Last week I wrote about Ghosts'n Goblins, Capcom's 1985 arcade action platformer which despite (or possibly because of) its sadistic difficulty level remains a classic thanks to its tight controls, great presentation and manic air of constant menace. What if someone else had made Ghosts'n Goblins, though? Someone without Capcom's status as a monolithic player in the games industry, just a few people working for an obscure developer producing games for the home computers of the day? Don't worry, I know you weren't actually pondering that particular "what if" scenario. That's not gonna stop me, though, as I look at Atlantis Software's 1991 ZX Spectrum die-a-lot-em-up Hobgoblin.
On the loading screen, a man wearing gardening gloves uses his gun to shoot a gore-soaked axe from the bony hand of an advancing skeleton. Look, man, you're being attacked by the undead no-one's going to mind if you go for the kill shot. The skeleton on the right places a consoling hand on the man's shoulder, as if to say "ooh, bad luck, getting killed by the axe would have been much faster. Now we're going to have to strip the flesh from your body using only our jagged yet curiously blunt teeth."
Already this looks like it could be an interesting mix: the tattered jeans, sleeveless vest and handgun of the protagonist speak of a post-apocalyptic future, but those skeletons leaping from the dark woods couldn't be more traditionally scary if they were rattling chains and shouting "boo." I mean, they might be shouting "boo" but they look too smug, too knowing to be doing it unironically. Oh great, I've stumbled upon the first documented case of pretentious indie reapers.
I must admit, I really like the Hobgoblin logo - so much so that I'm thinking of travelling back in time to the Eighties and starting a metal band just so we can use it as our logo, because that's clearly that thing's true destiny.
It's not given to us in-game, but Hobgoblin does have a story. It concerns a distant kingdom called Altoris, your standard peace-loving country which unfortunately suffers from constant hobgoblin attacks. The monsters are repelled by the Golden Orb, until the Golden Orb is stolen and darkness, as darkness is wont to do, sweeps the land. It's never explained exactly how the Golden Orb protects the kingdom - I guess magic is involved, unless this whole thing is very carefully masked allegory for nuclear weapons. However it works, the kingdom is doomed without it so the King summons his son to retrieve it. His son, according to the instructions, is called Zanock. Prince Zanock. One day, he'll be King Zanock the 1st. I mean, I assume he'll be "the 1st," because surely no-one else would have named their child "Zanock."
Zanock's the blue-clad chap on the left, waiting patiently to embark upon his grand adventure. Okay, so it's not very grand. "Basic" would be a better word. You've probably figured out from the start of the article that Hobgoblin bears some similarity to Ghosts'n Goblins, and that's certainly true of the gameplay. You walk from left to right, jumping over things and attacking bad guys. That's it, really. Retrieving Golden Orbs doesn't require a particularly expansive skill set.
If you're thinking about playing Hobgoblin, I would recommend switching to joystick controls - while it does mean that you have to press up on the stick to jump, a control scheme that I struggle with far more than I should, it's much better than the alternative of using the keyboard. At some point, the developers of Hobgoblin decided that it would be a good idea to have O and P as the movement keys, Q as jump and M as fire. It was not a good idea. Maybe try it out if you're a concert pianist looking for a new finger-stretching exercise, but otherwise I'd give it a miss.
Of course, it's not as simple as just walking right and not falling into a chasm - there are enemies to deal with. I obviously didn't deal with them quickly enough, because that ghost floated into my back and killed me instantly. In my defence I was distracted by the perfect squareness of that tree, my mind racing with all kinds of possible explanations and theories about how that skeleton must be some kind of gardener with a real knack for topiary. He's not, he's just a normal skeleton. Well, not a normal skeleton, he's walking around. Where was I? I lost the thread a bit there.
Right, yeah, enemies. Gotta kill the enemies. Well, it should be easy, I'll just shoot them with my gun. Except Zanock doesn't have a gun. Yes, I know he has one on the loading screen, but loading screens are fickle creatures and should not be trusted. Let's just assume that Zanock ran out of bullets fighting those two skeletons and threw his empty gun into a bush somewhere.
Instead of bullets, you have to defeat enemies by throwing daggers at them and yes, it does feel a lot like Ghosts'n Goblins except chunkier and with much less finesse - Hobgoblin is the Michael Bay to GnG's Spielberg, if you will. Still, the daggers do their job well enough, especially when their job is killing creepy faces that are growing out cliffs, like the one pictured above. Hang on, is that "cliff face" supposed to be a living pun? The poor sap, no wonder he's so angry that all he can do is vomit fireballs at anyone who passes. To beat the faces, you need to nail down the rhythm of jumping over their shots and returning fire. Make sure you master this skill, because half the enemies in the bloody game seem to follow this same pattern, and it's not just giant heads jutting from rock formations, either.
