Castle Wolfenstein is a 1981 action-adventure game that was developed by Muse Software for the Apple II home computer. It is one of the earliest games to be based on stealth mechanics. An Atari 8-bit family port was released in 1982 and was followed by versions for Commodore 64 (1983) and MS-DOS (1984).
The game takes place during World War II. The player takes the role of an Allied prisoner of war who is held captive in the fictional Castle Wolfenstein. After escaping from the cell, the player's objective is to find the Nazis' secret war plans and escape from the castle. Nazi soldier enemies can be dealt with by impersonating, sneaking, or killing them.
The game was received positively amongst critics and became one of the best-selling games of the early 1980s. It is considered to have had a direct influence on modern stealth and first-person shooter games. The game was praised for its graphics, and gameplay, but criticized for its long waiting times when opening chests.
Castle Wolfenstein is a two-dimensional action-adventure game that is played from a top-down perspective using a keyboard, joystick, or paddles. It has also been described as a maze game. There are eight difficulty levels in the game that are determined by the player's rank. The player takes the role of an Allied spy that has been captured by Nazis and imprisoned in a dungeon within Castle Wolfenstein for interrogation by the SS Stormtroopers. While the spy is waiting for interrogation, a dying prisoner emerges from a hiding place and hands the player a fully loaded pistol with 10 rounds, and three grenades before passing away. The objective is to escape from the castle and if the player finds the battle plans before escaping, they will be promoted and the complexity of the subsequent run will be increased, while the castle's layout changes and the game starts again.
The game takes place in a procedurally-generated castle of approximately 60 rooms that house standard Nazi guards and SS Stormtroopers identified by their bulletproof vests marked with the SS insignia. Standard guards can be eliminated with a pistol and have a chance to surrender if the player points a pistol at them even if they have no ammunition, and SS Stormtroopers with grenades because they usually wear body armor. Enemies can be looted once surrendered or after they've been eliminated and can possess ammunition, grenades, and keys which can be used on doors and chests. Doors and chests can be opened more quickly by shooting at them but will attract the guards in the room, and if the chest contains ammunition and grenades, they will explore resulting in immediate death. Chests may contain bulletproof vests, uniforms, and secret documents, or sauerkraut, sausages, and schnapps that don't affect the gameplay. Uniforms allow the player character to pass guards unnoticed, but they are ineffective against SS Stormtroopers. If the player dies from enemy gunfire, the game restarts with the castle's layout preserved and the same chests and guards. If they are killed by their own grenade, the game restarts in a newly generated castle.
Development and release
Castle Wolfenstein was developed by Silas Warner at Muse Software, while Dale Gray and George Varndell were also involved in its programming, and game's cover art was drawn by John Benson. Before his work on Castle Wolfenstein, Warner had created many products including other video games, music, voice-overs, and educational programs. Among his games are shoot 'em up games (space invasion and technological warfare games) and Pong-style sports games, which matched Warner's previous development experience. At that time, he had designed the technological warfare game ABM and the programming game RobotWar and was already preparing to market them under the Muse Software brand. Castle Wolfenstein turned out to be very different to any of Warner's other works.
Warner had already designed a video game set in the mid-1980s but after watching the 1961 British-American war film The Guns of Navarone, he was amazed by the Allied commandos who broke into a German fortress the fictional Navarone Island to destroy the German artillery battery that threatened Allied naval ships in the Aegean Sea. That evening, Warner played Berzerk, a multi-directional shooter arcade game in which the player navigates through a maze filled with laser-shooting robots. Warner decided to use this idea and to replace the robots with Nazi soldiers. According to Warner:
I didn't want to have a space game. There are so many on the market. And I didn't want a tank attack. This was a different thing to do. It started out as a guy, running around the rooms. I had that set up in mid-1980. Then the problem became to do with it, and I was working with this high risk character generator. Then I saw The Guns of Navarone ...
Warner's idea was to take the basic common concept of an arcade shoot 'em up, where "arcaders attempt to dodge enemies while trying to zap them" first, and change the objective: "to escape the enemy guards and their castle, not necessarily to kill and destroy" with shooting guards simply being "a means to an end, escape with the plans, and not an end in itself."
While developing the game, Warner used a soundtrack that mimicked the voices of the German guards. This was regarded as a revolutionary technology for computers at the time, and for its implementation, Warner developed a special utility called The Voice. Warner voiced the German guards, who shout Achtung, Schweinhund, Halt, and five other commands in German. In addition, Warner implemented procedural level generation to the game, which took 35 to 60 seconds to complete before the gameplay of the original Apple version started; as a result, the game produced a new set of 60 rooms, the arrangement of which was nearly always different.
Warner designed the game's architecture using three programs, each of which was located separately on a floppy disk and loaded. The first one initialized the graphics and shuffled 64 interchangeable floor plans. The second disk governed the behavior of the castle's guards, while the third disk handled the player character's behavior. Warner told Computer Gaming World a lot of work went into synchronizing these programs and that he was "obviously satisfied with the result".
Muse Software released Castle Wolfenstein in September 1981 for the Apple II and the game was ported to other platforms. It was first ported to the Atari 8-bit family six months after the Apple release, then to the Commodore 64 in 1983 and to MS-DOS in 1984.
