With Dark Souls picking up a mass congregation prior to the release of its hotly anticipated sequel, it’s always important to keep ‘challenge’ in context. For example, compared to say Borderlands 2, Dark Souls is always going to stand tall as a terrifying and insurmountable trial-by-fire. Now to change the context, comparing Dark Souls to Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins, the 1985 Arcade game, suddenly makes that mountainous ordeal all that less intimidating. With Dark Souls 2 fast approaching, I thought it might be wise to steel myself for the ordeal ahead by revisiting a truly horrific test of mental fortitude.
Born forth unto this mortal world by Capcom and later ported to various consoles under various developers, Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins is a game of brutal and unforgiving difficulty. The version which I, and perhaps most people are familiar is the Nintendo Entertainment System port, developed by Micronics, so throughout that will be the version which will be referenced.
The game has the standard plot for this era. The valiant knight Sir Arthur must rescue his sweetheart Princess Prin Prin from Satan. Simple enough, and in Double Dragon style the story is told to us by a short cutscene at the offset. Some people like to argue that the opening cutscene is rather… lewd.
It shows Sir Arthur, out of his armour and in his underwear, relaxing in a graveyard with Prin Prin in a slightly compromising pose at his feet. Then, a devil swoops in and snatches Prin Prin up, and Arthur is forced to don his armour which may well be slightly tighter around the loins at this point, and give chase. Personally, I prefer the more innocent interpretation that is armour is not a good outfit for relaxing.
Graphically, the game is rather stellar on the NES at least, displaying a pretty lush environment colour palette for an 8-bit console. Arthur himself goes through the game largely as a white block, as his armour leaves little to detail, but frankly you’re grateful for the time when he is in his armour more than anything. The music is catchy and lends itself to the same sort of gothic style that Castlevania does, the sort which you can imagine being played on an organ during a classic 60’s horror flick.
The moment the player is dropped into the first level, (the aforementioned graveyard), they are bombarded with zombies from both sides, a pattern which continues as they advance further. Their initial weapon takes the form of a javelin, which flies in a straight line and either kills or damages the first thing it hits. The downside is that the weapon is fairly slow-moving and can be difficult to throw quickly enough to kill the more hardy opponents, nor can any weapons fly diagonally or straight up, which might not seem like a problem initially, but the enemies which bring the most headaches throughout are those which can fly overhead and swoop in for the kill.
Defensively, Arthur is capable of taking two hits. The first hit will destroy his armour and he must then proceed in the aforementioned underwear, and the second hit turns him to bones. In the NES version, regaining your armour can be extremely difficult, and armour pick-ups are never dropped by enemies. They are only attainable by exploring out-of-the-way places, and the temptation in each level is to simply bolt for the exit with your skin in tact. Exploration is seldom a top priority. This is what, above everything else, makes the game so difficult.
Arthur can upgrade his weapons. That is to say, Arthur can more than likely downgrade his weapons, as all bar-one are quite clearly inferior to the javelin for tackling most enemies. Axes and firebombs are largely useless, travelling in awkward arcs when a straight line is usually preferable, while doing no real extra damage. Only the dagger weapon is quite clearly superior to the javelin, which attacks much faster and allows you to bring down most enemies with ease. However, once you get the dagger, you better avoid all other weapons, because it will be permanently replaced! Imagine if in Dark Souls, every weapon you picked up replaced your previous, forcing you to get used to an entirely new series of attack animations, weights and damage outputs.
Each level varies, but all are intense and gruelling gauntlets in their own right. Jumps over death pits, frantic chases across leaping lava flows on board a rickety bridge and desperate scrambles up ladder-mazes, all the time being bombarded by foes who never seem to let up, pelting you with projectiles from all angles or just swooping in to finish you off. Perhaps the cruellest joke of all? The game has to be beaten twice to count and give the proper ending, once as an ‘illusion devised by Satan’ and a second time as the real thing. Only, if you don’t fight Satan in the first place with the Shield weapon then he won’t die, and you’ll have to go all the way back to the penultimate level anyway. All of this is fairly common knowledge now, but back in 1985-6 without the internet? You had to find out this cruel, sadistic little joke yourself. Frankly, beating the game once should be a permanent transcript on your gaming resumé.
Since writing this retrospect, I’ve played through the game and managed to beat it once, frankly too bewildered by my accomplishment to complete a second play-through as Capcom would apparently demand, given that it’s taken me close to 10 years to achieve. Has it set the bar for Dark Souls 2 for me? I feel the answer is a resounding ‘yes’, and if the people over at From Software are capable of anything more brutal, then I might consider it grounds for having them sectioned as a danger to the public.