Robin Hood gets in on the act, too. You might think his appearance here goes against his depiction as a folk hero, but if Defender of the Crown taught me anything it's that Robin Hood is not fussy about who he works for. He may look different, but he really is just a green version of the fire-breathing faces - he doesn't move, he just launches arrow after comically-oversized arrow while you try to figure out the correct timing so you can jump between his shots and throw daggers into his face. That's more difficult that it sounds, for several reasons. Firstly, Zanock's jumping abilities aren't great, and in particular he seems to have trouble with the take-off. Don't get me wrong, Hobgoblin has much better controls than an awful lot of Spectrum games, but years spent with the accurate, responsive controls of (most) modern games have made us all soft and flabby, so it'll take some getting used to. Also, everything in this game has a hitbox the size of a Transit van: Robin's arrows may look like, well, arrows, but the game seems to think they're shaped like housebricks and you'll often find yourself dying because you grazed an area only roughly nearby the thing that was attacking you. Again, this is down to the limitations of the hardware more than anything else, and once you've got used to it it's not too much of a problem because at least everything has consistently odd hitboxes.
At least the platforming's not bad, again with that eternal caveat "for a Spectrum game." While a lot of your leaps can end up being fairly close calls, there are very few that requite the kind of pixel-perfect positioning demanded by so many games of the time and boy is that a relief
While I'm prancing about on top of Stonehenge, let's take a look at those enemies on the right because I'm not sure what the hell they're supposed to be.
Are they frog-men? I think that black horizontal line where the green meets the yellow is supposed to be a mouth, with a bulbous eyeball above it, but I'll admit that it's open to a lot of interpretations. Maybe these are the hobgoblins of the titles, because I've seen precious little else that fits the bill. They die easily enough, and for the first few screens of the game I was having a merry old time, hopping around the scenery and throwing enough daggers to turn everything I encountered into an undead knife block. Then I reached this screen.
It might not look like much, but here's where I almost gave up on Hobgoblin altogether. It seems simple at first glace - there aren't even any holes to fall into - but for the life of me I couldn't figure out how to proceed. The witch isn't a problem, because her cunning plan to defeat Zanock consists of firing her magic over your head and then swooping down to the level of your throwing daggers, so if you don't jump face-first into her spells she doesn't stand much chance of victory. No, the real problem is that skeleton who you can just about see, shuffling on from the right of the screen. He charges at you and normally that'd be fine, but because of the witch you don't have enough time to kill the skeleton before it reaches you and detonates its suicide vest (I'm pretty sure that's what happens, because on contact both Zanock and the skeleton explode into flames.) You simply can't hit the skeleton enough times to stop him, and I tried all manner of different strategies to clear the screen: leaping over the enemies, trying every conceivable position to launch my attack from, hammering the fire button so fast that my neighbours probably thought I was... well, let's not wonder what the neighbours thought I was doing. None of it worked. Then I figured it out by accident, which was handy because logic certainly wasn't getting me anywhere.
Here's the screen just after I defeated the skeleton. You may notice that there's an axe on the far right of the screen. That's Zanock's weapon, which has been upgraded from the daggers he started with to arrows and then to throwing axes. You can power up your weapon by collecting the treasures that enemies drop, and that's how you clear this screen: you have to kill the witch, grab the weapon power-up she drops and immediately begin (or, in the case of my poor, blistered fingers, resume) pressing the fire button as fast as possible. If you're lucky, your newly-improved weapon will kill the skeleton just as he reaches for the detonator on his vest.
That screen is Hobgoblin's low point, the one moment where I felt like the game had become far too much hassle than it was worth, but once you're past that particular kamikaze skeleton then thankfully everything else is plain sailing.
And like plain sailing, it's a little bit dull. While Hobgoblin isn't a bad game - honestly, for a ZX Spectrum platformer it holds up pretty well - it becomes repetitive fairly quickly. It's not broken up into different stages, so you're just moving from one similar-looking screen to the next, figuring out where the enemies appear, getting killed by said enemies and then trying again until you've got it all memorised. In fact, it almost seems more accurate to think of this as a puzzle game, with each screen offering a single challenge that you need to "solve" in order to progress.
Some screens are easier than others, of course, but not in any predictable way. In fact, Hobgoblin seems to get easier as it goes along, and normally that'd be something I'd take issue with, but after struggling with that one screen I'm kind of glad of the break. This isn't a hard game in the same way as Ghosts'n Goblins is: it's got a strange binary difficulty, dependent almost entirely on whether you can remember what happened the last time you were on a given screen. The first time you enter a new area, you'll probably be killed because the monsters don't mess about and Zanock, as previously noted, is not the most limber guy in the world. Your reactions are unlikely to save you. Once you've memorised where the monsters appear, however, every part of the game becomes extremely easy - or at least it would do if pressing up to jump wasn't such a counter-intuitive process that I had trouble timing my leaps so they didn't end with an arrow lodged between my ribs.
