Castle of the Skull Lord – Acorn Electron
Platform: Acorn Electron
Release Date: 1984
Genre: Text Adventure
Nerd Rating: 6 out of 10
Note: I played Castle of the Skull Lord on the Elkulator v1.0 emulator, which is really cool by the way.
Remember the 80s? Well I don’t. I had the luxury of being born too late. Which means I’ve managed to miss out on tons of classic games that I have had to spend my early adulthood trying to find and play. For me, this also goes beyond just arcade machines and retro systems, this goes back to the dawn of computers. And while I’m not reviewing Pong just yet, I thought it’d be nice to talk a little about some games from the Acorn series of systems; namely the Acorn Electron.
Now the Acorn Electron was not a really popular system in it’s day, it was a home computer from the UK that was basically a less powerful version of the BBC Micro Model B. However, the Electron boasts a pretty great developer community and at least a thousand different games have been published or ported to it. That calls for a lot of variety, so in deciding which game to talk about first I chose Castle of the Skull Lord. This wasn’t because it was critically acclaimed or much loved, in fact, I didn’t really enjoy it that much.
Although the game doesn’t provide any exposition in-game as to who you are and what your goal is, documentation and the game box explain the story a bit. Other versions like the one for the Amstrad CPC do have in-game information about the game’s plot which helps. Basically, the story goes that the evil sorcerer, the Skull Lord, attacked and defeated the Dwarven people, stealing their valuables including their Crown of the Dwarven King. Now it is up to you, a young warrior, to get into the Skull Lord’s castle, get back the crown and kill him once and for all.
Now let me explain the gameplay a bit, Castle of the Skull Lord is a text adventure game with no visuals and no sound. As per your standard Text Adventure, progressing through the game involves entering in one-to-two word phrases as directions. The standard input usually goes something like; verb noun. However, you have to be extremely specific with what verbs and nouns you use, for example you would enter GET SWORD instead of GET WEAPON. Sometimes knowing what the noun you should be using isn’t quite simple, but by using context clues from the game’s text, you can usually figure it out. Luckily for directions you’re given a shortcut, instead of writing out GO NORTH you could simply input NORTH or even N. You also have six directional commands to use; North, South, East, West, Up, and Down. The later two are specifically used for looking up and down, but like the other directions you can simply input UP or U and DOWN or D. Just remember to capitalize everything.
Unlike modern games, this one doesn’t hand feed you directions or tell you what to look for. In fact, an area late in the game has been known to be incredibly difficult to figure out because the game doesn’t tell you that there’s a trapdoor you can use. So in order to get anywhere in Castle of the Skull Lord you have to be observant of your surroundings and really use your imagination. Although, there are guides out there too that you could use, but it spoils the fun of it. None of these things are the reason I rated this game so low, infact I find the difficulty of this game to be quite admirable and challenging. And I like games that challenge me to think.
However, the game of course also has a lot of downsides. The first big one is that even if you use a guide, you’ll never win this game with a glitched version. And there are a lot of glitched versions out there, which makes the game extremely frustrating because in order to try again, you have to start all the way from the beginning of the game. Even for small spelling mistakes in your answers or not capitalizing, this is an extremely ridiculous punishment. These issues will not only drive away the faint at heart, but also those who would have enjoyed it had they been able to make real progress in the game.
The reason I rated this game so low is because of this version of the game, the one for the Acorn Electron, is of lesser quality than it’s peers (namely the Amstrad CPC and the Commodore 64). This is really disappointing because the Acorn Electron is a decent piece of hardware which had some really fun games on it. I don’t think the game’s story was bad and I thought the whole disguising yourself bit near the end was kinda fun, I just wish that I didn’t have to constantly reboot the tape to actually make progress. Although Castle of the Skull Lord was a game during a point in history where computer games were still just starting to develop more gameplay mechanics. I would recommend anyone interested in text adventures to play Castle of the Skull Lord though, it’s a good challenge for those who like games that make them really think.
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