I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly engaged in heroics. I play through a different classic game every week, after all. Selflessly fighting to save princesses, planets, and the occasional whole universe is par for the course. Sometimes, though, it feels pretty dang good to be bad. Arcade manufacturer Exidy had this figured out as early as 1976. That was the year they debuted Death Race, which touched off what some have called the first video game moral panic by encouraging its players to run down helpless humanoid figures with their cars for points. Here we are over four decades later and the vehicular homicide-happy Grand Theft Auto V is currently the second best-selling game of all time, much to the chagrin of those very same reactionary watchdog types. There’s a beautiful continuity to it all.
It’s in that subversive spirit that I now turn to Gargoyle’s Quest: Ghosts ‘n Goblins. This 1990 action-platformer represents the first Game Boy work from powerhouse publisher Capcom. As its oft-omitted subtitle indicates, it’s a spin-off from their Ghosts ‘n Goblins franchise. If you don’t recall encountering any gargoyles there, you’re not alone. In truth, Gargoyle’s Quest sees you playing as Firebrand, one of the deadly winged Red Arremer demons that have so vexed knight Arthur over the years. The game’s Japanese name, Red Arremer: Makaimura Gaiden (“Red Arremer: Demon World Village Side-Story”), makes no secret of this. We almost certainly have Nintendo’s long established reluctance to risk offending religious special interest groups overseas to blame for the misleading title change and the goofy lime green rendition of Firebrand on the cover. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that you control a thoroughly wicked demon in this one. You’re even gifted a handy power-up by Lucifer himself at one point, although it’s easy to miss due to the way his name was altered to the bizarre Rushifell during localization.
As the story opens, Firebrand is busy doing what he does best: Sacking and burning a town in the human world. His conquest is then cut short by an urgent distress call. It seems his hellish home, the Ghoul Realm, is itself under attack by an army of Destroyers from another dimension. Turnabout is fair play, I suppose. It falls on Firebrand to return to the Ghoul Realm and repel the invaders by embracing his destiny as a champion of underworld prophecy, the Red Blaze.
What follows is thirteen stages of clever, compelling side-view action unlike anything seen previously in Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Firebrand can walk, jump, and breathe fire at foes, but his wings and claws are what really make Gargoyle’s Quest a distinct experience. Using them, he can glide horizontally for a limited time (as represented by a stamina meter) and cling to walls. Simple as this sounds, all the considerable level design acumen on display here is laser focused on testing your ability to manage these two actions under ever more demanding conditions.
Firebrand’s jump height and wing strength gradually grow as he acquires specific key items. He similarly gains additional health and new breath attacks that can break certain blocks or create temporary claw anchor points on spiked surfaces. Every new power boost is neatly balanced by an overall increase in the intricacy of the enemy placement and stage layouts, however, preventing you from resting on your laurels. The going’s not easy. Thankfully, a password system is in place to maintain your progress between sessions.
I’ve been describing Gargoyle’s Quest purely in action game terms thus far because that’s what I believe it to be at heart. That said, it does also include a Dragon Quest style overworld complete with towns. Before you adventure and RPG fans get too excited, I should add that its implementation is bare bones in the extreme. Firebrand’s journey is a strictly linear one, meaning that the Ghoul Realm never opens up and permits you to visit multiple locations in the order of your choosing. NPCs are terse and devoid of personality, their dialogue functional at best. The only optional items to be found are extra lives. This isn’t a fantasy world you explore so much as elaborate set dressing intended to add some gloomy atmosphere and a sense of epic scope to the core action-platforming.
Speaking of atmosphere, I can’t overstate how superb Gargoyle’s Quest looks and sounds for an early Game Boy release. Backgrounds are richly detailed and often feature moving elements as well, putting the static voids seen in the likes of Super Mario Land to shame. Firebrand and the majority of his opponents animate well and there’s loads of sinister charm packed into their tiny sprites. The soundtrack comes courtesy of Harumi Fujita and Yoko Shimomura, two industry greats still at it to this day, and is a remarkable achievement all-around. Listening to it, you can genuinely feel the grim desolation of the Ghoul Realm wash over you.
In short, Gargoyle’s Quest is a class act. Is it perfect? I should say not. It’s prone to slowing down when the screen gets crowded, the milquetoast localization does substantial violence to its intended demonic theme, and the paper-thin adventure mechanics could have been deepened at least a little without bogging down the action. Regardless, it’s been one of my most loved Game Boy exclusives ever since its release. It strikes me as a companion piece of sorts to another of my favorite old school Capcom offerings, the NES Bionic Commando. They each use the contrivance of a rudimentary overhead world map to present a smoothly escalating series of obstacle course-like challenges built to test your mastery of the main character’s unorthodox platforming abilities. I reckon this is probably no coincidence, given that Ghosts ‘n Goblins and Bionic Commando are both creations of star Capcom director/producer Tokuro Fujiwara.
So, is it truly better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven? I’ll leave that one to the theologians. My boy Firebrand sure seems to be enjoying himself, though.