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Homebreviews - part 41: Star Castle Showdown

Posted by Nathan Strum, 13 July 2018 · 148 views

Video Game Reviews

Well, after reviewing nine games in the previous entry, this time I'm just reviewing one...
 
In the arcade version of Star Castle your goal is to destroy a rotating cannon in the center of the screen that's protected by a shield of rotating rings. You have to use your spaceship's guns to blast holes in the rings until you can punch through and destroy the cannon. But as soon as you have a clear shot - so does the cannon. The cannon also releases mines that aggressively chase your ship around the screen. If they hit you - you're a goner. With each of these Star Castles that you destroy, you gain an extra ship, but your enemy isn't sitting idly by... he's getting faster. And faster.
 
Star Castle is an arcade icon. Its vivid vector graphics stood out from other games, and the howling sound of the pulsating castle was instantly recognizable, even across a noisy arcade. Its simple gameplay belied a fierceness that was rarely matched in games of the era, with the enemy mines approaching speeds that seemed impossible to defeat. So... how do the two 2600 homebrew versions do in recreating this iconic game?
 
 
Star Castle 2600 (D. Scott Williamson)
 
While not the first attempt at a homebrew version Star Castle, this was the first one completed. Former Atari Lynx programmer D. Scott Williamson had read how Atari 2600 programmer Howard Scott Warshaw had created Yars' Revenge basically because he didn't think a proper version of Star Castle could be done on the 2600. Williamson took that challenge to heart, and working over the next couple of years completed his own version of Star Castle. In keeping with what could have been released back in 1981, he chose to limit the ROM size to 8K.
 
Star Castle 2600 manages to keep all of the key elements of the original arcade game: the castle's vector-like rings and cannon are effectively drawn using the 2600's sprites; ring segments can be shot away and the cannon will fire massive fireballs at your ship when it gets a clear shot; mines sent out from the castle will chase you relentlessly; the castle explodes in an appropriately spectacular way; and the audio does an admirable job of mimicking the arcade game (although it can't quite manage the same booming sounds of the original hardware). There's also a nice added detail where the castle gradually turns from yellow to orange to red, the more it gets damaged. 
 
The gameplay is essentially intact from the arcade version. The same tactics used for the arcade game can be adapted to work on the 2600... for the most part. 
 
Where Star Castle 2600 falls short however, is in the details:

  • Each ring segment only takes one hit to destroy. This completely changes how you have to approach shooting at them, since you don't want to accidentally destroy an entire ring, causing it to regenerate. On the other hand, needing fewer hits can also make the castle much easier to destroy. I've actually blown up a few accidentally.
  • If you destroy one of the inner rings, it will regenerate itself. In the arcade game, only destroying the outer ring should cause a regeneration.
  • Destroying the outer ring completely regenerates all rings, regardless of damage. In the arcade game, this only causes the inner ring to regenerate, pushing the other two rings outward.
  • You can only shoot three shots at a time. While this is true in the arcade version, the way Star Castle 2600 handles it is different - it actually cancels already in-flight shots if you hit the fire button too many times. So you may have a shot on target, only to have it disappear because you were a little too rapid with the rapid fire.
  • Your ship's top speed is fast, but it turns and accelerates sluggishly from a standstill, leaving you especially vulnerable in the faster levels.
  • The fireball that the cannon shoots at you is too fast. There's almost no way of avoiding it or outrunning it, as you can in the arcade game.
  • When you destroy a castle, your ship is always reset to a default starting point. In the arcade game, you can position your ship strategically for the next castle.
  • The difficulty ramp stays almost flat for the first five castles, then suddenly leaps forward to ludicrous speed. While the arcade version of Star Castle gets pretty brutal, the difficulty ramp there is more gradual.
  • The mines fly in lock-step. In other words, they all fly at the same speed and direction, and usually they're bunched together. Consequently, they're typically pretty easy to avoid. In fact, if you want to take a break, you can park your ship and just tap fire over and over, and they'll all just keep flying right into your shots. The arcade game's mines move independently from each other.
  • When you ricochet your ship off the rings, it will send you rocketing off at a much higher speed. The arcade game just gently bounces you off.
  • Finally, the game's visual proportions are off. Compared to the arcade game, the 2600 player's ship is double the size, and the castle itself is full third larger. What this means is that you have far less room to maneuver, and you make for a much larger target for the cannon. Sure, the cannon is larger as well, but it doesn't have to fly around the screen dodging mines. This drastically reduces the amount of time you have to react, and how and from where you can attack the castle.
Williamson went to great lengths to produce this game - including designing a circuit board that would flash LEDs during the game, and hand-molding and assembling hundreds of translucent cartridge shells. While the LEDs are a cool effect, they add nothing to the game itself and I found myself ignoring them as soon as the novelty wore off. Still, it's an intriguing idea that could perhaps be utilized for a more practical, interactive element. Such as green, yellow and red LEDs that gave you status warnings during a game.
 
Star Castle 2600 is still an impressive effort, especially taking into account the ROM size, and that the programmer had never coded a 2600 game before. Had this been released in 1981 it certainly would have been a success. And while it plays enough like the arcade game to be passable for casual players, once you dive into the details of the game it falls a bit short. The abrupt difficulty ramp and lack of any game variations hinder its replay value too.
 
Star Castle 2600 is not available in the AtariAge store, as it was only sold through Kickstarter. But you can download the ROM and read the story behind it here.
 
Star Castle 2600 gets a 3/5 (Note: since reviewing these on a 5-point scale is like scoring with a sledgehammer, I'm implementing 1/2 point scores in my reviews where necessary, even though the AA store still doesn't support them. In this case, Star Castle 2600 would get a 3.5.)
 
