Year: 1987 |Publisher: Konami|Developer: Konami|Original format: MSX | Version played: MSX
The Maze Of Galious is ostensibly a sequel to 1986’s Knightmare, and continues the story of Popolon and Aphrodite after they return home from their first adventure to discover their baby Pampas kidnapped, and their castle home overrun by demons and captured by the dastardly Galious. Yet while the first Knightmare was a scrolling shoot-‘em-up, its sequel is a sprawling platform game with a whopping 174 screens to explore. It feels like it’s grasping at the same ideas that Metroid did the year before, but more likely it was inspired by another 1986 Nintendo groundbreaker… The Legend Of Zelda.
Yes, the action is viewed from the side and there’s a ton of platforming, but the structure is straight out of the Miyamoto playbook; an expansive overworld to explore – in this case a castle – with ten entrances, leading to smaller dungeons populated with puzzles, handy collectible items and each ending in a unique boss battle.
While 35 years of Zelda games have smoothed away its rough edges in the name of mass market accessibility, the Knightmare series never got that same opportunity, and The Maze Of Galious can be just as obscure in its logic as Link’s original sandbox adventure. In fact, I’d say it can be downright, maddeningly obtuse at times.
You could write a book on all the crazy, weird, counter-intuitive, bizarrely brilliant game mechanics in The Maze Of Galious, and it would probably be written backwards and in multiple dead languages too. But we don’t have time for that, so here’s just a few memorable examples… There are the invisible walls in World 5 that can’t be seen unless you’ve found the candle, or the Bible that allows you to freeze enemies with a press of the CTRL key, but only up to 15 times. There’s the weird way only Popolon can walk through revolving doors. Aphrodite can’t, not unless she collects some the bread and water. Of course.
Most infuriating is that the final boss, whose dungeon is located in a random room of the castle, cannot be beaten unless you’ve found the cross, which is hidden in a secret room beyond an inconspicuous wall you have to break with your sword while leaping in mid-air and hitting it multiple times and also trying to land back on the platform above a bottomless pit. Yikes!
Perhaps weirdest of all is the dagger, which can’t directly be used as a weapon at all. Instead, if you collect it and then type the word “umbrella” it will instantly kill any bats in the room. Just finding this odd item is an exercise in hoop jumping. It’s hidden on just one room of the 156-screen castle and will only reveal itself after you’ve killed all of the bats, jumped onto a moving platform and quickly pressed right, down, left, and up in sequence without falling off and into the abyss below.
Quite how anyone was supposed to acquire all of the arcane knowledge necessary to complete The Maze Of Galious back in 1987 is unclear to me. I only have the Japanese version of the game, so I can’t say how many of its quirks are revealed in the manual. (Thankfully the game itself auto-detects European hardware and plays in English) But I have to assume that it’s a product of its time, when kids traded their discoveries in the playground, and when every game had a corresponding strategy guide as thick as a phone book.
Playing The Maze Of Galious today, and trying to complete it in less than a week for this blog, would have been impossible without a lot of help. It took three different solutions and a YouTube playthrough to get me out of a few dead ends and head scratchers. Most helpful was my own personal bible, “Konami’s MSX Legacy” by Wim Dewijngaert, which contains full colour maps of the castle and all ten dungeons, as well as detailed information of where and how to find all the items. Without it, I honestly think it would have taken months to figure everything out.
I also made frequent use of the Konami Game Master cartridge, not to cheat but to save my progress to a floppy disk. Without it, you’re forced to rely on the password system, which can only be accessed from one room in the castle. Which would mean a lot of backtracking every time you reload.
Judicious saving also helps combat the rather harsh penalty for dying. In some ways, Maze Of Galious is quite generous with life. You can swap between Popolon and Aphrodite at any time, meaning you essentially have two health bars to make use of at once, and although there are no potions in the game, you can recharge your health as many times as you like by killing enough enemies to fill your EXP meter. Both Popolon and Aphrodite have their own distinct strengths, weaknesses and abilities, so you really need to keep both alive to get through most dungeons. So if either character should die, it makes life very difficult indeed.
You can revive your partner, but to do so you need to make your way to Death, who resides in just one room of the castle and can only be found after you’ve collected the salt, which is found in a completely different room. Even then you’ll need to trade 100 arrows, 100 coins and 20 keys for the privilege of resurrection and… Get this, you can only do it once!
If you insert the Knightmare cartridge into the second slot while playing Maze Of Galious then it unlocks a cheat to make use of Death’s revival service up to 99 times, which is pretty handy. But, really, any sane player is going to want to make use of those quick saves, especially as you’re likely to die an awful lot! Most screens are filled with baddies with all kinds of aggressive attack patterns, platforming can be a little too pixel perfect for its own good, and I’ve lost count of the number of times a monster has knocked me back off a platform, sending me free-falling several screens into a pool of lava below.
Intermission… While Konami never made a Maze Of Galious sequel with the same gameplay, it was a huge influence on modern indie classic La Mulana. The original 2005 PC release of this game features several stark similarities to Maze Of Galious, and the hero even collects Konami MSX cartridges to use on his computer throughout the adventure. Sadly the 2011 remake, which is the more widely distributed commercial release, removes many of these direct references and changes the MSX-like graphics, but the gameplay similarities are very much still there.
All of this probably sounds pretty negative at this point, so it’s worth stating for the record that I had a great time with The Maze Of Galious. It’s just not designed with modern players, or adults with time pressures and responsibilities, in mind. But every esoteric element that makes it so hard to understand without a guide is also what makes this game brilliant.
