After 18 more minutes of being stuck on level 92 and having perfectly safe attempts ruined by the fact that you insta-die if you switch to your full size and are a single pixel too close to a wall, I was officially over Madcap Castle. When it’s good, it’s very good, but its bad is equally notable. A game where you can die in a single hit and levels eventually take minutes to finish requires the controls and general mechanics to be beyond reproach, and between the bugs, inconsistencies, and general peculiarities, there’s plenty that one could rightfully take exception to. Thankfully, saves can be edited in a text editor to unlock all of the levels, so I was able to continue playing and skip past the awful stages (which become more frequent).
The late-game good and bad
Obviously we have to start at level 92. The thing about this stage taking so long is that you eventually get bored and start to zone out, which makes things even more difficult. Many deaths in the video above are entirely my fault. The one at the very end, however, isn’t. There’s no reason to not have the game push you out of walls. None whatsoever. This isn’t a valid form of difficulty. Also not valid is the high jump, which it turns out isn’t consistent even with perfect timing. See, I got tired of this thing not working, so I used Xpadder to bind the keyboard keys for the jump and spell to a single face button on my controller that the game doesn’t use, so every time I pressed it, both inputs happened simultaneously. That revealed something interesting: if you’re standing around doing nothing, the high jump is consistent. If you quickly shift to your large form and then try it, however, it’ll sometimes register as a normal jump. This is the kind of thing that can really screw you over.
A few levels later, you get a new spell that allows you to shoot a firecracker straight up. Levels then start to revolve around hitting targets on the ceiling, and the timing can become really diabolical. There are also a few levels where you have to hit enemies in midair to defeat them and open the door, and I really prefer the levels that center around obtaining pellets. Still, I’d consider these levels an overall positive, though the boss fight is awful. Its first move (and one that it uses at least 3 times on a successful run, and so many more times as you’re trying to figure out how to damage it) is to slowly shuffle toward you. That’s it. Just waste time slowly moving around. This really adds up, and tedium is also not a valid form of difficulty.
Things were looking up for awhile after that. There were some interesting cannon timing puzzles that were passable to good, but then level 112 was another turn into the awful. In it, you have to platform up parallel platforms in your mini form while dodging cannonballs, and the problem is that the timing required is precise to the point of being needlessly aggravating. Jump too soon and you hit the platform above, causing you to fall rather than loop up and around on top of it. Jump too late and the game doesn’t register your jump at all, causing you to also fall. The timing of the cannonballs is just off enough that there’s not a solid rhythm to the level, either, and this creates an awkward, arrhythmic flow that’s thoroughly unpleasant.
Here’s a little irritation: obtaining a spell and then dying in that same stage forces you to obtain it again every time you die. There’s no reason for this, and it makes learning the ins and outs more painful than it should be. Ideally, you would obtain a new spell and have it remain with you through death so that you can jump right back into the stage. That’s never the case here. Anyway, the new powers in the video above are the ability to rush forward and turn invisible. Rushing forward is awkward and difficult to control, so it has a lot of bad stages (including the boss fight, which I eventually just skipped because of how irritatingly finicky the controls are). Invisibility, on the other hand, is used in much more interesting ways, though you can move through certain platforms while invisible, and becoming visible while one pixel is inside of one of those platforms instantly kills you. Some stages capitalize on this by requiring you to switch back and forth to jump through some platforms and then land on another (see: level 140). Oh, and there’s also a short-lived card-throwing ability that’s kind of an attack, though how it works isn’t adequately described. Sometimes it destroys one block, other times it destroys two, and one puzzle in particular is designed as though you have control over this when it seems entirely arbitrary.
The last spell is a teleport, and it’s used in interesting ways, but it can also become infuriating. You can see a few good and bad stages incorporating it toward the end of the last video, but the video above covers the penultimate level, and that’s definitely one of the good ones. Basically, levels that have cues hinting at where you need to stand to land in a certain spot (because the distance you teleport is otherwise difficult to get a handle on) are good ones, while those that are a confusing mess of blocks that require teleporting while jumping and praying that you don’t end up half-touching a single pixel into a wall or floor (which kills you) are some of the worst.
I also gave the final boss a shot, but the monochromatic presentation really holds it back. This is something I noticed back when fighting that owl-type boss who opened up with the annoyingly slow shuffling: the lack of contrast makes things more difficult than they’d be otherwise. Pellets that you have to collect can be virtually invisible and require carefully scanning the room while dodging cannonballs just to locate them (not okay), while boss attacks are sometimes a light shade of gray that fails to stand out from the background. This makes it difficult to dodge—and even see—some attacks. Eventually I got sick of this guy killing me with his random fire attack and decided that I had played enough. It’s hard to call this a game that I quit considering that I played through the vast majority of levels (all of them except for maybe 5 or so), but those few levels were truly some of the most poorly designed ones I’ve seen in a game since the Game Boy days. In that sense, Madcap Castle is a resounding success, tapping into the the same poor hit detection and general wonkiness many games of those days sometimes suffered from. Without the aid of savestates or color or other modern conveniences, however, it’s hard to recommend.