Thursday, October 10, 2019

Game 98: Castle Wolfenstein

As I write this in 2019, Castle Wolfenstein is as distant a memory as WWII itself was in 1981. And they’re still releasing official Wolfenstein sequels. I understand that the latest spinoff has the mainline protagonist’s teenage daughters fighting Nazis in the 80’s. Perhaps in this alternate history, there’s a hit title Flucht aus Schloß Volchiykamen for the Volkcomputer 48kb.

The manual outlines the premise – it’s WWII and you, an allied soldier, have been captured behind enemy lines and are held in the Nazi headquarters in labyrinthine Castle Wolfenstein. A dying cellmate gives you a gun and ten bullets, and you must escape and find the war plans if possible.

Rules of play are reminiscent of Berzerk. The castle is randomly generated, but you always begin in the lowest level. Guards patrol the hallways, and you can shoot in eight directions. Exits may appear on any side of the screen, or as stairs to a different level. Supplies may be found in chests or on guards, and useful supplies include bullets, grenades, keys, armor, and uniforms. Failure (usually) restarts the game in the same castle layout as before, although if you happen to blow up a chest full of explosives with a grenade, then the castle blows up and will have to be rebuilt for your next game.

The manual also has, as an appendix, a dodgy German phrasebook for POW’s. Everyday phrases like Achtung! and Schweinhund are in there, but it’s nice of them to mention that Kamerad means I surrender.

There is a dump of this game in the WOZ format, which was only released in August 2019. WOZ images emulate the disks’ copy protection, rather than bypass it as conventional DSK images do, ensuring that the game behavior itself isn’t changed. Furthermore, a WOZ release indicates that the disk was dumped in pristine condition, which is notable for Castle Wolfenstein because the castle generation process actually changes the data on the disk! The WOZ format release is the only realistic way of getting a copy of the game in its original, out-of-the-box state.

The game was also re-released in 1984 with a different title screen, and possibly some other changes. Both versions have been WOZ’d. I went with the 1981 version.

AppleWin currently supports reading from, but not writing to, the WOZ format. This is a big problem – not only does Castle Wolfenstein use the disk for saving your game, but it also writes to the disk to update the state of the game! For instance, you should be able to kill a room full of Nazis, leave, come back, and see your corpses where you left them. Instead, the room just resets to its original state, as the data on the WOZ indicates their state was untouched. Saving, of course, doesn’t work, you can’t get promotions, and generating a new castle layout freezes the game.

MAME, fortunately, does support writing to the WOZ format. Sort of. Presently, MAME will remember changes to the disk in memory, but won’t actually modify the WOZ file. The effect works fine until you close MAME or perform a hard reset – then the state of the disk reverts to the pristine file, and any changes are lost.

So, I decided I’d use two copies of the game for now. The WOZ format for my first playthrough, so I could see the first out-of-the-box castle layout, and the “4am crack” release for subsequent playthroughs.

Starting a new game, the program offered some tips as it generated a new castle.

The tip screens go by a bit fast if you have enhanced disk speed emulation enabled, but the gist of it is:
  • SS troops will follow you from room to room, and can only be killed by grenades.
  • Supply chests may contain supplies, and can be shot open.
  • Uniforms will fool normal guards, but won’t fool the SS.
  • The war plans are in a chest somewhere, and worth a lot to allied command.

The first thing evident about this game is that keyboard controls are really awkward. You can move in eight directions by using the QWEADZXC keys, but you move by tapping a direction to start walking, and then you tap the S key in the middle to stop walking. That wouldn’t be too bad, except that when you bump into walls or footlockers, which is constantly, the screen goes haywire and the machine makes a horrible screeching sound.

To be fair, this is an accurate simulation of what drunkenly stumbling into brick walls in a Prussian Schloss feels like.

Your gun can be, likewise, aimed in eight directions with the IOPK:,./ keys, and fired with L in the middle. This part game me a lot more trouble, partly because I kept forgetting which keys were for aiming (I kept instinctively going for JKL instead of KL;), but also because when you need to aim your gun, odds are it’s because things got hot, and the game has a nasty tendency to drop inputs when things get hot.

Things can be interacted with by pointing your gun at them and pressing U or Space for different actions depending on context and key, but most of them involve picking locks or searching for items. Guards can be held up by pointing your gun at them at point blank range, but it seems unwise to do this and then not shoot them, because they’ll follow as soon as you move or reposition your gun.

