Imagine you have a friend who’s really not into video games. Let’s call her Frankie. She used to play games on her big brother’s Super Nintendo 25 years ago, but really nothing else since. You haven’t seen Frankie for ages when she suddenly calls to say she’s coming over. When she arrives, she catches you playing Battle Princess Madelyn, and hears the repetitive chiptune music, the crude pixelated graphics and the annoying, seemingly aimless jumping around. Yep, that’s the gaming as she remembers it 25 years ago. As if there has been no progress in video games in quarter of a century!
Of course, that’s not true but retro pixel art Metroidvania platformer Battle Princess Madelyn wants to think otherwise. Everything that was wrong with the genre all those years ago, from unresponsive controls to irrational level design, is painstakingly xeroxed here. Don’t get me wrong, there were some true platformer classics but for every great game there were a dozen copycats with less stellar gameplay and level layouts. Sadly, or rather foolishly, Battle Princess Madelyn leans to these garden-variety platformers. When you try to avoid making the game too linear, it’s usually not a great idea to go in a complete opposite direction. Here, you have blind jumps to nothing when there’s no seemingly any other way to go, and you can end up in a dead end. A crude, basic mistake and something that actually didn’t happen in games 25 years ago but only in these cheap, modern replicas.
Battle Princess Madelyn is a bedside story where grandpa tells a fairy tale to sick little Madelyn. She gets excited when she hears the story will involve a princess of the same name who’s also a warrior, perhaps the bravest there ever was. Madelyn the warrior princess loses her beloved dog when an evil force invades her kingdom. The dog gets resurrected and accompanies Madelyn in her travels in a ghost form - not that there’s lots of use to it other than just hovering around. It would have been neat if the ghost dog had acted like Navi in Zelda games, pointing out things of interest. That would have saved from some of the odysseys Madelyn travels in levels that are too vast and illogical for their own good. The dog is supposed to bark when you’re near treasures but to me it just seemed float idly around.
Double jump is vital in navigating the platform-heavy venues of the game and it serves no purpose the boots enabling it are hidden - really well hidden. You can venture off a beaten path to no end – literally - making you wonder where on earth you’re supposed to go on from there. Well, the game forced me to kill Madelyn intentionally off several times so I could restart at the start of the stage to get out of dead ends. Luckily, I happened to stumble into a very secret cave with a spider boss lurking inside it. Defeating it rewarded Madelyn with boots that gave her the double jump. Really, such an important feature should have been there in the plain sight with absolutely no chances of missing it. There’s no way around it, it’s just careless level design. Later, there were also other items, crucial in solving puzzles in Madelyn’s way, that were all too easy to miss in the first go through the rambling levels.
The obvious inspiration for Battle Princess Madelyn is old Ghosts 'n Goblins, and the game doesn’t even try to hide it. When Madelyn, animated after Arthur’s example, takes a hit, she loses her armor, revealing her in her nightgown, and the next hit will kill her. Just like the knight in his shining armor in the Capcom classic. Madelyn can shoot hear weapons sideways and up, but why not directionally? There are some troublesome nasties placed on tops of narrow platforms and such, requiring a good slice of blind luck to avoid them when you’re half a time forced to jump into nothing. All in all, it’s better to play Madelyn’s ordeal in the arcade mode. It has no narrative and no hub areas (the castle and villages scattered around the world) but it’s only for the better. Madelyn’s skillset is complete, the levels are more straightforward and hectic, and there’s no awkward story to worry about.
Battle Princess Madelyn had all the makings of a charmer (there are never enough games featuring a warrior princess!) but it turned out to be a downer. Given ill-defined looks and sloppy level design, sprawling here and there for no other purpose than to pester you, the game is too committed to the gaming of bygone days. The best bet for retro-inclined developers would be fitting their games into modern conventions, and not fall into same old pitfalls that used to plague the genre. Even though your friend Frankie doesn’t realize it, there has been remarkable evolutionary steps in the gaming.
Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.