Following the game's release, a software developed by Moxie, The Great Escape Utility, was marketed in 1983, promising bug fixes to speed up the opening of chests and the startup time of the game. It also allowed players to choose their starting location and gain unlimited amount of items. The software is regarded as the first commercial trainer in video gaming.
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Creative Computing Video and Arcade Games's Andrew Brill complained about the Apple version's slow gameplay, which according to Brill is mainly due to the time taken to open chests that contain "completely useless" items, which Brill regarded as the game's "most frustrating feature", but added "thrill of the escape" is "worth the wait".
Richard Herring of Ahoy!, reviewing the game's Commodore 64 port, also complained about Castle Wolfenstein's slow gameplay, especially the long time it took to open the chests. He also stated that each room must be loaded from the floppy disk, causing a lag when each room is entered. Herring also mentioned a bug, in which if the player character bumps into a wall, the screen "goes into hysterics for a few seconds". Herring added that playing the game with a keyboard is "inconvenient" as the player does not have time to perform game actions quickly enough but concluded by stating Castle Wolfenstein has "simple but effective graphics" and called the game "addicting".
In a 1991 Computer Gaming World survey of strategy and war games, M. Evan Brooks called the game an "arcade classic" stated despite the outdated graphics, it had remained in his "fond memories". In 1996, the same magazine listed Castle Wolfenstein as the 116th best game of all time.
According to Harvey Bernstein of Antic, after its release, Castle Wolfenstein "quickly shot to the top of the charts" and became "one of the most popular games for any microcomputer". In the October 1982 issue of Computer Gaming World, associate publisher and game merchandiser Dana Lombardy released a list of top-selling games as of 30 June 1982, where the game landed in 13th place with 20,000 copies sold.
Sequels and follow-ups
In 1984, Muse Software released a sequel to Castle Wolfenstein titled Beyond Castle Wolfenstein, which has similar graphics and gameplay to its predecessor and contains a number of updates such as the use of knife, the ability to bribe guards, and a pass system in which guards periodically summon the player character and ask him or her to show the correct pass. Further development led to the emergence of one of the longest-living video series; as of 2021, there are 10 Wolfenstein games, the most recent of which, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, is a spin-off that was released in 2019.
Castle Wolfenstein directly influenced the third game in the series Wolfenstein 3D, which was developed by id Software. John Romero stated the original idea of the game's creators was "to create a 3D Castle Wolfenstein". Many options for the game's title were proposed and rejected and eventually, id Software bought the rights to use Wolfenstein from Silas Warner. The original concept of Wolfenstein 3D changed significantly because the developers decided the core of the gameplay would be fast and simple so features such as the ability to drag and loot fallen enemy soldiers were withdrawn.
Castle Wolfenstein played a significant role in the emergence and shaping of the stealth games and first-person shooters. GameSpot's Daniel Hindes stated the "first-person shooter genre was forged in the grey, stone halls of Castle Wolfenstein", and the game introduced a number of new stealth mechanics. Casey Alkaisy, marketing manager at DICE, in his review of stealth games on Gamasutra, said the first foundations of the stealth genre were laid down in Pac-Man but its game mechanics only took shape with the advent of Castle Wolfenstein, after which other games using the same ideas began to appear. In its review of the series, Xbox Wire called Castle Wolfenstein a "proto-stealth game" that contains "innovations that would go on to become standards in the stealth genre". Wolfenstein 3D co-creator John Romero told Retro Gamer Castle Wolfenstein is the "original stealth shooter".
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The inspiration for Wolfenstein 3D was Castle Wolfenstein from Silas Warner 1981 ... that was a really groundbreaking game back then ... it actually like is a original stealth game .. it was a huge impact on me. I played that game so much ... In 1991 we were thinking Brillut what is our next game is going to be after we finish our set of Commander Keen games... Why not remake Wolfenstein in 3D? It was funny, it was like Carmack, and Tom, and we all like 'Ye-a-a!' ... simultaneously obviously, yes! ... It would be amazing! ... We immediately knew that we had to make a game as I mentioned it. .. We even don't need to make design docs, we already know the game. ... because it was a pretty simple game design ... it was more complex as we make it ... as we're making the game we did define the core of the game had to be 'speed', ... and anything which slows down it, had to be removed, ... we did throwing the other code for dragging dead bodies, searching new bodies, and stuff like that, but that staff you can do is killing, right? ... get rid if this staff, make dead simple ...we need to keep it very simple, so the game design need speed not to think Brillut, so they just need to worry the experience of what's around the corner, or what happens when I open the door, and I just move everything down and I see, there is no one safe.
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- Thorpe, Nick (January 2014). "The Rise and Fall of Cheats". Retro Gamer. No. 128. Imagine Publishing. Archived from the original on 18 July 2021. Retrieved 18 July 2021.
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- Warner, Silas (1989). Castle Wolfenstein. Monrovia, California: Muse Software.
- Castle Wolfenstein at MobyGames
- The Apple II version of Castle Wolfenstein can be played for free in the browser at the Internet Archive
- The Commodore 64 version of Castle Wolfenstein can be played for free in the browser at the Internet Archive
- The MS-DOS version of Castle Wolfenstein can be played for free in the browser at the Internet Archive