There were honestly moments when I was afraid I was going to hate this game. But these doubts turned out to be unfounded. Instead, the difficulty I had at first was all on me, having not played Mario 64 for many, many years and having to adapt to the physics and clunky camera once again. Super Mario and the Cursed Castles mostly takes these limitations of the original game into account and plays within the Mario 64 sandbox rather competently, with balanced gameplay, a polished presentation and story, and a different take on boss fights that’s not just a straight up regurgitation or even a remix of the original’s Bowser battles.
I used to make custom levels in Star Wars games like X-Wing Alliance, and up until now my Youtube channel was based around building things in games like ARK and Minecraft. So I appreciate creative level designers, and when I found Foxen’s stream while he was making his first Super Mario 64 romhack, it was only natural that I’d choose his game to be one of the first that I reviewed for my channel’s new focus on Nintendo fan games. And it doesn’t disappoint.
Getting the game to work is straightforward but you have to do a little work to get there. Foxen included instructions in the readme packaged with the game’s zip file that show you what settings need changed in Project64 v1.6, and I had no trouble following them. While Foxen claims that the game only works in v1.6 and no other emulators, I was able to get it to work in Project64 v2.3. You modify the same settings, which are simply located in other places than they were in v1.6. Does that mean this game will work in other emulators too? Maybe, but not officially, which is sad for people who want that. You’ll have to do lots of trial and error to find out. Suffice it to say this game will definitely not run natively on N64 hardware.
Once you boot up the game, you’re greeted with a modified Mario 64 title screen with a green background. Loading a blank file spawns you on a bleak hilltop with a dead tree and a broken bridge nearby, with three castles in the distance. This is part of the story, where King Boo has taken over these castles and cursed the surrounding land. This area also comes back into play later on in the story in a surprising way. But for now, the castles function as the game’s hub world, which house paintings just like in the original Super Mario 64.
The only world open to you at first is Line Clear Frontier, a world filled with floating Tetris blocks that’s just as memorable of a first level as Bob-omb Battlefield is, which frankly, impressed the heck out of me.
While there’s a few stars based around exploration and puzzles, Super Mario and the Cursed Castles heavily favors precision platforming, and you can forget about playing around with any of the Mario 64 caps. They don’t exist. Getting most of the stars requires knowing how to use long jumps, triple jumps, wall jumps, side jumps, and even combinations of those moves, which I’ll admit I found a little frustrating at first. For example, a few hard-to-get stars in later worlds even require you to perform a side jump into a wall, rebound, and then reverse direction to land on a platform that would be out of reach in any other way.
Getting all 121 stars is really hard. At least it was for me. But the challenge to get the 75 stars required to beat the game is only a little more difficult than it is to reach the end of the original game, which means that Foxen did a great job balancing the difficulty curve between accessibility and hardcore challenge. You can tailor the game’s difficulty to your personal preference by focusing on some stars and ignoring others. But by challenging yourself to become a platforming god, you will earn yourself some really cool action sequences, and getting all 121 stars will open up a secret in the game’s end credits room.
The music by Technomancer is completely original to this romhack and is quite good for the most part. However, it seemed too loud in the mix compared to the game sounds, and during the two songs featuring horn instruments, this volume issue felt overbearing. Unfortunately, one of those songs is the first significant song you hear in this game, as it is the hub world music. It wasn’t a great first impression for me, and because I’m still new to the world of reviews, I nearly wrote the music off right then and there. Thankfully I took a second look, because Technomancer’s work is actually pretty good. None of the music feels repetitive and I also found myself humming along to some of the tunes. I even noticed that he tied the overworld theme to the theme heard in the ghostly Macabre Manor, implying that King Boo came from the Manor to take over the castles. He has intentionally imbued his music with purpose and story.
The texture work of the game combines existing textures with plenty of new ones that are designed to fit in with the original game’s aesthetic. It’s yeoman’s work and functional, with standout work in Line Clear Frontier and Skyward Sanctuary, which is a world filled with floating ruins. These worlds really pop in their color and variety.
