#407: castle of the winds

an unusual roguelike from the early days of epic games

june gloom
5 min readOct 14, 2021
fascinatingly ugly.

castle of the winds (1989, PC, saadasoft): roguelikes are a bit of an odd breed. dating back to 1980’s rogue, the genre has largely escaped concrete definition for decades — in spite of an attempt by a roguelike developers’ conference in berlin in 2008 to provide one, which not everyone in the roguelike community necessarily agrees with or accepts.

this ambiguity in describing the roguelike in absolute terms has led to a number of games that seemingly violate one major ethos or another of the genre, especially in recent years with the rise of “roguelites,” ambitious and expansive titles that take inspiration from the roguelike genre but are very much their own thing, such as hades. while in recent years, the traditional form of the genre has more or less solidified, the 80s and 90s were something of a wild west, with several subgenres splitting off from clones of rogue, such as games inspired by hack and its descendant nethack, or the band subgenre with roots in 1983’s moria and 1990's angband (from which the subgenre gets its namesake.) these subgenres are as defined as much by what features they don’t have as what they do — moria, for example, pioneered the concept of a town at the top of the dungeon that you can return to to resupply at, a feature not seen at all in hack-likes. even blizzard’s diablo might be considered an extrapolation on the band style.

angband, now featuring more odinist temples.

in spite of all this, one of the most enduring characteristics of the genre is permadeath. if you die, that’s it, game over, start over again. while you can save your game, typically a traditional roguelike closes upon saving and deletes your file upon reload. among the die-hards, this is an essential feature; for most everyone else, it can be an alienating premise. (which is probably why, in the wake of the roguelite craze of the past decade and the massive popularity of fromsoftware’s dark souls and its imitators, games have been more willing to explore death as an in-game mechanic and how it might have a more meaningful effect on play as well as the overall theme of the game. again i point to hades, in which each death is but a step forward to victory, and also proves fundamental to the plot.)

which brings us to castle of the winds, the brainchild of one rick saada, at the time a microsoft employee who designed the game to help him learn the new software his company was making. this puts castle of the winds in the unusual position of being possibly the only roguelike (specifically, a band-like) to have ever been developed for windows 3.x, joining a surprisingly large collection of games that today are quite inaccessible without emulation.

taking inventory.

part of what separates castle from its DOS brethren is the graphics. while traditional roguelikes have long used ASCII characters to visualize their gameworlds, castle instead makes full use of windows’ capabilities, with a tile-based world contained within a number of windows that make up the game proper. the majority of play is in a single window representing the game world, however the inventory screen features a simplified graphic of the player character’s body, surrounded by item slots; next to it are windows representing the floor, and any packs, bags, purses or belts you might have, all of their items laid out in a row. a separate dialogue will pop up when you open your character stats, your spell book, and, on occasion, story bits, which detail a story that’s something to do with surtur the fire giant from norse mythology plotting to kill the player character (who can be either gender) before they can become a threat to his plans to take over the world.

the game world itself is ugly in that way only a windows 3.x game could be, with the dungeons represented entirely by grey walls and dot matrix-shaded floors. all items, traps and monsters (as well as the player character) are represented by icons (indeed, you could use any one of them for the game’s desktop shortcut!) it’s much easier to read than ASCII, if not much nicer to look at.

perhaps what’s most striking about castle is the control scheme. while the game can be played entirely via the keyboard, saada made sure to make it completely playable entirely via the mouse as well. simply click and drag on your character to move around; you can right click on any tile in the game world to see what’s there. indeed, the window-based design of the game almost seems to require you to use a mouse.

all of this is largely aesthetic difference, however; the core feature is a lack of permadeath. you can save and load games at your leisure; death will come swiftly and often (indeed, on my playthrough for the review, i fell to the first enemy, a mere kobold) but never permanently. saada said in an interview for gamasutra many years ago that his intent was to create opportunities for players to try different approaches — and indeed, it certainly opens up possibilities for more robust play.

get used to seeing this screen a lot.

castle of the winds might be remembered only by saada’s industry colleagues who tested it during development, if not for tim sweeney of epic megagames (back before epic dropped the “mega” part of their name.) as the game reached completion, sweeney approached saada with a distribution deal. split up into two episodes, a shorter shareware chapter followed by a longer commercial release, castle of the winds was a commercial success and a major boon to the fledgeling epic, which at the time was struggling to gain its footing against its chief rival, the industry giant and one-time home of id software, apogee software.

castle of the winds is perhaps doomed to obscurity regardless. saada was forced the software business in the mid 90s by repetitive stress syndrome; he later joined a pair of former microsoft colleagues in developing rails across america, a railroad simulation game, as well as pirates of the burning sea, a largely-forgotten MMO set during the golden age of piracy. castle of the winds, like much of epic’s early catalogue, is seemingly forgotten.

still, though, it hangs on. saada released the game for free on his website around the turn of the millennium (the website is now defunct, but a fan site has a copy;) it’s also theoretically playable on archive.org, but i couldn’t get it to work. but, if you’re brave or bored enough, it’s entirely playable by emulating windows 3.1 in one way or another. if you’re after a more forgiving traditional roguelike, castle of the winds might be worth the effort.




june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]