In the late 1980s, Rick Saada worked as a programmer for Microsoft. Realizing the potential of Windows graphical shell for MS-DOS (as it was before Windows became a standalone operating system), he decided to learn how to create software for this new platform in the best possible way: by utilizing Windows APIs to write a roguelike game, similar to those he used to play as a child.
The result was Castle of the Winds - a duology of simple, combat-oriented RPGs in the vein of Moria. The plot is, as usual for those kind of games, minimal (although Saada made his games distinguishable from the others by changing the setting from typical high fantasy to that of Norse mythology) and mostly an excuse to slaughter hordes of enemies in complex, multi-level dungeons.
As Castle of the Winds became quite popular with Microsoft employees, its creator decided to release the first part as downloadable shareware (a popular release model at the time) and sell the sequel. In 1993, he signed a distribution deal with Epic Megagames which led to both games getting a big box retail release (funnily enough, text on the box promised some non-existent features like sound effects). The games were later released as downloadable freeware on Rick Saada's website.
Both Castle of the Winds games run from 16-bit New Executable files and as such will not run on the 64-bit versions of Windows. Users of those systems should use either XP Mode or Windows 3 installed inside of DOSBox.
The first thing you'll notice about Castle of the Winds is that it doesn't really look like a video game - this kind of interface is something seen more often in various utility applications than games. It's understandable - it's composed of standard Windows menus, buttons and sliders - but it still doesn't feel right. Because of the way it's programmed, its look is also heavily dependent on the version of Windows used to run it and its settings (themes, resolution etc.). The graphics themselves are very simple and have an unmistakable MS Paint quality to them. It's still quite a step up from other roguelikes of this era which usually didn't offer anything other than ASCII characters (or DOS text mode, if they were generous).
Windows functionality isn't only used for the game's visual style but also for its control. Everything in Castle of the Winds (aside for entering your character's name) can be done with just a mouse: dragging the character's icon for movement, left click to attack enemies and open or close doors, double click to go up or down the stairs, right click to show the description of whatever the cursor is currently pointing at and everything else selected from a standard drop-down menu. Unfortunately, the keyboard isn't given the same attention as some things (e.g. equipping items) simply can't be done with it. The interface is also sometimes a bit clunky - if you click a 'disarm' button while standing next to a trap, it will automatically place your cursor on it, but if you fail at disarming (and you probably will) it will not move back to the button. Those are mostly minor complaints though, especially given that it's probably the first mouse-controlled roguelike ever made.
The game seems to be modelled after Moria - the player travels between a dungeon filled with monsters (there are two: an abandoned mine and a fortress) and a town (there are also two: a tiny hamlet and Bjarnhaven) with shops, a sage who identifies items and a temple of Odin where (for a fee) a player can heal, remove curses and restore lost abilities. Like in Moria, the levels are larger than the screen (even at modern resolutions) and you can teleport between the deepest visited level and the entrance by using Rune of Return spell. Unlike in Moria, the levels are persistent: they're generated when first entered and don't change until your character dies. This makes several tactics from Nethack and similar titles useful - for example, it's good to go down every stairs you see and then go back up so that if you fall down a trapdoor, you'll know where too look for an exit.
In contrast to most roguelikes, Castle of the Winds is simple. There are no character classes (everyone is both a warrior and a spellcaster), there are only four statistics, the gender influences only the character's icon and there is no way to play as anything other than a human. There are also no ways to die other than losing hitpoints, lost statistics are always regained after some time, weapons and armor don't degrade and there aren't any real interactions between items. This simplicity, combined with focus on combat and only optional permadeath, makes Castle of the Winds almost a spiritual predecessor to popular Diablo series (interestingly, while all the Diablo games are played in real-time, the first one was originally planned as traditional turn-based roguelike).
The game mechanics are easy to grasp: player's character fights with melee weapons (the only way to attack from a distance is by using magic - for a player character that is, as some enemies will shoot crossbows at you) and magical spells (learned by levelling up or reading spellbooks). Weapons, amulets, rings and various pieces of armor can be used, although they should always be identified before using to avoid any potential curses (on the flipside, one can also find enchanted items with beneficial effects). Other items include containers in which other items can be stored, money (in form of copper, silver, gold and platinum pieces) and magical items (scrolls, potions, wands and staves) allowing their user to cast spells without knowing them or wasting mana.
Probably the most sophisticated of the game's mechanics is its time tracking. Unlike most of roguelikes, every action from moving to fighting to casting a spell takes a certain number of not turns but seconds, minutes or hours. Longer actions (for example casting certain spells or sleeping) might be interrupted by enemies while the quicker ones happen almost instantly. Shops in towns restock at certain hours and it's encouraged to clear the game in as little in-game time as possible as time influences the final score.
Bulk of the game is spent fighting against monsters in the dungeons. The battles are rather unpredictable in the beginning - especially given the low-level character's weak damage output - so one should learn magic arrow as soon as possible. Once the player knows how to deal with the enemies, the first dungeon becomes pretty easy. The second one might still be challenge, although by the time you reach it the character should know an array of useful spells such as clairvoyance and detect monsters to help him more or less safely navigate the game's world.
