There is something about “Palace of Magic” that keeps me coming back. It was one of the first games I ever owned for my BBC Micro Model B, and even now – some thirty years later – I still get a little thrill at the sight of that mysterious castle under a stormy grey sky.
For those who have played it before, “Palace of Magic” is usually spoken of in the same breath as “Citadel”, a game that predates it by a couple of years. I was only two years old when “Citadel” came out, and had never played it prior to getting my infant digits on a copy of “Palace”, however, so I have always treated it very much as its own game with its own style. “Palace”, while undoubtedly sharing many gameplay similarities with “Citadel”, still stands apart and deserves to be considered in its own right.
The game is essentially a giant puzzle wrapped into a 2D platform scroller that is spread across a vast series of interconnected rooms, populated with traps, obstacles and a large cast of baddies. Your character must collect the rights keys and items to unlock new rooms and eventually find his way back home. The challenge is twofold. Firstly, your character has a limited health bar, and if he takes one too many hits from traps like the spike pit, the ever present baddies, or falling from too great a height, he will die. Although his health can be recharged with the magical top hats he finds along the way, those hats are finite in number and can be used only once (at the point of collecting them). Use too many top hats too quickly, and you will end up struggling to make it to the end of the game. Secondly, your character can only carry a maximum of two items at any one time. Although keys only need to be carried until the related door has been unlocked (after which
both door and key disappear) other items must be carried in order to confer a skill, such as being able to see in the dark dungeon. Drop that item, and your skill will evaporate. There are so many different locked doors and blocked passageways in “Palace” that the only way to successfully complete the game is to map out the rooms and note down where the different keys and items – and the doors or obstacles they are designed to overcome – are located.
“Palace of Magic” has been incredibly well designed. Each room is carefully constructed and often allows you to see sections of the palace that you cannot directly access, but which you know you need to get to. And the obstacles are not always obvious; some rooms look like they are interconnected, but your character can’t quite make the jump, or would be monstered by baddies before he could ever hope to reach the other side. This not only enhances the puzzle, but also the sense of frustration – which is what makes it such an engaging challenge.
The artwork is beautiful, especially for an 8-bit game. The puzzle sprawls across palace rooms, towers, belfries, dungeons, gardens and even a church. Though a conventional fantasy setting, the quirky cast of baddies that populate it are bewilderingly batty. There are eyeballs on springs, floating rocks, flying jugs, guys on mini scooters, giant killer rabbits (Monty Python, anyone?) and, perhaps most bizarrely, spacemen in rocket suits bouncing around the palace ramparts. Sometimes you are left wondering why a particular item like a seated figurine underneath a pyramid is the right one to give to a castle dweller blocking your way, why the ropes hanging from the ceiling move up and down like snakes, or why walking past swords hanging from the wall causes you to get hurt. None of it really adds up, but “Palace of Magic” asks you to suspend your judgement and simply revel in its mad mix-up. My personal theory is that your character is really asleep and you are playing out across the dreamscape of his nightmare. Ultimately, it doesn’t need to make sense for it to be a thoroughly enjoyable adventure.
Perhaps the only aspect of “Palace” that lets it down is the music: there isn’t any. Like many Beeb games with a complex engine and decent visuals, there’s not a lot of memory left over for music and sound. There are some jaunty “boink” sounds for your character when he jumps, a sharp stab noise each time you lose a health point, and a “zagger-zagger-zagger” sound if you lose too many health points in a row and have to be magically moved back to the edge of the room again. Picking up or using an item makes a “ping” chime, and the most satisfying is the top hat which emits a long “wooooooo” as your health replenishes. But that’s the full extent; none of the baddies make any noises at all, and there is no music either in-game or during the intro splash screen. This makes gameplay eerily silent when you’re just walking through rooms looking for clues. Of course, this does leave you free to play that old Eurythmics album on your Tomy cassette player instead…
“Palace of Magic” demands quite a lot from the player: it’s a long game, there are no levels and it’s very easy to die. As with most Beeb games, there are no save checkpoints, nor any codes that give you the chance to skip ahead to a particular stage. You have to map out and complete the game in a single sitting, and it takes many, many attempts to get it right. If it were any easier to complete, however, I wouldn’t still be coming back for more all these years later.
In memory of Martyn Howard.
Overall, this is still one of my favourite games for the Beeb. The puzzles are tricky to solve, you need a good chunk of time to get through the whole game and there is a constant peril that you will run out of health (and top hats!) before you can get to the end. It’s addictive and frustrating in equal measure, a game filled with surprises, amusing eccentricities, adorable visuals and plenty of challenge. If you’ve never played it before, fire up the beige beauty and get involved.
Growing up in the household of an 80s IT teacher, I was surrounded by Acorn computers from a very early age. I have been playing games on the Beeb, physically and via emulators, for the past thirty years and despite the advent of more powerful machines, nothing gives quite the same gaming pleasure as an adventure in 8-bit.