Most of my childhood PC games were of the edutainment variety and few of such games could compare to the massive clout of Davilex’ Redcat franchise. Davilex was a prominent developer of PC games directed at children, which were questionably fun and questionably educative. Still, they were in Dutch and that made them ideal for their age group in a time when games were rarely translated to my native language.
The Redcat franchise mostly focussed on titles like De Toffe Tijdreis and en De Razende Reken Race, tackling Dutch history and basic math respectively. However, Davilex would eventually experiment with different genres, marking their perilous entry into racing games and, with Spookkasteel, 3D platform adventures.
Spookkasteel starts with Redcat crashlanding his spaceship in a spooky forest and his girlfriend Whizzkitty goes missing. After exploring a bit, Redcat runs into a Navi-style fairy who explains that she is the princess of this land, but a local witch has taken over her throne and turned her into her current form. The witch has since been trying to make herself beautiful with little success, but has now captured Whizzkitty and hopes to steal her beauty by performing a ritual at midnight.
Spookkasteel liberally pulls inspiration from Nintendo’s big hitters at the time, with a plot resembling Banjo & Kazooie and gameplay reminiscent of a knock-off Zelda game. Levels have you figure out how to unlock ways forward, usually by finding switches guarded by small platforming challenges or simplistic enemies. And I gotta be honest here, this is all pretty fun.
It’s fun to explore these horror-themed levels, dealing with haunted armors, bats. and ghosts as you go. The atmosphere is remarkable, cheesy enough to fit a kids’ game, while also being genuinely a bit unnerving in places. You also got secrets to uncover and you can score extra points by going out of your way to tackle platforming challenges the hard way.
The levels are fun, but the controls just aren’t cooperating to make this crazy idea work. Redcat can only be steered with the arrow keys, so you are already at the mercy of a swaying camera that has no sense of priority. It gets stuck on scenery a lot, clips through the world, and there is no effective way to look around, making it more difficult to find secrets and deal with enemies while navigating tighter spaces.
The game is merciful with its health and you can expand your heart meter by finding secret rooms, but the final few levels ramp up the difficulty too much. Enemies suddenly have a ton of health and faster projectiles. Meanwhile, platforming turns deadly with lots of timed jumps over instant-death pits. The arrow keys-only control scheme and lack of camera control make this infuriating, and it isn’t helped at all by a double-jump that only kind-of works.
Archaic design further holds the game back. Killing enemies and collecting gold only serves to award the player points, which don’t have any effect beyond questionable bragging rights. Levels are also overly long and padded out with content that feels hollow, like empty hallways or even hedge mazes. There are also purple bottles to collect that award the player a new power if enough are collected per level, but these powers are mandatory (your projectile attack, double-jump, etc.) and therefore you find most bottles out in the open on your direct path. Extras found by going out of your way and finding secrets are then just added to your points.
Another major issue is the game’s tendency to crash, which was a problem for me years ago and still happens today on the cleanest of installations. When Spookkasteel crashes, it falls back to its menu because that runs on a separate executable. However, the game is forced to close and you lose all progress towards the level you were on. This is a time loss of some minutes in the first two stages, but can cost you an hour in the final levels. Especially using the explosives seems to crash the game and those you often need to use to progress further.
It was fun to revisit this childhood game, yet also disappointing to see that its flaws were not just to blame on my aging Windows 95 PC of the time. Davilex was terribly ambitious when they tried to turn their edutainment series into a platform adventure one, but their design is so far behind the curve that it has no place competing with any other titles of its age. The game’s sole, saving grace is that it was made in the tiny, cheese-loving nation that I call my home, and at age 9 it was literally the only 3D platform adventure where I could understand the story.