The story behind the NES 8-bit title Solstice was that you, as the wizard Shadax, had to rescue Princess Eleanor from the evil wizard Morbius by reuniting the six pieces of the Staff of Demnos. You say this sounds like a fairly standard, trite, and predictable RPG plot? You would be correct. But Solstice, despite its fantasy-derived plot, is not an RPG. Instead, gamers received a 3D isometric puzzler.
Unlike many other puzzle games of the time which were essentially score-fests with little in the way of ‘gameplay’ or ‘story’, like Tetris or Dr. Mario, Solstice tasks you with navigating Shadax through the 252-room fortress of Kastlerock. Along the way, you’ll collect items, use magic potions, dodge traps, pitfalls, and evil minions, and puzzle your way forward.
This was one of those games that took doe-eyed youngsters and turned them into amateur cartographers by the dozens. You know the kind of game I’m talking about. Unless you wanted to spend your time pointlessly retracing your steps time and again or wandering aimlessly with no idea if you were heading in the right direction, you were forced to take paper and pencil to hand and start mapping out room after room. Kastlerock is literally a maze, with many rooms offering three or four different exits, not to mention occasional invisible exits. Then there’s the fact that the fortress is multi-tiered, so falling down into a pit or climbing up into the next room are also often possible. In short, navigation can get overwhelming very quickly.
“Now wait a minute,” some will say. “I’ve played this game, and I remember it comes with an in-game map!” True, the game offers up a map screen you can access, and it is useful – to an extent. The map screen shows a zoomed-in view of a map, which displays the room you’re in relative to the three or four rooms closest to it; unfortunately the map cannot be manipulated or scrolled in any way – a major shortcoming of offering the map. It’s very limiting to not be able to plan out your steps more than one or two rooms at a time, so you ultimately end up relying more on rote memorization of the fortress’ layout. In other words, you’ll need to play it quite a lot to become familiar with the design. One nice feature of the in-game map is that it shows you the available exits from each room, but it’s a glaring oversight that neither items nor keys are identified on the map in any way. Again, you’ll likely find it preferrable to abstain from the provided map and create your own, as yours will be truly ‘interactive’.
This game was tough. The difficulty wasn’t artificial, because the controls are actually quite responsive – Shadax moves and jumps where you want him to, and even though the puzzles start out deceptively simple, the game does progress into quite complicated territory. Disappearing blocks, spiked floors, conveyor belt mazes, warp transporters, and seemingly unreachable platforms require you to make full use of your magic potions and movement abilities. To be successful, you’ll have to learn some advanced jumping techniques, and they will become second nature to you as you progress.
What made the game so difficult was actually twofold. First, Shadax has absolutely no offensive capabilities. There is no option to engage in combat at all; Shadax must at all times use evasive maneuvers to keep from getting immediately annihilated. To top it off, anything in this game – ANYTHING! – will one-hit kill you. Stepped on a spiky floor tile? Goodbye. An enemy worm touched you? See you later. Get used to hearing Shadax’s death wail, because that high-pitched screaming will become commonplace quickly. Almost every single room has something in it that will kill you if you take a wrong step. To make matters worse, while extra lives and credits (continues) can be found within the game, there are only a handful of them available. If you run out, it’s back to square numero one! It only takes a few moments to run through your few available lives, and when they’re spent, you lose all progress you’ve made up to that point. The game truly requires you to become a master at avoiding each room’s dangers, and moreover to know them almost ahead of time – trial and error to the max.
The second area of nail-biting frustrating difficulty is the limited supply of potions Shadax carries with him as his only means of fighting back against the traps lying in wait for him. There are four potions total: an invincibility potion, a potion that eliminates anything moving in the room, one that freezes time, and one that reveals any potential invisible objects in the room. There are several problems with using these potions though. First, you’ll have to employ trial and error here as well, to figure out what each potion does, as they aren’t labeled in any way, just have a different color. Well, that’s easy enough to fix: just jot down a note on the map you’ve undoubtedly started to create for yourself by this point (right?). But that’s really the least of my concerns with the potions; a much more pressing concern is the fact that they’re in extremely short supply. At game’s start, you hold half a bottle of each in your inventory, which translates into two uses for each. You can find refills scattered throughout the fortress, but if you absolutely need a time-freezing shot of potion and you’ve run out, too bad! You’ll have to go it without. Since these potions are your only means to fight back against the evil minions, you’ll often wish you had a much larger supply of them. Then there’s the fact that each potion’s effect only lasts as long as you’re in the room where you activated it. Make yourself invincible with a shot of blue potion – you’ll be back to your wimpy defenseless self as soon as you cross into the next room. You can see that a full four-shot bottle will get drained rather quickly. Lastly, it is quite possible to use these potions to inadvertently screw yourself into a cheap death: If you use the potion that makes all moving object disappear to get rid of a nasty baddie in the room, you’ll also be destroying a block that you might have needed to get out of the room. It’s possible to literally trap yourself in a room this way, with no way out other than to take a deliberate one-hit plunge onto a spike trap and kill yourself. No spike trap accessible to you? Time to hit the ‘Reset’ button. I’m not making this up!
So there you have it! Solstice is for a bit of a hardcore puzzler audience, but it’s difficulty comes from all the right reasons – no cheap broken controls or unwinnable fights here. The game also has, in my humble opinion, one of the best 8-bit title screen sound cues I remember from the NES era, and a colorful, polished graphical look. Should you persevere enough to make it through this bad boy, don’t expect much in the way of a final boss battle – this IS a puzzle game, after all. But you’ll be able to pat yourself on the back for a job well done in any case!