Reviews | Arcade


By Alex Kierkegaard / August 12, 2006

In Capcom's classic platformer a knight must set out on a quest to rescue his beloved princess from the clutches of Satan himself. To accomplish this he must first travel across six stages full of monsters and undead creatures, and on the way pass through a corresponding number of gates, each one of them guarded by Satan's fearsome generals.

Unfortunately, over two decades later the princess must still be languishing in Satan's dungeons, because I've never met, heard of, or could possibly imagine anyone managing to rescue her. Myself, I've given up a long time ago. There's no more point in trying anyway; her charms will surely have faded by now (it's astonishing what two decades will do to a woman's looks), and the knight would be better off forgetting about her and getting himself a younger girlfriend instead.

The princess's plight is mirrored by that of the game itself. Makaimura's attraction at the time of its release rested heavily on its looks: players were compelled to feed it coins largely because of the unusual setting and wonderful art and character designs. But now that two decades have passed and their effect has faded, few care to have a go at it anymore.

To be sure, Makaimura (lit: hellish village) is an exciting game which offers a truly unique flavor of platforming action (it's telling that no one has even tried to rip this off), with a variety of wicked enemies and good level design. But its strengths are undone by poor balancing, and some really cheap shots in its latter stages. Makaimura is not just hard by today's standards (which must be at an all-time low judging by the endless whining titles such as Devil May Cry 3 and Ninja Gaiden generate); it was hard by 1985 standards, and that should be warning enough for most of today's players to stay well away from it. But where does its legendary difficulty arise from?

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Much has been made of the realistic way in which jumps are handled in Makaimura. In contrast to every other platformer out there, in this game, as in real life, your landing point is determined the moment you take to the air -- no mid-flight adjustments are possible. All reviews of the game I've read attribute its difficulty to this factor, but that is misleading. It is true that the unusual jumping mechanic can give trouble to first-time players, but they get used to it before long. The key is to try and plot the movements of all enemies (and their fire) in your mind, and jump only when you are sure that your landing point will be free of danger at the time of your landing. Yes, it's tricky, but it's certainly feasible, and in any case the game's feel and its uniqueness stem largely from this factor; to take this away from it would be to turn into just another platformer.

So jumping is not a huge problem, and neither are the platforming challenges particularly difficult, nor the enemies and bosses too powerful or hard to kill. The main reason for Makaimura's difficulty is that several enemies move in erratic, somewhat-random patterns, which can at times be almost impossible to predict. This is, again, in sharp contrast to the enemies in similar games, which move in easily-read, predefined patterns.

The flying enemies are the worst offenders here, because they have more freedom of movement, and thus more scope to confuse you. Take for example the tiny purple devils that come out from the windows of the abandoned buildings in the second stage, and charge straight for you like homing missiles. To try and avoid them by jumping is equivalent to suicide; since they change directions on a whim it's impossible to foresee their movements. Your only chance is to kill some of them and try to outrun the rest. But this can often prove impossible, since they are faster than you. Yet other times you are convinced of certain death as one of them charges straight for you, and watch in surprise as it changes its mind and flies away at the last possible moment.

And that's the game's biggest problem: the element of luck involved in negotiating numerous tricky spots, which makes beating the game not only hard but also unlikely, and beating it twice in a row, as you have to in order to clear the second loop and save the princess, almost impossible.

Of course, as any decent player will tell you, the better you get at this game the less your progress is reliant on luck. But even if you practice long enough to gain absolute, zen-like control over Arthur's movements, and if you commit to memory every feature of every stage, and if you constantly try to account for every possible movement of every on-screen enemy (and the occasional off-screen one), then yes, if you do all the above, you will still need luck on your side to get through certain spots, and not just in the latter stages.

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But even the more predictable enemies conspire to make victory impossible. You can almost never clear an area in Makaimura and just hang back to catch your breath before moving on; the game will not allow it. Most of Satan's minions constantly respawn, and they all charge you relentlessly, inducing a lingering state of anxiety in even the most experienced players.

Now there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the random movements of some enemies, or with the relentlesness of others. In fact, an element of randomness is something that more of today's developers should try to work into their games, as it makes them less repetitive, and the fierceness of the enemies only serves to heighten the gloomy atmosphere.

The problem here is that they did not give you enough leeway to account for the difficulty these elements introduce; the odds are stacked too high against you. Counting the second loop there are just way too many stages, and the latter ones are way too cheap (the ascent to Satan's throne room, with enemies jumping you from everywhere and numerous bosses waiting at every landing, is simply a bad joke). They needed to give you something more if you were to stand a fighting chance: more lives, better maneuverability, or stronger weapons, perhaps.

As it turns out the best weapon in the game is the throwing knife, and second-best is the lance you start out with. The others have their uses at specific points, but since you can only carry one at a time it's best to get the knife as soon as possible and stick with it throughout. Unfortunately, you are sometimes forced to pick up weapons inadvertently, such as when an enemy carrying one charges you and you end up killing him point-blank. If in this way you end up with a crap weapon, such as the flaming torch for example, you are put at a great disadvantage until you pick up a better one. On top of this you are required to defeat the last two bosses with the awkward crucifix, or you are forced to endlessly repeat the impossible ascent to Satan's throne room until you do. And then you are stuck with using it on Satan himself, which makes the job that much harder. There had never been such a wickedly-designed game before Makaimura, and there hasn't been one since.

Whatever its failings though, you have to hand it to the designers for imbuing their game with an appropriate sense of humor. Try to imagine how this skinny and beleagured knight must feel, in his underwear, running through a dark land swarming with blood-thirsty demons. It's how you'll feel after spending an hour or two with Makaimura.