Long before they made survival horrors and open world monster hunting crawlers, Capcom were the true masters of the side-scrolling 2D platformer, Ghouls’n Ghosts chief among them.
While we’re unlikely to see a reboot anytime soon, much of the games’ essence has been brought back to life in Casual Bit Games’, Battle Princess Madelyn.
It all starts out a bit Princess Bride with a young girl called Maddi sick in bed playing some game called Buildykraft. Admist the coughing and spluttering, her grandfather comes to keep her company with a regaling tale of a Princess turned Knight called Madelyn. Before you know it you’re fighting oversized spiders and legions of the undead.
The kingdom is in chaos and only Madelyn can bring things back to order by performing favours for needy denizens and channelling the essence of her dead doggo, Fritzy.
And to do this she throws lots of javelin – seriously, where does she keep getting them from – all while trying to keep her armour on for as long as possible. That’s where Maddi takes some clear inspiration from captain underpants himself, Sir Arthur. Because if she takes one hit, she’ll lose all that bulky chainmail and be left in her jim-jams.
One more hit, she’ll lose a life, though fortunately can re-emerge through a big blast of lightning and immediately get back into the fight. But this gives you some idea of the scale of the task ahead of you. Battle Princess Madelyn is hardcore, to the point where it’s almost too faithful to the game it aspires to be.
The deeper you get into the game, the more enemies you’ll need to start paying attention to. Above you, below you, to the side, and behind. You’ll need to take on all comers from every angle and enemies will reincarnate if you move the screen just slightly. It gets busy and Casual Bit have no qualms chucking you in at the deep end.
As someone who grew up playing games that were dastardly and completely unfair, this doesn’t irk me too much, but a lot of tropes – like a clear mapping system or journal to remind you where to go – associated with modern games are absent. Battle Princess Madelyn prefers you to figure things out on your own, even to the point where it barely signposts anything.
Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly something to consider as the game can really test the limits of your patience as the levels grow in density and challenge. Especially when so much progress can easily be lost with a single death and there’s no clear savepoint system in place.
On top of the Metroidvania esque Story Mode which is filled with some wonderfully animated and vibrant cut-scenes, there’s also a more authentic 80s Arcade Mode which basically sees you fight through hordes of enemies in traditional side-scrolling fashion. All the mini-quests have been removed with the dialogue taken out, as well as some of the more RPG-lite elements.
Just like the good old days.
This isn’t a game completely rooted in the past, though, as you also have some lovely aesthetical changes, such as two different types of musical score – one more orchestral and modern, compared to the other which has a more retro, SNES-like flair. You can also tweak the graphical style by adding or removing the scanlines, depending on how authentically old-school you want to be.
Plenty of care has been taken to really make this game stand out while respecting its elders and it’s found a perfect home on Switch. That said, we did find Battle Princess Madelyn buckled beneath some really sluggish loading times. Transitioning between screens sometimes makes you think your Switch has locked up. Again, though, this feels like it’s in an effort to pay homage to how games used to play rather than a technical mishap.
And in that, this is as close to a reimagining of one of the greatest side-scrollers of all time as we’re probably going to get. Battle Princess Madelyn is never subtle about its inspirations but that’s ok. Because it really does capture the heart and soul of what made those games so great, a rare find in the ‘modern masterpiece’.
I’ve had so much fun with this over the past few weeks and while it’s not perfect nor the best representation of a side-scroller or Metroidvania, the clear passion of the developers, as well as the charm and style of the game continually win me over. Even when I’m constantly lost and effortlessly overrun.
Review code kindly provided by the publisher. Played on Nintendo Switch.