Dust off your copies of Thriller and start shoving your massive bag of Poundland tealights into every gourd you can find, because it’s finally time: Halloween is here at last! Of course, it’s a time tinged with sadness, because it means Halloween, and by extension the VGJunk Spooktacular, is almost over, but fret not. You can keep Halloween in your heart all year round. Buy a novelty doorbell that plays the violin sting from Psycho! Instead of a Christmas tree, wrap some tinsel around a pumpkin! Best of all, you can play spooky videogames, and that’s what I’ll be doing today with Capcom’s 1988 sadism-em-up Ghouls ‘n Ghosts!
The electric gremlin from Gremlins 2 has branched out into providing videogame logos, I see. Complete with dripping blood effect! I would argue that no spooky videogame logo can be complete unless it’s dripping some kind of fluid, so Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is off to a good start.
Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is, of course, the sequel to Ghosts ‘n Goblins and the second entry in Capcom’s long-running but now tragically stalled Makaimura franchise. Both games are classics, as are their various console ports and sequels such as Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, so you’re probably familiar with them to some degree, even if it’s only because you’ve played as series hero Arthur in Marvel vs. Capcom 3.
Previously on Ghosts ‘n Goblins: Arthur ran, leapt and fought his way through a nightmarish land plagued by demons and was then forced to do it all over again, before finally rescuing the princess and living happily ever after. Well, living happily until this sequel arrived. So happily, in fact, that a stream of hearts is constantly erupting from the lover’s heads, which is the eighties videogame equivalent of an unutterably filthy, non-stop, three-days-in-a-hotel-room lovemaking session. It was a more gentle time.
Alas, this state of affairs cannot last for long – this is Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, after all, not Kisses ‘n Cuddles – and soon the titular monsters are attacking the kingdom once again. Arthur races back to the princess on his trusty steed, but it’s too late.
Princess Prin-Prin gets a demonic laser beam in the spine, and Arthur’s poor horse is completely vaporised. Looks like Arthur’s quest for revenge is going to be conducted at a walking pace, then.
The action begins, and very typical arcade platformer / run-n-lance action it is too. It’s extremely similar to Ghosts ‘n Goblins: Arthur can run, jump, and attack with whatever projectile weapons he’s currently holding, in this case the basic horizontally-travelling lances that are one of his trademarks. The only difference in Arthur’s core mechanics are that he can attack vertically upwards now, which does come in useful when you’re being attacked by evil buzzards. Buzzards are neither ghouls nor ghosts, but it’s impossible to care when they’re so charmingly drawn, and even they pale in comparison to the scythe-wielding skeletons that jump out of the bushes to chase Arthur around.
Then a spooky wizard popped out of a clay pot and turned Arthur into a duck. Sure, why not? I know I was only three screens into the game but it was proving far too easy. With the handicaps of having no weapons and an uncloseable cloaca that constantly leaks effluent, Arthur can truly experience the punishing level of difficulty that is Ghouls ‘n Ghosts most famous trademark.
Make no mistake, Capcom did not get soft in the years between Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and its prequel, and as we make our way through this cursed land we shall see plenty of evidence that the development team behind this game were actually demons themselves, demons who can only survive by harvesting the misery and anguish of humans. It’s not too bad during this first stage, though. Arthur can still take two hits before he dies, the first hit knocking off his armour and forcing him to fight in his boxer shorts and the second killing him outright. Perhaps he could withstand more punishment if he didn’t buy his armour from Crazy Carl’s Discount Platemail Emporium, all our armour made with genuine soggy cardboard, buy one greave get one free. The monsters don’t take many hits to defeat, and the forest of guillotines is more imposing than genuinely challenging. It’s still a stage where the slightest mistake will cost Arthur his life, but by the standards of the series it’s about as harrowing as a ride on the toytown miniature railway.
About halfway through the stage, the landscape changes to this flatter area where aerial spooksters fly towards Arthur. If you remember Ghosts ‘n Goblins, you might notice that the first stage of that game had an almost identical structure, and in general Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is very similar to its predecessor. In fact, it feels less like a sequel and more like an expanded remake of the original, the Evil Dead II to Ghosts ‘n Goblins’ Evil Dead. That’s not a bad thing, though, especially when one of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts biggest triumphs is that it’s just so fancy. It looks beautiful and it sounds fantastic, and the entire game represents an arcade developer at the height of their powers exploring new techonology, creating an experience so vivid and colourful that it would be years before home consoles could capture it.
As expected, there’s a boss waiting at the end of the stage. In this case it’s a huge monster named Shielder. His most notable attributes are that he uses his own face as a shield, he can breathe fireballs and he’s rocking a killer mullet. Using your own face as a shield, huh? I can understand that, Shielder. It’s the least useful part of my body, too.
