“Michael,” said my editor with a cruel, evil twinkle in his eye, “have I got a dream assignment for you.” I steeled my nerves and through sheer force of will managed to avoid the loud, noisy gulp which I have learned only fuels Carl’s sadistic side. He wrapped his arm around my shoulder, buddy-like.
“What’s that, boss?” I replied, trying to sound as natural as possible. Maybe if he doesn’t suspect I’m on to him, he’ll only ask me to take out the garbage or dust his Human Centipede Blu-Ray collection again.
“It’s election season, you know,” he began and my brain hurled into overtime, wondering where this could be going. There were election simulators, of course…had been for years, going all the way back to the likes of 1981’s President Elect on the Apple II. There was even that never-quite-made-it game based on Bill Clinton’s cat from the 90’s. “We need something flashy,” he continued, hand extended out expansively, outlining a vision only he could see. “Something to let our readers know we’re hip to the times, that we have our fingers on the pulse, that retro is relevant!” I kept my mouth shut. It’s best to just let Carl talk when he gets like this. “We need…we need…” he struggled to find the right word, snapping his fingers, as though it was on the tip of his tongue.
“Something to trump the competition?” I ventured, and Carl’s eyes lit up. For a moment, there was hope–optimism–welling up inside of me. Tonight, there may be real hot dogs for dinner! Had I done well? Was it possible? Then I realized my verbal gaffe and knew the game was up.
“Yes,” Carl replied, turning to face me with a gaze that would give a serial killer pause. “Trump. Make it happen, Michael. Make Retro Gaming Magazine great again. For me, will you do this?” I smiled, nodded, and made all the suitably appropriate gestures to indicate both ‘complete obedience’ and ‘no reason to break out the cat o’ nine tails’. Inwardly my soul died a little more, and my self-respect withered under its own punishing gaze. I’m writing about a Donald Trump-themed game?
You have your orders, soldier.
It took me six hours of picking through the Retro Gaming Magazine archives before I found what I needed. In the bottom drawer of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory behind a door bearing a sign reading ‘Beware of the Leopard’, directly behind plans calling for the demolition of some random tosser’s house in order to build a new highway bypass, I located a battered green cardboard box. After struggling out of the dark basement (both the lights and stairs having gone out certainly qualified this as a struggle), I headed back to the office to gaze upon my prize. There it was: Trump Castle II – Casino * Resort * By the Bay. I brushed off the dust, lifted the lid, fed the trio of 3.5″ floppy disks into the battered DOS-based machine which serves as my workstation, and waited for the installer to do its job.
Trump Castle II is the 1991 sequel to the 1988 casino game Trump Castle, based on Trump Castle, one of The Donald’s real-life Atlantic City gambling establishments. The Castle itself, which evokes a motif more ‘hotel’ than ‘fortress’, opened in 1985, but struggled due to its location in the Marina District, as opposed to the Boardwalk where most other New Jersey casinos operated. Without a direct route to the Atlantic City Expressway, Trump Castle had a hard time attracting guests at the rate of Trump Plaza, Trump’s other casino establishment. Rebranded ‘Trump Marina’ in 1997, a bankruptcy settlement in 2011 saw it acquired by the owners of the Golden Nugget, and was re-opened as a new Golden Nugget Hotel & Casino, which it remains as of the time of this writing. OK, I see your eyes glazing over from here; no more history lessons for today.
Casino-style games have always been popular forms of computer entertainment–just witness the millions of productive hours lost to Windows Solitaire since its release. They’re great for hardcore gamblers and neophytes alike, since you never lose any money but they can be used to hone strategies for what might work best in a real casino setting. They’re also simple to just pick up and play: Poker uses the same deck of cards no matter where you are, Roulette wheels are pretty much identical, and the rules for Craps never change. Best of all for early computers, they’re low-impact in terms of system resources. In contrast to action platformers or first-person shooters, the screens of casino sims are mostly static, requiring few frames of animation and only simple mathematical calculations, and if there’s one thing computers do very well, it’s adding and subtracting numbers at the speed of electricity.
What remains to differentiate the various casino games from one another then is only game variety and presentation. Trump Castle II is decent in the variety department, offering up half a dozen gambling options: Roulette, Craps, Blackjack, Video Poker, Baccarat, and dollar Slots. The instruction manual explains how each game is played, but not the rules. Fortunately for those requiring a refresher course or full primer on how a game operates, you also get a small gaming guide from the Trump Castle at the time which explains the basics of each game, payout odds, and other miscellaneous rules. The guide does not include any tips or strategies though, so it’s up to the player to figure out what the best plays are at any given time. Players start the game with $1,000 and the goal is to use that starter grand in an attempt to become fabulously, ridiculously, obscenely wealthy through risky behaviors you’d never try in real life–sounds like the perfect application of the Trump name to us. Unlike real life, running out of money isn’t the end of the world: a quick hop over to the cashier delivers relief to the bankrupt in the form of another thousand bucks to fritter away. Side note: do NOT lose the gaming guide. It’s what Trump Castle II uses for its version of copy protection.
Since Trump Castle II features the same games you could find in pretty much every other casino game of the day, that leaves presentation as its, er, trump card, and here we see the game take a significant tumble as it tries to do too much with too little. Loading screens are ubiquitous, heralding each screen transition with nothing save a small watch icon with the word ‘Loading’ above it as what little action there is grinds to a halt.
It has a feature where the player can ‘explore’ the grounds of the casino and resort to a limited extent, but after looking at everything you can see in the West and East Hallways, and glancing through the newspaper (pics of real-life casino goers are on page two, high scores are posted on page three!), there’s no real need to go back. Some minor interactions in the casino, like talking to a few other slot machine players, are also possible but this is a casino game, not a visual novel, so…what’s the point, exactly? Were they around to ask today, I assume Capstone would reply “for immersion”, but I suspect the truth was they paid a small fortune for the Trump brand, and wanted to get their money’s worth with these little distractions. So, by all means, visit the restaurant for a couple Trump burgers (not kidding)…
…catch virtual rays at the pool…
…walk into a random couple’s hotel suite…
…even visit the gym to enjoy a still-photo of people getting more exercise than you are sitting in your chair in front of the computer! Man, Trump Castle II sure knows how to make a guy feel good about himself after eating those (Burp…) two Trump burgers!
Upon entering the Castle (after the loading screen, naturally), players are met by a concierge (played by the photograph of somebody dressed up like a concierge) who explains a few of the keystrokes, then leaves you to your own devices. All of the interior shots of the Castle are digitized reproductions of the actual building, which are pretty good for the time, but attempts at animation are laughable. The fountain in the lobby, for instance, is nothing more than looping progressions of white dots indicating water sprays. Even worse are the animations for the various table employees, whose faces hold static, never-changing smiles while their arms sway back and forth in simple two-frame flip-flops to indicate the work they’re doing. The back-and-forth hand motion of the Craps roller looks vaguely pornographic, which is always good for a chuckle.
Ultimately, Trump Castle II can end only one way: a trip to the exit to hop on the bus and leave Atlantic City forever. Leave with money in your pocket, and consider yourself a winner. Leave with an empty pocketbook and…well, bankruptcy couldn’t keep Donald Trump down, so maybe you’ll be running for President of the United States in another twenty-five years. Who can say?