Monday, April 9, 2018

Game 287: Silvern Castle (1988)

It's rare to fire up "AppleWin" these days.
Silvern Castle
United States
Independently developed and published
Finished in 1988 but unreleased until 1999 for Apple II
Date Started: 4 April 2018

Silvern Castle is an ambitious independent title that begins like just another Wizardry clone but slowly reveals mechanics that transcend the original. Sir-Tech, which spent the 1980s re-releasing the same engine five times, could have learned a few lessons from this one. 

Alas, Sir-Tech was on its way out when Silvern finally saw the light of day. Author Jeff Fink sold it to Softdisk in 1988, but Softdisk stopped publishing for the Apple II before they issued the game. Fink wrestled back the rights, though it took him several years, and released the game as shareware in 1999. It has been updated continually since then, the last release (9.5.1) in 2014. In some ways, therefore, I'm playing a game that's only 4 years old, but even though it wasn't published in 1988 (which is my usual standard), it was supposed to be published in 1988, so I've left it there.
Exploring a wireframe dungeon again.
(The title is offered on a dedicated site, hosted by the author, and is apparently a bit of a pain to set up. I owe thanks to reader "J." for sending me a prepared disk image that I could just mount and start playing.)

The game takes place in the titular castle, where the king's right to rule is symbolized by a Crystal Orb. When the last king died, the arch-wizard Ragon put the Orb in a maze below the castle to await the next king. But an evil wizard named Drachma stole the Orb and brought ifwt to his laboratory deeper in the dungeon. Parties of adventurers have tried to find the Orb to no avail; until they do, no king can be crowned. Cue the present party. (This is actually just the "first scenario," but I'll talk about the others later.)
My characters in the "menu castle." I used ROT13 for party names. I won't be doing that again.
The game supports 30 characters of which 6 may adventure at a given time. There are sexes but no alignments. Races are human, elf, dwarf, gnome, hobbit, and orc. Starting classes are fighter, thief, cleric, and mage, each of which has different minimum requirements with the six attributes: strength, intelligence piety, agility, vitality, and luck. Later, characters can get promoted to prestige classes--druid, ranger, monk, assassin, wizard, and mystic--but even regular fighters and thieves get the ability to cast mage spells at high levels.

Humans start with 9 points in each attribute and a pool of 10 points to allocate; other races start with higher or lower points. Non-human races are significantly penalized in the game, requiring double the number of experience points to level up until Level 8 and quadruple after that. However, except for orcs, they live a lot longer than humans.
Creating a new character.
Already, we see a break from Wizardry origins, but it gets better. Characters can change class to any other class for which they qualify, starting over again at 0 experience points, but retaining accumulated hit points, attributes, and spells. They can even "convert" to their existing classes, in case you just want to re-experience faster leveling from the early game. In another innovation, older, advanced characters can "retire," passing their skills and abilities on to a younger apprentice.
My thief's character sheet after a few levels.
Gameplay begins in a "menu town" level of Silvern Castle, with services similar to Wizardry but again with some interesting additions. The store, Quillon's trading post, sells items that will continue to be relevant throughout the game. The characters don't start with much money, and it's impossible to equip everyone with the best items available at their levels. You have to make some tough choices (e.g., short sword vs. longsword) even as you drool over some of the far-out-of-reach magic items. These include spell scrolls; spellcasters start with only "Read Magic" and have to purchase or find the other spells for their level. Quillon's will also add enchantments to weapons and armor for a very high fee.
I'll be back.
Below the castle is the dungeon. I don't know how many levels it comprises, but each is 27 x 27, or nearly twice the size of Wizardry. Silvern Castle has much of Wizardry's early-game difficulty, where every encounter could serve up 1 kobold or 5 zombies. Until the characters gain a couple levels, they're extremely vulnerable. Even after they gain levels, combat can be extremely tough because the game applies a scaling factor.