The game also offers joystick controls, which don’t offer enough buttons for all available actions. Plus, I could picture the rather stiff and sometimes unresponsive game controls feeling all wrong on a joystick or gamepad. Then there are paddle controls, which seem insane – rotate one paddle to determine walking direction, and rotate the other to determine aiming direction. I stuck with keyboard controls.

The very first room, presumably the dungeon, was featureless, except for stairs leading out.

Past the stairs was a guard, patrolling in a way that most of the room was outside his line of sight.

Footlockers can always be picked, but it takes time. Sometimes a pretty ridiculous amount of time for an action game; I’ve seen them take upwards of four minutes! If nobody saw you or heard you approach the footlocker, odds are nobody will see or hear you while picking the lock either, so this is just dead time spent waiting.

Coming soon – Golden Lockpick DLC

Granted, the “four minutes” is usually more like eighty seconds. Seconds pass quickly in Castle Wolfenstein, even with authentic speed emulation, but it’s still a long time to do nothing while nothing happens. Contents are often useless – I’ve found medals, cannonballs, and schnapps, but since my secondary objective is to locate the plans, I felt obligated to open every chest. The process can be hastened by shooting, but it doesn’t always work, and is probably a bad idea overall unless ammo is plentiful and if all of the guards in the room are dead.

Speaking of which, killing guards generally seemed like a good idea, at least on this floor. They tended to patrol in isolation, usually carry bullets (and sometimes keys), and shooting doesn’t attract attention from guards in other rooms. That said, one slip-up can ruin your game, as the controls are too wonky to be reliable in a pinch, and if an alerted guard even gets close to you, you are arrested.

I quickly found a bulletproof vest and a uniform. Vests make you resistant to bullets, but you’ll still be arrested if you get too close to an alert guard, and getting shot will still kill you sometimes. Uniforms make you nearly invisible, allowing you to even bump into patrolling guards without alerting them, but they will still be alerted if you point your gun at them, or if they hear you shoot. I couldn’t find any way to manually holster, but did realize that you put your gun away when you bump into walls, so I made a habit of doing this any time I didn’t anticipate an immediate need to shoot anyone.

I did get caught several times, mostly while fumbling around on the controls, but restarting not only didn’t change the castle layout, it didn’t even change the contents of the chests! And so I included these while making maps, knowing which ones I could skip on replays. Chest supplies are also infinite, so if you find a chest with bullets or grenades, you can keep coming back to it for refills.

I diligently mapped out the floor, which had a 3x3 layout, and had no more than two guards per room, and no plans.

Up on the next floor, I soon encountered a room with three guards!

Trying to fight would be madness, but I didn’t have to. With my uniform on, I just walked through, being careful not to point my gun in their faces.

I mapped out the floor, unmolested by any guards. This one was 5x5, and also had no plans. Some rooms had as many as four guards. I went for the stairs, and got arrested by an armored SS officer faster than I could react.


Retrying yet again, which didn’t take long as I had a map and had no reason to retrieve more than bullets, grenades, and the initial accoutrements, I found that this guard not only saw through my disguise, but my bullets wouldn’t harm him. I ran into the alcove, and was, despite his vest, able to hold him up. But unloading my entire magazine did absolutely nothing.

So, I threw a grenade.

This killed him, but disoriented me, and cost me my vest and uniform for some reason. They were nice while they lasted. In retrospect, I really should have just retreated and gathered more – I knew where I could find some chests that would have them – but I didn’t feel like fighting through all the guards that I had ignored on my way. Onwards and upwards.

I very quickly got caught on the next floor, when I walked into a room with three guards, noped right back out, and walked right into a respawned guard in the previous room. But then retrying, I found a better way to deal with the bulletproof SS – lure him into the alcove and throw a grenade while far away.

It takes some finesse, and the controls don’t always cooperate, but you keep your disguise this way.

On the next floor, I ran past such a bulletproof guard, and unpleasantly discovered that they can follow you from room to room if ignored.

Knowing better than to let alerted SS live, I mapped out the next floor, which was 4x4 rooms, with little trouble. There no more SS officers beyond the first one, and I could simply walk through most of the rooms. Occasionally I had to shoot open a locked door that my keys couldn’t open, but this never attracted more attention than what I could shoot my way out of. Some of the rooms had so many guards patrolling that I couldn’t avoid bumping into them, but there was no chance of getting caught while wearing a uniform, as long as I kept my gun holstered. The war plans were here, in a footlocker near the middle.

