Dark Castle is unquestionably the worst game on the Sega Genesis, and equals – and perhaps outdoes – Bill and Ted’s Excellent Video Game Adventure for the title of worst video game I’ve ever played. It’s that bad.
For starters, the game looks like one of the uglier 8-bit titles. It’s hard to believe it was released on the same console in the same year as Sonic the Hedgehog, which still looks colorful and vibrant today. Dark Castle is an ugly game that was visually outdated on its release.
Graphics are only the smallest of Dark Castle’s offenses, however. The most prominent, game-breaking flaw of Dark Castle are the controls. It is the worst controlling game I have ever played.
You play as some guy with a mullet in a green shirt, who controls so poorly he may outdo Lester the Unlikely as my most hated video game character. This dude can only pick up throwing rocks for weapons, and is the worst jumper in gaming history.
Jumping is performed by pressing the A button, but the dude can only jump forward, and there’s no way to change his jumping height or distance, which makes any platforming feel awkward and clunky. And to throw rocks, you have to tap the D-pad up or down to position his arm just right (it can be positioned in any 180-degree direction in front of him), and then press the C button to throw a rock. It is beyond tedious.
All the more baffling is his ducking ability. If you press down on the D-pad along with the B button, he ducks for a split second. If you want to keep ducking, you press up on the D-pad and B. Why on earth two different actions for ducking were necessary is beyond me, and holding the up direction in order to stay ducking is just confusing.
The control scheme itself is horrendously awkward, but it’s made all the worse by its execution. I can’t even begin to describe how off the controls feel with the character’s movements and actions. The character will continuously trip (seemingly over nothing), he’ll stop and get dizzy from falling two feet (leading you susceptible to enemies, all of which kill you in one hit). And falling any higher than that will kill you.
Then there are functions which don’t even seem to work. To climb on ropes, you have to jump towards them and hold up on the D-pad, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. You’ll also fall if you try to move from one rope to another too quickly. There are indiscernible dead-ends left and right, and sometimes there’s no definition between the foreground and background, with one wall in particular seemingly in the background, until you reach a certain point of it and it becomes something of a wall right in front of you.
With the aforementioned abysmal controls for throwing rocks, it’s an immense chore just to hit enemies. Most of the enemies are generic bats and rats, which are so small you have to be on the pixel to hit them, but there are also some human enemies as well, as well as small gnome-like creatures that make the most obnoxious sound effect in video game history. All of these enemies move quickly and usually come in hordes. Not to mention they either respawn or get back up after mere seconds. In order to rotate the character’s arm to throw the rocks (already a tedious endeavor) the character has to stand perfectly still. Combine that with his constant dizziness and tripping, and you’re basically a sitting duck no matter where you go.
The controls alone already make the game a disaster. But to add insult to injury, the game also plays some unfair tricks on the player. I’ve already mentioned the confusing wall and quick-fire enemy respawns, but there’s more where that came from, including a dungeon area which you’ll be visiting time and time again.
The dungeon is just a single screen, with a man whipping prisoners at the bottom and rows of rats, bats and human enemies above. Rocks pass right through the whipping man, and in order to subdue him you need to grab a nearby flail and hit him with it (before you think this is a new weapon, you automatically drop it as soon as you knock the whip guy out, and you can’t pick it back up again). You need to get past the whip guy while he’s unconscious (which, again, only lasts a few seconds) so you can grab one of two nearby keys. If the whipping guy gets back up while you’re getting the key, you’re dead, because you can’t get past him. But what’s even worse is that one of the two keys – which have no visual distinction from each other – is a trap that will kill you, and it randomly changes each time you try to grab it. So you go through all that trouble for a mere guessing game that has a 50/50 chance of making you start over.
That’s not even the worst part about the dungeon. The worst thing about it is how often you’ll get there. It seems like just about every room in the blasted castle somehow has its own way of getting you back there. If you stand still for too long, the floor might fall from underneath you, and it’s back to the dungeon. Other times you might trip and fall into a pit, and it’s back to the dungeon. In perhaps the most aggravating example, if you take too long to get past certain rooms, a weird gargoyle/flying monkey will appear – which you can’t avoid – and will then grab you and drop you into the dungeon. Naturally the only way out of the dungeon is to somehow get past all the enemies above and leave via the upper right corner of the screen, in which case you need to backtrack several rooms to get back to where you were. You are honestly just better off resetting the game.
Other unfair elements include the rat enemies. Not only are they hard to hit with rocks, but sometimes you can walk past them without any problems, and other times they kill you. There is no way to tell when they will kill you, making the act of going passed them a gamble.
Perhaps Dark Castle’s most humorous blunder is its music. The sole piece of music in the entire game – from the title screen to the end – is just a looped segment of a synthesized version of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which gets really old, really fast. You have the option of turning the music off in the pause menu, but here’s where things get really hilarious. You have to turn it off when a note isn’t playing to ensure you turn it off. If you turn it off during a note, that note will be sustained for either a short while, or until you turn the music back on and try again. Yes, you could play through the game with one long, continuous note through all of it. It is the most baffling audio slip-up I’ve ever heard in a game.
On top of that, the game’s sound effects are an assault on the ears. It seems every enemy is constantly bombarding you with insipid sounds, and the main character sounds like a total buffoon. If Dark Souls represents the pinnacle of video game sound effects, then Dark Castle sits at the exact opposite end of that spectrum.
If there’s any act of mercy to be found in Dark Castle, it’s that you can actually make the game considerably shorter right from the start. When the game begins, our idiotic hero stands in front of four doors, two with question marks above them, one with a shield, and one with the letters “BK” at the top (which apparently stands for ‘Black Knight’). Each door leads to a different section of the castle, though the whole thing is ultimately connected.
Normally, the two question mark doors are supposed to give you a fireball when completed, and the shield door gives you a shield, both of which are meant to make the final boss easier. But if you just go to the BK door, you only have three screens to worry about, the third of which is the encounter with the Black Knight (who fights you by throwing his never-ending supply of beer mugs at you, making him the goofiest final boss imaginable).
Still, even if you shorten the suffering, playing Dark Castle is still suffering. Its abysmal controls, lack of clarity, unfair obstacles, annoying sounds, blatantly unfinished elements, ugly graphics and all-around poor game design make it one of the worst video games of all time.