Climb to the Top of the Castle

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by TwO Bros. for PC, originally released in 2011.
The primary goal in Climb to the Top of the Castle! is evident by its name. A knight must climb to the top of a castle – a really, really tall castle – to rescue a princess who has been kidnapped by an evil warlock and his mechanical army. From start to finish, the game is presented as a humorous tale, with purposeful overuse and misuse of medieval language, quips from the knight throughout the journey, and silly cutscenes.

At the start of the game, a knight and his king are approaching the castle on horseback to initiate the rescue mission. The king directs the knight to begin climbing, but when he sees how far up he has to go, the knight decides to knock on the front door instead and see if they’d be willing to just give up the princess so he can take her home and just forget the whole thing. That strategy fails, obviously, and the knight is left to climb the entire length of the castle, made up of 15 challenging levels.

The knight is given a starting allotment of 10 lives, which may seem like a tremendous number, until you realize that the game has 1-hit kills and no continues. If you lose all 10 of your lives, you have to start again from the bottom of the castle and climb your way up again. (Actually, there’s a midpoint save, but it keeps track of how many lives you had when you got there; this means that you don’t have to make it through the whole game in a single session, but you do still need the skills to make it there with a good stock of lives remaining).

To assist you in your journey, you have the opportunity to gain some extra lives. There are a small handful of 1UPs hidden in the levels, but most are gained by meeting certain criteria, such as destroying all enemies and objects within a level, or completing the level without dying. These bonus goals are noted at the start of each level. You also gain a 1UP for each completed level, and there are also a few vending machines in the game where you can buy additional lives (a maximum of 3 per machine) at the cost of scrap metal that you have collected on your way.

Nearly all of the graphics are hand-drawn. Often this type of style leads to a rather flat presentation as it tends to omit lighting and graphical effects and limits the amount of animation. This is far from the case here, however. The game is packed with atmosphere and variety, with environments changing drastically from the dank dungeon in the opening level, to the charming design of the outer walls of the castle, to the ornate mansion, and even a zoo with roaming tigers, snapping alligators and hippos, and caged birds. Additional “non-sketch” effects include cloth animations for the knight’s cape, lighting effects for hanging torches, and particle effects for falling embers, rising smoke, and puffs of dust.

The knight has a low 1x jump, as well as a wall jump and ledge grab. At the start of the game, he carries a sword, which can be swung at any time, including while hanging from ledges, climbing ladders, and jumping. This gives him a great deal of versatility in his attacks and allows for multiple fighting strategies, which you’ll need since your enemies can kill you very quickly. Additional weapons may also be picked up from vending machines or by killing enemies, including such weapons as the powerful but slow hammer and the long-range crossbow. These are secondary weapons that disappear after a certain number of uses, and the player is free to switch between them and his default sword at any time, holding the secondary weapon for use as the situation demands… like when half a dozen enemies enter the playfield at once and start attacking.

Most of the enemies in the game are mechanical in nature, which adds an odd sort of charm to the game. Birds are raised and lowered on visible ropes and pulleys, scorpions dash back and forth as if radio controlled, and armored enemy knights clank and puff as if powered by steam. Destroying enemies causes them to explode into shrapnel, leaving behind a few pieces of scrap metal that may be collected by the player for use as currency in vending machines and arcade games (more on these in a bit), and also used at the main menu to purchase trophies, challenge levels, and even an easier difficulty setting.

The player is rewarded for exploring the entirety of each level, as most broken objects will reveal a bit of scrap metal, or sometimes a greater reward. There’s also a hidden object tucked somewhere in each level, which often rewards the player with a 1UP for finding it. At the end of each level, the player will receive a stat screen showing the time it took to complete the level vs. the target time, whether or not the hidden item was found, and the percentage of enemies and objects destroyed in the level. Additional scraps are awarded for completing these goals, and the game keeps track of which levels you have managed to complete 100%, marking them as “level accomplished”. The main menu has an achievement matrix which shows every level and which of the goals you’ve completed in each. There are also trophies awarded for hitting certain milestones.

You also receive an arcade-style progress report at the end of each gameplay session, showing the knight climbing a miniaturized version of the castle, and falling off at the point where he was defeated. So, if you made it 25% of the way up, the knight will get to that point, and then fall off and land in the sand in the front of the king, who will make some wisecrack about your progress. The end-game summary shows your total number of attempts, “time wasted”, lives lost, rank, and highest climb percentage.

