Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (Super Nintendo)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A blue-haired lass with the unlikely name of Princess Prin Prin has been kidnapped by demons. Only her knightly consort, Sir Arthur, is brave (or foolhardy) enough to attempt a rescue…and he’ll need to do it twice before it sticks.

Yes, welcome back to Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins, perhaps the most simultaneously loved and hated saga in all of classic gaming. The sterling quality of these games is undeniable, as is their mocking brutality. Difficult action-platformers from the outset due to fiendish enemy patterns and a two-hit health system, it’s dirty tricks like the aforementioned blindsiding of new players with the requirement to finish each stage twice in order to view the true ending that push them over the edge to infamy.

That brings me to my subject today, 1991’s Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, aka Chōmakaimura (“Super Demon World Village”) in Japan. As the third game in the franchise and the first to be developed with a home console in mind as opposed to the arcades, players at the time may have expected Capcom to mellow out a tad with this one. Nope. If anything, they doubled down on the sadism with longer levels and something no home port of the previous two GnG games had: Limited continues. The result was far and away the most challenging installment to date. Good thing it was also the best.

I realize I’m likely to ruffle a few feathers with that last statement. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts’ immediate predecessor, titled simply Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, is quite excellent in its own right. It introduced a golden armor power-up that let Arthur charge up and release a different magic attack for each of the game’s many weapons. Additionally, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts Arthur was able to lob shots up and down in addition to the usual left and right. There are many who swear by this enhanced shooting and consequently consider Ghouls ‘n Ghosts the best of the lot.

While it is unfortunate that Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts returns to the more restrictive horizontal attacking of the original Ghosts ‘n Goblins, I feel it more than makes up for this with new additions of its own. The bronze armor has been included as an intermediate upgrade between the default steel suit and the potent gold one. It strengthens Arthur’s primary weapon somewhat without allowing for full magic use. There’s also a shield which offers some small amount of extra protection against projectiles. Best of all is the almighty double jump, my personal favorite mechanic in the series. The ability to trigger a second jump any point during the first works wonders for the chronically slow Arthur’s maneuverability and paved the way for the game’s creators to include more elaborate platforming scenarios. It feels so liberating that I often find it tough to go back to earlier GnG entries.

Another factor that endears Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to me is its level design. Capcom really upped the ante here with a host of dynamic environmental set pieces scattered throughout the first five areas. Arthur weathers surging tidal waves on a dinky raft, rides a fleshy moving platform through a maze of writhing, gas spewing innards, and risks being swept away by avalanches in the obligatory ice level, among other wild predicaments. Pity this approach is abandoned for the final two stages inside main villain Sardius’ castle, though. These contain nothing new or interesting to marvel at, just an abundance of imposing baddies coupled with some strict time limits.

Cap this overall strong package off with some of the best graphics and music to grace an early Super Nintendo release and what’s not to love? For starters, try some of the worst slowdown to grace an early Super Nintendo release! The action here starts chugging at the slightest provocation, a significant issue in a unforgiving game with a heavy emphasis on timing. This effectively adds another learning curve to an already demanding experience. There is a fan-made “restoration” hack available that removes much of this slowdown if you’re so inclined. Otherwise, your best bet is to simply wait for your brain to adjust to the inevitable speed inconsistencies. It’ll happen eventually.

A lone technical hiccup is one thing, but those limited continues constitute a proper design misstep in my eyes. There’s an immense amount of trial and error involved in any Ghosts ‘n Goblins game. The endless tries previous ones afforded you were essentially their lone concession to basic human decency. Earning extra continues by collecting money bag items is possible and indeed relatively easy in some stages. Still, the game as a whole can come to a premature end if the rate you gather these items is ever exceeded by the rate you mess up. This is most likely in the final stage, which is cunningly engineered to contain a bare minimum of money bags. Getting a game over here, especially in the second loop, is cruel even by GnG standards.

Maddening as these few flaws can be, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts’ many positive qualities far outstrip them. It’s considered a Capcom classic for good reason and if its reputation as a savage 16-bit struggle doesn’t scare you off, you’re in for one lush, thrilling trip to hell and back. If not, well, there are probably dozens of more easily rescued princesses out there. Sorry, Prin Prin. I’m just sayin’.

Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (Genesis)

I feel strongth welling in my body. That can only mean I’m ready to challenge another entry in a certain famously ferocious run-and-gun platforming series. It’s been almost a year and a half since I last stepped into the steel shoes of stalwart medieval beardo Sir Arthur and set out to rescue his beloved Princess Prin Prin from her demonic captors in the NES version of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. It only makes sense to now move on to the best-known home port of that game’s direct arcade sequel, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (aka Daimakaimura, “Great Demon World Village”). I’m referring, of course, to the celebrated Sega Genesis conversion.

