I wish I loved the Ghosts ‘N Goblins series more than I do. I’ve completed a large handful of games commonly thought to be notably difficult across a lot of systems, but every time I try to tackle a game in that series, I stop after a few levels because I simply don’t have the interest to proceed. Not that I think they’re bad games, they’ve just never hooked me well enough for me to put up with their challenge.
Yet, the series is pretty landmark, especially over in its native country of Japan, where it’s known as Makaimura (Literally, Demon World Village). It’s been largely dormant in recent years, but it’s a fixture of retro gaming that was both revered and feared in its time.
Among those fears is the terror struck by one recurring baddie from the series: Red Arremer. The little red dick was so ubiquitous, that in 1990, Capcom released a platformer starring him known as Gargoyle’s Quest. While the title on the box doesn’t reference the GnG series, in Japan it’s known as Red Arremer: Makaimura Gaiden, leaving no question of its spin-off status. Interestingly, the spin-off had a run of its own, and the sub-series are the perfect games for Hallowe’en.
1990 was still a pretty early year for the Gameboy, which had only released a year previous. It was a point at which developers were still getting a handle of the system’s dot matrix screen that displayed a mere four shades of horrid green. Most titles at this point were dumbed down versions of console games and single screen puzzle and arcade titles. Capcom, on the other hand, jumped in with both feet and proved that their platformer chops can work even on a small screen.
Gargoyle’s Quest is just that: a reasonable translation of their firmly established platformer formula. If you’re thinking Mega Man, you’re not far off, only here your character can hover horizontally to cross gaps and cling to walls. These skills are typically put to use in segments where you have to carefully descend corridors lined with spiked walls or cross long pits of instant death.
Those aren’t the only tricks this ghoul has, though. The other half of the game is spent in RPG style top-down view, letting you explore the world between the side-scrolling sections and talk to townsfolk. There are also random battles, making a style that’s similar to Adventure of Link. There is a pretense to more RPG mechanics, but they’re largely superfluous; the game is strictly linear and stats are only increased by picking up mandatory power-ups.
It’s a pretty short game, which works well for a handheld, but not for a game with Gargoyle’s Quest’s ambitions. It often feels like things were cut back, or that the gameplay is so abridged that every idea is simply crammed anywhere there was space. However, it packs a great deal of personality into the tiny cartridge, featuring some spooky graphics and haunting music. I definitely recommend giving it a look.
The platforming is pretty solid. Typical for a Capcom game. (Image source: mobygames.com)
It’s weird to look at an NES game that actually improves on the graphics of a game that originated on another system, but that’s exactly what Gargoyle’s Quest II did. Released in the 1992, roughly a year after the launch of the SNES, it’s one of Capcom’s many, many late releases on Nintendo’s aging console.
Gargoyle’s Quest II is… some sort of prequel. It’s not exactly clear when it takes place. I initially interpreted it as depicting Firebrand while he hits the gym in anticipation for proving himself as the Red Blaze in the Game Boy title, but towards the end, it started feeling more like I was playing as Firebrand’s ancestor; the original Red Blaze. Effectively, the narrative is identical to the original game: something is threatening the Ghoul Realm, and, being the only competent person in the realm, it’s up to you to do something about it.
The gameplay is practically identical to the Game Boy version, so much so that I strain to think of any significant differences. Random battles have been removed, instead replaced by static bad guys that you can battle repeatedly to try and stockpile vials (the game’s currency, used exclusively to buy extra lives). The difficulty has been ratcheted up a smidge, and the level design is a bit more creative and varied. However, there’s also more instant death, and it has a habit of putting spikes and other hazards directly where the can’t be seen when you’re in flight. Some of the jumps also require ludicrous precision, sometimes leading to death because you were a few pixels off from your landing.
Otherwise, it’s another enjoyable title for the series. The graphics are incredibly bright and vibrant, and the platforming is just as tight. The terrific atmosphere is well translated, but the game itself is just as short and linear as its predecessor. All-in-all, another fun game to try out.
Moving to the SNES, Demon’s Crest ditches the old nomenclature, but retains much of the same charm and gameplay.
Actually, let’s talk about that for a moment. What the hell is up with North America’s naming scheme for the GnG series? It was Ghosts ‘N Goblins, then Ghouls ‘N Ghosts, then Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts. Even as the snobby, know-it-all gamer that I am, I still stumble over the names. In Japan it was always called Makaimura, which doesn’t exactly translate well into English, but couldn’t they have at least stuck with one title? I would have went with Super Gargoyle’s Quest, but I guess I can’t always have my way.
Anyway, Demon’s Crest hits the ground running. The first thing you do after starting the game is battle a zombie dragon in a colosseum. Your end goal is to get revenge on a gargoyle named Phalanx, and this involves recovering various crests that transform you into different forms. There’s the earth form which is super powerful but can’t fly, the water form that can swim, and the air form that can actually fly vertically.
The top-down adventure segments have been ripped out. Instead, you’re free to fly over the mode-7 landscape and select whatever location you want to begin at. The side-scrolling action sequences are similar to Gargoyle’s Quest, providing you with all the same abilities, but Firebrand no longer has limited hovering abilities and can stay aloft for as long as he wants. This drastically changes the level design, as there’s far less emphasis on precision platforming (it is still there, though), and pushes it more towards combat.
The game also switches up the aesthetic. Whereas the previous games in the series leaned more towards “Hallowe’en Cartoon Special,” Demon’s Crest closer resembles “Edgy, 90’s, Occult Comic Book.” It’s pretty striking, too. Some enemies are grotesque, levels are detailed with spooky scenery, and when you die, your skin literally melts off your crumbling skeleton. It’s certainly more impactful than what was attempted in the GnG series.
The game is an absolute treat. There’s three (technically four) possible endings depending on how much you’ve cleared by the time you face off against the final boss. What isn’t clear is where the final boss is hiding, which you might not find out until you’ve landed at his house and won the bad ending. That happened to me, and because I hadn’t taken down a password previous to this, I had to start over from the beginning.
Despite that, I’d say Demon’s Crest is far and away the best in the series. It’s Capcom platforming at its best and a visual treat. It does to the Gargoyle’s Quest series what Mega Man X did for Mega Man by making small changes that have massive implications.
During its short run, the Gargoyle’s Quest series was releasing a new title every two years. Then, after Demon’s Crest, it just stopped. The series hasn’t been touched since, which is a tremendous shame. It never got a chance at its awkward 3D adolescence, nor did it see a revival on handheld.
The only attention Capcom has paid to it was when it released the entire series on Nintendo’s Virtual Console. Specifically, all the games are available on 3DS (the latter title requiring a “New” 3DS). I don’t know, maybe Capcom will surprise us and give us a Mega Man 11-style revival. Maybe we’ll at least get a small anthology, since Capcom’s been all about those recently.
But if you haven’t had a chance to, I’d recommend taking a trip to the Ghoul realm. The games may not set your world on fire, but you’re at least in for a hell of a time. Good one, me, that deserves a high-five!