Bargain Bin Laden #18: Maximo

You guys smell that? Oh yes, it smells like violent death. That’s right, kids, welcome the newest inductee into the “So Bloody Hard It’s Awesome” club of BBL selections: Maximo: Ghosts to Glory!

Now, bear in mind that when I say this game is brutal, I don’t mean to assign it the level of guts-hungry goat-slaying brutality that are the hallmark of previous BBL selections Contra: Shattered Soldier, Gunvalkyrie or God Hand. It’s not all that bad, but it does have a sort of comic, cartoonish veneer that belies its nature, one which becomes clear when explored via Maximo‘s infernal ancestry: if you weren’t already aware, this title serves as the spiritual successor to one of the greatest ass-poundings in gaming history, Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Petrified yet? You should be!

To Capcom’s credit, though, they did a fine job bringing the series into the third dimension without mucking up the formula, and even took the edge off of its predecessor’s unforgiving controls and “congratulations on your win now beat it again jerk lol” design flaws. Still a difficult game, but in that way that serves for a hell of a good time — the Brutal But Not Unfair™ set that BBL has been pimping since day one. Hit the jump for more!

Maximo: Ghosts to Glory (PS2)

Developed by: Capcom Studio 8, a US R&D studio
Released: February 12, 2003
Bargain Binned: $4.99 at GameStop, 100 Goozex points.

We’ve been through this before, you and I, but for anybody unfamiliar with BBL, I’m happy to restate it: I’m a sucker for a really hard game. There’s a fine line, though, between a well-designed game that is also ridiculously difficult and a game built so poorly that it virtually ensures defeat by the hands of some hideous design flaw. It’s hard to gauge where Capcom’s NES classic Ghosts ‘n Goblins fits on that scale, but it’s probably a few inches north of truly evil. But only a few inches. What sets these games apart from most impossible journeys is the fact that victory is within the realm of possibility, and only through refinement of your technique and keeping at it will you succeed. When you beat games like these, you’re officially like unto a god — they’ve probably got a fancy registry for champions like you where your names are etched into the skulls of the conquered, that kind of thing.

Goblins had the benefit of an era in which most games were ridiculously difficult, and distinguished itself by being somehow even more unmerciful than most. Maximo is aimed at reviving the spirit of its forefather, a representative of a time in which games didn’t hold your hand, but instead tore your arm off and beat you to death with it.

Alas, in this revamp of the classic series, bearded badass Arthur is nowhere to be found. In his stead is the dashing Maximo, a warrior who returns home to find his trusted advisor, Achilles, has taken up the throne in his absence and stolen his girlfriend. Jerk. Achilles makes short work of Maximo in the effort to extract his revenge, and as the hero descends towards the great beyond, Death arrives to strike a deal with the warrior: if he stops Achilles from sucking the souls of the damned out of Hell to do his bidding, ol’ Bones will let him live. Maximo seizes the opportunity, is dropped back on the mortal plane, and goes to work slaying the legions of undead between him and his ultimate goal: Achilles.

When you first set out on your quest, the first thing you’ll notice is the simplistic controls. At his disposal Maximo has a fairly limited array of moves and attacks that you’ll be relying on for the bulk of the game, including a horizontal slash (which can be combo’d up), a vertical slash (stronger, and used in powerful jumping strikes), a double-jump and a Link-esque whirlwind attack. The circle button hurls Maximo’s shield at the nearest enemy, Rygar-style. Camera control is fixed to the shoulder buttons, and key among all is R2, which allows Maximo to block — you’ll be using a lot of that. The controls feel at once a hair too loose while being a smidge too stiff — it’s difficult to nail precise jumps or turn on a dime — but once you get used to the flow of things you won’t have any problems. Trouble is, those first few levels while you’re getting the hang of the controls can be right brutal bastards, but don’t let it put you off. 

In addition to the good ol’ hack-and-slash, Maximo can allocate a number of sword and shield upgrades to “lock spots” — circles located in the lower-left segment of your HUD. As you collect upgrades (flaming swords, gold shields, etc), you can choose to activate them at your discretion, making power-up management as key a skill as, y’know, dodging and shit. Knowing what works well in what situations will go a long way in keeping your ass alive.

The game throws a lot at you, too. On top of navigating the levels’ deadly terrain in which one of every three surfaces will crumble beneath your feet, explode into boiling magma or become parted by the ravenous arms of the freshly buried, there’s no shortage of enemies in your path that will most certainly tear you to pieces. Both of these elements of play, the combat as well as platforming, are equally challenging and require very precise timing and accuracy to ensure you don’t kill yourself quicker than the computer can do it for you. Combat is a blast, though, particularly in moments that require rapid and wide clearing of the bloodthirsty dead. Dying, on the other hand, isn’t always fun. 

Maximo takes a page or two from “hub-world” games in shaping its web of torment: at the game’s start you’ll take control of the knight in the Boneyard, the first of five level themes, from which you can reach any one of the game’s first five levels in any order. Once you’ve got those settled, the boss level opens, which in turn paves the way for the next hub world up until the end game. It’s a nice touch, particularly when one level is driving you towards thoughts of suicide and you want to start hammering away at something else. It’s a small degree of freedom, but works well in the grand scheme of the game.

Saving and continuing are two areas from which most of Maximo’s controller-chucking fury originates. Here’s how it works: you can save your game in the hub level, but it costs you a bit of money, so that’s something you’ll have to keep in the back of your head while you’re emptying your coin-purse on some armor or a health refill — fortunately, coins are scattered throughout the world fairly liberally. Death Coins, on the other hand, are a little bit harder to come by.

See, the Reaper needs payment to keep your ass alive, and the only currency he’ll accept is a Death Coin. Once you lose all your lives, Grim swoops in to drag your ass to hell, unless of course you’ve got enough to buy another shot. Every time you pay off Death, the price rises a little bit, making it harder to keep out of his icy grasp and providing a sense of dire urgency in the player to keep your benefactor at arm’s length. Collecting spirits throughout the levels — usually hidden in destroyable tombstones — will net you more Death Coins, but too many visits from the man in black will result in a price way, way too high to pay.

Maximo may look like a Saturday morning cartoon but it plays like Predator, make no mistake about it. Should you persevere and make it to the credits, it’ll be one of the most satisfying endings you’ll ever see — it’ll take some practice, but with a little luck and a lot of precision gameplay, conquering this beast can certainly be done. Plus, Christ, it’s only five bucks — that’s around four hours of play per Washington, son. Can’t argue against that, right? Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and buy this game!

Aaron Linde