Fortunately, Silvern isn't quite as sadistic as Wizardry. You can save anywhere, and a character death doesn't automatically over-write the save. To avoid the worst scumming, the game forces you to save and quit with every save, but at least reloading is possible if the party gets massacred. Single-character death is fairly easily reversed in the castle's temple, where it costs less than a dagger (at least at low levels) and doesn't seem to fail very often. However, resurrection ages the character a couple of years, so you don't want to get into the habit of dying.
Raising a character for as much money as I routinely leave behind on the dungeon floor.
Combat is almost identical to Wizardry. Enemies may attack alone or in multiple groups. Each character chooses whether to fight, parry, flee, cast a spell, use an item, or change equipment. (In a neat addition, if you choose the last option, it applies to this combat only and your original equipment is restored at the end.) "Using" an item includes the ability to throw any extra weapons, pieces of armor, lit torches and lamps, or broken items. All characters can attack and be attacked, although enemies do seem to target forward characters more than rear ones.
Combat options when faced with multiple parties of warriors.
Obviously, there aren't many tactics in the early game until the spellcasters start to acquire more incantations. There are 7 spell levels for both divine and arcane casters, and casting draws from a pool of spell points rather than dedicated "slots" as in Wizardry. The author does some fun tricks with the spell system. First, a lot of the spells are shared between classes: both mages and clerics can cast "Sleep," "Light," and "Silence," for instance. To avoid having multiple spells that do the same thing at different power levels (e.g., Wizardry's HALITO, LAHALITO, and MAHALITO), you have the option to put more power into certain spells like "Fireball" or "Breath Shield." Finally, a handful of spells are "reversible," so instead of both "Cure Poison" and "Cause Poison," you have just the former but with the option to reverse it.

Post-combat, you may find items or money, which comes in four forms: platinum, gold, silver, and copper. You're given the option to take or leave each type of coin, which makes sense because the game has a complex encumbrance system of which money is a part. Since copper pieces are worth 1/100 of a gold piece, it's hardly worth picking them up. On the other hand, the economy is so tight that those copper pieces may eventually add up. Fortunately, there's a money changer back in the tavern who will convert low-value currency to platinum or gold if you can haul it all the way to him. You also have the option to cache money within the dungeon and collect it later.
That's a lot of weight for a haul worth 0.15 gold pieces.
As in Wizardry, experience rewards eventually allow you to level up by sleeping in the inn. Also like Wizardry, when you level up, random attributes will change. The manual warns that they can go up or down, but I haven't seen anything decrease yet. The neat thing is that if you don't like what increased or decreased, you can visit the "proving grounds" and "sell" attribute points for credits that can be used to buy points in other areas. The higher the score, the more you get for selling and the more it costs to buy. This isn't very useful in early levels, but later in the game I can see how it will make a difference to sell useless statistics (like piety or intelligence for fighters), or to mold the character in a way that he can convert to another class.
I can sell one point of agility and buy one point each of vitality and luck and still enough left over for some piety.
I created a party of all humans, figuring I'd earn some wealth and items and then maybe introduce demi-humans later when they had more experienced party members to work with. Later, I realized that the reverse would have made more sense, as early-level demi-humans are much more effective than humans.

The game comes with a pretty good automap, which annotates special encounters and stairs. Nonetheless, I've been creating my own maps, since the automap takes a few seconds to render and you can't refer to it continually as you explore.
An automap of Level 1 in progress.
I had a decent time on Level 1. It was challenging but not punishing. Character development and equipment rewards came along just often enough to feel satisfying. On the other hand, I think the map was just a bit too large and empty. As I said, I don't know how many levels there are, but if the developer went with the standard of 10, that will be too many.

The first level didn't have any navigation puzzles, spinners, traps, pressure plates, dark squares, anti-magic squares, or anything of that sort. In fact, the entire level was "illuminated" so I didn't need a torch or "Light" spells. There were a few secret doors, but oddly leading to blank areas with nothing special in them. There are a few inaccessible areas. The level is oddly fond of rooms in 2 x 3 configurations. I found the overall layout random and uninspiring, but perhaps it's meant to be an introductory level and the levels get more interesting later.
My map of Level 1.
There were a few special encounters, signaled by squares on the floor. These included a door that I need a key to open, a group of mystics looking for a "power crystal," and a square labeled "alternate portal activation site" with a keypad on the wall. There were two staircases down.
A message warning me about "Drachma's guardians, the powerful Maze Demons."
Amidst the zombies, kobolds, orcs, rogues, fighters, and mages that I fought and killed, I'm not sure I faced anything that seemed like a fixed encounter. I was a little concerned by how the game scaled enemy difficulty to match my character development. When I first started, enemies attacked in single groups of 1-4; by Level 3, they were sometimes attacking in groups of 2 or 3, and with up to 8 members per group. Fortunately, "Sleep" helps a lot against these stacks, and the cleric's "Dispel" against zombies. Also, I think the game scales the maximum encounter difficulty rather than the minimum or average; I still got a fair number of one-orc encounters, too.
Having mapped all of Level 1 and part of Level 2, my primary complaint about the game is that it's slow. Even with AppleWin cranked up to 300%, combats can take up to 30 seconds to load, and other screen transitions also have a maddening delay. There are a few too many random combats as you roam the hallways, and there's no pre-combat encounter screen with an option for the entire party to flee.
This Level 2 encounter was the first "boss" encounter in the game. I lost.
Silvern Castle replicates the Wizardry experience well, and adds a bit to it besides, and I probably would have appreciated its inclusion in my monthly subscription to Softdisk. For my blog, on the other hand, it promises to be something of a momentum-killer, as I have to spend hours exploring featureless levels with (probably) few plot developments. It's certainly a contrast to Ultima Underworld.

