Ghouls’n Ghosts and the question of how hard you like it

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Ghouls’n Ghosts — much like its illustrious predecessor Ghosts’n Goblins — is a game where, every time I play it, I find myself questioning if I’m actually having a good time. And, alongside, this, I inevitably find myself wishing that I liked it more than I do.

For anyone with past experience with either of these games, you doubtless know exactly what I’m talking about. They are notoriously, punishingly difficult, even by the standards of coin-operated arcade games, and for me I’ve never been quite sure that they really struck the right balance between allowing the player to proceed forward at a good rate and challenging them to a significant degree.

Ghouls'n Ghosts

Revisiting Ghouls’n Ghosts as part of Capcom Arcade Stadium for the first time in a while today, my feelings haven’t really changed that much — though having gained a bit more experience in other, similar games over the years, I do feel like I am maybe slightly more forgiving towards the game’s overly punishing nature than I used to be. It’s all a matter of perspective — and playing a game like this as part of a modern compilation rather than being expected to continually feed coins into it makes it much easier to shift that perspective a bit.

But we’ll come back to that in a moment. First, a refresher course for those unfamiliar with the game.

Ghouls’n Ghosts (also known as Dai Makaimura — literally “Great Demon World Village” — in Japan) is the second game in the Ghosts’n Goblins series, chronicling the events of brave knight Arthur as he fights back against the evil forces of Lucifer three years after the events of the first game.

It’s a platform action game in which you control Arthur as he runs and jumps; combat is of the “run and gun” variety, where at the outset of the game, you can shoot lances either in front of or directly above you, and additional weapons are available to acquire as you progress. The game is famous for Arthur being knocked out of his armour on his first hit taken, forcing him to fight in his underpants — and for requiring you to play the whole damn thing through twice if you want to actually finish it.

Ghouls'n Ghosts

Ghouls’n Ghosts was first released to arcades in 1988, and enjoyed an impressively large number of home ports to computer and console systems, most of which were extremely well-received for various reasons.

The home computer versions lacked some features of the original arcade versions, but featured an excellent alternative soundtrack from Tim Follin; the Mega Drive version, developed by Yuji Naka, meanwhile, was held up as a particularly solid port. If you’re wondering why there’s no mention of the Super NES title Super Ghouls’n Ghosts here, it’s because that’s not the same game; it was developed specifically for Super NES rather than being a port of the arcade version.

Anyway, the version in Capcom Arcade Stadium is, of course, the original arcade version — and from a purely technical standpoint, Ghouls’n Ghosts is a good game. It features some lovely pixel art on both its backgrounds and sprites (though the animation on Arthur’s horse in the introduction sequence appears to have been made by someone who has never seen a horse before) and there is some impressively varied and dynamic scenery that you encounter over the course of your quest.

Ghouls'n Ghosts

There’s some atmospheric music and some weak but functional sound effects, too. There are no real problems with the game’s overall presentation; the issues are with the gameplay.

Ghosts’n Goblins is fond of tricking and trolling the player. Whether it’s through a magician appearing from a treasure chest to curse Arthur or unmarked sections of bridge collapsing, sending him into a near-unavoidable quicksandy death, the game is absolutely not above doing its absolute best to ruin your day at regular intervals.

There are lots of opportunities for instant death throughout the game, many of which can be avoided if you’re aware of them in advance — but which, while you’re learning the game, you will almost certainly fall foul of at least once.

Ghouls'n Ghosts
This shit right here

This is where my feelings are a bit mixed. On the one hand, it’s annoying to suffer these instant death sequences if you don’t know they’re there — and if you were playing this game in the arcade, chances are you’d feel a bit hard done by if you hit several of them in succession that made your last 10p last approximately twelve seconds.

But we’re not playing this game in the arcade any more. Whether you’re playing this game through Capcom Arcade Stadium or via some alternative means, chances are you have access to a variety of other tools now. In Capcom Arcade Stadium, you can change the speed of the game, rewind the action and save your position. In other emulators, you can tweak the game’s internal data and apply cheats. And in most cases, you have the option for infinite credits.

This changes things a little bit. If you know that your game isn’t going to come to an unavoidable end by you falling down a pit, being eaten by a statue or burned to a crisp, the death sequences can be looked on as a bit more amusing — because they often are.

Ghouls'n Ghosts

Moreover, since the game makes use of a fairly generous checkpoint system rather than simply respawning you on the spot, you still have to actually overcome the obstacles rather than rendering them meaningless by feeding more credits in; no “pay to win” here.

And yet… and yet… I still can’t quite find it in me to definitively say that I like Ghouls’n Ghosts. There are times where, even setting the arcade machine to its easiest difficulty, it feels like there are sequences specifically designed to make you die near-unavoidably. In modern games, we’d call this out as bad game design, but as an established classic Ghouls’n Ghosts has been somewhat immune to this sort of criticism over the years.

Well, I’m saying it now: bridges that collapse with no sort of visual cue that they might do so are bullshit. Filling the screen with bouncing enemies and expecting you to find a teeny-tiny safe spot is also bullshit. Featuring a powerful enemy that takes a lot of hits to dispatch who also nimbly dodges pretty much everything you throw at him is also bullshit — particularly when your alternative is to run past him onto yet another collapsing bridge, albeit one where you can see the crumbling bits in advance this time.

Why are these things bullshit? Because they’re not hard in the sense that they require skill that you can immediately demonstrate if you’re good enough; they’re instead almost taking the “masocore” approach of demanding that you fail at least once in order to learn what to expect. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing if the whole game has been built with that in mind, but it’s not super-compatible with the standard arcade game structure of limited lives and severe punishment for failure.

At the same time, I can’t bring myself to say that I hate or even dislike Ghouls’n Ghosts either, because I don’t. It’s an attractive, charming game — and it’s a classic with good reason. Mechanically and presentationally, it’s solid; the issues I have with it are mostly matters of level design rather than how it plays. And perhaps structurally, also — though to be perfectly honest to date I’ve never yet had the patience to make it all the way to the end of a first loop to make the second one an issue.

Ghouls’n Ghosts is a game that requires a certain degree of patience and persistence to truly enjoy from a modern perspective, then. It’s by no means a bad game by either the standards of 1988 or today — but it is definitely an acquired taste. I’m just not quite sure I’ve fully acquired it yet, even after all this time!

Capcom Arcade Stadium is available now for PC via SteamNintendo SwitchPlayStation 4 and Xbox One.

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Pete Davison
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