Castle Blackstar - Getting past the dragon

Games for Spectrum, C64, Amstrad, Amiga, Apple ][ and the rest of the 8-bit and 16-bit platforms. Pleas for help, puzzles, bug reports etc.

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Exemptus
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Castle Blackstar - Getting past the dragon

#1 Post by Exemptus » Sat May 09, 2020 6:29 pm

I have a memory of having completed Castle Blackstar many years ago in its Spectrum version, and I have been replaying it this past week. Most of the puzzles I vaguely remembered, so I progressed quickly. But after solving the star (Hexagon Room) puzzle and finally getting to the orb, I'm mystified as to how to exit the area. The only exit involves getting past the dragon room in the E direction. I have the ring, so I can kill the dragon, but its body always blocks the exit. If I kill the dragon from the other side, although it says it blocks the W exit, after getting the orb I can enter the dragon room from the W exit and it then blocks the E exit. Throwing the vial puts the dragon to sleep, but to no avail, because it still blocks the E exit.

At a loss, I finally consulted the available Hints, but it just says I'm to approach the dragon from the orb zone (which I did), drop the vial, then kill the dragon. This accomplishes nothing; the dragon still happily blocks the E exit. I then did what I almost never do: check a walkthrough in desperation. The only one available seems to be the venerable Mike Gerrard's one, but it just says (quoting):
When you encounter the dragon don't kill it from the direction of the warm pit as its body will then block the way into and out of the area where the orb is to be found. Instead you should kill it on your way out of the orb area by dropping the vial, to put it to sleep, and then killing it with whatever weapon you have with you.
The problem is: this cannot be right. I have already established that dropping the vial does not activate its property: you have to either throw or break it. Such a discrepancy makes me think the solution may be wrong on other counts, but after checkinbg other parts, it seems to be accurate otherwise (except for the endgame, which I obviously haven't tried). Killing the dragon from the west just makes it block the east exit, preventing us from progressing. Killing it from the east appears to do the opposite, but the east exit is still blocked. Putting the dragon to sleep seems to have no effect; after 1 or 2 turns it wakes up again, the exit is blocked regardless of the dragon's sleeping. Wearing the ring or not does not seem to solve anything either: not wearing it makes us visible and the dragon can then kill us, but the E exit is still blocked.

Possibilities I'm considering:

(1) The walkthrough is wrong (actually, it is with respect to dropping the vial, but this is a minor point).
(2) The walkthrough is right for other versions of the game, but the Spectrum version requires a different solution.
(3) The Spectrum version is buggy, and the dragon should block the W exit instead when killed in the expected way.
(4) I have overlooked something, obvious or not.

Naturally, I find (1) and (2) improbable. Option (3) I cannot discount, because I have already found several bugs, but they don't affect playability. One is with the oldest SCR Adventures release which seems to use the same parser as the Foilkade Adventure 200: it has an uncontrolled database read in one of the checkerboard rooms, but it does not corrupt the game's state. The newer CDS release (white text on blue background, different parser) does not have this bug, but the vial can be dropped and broken infinite times (triggering its effect) because the corresponding flag is not reset. (!) Not that this helps a bit, though.

However, I am forced to admit that option (4) is by far the most likely. Anyone can solve the mystery? I'd really like to finish the map and write a proper walkthrough. Credit will be given as appropriate.

Alastair
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Re: Castle Blackstar - Getting past the dragon

#2 Post by Alastair » Sat May 09, 2020 11:33 pm

When playing Spectrum games I usually set the emulator to emulate a 128k Spectrum and use "Tape Loader" to load the game, but I have noticed that some games become problematical when loaded in this manner. For these games I either choose "48 BASIC" from the menu or emulate a 48k Spectrum, and then use the old J [symbol shift] P [symbol shift] P instruction to load the game. The games then work without problem.

If you are using "Tape Loader" then it could be that Castle Blackstar is another game that needs to be loaded in the old manner. (If not then I am currently out of ideas.)

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Exemptus
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Re: Castle Blackstar - Getting past the dragon

#3 Post by Exemptus » Sun May 10, 2020 12:02 am

Alas, not the case. It was a good idea though, but I'm well aware of the quirks of Spectrum games. I used 48k mode without any peripherals and slow loading, so memory corruption due to hardware emulation side effects is most probably not a factor in this particular case.

