Ghosts 'N Goblins
- Capcom, 1986 -
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Scary — But For All Of The Wrong Reasons!
Capcom's Ghosts 'N Goblins hearkens back to the early infancy of horror-based games (nowadays, laughably-tame in every regard). Sadly, though, perhaps the scariest aspect of this action, arcade platformer is its unhealthy fixation on death — mainly yours.
What a wonderful time and place for a date!
The game opens with a ludicrous scene: our hero, the Knight (also known as Sir Arthur) is spending a lovely evening (armorless ? - hmmm), enjoying the company of his beautiful, blue- or violet-haired girlfriend (you choose), the Princess (aka Prin Prin and/or Guinevere in later titles in the series), in the local cemetery (?!?!?), when all of a sudden, the fiendish Astaroth (also referred to as Satan in the game's manual) swoops down and snatches her away! What's her knight (not-quite) in shining armor to do???
Alas, the fairy tale lives of the Knight and Princess are no more! Sir Arthur must do what any self-respecting hero would — well, after he covers up his unmentionables with standing suit of armor, so conveniently-positioned nearby — he arms himself with javelin (sans horse ???) and springs into action in pursuit of the kidnapped Princess off unto yonder mountains.
With all Arthurian archetypes covered (knight ✓; princess ✓; magicians, swords ✓, ✓; javelins and dragons - um, double ✓✓; unicorns ? - kind-of, but lost in translation [more about that later]; the devil... well, maybe not), Ghosts 'N Goblins would seem to lull the player into a false sense of fables and happily-ever-afters. However, that false illusion quickly passes once he/she engages the adventure and the gameplay actually begins; that's when Brothers Grimm just becomes plain grim for the player.
What stands before the player is the daunting task of waging your holy war against a gang of ghastly goons across seven stages (confusingly marked on the game's internal map [more about that later]). The Knight's travels will carry him through a restless cemetery and haunted forest, past a town of towers and tall buildings, under cavernous caves, across a rickety bridge that dangles over a pool of fire, and up through the fortresses of the devil. Great gates lie at the close of the first six stages; a select gatekeeper or two holds the key for passage beyond. Victory takes Sir Arthur one large step closer to the final confrontation with the fiendish devil and a reunion with Prin Prin (more about this later).
Maybe the Knight shouldn't leave his guard down this
Along the way, the game offers an array of armaments that adds an element of strategy to the play — for better or for worse (more about that later... are you picking up on a trend here?). Sir Arthur can heave the standard javelin (now, if only jousting was a real part of the action in this title); toss torches, axes and swords; and unleash the rare, evil-repulsing powers of the cross that looks strikingly like a flying shield.
At first glance, these items may seem to be more than adequate for cutting through the game's "ghosts and goblins," (not of the warm-and-fuzzy, cute, pastel variety seen in Namco's PAC-Man) but with extensive deficiencies in Sir Arthur's agility, defense and power levels (only two hits of damage retires our hero), there's slightly more than a ghost of a chance - pardon the pun.
Ghosts 'N Goblins has long held the dubious reputation of being one of the most difficult games on the NES (or any other system) to defeat. Many noble knights have lined up for the chance to win back the Princess; few have endured the trials and tribulations along the way. Due to some questionable aspects in the game's programming and a lack of quality-control, frustration has whittled down the competition to a small number worthy to be seated at the Round Table.
And now to some of those glaring drawbacks...
Controlling Sir Arthur's movements, although fairly fluid especially for an older title, can prove perturbing with the occasional frozen-in-place stance of ducking, or squatting above ladders. Being stuck in place for any fraction of time in Arthur's clunky armor is a deathwish in this title.
This annoyance pales considerably, however, to the rigid jumping action, in which the Knight's momentum hurls him helplessly into a direction — once committed, there is no leniency or mercy, just like in Konami's Rush 'N' Attack. In all fairness, though, the game does give the player the ability of being able to turn mid-air and fire off shots backwards.
Other arguments are moot, however. It is wholly indefensible for the crippling limitations found in Sir Arthur's weapons. Equally so, his sluggish crawl and total lack of evasion from the lightning-speed blurs of the devil's army is undeniable. Sir Arthur stands little chance against the dreaded Red Devils (aka Red Arremers in later games) that seem to teleport across the screen with no hope of escape; or the Dragons, whose winding, serpentine tails drag behind them in an almost unavoidable trail; or the Unicorns, who are really more Cyclops than horse (as stated earlier, something was definitely lost in translation here), yet seem to launch across the screen and pounce with deadly speed and accuracy. The player's only recourse is to mindlessly gnash buttons, sending off the Knight's slow volley of impotent shots in the general direction of his nimble assailants.