The next few rooms on the next floor gave me no troubles. There were no armored SS, no locked doors that my keys wouldn’t open, and therefore no need to fight anyone, and no need to search footlockers for supplies. I’d just walk from room to room, searching for the exit. But then I had a close call involving a locked door, and some odd game mechanics.

You see, to open a door, you have to point your gun at it and then press an interact key. The guards don’t mind seeing you with your gun out, but point it in anyone’s face, and they’ll all be alerted. That’s exactly what happened as soon as the door opened, and I mashed the keys in a mad, desperate attempt to mow them down. It worked, but it could have easily failed.

The room to the south had an armored SS, but I could easily slip past his patrol evading his line of sight. The final room on the floor had five patrolling guards that I simply walked past in uniform.

A grainy voice uttered “auf wiedersehen, schweinehund” as I left Castle Wolfenstein with the war plans.

Victory, and a promotion to corporal! To aid replay, Castle Wolfenstein increases the difficulty of replays as you rank up, which is achieved whenever you escape with the plans. At this point, I surreptitiously switched to the cracked DSK so that it would save my rank permanently.

And so I replayed.

I quickly discovered that, despite the new castle layout, the general arrangement of rooms was the same. The contents of each room were different, with different interior corridor layouts, different guard patrols, and different chest positions and contents, but the maps I made of the first castle were perfectly valid here. Stairs were all in the same places, the starting floor was still a single room with no exit except the stairs, the room it led to would always be in the lower-left corner of the second floor, with an exit to the north, the second floor would always be 3x3 rooms, etc.

I also discovered a new and nasty surprise. SS guards can enter rooms just about any time! Unfair, I thought, as at this point I had no means of killing armored guards. But in my fumbling of the controls, I accidentally held him up, and then searched him.

Heh, heh, heh

Deprived of a uniform near the start, and with more guards, I found corporal mode almost unreasonably difficult. And this really stems from a big problem with Castle Wolfenstein. Combat and stealth are both a mess. Controls don’t always work, shooting doesn’t hit all of the time, even at point blank range, the stealth mechanics are inconsistent, with guards sometimes seeing you when it seems like they shouldn’t, and sometimes ignoring you when you walk so close in front of their faces that they ought to be able to smell you. Sometimes their pathfinding works, and sometimes alerted guards just run around uselessly in circles.

Sometimes you walk right into a room with guards already on top of you.

Oh, come on!

Sometimes you throw a grenade at an SS officer and it sails right past and harmlessly explodes behind him.


And sometimes you can get to cover undetected, and then pop out and waste a team of Nazis, and feel like Clint Eastwood.

We’ve got company. Wait, no we don’t.

But nothing feels consistent, in terms of mechanics. Even the hold-up mechanic sometimes fails, and when it does, arrest is 100% unavoidable.

I must also confess that during this second playthrough, I didn’t play completely fair. The footlockers seemed to take even longer to open than before, shooting them seemed to work less often, and I really didn’t want to attract attention or waste ammo, so I used MAME’s turbo button to speed this up.

It took me lots of tries, but with persistence, and diligent note-taking on my map, I was able to escape again with the plans, and reach sergeant rank.

With sergeant rank, I hit a wall. Repeated failures, most of them feeling like the game was cheating, wore on me. So many times, an alerted guard would walk into my gun, and instead of throwing his hands up and shouting Kamerad!, he’d shout Kaputt and arrest me. Or I’d miss at point blank range – instant Kaputt. Or an SS nowhere near me would shout Achtung! while I was weaving through the patrols of the lower ranking guards. Kaputt.

After hours of this, and all the while unable to find the war plans despite searching every chest of every room (and thank MAME for the turbo button), I reached the final room, which had two unavoidable SS officers, and I was out of grenades. Hours even later, I was able to reach the final room fully loaded and have everything cooperate – the controls, the guard behavior, the aiming – to blow them away with some grenades, and to finally search the room.

The war plans weren’t here! I left the room, escaped the castle, received no promotion, and saw no point in continuing. My patience for this was kaputt.

