RGotW: Castle of the Winds

seanstar on Saturday, 16 June 2012. Posted in Opinion, Retro Game of the Week

The villagers eye you with suspicion.  Among the indistinct murmurings of the crowd, you think you can make out words like "infidel," "traitor," "illegitimate," and worse.  At length, one member steps forward and clears his throat.  From his appearance, you guess correctly that he is some sort of administrator or moderator.  "We are a peaceable community.  We want nothing more than to mind our own interests and attend to our own entertainment.  You look like someone we used to know, and we are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, but your actions… pardon me if I say it just doesn't sit well with a number of us to see… well, to see a WINDOWS game…"  Many members of the assembly shudder at the word, others trace warding symbols in the air; a few faint outright.  "…to see a Windows game featured prominently right here on our own front gate." 

While you assume an aluminum unibody shell is incapable of holding an edge, and that the cords on those designer-colored puck-mice aren't actually attached well enough for offensive use, you begin to feel that explaining yourself would nonetheless be a safer course of action than testing the theory.



Castle of the Winds Part Two may be the first piece of shareware I ever legitimately owned. I don't actually know if I legitimately owned it—I simply received it as a party favor at the birthday of a friend, whose dad was more than technologically-savvy enough to copy 3.5" floppies to hand out to us 10-year-olds. Part One has always been legitimate free-to-try shareware; Part Two has always carried a notification about $25 registration, which never appeared to affect gameplay. Both have now been released by the author as abandonware and are available freely online. They may both be played, allegedly, under most 16- and 32-bit flavors of Windows, and I've even seen a 16-bit-support module in Windows 8 preview editions which may indicate it will work there, but the classic platform for the title is good old early-'90s Windows 3.1. If you have a copy of the OS, mac and i has a straightforward guide to getting it setup and running in Boxer.

With the long-awaited release of Diablo III having recently crippled Blizzard's servers, now is a particularly fitting time to look back on Castle of the Winds. While it doesn't go back as far as, say, Nethack, CotW is nonetheless a prime early example of the character-building mystery-dungeon-crawler RPG sub-genre. Acting on an intense desire for vengeance and answers, you-the-generic-protagonist embark on a journey through a few dozen levels of randomly generated subterranean dungeon. Periodically, specific rooms, items, and enemies will trigger plot events, which show up as generic white text boxes with paragraphs of narration. An in-game manual and help system features pages of past events leading up to the story of each game.

The engine the games are built on appears to be completely identical between the titles. After completing the first game and importing your character into the second, you can if you wish reopen them in the first without apparent ill effects. Maps, enemies, and most effects are all tile-based and utilize 16-color Windows 3.1 icons as graphics. Inventory and character management also occurs on what appear to be native Windows 3.1 icon-view windows. Audio is largely absent. 

But the simplistic aesthetic does mask a deeper degree of variety. A running log below the main map area describes every significant action you take in varied and decently-formed sentences.  Enemies, notably dragons, have a range of classes which may not be readily visible. Nearly every piece of equipment in the game has the possibility for enchantment, both to increase its primary function in varying degrees (e.g. armor with varying levels of magical damage resistance) and to add other bonuses (e.g. weapons or armor which increase character stats in varying levels, protect from status effects, or grant particular bonuses against certain enemy types). 

As with popular newer titles, just because you have a rare and awesome kit of equipment doesn't mean you should stop looking—the random generator may yet cook up something even better. Then again, if you just equip items without properly identifying them, you may get stuck with cursed gear—which not only radically drops your stats, but can't be unequipped short of magically uncursing it or taking it all the way back to the village priest. Virtually all of the game's learnable spells are repeated in item form, whether as droughts and potions for healing and buffing, or scrolls, wands, and staves for nearly anything. There are, of course, also cursed or useless consumables, such as Scroll of Attract Monster, Wand of Create Traps, and the ever-present Distillation of Water.

Your character's carrying capacity is limited by both weight and bulk, and certain containers such as belts also have limited slots. Exceeding your character's strength-determined weight capacity will result in a decrease of your theoretical max speed from its default 200% down to, iirc, 50% at your true maximum load. By the middle of the second game, however, you begin to see enchanted packs with fixed weight and bulk regardless of their contents, and can learn the invaluable Rune of Return spell to jump between the village and your deepest explored dungeon level, making large hauls much easier. 

Even money has some weight to it, and some enemies can even steal it off you, so in addition to a variety of vendors, every town but the first has a bank that will secure your money and give you a letter of credit good in the town shops. There's no official vault for items you do not wish to carry, but whether intentionally or otherwise, items left on maps persist. So you can, if you wish, simply leave all your spare equipment on the ground in town or in a random corner of a dungeon level that isn't populated by gelatinous cubes (which have a habit of picking up and digesting anything they walk across).

In-game time advances by an appropriate amount whenever your character moves or acts. The passage of time appears to do little beyond refresh the items available in shops, although I have seen references that the longer you take, the stronger the final boss becomes, so grinding for many extra hours may not be a good strategy.

Overall, I still find CotW satisfies a certain craving for half-mindless character-growing and hack-and-slash dungeoneering, and short of networked multiplayer, offers all the same fundamental elements of many newer, pricier titles in the genre. Part 1 has a decent rate of plot revelation, and cuts off, predictably, just when you're getting to a level at which having some real enchanted spell-blasting fun becomes an option. Part 2, unfortunately, degenerates into something of a grind, but with more interesting items, spells, and maps. 

Hopefully, as a 16-bit OS title which can be run in 32-bit virtualization on a 64-bit Mac, the game is classic enough that we can all put our differences behind us, look back and muse at how preciously misdirected and kludgy Microsoft was in its early attempts to clone Apple's interface, and marvel at the developers who managed nonetheless to use the platform for legitimate entertainment.

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