SuperFami Box['Parallax Memories' is a regular column by Matthew Williamson, profiling classic '16-bit' games from the Sega Genesis, Super Nintendo, and other seminal '90s systems. This week's column profiles Capcom’s Ghosts ‘n Goblins series - and was coincidentally submitted at the same time as the GnG-related GameSetCompetition!]

Ghosts ‘n Goblins or Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, it doesn’t really matter what you call the game (if you can even remember which version has which names): GnG seem to hate you so much you will probably respond with curses and thrown controllers. After recently receiving a copy of Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins I figured it would be best to make sure I was still up to snuff on the older versions of the game. In an attempt to kill two birds with one stone I thought I would turn my skill test into something useful here, even if it does include an 8bit game.

The first game in the Ghosts ‘n Goblins lineage was released in 1985 for the arcade. In Japanese the game carried the title of Makaimura which means “Demon Village World.” (All subsequent games carried a modifier to this: “Dai” meaning great, “Chō” meaning ultimate, and “Goku” meaning extreme. Most likely this makes it easier to talk about with your friends and cuts down on confusion in Japan.) The main character is Sir Arthur whose love, the princess Prin-Prin, was stolen from him (which oddly enough happens while having a picnic with her in his boxer-briefs). He now must go into the Ghoul Realm and save her.

Juxtaposition is one of the keys of the game. Light hearted humor mixed with demonic and satanic themes. Strict gameplay mixed with random enemy spawning. Boxers under a coat of armor. The game really sticks it too you with mixed messages, and one of the things I set out to find is why I keep playing these games and enjoy them so.

[Click through for more.]

NESGnG.gifReady Go

Ghosts ‘n Goblins is one of the few series which spans over twenty years, and is also one of the few that I still own the first copy I bought of all the games in the series, so this project wasn’t the most complicated of undertakings. Also a recent issue of Play Magazine listed Ghosts ‘n Goblins as the number one 8bit platformer: my renewed interest in the series was ultimately piqued.

The NES version was first on my list, and is easily the hardest of the bunch. Arthur is most limited in his movements and skill set. A jump is a commitment; you hit the button and can no longer change what you wanted to do mid-air. This results in many blind leaps into enemies, underestimated distances over pits of death, and general frustration. Many of the stronger enemies will require multiple hits with your weapon, often at ranges that are too close in which to kill them in time.

Noting that this game predates the first Castlevania by a year, it is interesting to see so many similarities. A lot of them are the more frustrating quirks of the series. Taking a ladder commits you to it, and you can’t get off it at any point in time without fully completing an ascent or, descent which is how stairs are handled in Castlevania. As stated before, once you jump you can’t go back, a characteristic shared between both Simon and Arthur. There are also quite a few enemies in GnG which are similar to the Castlevania series staple, the Medusa head. And yet, while there are so many similarities, the games come across completely differently. Even Tokuro Fujiwara, lead designer for all of the GnG games said; "I'm not really familiar with the Castlevania series as I have not played any of the games. I would have to say there is no connection if you play any of the games I made."

Ghosts ‘n Goblins reminds me of a joke my wife recently told me. It was also a question on her test: “Which is better, dyspareunia, or none at all?” The game is a pretty painful experience, but overall very wonderful, especially after the initial burn. This is probably a good point to mention that I can’t beat the NES version. There are two levels that I have to use the level select password to pass, and I’ll leave it up to your imagination which they are. On top of that, I can’t properly complete any of the games. Fully completing a GnG game requires you not only to finish the game once, but then to get sent back to the beginning at a higher difficulty level, with vague instructions on how to get to the “true end boss.” Being that the game involves a princess telling you this, I get to relate the game to Mario (ok, not really, but Super Mario Bros. was released only one short week after the initial release of GnG. So I’m not saying one stole the idea from the other).

ghoulsgenesis.gifThe first game took me two sittings to complete as I haven’t really touched it since I first got the last copy at a Toys ‘R Us way back when. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is the second game in the series and the one that I have spent the most time with. Up until just the other day I had never actually finished the game without cheating. This time, though, I completed the first round in just under an hour, after not playing it in so long. The GnG games train you over and over again how it wants to be played. While the enemies will randomly spawn at certain locations, the game throws so much at you that every action and distance is burned into your muscle memory, no matter how random. Even more than a decade later the game was still with me in an intimate and familiar way.

