Mark Pierce was based in San Francisco with his own company MacroMind, while Jon Gay and the rest of the Silicon Beach team were in San Diego; so after an initial launch meeting, most of the collaboration between Pierce and Gay was handled remotely. Pierce designed the animations in MacroMind's "VideoWorks" (the direct ancestor of Adobe Director) and then mailed the files on floppies to Gay, who then coded the game in 68000 Assembly Language on an Apple Lisa (a few parts like the high-score system were written in Pascal). The digitized sound was created by Eric Zocher who worked with voice actor Dick Noel.
The game opens with a vista of the castle with storm clouds in the distance. The opening notes of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor play and are followed by thunderclaps. The title along with the programming and development credits are shown on this screen.
Movement within Dark Castle is typical for most platformers. Duncan can run, jump and duck, and can throw a limited supply of rocks at his enemies. More rocks can be found in little bags along the way, as well as bottles of an elixir that provide a one-time antidote to bites of the numerous rats and bats found around the castle.
To defeat the Black Knight, Duncan needs to pull several levers which topple him from his throne. To aid Duncan, a magic shield and the power to hurl fireballs can, fortunately, be found within the Dark Castle. The game begins in the Great Hall, where the player can choose from four doors. The large center door leads to the Black Knight. One other is marked with the shield, and the remaining two mysteriously alternate between the fireball course and a more troubling path. The game can be played at three different skill levels, the hardest "Advanced" level containing more enemies and a few extra surprises.
The story in Dark Castle is rather simple. When the evil Black Knight terrorizes the townspeople, Prince Duncan decides to topple his throne, but in order to do that, he must travel to the four sections of the castle: Fireball, Shield, Trouble and Black Knight.
After collecting the Fireball and Shield, Duncan makes his way to the Black Knight's throne room, where he topples the Black Knight's throne, and the Black Knight stands up shaking his fist, as a gargoyle takes Duncan to Trouble 3.
This game had 14 levels, which came out of the 4 doors in the Great Hall, the first two doors are random.Leftmost door (usually): Trouble 1, Trouble 2, Trouble 3.
Farther away door on left side (usually): Fireball 1, Fireball 2, Fireball 3, Fireball 4.
Middle Door: Black Knight 1, Black Knight 2, Black Knight 3.
Right Door: Shield 1, Shield 2, Shield 3, Shield 4.
The game features a combination of keyboard and mouse control which was novel at the time of its release. The trajectory and launching of rocks and fireballs are controlled via mouse movement and clicks respectively, while the character's locomotion is controlled via key strokes.
Duncan easily gets disoriented; when walking into a wall or falling a short distance without jumping he walks around in circles for a moment, mumbling incoherently. He is highly vulnerable to attacks during this time.
Falling into holes in the floor does not cause death but instead leads to a dungeon ("Trouble 3") which can be escaped with some effort. On easier difficulty levels, this is a delay and a source of annoyance. However, this may be strategically necessary on the harder difficulty levels so that you can stock up rocks and elixir.
Easter egg: Playing Dark Castle (and its sequel) with the computer's clock at December 25 or any Friday the 13th, the Great Hall or the throne room (respectively) will have holiday decorations.
In 1994, the game developer Delta Tao Software acquired the rights to some of Silicon Beach's old games, via Aldus, and were able to produce and publish the modernized Color Dark Castle.
The new version included full color graphics, while changing some other things such as the Water from fireball 2,3 into Lava. This version also included a new difficulty, which let you skip to the end destination from any door in the great hall (e.g. Great Hall, to Fireball 4) with fewer enemies and easier gameplay. There is also a save feature whereby the game could be saved in the Great Hall, though only one game could be saved.
A version for the Mega Drive/Genesis was released by Electronic Arts in 1991.
A DOS version of the original Dark Castle was also released, which was closer to the original game. Because of the lower resolution, color was used to make up for it; also, because the PC did not have a mouse at the time, aiming was done through the keyboard. There is some controversy over the colors, due to the nature of the coloring.
Versions for the Apple IIGS, Commodore 64 and Amiga were released in 1989 by Three-Sixty Pacific. This port was programmed by Lane Roathe, and was almost identical to the Macintosh version except for having lower resolution, color graphics and some controls. John Romero converted the monochrome Macintosh art to 16-color super-res art.
A version for mobile was released in 2006. It is developed by Super Happy Fun Fun, which includes one of the two original developers, Mark Stephen Pierce; it was published by Bandai. It contains slightly remade level designs, borrowing from both Dark Castle and Beyond Dark Castle, it also has updated color graphics.
There was also a version released for CD-i. As of 2009, there was a port in the works for the iOS.
In 1987, the sequel Beyond Dark Castle was released, in which Duncan has to return and defeat the Black Knight, who is still alive. To access the Black Knight's tower, the player must first gather five magic orbs which are placed in various hard-to-reach places. The orbs must be returned to the Ante Chamber and placed on 5 pedestals for the gate to open so Duncan can face the Black Knight.
Beyond Dark Castle had an engine similar to Dark Castle but with improvements and additions like a health bar, bombs, and other items, as well as levels where the player could control a "personal helicopter". These levels and maze levels were side-scrollers instead of being limited to a single screen. Games could also be saved in a "computer room" level. Like all versions of Dark Castle, if the player beat the game on advanced, it presented a special ending.
In 2000, a new sequel called Return to Dark Castle was announced, being developed by Z Sculpt, where a new young hero called Bryant, the nephew of Duncan, must once again defeat the Black Knight. This game wasn't released until March 14, 2008.
Return to Dark Castle includes new gameplay mechanics, such as the player being able to keep weapons, and store extra orbs in a room. Though it had been stated that the game would include a level editor, with the ability to create custom quests, this feature is not included in the download. According to the game's official website at Super Happy Fun Fun, the "level editor will be released soon".
Computer Gaming World stated that Dark Castle was "the best arcade game I've seen for the Macintosh, and perhaps the best I've seen on any microcomputer, ever". The reviewer praised the sound and graphics, stating that he did not know that the Macintosh was capable of animations of such quality. He concluded that Dark Castle "is filled with lots of little touches that show it's one of the first steps toward what Silicon Beach likes to call 'interactive cartoons'." BYTE compared the game to Lode Runner, writing "There's nothing new about the basic concept, but the execution is impressive". The magazine praised its "slick animation and realistic digitized sound", and concluded that it "is a perfect way to fritter away those long winter evenings when you should be doing something productive". Compute! praised the Amiga version's "brilliant graphics, sound, and atmosphere" but criticized the keyboard/mouse control system and gameplay as too difficult. The reviewer also disliked the disk-based copy protection which caused him to fear damage to the disk drives, crashes when loading the game, and slow level loading.
Jon Gay has credited Dark Castle with helping to establish the reputation of Silicon Beach Software and with paying his way through college.
Game reviewers Hartley and Pattie Lesser complimented the game in their "The Role of Computers" column in Dragon #122 (1987), calling it "the finest arcade/adventure game ever designed for the Macintosh computer — as a matter of fact, for any computer!" and stating, "The graphics and animation are quite literally stunning!". In a subsequent column, the reviewers gave the game 4 out of 5 stars.