Take a trip into the pixelated past.
Nostalgia is a powerful feeling. It has the capability to transport us through time, evoking distant memories of happiness plucked from the past. This is especially true in the case of video games, as many people’s first childhood experiences of the medium come bundled with the liberating sense of freedom and discovery youth brought them. Developers are aware of this, of course, and over the last few years we’ve seen our love for the past inspire long-dead genres to be re-imagined with all the polish you’d expect of the modern age. This is particularly true for indie games, an industry renowned for its innovation.
The Eternal Castle is slightly different in that respect, despite the misleading ‘REMASTERED’ moniker in its official title. This isn’t a modernised take on the platformer genre equipped with all the smoothness you’d expect from the latest software. This is something more authentic – this is something you can actually imagine playing on a Commodore 64 or early Amiga. It isn’t a sugar-coated childhood memory with pixel-perfect graphics or responsive controls. True nostalgia doesn’t need rose tinted glasses. There used to be a certain mystic about gaming, more so in the pre-internet age. Finding a floppy disk devoid of label bar a barely legible scribble on the front was an adventure it’s almost impossible to recapture today. That doesn’t stop this game from trying, though.
Greeting you with an old-school boot-up screen, The Eternal Castle wastes no time thrusting you into its ‘80s inspired, neon-soaked world of pixels. As synthwave music rumbles in the background you’re unceremoniously ejected onto an alien world with no clue who you are or what you’re doing there. As was common in games of the time, only one imperative has been stated: You need to save her.
Bright washes of colour fill the foreground of the monochromatic outline your character and the immediate ground around you project. For fans of classic cinematic platformers such as Another World and Flashback, this will be a familiar setting. Alien world – check. Vague, confusing sci-fi story – check. But this technicoloured daydream aims to take things one step further, with the rough ‘2-bit CGA animated graphics’ revealing only a shadow-like world of pixels to the player.
This not only makes things generally hard to see and read, such as in-game text, but also makes the game difficult to play at times. That’s where it gains its authenticity though, in its rough edges. This is what a homage should look like – unafraid to celebrate an era of imperfection.
The controls are awkward, but intentionally so; classic platformers were never easy to navigate. That was part of the challenge. You soon adjust to the lag in responsiveness and learn to time everything a few seconds earlier whilst praying it registered the command. Make a mistake and demise can come quick, as the inhospitable world harbours a multitude of instant death scenarios. You do eventually get a depletable life bar though, which comes as a relief in comparison to similar games of the genre. There are also checkpoints, although at times unhelpfully placed, that refill your health bar and save your progress throughout the level.
Each of the levels has a quietly distinctive feel to it. Nothing quite as brazen as a theme, but instead traits that set it apart. Some levels require significantly more combat than others, with one seeing you fight through an active combat zone. There’s some sort of uprising taking place on the planet as you battle your way through it. As you can imagine, this puts you, and the supposedly friendly rebels in some chaotic situations.
Thankfully, though, there’s a small armoury of weapons at your disposal including pistols, machine guns and shotguns, as well as a selection of hand weapons such as an axe. They all have a pretty sluggish feel to them with zero impact feedback only making them feel less kinetic. But again, there’s something pleasantly authentic about the unwieldy nature of the weapons you use throughout the game. Mastering them is not really an option, instead, you just get through as best you can.
There are also areas specifically focussed on traps presenting more of a puzzle element to the game. Overall, however, there’s nothing particularly unusual – besides the final boss fight – that really steps away from the ‘crawl there, jump here’, you’d expect from a 2D platformer. That said, the simplest puzzle can become a challenge when the character refuses to move in the way you want. Despite this, the boss fights at the end of each level are well balanced, as thankfully the difficulty curve is not as intense as you might expect. Most also include heart-pumping ‘80s synth music to accompany the action which only further adds to the atmosphere and aesthetic.
Once you’ve completed a section and overcome its boss you teleport back to your downed fighter ship to select the next area you’d like to explore. All the while the end goal of your journey, the castle, looms in the background, foreshadowing the fight to come. You can teleport back to the ship at any time should you get stuck on any particular level and instead select another area to tackle first.
You do get a few small upgrades throughout your adventure which imbue you with slightly more health and the ability to aim better. There’s nothing game-changing though; these are generally very subtle boosts to survivability. Overall, The Eternal Castle is a short experience, although very much complete. There’s also a certain amount of re-playability, should you wish to discover the true ending.
There’s value in this fleeting glimpse of the past. For the old-school crowd, it’s a fond trip down memory lane. And yet, for younger players, it serves as a window into a time when video games still had that enchanting quality to them, when so much was still unknown. Of course, the internet would change all that, every game would be taken apart and analysed. Players would grow up and better understand the alien, virtual worlds they explored slowly identifying the hidden rules common to all video games. The Eternal Castle is successful in capturing that sense of discovery but only as a relic to an era long gone.
A game like this may have taken you a few weeks to grasp and explore in the ‘80s but faced with a modern society that deeply understands video games, it might only last a few hours. But, for those few hours, you’ll be whisked back in time to experience the origins of the modern platformer and better understand why the genre still exists today.
[Reviewed on PC]
Jon loves the experimental nature of indie games, and has written about them for the likes of Eurogamer, PCGamer and GameReactor. As editor of The Indie Game Website, Jon is responsible for the overall content direction of the website, and enjoys moving things around in our Google Calendar.