Zombies, demons, and fire breathing gophers. What more could one man ask for? That's rhetorical, by the way. But for a person like me, a game putting the player in control of a knight set out to destroy forces of evil such as these? It's hard to complain. So, with Halloween approaching and owning a general distaste for scary movies, I grabbed the next best thing to suit the mood: Super Ghouls'n Ghosts. But it was not, sadly, a perfectly happy trip down Spooky lane.
The hero of this game is a Knight named Arthur who, after seeing his lady love (and princess) caught up in the clutches of a red ghoul, sets out to rescue her and defeat the evil demon king, Sardius. There just happens to be an entire army of evil undead in his way. But that's never stopped a hero before, right?
Arthur will face down numerous and varied enemies living and/or haunting the eight stages he will traverse to complete the game. From rotting zombies and flaming skulls to demonic forces and incorporeal ghosts, Arthur will face and slay them all in turn.
To squash the swarming legions of evil, Arthur will have many weapons at his disposal. True, not all of these are useful (and one, at least for me, is not only downright useless but actually got me killed when used), or practical. But when has practicality gotten in the way of a good zombie slaying? Arthur will wield a mighty ax, lance, knife, tri-spear, scythe, holy water, or a crossbow on his journey, each having various weaknesses, strengths, and attack patterns.
Adding a layer of depth to the system is Arthur's armor. He begins the game wearing standard Knight armor, but by finding treasure chests hidden throughout each level, Arthur can upgrade that to magic armor, or super magic armor. Magic armor powers up Arthur's weapons. For example, the standard crossbow is rather weak and shoots on the diagonal, leading to problems hitting enemies that are on the same level as Arthur. But the magic crossbow has flaming bolts that track your enemy.
Super magic armor doesn't change your weapons any, but allows Arthur to charge up his weaponry and use magic, which changes depending on the weapon. Charging up the crossbow and using it's power will reveal hidden treasure chests to the player. The super magic armor also gives Arthur a shield, blocking a single projectile or, further upgraded, three projectiles. This system isn't complex, and generally adds a layer of fun and ease, since you can choose weapons to your liking, but it does have it's issues. Some of the weapons are incredibly hard to use after being upgraded. The ax, normally cutting loop-de-loop's across the screen, will instead arc over Arthur and then fly out in front of him (as a pertinent note, all of these weapons are thrown by Arthur; a safe ghost is a ghost that 'dies' at 20 paces, right?), leaving you open to attack if you're careless.
Another painful (at least to my mind, softened by modern games) issue is that a single hit or touch of the enemy will remove [i]all[/i] of Arthur's armor, no matter what tier it's at. Another strike leaves him dead. Blocking with your shield is possible, but you must be standing absolutely still, and catch the projectile directly on it. Practicality comes into question, since a slight of timing will leave you in your underpants against the horde.
Gathering the weapons and armor can also be tricky; after all treasure chests aren't famous for falling from the sky. They do, however, have the tendency to appear whenever you touch a specific portion of space. At least within the confines of this game. Sometimes one will pop up after walking over a stretch of grass; but more often, they require treading through demon laden paths, or jumping off a ledge and then back again using a carefully timed double jump. The chests are based on a specific system when you find them, so the first chest you find will nearly always contain a weapon; the next, magic armor, and so on up the scale. Beware though, as at times a Court Jester will be hiding inside a chest, waiting to transform you into something helpless.
If you've ever played a platformer before, chances are good you'll have no trouble partnering with Arthur to lead him through his dangerous journey. Controls to that end (at least on the VC, using a Gamecube controller) are simple and easy.
This game left me shaky, with sweaty hands, and raw nerves. Not because the horde of evil bearing down on Arthur frightened me, but because of the series nigh legendary difficulty. Preserved in this download of a game made twenty years ago is also the difficulty level of twenty years ago. Unless you're quite good with the shield, you'll have two hits before Arthur dies. There are three difficulty settings, and other settings which allow you to control the number of lives and continues you start off with. Even so, I had an incredibly hard (and at times frustrating) time beating this game even on easy mode. I enjoyed nearly every minute of it, of course, but if you tend to throw your controller at the screen after dying, this game may not be for you.
Graphically, the game fits well within the standards of the time. The sprites are well detailed, as are the levels themselves. The edges of enlarged sprites are often jagged and pixel laden, though that was not the flaw then that it is now. One level is twisting and turning the whole time, and it's to the detriment of the scene background, as it turns the smooth parts quite blurry and distorted. The graveyard is very spooky, much like what you would think a haunted graveyard would be. Creepy trees, stumbling zombies and mountains of skulls included, it's everything the undead-slayer in my heart longs for. The ice level is a joy to play, because the background is full of alien trees, now encased within ice. The eyeless holes of the ice-breathing gophers seem to enjoy the thought of freezing Arthur in a statue. On the whole, the art is detailed and perfect for the environs, though if you pay attention you could notice a fair amount of reuse in objects and enemies. The game ran solidly with the exception of classic slowdown when many enemies were on the screen. I say 'classic' since this is pretty typical of the games of the era, and for me simply added to the experience of playing a classic game. Not to mention it's more likely to help you out than hinder progress.
