How do you remaster a video game that, for all intents and purposes, never actually existed in the first place? The remarkable history of 80’s MS-DOS adventure The Eternal Castle is, well, entirely fictional. And it’s worth exploring ahead of the review. Are you sitting comfortably? Good, you’re going to want to hang around for this one.
You see, The Eternal Castle Remastered is an amalgamation of a video game that lives solely in the memory of its developers, particularly game director Leonard Menchiari, who talked about his ‘memories’ of playing The Eternal Castle back in 1987;
He was mortified, terrified. He could not tell his parents because he felt so bad about breaking something he cared so much about, so he didn’t. As a result, his dad sent the computer to get fixed, the metal piece was gone, and all he had left was a broken unusable floppy.
Eventually that floppy got thrown out, so he never got to play that game again. Such an easy thing to fix, but he was too young at the time to know what to do.
He kept thinking about it ever since.
And thus The Eternal Castle Remastered creates its own backstory. This version of the game is a ‘remaster’ of a game that he merely wanted to play as a kid, as stated in the games press kit.
Back in Sept 2016 over on the RGB Classic Games Forum, a member called ‘JohnM’ uploaded content such as screenshots and files for a video game titled The Eternal Castle. He went on to mentioned this game was “one of the precursors of most of the next generation cinematic sidescrollers”. The featured screenshots certainly looked like a video game of the time, but the files included that would have opened the game didn’t work. A day later, a user on the same forum called ‘JMenko’ took to the Internet Archive to upload similar files.
Cut to October 2017, and members of the Prince of Persia community forum discovered The Eternal Castle files, citing they also couldn’t get the game to run. Instead of leaving them be, however, they decided to decipher why the game wasn’t working, and went to work on a fix.
It was in this investigation that it was discovered game files within The Eternal Castle features files from the original Prince of Persia, a game that didn’t launch until 1989. These game files also included code for Star Control 2 and the original Doom. As you’re aware, these are two games that came out long after 1987. Metadata from Photoshop was also included in the files of The Eternal Castle, a software program that wasn’t released until 1990.
Upon trying to run the application, another wild discovery was found that led to where we are now, reviewing a remaster of a game that never existed. Appearing on screen was text referencing a secret mode that DOS can run in. But wait, a Twitter user pointed out that this was not a feature that was included in DOS until 1989.
I had been playing the game a while before I stumbled upon this information. In looking for references to the original for comparison’s sake, I was coming up blank. Once I delved further into the fabricated backstory of The Eternal Castle, I gained a new appreciation for what the developers were trying to achieve. The sheer lengths they were willing to go to in order to proclaim this title a relic of the past, even though it’s no such thing, gave everything I was experiencing in the game a deeper meaning. Its mystique lends itself well to a video game that’s just as had a nut to crack as the bizarre wild goose chase I found myself on looking for an original to a remaster that was never real in the first place.
Let’s get into it.
Visually and aesthetically, you’d be hard pressed to think that The Eternal Castle is anything more than a re-release of a video game from 1987. On the surface it’s a visual throwback to the glory days of the Amiga and Commodore 64. with a basic colour palette, soaking up the beauty of rotoscopic animation and infusing fluid pixel animation of characters, enemies and background to create a visual feast that will be the primary focus of the games appeal. You have to really see the game in action to fully appreciate the wondrous
It’s not just the visuals that carry over from the pixel era, either. As you’re navigating your way through each wasteland, encountering any number of beastly enemies that want to kill you in the face without a second though, it immediately dawns on you that The Eternal Castle is absolutely nails.
You can find weapons throughout the game but ammo is scarce – so much so that you’re more or less stuck with whatever ammo was in the gun when you found it -, so leaning into the modern comfort zone of shooting your way through each room isn’t going to cut it. You have basic hand-to-hand combat options but you’re grossly under-powered in comparison to the monsters that you’ll come across.
Beyond the enemies that makes The Eternal Castle perpetually difficult, the controls are mapped rather awkwardly, and text can be perplexing to read at times. The story that’s weaving throughout the game isn’t exactly George Orwell but you’ll need to be keeping track of various discoveries such as diary entries as you proceed through each level. One could argue it’s a small nod to games of the era but of course, a little spruce up with the modern tropes would have been a little welcome in this regard. I began playing in handheld mode and was ok for a little while until I was stumbling across these diary entries and had to switch (heh) to the TV, as it was becoming difficult to keep up with just what on earth you’re supposed to be doing, and even then it was tough. There’s homage and then there’s just frustrating. We’ve moved on for a reason.
