Monday 4 January 2016

Castle of Dr. Brain - Final Rating

Written by Reiko

Some people might say that this game doesn't even really belong on this blog, as it's mostly puzzles rather than an adventure, but enough people were enthusiastic about adding it to the list, so let's see how well it stacks up on the rating scale. Personally, I had a lot of fun playing it, although some of that is certainly bolstered by nostalgia.

Puzzles and Solvability

Oh boy, puzzles. This game is 95% puzzles, but they're all the classic kind of mental puzzle, not the usual inventory or dialogue adventure-style puzzle. They're not even the integrated mechanical Myst-style puzzle. Still, there's a lot of variety, from sliding tile puzzles, to mazes, to math problems, to programming, to language puzzles.

The job skills puzzle gives meaning to all the previous ones.

Generally the puzzles are perfectly logical and solvable (although the constellation star choices were a bit iffy), and I found no dead ends and was never stuck. Probably this is in part because the game is aimed at a younger age group, so on the whole I found the difficulty pitched a bit too easy, even on Expert difficulty. (And I've played a lot of puzzle games since the first time I played this and have seen a lot of the classic puzzles before.) But I prefer that to banging my head against illogical or impossibly difficult puzzles. The sense of accomplishment is also bolstered by the in-game awards received for solving many of the puzzles or areas, which are then incorporated into the endgame job skills puzzle.

The sliding tile puzzle is just a classic fifteen-puzzle in picture form.

Although at the time the puzzles were still reasonably fresh, especially as a computer version, many would be cliched and unoriginal today, particularly the earliest puzzles (Memory/Simon, sliding tiles, magic squares, jigsaw) and the pure math and language puzzles (arithmetic, binary conversion, cryptogram, hangman). The skills these classic puzzles require could have been incorporated into more original puzzles. For its targeted age range, though, it's designed very well.

Score: 7

Interface and Inventory

The interface is the classic point and click Sierra interface, with the eye/hand cursor to look and interact with objects. The inventory is graphical, and objects can be examined after acquiring them. I only had to actively use an item from inventory once or twice; more often items were important for the information they carried, and often they would be used automatically in the right place after acquiring them. It's a fantastic introduction to the Sierra interface because it doesn't require very much of the player.

I would have hated to have to map these mazes by clicking on those tiny buttons for every step.

There's no movement within rooms; usually the only movement is between rooms, usually by clicking on doors. The exception is the elevator mazes, which have their own supplemental interface in the form of the blobber-style arrows. Fortunately the arrow keys work just as well, saving the mazes from being a tedious click-fest.

Score: 7

Story and Setting

The story is minimal, just enough to hang the puzzles on. We're still in the era where users are expected to read the manual before playing the game, as the concept of the PC applying for the job of Dr. Brain's assistant is not even mentioned in-game until the last main location (Dr. Brain's office). The castle itself is again just a setting for the puzzles, as it's disjointed, with variously themed areas separated by the elevator mazes, but it's fun and interesting. It's rather inconceivable that someone would build an entire puzzle-filled castle solely for the purpose of testing visitors for their suitability to become one's assistant. But I suppose it's very much in the vein of a mad scientist who's become wealthy and eccentric from selling various inventions. The castle is fun to explore, but it doesn't really make much sense.

The entire plot of the game.

Aside from the occasional puzzle interaction, like the hangman and the robot heads, there are no other characters in the game except for Dr. Brain himself, who does not appear until the very end. There is no dialogue external to puzzles (or the ending) and no plot development except for winning the assistantship. This isn't bad; the game clearly does what it sets out to do, but I can't rate it high in this category simply because there's not much there to rate. The only interaction is solving puzzles. Beyond that, there isn't even closure at the end because Dr. Brain runs away to go construct another set of puzzles for the next game.

Score: 1

Sound and Graphics

The game opens with the iconic beginning of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Aside from that, though, while the music was atmospheric in places, it was fairly unmemorable. Most actions have appropriate sound effects: ringing the doorbell, various clicks for manipulating puzzle pieces, etc. In general, the sound was functional and unobtrusive.

The code room is beautifully designed, although a bit pixellated.

