It’s not often a game can cause fear on such an instinctual level. Fear of the unknown, fear of the dark – if you grew up through the NES/SNES era, none of these are a patch on the deep, conditioned fear that can only come from the Ghosts & Goblins franchise. Just a quick glance at the screenshots and trailers brings back painful memories of flubbed jumps and cruel traps, of constant death and a happy ending yanked away from you at the last second. Pavlovian conditioning has taught you to be afraid, to cringe and to shy away from pain, and yet here we are.
“I’ve missed games like the Ghost’n'Goblins for many years, so I just decided to make one by myself.”
It’s okay; it’s safe – you can breathe now. Maldita Castilla isn’t quite as evil as Capcom’s classic series, but it is clearly inspired by it. Spanish freeware guru Locomalito has been working on this one for the past 20 months (give or take), and is rolling it out on this most memorable of dates (12/12/12) for us all to enjoy. The game masquerades as best it can as a long-lost late 80s arcade game, right down to conspicuous scanlines and even some faint, greasy smudges on the screen. The excellent music (courtesy of Gryzor87, Locomalito’s musician of choice) comes to you via an FM chip emulator for maximum authenticity.
The experience is more forgiving than your average arcade game, thankfully. Checkpoints are fairly frequent and continues are unlimited (with the twin penalties of losing your score each time, and locking you out of the best ending after too many retries), so progressing through the game through pure trial and error isn’t too tricky, although if you want the absolute best ending, you’ll not only have to do some exploring a little further afield, but also brave some particularly life-sapping challenges.
While memorization is quite important (this is a throwback to a much more stoic era of gaming, after all), you can usually get by with quick reflexes and a little bit of caution. Despite a constantly ticking time limit, it seldom ever gets close enough to zero to threaten you, giving you time to hang back and safely engage enemies at your own pace. This is a challenging game, but not excessively so – it’d almost be relaxing, were it not for the remarkably grim atmosphere surrounding it all.
“…taking influences from medieval paintings and places, and inspired by the best chivalry book ever: The Amadis of Gaul.”
While the core gameplay is clearly Ghosts & Goblins-inspired, the atmosphere is something else. There’s a strong gothic medieval aesthetic here, with your chain-clad Spanish knight battling headless corpse-men in a plague-ridden town, serpents, manticores, harpies and trolls. There’s a strong focus on beasties of traditionally European myth, and things get a little grim and satanic by the end. The palette used is fairly muted, and some of the enemy designs feel like they’ve been lifted straight off of ancient tapestries, which is rather refreshing.
The whole thing is a solid, exciting and replayable package. While there’s the classical challenge of shooting for higher scores and running faster times, there’s also the aforementioned multiple endings. Depending on your skills and willingness to dig through dangerous (and optional) branch segments of some levels, you can end up with a much happier conclusion, but your chance of seeing that on your first time through is just about nil. This might not be quite as hard as G&G, but it’s by no means easy.
It feels almost redundant to write so much about Maldita Castilla when the game is free, will run on just about any Windows PC under the sun, and is out now. Download it and play it for yourself – this is easily one of the best freeware games released this year, and a rather grim early Christmas present for us all. The fact that this was created purely out of love for the genre and a wish for its return, and shared with everyone while asking for nothing, is bordering on magical. All Locomalito wants is for you to play this game, and you probably should.