New Retro Vault: Knight ‘n’ Grail
There seems to be a dearth of new freeware releases or new retro news these days, luckily that’s where the New Retro Vault comes in! We’ve unearthed this C64 game made in.. 2009. Knight ‘n’ Grail is, as far as I know, the first and only metroidvania game for the ancient computer, and it’s pretty good.
Developed by Wide Pixel Games, and published by Psytronik, Knight ‘n’ Grail is an example of the new wave developer scene, where new games are made specifically for older machines. When I say old I’m not talking about the Xbox 360 your gramma bought you cos she thought it was ‘that new one from the tele’, I mean like old old; this case being the Commodore 64. While this game is subject to the usual hardware limitations of the respective era, the design is free from such tangible trifles, and sports much more modern design principles. As such, Knight ‘n’ Grail is an impressive feat on both how good it looks given its tech limitations, and how well it plays, thanks to modern sensibilities.
Naturally, if you don’t have a C64 handy, it runs perfectly fine on an emulator – I use VICE (download link, and emulation instructions at the end of the article).
Not having played a C64 game for a looong time, some of the aforementioned hardware limitations struck me like an old sock to the face.
Music and sound effects can not be played simultaneously, so you’re either silently rocking to the music, or venturing forth with nothing but the sounds of sword swings and flying snake drool to keep you company between audio tracks.
Similarly, I forgot that in the 80’s that joysticks had not even two buttons, nor a start button or anything like that. That’s right – we had a single fire button. Hard to imagine by today’s standards, in the era of 14 or so buttons, multiple thumbsticks, wireless controllers and what have you. The developers have worked around this by utilising ‘up’ to jump, leaving the ‘fire’ button for attacking, and the ‘Space’ key to open the equipment menu. It mostly works well, but while entirely functional, your character moves at a pretty leisurely clip and jumping is certainly not as tight as say, Super Mario Bros., which had the benefit of dedicated run and jump buttons, and it makes movement feel a bit sluggish compared to agile contemporaries such as Castlevania or Castle in the Darkness.
These are far from deal breakers though, as the enemies and level design, at least so far, provide challenge without strictly punishing you for being a lumbering armoured knight instead of a light-footed ninja.
In terms of the modern touches, Knight ‘n’ Grail brings the core Metroidvania elements along for the ride, combined with a far more forgiving design than C64 games of the era.
Screens aren’t absolutely flooded with endlessly respawning suicidal pigeons or killer grass, that floods the screen in bullets and kills you in one hit, to worry about. And yes, those were actual enemies in C64 games I used to own. When you do die, you are simply sent back to the entrance of the castle, losing all your coins but none of your equipment or progress. Losing your entire wealth still feels a bit brutal at times, but is far less ragequit inducing than having to redo or restart from scratch (or in some cases, reload the cassette tape which takes 15 minutes or more).
As for the Metroidvania elements, clear cues to Castlevania – especially SOTN and its spawn – are evident. Instead of discrete levels, there is one large castle to gradually open up and explore, with themed areas to transgress, new swords and armour to find, and max health upgrades to plunder. Progress is mostly done through finding switches to unlock doors at first, but in true Metroidvania style, you’ll eventually gain new abilities over time, such as the classic double jump, among others.
The way equipment works also adds some depth – it not only serves to grant additional power or defense, but also provides different strategic properties. For example the water armour will cause water drops from the roof to become harmless, while the water sword attacks in an arc rather than the straight line of the default iron sword.
Aside from that though, equipment is kept relatively simple – items are limited to sword and armour – no special artefacts or accessories or the like to find, and despite some weapons appearing to do more damage than others, the equip menu doesn’t actually inform you of any numeric statistics on your weapons or armour.
Despite these simplifications, Knight ‘n’ Grail is probably one of the best C64 games I’ve played, and confirms my suspicion that as much as I love retro experience, even just a few modern sensibilities go a long way.
Knight ‘n’ Gail | Buy from homepage
If you choose to play it on your PC, you’ll need a C64 emulator. I use VICE which is mostly easy enough to use. Once you downloaded it, can load the emulator, then simply drag the game file directly onto the emulator, and it will load it automatically.
You will likely need to set the joystick settings in the emulator first (they don’t seem to be set by default). Note that the in game controls run on Joystick port 2 for some reason.
Protip: to speed up loading times, press Alt+W for warp mode.