 
Star Castle Arcade (Team Antonym, aka: Chris Walton, Thomas Jentzsch, Ivan Machado, Richard Armijo, Nathan Strum)
 
First, full disclosure: I worked on this game, designing the in-game graphics and creating the papercraft cabinet.
 
Star Castle Arcade was developed as an attempt to get as close to the arcade version of Star Castle as the 2600's hardware would allow. And while this version uses 28K ROM and extra RAM to achieve this, what's most important is how it plays - and this plays very much like the arcade original. The controls, the speed, the frenetic action - it's all there. One important point though - enjoying Star Castle fully requires playing it with a five-button controller. A Starplex one will do fine, but I made my own from an old Atari joystick cable, a few arcade buttons bought online, and an old box with some holes drilled in it.
 
The difficulty ramps up very similarly to the arcade game (it may be a little easier - but given how hard Star Castle gets, that's not a bad thing). To get past five castles, you will have to be a very good player. Fortunately, if you've practiced on the arcade game, it will actually help you with this version, and the reverse is true as well. A rare thing for an Atari 2600 game.
 
The 2600's sprites are used nicely in recreating a vector-like castle, complete with a pulsating energy cannon. The castle is a little larger than its arcade counterpart, but still leaves your ship plenty of plenty of space to maneuver and employ strategies from the arcade game. The rings are each a different color, and each ring segment requires two hits to destroy (the first hit will dim a segment, the second destroys it). The castle even collapses and explodes in a display much like the arcade game. The player's ship is a bit small and mostly devoid of detail, but this was done to approximate the size of the arcade version. The ship rotates very smoothly, but perhaps a little too fast, making it difficult to always get it pointed in the desired direction. The mines that aggressively pursue you flicker and flutter around like their arcade counterparts. The fonts used to display your score mimic the appearance of vector graphics, and even the infamous "centerfold" star pattern is present.
 
Sound is excellent, with the howl of the castle ascending and descending as it does in the arcade, although the fluttering sounds of the mines from the arcade game have been replaced with sonar-like "pings".
 
The only negative I could really take away from the game is that the fireball that the cannon shoots at you is a bit too fast - in the arcade game you can actually outrun it. As it is, we're only talking differences of a split-second. From a strictly aesthetic standpoint, there's an enhancement where the ring colors change from castle to castle (and also as the rings regenerate), and while this does add some visual interest (and can help you remember which castle you're on), a "purist" mode where the arcade colors stayed in place would have been welcomed. Although for a true "purist" look, you always can run the game in black and white and tape a colored overlay to your TV.
 
In the tradition of 2600 homebrews, Star Castle Arcade also adds some nice extras not present in the arcade game: four game variations - including making the castle fatal to collide with (for you hardcore players); switchable NTSC/PAL color palettes; a pause feature; a title screen with some rocking TIA music; and high score tables that are saved on-cartridge - no AtariVox or SaveKey needed. And while I typically don't review packaging as part of a review, Star Castle Arcade does come with a nice extra - a papercraft Star Castle cabinet that you can cut out and assemble. It would be cool if even more of these were available for other homebrew arcade ports (although I can tell you from creating this one - they take a lot of work).
 
Star Castle Arcade is indeed as close as you can get to the original arcade game on the 2600. For that matter, short of the Vectrex, you'd be hard-pressed to find a more faithful console version anywhere.
 
Star Castle Arcade gets a 5/5
 
 
Homebreviews Index
 
Up next: Puzzle Pandemonium*
 
*Note: May not actually contain any pandemonium.






Many thanks for the review. We invested a lot of time into getting SCA as similar to the arcade as possible, therefore its very satisfying that you mention that positively. 

 

BTW: Since you mentioned the packaging, I have to mention the most beautiful label, box manual created by Jordi Cabo. And yes, more arcade paper models would be cool.

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This review took quite a bit more time than I expected, since I felt I had to get pretty good with the arcade game first. It only took me 38 years. ;) For most reviews I only just play the originals enough to get a basic idea of them, but this was all about which homebrew got the details right.

The hardest part of doing the papercraft models is getting good photos of all sides of the arcade machines. It would be fun to do some more though.
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So you basically prepared yourself for the review like I prepared myself for the coding. :)

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Yep - immersively. :)

 

The next 15 games or so should be easier to review. ;)

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One minor change I would make in the code is what happens when your ship gets blown up. If you're "rapid firing" at the time you don't really get to see your score and remaining ship count. The fire button clears the text and re-enters the game instantly.

 

The arcade game enforces a short delay, giving you time to see the score.

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I ran into that a couple of times too. I remember that happened during development, so I was surprised we hadn't addressed it then. For some reason I thought we had put in some sort of delay there.

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Thanks for the reviews - I’ve been waiting years to read this :) Chris
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Well, it's lucky for you it took me years to write it then. ;)

 

(You're welcome. Sorry it took so long. Chetiry is also in-progress.)

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Awesome review Nathan!!

 

Star Castle Arcade is my Favorite purchase Ever from the AtariAge store!

 

To me it symbolizes what could have been.

 

Although I do love Yar's Revenge, and was aware of its back story,..I always wished I could have Star Castle for the Atari.

 

For me it was that one dream game, that Holy Grail, that perfect fantasy.

 

If it had existed in the 80's...It likely would have sold millions and changed history.

 

And with all due respect to Space Invaders, Pac Man, Berzerk, and Defender,  Star Castle Arcade would have been the Best arcade port of all!  

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