SummaryThe original stealth game
The GoodCastle Wolfenstein is one of those games that never achieved great commercial success and yet had a very influential legacy down through the years. It's most famous as the predecessor to the seminal FPS game Wolfenstein 3D, but in reality its influence extends far beyond just one game. This is the original stealth game, and is groundbreaking in almost all it attempts. The entire stealth/action genre, from Thief to S.T.A.L.K.E.R, can trace its roots back to Castle Wolfenstein.
Other than the gotta-escape-the-Nazis theme, Castle Wolfenstein bears almost no resemblance to its FPS descendant. It is an agonizingly slow-paced stealth game where you have to steal secret war plans from a German castle and get out in one piece. The challenge comes from numerous enemy guards who patrol hallways looking for intruders. Your character is no BJ Blazkowicz and it only takes one bullet to put him in the ground, so sneaking is a far better option than fighting. You have a gun, but you'll only ever want to use it as a last resort.
Castle Wolfenstein introduced a novel concept to gaming. It isn't enough to make sure the guards can't see you, you also must be sure they can't hear you. The sound of a gun firing will bring guards flocking to your location. A grenade explosion will be heard throughout the building. Guards can also discover your presence through things like an open door or a dead body, so you have to cover your tracks. As you can see, Castle Wolfenstein is the basic prototype of games like Thief, and any stealth game worthy of the title owes it a debt.
You're up against two basic foes. Jackbooted guards are weak and easy to fool. There are tricks you can pull on them like stealing the uniform from a dead body and impersonating them. You can also point a gun at them and steal their items, even if the gun is empty. However, the Waffen-SS are not nearly so stupid, and since they're equipped with bullet-proof vests you'll have a struggle on your hands if more than one are present. There's a third type of enemy, the Super SS, who you see only occasionally. He's almost impossible to beat, and since you never know when he'll show up next the game has a tense, Terminator feeling.
The game is like chess. You have to plan out your actions many moves in advance and anticipate all the variables. Throwing a grenade can kill a tough enemy but you might need it later to destroy a door. Many times you'll go into an agony of indecision, frantically weighing one option against another while the clock is ticking. The game is punishing even by the standards of the early 80s, and you can't afford to put a foot wrong. The graphics are quite acceptable for the time, with detailed sprites and smooth game play. I thought it was a nice touch how bumping into a wall causes the screen to flash a short while, as if your character has been concussed. Castle Wolfenstein also deserves credit for being one of the first (although not the first) game to feature digitised audio. Your enemies yell German phrases and your character emits a piercing death scream when killed.
A product of the slightly odd mind of Silas Warner, Castle Wolfenstein has many humorous touches. You can make your character eat food (which has no affect on game play) and he'll comment on the taste, and you can get him drunk on schnapps if you want. Among the items you can collect is the personal diary of Eva Braun.
And with theoretically unlimited replay value (thanks to a random castle generator) it all adds up to a game many years ahead of its time.
The BadIt's hard to say if Castle Wolfenstein is actually good. It's so unprecedented and groundbreaking there's absolutely nothing you can compare it with. By today's standards it's freakishly hard and frustrating, heavily dependent on chance and guesswork, and pretty damned repetitive into the bargain. But that would be ignoring the time and context in which it was made. It's only a small exaggeration to say that early 80s PC games were brain-melting endurance tests. And of course you couldn't run to GameFaqs.com if you got stuck.
I have a feeling the average Castle Wolfenstein player was a 40-year old UNIX operator who kicked back by playing some games after a 14-hour day. Next to his job, Castle Wolfenstein must have seemed like a walk in the park.
The Bottom LineWhether or not it's fun to play is a totally separate issue. Castle Wolfenstein has its tentacles through most modern stealth games, and it's worth a play because of pure historical value. (A small point of interest is that Castle Wolfenstein also belongs in the record books for the first video game mod, Castle Smurfenstein. I'm not kidding, look it up.)