For a series which takes an almost sadistic delight in frustrating those who play it, Capcom's Ghosts 'n Goblins garners a surprising amount of adoration from gamers - but the company doesn't seem particularly interested in resurrecting Sir Arthur for any new adventures, so thank goodness we have games like Cursed Castilla EX to tide us over.
Originally released in 2012 under the title Maldita Castilla ("Maldita" translates as "cursed" or "damned"), the game is largely the work of just one man, Spanish coder Juan Antonio Becerra - better known by the pseudonym Locomalito. Locomalito has published many other titles via his personal site and has distributed them free of charge on PC, Android and even Ouya. Cursed Castilla EX isn't free, but the game's quality - when combined with the thoughtful enhancements made for this 3DS release by publisher Abylight - more than justifies the cost.
Inspired by sixteenth-century Spanish literary classic Amadis of Gaul and set in the historical Kingdom of Castile, the game feels very much like a spiritual successor to Capcom's arcade classic. Our hero Don Ramiro is a close match for Arthur, and can hurl projectile weapons at his foes (although getting hit merely knocks off one of his three hearts - you don't get to see him running around in his underwear in this title). It's possible to throw weapons in the four main directions of the compass, so you can hit enemies above you and hurl them downwards when jumping.
At various points you're given the opportunity to pick up another weapon, with each variant coming with its own inherent strengths and weaknesses. The default sword is your basic projectile and shoots directly forwards, while weaker daggers fan out in groups of three, allowing you to hit targets above and below you. Axes are powerful and are chucked in an arc, as is Holy Fire. Experimenting with these and other weapons is key, and unlike Ghosts 'n Goblins you aren't saddled with unwanted pick-ups - the weapon icon cycles through all of the available options so you can always get the one you desire.
In additional to his main weapons, Don Ramiro can also call upon special sub-items to make his quest to liberate Castile that little bit easier. Blue Fairies orbit our hero and lend assistance by throwing glowing orbs at enemies, while the winged boots allow Don Ramiro to jump twice in the air - a neat trick borrowed from Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts. The shield means you can withstand an additional hit, while a special potion grants temporary invincibility. These pick-ups are extremely useful on Cursed Castilla EX's trickier levels, but there are other items - such as keys - which grant access to bonus items that are tracked using the game's achievement system. You can also collect coins and valuable items to boost your score.
When you consider that Cursed Castilla EX has been created by a single person, it ranks as a truly remarkable feat from a gameplay and artistic perspective. The visuals are wonderful, with some great sprite work and memorable levels which benefit greatly from the 3DS' autostereoscopic display. In fact, we'd go as far as to say that even if you've played the game on your PC or Android device, it's worth paying for on 3DS simply to see how well the glasses-free 3D effects hold up. The action is presented in an arcade cabinet, with the upper screen looking slightly recessed, as if it's a monitor behind a plate of glass. The lower 3DS display shows the bottom half of the cabinet, complete with a working hatch which can be opened via the touchscreen to toggle the machine's DIP switches, altering the video mode and changing controls.
The music is supplied by Javier Garcia, a chiptune musician who is better known by the name of Gryzor87. A perfect fit for the faux-retro visuals of the game itself, the soundtrack is as authentic as they come and manages to get the pulse racing in the same way that classic coin-op tunes did in the '80s and '90s. The opening level's theme is especially infectious, while stage three's track is strident and urgent, pushing Don Ramiro forward through a sinister and monster-infested fortress.
Like Ghosts 'n Goblins, Cursed Castilla EX is often brutal, but never unfair. The three-hit health system might seem like a concession but the game is arguably tougher than Capcom's series in places; enemy patterns have to be studied and weapons used sensibly to ensure survival. Unlimited continues soften the blow but once you've used a certain number the game chides you for progressing, stating that your "soul" is at stake. The message is clear; to master Cursed Castilla EX you need to raise your game and play it repeatedly until your skills are so advanced that you can best each level without losing a life.
The game's achievement system and focus on high scores (your score resets if you continue) give it considerable longevity, but only if you're a player who finds score-based play to be entertaining. A speedrun option is also included for players who wish to test their mettle in that regard; only experts need apply as merely getting to the end of the game will be taxing enough for most players. If you're still concerned about how long Cursed Castilla EX's appeal will last, it might also be worth taking into consideration that four different endings are available depending on your performance.
Cursed Castilla EX is a punishing but ultimately rewarding love letter to the classic action platformers of the coin-op industry's golden years, and while its brutal nature may prove off-putting for some players, those who appreciate the '80s and '90s era of gaming will find plenty to enjoy here. The original game was strong enough to be sold on its own merits but this 3DS port is augmented with some tasteful autostereoscopic 3D effects, and the fact that it takes the quest on the road makes it even more appealing. If you've yet to sample Locomalito's excellent title on other formats then this is arguably the best way to do it; should you already consider yourself to be a fan then it's still worth a look, purely for those lush visuals and the tantalising prospect of portability.