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 (with an animated protagonist), a game released a few years earlier, by a small computer chain 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 husband and wife Ken and Roberta Williams released Mystery House, the very first adventure game to feature graphics. The game was designed and illustrated by Roberta and programmed by Ken and self-published under Ken’s On-Line Systems name.
Mystery House, while simple and crude by today’s standard, was a quantum leap from the earlier text-only adventure games and became immensely popular, spawning On-Line Systems’ Hi-Res series of Adventure games. The series ran for three years with seven published titles, all build upon the same framework using static images and a two-word text parser. By 1983 technology had progressed to where machines started being capable of not only storing and displaying motionless images but animation as well. On-Line Systems’ now obsolete framework was discarded for the much more capable Adventure Game Interpreter, AGI, developed for the first King’s Quest title, released for the capable IBM PCjr in 1984.
While King’s Quest was the next milestone in mainstream adventure games, another game did what King’s Quest sat out to do but three years earlier, created by a single developer, using the much more limited Apple II computer.

At The Logical Choice, a small chain of computer stores in Maryland, Michael J. Cashen, an early Apple II enthusiast, would meet with other hobbyists and enthusiasts. In the back of the store, newly written programs were shown off and technical approaches and solutions widely discussed. 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 clever 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 being the tedious long loading times between scenes since 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 by The Logical Choice (the store’s 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 series.

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

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, and was the computer chain’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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