If I can say anything about the PS2, GC and Xbox era, it would be that it had some of the most overlooked games ever, which is a terrible shame. Dragon Quest 8 only famous because of a Final Fantasy 12 demo disc, Wind Waker got a lot of hate just because of the cell-shaded presentation, and Capcom had similar issues with their titles. Besides Viewtiful Joe and Okami to name a few, Maximo also did not sell well despite getting a greatest hit-status. Maximo was originally planned for the N64, and then shifted to be released for the Dreamcast, though since it bombed early on, it was finally made for the PS2 instead.
The game is very similar to Capcom’s other gothic-themed game that isn’t a survival horror: Ghost and Goblins. You will see this the moment you start the game, with cartoon characters and the king Maximo returning to his castle to find his queen Sophia captured by the evil king Achille, who now controls the world of the undead and wishes to also conquer Maximo’s kingdom as well. After being killed by Achille, Maximo is met by the Grim Reaper, who gives him another chance at defeating Achille, so he can reclaim his job in the underworld. No death in the underworld equals no job for old Grim, after all. it is a bit of a shame that this story is not more fleshed out, as I love the style of a dark cartoon, with creative moments. One highlight happens when Achille turns one skeleton-soldier into a human so he could be tortured. Sadly, the story boils down to save the princess, reclaim your kingdom, and end the evil’s reign of terror.
The game is set up as a linear platforming game with hack & slash elements to boot. You always move forward in each stage until you come across a spire, where you must defeat a horde of regular enemies before proceeding on. This is structured through 5 hub-areas where you can have 4 stages to tackle in the order you want, with one extra intro-stage being provided, and ending with a bossfight. There is a lot to talk about this game, so let us start with the platforming itself.
Maximo is not very versatile, though he has a double-jump which comes in handy for some wide gaps or higher platforms to reach. However, the extra boost does not change in midair, making him hard to control over pits of instant death obstacles such as lava. This would usually not be such a bad thing, but some platforms have terrible detection and slippery edges. Combining this with Maximo also sliding when you try to stop, makes it easy to accidentally fall of or have jumps being just too short, forcing you to lose a life, or worse, restart the stage. It is a shame as the levels are structurally solid and has some minor, but entertaining creativity, such as woods and turtle shells floating alongside the river. Sadly, this poorly designed aspect can be an unfair reason for frustration.
It does not help much when the camera is also off. Despite that you are often going forward, there are hidden secrets and such to uncover, but sadly: you can only reset the camera behind you while standing still. It is understandable that they might not have figured out that camera-controls can be handled well with the analog-stick yet, but it makes me wonder why they did not make L2 and R2 move the camera at least? Instead, one of the shoulder-buttons is dedicated to a useless aiming-mode. When platforming can also be vertical and in small caves, it would have helped out so much if you could actually control it.
The combat thankfully fares much better. It is also simple, but has enough depth to be entertaining. Maximo can perform quick horizontal slashes, a strong vertical swing, a spin attack, and a jump attack causing him to stab the ground with a minor shockwave around it. He also has a shield which can either be thrown for damaging enemies further away or defend with. However, it has a durability-meter, so using it too much will cause it to break. Speaking of which, similar to Arthur from Ghosts and Goblins, Maximo’s armor can also break if the health bar for that particular armor is destroyed. He can hold upwards to 4 green health bars, though they do deplete quickly and when one is gone, you need to find another armor-piece to gain it back. Potions will only heal the amount of health present. Should a fifth armor-piece try to attach to Maximo, he will instead turn invincible, which is a nice way of rewarding skillful play.
Though the combat is solid, it is not without its minor and grander issues. I never found much use for ducking and attacking, as it was often better to just use vertical slashes, and equipable upgrades aren’t self-explanatory. The power-ups for the sword, which depletes with use and is represented by the mark in the upper corner, is alright enough and simply makes your sword stronger with fire-attack, for example. However, the bottom screen can contain upgrades to Maximo, with some being present at all times and others must be activated like the power-up for the sword. Some give Maximo an extra combo-attack, others might shoot fire, but it is never explained. A portion of them can also disappear after death, depending on how many preset slots you have, though the game does not explain how these work or even what they do. These upgrades are only represented by emblems and nothing else, making it a basic guessing-game. Was there really not enough space on the disc to put in explanations for these?
The enemies are not too bad, thankfully, and feel decently balanced as the variety is good and provides different habits, such as some need to be stabbed to die and others can block with a shield. It is simple, but works with the combat-skills Maximo has and since they are quick to dispose of while providing a nice challenge, you feel the combat provides a good flow. Some can strike you while jumping with a ranged attack, which is cheap, but the levels are at least big enough to not let your sword get stuck in a tree or bounce off stones. Oddly enough, while this can be a challenging game for both the right and wrong reasons, the bossfights are a total joke. None are memorable and easily beaten with clear and similar patterns of attacking, moving away, attacking again, and so on. After that, you can get a full armor-set, a kiss (which we will come back to in the extra-segment), and the ability to save the game.
