Madcap Castle is an action-puzzle-platformer for the PC that masquerades as an old Game Boy game. That retro devotion extends far beyond mere aesthetics, too, as this is the kind of game that embodies the same “what the hell was that”-ery that plagued many of the action-centric games on the system. By the time you reach the final 150th stage, you’ll have died thousands of times, and not all of those deaths will be your fault. Again, this is typical of a Game Boy game, but misleading hit boxes and miscellaneous eccentricities that cause you to instantly die minutes into a tedious level are the type of cheap difficulty best left in the past, and this cheapness has a way of overshadowing all of the good things Madcap Castle does.
Let’s just say there’s no story
The Steam page for Madcap Castle claims that the goal is for the mage to “recover his memory and powers.” The video on that page, however, says that there’s “one goal—recover your sanity.” Then you start playing and the opening talks about how the main character, apparently known as Mad Mage, is upset that his batteries on his “Mage Boy” run out too quickly, prompting him to begin a journey for the “infinite batteries.” There’s nothing wrong with a puzzle-type game not having a story, but this one seems to provide three separate justifications for the main character ending up in the titular castle, none of which ever actually end up mattering.
You’re going to die a lot
Each level is a small room that’s filled with spikes and/or enemies, and these rooms have one of three requirements that reoccur throughout the game: grab the pellets (this is the most common one), defeat all of the enemies, or light all of the candles in a specific order—that you have to figure out through trial and error—so that they all remain lit. One pellet shows up at a time, so grabbing pellets invariably ends up being more of a struggle than it first appears because it often requires backtracking past insta-death spikes and/or enemies. Same for the candles. There are also cannons that fire at a certain rate, rotating eyes that shoot things at you when they see you, roaming balls of electricity, and thwomps straight out of a Mario game.
Controls and spells
Since it’s styled to have similarities with Game Boy games, Madcap Castle’s controls are incredibly simple. Basically, you can move left and right, jump, and use whatever spell (if any) you’ve obtained. Spells are obtained from small tables with a book on them, and the subsequent levels are then designed around that spell in order to teach you how to best use it. Spells are a bit of a mixed bag, though, with some of them being great (like one that lets you reverse gravity) and others being abysmal (like one that creates a shield to reflect projectiles). The problem with many spells is that they bug out easily and start to feel more luck-based than anything.
It doesn’t always teach you things
Level 62 ends up stranding you in a pit without giving you any hint for how to get out. As it turns out, you can do a high jump when you have the shrinking ability by pressing both the spell and jump button simultaneously while you’re still large, but the game never explicitly tells you this. I don’t understand why it would go out of its way to teach you how to use the other spells, only to suddenly decide that it doesn’t need to bother pointing out how to pull off a mandatory new move.
Inconsistency is a major problem here
That’s not the only problem with this jump. It only works when you’re large, but if you quickly shift to your large form, pressing both buttons to perform the high jump causes you to instead do a normal jump. This becomes a huge problem when you’re trying to time a high jump so as to avoid cannonballs and spikes that are on a timer, because it forces you to transform and then wait so that the game actually registers your presses. And hitting both jump and the spell button can be tricky because hitting one slightly before or after can cause you to transform and then do a normal jump (or the other way around). This is actually how I came to discover the timing bug in the first place; I was so sick of my high jumps not registering that I used Xpadder to bind both inputs to a single unused controller button so that both happened simultaneously. The fact that the high jump was still hugely inconsistent gives you some insight into the type of difficulty certain stages veer into.
There’s good difficulty and bad difficulty
I ended up skipping 5 or so levels (this requires going into the save and messing with values, so it’s definitely not an intended game feature) because they were simply too tedious to deal with. That might sound like “wah, game’s too hard,” but some of the hard stages were my favorites. The difference between the hard stages that were good and the hard stages that were bad is that the good ones never wasted my time; after a death, I could jump right back in without having to sit around waiting. Then there are stages like level 92, which eventually took something like two full minutes of slowly weaving through hazards every time I’d die. That’s a huge waste of time, and it really started to wear on me until my appreciation of the game was worn down to almost nothing. I’ve never had a tolerance for soulless tedium.
The bad difficulty extends even farther than that, though. If you’re shrunk down and then grow large and a single pixel is inside of a wall, you die instantly. If you have the spell that creates boxes and there’s not enough room above you and to your side for the box’s arc, you die instantly. If you teleport and wind up a single pixel (again) inside a wall or obstacle, you die instantly. That last one becomes frustrating since some stages require teleporting after jumping in the air, so the precision that’s required for the mechanics to not instantly kill you becomes a real problem. Dying because you didn’t memorize exactly how large you are when you’re full-sized or because your spell has a weird arc isn’t a valid form of difficulty, and it drags the whole game down when you find yourself trying to plan around its arbitrary minutiae. Later bosses are also a problem, as they seem designed to do long attacks that you have to sit through over and over again every time you die. One boss even opens up by slowly shuffling toward you. Not attacking. It’s just a slow, unskippable shuffle.
Everything kind of blurs together
Graphically, things are decent. The sprite work is definitely solid, though the lack of color can become a problem. I found myself trying to scan levels while blindly dodging cannonballs because the next pellet blends in and its location isn’t immediately obvious. That’s not ideal, obviously. Then there are certain boss attacks that are difficult to see because they blend in with the background. That’s not always a graphical problem, though; sometimes the hurtboxes simply remain behind after the visual evidence disappears, causing you to die suddenly without warning. One thing I absolutely hate about Madcap Castle’s graphics, though, is the “low visibility” stages with halos that limit your vision. When later combined with levels that require lighting candles in a specific order (otherwise they don’t stay lit), this becomes repetitive beyond description. Then there’s the music, which is great chiptunes-type stuff that’s ultimately let down by the frustrating gameplay cheapness. It’s easy to forget all about the music when you’re going through a stage for the 200th time because the 199th attempt killed you after de-shrinking one pixel into a wall.
*A Steam review key for Madcap Castle was provided for the purpose of this review