From The Collection: Solstice
May 10, 2010
Solstice: The Quest for the Staff of Demnos (to give it its full name) is a fairly rare beast; an ancient relic from a genre that has very much gone out of fashion in the two decades since it was released on the NES. Ostensibly a puzzler, it plays more like a precision platformer, rendered entirely in an isometric aesthetic. I snapped it up as a kid – its fantasy setting made it a must-buy out of my pocket money; anything in that genre turned my head ever since I read Lord Of The Rings at 9 years old on a particularly uneventful family holiday to Corfu.
It seems I wasn’t the only one to be influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece; the main character in Solstice is called Shadax, which is surely a derivative of Gandalf’s trusty steed Shadowfax. Still, the developer’s insistence of Shadax’s profession, that of ‘Sorcerer’, is perhaps over-selling his skills. If the ability to drink potions and pick up blocks defines being a ‘sorcerer’, then we could all be one, given a little application. That’s right; despite wearing a typical wizard’s hat and robe, our dear Shadax doesn’t have a magical bone in his short, stumpy body.
Shadax is tasked with rescuing Princess Eleanor from the evil clutches of Morbius the Malevolent, another magic-user with a puzzling lack of spells. Our hero does this by venturing to Morbius’ castle, Kastlerock, and traversing through its many rooms (over 250 in total, according to the game’s manual), in order to find the six pieces of the Staff of Demnos, which, once combined, will defeat Morbius and save the damsel in distress. Why Morbius keeps the weapon that can defeat him in his own castle is never explained, however, much less why it’s been split into six seperate pieces…
Each room in Solstice is a self-contained screen, hard-to-reach ledges and doors providing the rudimentary puzzles that sometimes necessitate the need for one of the aforementioned potions. These might freeze all the enemies in place, making them useful to push blocks onto to create new platforms. Or they might destroy them all, making passage through a tricky room all the more simple. Others make Shadax invulnerable or make hidden platforms visible (Solstice also delights in making visible platforms suddenly disappear to plummet Shadax to his death). Oftentimes though, it is Shadax’s basic ability of picking up portable blocks and using these as stepping stones to reach otherwise inaccessible areas that forms the crux of the game.
A typical room in Solstice. Shadax needs to pick up the blue block in order to get across the spikes and pick up the green Magic Elven Boots, a necessary pick-up which enables the ‘Sorcerer’ (snigger) to jump higher.
It’s the isometric viewpoint that begins to grate the quickest. Because neither the ledges or Shadax himself cast shadows due to the NES’s low-powered hardware, judging whether the ledge you are leaping over a floor of spikes to reach is either above or below you is a tricky process. Pointy deaths are plentiful in Solstice, and the game’s insistence on leaps of faith often rewards you by robbing you of one of your precious lives. Solstice would be a much easier proposition if these lives were a little more plentiful, but extra ones are very scarce. The fact that enemies kill you with a single touch also exarcebates the problem; there’s no doubt that Solstice is a difficult game, both then and now.
But is still has its charms. Shadax himself is a wooden little bugger as he walks and jumps his way through each room, but the death animation is still rather comical, as his body seems to disappear out of his robes, and his pointed hat ends up on top of them as they crumple to the floor. Throw in the inhuman-sounding electronic scream as he dies, and it’s an end that is almost worth dying again and again for. Almost.
The music, brooding and menacing, is also excellent for an 8-bit title. But Solstice only contains this one track which repeats itself on an endless loop, wearing down the player with its infectious but ultimately maddening melody. If the game didn’t kill you swiftly enough with its difficulty, the never-ending soundtrack would quite possibly drive the player to suicide anyway.
Succeeded by Equinox for the SNES, and finding a stable-mate in Monster Max for the original Gameboy, Solstice is a reminder of why the isometric viewpoint soon became an outdated vehicle for the platform puzzler. If the developers had made the task less onerous by making lives infinite, and ‘Credit’ checkpoints a little more plentiful, Solstice wouldn’t be the chore it is to play. To scratch a fantasy-themed nostalgic itch, it warrants a lazy Sunday afternoon’s play, but isn’t worth any extended examination of its merits.