was a door to the west there, but it was locked. Going upstairs from the parlor takes us back to the dim corridor, unless we’re carrying the key, in which case it dumps us in the secret passage. So we have been unable to try the key on that locked door.

But now, exiting the mirror maze takes us somewhere different!

You are wandering around the mirror maze.
> W
You are in the dim corridor.
> W
A cool wind blows up a stone stairway which descends
down into a large stone room.  A note written in blood
The door leads east, back to the hall.

Well, hang on. Wasn’t the object of the game to find the master of the castle and kill him? Didn’t we do that a while ago? Did the game’s instructions lie to us?

The Great Underground E(verything-but-the-va)mpire

This is a good place to exercise the game’s SAVE command, by the way.

You are in a perfectly square room carved out of solid
rock.  Stone steps lead up.  An arched passage exits
south.  Above the arch is carved the message:
> S
You are in a long sloping N/S passage.  The darkness
seems to thicken around you as you walk.
> S
You are in a narrow room which extends out of sight
to the east.  Sloping paths exit north and south.
It is getting warmer here.
> S
This is the fire room.  The stone walls are gutted
from centuries of evil fires.  It is very hot here.
A low trail leads west and a smaller one leads NE.
A sloping trail goes north.
A wall of fire bars the way to the NE.
> W
You are in the blue room.  The entire room is a deep
shade of royal blue.  Exits go north, south and east.
> S
You are in a narrow E/W passage.  A faint noise of
rushing water can be heard.  A small crawl goes south.
> S
You are in a long bending tunnel which leads north
and east.  The walls are damp here, and you can
distinctly hear the sound of rushing water.
> E
You are at the base of a magnificent underground waterfall.
A cool mist rising off the surface of the water almost obscures
a small island.  A tunnel goes west and stone steps lead up.

Climbing the waterfall leads to a dead end whose scenery rivals Adventure’s Volcano View. Meanwhile, throwing water on the wall of fire lets us pass to find a… hotel lobby? With… elevators? In the basement we find what might be our new objective:

This is the safe deposit vault, an immense room with polished
steel walls.  A closed circuit T.V. camera hums quietly above
you as it pans back and forth across the room.  To the east is
an open elevator.  Engraved on the far wall is the message:

So far we’ve found a silver cross, a Cuban cigar, and a gold statue in the house, a jade figure and a bottle of champagne in the cave. North of the lobby is a sort of Y2 room that lets us teleport back to the boudoir by saying POOF. Next to the Blue Room is a maze of winding little passages.

This maze is a cute (if diabolical) twist on Woods’ “maze of twisty little passages, all different.” The rooms’ interconnections are pretty much nonsensical, but each room’s description is slightly different. Also, it can be mapped the same way as Crowther’s “all alike” maze: by dropping items.

You're in a long and winding maze of passages.
> N
You're in a winding maze of long passages.
> NW
You're in a maze of short and winding passages.
An empty bottle is discarded nearby.

…wait, what?

You're in a long and winding maze of passages.
An empty bottle is discarded nearby.

That’s right: the long description of the room (printed the first time you enter it) is significantly different from the short description (printed on subsequent visits). There are seven rooms in this maze, and seven different room descriptions, but the descriptions are unnaturally shuffled and repeated: “You’re in a maze of short and winding passages” is the short description of room 57, and the long description of both room 62 and room 63. The “necessary” core of the maze looks like this:

Map of the maze

One exit from the maze is “four tunnel junction,” near which we find a sparkling sapphire. The other exit is the glacier room:

This is the glacier room.  The walls are covered with
dazzling shapes of ice which reflect the light from your
lamp in a million colors.  In the far side of the room
are magnificent ice sculptures of animals unknown to
Mankind.  A faint "X" is scratched in the ice on one wall.
Icy passages exit SW and east.  A steep trail goes up.

We can use our acetylene torch to melt a hole in the glacier:

The light is burning dimly.
The torch is burning noisily.
Some ice has melted, leaving a large hole.
You are standing in a small puddle of water.
> IN

Don’t MELT ICE a second time or you’ll flood the cave! Also, it is probably important to EXTINGUISH both the match and the torch afterward; these matches are somehow “reusable,” but they do eventually exhaust themselves after burning for a long time. (So you can’t explore the whole cave just on matches; you need the lamp too. If the lamp starts getting dim, you can refill it with kerosene from the storage room.) Anyway, inside the glacier we find our seventh treasure: a delicate crystal swan.

Up the steep trail from the glacier room (I notice this cave is full of “trails” and “paths,” as opposed to Crowther’s “crawls” and “canyons”) we find the underside of the tomato garden, and eventually (if you remembered to bring the key) we come out again above ground:

You are in the remains of an old wine cellar, apparantly the
victim of a cave in.  Casks of once fine wine lie crushed in
the rubble.  A battered keg of GENESEE sits off in the corner.
The room smells like a Rathskellar band party.  A muddy path
goes east, and steps lead up to a door in the ceiling.
> UP
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:
There is a large opening in the ground.

Go back through the mansion and cross the moat again and take the boat down into the cave through the cellar! With the boat, you can CROSS under the waterfall to find an island with a large ruby.

(The rowboat won’t POOF upstairs — just like the emerald in Adventure — but you can carry it up the stairs just fine.)

What’s next?

At this point we’ve found eight treasures — silver cross, Cuban cigar, gold statue, champagne, jade figure, sapphire, crystal swan, large ruby — for a total of 215 points. I know from transcribing the messages that there’s more to find:

  • We have a rope tied to a grappling hook, but no precipice to descend/ascend.

  • There’s a cyclops around here somewhere.

  • There’s a wizard around here somewhere.

But I seem to have run out of areas to explore, again. To be continued…

Posted 2021-03-19