Hydra Castle Labyrinth

Since I played Castle in the Darkness a few weeks back, it set forth some nostalgia for a simpler but similar game, Hydra Labyrinth Castle. Developed by Japanese indie dev Buster, Hydra Labyrinth Castle is a free, retro style game that drops you into the middle of a mysterious castle and expects you to figure out the rest. If you can bear with the minimal guidance and sometimes awkward controls, some metroidvania goodness awaits.


The original Hydra Castle Labyrinth is a free download still available on the developer’s site. Unfortunately, it was only available in Japanese at the time I first come across the game, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying it immensely. Partly because I worked in Japan for five years and can read at least some Kanji, but mostly because there is no real narrative to worry about and discovering what the items actually do is part of the game. Of course, that’s moot now as an English translation exists! Hint: the item descriptions are still just as mysterious.

While the beginning can be a bit of a drag until you get the first few upgrades, if you stick with it you’ll find some rewarding meaty goodness. For a free game, there is a ton of devious dungeons to explore, and while I’ve been spoiled by Castle in the Darkness’ intoxicating mix of weapons and spells, there is a still great mix of items and secrets to discover, and that addicting progression that all metrovanias tend to serve up so well.

Even though Castle in the Darkness came out years later, due to the recent coverage of that game it’s hard not to draw comparisons. Hydra Castle also takes place in a titular castle, which is also filled with monsters to mash and ability-granting loot to collect. However, Hydra Castle has a much smaller scope. There are no NPCs, less variety of equipment, and not as much extraneous exploration and optional content. Nonetheless if you are looking for more metroidvania fixes, Hydra is worthy of some time (plus its free anyway).

Sorry Hydra, but Bowser is in another castle...

Sorry Hydra, but Bowser is in another castle…

Hydra Castle’s relative simplicity does bring with it an obliqueness which is both its strength and its weakness. The game doesn’t weigh itself down with pesky narrative, annoying quests… or even any indication of what you’re supposed to be doing. The very beginning drops you into the middle of the castle with no clues about what your objectives are at all. This can lead to wandering aimlessly under you realise that you are first supposed to find a certain item to help break blocks, and then break a bunch of them to find a key, and THEN you enter the first ‘dungeon’ proper. From there it becomes a bit more driven – there are a bunch of dungeons tucked into each corner of the castle, and completing each provides a Zelda-like tool as a reward and helps you find the next dungeon’s key. Many may find the absolute sense of self-discovery exciting, while fondling their worn copies of the first Wizardry and drooling. However, a *bit* more direction wouldn’t have hurt.

In addition to this barrier, even with an English translation it’s not always clear what items do, and while trying to figure them out can be fun, for many of the items, the game never actually prompts discovery by, say, forcing you to need an item to progress – this means it is possible to finish the game without ever realising that you gained the ability to stroll through gas clouds unharmed, and continue to unnecessarily painstakingly avoid them throughout the rest of the game (sheepish look). Finally, and probably my worst personal gripe with the game, is the retro controls. We fully endorse retro-inspired games, obviously.. but here the character moves about the pace of a particularly arthritic slug after Christmas dinner, has a dangerously short attack range, and even the slightest tap knocks you back with the force of a fight scene from the later seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There ARE items that  improve all these aspects, but far from enough. This is one element which Castle in the Darkness really nailed – you are fast and agile from the beginning and it’s up to you to get better at fighting – it made the game better for it.

This is a close to exposition as you're going to get

This is as close to exposition as you’re going to get

That’s probably one of the more heavy criticism sections I’ve given a game I like (that isn’t due to my terrible skill at dodging slow moving glowing bullets for once). It doesn’t make it a bad game – it wouldn’t be here otherwise – but you could probably say its unforgivingly old school in some departments –  so take the excellent retro design with a large dose of salt and call me in the morning – if you can swallow that you’ll enjoy what Hydra Castle Labyrinth has to offer.

At the time it first came out, there was a bit of discussion on the game, and people on various comments boards, myself included, were helping with some translations and discoveries of what the items do. There is a pretty good discussion on the IndieGames.com blog entry:  which is where I was first discovered about the game. If you’re stuck it’s a good spot to check for some hints.

Hydra Castle Labyrinth

Download: Buster’s Homepage (Japanese language – click the big green button to download)

Translation patch:



About J.C

I grew up in the dark dingy arcades of the 1980s, blasting heads with Robocop 2, but grew up in an era that spanned the introduction of the x86 home computer, through to the 16-bit revolution, into the polygon age and beyond. I write about food, travel and of course, New Retro Games. I started newretrogames.wordpress.com and contribute to www.thecitylane.com. I am also a freelance business researcher, writer, and editor having published academic and corporate articles on innovation and intellectual property.

Posted on August 10, 2015, in Platformer, RPG and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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