Maldita Castilla is available for free from it’s developer’s site. Go get it!
Christmas came early for me a couple of days ago when I heard that Locomalito’s Maldita Castilla was released. It’s a throwback to all of those games that used to make me smile/scream back during the days of the NES and SNES, one that marries great gameplay to heartless difficulty. It draws heavily from Ghosts N’ Goblins and Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts, but does so in a deceptive way. With the ability to take three hits and a seemingly generous checkpoint system, Maldita Castilla drew me right in and hooked me. It seemed like it would be an easier version of Ghosts N’ Goblins for the people who loved its gameplay but lacked the sheer grit to beat it. It was not. This game is really fun, but do not ever, ever, ever think that it’s going to go easy on you.
I thought it would be a Ghosts N’ Goblins-styled game that I’d actually be able to finish without tearing all of my hair out and breaking every piece of furniture I owned, but I was wrong. Maldita Castilla starts out soft so you get invested in it. The first levels aren’t all that difficult, and for some reason that made me forget that I was playing the first stage of a video game. Of course it wasn’t going to be all that hard;, it’s just trying to teach me the mechanics. It even seemed to be pretty generous with the checkpoints, given that the stages were divided up into several different areas. If you ran out of lives in one area, you wouldn’t have to worry because you could continue right into the same area. If you managed to limp to the boss room after a hard level, you could still run out of lives and continue right in the boss room. I laughed, thinking I’d be able to beat the game through attrition.
That isn’t even close to the case. One thing I’d forgotten was that Ghosts N’ Goblins had used a similar continue system, and that is still one of the hardest games ever made. Adding more checkpoints and infinite continues into the game just means that the developers can make those smaller areas that much harder. Many of Maldita Castilla‘s levels seem short, but they require you to play through them to perfection in order to get by. You don’t have to be perfect for long, but you do have to play through many of the levels exactly right in order to beat them. You’ll know every enemy placement and attack pattern before you get through a lot of these places, as you’ll have to play through each of them a few dozen times in order to get through. Also, it’s only the early stages that are all that short. Many of the last areas will leave you begging for a gateway and praying that the constant assault will end soon.
Most of your experience with the monsters won’t help you from stage to stage, either. Locomalito, the game’s developer, took great pains to make sure that every single area had its own unique enemies inside of it. There are dozens of enemies that only appear in one portion of a given stage and never show up for the rest of the game. A few knights will stick around for the whole thing, but you’ll almost always be fighting something new and exciting every time you pass a checkpoint. You’ll soon need those infinite continues to spend on figuring out how to avoid the attacks of the new monsters you’ll meet at every screen.
I loved the menagerie of creatures. I could be fighting fire bats in one area, then clashing with what looked like bigfoot holding a spear in another. Beasts would form up from the water, plants would spew out disgusting insects, skeletons would burst into flaming bones, and living cauldrons would shoot bubbling acid. There’s just a huge variety of monsters and attacks, and many of them have been placed to make the most cruel use of their powers. Archers are often placed near constantly regenerating knights, forcing the player to dodge back and forth between projectiles and enemies at the same time. In another level, poison-spewing cauldrons lurk around spiked pits and treacherous jumps, making it hard to land somewhere that won’t kill the player. The enemy variety kept me guessing in every single screen of every level, providing what seemed like an endless variety of combat options every time you entered a new screen. You’re never allowed to feel like you’re starting to understand your enemies, and the few times you see a familiar one it’s a relief.
Level design was given the same attention to detail. This isn’t a case of a few large areas getting divided up by checkpoints, but a bunch of different locales getting put into the same level. Honestly, I had a hard time telling when I was in a new level until the map screen showed up, as the levels just have so much variety to them. You could be fighting through a vertical cave while dodging projectile-breathing stone heads one second, and then jumping around a burning library the next. These places all stuck with the theme of whatever area the level was in, but they’d just look strikingly different each time you crossed into a new area.