Genesis Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, much like its contemporary Strider, was merely licensed from Capcom. The hard work of developing and publishing it was shouldered entirely by Sega themselves. Although it may seem like Capcom got the better of this arrangement, both games turned out to be flagship system sellers for the Genesis in its primordial pre-Sonic days. The ability to deliver credible home translations of cutting edge 1988 arcade titles to gamers in 1989 was the crux of the “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” campaign, after all. One look was all it took to know that nothing like this would be coming to your NES. It certainly didn’t hurt that this iteration of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was programmed by future Sonic Team leader Yuji Naka and not the same trash tier contract developer (Micronics) that “blessed” NES Ghosts ‘n Goblins with its stiff controls and jerky scrolling.

This franchise has never been known for its radical re-invention, meaning that Ghouls ‘n Ghosts’ gameplay will feel immediately familiar to veterans of other installments. Knight Arthur must run, jump, and shoot his way through a total of five side-scrolling stages. He’ll then be told to go back and do it all over again on a slightly higher difficulty and using the one special weapon the final boss is vulnerable to before finally being treated to a proper ending. As stated in my Ghosts ‘n Goblins review, this notion of forcing the player to complete every stage twice in order to truly finish the game was arguably funny in a sadistic way the first time around. Strip away the nasty surprise angle, though, and all that remains is some rather blatant padding.

This isn’t to say there’s nothing in the way of innovation here. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts marks the first appearance of the golden armor power-up, which allows Arthur to charge up and unleash devastating magical attacks which vary in effect based on the specific weapon he has equipped. It’s important to not let this awesome new power go to your head, however, since the golden armor itself doesn’t provide any more protection from damage than its mundane counterpart. One hit will still strip it away entirely, leaving poor Arthur to carry on fighting in his undies until he either happens across a new suit of plate or takes a second hit and crumbles into a pile of bones. Probably that last one.

Additionally, Arthur has gained the ability to lob his weapons up and down instead of just left and right. As a default move, this has an even greater impact on the flow of the action than the sporadically available magic attacks and tends to be the one feature advocates for Ghouls ‘n Ghosts as the high point of the saga cite most often when justifying their preferences. My own heart may belong to Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts on the Super Nintendo and its double jump mechanic, but I can’t deny that Arthur’s extra offensive coverage here makes the vertically scrolling portions considerably less harrowing than usual.

Lower difficulty is actually a running theme throughout Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. Not only do you have added angles of attack and magic on your side, there are also fewer stages and more checkpoints than in Ghosts ‘n Goblins or Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. With unlimited continues to work with as well, this is an ideal starting point for players new to Sir Arthur’s exploits. Just remember that this reduced challenge is strictly relative to those other two games mentioned above. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is still a vicious meat grinder of an action-platformer and countless ignoble deaths are inevitable as you painstakingly put in the practice needed to memorize and master each segment of the quest.

Presentation-wise, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts for the Genesis conveys the essence of its source material well, but not flawlessly. The most obvious visual downgrade comes courtesy of the console’s smaller color palette when compared to Capcom’s CPS1 arcade board. Fair enough. There’s also a general loss of graphical detail on the Genesis, particularly in the backgrounds. This is likely a consequence of the limited space available on the home version’s modest five megabit ROM chip. The arcade release had around three times the memory to work with. It’s still an attractive game, as Naka and company clearly made excellent use of the resources available to them in 1989. Still, I can’t help but wonder how much better this one could have looked if they’d been able to take advantage of the more advanced chips which would become commonplace in Genesis cartridges later on in the ’90s. We probably wouldn’t have had to lose out on the arcade’s snazzy intro sequence depicting the minions of main antagonist Loki (Lucifer in Japan) harvesting the souls of Princess Prin Prin and the rest of the kingdom’s hapless citizens, for example. Things are rosier on the audio front, thankfully. The Genesis’ FM synth sound chip is fairly similar to what Capcom was using in the arcades at the time and little, if any, of the original’s spooky ambiance is lost.

Whether at home or in the arcade, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is a class act of a sequel that stays true to its pedigree while improving on its predecessor in virtually every way. Expanded attack options bring new depth and flexibility to the combat, platforming is enhanced by more varied and creative stages with dynamic hazards unique to each, and the higher fidelity art and music are bursting with added charm. Its primary flaws are the same two subjective ones which dog every GnG title: The fierce difficulty and the need to loop the game in order to see the true ending.  Given that I’m largely reconciled to those, my only major beef with the game is its length. Fun as they are, five stages make for pretty slim pickings. Just one or two extra would have gone a long way toward making this one a viable contender for series MVP in my eyes. Lacking this, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts would itself be improved on in turn, but remains a must-play for fans of the Genesis and vintage Capcom action fare alike.

Ghosts ‘n Goblins (NES)

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Translation level: Godlike.

Sometimes I feel compelled to complete a game out of an odd sense of duty. These are titles so foundational for the hobby that experiencing them firsthand arguably falls under the cultural literacy rubric. I generally draw the line at subjecting myself to truly terrible games, at least for a prolonged periods, but I will occasionally take on a game I’m not super enthusiastic about just so I can check it off my bucket list.