Time so far: 5 hours


  1. So far, this sounds as it would have been very intriguing to a late 80s-gamer kid. A challenging experience, but with some reasonable adjustments that indicate here's a developer who was frustrated in some ways by Wizardry's primitive brutality. The class-changing options in particular seem intriguing. I just hope the content isn't too repetitive and drawn-out.

  2. I think it's cool he just never gave up on it.

  3. "Having mapped all of Level 1 and part of Level 2, my primary complaint about the game is that it's slow."

    So maybe even this game also "simply could not have been written in Basic"...

    1. I would call it unplayable at 100%. Even in the era, I wouldn't have tolerated it.

    2. Pretty much anything can be written in Basic.

      This seems like one where the Addict should apply his 6-hour rule though, unless someone has information that the game will repay moew attention

  4. IIRC the idea spawned out of some comment by Greenberg or Woodhead that Wizardry could never have been coded in BASIC. So Silvern Castle was designed to do just that. So you can go ahead and LIST the whole thing. That said, it's IMHO noticeably slower than Wizardry I and that's even with a fair amount of assembly language helping it out.

    To Greenberg and Woodhead's credit porting Wizardry was a dream using USCD Pascal. Which probably had something to do with it's popularity.

    1. I wish I knew more about programming languages to understand issues like this. What is it about BASIC that makes it particularly unsuited (in Greenberg/Woodhead's perspective) to coding a first-person wireframe game?

    2. Performance.

      BASIC is an interpreted language. This means that the program is written in something resembling English, and while the game is running, the computer is parsing this and converting it to machine code. The main advantage of this approach is that you can easily stop the program, modify it, and continue from there. The program will also stop on an error, and you can fix it and continue. The downside is that it's really friggin' slow.

      C++ is a compiled language. This means again that the program is written in something resembling English, and then compiled to an executable in machine code. This executable is then, well, executed by the player. This is lightning fast, but hard to debug, and it can crash your computer on certain kinds of errors.

      Current systems have evolved so much that it's no longer necessarily true that compiled languages are hard to debug or that interpreted languages were slow; but back in the 80s / 90s? Yeah, they definitely were. HTH.

    3. Well I expect that the first thing is speed. Jimmy Maher covers this in making wizardry.

      As Pieter mentions Apple II BASIC (and most BASIC) is interpreted. I always show my kids this cartoon when I talk about this stuff:

      That said, USCD Pascal is actually only "halfway" compiled. It converts your programming into "byte code". At an extremely high (and therefore quasi-incorrect) level. Think of the difference between a computer having to interpret the phrase: "PRINT 'HELLO'" this would require the computer to go over your command "PRINT" and validate that it is, in fact a command it knows. The it needs to go over your parameters and validate that there isn't an error (such as leaving off a trailing quote). Then it takes this data and passes it off to a routine in ROM which knows how to actually put characters on a screen. A byte-coded program would replace the command with a short (perhaps even one byte) command which it knows to mean print and it, during compilation would have already got the data you want to print ready in a format which your ROM routine can print.

      Anyway the beauty of a standardized byte coded system is that you can take your compiled program and put it on any machine that has software on it to understand this 'half-compiled' language. This piece of software is often called a "run time environment" if these terms sound familiar, they should as this is very similar to what Java does. It's why a Java program can be downloaded on a PC or a MAC and run without further modification.

      That portability made moving Wizardry to other machines insanely easy and is very likely why they stuck with the same old UI for four games.

      Hope that helps.

    4. Odd. I played this a while back, and I don't remember having nearly this many problems with speed. Sure, it flashed a bit when rendering the dungeon view after a move, but I don't recall ever having waited any where near 30 seconds for the combat screen to load. Maybe a second or two, at worst. I'm wondering if there's some setting or settings not properly configured.