They all looked great, too. I loved hopping across the ruined windmills in the second level, or the aforementioned run through the burning library. They’re all bubbling over with little details, and nothing is ever done in any sort of plain way. When I had to hop across platforms in a swamp, the platforms were turtles instead of rocks. The platforms in the library were all made of piles of discarded books, each of them in different colors and sizes. Enemies get the same details when they died, with some plant monsters growing over with vines or with the living cauldrons falling over with caustic ooze coming out of their eyes. If you like varied visuals in a game, this game constantly rewards your progress with new and varied stuff to look at.
The game isn’t going to make seeing that new stuff easy, though, but Locomalito has given the players a little bit of equipment to make things easier. You start the game off with a weapon that’s pretty much the same as the lance from Ghosts N’ Goblins. It’s decent and can be fired in four directions, although only two of them can be on screen at once. It isn’t a problem very often, but it does still put you in some bad spots if you miss often. Still, it’s the default weapon and you’d better get good with it given how often you’ll be dying. You can pick up new weapons, though, from treasure chests in the game. There’s an axe that has a weird arc, a throwing chain/bola thing that covers a more space in its flight path, and the scythe. You want the scythe. It’s like the boomerang cross from Castlevania on steroids. It flies absurdly fast, you can shoot it as fast as you hit the button, and it comes back after you’ve thrown it. It just tears anything it hits apart, and you can typically shred even bosses with it just from mashing the button.
The best part is that any weapon item gives you the option of whatever weapon you prefer. The icon flips if you wait, and you can get the one you want with just a little patience. There’s more stuff to collect than that, though, although the optional items are a little less exciting. There’s a shield you can get to absorb another hit, some boots that I have yet to figure out, and a faerie that shoots when you do. She’s handy to have in some places (invaluable in the vertical level with the cauldrons. DO NOT LOSE HER THERE) but the shield is great in a pinch. As nice as all of this stuff is, don’t get too used to having it as it all disappears when you die. The equipment is nice for the short time you can keep it, but you really should get good with just your basic character. It’s who you’ll be stuck with most of the time.
This is especially important during the game’s many boss fights. Unless you’ve played it a few times, you’re probably going to get killed the first time you run into a boss. You might get lucky and manage to keep your gear every once in a while, but the first run-in typically ends in your death and fighting it with your basic character. It’s mostly my fault from being used to modern games where you can often beat bosses just by overwhelming their damage output with your own. In this game, you need to play defensively. Really figure that into your play style when you pick this game up because I’m not exaggerating. You HAVE to be defensive against these creatures, and if you do so then you stand a good chance of winning. Never become overconfident, because you never know when one hard boss is still going to have a second mode right afterward that will kill you.
It’s because of this that this game is so satisfying, though. It’s like a full-body release when a boss goes down, this tension just giving out when you see the boss burst into flames. I jumped up and cheered after I finally took down the second level boss, gloating as if I’d beaten the entire game. These creatures are really hard, and require a level of smart play that just makes winning feel great. I got a lot more satisfaction from limping across a checkpoint or downing a boss in this game than I have from most of the games I played all year long. It’s just such an incredible feeling to overcome a tough spot in this game.
It’s also soul-crushing when you have to admit defeat. This game doesn’t have a save or password system, so when you do give up it’s a complete failure. I made it all the way to the fifth stage boss, but was so exhausted and under-armed that I just couldn’t win. It had only taken a few hours to get there, but I had to throw all of them away when I gave up and shut off the game. That was almost physically painful, and should have been so discouraging that I wouldn’t want to play it again. Even so, I had to force myself to sit down and write the review rather than pick it up and play it again.
The game perfectly captures that feeling of playing through a difficult SNES/NES game. It’s relentlessly difficult, but the checkpoints are just close enough together that you can tell yourself to keep going. It’s also really satisfying whenever you finally beat a hard area, and is the sort of game that I’d be proud to tell my friends I’d beaten. It also didn’t cost me a single cent. Nothing. A game this good should be on retail shelves or at least on downloadable services, but Locomalito is giving it away. There is no excuse not to be playing this game, especially during an expensive holiday season. Download it and let the hours slip away.