When I was a kid, I had a pretty limited budget and my mother was disinclined to encourage her sons’ affinities for video gaming. Nonetheless, Mama GiffTor was powerless to stop my grandparents, aunts and uncles from undermining her nefarious plot to ensure we got exercise and exposure to things like literature and fresh air. The Christmas after my brother and I bought the Sega Genesis, he received Ghouls n’ Ghosts and we began our descent into the depths of hell with King Arthur and his arsenal of supernatural-slaying weaponry. You can’t have a discussion about side-scrolling action/platformers without someone (obnoxiously) waxing eloquent about Mega Man 2, but my brother and me were Sega guys, through and through…and there is no greater side-scrolling action/platformer on the Genesis than Ghouls n’ Ghosts.
Humiliation on oh, so many levels
Every game has its beginnings somewhere, and Ghouls n’ Ghosts is no different. It’s the sequel to Ghosts n’ Goblins, which you should never, ever play unless you’re trying to do some serious penance and the hair-shirt and self-flagellation just isn’t cutting it. Your self-confidence as a gamer will collapse. With that in mind, Ghouls n’ Ghosts is a huge improvement as a sequel. You can actually beat the game…but it’s going to make you pay for it with your pride.
On the most basic level, you’re Sir Arthur (who we always assumed was also King Arthur because it makes the story better); you’re a knight with nobility and honor. However, take a hit from your enemies and suddenly your plate armor falls away, leaving you in your skivvies. How embarrassing. On a more abstract level, the game will test your commitment to the holy quest of finding the Psycho Cannon and rescuing the Princess – it’s not as hard as the first one, but even with the ability to fire your weapons up and down as well as left and right and the addition of the golden armor, which unlocks your weapons’ special abilities, Ghouls n’ Ghosts will shake your faith in your gaming abilities. It’s an old-school game – you don’t have a “save” function, you have limited continues and the checkpoints are so far apart that they might as well not even be there.
Did I mention that the game screws with your head? Oh yeah. Total “Our Princess is in another castle” moment. You’ve ground through the levels. You’ve discovered that the holy water is about as useful as tits on a bull (even though its special power is sweet) and you’ve killed Loki… only to be informed by Merlin (?) that you have to go back to the beginning and do it again or all of the souls that the Devil’s absorbed will be forever trapped. Crap.
Why I’m not in Sales
I spend one short paragraph telling you how great this game is and then three telling you that it might cause ulcers and sweaty palms – what gives? Well, if you’re an old-school gamer, you know that the line between AWESOMENESS and IMPOSSIBLE used to be very, very narrow and Ghouls n’ Ghosts trod on the right side of the line. It was beatable – my brother and I did it many times. It had replay value. The music, especially on the 5th level (Hell) was impressive for the time – I think they worked in Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” or something like that. Creepy classical translates strangely well to MIDI. Keeping your golden armor as long as possible and avoiding every hit so that you could spam the crap out of the weapons’ special powers became an issue of personal pride and the bosses (like Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies, above) were often grotesque and slightly frightening.
On top of the great level design and enough of the intangible “fun factor” to make up for the high difficulty level, Ghouls n’ Ghosts had great, tightly defined controls. You might play it today and bemoan the 4-directional movement and firing, but if you were patient and paid attention to the mechanics going on around you, you’d begin to understand my appreciation for the game. A lot of care must have been taken to make sure that enemies approached from the right angles and that the control scheme, weapons and level design all worked together. Ghouls n’ Ghosts had the same “little things” attention to detail in 1989 that makes games great today.
There were trap-guillotines that you had to play chicken with to get golden armor. There were level-specific enemies – unlike a lot of games at the time, Ghouls n’ Ghosts didn’t adopt the “design a half dozen enemies and reskin, reskin, reskin” school of game design; you fought vultures, zombies, gelatinous 2-sword wielding knights, floating cloud-eyeballs with electricity, reapers, hands of glory and fire bats. There were six weapons with six special attacks and everyone had a favorite and if you were careful, you could hang onto yours as long as you wanted. It had a graphical style and animation that has stood up fairly well to the test of time – it’s plainly an older game, but the textures are smooth, the text is legible and the game’s designers obviously took care to put in the little details that created an illusion of depth and structure.
King Arthur > Bill & Lance
And…Ghouls n’ Ghosts has an intangible. The side-scrolling platformer genre isn’t one with a dearth of solid entries – the fact that great, new ones like Super Meat Boy are still coming out is testament to their staying power, but none of them resonate with me the way Ghouls n’ Ghosts does. I think it’s the first game I remember being really excited to have, I remember going back and playing it as late as early high school before we moved on to the Nintendo 64 and I remember spending hours with my little brother, trying to beat the game and handing off the controller between continues.
I haven’t played Ghouls n’ Ghosts in almost 15 years, but like Contra for some guys, it’s got a place in my gamer’s heart and I’ll never forget the pseudo-cut scene when the screen goes black except for Arthur and then slowly brightens to reveal Lucifer, in all of his horrifying glory, towering over you with a malevolent grin… or firing my lance at him until he convulsed and exploded, releasing trapped souls and reuniting Arthur and the Princess.