I really wanted to like this game better. It’s the kind of game that’s legendary, and yet, I suspect, played by few who sustain its reputation. Wikipedia’s description of the gameplay is rife with inaccuracies and even references features that don’t exist. I love stealth games, and hoped to see and appreciate it as a progenitor of the genre, but its baffling design decisions made me hate it. Why did Warner think it would be a good idea to make the computer have a virtual seizure every time you bump into anything? I expect this was influenced by the lethal walls in Berzerk, but Berzerk had smooth, responsive controls, and Castle Wolfenstein, performing at its best, doesn’t. Why should footlockers take so damned long to open, when opening all of them is practically a requirement for finding the war plans? Why isn’t there a better way to holster your gun, when it’s so easy to accidentally blow your cover with your gun out? This, combined with the ridiculous necessity to point your gun at footlockers to open them or take their things, is a frequent nuisance, and at least once was a game ruiner.

I would have liked to see stealth be a little more reliable and useful, and perhaps the uniforms a little less useful (though granted, the higher prevalence of SS officers in later difficulties would take care of that in a hurry). Maybe the tedious search for the war plans could have been alleviated if guards’ keys could open footlockers, or better yet, if you could have interrogated held-up guards for the war plans’ location (and in Escape! fashion, sometimes they’d lie or refuse to answer).

The game did grow on me over time, especially once I decided to use MAME’s turbo key. Between uniforms’ invisibility and the turbo key, it actually became easy. On occasion I’d screw up and have an exciting firefight on my hands, and also on occasion the SS would show up and completely change the rules of the game. But as the game got harder, and SS guards more frequent, I came to hate it again. Between bad controls, inconsistent gameplay mechanics, and random layouts that frequently provide no chance of pulling off a stealthy approach, the game became frustrating when it wasn’t boring.

Before writing all this, I imagined that I might reach the final rank (Field Marshal) and post a video of a victory at the highest difficulty. That’s not going to happen now, and such videos actually do exist right now (from these I learned, too late, that you can yoink armor off the SS when holding them up) but there’s something else I’d like to discuss instead. Castle Wolfenstein was home to one of the first computer game mods, Castle Smurfenstein. It’s not, contrary to some reports, the first of its kind, or even the first by its own developers, who had previously developed Dino Smurf as a mod for Dino Eggs, also on the Apple II.

Castle Smurfenstein isn’t much more than a graphics and sound hack, but it’s a landmark nevertheless. And there doesn’t seem to be any footage on Youtube, so I’ve recorded a session to fill that niche. And I’ve turboed through the many footlocker openings. Good lord there are so many.

Note that you need to emulate the Apple //e to play this properly, because it uses lowercase fonts, which the Apple ][+ doesn’t support.

Enjoy! If you don’t feel like watching the entire thing (and I can’t really blame you), be sure to watch the last minute or so. It’s worth it. There's also a strange Easter egg at the 10:40 mark, and a fight involving an SS Smurf at the 12:45 mark.

Here’s a general map of Castle Wolfenstein, made with the assumption that the starting floor is high up and the stairs all go down. I find that this makes more topological sense than the manual’s claim that you start on the lowest floor – how would you leave the castle from five stories up? This map works across all possible castle layouts, and works in Smurfenstein too.


  1. Ah memories. In Germany this game was not available in shops. At least not for teenager me.

    I seem to remember headshots on the SS guards. When he was "below" you on-screen and walking "upwards" towards your sprite, as soon as the guards head was on the same level as your gun. I played on C64, though.

    Regards juergen

  2. This is another game that is ripe for a spiritual remake.

  3. AppleWin now supports writing to WOZ images! Castle Wolfenstein can now be played properly with the WOZ images.

    MAME still doesn't support this. Disk image writes are simulated in memory, meaning the game is playable, but as soon as you quit MAME or hard reset the system, all of your changes are discarded. Disk changes won't persist on save states either, so don't try it.

  4. Hey, Ahab!

    Just a tiny little detail that may know already: sometimes it's useful to held guards at point-blank range because you can then search their bodies before you kill them.

    At later levels this saved me more than once — a SS guard was following me but I did not have any grenades, so I took theirs to finish the job. It still relies on luck and it may only serve as a last resort, but still.

    Keep up the great work!

  5. Heya - I just discovered while looking for a manual for SSI's Operation Apocalypse (HELP !) that Castle Wolfenstein had a sequel - Beyond Castle Wolfenstein. It is poorly rated, but if you are between two games and don't know what to do, I would love you to have a look.

    1. It's on the agenda, once we get to 1984 games.

  6. Me again. While looking in issue 2.1 of Computer Gaming World, I found this :

    I thought you could be interested.


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