These fits of nitpicking can almost be forgiven (okay, not really), especially when some of the larger programming/planning/debugging issues are taken into consideration. Inconsistent level design rears its ugly head; some stages seem to stretch on forever (in a game where time is a real factor), while others have checkpoints and later ones don't.
This becomes painfully obvious in only the second level of the game. It is an unrealistic goal to actually expect to defeat this stage without some luck and a handful of continues. Overcoming a maddeningly-slow climb through a long stretch of buildings and ladders in a town would be hard enough. Taking on not one, but two, main enemies at the ending gate of the stage would almost be an exercise in futility, but with some good fortune, could still be done. But, when you add in the whole element of a short time limit, with all of the subtlety of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, things just seem insurmountable! The player's pulse races with all of the impending mania and panic that Poe's story evokes.
The journey ahead actually goes through 7 stages, although the map is confusingly labeled or perhaps mislabeled. Don't worry, though — the programmers have ensured that you can study it over and over again because you will have to watch the agonizingly-slow scroll of this map every single time you perish.
As if to compound the already confounding circumstances, some very nasty treats (we'll call them power-downs) are sprinkled within the game's very few and well-hidden power-ups — and get this: there's even a Time Decrease that will actually mercilessly remove an additional 30 seconds from your already-fleeting time!
These power-downs look very similar to their beneficial counterparts. From a technical, programming standpoint, some of the power-downs could have been sprinkled in with more striking appearances that would have made them more obvious to the eye, rather than the duller-tinged symbols that come across as glitches in an older game. The Yashichi comes in a host of colors: red is a point booster of 5,000; a flashing brown erases 30 seconds of time; a flashing white adds 60 seconds to your timer!
LEFT: The world-famous, Capcom symbol - the Yashichi
CENTER: The subtle, brown flash can hurt you... don't be fooled by the Time Dec.
RIGHT: The white flash boosts your time limit by 60 seconds!
If that isn't enough, a mischievous Magician sometimes appears, casting swirling hexes that transform your inept, stiff Knight into an even more, useless frog with only paltry hopes of escape from the denizens of Hades. Of course, if you side-step the Magician's curses, becoming a frog may still be in your future; beware of the Frog King statue because there isn't a Princess in sight to remove your spell (with patience, it will eventually wear off, though).
Get used to this!
Once you have avoided the promises and pitfalls of false power-ups and stiff controls, and have arrived at a level's end, you are not outside of the realm of a frustrating demise. As if the Satans, Red Devils, Unicorns and Dragons aren't able enough guardian gatekeepers, the programmers have decided to make some of the Knight's weapons ineffective against them — that's right, if you are armed with the wrong item, your attacks will cause no damage. The only solutions for this worst-case scenario are that:
- you will have to either continue and hope that you are able to pick up another weapon before you return for a rematch, or
- simply and eventually give up or retry again later.
If this issue should arise, just try to remember that javelins do not hurt Dragons, axes do not harm Satans and the cross does nothing to Unicorns.
It takes a special breed whose resolute and boundless patience can get them within reaches of the final face-off with the devil. And one may even be surprised at the ease, it takes to vanquish him.
But, don't breathe a sigh of relief just yet! One of video gaming's cruelest, programming ploys ever will cause a diabolical eruption of frustration to boil over you. Once you realize that you, somehow, have been able to overcome the nearly insurmountable and actually defeat Astaroth, the programmers at Capcom decide to inform you that everything you just endured is a ruse, and that all of your hard work is for naught — that's right! You actually have to start all over again from Stage 1 and replay through all seven, unlucky, insufferable stages — Dante's Inferno, with its nine circles, seems pleasant in comparison.
, get used to this!
Even with unlimited continues, this devious trick becomes more of a chore, more hard labor than a labor of love. Luckily, there is a Stage Select code that the player can input to bypass most of the stress.
Not to belabor the point or slight the game developers any further, but the game's hidden Stage Select reveals that there are actually 4 "checkpoints" in Stage 2, so it begs the question why the actual game wasn't programmed with the additional starting points or why some levels weren't better evenly-paced for fairer play. To confuse the player even more, the map seems to mislabel the Stages; Stage 1 is shown at the beginning towers of Stage 2, while Stage 7 isn't even shown on the map. These numbers don't jibe with the hidden Stage Select area numbers in the code, either.
Overall, Ghosts 'N Goblins seems more of a relic from its time (like the pile of bones that the Knight is reduced to time-and-time again), and replayability is an option only if you have a streak of masochism.
Unfortunately, the high degree of difficulty, teemed with the lack of quality control, overshadow the sense of nostalgia that this game could have provided. In closing, this game isn't for the faint of heart — not because of its creepy, subject matter, but more because of its flawed design. Sadly, Capcom's Ghosts 'N Goblins doesn't achieve a storybook ending.
b. jones © 2014, 2015
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