It’s the lure of adventure and exploration that makes games like this so much fun, and the structure plays a huge part in that. Just like The Legend Of Zelda, you can get a satisfying sense of progression by completing the smaller dungeons, and then in-between each one it’s back into the overworld to roam around and discover whatever is out there on your own at a slower and less certain pace. It’s an interesting design choice, incidentally, that every dungeon has a collectible map but that there’s no such concession for the overworld. In this respect The Maze Of Galious is a harder game than Zelda. You could legitimately call it a design flaw or a cynical attempt to sell strategy guides, but it does also lend to the sense of exploration. If I was playing back in 1987, I definitely would have bought myself a big roll of graph paper, and that castle would have been mapped over a number of weeks, as each room gradually spilled its secrets.
I don’t want to dunk on modern games but The Maze Of Galious does stand out in contrast to what we’re used to today. So much is unexplained and there are so many gameplay elements that are just “one-offs”, which don’t conform to any other single rule, that you never quite know what to expect next. Even if you are dipping in and out of a guide to keep you going, that sense of adventure is still very much there. I suppose it’s a bit like using a guidebook while you’re on holiday. Without it you might miss some of the coolest stuff, and using it does nothing to detract from the thrill of experiencing the place firsthand.
Sense of discovery and crazy puzzles aside, The Maze Of Galious is also a great pleasure on a fundamental gameplay level. This is a Konami game after all, and the same Konami who made the first Knightmare a pure arcade joy. That same DNA is absolutely here, albeit in a different template. This isn’t just about exploration, it’s a highly competent platformer; combat is fun and satisfying, and Popolon even gets to flex his shmup skills once you’ve collected the right weapons. Early on you find a bow to safely fire replenishable arrows from afar, and later still you can upgrade it to the “ceramic arrow” which can pass through enemies so you can shoot multiple monsters at once.
Other weapons include the “fire” which travels along the floor and drops down at the end of a platform, so you can rain death from above; the “rolling fire” which rotates around a platform until it touches an enemy; and the mines, which are handy for placing just where you know a big boss is about to land. Each of these secondary weapons has their own strengths and weakness and are complemented by a range of baddies that all behave in their own unique way. Like the skeletons that collapse into a pile of bones and need to be hit several more times to prevent them from pulling themselves back together, the ghosts that annoyingly teleport around the room while shooting at you, the knights that can only be hurt from behind, or the gelatinous blobs that cling to the ceiling and leap from one platform to the next. Each monster suits a different weapon and strategy, not to mention a little bit of skill, and this is where Maze Of Galious most feels like a sequel to Knightmare; Konami’s good old-fashioned arcade pedigree shining through.
While the original Knightmare was impressive for the amount of game it crammed into a 32Kb ROM, The Maze Of Galious is comparatively mind blowing at how much epic Konami packed into a healthier 128Kb, and it all runs on a standard MSX1 system too. With two different playable characters; 174 screens, 10 unique giant bosses, scores of enemies, and 44 collectible items each with a gameplay benefit… There is just a hell of a lot of game here, and even after conquering all 10 dungeons and rescuing baby Pampas, I know there’s still more I haven’t seen. There are castle rooms I haven’t visited or fully conquered and there are item slots in the inventory still to be filled. Of course, this doesn’t mean I’ll be heading right back into the game to mop up every last morsel, but rather I think it demonstrates just how vast and rich this game was for its time.
Playing now in 2021 I can’t help but marvel at how fun and rewarding The Maze Of Galious is despite, or perhaps because of, its obscure elements. But if I’d played it in 1987 with all the time, patience and wide-eyed wonder of a child, I honestly think it might be one of my favourite games of all time. As it stands, I’m certain this is one of Konami’s great forgotten games, which really should be tried if you’re a fan of their Metroid-vanias, and that it’s a jewel in the MSX library. Perhaps even the system’s greatest accomplishment.
Next week I’ll be playing the third and final Knightmare game, Shalom, which expands the gameplay concepts even further into a narrative heavy adventure-RPG. I’m excited to see how this series can evolve yet again and if it can retain and recapture the same combination of tight arcade design and mysterious secrets. All I know is, after The Maze Of Galious, it has a lot to live up to.
FOUR LITTLE THINGS ABOUT THE MAZE OF GALIOUS THAT I RATHER LIKED
1. Each dungeon boss will only appear once you’ve typed in a password that you find elsewhere in the dungeon on a gravestone. The words are all nonsensical phrases like “ELOHIM” or “HEOTYMEO”, and with the strange iconography on the wall, it really feels like you’re typing ungodly incantations into your MSX to summon a demon! It reminds me a little of Konami’s 2005 DS game, Castlevania: Dawn Of Sorrow, which asked players to drawn symbols and pentagrams on the touch screen to finish off its bosses. I wonder if any of the designers were Maze Of Galious fans.
2. These jumping bushes are one of my favourite enemies in the game. They jump whenever you jump, so they can be tricky to hit, and on later screens the designers use them to create interesting platforming puzzles, using their jumps to place you right in the arc of your own leaps, unless you figure out the correct route.
3. Another great enemy, these concrete feet look like something straight out of a British platformer, like Jet Set Willy. You have to take them out individually and when you kill one the remaining foot will pick up the pace and angrily hop toward you at speed!
4. The pause screen in Knightmare saw Popolon tucked into his little bed, but in the sequel it sits Popolon or Aphrodite on the toilet! Leave the game paused for a few seconds and they’ll fall right in the bowl and flail their legs about. I really hope Shalom continues this tradition in some way.
Finally, how about some music from The Maze Of Galious…