I’m currently stuck on level 92 of Madcap Castle, but that seems as good a stopping point as any given how many new mechanics have come up. A few stages have even switched things up by requiring the defeat of all enemies to unlock the door forward rather than relying on pellet-collecting, which is kind of awkward since the closest thing you have to an attack is a box-throwing move and a bomb that doesn’t explode immediately, both of which are about as likely to kill you as whatever enemy you’re targeting. But hey, there have also been some really well designed stages. Right now I’d say that about 70% of the stages are decent, 15% are great, and 15% are designed to be infuriating difficulty spikes. Speaking of which, the difficulty here definitely isn’t smooth. You’ll be cruising along, only to hit a brick wall of difficulty every so often that takes 20 times as long as the other levels to get through.
Some examples of good stages
I should probably mention that there’s some crossover between the difficulty spikes and good levels. Take the stage above, which is timing-based and quite difficult, but in an entirely fair way. It starts out feeling impossible, but once you learn the best way to move off of platforms and get a sense for the timing of the cannons, things become much more reasonable. This is Madcap Castle as its best.
There are also stages like this one that revolve around a spell that reverses gravity for your character and certain types of enemies. All of the stages using the gravity mechanic are pretty great, and it’s definitely my favorite spell thus far because of how much more reliable it is than, say, the reflect spell. There are even stages where you can mess with gravity to send enemies into spikes, making it easier to finish.
Of course, if you had asked me during this particular stage if the gravity spell was my favorite, you’d have gotten a glare followed up by a hailstorm of bitter profanities conjugated in impossible ways. I got stuck here for a long time because of the changing elevations of the spikes and roving ball of electricity. Basically, falling has a sense of momentum to it, so switching gravity at the last second will still see you hit the spikes and die. You have to press the button before you feel that doing so is necessary, which can be incredibly tricky. Straightforward stages like this that you can dive into over and over again without needing to wait are my favorite, though.
Once you get a better feel for the timing, even this level becomes relatively simple. That’s really the key to good puzzle-type games in general; they start out daunting, but eventually make you realize that they’re simpler than they first appear.
And of course, the good design extends to the boss fight, which is solid (though I strongly disagree with the death at ~3:20; some of the danger areas remain even after all visual evidence of their existence is gone, which can lead to cheap deaths).
Some examples of bad stages
The boxes can be incredibly awkward. For one, you have to jump and throw a box to make a stack large enough to reach the upper platforms in this stage, but jumping and throwing a box can cause it to bug out and get caught in the ceiling. Throwing a box when there’s not enough room can also randomly cause it to hit you, killing you as soon as you press the button. You can see this happen at ~2:15, which is even more ridiculous because there’s a wide open space in front of the playable character. It’s only because his boxes arc upward that the game decides there’s not enough room and kills him, and this is another thing that I strongly disagree with.
Bombs have the same trajectory, but they can be walked through, avoiding many of the same insta-death issues boxes face. Still, waiting around for them to explode adds a layer of tedium to stages as you figure them out. Still, I’d take bombs over either the reflect or box spell. Tedium can become a major issue, though.
The early levels gave you the ability to light candles, and a few of them before the boss fight revolved around candles that only stayed lit if activated in a certain order. That even tied into the boss fight, and it worked decently enough there because this was early on and there weren’t many candles to deal with. When lighting candles is reintroduced, though, things take a serious turn. This level in particular has six candles that have to be lit in a specific order (and you have to find out the order through trial and error) while dealing with spikes hidden by darkness and indestructible ghosts who chase you when you turn away. This isn’t a hard stage, but the tedium makes it feel like it takes five times as long as it actually does.
Then there’s this level. You quickly find yourself in a pit with no obvious way out of it, and the only way out is by activating your shrink skill while jumping. Problem is, the timing here is tricky enough that it’s not consistent (I would give anything for a third button that consistently pulls this off), and the game never actually teaches you that this is possible. I found out because I read about it beforehand on the game’s Steam forums. Without that, I likely would have been stuck here. Now, most stages that incorporate this jump give you time to pull it off rather than turning it into a split-second thing, and this makes its inconsistency a non-issue, but “most” isn’t “all.”
Which brings us to level 92 of Madcap Castle
This level is a parade of bad decisions. The cannons and spike patterns slow things down, forcing you to constantly waste time finishing the easy first part of the stage, and this adds a layer of tedium unlike anything else in the game. Once you get the easy first pellet, you have to make your way back up and do that inconsistent high jump timed in such a way that you don’t leap into one of the two cannonballs in your way (and the jump requires being large first, which adds extra danger since it makes you a big target). I think I’ve figured out a way to get the third pellet, but the point is that getting the first two is such a tedious hassle that experimentation becomes painful, and I could see people shelving the game at this point because of that. I’m certainly going to consider it if this stage is dragged out by even more pellets.