      I believe the author needed to use some program to get enough compression for everything he included. I wonder if that wasn't handled correctly when it was set up. I played this years ago, so I don't remember any specifics. If I get a chance, I'll try to start it up again.

      The dungeon is, as you've noticed, rather empty. The best part of it is down at the bottom.

    5. Compiled Basics have been a thing since the 1980s, though in most cases back in that era they converted to a kind of byte code rather than machine language.

      C/C++ tends to be super fast because the language is fundamentally close to what computer processers do well. Basic is intended to be more like people think. But the efficiency factor only has to be about 2-3. There are several 'game basics' that use Basic syntax and can be used to produce perfectly credible modern games.

  5. No commercial release, no obvious influence on other games and no particular cult following? If it were me I'd skip it and move on...

    1. I'm not sure I'd skip just yet, but I'd have a very quick hook queued up.

    2. Definitely doesn't seem worth more than one more entry.

  6. I swear those enemy graphics are lifted directly from Wizardry...

    1. They are, although they're lifted from the DOS version, not the original Apple II version. You can see the "warrior" graphic in the DOS title screen:

      And the image from the "orc chief/humanoids" screen can be seen here:

    2. Was just going to post that myself. That warrior looked too familiar to me.

    3. There will be a certain someone from Ultima making appearance later if Addict manages to slog through and finishes this scenario.

    4. Thanks for pointing this out. I thought some of the graphics looked Wizardry-like but didn't know they were directly copied.

  7. The main problem with Silvern Castle is that the first of the three scenarios has a randomly generated dungeon, with the exception of the last two levels.
    With the lack of darkness!, anti-magic zones, spinners and other fun stuff, it lacks one important aspect needed for the full the blobber experience.

    But it has some nifty innovations, like the lairs. As Mr Addict said: "The level is oddly fond of rooms in 2 x 3 configurations." These rooms all have a chance of being a Lair with "boss" monsters.

    It's a rather obscure game, but there is a nice thread about it on the RPG Codex:

    1. Petrus, when you say that it's "randomly generated" do you mean that the developer created the levels through a random process, or do you mean that the levels are randomly generated for each user?

    2. I fired the game up after downloading the latest AppleWin and the official hard drive image and got the same layout for level one.

      It should also be noted, I suppose, that the game's running at decent speed when I crank the emulation speed to the highest or second-to-highest notch. Combat does take a noticeable time to load, but I haven't seen anything longer than maybe five seconds. It's possible that larger groups of enemies take longer to load, of course. I wholeheartedly agree that at "authentic machine speed" the game is insufferably slow.
      I was surprised at the speed of the automap, by the way. Until I closed it, and it took almost as long to save the image as it does to load combat. Oh well.
      Anyway, the point is, it looks like it *should* run at a definitely playable speed when set to 'fastest' or close to it.

    3. I mean it looks like most of the dungeon was created through a random process, and then a few things were added here and there.
      The second scenario is better in this regard, but for some reason I didn't finish it. Probably got burnt out.
      Maybe I will return to it when I feel the blobber craving again.

      As for game speed, the game was rather slow using AppleWin, but not so slow that I found it bothersome.

    4. I agree that it looks random--I talk a lot about the design in my next post--I just didn't know if different players got different dungeons. Atantuo's experience seems to suggest not.

  8. It's too bad; usually one of the positives of independent games is that they have little filler, because that extra content would necessitate more time/resources than a small development team could provide. I guess if he's had 26 years to tweak it, though...

    Here's hoping the inevitable sequel, Goldern Castle, is a better fit for the blog.

  9. "Characters can change class to any other class for which they qualify, starting over again at 0 experience points, but retaining accumulated hit points, attributes, and spells. They can even "convert" to their existing classes, in case you just want to re-experience faster leveling from the early game."

    This is really interesting. Very similar, conceptually, to the Reincarnate system from the Disgaea series.

  10. Oh boy... It's really giving me a headache just to find a way to play this game...

    1. Same. I spent a couple hours working on it and it's just not happening. Axon Punch down below said he could send a working image so hopefully that happens!

  11. It's a bit of a pain. You need to create a hard drive image, import the SHK file using something like cider press, then open shrinkit and decompress to a drive.

    If you have an email address you're comfortable posting. I can get you a hd image.

    1. I would love to be able to play this.

      it would be much appreciated.

    2. Apparently my profile didn't want to show, but again would love to play.


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