The graphics are colorful and wacky, but rather low-res. The castle is often beautiful in a rough way, with quirky details on nearly every screen. Animation is often jerky. The game often jumps from one state to another (such as when opening a door) rather than showing any animation at all. The focus is more on the puzzles rather than the package, and the animation that does exist serves the puzzles.

Score: 5

Environment and Atmosphere

The game seems to be trying for a creepy vibe near the beginning, but quickly gives that up for a matter-of-fact presentation of one puzzle after another. If you just start the game up without knowing anything about it, you'd get creepy music and a castle to explore just because it's there, but the wacky decorations, the straightforward puzzle lineup, and the continual congratulations for making progress really defuse any creepy atmosphere. By the time you get to the end, the curtain is pulled away, and there's no mystery at all: the whole thing was simply a test, and the designer of the test is pleased that you passed it. The overall atmosphere is simply wacky.

The other question is how big the castle is supposed to be. We get three floors of puzzles plus a basement, but in between there are three elevator mazes which each span four floors. I don't know where the mazes are supposed to be, especially because each maze travels from bottom to top. The first floor contains the front entrance, the math hallway, and the clock room. Then we go up three more floors through the first maze to the computer hallway and the robot room. Up three more floors through the second maze to the language hallway, the jigsaw room, and the code room. Up three more floors through the third maze to...the basement?

But the castle’s structure makes more sense if the observatory isn't in the basement.

The game says that the observatory is in the basement (and makes fun of Dr. Brain for putting it there), but given everything that led up to it, it would make more sense if the observatory is actually at the top, and solving the puzzles and exploding the monolith then sends you all the way down to the office in the basement. Plus the castle from outside appears to have an observatory dome on top. Or maybe the impossible geometry is just part of the wackiness of the castle. But everything else you see is connected sensibly, more or less, so that's rather inconsistent.

Are all those strange things on the outside just for decoration?

The castle also looks huge, based on the initial shot from across the bridge, but to me it didn’t really feel much larger than a tall house, aside from the strange mazes. There was an opportunity here for some really sprawling, eclectic architecture, not to mention references or glimpses in-game to some of the odd things seen on the exterior, but there’s none of that.

Score: 3

Dialog and Acting

As I mentioned above, there's no dialogue with characters, so most of the text involves explaining puzzles or cracking jokes about wacky decorations. The puzzle descriptions are clear but functional: this is clearly a game, rather than a story about a person exploring a castle. The jokes are amusing, but are often based on bad puns (typical for Sierra). Without dialogue, though, there just isn't all that much text in the game.

Descriptions are functional and written to the player, not the character.

Most of the gameplay is solving the puzzles, because you don't need to look very carefully at things to find them, usually. It's also a rather short game if you aren't having to spend a lot of time solving the puzzles. There are only about ten rooms, most with two or three puzzles, plus the three elevator mazes. And there's no need for backtracking, as the next room can't be reached until the current one is completely solved, and all important objects are automatically collected.

Score: 4

That adds up to a final score of 7+7+1+5+3+4 = 27/60*100 = 45. I'm going to give the game a bonus point though for being so much fun to play. Despite the lack of plot and the less than original puzzles, the Sierra charm shines through, and the total package is somehow more than the sum of its parts. Maybe that's nostalgia talking, or maybe it's just that well-designed. So the final score is 46.

Twelve people made guesses ranging from 36 to 52, but nobody guessed exactly 46, probably because it isn’t a score normally reachable without the effect of a bonus point, due to rounding. So Ilmari and Deimar are both closest to the final score.

CAP Distribution

100 points to Reiko
  • Blogger award - 100 CAPs - For blogging through this game for our enjoyment
60 points to Ilmari
  • Psychic Prediction award - 10 CAPs - For guessing closest to the score for Dr. Brain
  • Classic Blogger award - 50 CAPs - For blogging through Dungeon Adventure
20 points to Corey Cole
  • Industry Legend award - 20 CAPs - For sharing inside stories on the design process for Dr. Brain
10 points to Deimar
  • Psychic Prediction award - 10 CAPs - For guessing closest to the score for Dr. Brain
10 points to Joe Pranevich
  • True Companion award - 10 CAPs - For playing Dr. Brain along with me
10 points to Aperama
  • Psychic Prediction award - 10 CAPs - For guessing closest to the score for Dungeon Adventure
10 points to Laertes
  • Psychic Prediction award - 10 CAPs - For guessing closest to the score for Dungeon Adventure
Castle of Dr. Brain is finished! Up next from me later in 2016 will be another educational game, Ecoquest. But for now, back to your regularly scheduled adventure gaming.