Alastair
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Re: Castle Blackstar - Getting past the dragon

#4 Post by Alastair » Sun May 10, 2020 10:58 pm

I now have a fresh idea! The problem may lie in the emulator you are using, so have you tried other emulators?

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Exemptus
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Re: Castle Blackstar - Getting past the dragon

#5 Post by Exemptus » Mon May 11, 2020 5:37 pm

Well, what do you know. I have finally solved the mystery.

Thanks for the suggestion, but it turns out the game was perfectly emulated. The described sequence of events is fully reproducible on a different platform. I tried the PCW version of the game on an emulated 8256, just in case the logic was different, but no: it behaved exactly in the same way. Then I realised there was something I had not tried, and a niggling suspicion popped up: what if the problem is the weapon I kill the dragon with? I was using the sword until now, but the game also has a knife which does not seem to be used anywhere else...

It turns out that if you kill the dragon with the sword, it always blocks the opposite exit. Killing it with the knife has no such effect: you can only kill the dragon with the knife when it is asleep (so you don't really need the ring) but then it does not block any exit. This allows the player to leave the orb area and continue the game.

I had indeed overlooked something, because the knife's description said it is "crafted in mithril with carved runes" but it did not occur to me to READ RUNES, which gives the answer "Smaug's Bane". Had I noticed this earlier I would have not attempted to use the sword. I had thought it was just a fancy description.

As a side comment, this kind of behaviour could well be a bug, because no logic is attached to it. In fact, as I said, the player can use the ring, approach the dragon from the E, kill it, then its body blocks the W exit. And later, after getting the orb and approaching the dragon room from the W, that exit is no longer blocked by the body but the E exit is. This looks very much like an unintended side effect of the puzzle's programming.

However, despite this, it could well be an intentional, highly devious red herring, given the following facts:
  • There are two weapons in the game: a sword and a knife, both treasures, with no other apparent use.
  • There is a ring which makes the player invisible to all creatures beginning with the letter D. This solves a puzzle with the dwarves, but there is also a dragon.
  • If we wear the ring, we can kill the dragon with the sword, but not with the knife.
  • If we approach the dragon not wearing the ring, it kills us.
This strongly suggests that the right thing to do is use the ring + sword combination at the right time (i.e.: coming from the W with the orb) to kill the dragon. And, of course, this does not work because it was never the intended solution. I cannot discount the hypothesis that this might be intentional because the general level of difficulty of the game's puzzles and design would match the presence of such a red herring, just to throw the player off track.

In any case, I'm happy to have cracked this nut. Funnily enough this must be the way I finished the game many years ago and I could not remember. I will wrap it up and write a proper walkthrough and map, as promised.
Last edited by Exemptus on Mon May 11, 2020 10:01 pm, edited 1 time in total.

Alastair
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Re: Castle Blackstar - Getting past the dragon

#6 Post by Alastair » Mon May 11, 2020 9:56 pm

Well done!

It's always the way, when you first play a game you sail past certain problems, thus you don't consider them to be difficult and the solutions never lodge in your memory. Years later, should you play the game again, you come across the same problems, only now the spark of inspiration that aided you first time round fails to ignite, leaving you stumped and thinking, "I solved this game years ago, how did I solve this problem back then?"

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Garry
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Re: Castle Blackstar - Getting past the dragon

#7 Post by Garry » Tue May 12, 2020 1:58 am

I haven't played the game myself, but having read your description, it actually sounds like a well-crafted puzzle, providing the appropriate in-game hints and responses are there. For example, when killing the dragon with the sword, if it says something like "the dragon thrashes about and falls dead in front of the exit", then that is fair.

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Exemptus
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Re: Castle Blackstar - Getting past the dragon

#8 Post by Exemptus » Tue May 12, 2020 10:52 pm

I don't disagree, although no such hints are there. We could call that unfair; the game is from 1983, so adventure design was more unforgiving back then in general, and assuming this was designed as a puzzle, it was probably intended to be difficult, since it is near the endgame.

Despite my falling for the (presumed) bait, the difficulty was low compared to the amount of planning and advance preparation required to get the Last Lousy Point in the same game. To say nothing of things like the Zork III endgame, which I remember having spent a whole month at many years ago until it yielded to sheer obstinacy rather than insight...

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