I have to thank Rich Evans of Red Letter Media for this one. I was watching the Previously Recorded stream last week and Rich turned on a game I hadn’t thought about in years: Maximo: Ghosts to Glory for the PS2, Capcom’s spiritual successor to the Ghosts ‘n Goblins series. Rich was doing a no deaths run, which was amazing to watch, and it inspired me to jump back into the game. It’s renowned for its extreme difficulty, but after watching Rich pulverize it (well, most of it), I felt like I could handle the challenge (but not a no-deaths challenge). So I dusted off my PS2, dug out my disc, and took a trip to the past.
Maximo is the right kind of hard. It’s not hard from poor design or lack of balance, but because it was designed with a very specific difficulty level in mind that the developers went to great lengths to achieve. It’s old school in the truest sense of the word, feeling very much like a 16-bit action platformer despite being a 3D game on the PS2.
The plot is simple, cartoonish fare, but serves its purpose nicely. King Maximo has been murdered by his adviser, the wizard Achille, who promptly stole his queen, Sofia, and started drilling into the underworld to harness the power of spirits. The Grim Reaper agrees to give Maximo his life back if he’ll stop Achille and destroy the drill, but to do so requires rescuing four beautiful sorceresses. It’s nothing amazing, but we’ve got revenge motivation and the Grim Reaper on our side, so it’s good enough for me.
As a spiritual successor to Ghosts n’ Goblins, the game inherits a lot of the style and charm of that series. There are graveyards where the earth rises and falls, wizards that pop out of treasure chests, and a hero who runs around in his boxer shorts. The excellent music (composed by the renowned Tommy Tallarico) also pays tribute to classic tunes from the Ghosts ‘n Goblins series. Even the plot is similar: you’re the king and some jerk stole your queen. Maximo would still be a good game without the nostalgia trip, but it certainly adds to the enjoyment.
The similarities carry through to the gameplay as well. Maximo is definitely a platformer, despite combat often getting the focus. Later worlds like the Realm of Spirits (read: hell) are just rotten with bottomless pits, narrow walkways, and environmental hazards. This is where the game can be most unfair and unforgiving, and a finicky camera doesn’t help at all. A lot of jumps require extreme precision, with a costly death as punishment for inaccuracy. Fortunately, the game has plenty of checkpoints, so you can always make it through if you’re willing to take your lumps and soldier on.
The combat is where the game really shines. Unlike many action games, Maximo has no combo system. He can make at max two sword swings in a row. There’s also a downstab, a 360 spin, and a heavy slash that turns into a useful stab with a the right ability. Each enemy has a pretty specific and methodical way it needs to be defeated, and carefully dispatching them while surrounded by angry skeletons is more complicated than it seems. Shielding is very important, and most attacks are thankfully blockable. However, Maximo’s shield has a set durability, and will break if you play too defensively Having the right power-ups, like the holy sword or the Mask of Sorrow, can make a huge difference in battle, but if they aren’t available you’re in for a lot of tough fights.
Instead finding power-ups that are held onto permanently, Maximo’s power-ups are lost immediately upon death. Most games now offer permanent enhancements, which are nice, but there’s something missing when you take the high-stakes, every-death-matters element out of games. There’s a thrill you get from beating a really hard game with a limited number of lives and continues, and the shift towards auto-saving and checkpoints has nearly eliminated it. It gives the game a very arcade-like quality that emphasizes forward progression and staying alive at all costs.
Power-up abilities are the core of the gameplay, doing things like adding a shield throw or extending your sword’s reach. Most are randomly dropped, but rarer ones are found in the open or in chests. The lock slot feature lets you save three abilities to be kept permanently, even if you die. This adds a nice amount of strategy: do you take the second sword slash, or the forward thrust? The number of lock slots increases every world, for a total of seven by endgame. The problem is there are around twenty abilities, and most of them are pretty useful, so it’s in your best interest to just never die. Unfortunately, you will die. A lot. To succeed at Maximo, you just have to accept failure as an undeniable universal truth.
One thing I really like about the game is the health system. Maximo starts with two health bars, and can gain up to a max of four (with the correct ability). When one health bar is depleted, some of Maximo’s armor falls off, and his maximum health is decreased by a full bar until he finds another armor pickup. When you’re down to your last bar, Maximo’s armor is destroyed, leaving him in his heart-print boxers and nothing else. Aesthetically it’s a hilarious touch, but it also incentivizes smart combat where you balance attack and defense so as not to take a lot of damage and lose some armor.
The game handles secrets in a really interesting way. Hidden treasure chests are littered through levels, and the only way to uncover them is by jumping over the spot where they rest. The game tracks percentage, but it’s next to impossible to actually achieve full mastery. You never get an ability to sense hidden treasure, so it’s all guesswork, but the rewards are often great, like a sword or armor power-up. Searching for secrets becomes vital to survival in later levels, and you eventually develop a sixth sense for likely treasure spots.
The real kicker, the biggest “fuck you” move that Maximo pulls, is making you pay 100 Gold anytime you want to save your game. If you feel the need to save after every level just in case, as I do, then you’ll be spending 100 Gold after every single stage. Fortunately, there isn’t a lot to actually buy in the game, so it’s not as big a burden as you might think, but the lack of free saves feels like a huge middle finger to gamers. You have to consider even something as simple as saving as a strategic element due to the cost involved, which creates a sense of tension I’ve never really felt in another game.
I really like Maximo: Ghosts to Glory. It’s a punishing game that can occasionally feel unfair, but in the end it’s the kind of difficulty you can tell was playtested countless times to achieve the perfect balance of fun and frustrating. The relentless enemies, brutal platforming, and obscure secrets create a real sense of accomplishment when you persevere over a tough level. If you love games that test your abilities and constantly push you to improve, then this one’s for you.