The Eternal Castle [Remastered] comes to the Nintendo Switch 23 years after its original release. Or does it?
When I was young, the world of digital entertainment only had eight colours: black, blue, red, magenta, green, cyan, yellow, and white. Of these, it was cyan and magenta that always brought games to life. Against the darkness of a CRT monitor, they were blades of light, a throb of neon. They were the colours of the future.
Cyan and magenta look fantastic on a screen, basically. It’s the reason they are used in a billion logos, website designs, and video games. And whereas these two colours once signified the future, they are now a visual short-hand for the ongoing, interminable nostalgia for all things 1980s. In video games you can see it in everything from Hotline: Miami and 198X, to Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon and Cyberpunk 2077.
The Eternal Castle [Remastered] is a game constructed from cyan and magenta. It’s a 2-bit homage to a late-80s MS-DOS adventure that never was. One that lives in the imagined memories of developers Leonard Menchiari, Daniele Vicinanzo, and Giulio Perrone.
This curious ‘remaster’ of a non-existent game was first released on Mac and PC last year. Now, after a few launch troubles, it’s available on Nintendo Switch.
Modern games that consciously echo the past are nothing new. Shovel Knight invites us to replay a forgotten NES classic, Horizon Chase Turbo is an arcade racer from a timeline without OutRun, and Sonic Mania is a fusion of old and new that atones for the franchise’s frequent missteps.
These games offer experiences that could never have been achieved given the technical and hardware limitations of the past. Instead, they attempt to evoke the feel of the period and combine it with modern design sensibilities to create something new. The Eternal Castle is no different in its ambition, but it treads a slightly different path.
The visuals look the part in static screenshots, but it’s in motion that The Eternal Castle comes to life and earns its cheeky “remastered” subtitle. The animation is fluid, there are subtle shifts of perspective, distant vistas are softened by heat haze, and the 2-bit equivalent of dynamic lighting illuminates the game’s environments to stunning effect.
Magenta and cyan are not the only colours used, but the two-colour aesthetic and stripped-back sprite work are constants.
It has the retro look, then, but it’s not always a pleasure to experience. There’s a sense of aggravation to The Eternal Castle, a scratchy, undefinable grubbiness that makes the game hard to embrace. There’s a sense of remove, but one thankfully not created with the use of a in-game CRT filter. (Unlike in the Switch release trailer.)
The sound design also unnerves. There’s a synth-heavy score, naturally, but it’s also backed by a soundscape of raw, discordant tones and the heavy crumple of bullets on brick. The effect is not one of warm nostalgia. It’s cold, bleak, grim.
Moment to moment the game owes obvious debts to Another World, Limbo, as well as the Ravenholm and Highway sequences of Half-Life 2. As you pick your way across The Eternal Castle’s dilapidated world, you’ll encounter environmental puzzles and movie-inspired action set pieces. You’ll also glean fragments of an obtuse story that is just about interesting enough to hold your attention.
The striking aesthetic occasionally appears to actively work against the game, making it difficult to decipher a solution or execute the manoeuvres required to avoid danger. Identifying the specific cluster of pixels you need among similar clusters of similar pixels feels like another deliberate exercise in aggravation.
Combat is fussy and fuzzy, boss battles are tough, and one recurring tea-drinking foe can be an absolute nightmare. The resulting difficulty spikes feel strangely appropriate, though, given the heritage The Eternal Castle is determined to honour.
Performance issues can also hamper progress, but I genuinely can’t tell they are bugs or another well-placed dig in the ribs from the game’s developers. The frequent checkpoints, however, are a much appreciated modern concession.
Despite its name, The Eternal Castle doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s a brief and sometimes testing assault on the senses that is in equal parts beautiful and disquieting.
There’s a sense that the game is mission accomplished for its development team, regardless of whether players enjoy the experience. Eventually, I did, and I look forward to another run through its cold, cyan and magenta future.
The Eternal Castle [Remastered] Review
Platform: Nintendo Switch (Reviewed), PC, Mac
Developers: Leonard Menchiari, Daniele Vicinanzo, Giulio Perrone
Publisher: TFL Studios
Release Date: NA: June 26, 2020, EU: August 21, 2020
The Eternal Castle [Remastered] is nostalgia trip that’s mysterious, brutal, and sometimes even enjoyable. It’s a hard game to love, but an easy one to admire. It won’t be to everyone’s taste but it certainly stands out in a morass of bland Nintendo eShop releases.