This is a terrible gripe I have with this game. In order to save the game, you must either defeat a boss and choose that option or pay with in-game currency. That is right, you have to pay for even saving the game and it is not cheap. 100 koins will require a playthrough of a level or grinding for a long time, especially since enemies drop usually between 1-3 koins. There is also useful equipment you could instead be purchasing, so it feels like the game is mocking you if you need to save the game. However, the uneven punishment does not stop here. While lives are rare, continues can easily be acquired by getting 50 blue fairies from a gravestone in order to get a death-coin. Gravestones and similar are quite common in this gothic game, but should you bite the dust often, the Grim Reaper will require more koins in order to give you another shot. Though at the same time, should you die often in a stage, checkpoints will become more frequent.
It really becomes an unbalanced game that can’t always decide if it wants to reward skillful play or help those who have a hard time. This makes what could have been an entertaining game, into a mess. Why could it not be more similar to the keys you can find, where you would choose what gates or chests you wanted to open with a small surprise? Items range from healing, upgrades, koins, and continues/lives, so why not give a sense of hope with this concept and focus more on that, instead of the unfinished aspect with koins and purchases?
Then there are just small annoyances that, instead, of becoming charming, add to the frustration. Mimics are a constant threat and you can’t attack it first, ice-platforms can be outright torture, the shield does not deflect everything, some enemies turn you into a baby, old man, or a zombie, and some outright steal money or scatter blue fairies. Because of all these annoyances, no level became satisfying to beat. It is one thing to be a hard game, but to be so uneven in how it wants to be challenging, makes it complete chaos. It should have just focused on level-design and tighter platforming, instead of adding so many upgrades and idiotic elements such as with the saving. Thank God you don’t have to play through it twice.
Gameplay Score: 3/10
The game is clearly in the same world as Ghosts and Goblins, which is easy to see with the adorable cartoon artstyle. The big character-designs with plenty of colors shine and are cute with clear inspiration from medieval horror, which I welcome with open arms. Worlds you will visit are traditional, but creative enough to be interesting. While you will be traveling through a swamp, ice, hell, castle and graveyard-levels, each has something unique to them to make them more memorable, such as one swamp-level containing dinosaur-skeletons or tiki-huts, and one ice-level has some ships filled with skeleton-pirates.
Though the worlds fall into repetition with backgrounds and constructions being reused in the same world, but all are well-designed and have enough to them to not make them dull. Enemies suffer more, however, with most being different versions of skeletons and zombies. While each world presents about two new enemies, they don’t add enough diversity to make them memorable. I do love the bosses’ design at least, such as the first being a mix of Quasimodo and Igor with a graveyard set inside what looks like a church. Maximo is a highlight with a traditional armor-set, but also is inspired by Arthur, by losing some when you have taken too much damage. There are also some nice details, such as cutting a skeleton in two when powered up and the keys you have picked up hanging from Maximo’s belt or underwear. It is easy to see that it really was David Siller behind the artstyle. The few cutscenes in the game use the same artstyle with more animation and all are gorgeous to look at because of this.
The game’s music consists of atmospheric tracks with an emphasis on echo and dark tones with the use of violin and cello, which is fitting for this gothic setting. There are also plenty of different remixes of tracks from Ghouls and Ghosts and Ghosts and Goblins composed by Tommy Tallarico. Swamp-levels will have bongo-drums, and the Ice-area has more choirs and flutes with a jolly tone to them, which is fitting. A few of the tracks stand out, but while the quality is not always on top, all are welcoming tracks that are a joy to listen to and orchestrated. I just wish it did not have so many versions of the first level-theme from Ghosts and Goblins. Though the best part about the audio, are the sound-effects of enemies attacking and the hypnotic tone whenever you pick up koins, fairies, and other goods, making it satisfying to collect. It is almost psychedelic. Finally, the voice acting is nothing special, but serves its purpose and is cheesy enough for both young and old to find enjoyment in.
Presentation Score: 8/10
Petty kisses while going through hell
After each stage, you will get a percentage on how much of the level you completed, such as finding every koin, killing all the monsters, and similar. This, in itself, is simply tedious as it does not feel rewarding to go through every stage and search every nook and cranny, especially when you cannot see how far away you are from 100% before exiting the stage. Should you go through with this in every stage, you will acquire the Mastery Level, which is just another hard level. That is it. The other thing you can unlock is the gallery mode by finishing the game with only saying yes to the kisses instead of taking something valuable. Neither is entertaining at all and it’s mostly busy-work. It is cool to get an extra level, but that is about it.
Extra Score: 2/10
I really wanted to love Maximo as it is an interesting shift to 3D for the Ghosts and Goblins-series and has some strong elements with fun and easy combat, nice callbacks to Arthur’s 2D-adventure, and some entertaining level-design. But thanks to the awkward platforming, uneven difficulty, and plenty of annoyances, no level became satisfying. It baffles me to this day why this entry is also stingy with letting you save the game. If style over substance can get you far and you do not care for uneven difficulty or slippery platforming, you might find some enjoyment here, as there are some legitimate fun to be had. Just do not expect to return for more.