That’s why I made time yesterday afternoon for a playthrough of the NES version of Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins. First released in the arcades in 1985 as Makaimura (“Demon World Village”), Ghosts ‘n Goblins is an early run-and-gun type action-platformer from prolific producer/director Tokuro Fujiwara that’s famous for its spooky-cute character designs and equally infamous for its steep challenge. This home release from 1986 was a strong seller and is arguably the best-known version of the game. I myself had a copy as a kid, though I never got very far in it. Now that I’m a whole lot older and a whole lot better at games in general, I figured it was time to finish what I started.

In Ghosts ‘n Goblins, you play as bearded knight Sir Arthur on a mission to rescue his beloved Princess Prin Prin (yes, really) from none other than Satan, who swoops in at the start of the game to abduct her because…well, that’s just what video game baddies did back then. Maybe I should just come up with some kind of shorthand abbreviation I can use for this in game reviews from now on? KGP for “kidnapped girl plot?” This is also the third game in a row for me where the goal is to beat up on Satan. I didn’t actually plan it this way, but I suppose you can’t really do much better for a villain.

To reach Prin Prin, Sir Arthur has to run, jump, and shoot his way through six short levels, which doesn’t sound too tricky at all. The rub is that these levels are packed with the titular ghosts and goblins, who will stop at nothing to keep your hero from his goal. Some of these foes take many hits to destroy, while other might appear from thin air suddenly and make a swift beeline for Arthur or move about in chaotic patterns which make them difficult to target. The game’s most famous enemies, the gargoyle-like Red Arremer demons, combine most of these qualities into one very intimidating package. Arthur also has a strict time limit and some rather stiff controls to contend with, not to mention the fact his shiny suit of armor can only absorb a single hit before shattering to pieces and leaving him to fend off the demon hoards in his underwear. One more hit and he’s down for the count.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. You have unlimited lives in this version and most of the levels have checkpoints at the halfway mark. This means you’re free to make all the mistakes you need while learning the stage layouts and enemy patterns and can experiment with different strategies at your leisure until you hit on something that works for you. It might not happen quickly, but it will happen.

Which isn’t to say Ghosts ‘n Goblins plays things totally straight. Challenging action is one thing, but the outright tricks the game plays on its audience are the stuff of gaming legend. The sixth level can only be completed if the player uses a specific weapon, the cross. Reaching the end without the cross equipped will ship Arthur all the way back to the start of the previous level, and there’s no advance warning of this in the game itself or even in the instruction manual. If you think that’s rough, getting past that roadblock and beating the final boss will only earn you a message stating you’ve fallen victim to “a trap devisut by Satan” and will be sent all the way back to the beginning of the first stage. You’ll have to complete the entire game again on a second, more difficult loop if you want to finally reunite Arthur and Prin Prin for real. Now imagine this happening in the arcade, when you’ve already pumped a small fortune in quarters into the machine hoping for that ending scene. Ow.

Nowadays, it’s a bit easier to laugh off these dirty tricks and even to admire the game a bit for its trollish chutzpah; its willingness to push boundaries and toy with player expectations. False endings and mandatory repeat playthroughs would become a series tradition, much to the chagrin of many. For me, though, they would never pack the same punch again. Love it or hate it, the first game went there. The sequels just sort of give you a wink and a nudge as if to say, “Hey, remember when I went there?”

This version of the game also has a unique weakness: It was programmed for Capcom by Micronics, the same sub-par contract developers who cranked out such 8-bit atrocities as Athena, Ikari Warriors, and Super Pitfall. While Ghosts ‘n Goblins is a masterpiece compared to the rest of their NES output, the usual Micronics hallmarks are still all present and accounted for. Expect choppy scrolling, heavy sprite flicker, and random glitches like the occasional bit of damage from an invisible enemy. Despite its questionable parentage, however, this is a still a very solid conversion of a then-recent coin-op. There are a few non-essential elements omitted, like the boss battle music, but otherwise every stage, every weapon, and every enemy from the arcade is re-created faithfully. They even managed to maintain some of the wacky charm of the original character sprites and animations, like Arthur’s exaggerated run cycle and the Red Arremer’s sassy dance moves. It’s a very respectable effort for a 1986 release, even if the patented Micronics reverse Midas touch holds it back from achieving the same level of polish Konami’s NES port of Gradius did around the same time.

Ghosts ‘n Goblins is far from being one of my favorite games for the system. It had the misfortune of coming out right when action-platformers were in the midst of a sort of accelerated awkward adolescence and it has the limited mechanics and stiff controls to prove it. Just a few more short years of tinkering with the formula would usher in a renaissance via the likes of Mega Man, Contra, and Ninja Gaiden. Sir Arthur’s inaugural outing was an important step in the right direction, but its immediate successors were all too happy to make it eat their dust.

Still, if you fancy yourself an NES nut, it’s a pilgrimage you just have to make at least once. Don’t let the difficulty scare you off: Go ahead dauntlessly! Make rapid progres!