It’s evident that Foxen put a lot of thought into each world’s layout and enemy placement because nearly all of them are well designed. The moving cars in the city level practically begged me to perform some acrobatic shenanigans off them and the treetop world is overflowing with multilayered goodness. Enemies are not just spammed, but are placed in spots that make getting certain stars challenging. And Celestial Citadel, one of the worlds in the final castle, mixes enemies up in a surprising and delightful way that adds new challenge, which I will not spoil here.
Some worlds have stars with varying levels of difficulty like the harbor town of Port O’Bella, while others like Skyward Sanctuary have a remarkably even difficulty across the board. While most stars just challenge you to find a way over to a certain spot in the world, the journeys to each of those spots are varied and interesting.
A few stars do need some rethinking, but with 121 in the game that’s not so surprising. One star in Brr Borough is a rather egregious example, since you only get one shot at it before you have to reload the level. After climbing to the top of a skyscraper, this cheeky bugger of a Fly Guy will fly off to parts unknown if you don’t land on him the first time and won’t come back, meaning you’ll never be able to propeller spin over to the star across the map that is hanging there, mocking you, as a declaration to the world that you are merely a scrub. Restarting the world just to spawn the Fly Guy in his original position just so I could try again was a huge annoyance and made me feel like Charlie Brown taking on Lucy and her football.
And while everyone in the rom hack community knows that the Mario 64 camera is not good compared to modern standards, there were some a couple areas where the platforming was hobbled by the camera. It would have been helpful, for example, to be able to see downwards while traversing the floating Tetris block pathway to the second star in Line Clear Frontier. But as with the original game, it’s not really possible to tilt the camera downwards unless you’re in first-person mode. The camera will also bug out every once in awhile while exiting a level from a pipe or a pool of liquid, or entering a room with a pipe. I’m not sure if these are issues that could be fixed, but it does happen and so it’s worth mentioning.
The boss battles are novel, favoring platforming over battle. In each of the three worlds where the boss battles take place, you have to climb and jump your way up to a platform and hit King Boo with a jump kick, at which point he’ll fade away and appear on another platform, and then you repeat the process twice more for a total of three kicks to the old specter’s face.
I like how different it is from the Bowser fights in Mario 64. It’s a good idea, but it could have been implemented better simply because it’s punishing to mistime a jump and die, only to be forced to complete all three platforming sections without dying before you finally defeat the boss. It’s like being required to get three stars in a row without dying before you can save your progress. It was the sole aspect of gameplay in this hack that felt grinding to me.
But even with those quibbles, none of them are a reason to skip this hack. The game offers more of that classic Mario 64 platforming, plus some optional added challenge and several unique twists on the formula. While its compatibility is officially limited to the Project64 emulator and requires a few extra steps of setup, the game difficulty is accessible to “casual” players and experts alike. Each of the levels are unique and memorable in their own way, with special shoutouts to Line Clear Frontier, Skyward Sanctuary, and Celestial Citadel. There’s some technical quibbles here and there like too-loud music, and while the boss battle worlds can be grinds if you aren’t great at platforming, they represent an experimental evolution on the concept and I credit Foxen for trying something new. Overall, Super Mario and the Cursed Castles is a fun experience for all Mario fans, earning it my second highest rating. It’s “really great!”
Rating: Really Great
- Fun, platforming-focused gameplay
- Accessible to both casual and expert players
- Colorful, unique, and memorable worlds
- Only compatible with Project64 and requires modifying a few extra settings
- Boss battle worlds can be a grind
Download at SMWCentral.net
Original Game: Super Mario 64
Watch my Playthrough on Youtube
|Project64 v1.6||Yes (requires additional configuration detailed in readme)|
|Project64 v2.3.x||Yes (requires additional configuration; use the settings in readme for PJ64 v1.6)|