Bits from my personal collection – Castles of Darkness, the first animated graphic adventure game

While we typically tend to think of the original King’s Quest, when thinking of the origin of the animated graphic adventure game (and with an animated protagonist), a game released a few years earlier, by a small computer store in Maryland, featured animation to enhance the overall experience, a game that is mostly unknown and forgotten today, but is considered to be the first graphic adventure game to include animation.

In 1980 Online Systems (later Sierra On-line) released its first title, Mystery House, written by Roberta Williams and programmed by her husband Ken Williams. Mystery House was the very first graphic adventure game, a game that would kickstart Online Systems Hi-Res Adventure series.

The 3rd release of Mystery House, released in 1980. Two earlier (and very rare) versions exist. It was later re-released in the SierraVenture line, in 1982

Mystery House, while being a quantum leap from the earlier text-only adventure games, was pretty crude in its graphics, almost childish. The challenges at the time were how to efficiently fit all the data to the low capacity 5¼-inch floppies and keep it all contained in the limited amount of memory the Apple II had to offer.
Roberta would draw the graphics in hand and by using a VersaWriter, trace them to digital drawings on the computer, only to learn that all the 70 screens were too large to fit into a 5¼-inch floppy disk. Ken, therefore, stored the images as instructions for the software to redraw the lines of the scenes rather than storing the whole image on disk.
Ken and Roberta sat out selling Mystery House as mail-order and from computer stores in the L.A area and to everybody’s surprise the game would sell over 10.000 copies.
Mystery House saw multiple re-releases over the next few years with combined sales figures at around 80.000 copies.

At the dawn of the personal computer, people with interest in these new architectures would typically meet in computer clubs or computer stores to share new discoveries, show off newly written programs or discuss technical approaches and solutions.
One of these computer stores was The Logical Choice, in Maryland, here, in the back, Michael J. Cashen, an early Apple II enthusiast, would meet with other hobbyist and enthusiast, and what started as a technical experiment with the Apple II’s memory and how to maximize the use of the relatively small amount to encompass more graphics, soon turned into an adventure game.
Cashen might have been inspired by Ken and Roberta’s early graphic adventures but with his cleverly approach to the Apple II’s memory and graphic routines he was able to not only do better graphics but also animate the protagonist, the only drawback was the tedious long loading times between scenes – the game had to access the slow Apple II floppy drive every time a new set of graphics were to be displayed.

It would take six months for Cashen to complete the development of Castles of Darkness. It was like many early computer games inspired by the fantasy boom in the ’70s, with Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s Dungeons & Dragons and the death of J.R.R. Tolkien in 1973, which spawned a renewed interest in his works. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as animated films were released in the late ’70s.

Castles of Darkness for the Apple II (the only release) published around Christmas in 1981, published by The Logical Choice (their only published title)

Castles of Darkness was solely based on text input, but unlike earlier adventure games, featured a third-person view, making the animated protagonist a visible part of the game, just like in the original King’s Quest released, three years later, in 1984 – If you ever get a chance to play Castles of Darkness (or you can watch it on youtube), you will immediately see a resemblance between it and the original King’s Quest – was Sierra inspired by Castles of Darkness, it’s hard to say, but it sure looks like it.
King’s Quest was a product of IBM reaching out to Sierra On-Line for them to develop a game for their upcoming IBM PCjr, showcasing its capabilities. While the IBM PCjr didn’t become a success story, King’s Quest did, seeing multiple re-releases for other systems and spawning 7 sequels. The King’s Quest series would end up selling millions of copies and become Sierra’s longest running and best selling adventure serie.

The original King’s Quest for the IBM PCjr, on the left and a few of the re-releases the title saw in the coming 6 years (all from my sealed Sierra collection)

The importance and success of Mystery House and what to come from, what would become the world’s largest game developer, Sierra On-Line, can easily overshadow the small developer and publisher. While Castles of Darkness was a technical achievement at the time, it didn’t set the world on fire. It was released in late 1981, by The Logical Choice, it was the computer store’s only published game.
Castles of Darkness initially sold a limited number of copies but an article in the February of 1982 issue of Softalk Magazine, gave it a small revival – a few thousand copies were sold all in all.

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