In regards to the controls there’s intentional lag between button presses and actions. Again, a slight nod hearkening back to the era The Eternal Castle always wanted to belong in but wildly out of place today. I mentioned above the game is a challenge, and it’ll do its best to reset your brain back to your childhood of when we didn’t know any better and was just delighted to see moving pixels on a monitor we could interact with. I realised a little whilst into playing that the game shouldn’t be rewarded for being obtuse, despite its various degrees of authenticity.
The odd modern trope has been included though, thankfully. Whether it be a life bar you can energise at checkpoints or the staggeringly good synthwave soundtrack presented in full high-fidelity stereo. The game won’t boot you back to the very beginning if you die (thankfully. I died a lot) and you’ll get to retry levels as often as you like until you finally beat the bloody monsters that stand in your way.
The majority of the levels share a similar visual theme – stark, abandoned, desolate – and soaking in the design of each level feels like a part of the game. You have that immediate moment of ‘wow, this is beautiful’, and then you’re back on the grind tearing through the platforming sections at times either in complete darkness or the crisp colour palette giving each of these levels a shot at becoming your next desktop wallpaper.
Completing levels will teleport you back to your ship where you can choose to take on a different area to take on. These areas in any order so if you’re finding one particularly taxing you can head back to your ship at any time and head somewhere else to try your hand on there. It’s worth jumping back and forth to see which location you can begin to understand the games mechanics easier. I’m pretty sure I landed at the most difficult area first. Handy for learning what’s ahead of you and taking on enemies by learning movements and navigating your way through the levels, but you’re probably not going to beat this level at this point so it’s best to explore and find where your comfort zone is at before taking it on. That worked for me, anyway.
The aforementioned weaponry is sparse, but handy. From pistols and shotguns, machine guns to axes and seemingly whatever your pixellated character can find on the ground (admittedly, it’s slightly difficult to make out exactly what he’s brandishing at times). They all pack a punch and you feel a little safer in your surroundings when in possession of something you can throw/shoot, though their uses are minimal it’s really more of quick fix. If you feel overwhelmed in certain spots you can just leg it off to the right hand side of the screen, but not every time. A certain segment where you’re moving through an underground nightclub with a large number of human enemies – who aren’t difficult to take down but in numbers can be particularly awkward – in which you have to take them all down in order to proceed. I’ve added a before/after picture below to showcase just how nuts it is.
The funny thing is, The Eternal Castle just kept getting harder. Whether it be the enemies or through the more puzzling aspects of the game. There will be times when you enter rooms and you’re not entirely sure what you’re going to need to do in order to escape. The way the visuals work it’ll take a second to even find your character on screen at times, and whilst most levels are ‘kill the enemies to proceed’ or ‘climb over this to get to that’, particular levels that encourage minimal exploration can become a little bit of a muddle. The fun part is of course is that once you’ve overcome enemies and figured your way through the rooms you’ll be presented with a boss fight that is immediately exciting in no small part thanks to the aforementioned soundtrack, turned up to eleven when you’re in a boss area. Depending on your understanding of the control lag at this point the difficulty is balanced in your favour, though it can be tough at bosses are, at times, hugely overpowered.
For a game that effectively never existed, The Eternal Castle does a sterling job of transporting you back to the times of video games on cassettes and crappy monitors you’re hitting every fifteen minutes.
The history of The Eternal Castle is one of mythical folklore, and to create a game purely out of what you thought the original game should have been way back in 1987 must be commended. You have to imagine that should it have actually seen the light of day not thirty-two years ago, it would have been heralded as one of the best of its era, standing proudly next to the likes of Flashback, Another World and Price of Persia. That the story of how this Remaster came to be is almost as engaging as the game itself leads to a distinctive approach to promote your new game, based on an old game that was never real in the first place.
It’s certainly an experience to be back in that mindset, with the good and the bad that comes along with it. Your enjoyment of The Eternal Castle will weigh heavily on either having fond memories of the era or wanting to leave it buried. It’s difficult to see how younger players will react to its visuals and punishing difficulty, but it serves as stark reminder that we’ve come a long way, baby.
It’s certainly the best remaster of a game that never existed I’ve ever played, that’s for sure.
I wonder what else is hidden away in lost game files of history?
Note: The Eternal Castle [REMASTERED] currently is only available on the North American eShop. We don’t currently have information on an EU release, so if you want to play the game on Switch you’ll need an NA account. If you’re based in the EU you can find out how to do so here, with thanks to Chris Scullion.
Developer: Leonard Menchiari, Daniele Vicinanzo, Giulio Perrone
Publisher: Playsaurus / The Indie Bros.
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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