If you try to Google the game in which The Eternal Castle is a remaster of, you'll find nothing. The reality is that it's a lost game, or so say the developers. Allegedly based on a missing DOS game from 1987, The Eternal Castle is a remade and expanded version, working only off the developers' memories of playing the game over three decades ago. On Steam, it's described to have "sophisticated sound design, polished 2-bit CGA animated graphics, and modernized game design" compared to its original version, once destined to die on a floppy disk. Oh, and there's a catch: the original game doesn't really exist.
Looking at it from screenshots, you might not believe it's that advanced. It's seeing it in motion—whether through video, GIFs, or just playing it—where it amazes. Where the action is surprisingly brutal with its assortment of weapons (calling to mind the memorable opening of the 1991 platformer Another World, where unassuming poisonous slugs can stab you within your first steps) and the animation is entrancing, accented by cyan, magenta, and other bright colors against opaque black. If you stand idle, your Adam or Eve (you choose in the beginning) will sit down and think to themselves, but the only dialogue is through subtitles. Developed by the three-person team of Leonard Menchiari, Giulio Perrone, and Daniele Vicinanzo, The Eternal Castle looks exactly how it's billed as: like the memory of how an old DOS looked and played, now realized with modern technology.
Nostalgia's powerful. It leads people to defend their favorite things from when they were kids like their lives depended on it because it made them smile once. It also can be a rude awakening. Where going back to a game taints your memory because of how different it actually looks and plays compared to the rosy vision that cycles in your head when you're daydreaming. We've all had both sorts of moments: the rabid defender of something, and the cold realization that maybe something isn't as perfect as we remember it.
The Eternal Castle, even if just a marketing gimmick, at the very least plays and looks how we might remember an old school "cinematic" platformer akin to Another World to be. The only difference is that in 2019, it doesn't suffer from technology limitations. Instead, it takes its DOS-era pixel art to new extremes, like how crisp Mario once looked in our heads in level 1-1, or how astonishing Final Fantasy 7's blocky-polygonal characters once were (or any PS1 game, by extension). Its frame rate, while it stutters from time to time from what I've spent playing it, is a lot smoother than what was capable in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The game itself is familiar, too. You crash land on a mysterious planet. You soon learn to run, jump, climb, crouch, and most importantly, shoot. You solve environment puzzles this way, no matter how minor, with frequent checkpoints in between. One of the earliest is a screen with a tilted tree and some not-acid-looking-but-totally-acidic ocean, and an unfriendly dog on the opposite end. You can shoot the dog, sure, but you can also push the tree over—which you have to do anyway to cross—and the acid sea will splash onto the poor pup, who melts into a skeleton. If you walk into it, the same fate befalls you.
This genre, commonly decreed as a cinematic platformer, is a pretty uncommon genre nowadays. Last year's excellent Forgotton Anne sought to reignite the genre with its stunning animation, but its precision platforming fell flat. The Eternal Castle is similarly finicky, with the timing for jumps and the difficulty of some encounters feeling just a little off. With the whole DOS aesthetic though, it feels a tad more apt—even if it is annoying to feel like pressing the right arrow key makes my character go just a step or so beyond what I intended.
Last year, while laying out a guest excerpt post about the landscape of the old PC game Lego Island, my mind immediately remembered delivering pizza, flying helicopters, and all the other exciting things I had the potential to do. Looking at actual screenshots of it today was baffling; a wake up call that Lego Island wasn't really how I remembered. But the feeling I had back then while playing it is still very real.
How the faux-original copy of The Eternal Castle got "lost," according to a story posted on its Steam blog, is a familiar one to any kid who has lost or accidentally destroyed a game. "One day he stopped playing, he turned off his PC, and removed the floppy from the drive. There was only one problem. The metal piece of the floppy remained stuck inside the computer, in a way that when he turned on the computer again it would display the message: 'Boot failed: could not read the boot disk,'" the developer writes, maintaining a third-person voice the whole way through. "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."
The result is a remade experience, based on that alleged memory, from the ground up. On the game's press kit, there's no frilly story: just the developers seeking "to achieve something that gets as close as possible to the dream-game they wish they could’ve played when they were kids." As such, it plays more modern than any classic cinematic adventure game; its melee combat calling to mind the original Nidhogg in many ways. Its frame rate is faster, its visuals crisper, its art more detailed while clinging to its limited pixels and color palette. Like so many throwback indie games, it "looks" old, as how we remember all games once were, but it plays better than those even did.
The first thing that comes to mind as I play The Eternal Castle is that of another manufactured memory morphed into a game: 2017's virtual reality arcade shooter Polybius from Jeff Minter, the game designer and programmer behind Tempest 2000 and other classics. Minter insists the Polybius he created is one built of what he remembers of the mythological Polybius he played feverishly in the depths of a warehouse. Eventually, he clarified it was merely inspired by the urban legend—where the mysterious arcade cabinet lived in Oregon allegedly, brainwashing kids while its money was collected by shady men in black. Polybius was brought to life by Minter, and playing it in VR especially, you almost believe something this psychedelic could do a number on some poor kid's psyche.
The Eternal Castle doesn't have quite such weighty aspirations of a well-storied urban legend behind it. Instead, it's wholly cooked up its own myth. Yet playing it, you almost trust the believable but implausible story the developers have spun around it. It looks, breathes, and plays like a DOS game from 1987, with added finesse and more GIF-worthy scenery surrounding its survival tale. Real or not, it's a myth worth wading through.