It's a shame they didn't just go the whole hog and make this a puzzle game, really, because that would have been much more entertaining than the very basic - and very average - side-scrolling action platformer that Hobgoblin ended up being.
You know, I think I'm going to have to take back what I said about liking that logo. They say familiarity breeds contempt, and after having that lemon-and-lime behemoth occupying half the bloody screen for the whole game I've become pretty goddamn familiar with it.
While the Hobgoblin logo may be eternal and unchanging, at least I've finally found some variation in the backgrounds as Zanock enters a castle.
Hang on: a haunted castle deep in the moonlit forest, flickering torches, a skeleton patrolling a platform near a staircase made of diagonally-placed blocks? Forget Ghosts'n Goblins, I think Hobgoblin has started taking inspiration from a different classic gaming franchise.
Other things this game has in common with the Castlevania series: awkward jumping, throwing knives and axes, enemies that attempt to induce catastrophic brain haemorrhages in the player by repeatedly knocking them off tiny platforms.
Not pictured: the many ghosts I had to defeat in order to get a moment's peace on these particular tiny platforms. Thankfully, I'd managed to collect enough power-ups to upgrade my weapon from axes to fireballs, the most powerful attack in Zanock's arsenal. In truth, I didn't notice much of a difference, but hey: magical fire! You can't argue with that.
Haunted pits only traversable via narrow ledges aside, the castle seems much easier than everything else so far. That might be because I've got the fireball, it might be because I've gotten used to the controls, it could even be that the developers ran out of steam and just plonked in some flat corridors with the occasional wayward monster. I'm sure it's building up to something, though. Some ferocious guardian, a vile demon that lurks between Zanock and the Golden Orb, an upcoming battle so intense and apocalyptic that it will test my gaming skills to their very limits. I mean, what else is going to happen? The Golden Orb is left unguarded, sitting in the middle of an otherwise empty room?
Oh. Well, that's a little anticlimactic. I think it says something about the ubiquity of final bosses that I was hesitant to approach the Golden Orb in case it was some kind of trap - bear in mind that the last game I played was Ghosts'n Goblins - but this isn't an illusion devised by Satan, it's the real deal and to complete Hobgoblin all you need to do is climb those stairs and grab the Orb.
Thus ends a very unadventurous adventure: all Zanock did was cross some fields, wander into a barely-defended castle and reclaim the Magic Doohickey of Protection. Hobgoblin is not a game with a grand, sweeping scope, but for a Spectrum platformer I didn't think it was half bad. It controls well enough, there's a pleasing charm to the enemies and in particular the skeletons with their endearingly goofy and utterly non-threatening walking animation, and while it's definitely a difficult game (at least the first time you play it) it never becomes hair-tearingly frustrating and always feels possible. Okay, so there was that one bit with the witch and the skeleton, but apart from that it was fine.
It has its flaws, naturally - even for a ZX game, the graphics aren't exactly stellar, and once you've been through the game there's very little replay value. If you know what you're doing you can complete the game in less than ten minutes, which at least ties into the feeling that Zanock's quest to retrieve the Orb was hardly Tolkein-esque in scale. My biggest peeve was that otherwise-identical enemies seems to have different amounts of health - sometimes a skeleton will take five daggers to bring down and othertimes just one is enough - which can make it difficult to plan exactly what you're doing, but even that's not too much of a problem because the general monster-interaction flowchart is attack enemy -> is it dead? -> no -> attack again -> repeat until you've finished the game. Those issues aside, in the end Hobgoblin kind of grew on me, like a fungus that might not possess the traditional beauty of a rose but which you can appreciate for what it is none-the-less. It's just a shame that every time I close my eyes, all I can see is that logo because it has been irreparably burned into my retinas.
As for the Hallowe'en-o-Meter, by my reckoning Hobgoblin is worth a solid seven out of ten.
Well, it's called Hobgoblin for a start, that's got to be worth a few points. It certainly contains its fair share of ghosts, witches and possible frog-man hybrids, but it's just a little too heavy on the fantasy-medieval stuff to really get my Hallowe'eny motor running. Robin Hood isn't spooky, he's just green. Also, this season's pumpkin count remains at a big fat zero. Hopefully that'll change, even if I have to edit a Chrono Trigger cartridge to replace Crono's head with a huge orange squash.