Ignore the fact that I’ve managed to have Arthur reduced to a skeleton in the screenshot above, because Shielder isn’t a tough boss at all. I’m just bad at videogame, that’s the thing. Anyway, now that Arthur has the power to throw his weapon upwards you can get beneath Shielder’s head and throw your lances vertically. That generally sorts him out pretty quickly. Once the boss is dead and has finished exploding, you can grab the key he drops – just like the first game, you get the same grammatically tortuous “take a key for coming in” message – and move on to stage two.
Here is stage two – the post-apocalyptic ruins of The Netherlands, if all these derelict windmills are anything to go by. As soon as the stage begins, Arthur is beset by a rain of grumpy rocks that come bouncing down the path, rocks with killer turtles hiding inside. Business as usual, then.
I managed to pick up a new weapon along the way. Notice that I didn’t say I upgraded my weapon, because I’ve traded the reliable horizontal flight of the lances for the arcing, ground-hugging flames of the firebombs. It’s a situation akin to accidentally collecting the wrong subweapon in a Castlevania game, except a thousand times worse because you don’t have a whip to fall back on.
There’s an indoor section where Arthur must traverse a series of rickety wooden bridges. I suspect there is no other kind of bridge in this universe, a world where all pits are bottomless, all waterways are clogged with flesh-eating fish and every toilet seat is disconcertingly warm. In true Makaimura fashion, the collapsing parts of the bridges are often placed at the exact spot where you’re most likely to jump onto the bridge in the first place, hammering home the point that you need a good memory as well as good reflexes if you want to get anywhere with Ghouls ‘n Ghosts.
But then, just as any dreams of conquering the game might have been budding within you, this smug little bastard makes an appearance. That’s right, it’s the Red Arremer from Ghosts ‘n Goblins – he’s back, and as a reward for killing Arthur hundreds of thousands of times in the first game he’s been promoted to Red Arremer King. His new position comes with a towering thrones of skulls, as you would expect for demon royalty, but the difference between him and most lazy, shiftless members of the nobility is that Red Arremer King almost certainly harvested each and every one of those skulls himself.
He also got himself some metal underpants, and he likes to show them off.
Just like in the last game, Red Arremer is not the usual dull creature with no plan but to charge at Arthur. He’s got style, he’s got finesse, and he’s still controlled by the black magic of whatever AI routine Capcom developed for him: the one that makes him behave like he’s thinking about what Arthur’s doing, reading our hero’s movements and waiting for the perfect chance to strike. Even to this day, Red Arremer is one of the most uncannily human foes you’re ever likely to face in a videogame. Plus he can fly and will chase you relentlessly if you try to tun away from him. He’s a real pain in the arse, is my point.
The rest of the stage is on fire, because of course it is. Having the stage not be on fire would be making things too easy on Arthur. At least I didn’t send him into this hellish furnace in full plate armour. This way he can be killed by touching an evil plant instead of drowning in a container of his own sweat.
The boss of this stage is Cerberus, guardian watchdog of Hell. He doesn’t have the three heads of the traditional Cerberus, but he is made of living flame, which rather makes up for it. Cerberus fights by jumping from one side of the room to the other and dropping fireball on Arthur’s head so, uh, duck? The only other advice I can offer is “don’t have the firebombs equipped, because they’re rubbish.”
Stage three begins with Arthur on an elevator, an elevator into which countless enemies spawn. Well, you can’t beat the classics, can you? This is where Ghouls ‘n Ghosts’ difficulty level starts getting a bit hairy, and I have trouble coping purely because there are so many monsters flapping around the place. I’m sure everyone who plays GnG has their own watershed moment that makes them think “maybe there’s a nice hard brick wall nearby that I can smash my head against instead,” and for me stage three is where that happens. I might just be imagining it, but Ghouls ‘n Ghosts always feels more difficult to me than its predecessor, perhaps because the increased power of the then-new CPS-1 arcade board allowed for a greater number of creeps to be on screen at once.
If you somehow survive long enough to reach the top of the elevator, you’re faced with the nerve-shredding terror of a platforming section in which Arthur scampers along retracting bridges made from rhythmically undulating demon tongues. I have never been so glad that Arthur is in possession of all his armour. That alternative would be Arthur tackling this area barefoot, and the idea of a giant demon tongue licking the bare soles of my feet is easily the most horrifying concept I’ve encountered this Halloween season.
Speaking of armour, I managed to find Arthur a resplendent suit of golden proof. It looks impressive, but like cheap jewellery from a home shopping channel it might be shiny but it’s flimsy tat that will fall apart if a monster so much as says a naughty word in its vicinity. The golden armour does have one thing going for it, however: when he’s wearing it, Arthur can hold the attack button to charge up a special magical attack that varies depending on your currently equipped weapon. With the firebombs, for instance, charging up the special attack unleashes a pair of fiery snakes that fly around the screen, killing anything they touch. That’s all well and good, but the moments in this game where you’ve got a chance to charge up your special attack are few and far between.