Musically, the game presents songs and sounds that suit the atmosphere, though there's nothing especially radiant about them outside of the game. The themes are chilling or spooky in sync with the atmosphere, but also present an encouraging lift as Arthur (and you) quest to save the princess. I wouldn't listen to the music outside of the game, but the game wouldn't be quite as good without it. The final theme lilting over the credits is one of the better songs I've heard within this genre though, evoking thoughts of happiness and peace as Arthur and Prin-Prin ride off into the dawn. But the sounds used for attacking can get rather repetitive, and mysteriously the enemies do not make noise.
From here on I have to spoil the game a bit.
After fighting your way through the hordes of hell and defeating a very large demon, Princess Prin-Prin appears in apparition form, preventing Arthur from entering the final room and going toe-to-toe with Sardius for a very specific reason. She reveals that she had a relic of untold power, the Goddess Bracelet, which was the only item capable of defeating Sardius. 'Had' being the poignant word; you see, she dropped it somewhere on the way to the castle. She warns Arthur that he is powerless to defeat Sardius without it, and asks him to please return when he has found the bracelet. The game then returns you to stage 1-1, and yes, you must complete the entire game a second time. This time with an increased difficulty level. Super Ghouls'n Ghosts is apparently known for it's difficulty level, and I can see why.
To put salt into the wound, the Goddess Bracelet is not a piece of equipment, but a tricky to acquire weapon, which, unless you have the Super Magic Armor, has a very limited range. This, in my thoughts, is one of the cheapest ways to extend play time. How long the game takes you to complete is dependent entirely on your skill level. There are eight stages with 1-5 divided into two parts, and all of them present a challenge. My first run through the game took me about 3-5 hours, though I am by no means a master, and know it could be completed in a much shorter time span.
Violence isn't much of an issue, surprisingly; most enemies explode into a fireball. Zombies make a 'splat' noise when killed, but no gore involved. One level takes place [i]inside[/i] of a giant ghoul, and is suitably garish, with platforms dripping blood, the background being fleshy and slimy, and the boss fight taking place with a giant (anatomically correct) heart in the background. It's not sickening, or even overtly gory, but it's still disturbing in its own way. When Arthur is killed he transforms (bloodlessly) into a pile of bones, and upon the loss of his armor, a rather buff physique is revealed. He's not immodest, but is clad in only polka-dot boxers. Princess Prin-Prin is a rather buxom lady, and wears a low-cut dress showing some cleavage in the close shot of her. Normally, I'd ignore that, but during the credits they give her bust, waist and hip measurements.
The real problem with the game is the spiritual side. Given the subject matter, it's not all that surprising, but it is surprisingly heavy. As I've emphasized through this review, Arthur is fighting against demons. Emperor Sardius isn't Satan per se, but he is called the 'king of demons'. You also encounter demons named “Asutaroto” and “Nebiroth” which are variations in spelling of Astaroth and Nebiros, names having a place in real-world demonic lore. There's also the matter of the Goddess Bracelet. I have no particular qualm about fighting demons, and I was even mildly impressed that the game required Arthur to use spiritual power against them, instead of a physical weapon. My problem with the game is the [i]source[/i] of this power: the bracelet enchanted and given by the goddess of war, a tiny fairy like critter inside of a treasure chest. Also, the crosses on the zombies coffins resemble ankh's instead of true crosses. And the background imagery within the levels usually contains skulls of some sort, carved into masonry or stuck on posts.
In the end, Super Ghouls'n Ghosts does, indeed, fit well into the Halloween atmosphere. It's a very challenging game, to be sure, but with a little practice it becomes an enjoyable jaunt back to a time when games didn't require an epic tale and high polygon count, just an undead-slaying knight and a beautiful princess needing to be saved. And Arthur is willing to put himself on the line, not just the multiple times through the first run, but also going over each course twice. Which is surprisingly loving of him...If I fought my way through a horde of evil, pits of lava, and wandering a barren, snowy mountain in my underwear, I'd be rather angered to learn that the person I was trying to save hid the one item I needed to save her back along the way, without even so much as a sticky note until I was at her very prison cell.
The game reeks of quality, and is a very solid platformer from the golden ages of platformers, but with the large amount of occult involved, not to mention the unforgiving difficulty level, I'm uncertain I could recommend SG'nG to play. There are other classics in this genre and time period that are much cleaner without sacrificing fun value.
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