There’s a great amount of variety from one level to the next, with new challenges introduced in each area, including moving conveyor belts, swinging ropes and vines, spinning windmills, and slippery slopes. There are even a few points in the game where the player is given the option to choose between playing one level versus another, so it’s possible to change up the experience during multiple playthroughs. Also, given the need to conserve as many lives as possible, the player has to ask himself whether it would be better to replay a level that he is already familiar with, or to try the other.

Enemies come in many forms as well, and each moves and attacks in a different way, forcing the player to determine the best strategy for dealing with them, and then adjusting those tactics as he faces the same enemy in new situations. For instance, the arrow-firing kangaroo is easy to deal with if you come at him from below, as it can’t fire below a certain angle. But later in the game, you’ll be forced to come at it from a distance, jumping on platforms and fighting enemies as you go. At that point, you’ll either need to dodge the arrows or knock them out of the sky with your sword. Some enemies move along the ground, some fly in the sky, and others – such as cannons and kangaroos – are stationary but launch projectiles at you, each of which has its own rules for moving through the environment and colliding with obstacles.

Players who are used to being held by the hand and given infinite chances aren’t likely to enjoy this experience. This game is aimed solidly at those players who enjoy precise and versatile controls, quick act-or-be-killed situations, and a solid level of challenge. As such, those experienced with arcade games or old-school consoles will be right at home here. About the only gripe to be found is that unlike the tile-based games of old, the hand-drawn art style can sometimes make it difficult to understand how a surface is meant to react. In other words, you may mistake or miss a ledge that can be grabbed, or you may be surprised by a slope that causes you to slide versus one you can safely walk across. Players will need to discover these things through trial and error, unfortunately at the cost of their precious stock of lives.

Now, if it weren’t enough to have a solidly-designed action-platformer, it’s time to discuss the other game that comes packed in with the download. That’s right, in addition to Climb to the Top of the Castle, there’s also a game-within-a-game called King’s Creed. It’s founded on the same basic mechanics, but with many subtle gameplay differences that serve to highlight the design decisions made in the original game. It’s more along the lines of what Climb would have been like had it been released on an old arcade machine instead of modern hardware.

Spread throughout the game are 3 different King’s Creed arcade games, each with its own set of levels. You have to pay out some of your scrap to play the game, and if you lose all 3 lives, you have to pay again if you wish to continue. Rather than playing as the knight, you play as the king. In the context of the game, the arcade machines are in place as propaganda to show how brave and adventurous the king is. Of course, this is the exact opposite of his actual character, since the king sends the knight out to do all of his work for him, while he stands idly by and makes silly comments.

Being retro by design, the king is not nearly as versatile a character as the knight. He can’t grab onto ledges, can’t swing his weapon in the air or on ladders, and can’t even swing his weapon while running. Levels are packed with bottomless pits with a greater focus on precision jumping than on treasure seeking and combat. Dying returns you to the start of the level, rather than just placing you back on the most recent platform.

Some of the mechanical enemies from the main game return here, but they’re dispatched with a quick swipe of the axe. The axe simply appears on the screen for a moment and moves up and down before disappearing, removing the complexity of timed swipes and combos. Rope swinging, triangle jumps, and slippery slopes all carry over from the main game, but they are generally placed in more difficult arrangements, or packed together in a series. One upside is that the king can fall as far as he wants without being hurt (unlike the knight who dies from big falls), so you may be able to recover from missing a high jump if you manage to find your way to solid ground.

The arcade adventure includes some interesting and challenging sequences, including balancing on a spindle as it slides forward, accelerating as it goes. You not only have to adjust your speed to stay on the spindle, but you also need to jump off of it – often onto another – before it reaches the end of its path and bounces back in the opposite direction. Also, the end of each of the 3 King’s Creed games culminates in a battle against a dragon. The dragon spits fireballs at predictable intervals, but the player has to find a balance between dodging the fireballs and landing axe hits on the head of the dragon.

Climb to the Top of the Castle! was created using Game Maker by Arizona-based studio TwO Bros. games. The studio is comprised of two brothers: Timothy Arata is responsible for game design, and Orion Arata is responsible for art and programming. The game was the first place winner of the 2009 2BeeGames Indie Game Competition and a finalist in the 2010 Indie Game Challenge.