What separates Ghouls ‘n Ghosts from Ghosts ‘n Goblins is that you can now throw your weapon up and down. Jumping is still the same commitment, but now the amount of freedom you have is increased allowing for just that many more options in which to deal with situations. The attitude, story, and enemies all return to tell a parallel tale inside of a very similar game. Overall the game was easier, but not easy, and apparently that wasn’t good enough for Capcom.

Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was released three years after Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, and at the time was only available on the SNES. Unlike the first two games in the series, Super did not start as an arcade game, and wasn’t ported to dozens of smaller or niche computer systems. I did not have a Super NES at the time and had to wait a little while to play the game, as I imagine others did as well. When I finally did get a chance to play it I despised it.

Aimed throwing is now gone from the series only to be replaced with a double jump. For as many platform games that have double jumping, never has it felt so ridiculous. The double jump allows for you to now adjust yourself, or even correct yourself midair. The animation itself even shows Arthur pump his legs and pitch himself slightly more in the direction of your choice. It does go well with the juxtaposition of the game and creates heavy risk and reward situations, but I stil wasn’t looking forward to this part of my research.

SuperGnG.jpgThe game grew on me. Slowly I got more and more used to it. Super GnG lends itself well to the double jump mechanic, as does Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to the ability to throw up or down. But the game is more difficult. I can’t say if it is because of the mechanic or just the level design, but Capcom decided to bring it back to a more challenging state. To be honest, I never previously gave Super a fair shot, and I am glad that I now have as it is a very rewarding, as well as epic, game.

I also borrowed the Gameboy Advance version of Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts for the occasion. It is a fairly satisfactory port of the game, yet the screen is cropped and the sound also takes a hit. The interesting aspect is the added Arrange Mode where levels from the first and second game have been added for you to play through with the double jumping Arthur. Unfortunately you have to be very, very skilled at the game to see a lot of these levels, leaving me without a good impression of how they work.

Congratulation! The Story is Happy End.

When I started playing Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts I spent over 60 lives attempting to complete level 1-1. Yes, the very first half of the introductory level. I started out playing by myself with my wife reading in the same room. Eventually we started to trade off after each set of lives. Death after death led to cursing of the most vulgar kind by myself, while my wife insisted that the game was just “stupid.” Yet she kept picking up the controller after my three deaths, as did I after hers. This got me thinking about quite a few things related to the series, most of all what had compelled me to keep playing these games, and why do I still enjoyed them.

I keep playing the games because I know that when you beat a level, or just a small section, that you have learned how to do it and are, for a lack of better words, a master of your environment. Now, I don’t compete for scores or record super-plays of myself, and my wife isn’t much good at games that require a lot of skill. Yet we both beat the game (or rather the first loop) because of something which compelled us to proceed when all odds were stacked against us. This is because the game is a giant carrot at the end of a stick. It is constantly, at the beginning of every life, showing you both how far you have made it and how far you are from the end on a map. Because you respawn from the beginning of a level or section you know that when you have completed it, you did the whole section, you didn’t just get lucky. These things are the carrot, and occasionally, if you run fast enough and try hard enough to get a small taste, it tastes good.

gngmap.gif

Tokuro Fujiwara states that “[The gameplay] requires experience and making decisions on the fly which will inevitably help players improve their skills over time.” This is exactly what every game in the series does, and specifically what the first level of them all trains you to do in preparation for later levels. In the first game, in order to get to the second respawn point you need to defeat a Red Devil which requires you to have experience with combat, and also to make a jump onto and off of a moving platform over a pit of instant death. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts requires you to use your up-attack on a tree of buzzards or you will perish by their multitude after passing under them. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts requires not only very precise double jumping, but also careful timing of it, to get to the second half of the first level. It was because I hadn’t improved my skills enough, and I wouldn’t be ready for anything more difficult than a well timed jump with no enemies around, that it took me over 60 lives to beat the first part of Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts.

GnG doesn’t hate you at all. In actuality it gives you exactly as much respect as the games expect in return. No situation is insurmountable or impossible; in fact it is always the opposite once you have properly trained. With the recent PSP release of Ultimate Ghosts ‘N Goblins people have wondered if, because you return from the dead on the spot, rather than at a respawn point, the series has perhaps lost its edge, or is no longer respecting the player. The short answer is: no, it hasn’t. But that’s a story for another day in the not-too-distant future at another site.

[Matthew Williamson is the creator of The Gamer’s Quarter (which just had a new issue released!), an independent videogame magazine focusing on first person writing. His work has been featured on MTV.com, 1up.com, Chatterbox Radio, and the Fatpixels Radio Podcast.]