In addition to all of the other technological marvels that would shock a teenaged video game fan from 1990 — or an iPod user in 2006 — the sight of Gameloft’s Castle of Magic ($5) for the iPhone OS would be right up there on the list. A fully 3-D-rendered side-scrolling platform game with Disney-like colors, voice samples, and charming music? On an Apple handheld device? Back at either of those points, the very thought of such a thing would have been impossible. But today, games like Castle of Magic are fairly commonplace on portable consoles such as the Nintendo DS and Sony PlayStation Portable, and there are lots of 3-D games for the iPhone and iPod touch; this one stands out merely because it’s more completely developed than any other kid-friendly side-scroller on the platform.
Castle of Magic places a digital joypad and two primary action buttons in the bottom corners of the screen, and has you tap to control a little wizard through levels that generally progress from left to right and occasionally up or down. Structured much like the classic Super Mario Brothers, there are stretches of land to run on, floating and moving platforms to jump on, and points to collect, here in the form of gems rather than coins. As with Mario, you can squish enemies under your feet if you land on them, or tap a button to fire fireballs or blasts of magic at them instead; at first, the range of your magic is limited, but powerups frequently expand it into flames and then fiery arrows. Later, a Donkey Kong Country-like underwater powerup lets you transform into a swordfish, helping you to swim faster and straighter; there are other costumed power-ups, too, such as a slow but invulnerable fattening suit. Castle of Magic is surely derivative, but it took inspiration from some good sources, and added enough of its own ideas to make the package seem somewhat fresh.
Other than its flow, Castle of Magic offers a lot to like. The levels are creatively illustrated, starting with stages set in grassy ruins, then continuing through pirate ship and beach-themed levels, a candy land, and outer space. Most of the movement in a level lets you just see parallax scrolling and small perspective shifts in the platforms you’re on, but on occasion, you’ll turn a rounded corner or otherwise see background artwork rotating in a manner that reveals its 3-D modeling. Enemies are generally just there to be squashed, but on occasion, they’ll fly out of the screen or move in some way that similarly establishes them as polygons; between the ways he runs, hops, powers up, and floats, your character frequently shows off the fact that he’s 3-D rather than just a flat, animated sprite. Vivid colors, mostly animal enemies, and cheery accompanying music firmly establish this as a game that safe for kids, too.
While we liked the basics of Castle of Magic’s audiovisual presentation, Gameloft’s engine chugs along a little trying to process all of the graphics—even on the iPhone 3GS. On prior-generation hardware, it seems as if as much of the character animation is being lost as is being displayed, and on the 3GS, the game is a little smoother but still not totally fluid. This combines with controls that are similarly ambitious in concept but only decent in execution: your character is given double-jumps, a cape for floating, and the occasional ability to duck into a secret door—complete with a new, dedicated on-screen button—yet none of the actions feels entirely right; everything’s a little stilted.
The same holds true when fighting bosses, which appear after every several stages of platforming; they’re there, and they look good, but you don’t have the sense of precise control over your character that you’d expect from even early Mario games, let alone the many subsequent platformers that have refined the formula. Oddly, the boss encounters feel surprisingly tedious, too.
By the standards of early 1990’s platformers and the meager sorts of action titles that appeared for Click Wheel iPods prior to the release of the iPhone and App Store, Castle of Magic is a nice enough title—one that does feel like a complete, interesting game with nice graphics and audio. But due to its control scheme and frame rate, it never quite rises to the level of modern game console and portable platform titles in smoothness or gameplay; Gameloft has done better in both regards with earlier, if less kid-friendly titles such as Hero of Sparta and Assassin’s Creed. Younger players, particularly those who aren’t looking for breakthrough gameplay, will find enough charm for the dollar in this title to consider it anyway.
Company and Price
Company: Gameloft S.A.
Title: Castle of Magic
Compatible: iPod touch 1G/2G, iPhone/3G/3GS