Maldita Castilla EX: Cursed Castile is the enhanced edition of an homage game released back in 2012 and is easily identifiable by its title which is about twice as long as it needs to be. Taking clear inspiration from Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins, Maldita Castilla has a nostalgic weapon system, a medieval aesthetic and a quarter-munching design. With the addition of pixel art and a similarly retro soundtrack, the game channels the appeal of old-school action platformers.
Maldita Castilla begins with a very brief intro that sets up the plot involving war, demons and the creation of a magic key. In the beginning of the game, your group of knights are given orders by the King and set out on their journey. Next to no actual story progression is given throughout the game, but there is an archive of information for humans and demons along with a music player. Unfortunately, all of the characters are given a single sentence of information which is very underwhelming. For a game that prominently declares its inclusion of medieval legends, the descriptions make you think otherwise: “This old grouch was gifted the power of controlling storms and thunders” isn’t exactly the most riveting backstory for a boss. If the detail of your narrative descriptions can be challenged by fortune cookies, you may want to rethink the inclusion of a bestiary. Overall, it feels like a missed opportunity to expand upon areas that could make the setting more interesting, as they wouldn’t interfere with the gameplay. This misstep is seen in the bare-bones narrative, but also the sound effects and music. The audio in general seems as though it has been taken from public domain noises and themes, making it forgettable.
With simplistic controls you can move, jump and shoot. In classic arcade fashion, Maldita Castilla can be picked up and played by anyone, yet the difficulty increases by the second level that demands much of you despite a limited move set. Throughout each level, there are multiple treasure chests which can be opened for various power-ups, health pickups and extra lives. Dying will strip you of all of your power-ups, making successive levels or boss battles much more difficult. Making it through an entire level with these bonuses can trivialize some bosses, giving you the incentive to tread carefully to retain them. Maldita Castilla excels with its relatively slow yet intense gameplay. Even minor mistakes are seriously punished, but getting into a rhythm yields long-term success.
This is the same classic feel that kept so many of us in the arcades all day when we were kids, but part of that nostalgia doesn’t translate very well in a console context. This is quarter-munching design through-and-through. Many levels are designed to simply flood rooms with enemies or bullet attacks that require a degree of memorization to get through unscathed. There are moments where you'll blindsided the second you jump onto a new platform. It only takes a handful before death feels cheap. The platform-centric levels in particular can be frustrating. Part of this issue comes from limited air control and double jumps being relegated to power-ups. Taking a hit will force your character to fly backwards and you can’t regain control until you’ve hit the ground – or fallen to your death. It is indeed a loyal emulation, but an unsatisfying one nonetheless. Overall, the difficulty level in Maldita Castilla can be rather high – which I appreciate – but there’s absolutely no sense of escalation. Some of the toughest levels and bosses in the game are at the mid-point of the game, whereas some nigh-final levels and bosses are easy even with the base weapon.
The commitment to including old-school elements for their own sake is evident in the scoring system, which feels rather inconsequential. Collecting treasure and completing levels in a timely manner awards points towards an overall score. In fact, there are bonus levels that can boost your score further; however, your score is reset to zero should you die, and die you will. For a first attempt at the game, the score mechanic feels like it only exists for the most hardcore of players who go for achievements tied to no-death runs. In addition, there is also a timer, but I have no idea what purpose it serves other than to increase your score. I never once came even close to running out of time because it counts down so slowly. As a result, the timer fails to act as an instrument of pressure and is instead basically invisible for anyone not pursuing a score challenge.
Maldita Castilla’s very existence is geared towards satisfying the hardcore player base, but I don’t see the appeal in mastering the game when it’s simply not that fun to play in the first place. Many of the stages are extremely simplistic and the bosses have only one or two patterns that they follow with the occasional change once you’ve depleted a portion of their health. The most interesting boss in the game quickly throws a single axe at you, and if you dodge it, he gives up and wishes you well on your journey. I suppose a pragmatic attitude is a good idea when you’ve missed a sucker punch.
At the end of the day, completing the game is indeed entertaining but there’s little incentive to revisit such a brief journey. As rusty as I am with games of this style, my first playthrough was only an hour and a half long. I originally got the bad ending when I had killed a boss but was told that I needed five specific collectibles in order to proceed. While these collectibles were mentioned in a single sentence in the intro, I was never given any indication that they served a tangible purpose in the gameplay – let alone that I could physically collect them at all. Upon starting a new game, I found a few of them, but only did so through randomly attacking walls repeatedly. For a required collectible, their presence is needlessly obtuse. The game is already short, so this false replayability does little to remedy that fact. Online leaderboards might have helped fulfill a desire to put up higher scores than everyone else at the arcade machine; however, Maldita Castilla is a local game, which turns scores into nothing more than personal bests with no comparisons to be made with others. Some may argue that this game has high replayability, but in truth, it simply has a lot of unnecessary elements that force replays in an inorganic way and offers no comparative payoff for performing well. This is a game you must play while throwing knives at walls, ceilings and pits before you’re allowed to finish the last level or see the more interesting homages, such as the Lady of the Lake. There’s nothing wrong with hidden content, but there is something wrong with a base game experience that doesn’t convince the player to go through it all again.
Maldita Castilla EX: Cursed Castile is very much a love letter that will satisfy people who yearn for the good ol’ days of arcade games; however, it carries with it the same kind of content, blemishes and all. There are no bugs or crippling design choices that ruin the game, but there’s little incentive to play it more than once unless you’re truly enraptured by the initial experience.