One of the longest and most successful franchises in videogame history is without a doubt the Wolfenstein series, whose latest title, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus has already met a lot of success, despite its recent “controversy” (since when killing Nazis is considered bad?!). But today, we’re going to take a look at the 1st game of the series which, believe it or not, IT ISN’T Wolfenstein 3D, but actually Castle Wolfenstein.
Castle Wolfenstein (also known as Wolfenstein 2D by the fans) is an action game made by Muse Software and it was originally released in 1981 for the Apple II computer. It was ported in 1983 for the Commodore 64 and Atari 8-bit computers and in 1984 for DOS.
But before we take a look at the game, let’s look at the covers first, shall we?
This is the original Apple II cover and it’s quite average, to say the least. Just some soldier running towards the screen with a castle in the background. Nothing special and quite monochromatic except for the background. The manual has an orange background with gives the impression of a sunset. It looks more like a paperback cover than a videogame cover.
This cover is a bit more colourful and while I enjoy the title and the art in general, the soldier has an awkward pose. A bit better than the previous cover but not by much. At least it looks like a proper videogame cover.
Well, it’s time to boot this kraut:
As you can see, the title screen is a pixelated reproduction of the 2nd cover and actually, I think it looks better than the cover itself. Then you get to the main menu where it shows some options available and your rank in the corner.
According to the manual, you’re an unnamed Allied soldier that was captured by the Nazis during WWII and taken to the dungeons of the eponymous Castle Wolfenstein to be interrogated. There, a dying prisoner gives you a pistol with 10 bullets in it and you’re able to escape your cell. The game starts just outside the cell, near some stairs to the next floor. You have 2 objectives: the 1st is to obviously escape the castle and the 2nd is to recover the Nazi war plans hidden somewhere inside the castle.
You start with the rank of Private and have 7 more ranks, which corresponds to the difficulty levels. To advance in the 1st couple of ranks, you only need to escape the castle, but for the rest, you need to find the war plans before escaping or you won’t be promoted to the next rank. And if you die anytime throughout the game, it’s back to the rank of Private.
Every time you start a new game, the castle will be randomly generated, with 5 floors and a total of sixty rooms/screens. You start in one such screen, with usually 2 guards nearby and probably some chests. You also carry a pistol with 10 bullets. If the guards aren’t in direct line of sight of you, they won’t see you, so you’ll need to move fast before they do.
There 2 types of guards: the grunts, who have a swastika insignia and the SS Stormtroopers, who carry a green bulletproof vest with a SS insignia in it. The grunts usually take just one bullet to kill them and won’t follow you from screen to screen, while the Stormtroopers take a lot more bullets to kill (or in higher ranks, a grenade) and they’ll follow you from screen to screen.
You can either avoid the soldiers, shoot them or run towards them with your gun pointed at them, in which they’ll surrender (by holding their hands up). If a soldier surrenders or is killed, you can search them for ammo, vests or keys. You’ll automatically take the vests and keys, but you can only take the bullets if you happen to have fewer bullets than him. Afterwards, you can shoot him, which is recommended because the moment you stop pointing your gun at him, he’ll try to capture you. If any soldier touches you, you’ll be captured or killed. Either way, you’ll return to 1st screen, however, any soldiers you’ll kill and every chest you’ve opened so far will remain so.
There are several chests available and I highly recommend you open every one of them, because not only one of them contains the war plans, but also they can contain ammo, vests and uniforms, which will be invaluable to continue playing. But they can also be empty or contain alcoholic drinks (which if drunk, can mess with your aim), German sausages (which eaten, can counter the alcohol), medals, cannonballs and other red herrings that have no real purpose to the game.
But what you can’t find in the chests are keys, which only the guards carry. And you do need the keys to open the locked doors you’ll find to get access to other parts of the castle. Or you can always use grenades to blow them up, but those tend to do a lot of noise and draw unnecessary attention.
To open the chests, you only need to point your gun at them and press the spacebar (you force the chests open at gunpoint?!). The chests can take a few seconds up to 3 minutes to open, which can be boring after a while in an action game (hint: if you keep your space bar pressed while waiting, the timer moves faster). You can always shoot the chests to open them, but it can attract the attention of any guards nearby or if the chest contains explosives (grenades or cannonballs), you’ll end up blowing up the castle (and you with it).
The most useful items you can find inside the chests are the bulletproof vests (which will make you harder to kill) and the uniforms, which can almost break the game.
Every time you put on a Nazi soldier uniform, the game gets a lot easier because every grunt you encounter afterwards, won’t bat an eye when you pass by them. You can walk around without any worries, open every chest and even walk out of the castle without any trouble. However, there’s a catch: your disguise can be blown if you point or fire your gun at a guard, throw a grenade or if a Stormtrooper sees you. It breaks the game at the lower ranks but in higher ranks (where Stormtroopers are more common), it becomes essential to finish the game.
But what really shines throughout is the proto-stealth elements. The guards aren’t aware of you unless you’re in their direct line-of-sight or if you shoot your gun near them or throw a grenade, making noise and drawing their attention. So you can sneak behind them and point your gun (or shoot) at them. It isn’t real stealth mechanics, but Castle Wolfenstein (among others) helped develop and popularise these mechanics in later games.
The graphics and animation are on par with any other early-80s computer game (the original Apple II version has better graphics and more colour). But the sound effects are superb. It even has digitised voices. On a PC speaker! Although the voice samples aren’t the best (and in German), the fact that they exist in a game this old is remarkable! But alas, this game lacks any music whatsoever. There’s not even a title theme. I suggest listening to the Inglorious Basterds or Captain America: The First Avenger soundtracks while playing.
But for me, the only bad part of the game is the control scheme. I couldn’t play with my gamepad, so I was forced to play with the keyboard and although the controls themselves are responsive, the control scheme is quite awkward, using several keys, including 2 sets of directional keys: one to control the character in 8 different directions and another to point your gun also in 8 different directions, plus other keys for more miscellaneous actions. And you can’t remap them or use the arrow keys.
Castle Wolfenstein isn’t your typical action game because it requires a slower progression. You won’t win it by shooting at anything that moves (like in Wolfenstein 3D). You have to move slowly and pick your fights carefully, especially since you can only carry a maximum of 10 bullets and 3 grenades. It has a surprising amount of depth for an early-80s action game, which might not be recommended for gamers who prefer fast-paced action. But I do recommend it for gamers who like slow, methodical action.
Castle Wolfenstein had the necessary success for Muse Software to make a sequel and for Id Software to remake the series into the first FPS title, effectively creating the genre and making the series popular. If you want to give it a shot, then you can go here to play it in your own browser.
So, do you like WWII games? If so, what are your favourites? Also, what do you think of the Wolfenstein games? Does it resemble more the Muse titles or the FPS games? Let me know by commenting below, on our Facebook page or in our Twitter feed. Next time, it’s our 1st anniversary! And we’ll celebrate it by looking at a sequel of one of the 1st games I reviewed here. Until then, go kill some more Nazis and keep on playing!