Current rankings for the 1991 games:

1. Space Quest 4 - 65 points
2. Larry 1 Remake - 60 points
3. Space Quest 1 Remake - 58 points
4. Spellcasting 201 - 51 points
5. Martian Memorandum - 50 points
6.-8. Timequest, Larry 5 and Police Quest 3 - 47 points
9. Castle of Dr. Brain - 46 points
10. Hugo II - 18 points


  1. Great game! I admit I haven't read through the last section yet because I'm just over half-way to the end and don't want to spoil myself, but I had a lot of fun with this one. More fun than I expected, actually, especially as I don't normally like puzzle games. This made for a perfect "New Years!" game. We're just establishing traditions here left and right...

    I'm not sure because I haven't played it all the way yet, but I might quibble with the "Interface and Inventory" category. The interface is spot-on Sierra at their best, the right balance (IMHO) between complexity and just being able to click on things until it goes. But I do not believe I would have given a 7 in this category, if only because (up to the part that I've played) the *inventory* has been nearly nonexistent. I try to assume 5 points of this category are for having interesting items, applied in an interesting way. Without inventory-based puzzle games, I would have taken this much lower. (Probably 4 or 5.) But of course, I could be talking out my butt because maybe the inventory is better used in the second half of the game.

    Not a big deal to quibble with the rating; great job here!

    1. I hadn't really thought about items being usable as a part of the Inventory rating. I guess I assumed that would be included with Puzzles and thought it was enough for interface that the items were graphically visible and verbally described. I only found one or two times throughout the game that items had to be explicitly used from inventory. But many of the inventory items do come into play in an endgame puzzle. Also, I penalized the game heavily for lack of story and inconsistent atmosphere. I always hope it all balances out to where the score should be.

    2. Trickster's original definitions appear to speak more about the technical side of inventory management in the I-category. In principle, the inventory might then be really cool and slick, but never used anywhere - of course, this is an exaggeration, and I also might tend to lower the score a bit, if an inventory was not used that much (inventory management, after all, most separates puzzle games with plot from traditional adventure games). Of course, each reviewer might have their own opinion on this matter.

    3. Well, I'd flip the scores for dialog and story (as I think the large and by far lack of dialog counts more against that in contrast to the bare bones story taking points away from the fun yet out there setting) but really, the end figure is what counts and I'd say is very fair. I agree that the notion of the inventory never feeling like an onus on the player and the interface being intuitive and very usable should add up to high points in that regard. I'd far rather simple yet usable over complicted to a point of making you irate!

  2. CAP ratings and leaderboard updated! Joe Pranevich has passed Andy Panthro!

  3. Great posts Reiko! I really enjoyed reading your play-through of this game, as it brought back a lot of memories. I have a sister who is younger by four-and-a-half years, and she used to like watching me play games like King's Quest and Quest for Glory. She'd try to play them herself when she was 6 or 7. At some point, my parents got her The Incredible Machine and Castle of Dr. Brain, and she had a blast going through them, and I used to watch her. Good times.

    Excellent explanations of the puzzles, and I think this rating is very fair. Although this isn't technically an adventure game, I am glad it made the list. Looking forward to your next set of posts!

    1. Thanks, Alex! I remember the Incredible Machine too. I thought it was amusing that the executable was called tim.exe.

  4. Just thought I'd point out The Daedalic Armageddon Bundle on Steam at it has 11 adventure games for $15.99

  5. Great playthrough, Reiko! I had never played this one before, so I had a go at it. It's quite fun in its simplicity, but I was quite surprised at how quickly I got frustrated! I dropped the difficulty down to 'novice' before the halfway point. I quickly learned what kind of puzzles I enjoy more than others. The jigsaw and the various word/language ones were a delight, while the mazes (I hate mazes) had me reaching for walkthroughs!

    There were several times where I felt the game's explanations for the puzzle mechanics were quite confusing and it took me a few moments to piece together exactly what I needed to do.