There is a lot of loot to be found in the dungeons and it tends to get progressively better with depth. As items have both weight and bulk, the character's carrying capacity and the size of containers must be taken into account - while at first you'll probably grab anything that isn't nailed down to sell it in the hamlet, with time you'll leave a lot of useless junk on the dungeon floor as it's simply not worth the time to go back and forth selling dead wands and ripped cloaks.
When exploring the game's world you'll encounter a wide variety of enemies - usually either from Norse mythology or borrowed form Dungeons & Dragons. There will also be some mundane human foes including crossbow-wielding bandits and powerful evil warriors.You'll quickly learn to hate the manticores (extremely fast and able to attack from the distance) and thieves who steal your items and teleport away.
There is a story in Castle of the Winds but it isn't really that interesting. The main character is an orphan raised by his or her godparents who one day comes home to see his guardians killed, the farm destroyed and a mysterious amulet left by his biological parents stolen. Naturally, he then follows the footprints of the murderers to find their hideout in game's first dungeon: an abandoned mine in the mountains. As the first game was distributed for free to promote the sequel, not much is resolved by the time it ends: the main character learns about his past and sets off to fulfil his destiny.
Castle of the Winds isn't a very long game, especially if played with saving. As there are only two quite short dungeons and one boss, it can be completed within a few hours. Of course, finishing it is just the beginning as the sequel picks up immediately after the first one's ending.
Castle of The Winds: Vanquish The Dark Forces / Castle of The Winds II: Lifthransir's Bane - Windows (1989)
As you touch your father's amulet, you're teleported to the town of Crossroads (ruled by a jarl who doesn't seem to trust you). To the north lies eponymous Castle of the Winds, where you meet a ghost of a slain king Lifthransir (surprisingly unrelated to mythological Lífþrasir) who tells you about his ill-fated deal with Loki which caused the castle to be attacked by Surtur, a fire demon from Muspelheim who now dwells at the bottom of the castle's dungeon. Naturally, you must defeat him and take back Castle of the Winds.
The plot still isn't that important, as the game is more focused on hacking and slashing, but this time it's more interesting, more rooted in the mythology and more involved. This is the pattern you're going to see a lot in this article as Castle of the Winds 2 is very similar to its predecessor while significantly expanding on it.
Starting the game allows you to create a new character, although this time he or she will begin his adventure at level 7, with a bit more money and an amulet from the previous game. You can make your job a lot easier though by importing a character from the first Castle of the Winds as he'll probably be more powerful, richer and better equipped than the default one.
After a brief introduction, you'll be back to the familiar dungeon crawling with short breaks for shopping from the previous title. This time there's only one dungeon and one town but both are much bigger than anything in first Castle of the Winds. They're also more interesting as the shops are stocked with new items (some of them allowing you to permanently raise your stats), there are more monsters to slay and the dungeon generation algoritm seems to be a bit revamped as you'll notice that it often creates things more interesting than square rooms and narrow corridors.
The enchantment system got more interesting as well: weapons and armor don't just increase your stats or give boosts to damage and hit chance. Weapons and armor you find may contain magical spells (for example a dagger that fully heals you every 12 hours) but they might also be infused with elemental magic. This time there is generally a greater focus on the elements so an armor that protects you from fire or a sword which deals extra damage to electricity-based monsters migh come in handy, especially when you encounter the coolest of the new enemies.
The castle is basically infested with dragons of different colors, each of them having a different magical breath attack (green - poison, blue - lightning, white - cold, red - fire). As you make your way down the dungeon, the dragons will get older (from young to ancient) - and they get stronger with age. Also present are various elementals as well as jotun - hill, stone, ice and fire giants. Their kings, residing on the lower floors, are the game's bosses that you'll need to fight before facing off against Surtur.
There are also some nice scripted setpieces here and there. On the dungeon's fourth floor you'll find a prisoner who needs to be saved from a group of ogres. As you venture down, you'll be attacked by packs of rats, wolves and bears led by their half-human counterparts. Lower still are traps that summon living statues and rooms filled with dragons and elementals. All those are nice additions that break the monotony of a long dungeon crawl.
All in all, Castle of the Winds games are fun, old-school roguelikes. They're by no means masterpieces though and one shouldn't expect them to have quality, complexity and difficulty of titles like Nethack or Ancients Domains of Mystery - Castle of the Winds is a simpler game, mostly about combat and exploration.
The real significance of Castle of the Winds is a historical one. They're one of the earliest examples of both graphical roguelikes (something that became quite popular recently on the indie scene) and games made specifically for the Windows platform (something that everyone knows many examples of). Did those games have an influence on these trends? Probably not as they're relatively obscure (although there is an MMORPG based on them in the works, imaginatively titled Castle of the Winds Online), but it's still good to see where it all began.