This boss is called Gassuto, and it’s an eyeball stuck inside a cloud. Congratulations to Capcom for creating a cloud that looks annoyed to be involved in these shenanigans. Gassuto doesn’t want to be part of this at all, does he? I can’t blame him, he’s mostly eyeball and Arthur’s always throwing either fire or sharp objects. Once again, I don’t have much advice to offer when it comes to beating this boss. He floats around, so try not to be standing where he’s floating. I know beating up a cloud sounds like it’d be really difficult, but Gassuto’s not so tough.
It’s been a while since I’d played Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, and I’d forgotten just how gruesome it gets. Stage four, as seen here, takes place in a mysterious crystal cavern that’s overrun with tumorous flesh-lumps and veiny fanged worms, which I believe is called having your cake and eating it.
There’s also an ice-slide section, where Arthur must avoid the predations of the big hands with faces instead of fingerprints while dodging the spiked walls, walls that seem to be made from the very kidney stones of Satan himself. I imagine that if you were to visit this stage for real, it would have a very unique aroma, like the urinals in a pub that only serves fresh goat’s blood.
Then it’s down, down, down, travelling across the disturbingly biological polyp platforms, which are as unpleasantly green and sinewy as a cucumber that spends all its time down the gym. If he wasn’t covered in metal plates, I’d say Arthur should take his chances in the water. Take heart, though – he can jump to the relative safety of that big green island!
No, it’s not really an island. Even if it was an island it wouldn’t be safe, because this is Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. It’d be packed with roving bands of murderous palm trees that can grow weaponised coconuts or something. No, this is Ohme, the fourth stage’s boss: a creature surely designed after and named for the insect-like Ohmu creatures from Studio Ghibli’s Nausicaa. Unlike the more agile bosses Arthur has faced thus far, Ohme is content to sit back and let the various parasites that crawl all over it do the job, so the battle consists of avoiding those creatures while trying to damage Ohme’s heart-lumps when they pop out of its side. It was the last part of that plan I had problems with, because by this point I’d totally forgotten that Arthur can fire straight downwards when he’s jumping. I blame it on the residual mental scarring caused by (involuntarily) imagining those tongues licking my feet.
The final stage is set in a spooky castle, complete with crumbling masonry, windows that put the “stain” in stained glass and the blasphemous sinks of the elder gods, always watching with their cycloptic eye to ensure all who use the toilet wash their hands afterwards. There are also many Red Arremer Kings. There’s one at the top of the screen now, easily avoiding the axe I threw at it.
This stage also has horrible pig-men that attack by vomiting onto Arthur from above, just in case you thought this stage might be a little less grotesque than the previous levels.
Mostly it’s a boss rush, though, and while normally I’d decry the boss rush section as a lazy attempt by the developers to pad out the game, in Ghouls ‘n Ghosts there has at least been some effort made to mix things up. You don’t fight the bosses one after the other in a series of identical rooms, for starters, and there are some changes like the severed arms of multiple Shielders being used as sentry turrets.
You even get to fight Astaroth, main antagonist of Ghosts ‘n Goblins, first on his own and then as part of a diabolical tag-team. He seems to have taken the demotion to “Hell’s Doorman” quite well. His stomach-face seems cheerful enough, anyway. Just like the first game in the series, the boss battles in Ghouls ‘n Ghosts are quite possibly the easiest part of the game – although they’re markedly more challenging than they were in the original. Still, if you’re lucky with the weapon you have equipped and you can get enough hits in before the fight really gets started, often you’ll manage to defeat the bosses in a matter of seconds.
Lurking at the top of the castle is the all-new boss Beelzebub, lord of the flies. Stop looking at his disgusting, wrinkled ovipositor. I know, I know, it inexorably draws the eye towards it but no good can come of staring at that thing.
Given that I just said that the bosses are the easiest part of the game, naturally Beelzebub turns out to be a real pain in the arse to fight. Hitting him isn’t a problem – he’s pretty big, as flies go – but I struggled when he turned into a swarm of flies and zipped across the screen. It took me a long time to be able to avoid that with any kind of consistency, and even then I was one fumbled button-press away from making Arthur look like the windscreen of a car that’s just driven through a garbage dump.
Well, here it is. You knew it was coming, I knew it was coming, but that does little to mitigate the sting of defeating Beelzebub only for a bearded man to appear and tell you to complete the whole game again. Turns out Arthur doesn’t have a weapon with enough magical might to take on the true final boss, so it’s back to stage one to find the Goddess of Battle. Who is this old man, anyway? Merlin? It might be Merlin. I would have expected the most powerful wizard of all time to be more help against these gosh-darned ghouls and ghosts, however.
Princess Prin-Prin also sticks her floating, disembodied oar in, reminding Arthur that he has to be wearing the golden armour to find the magic weapon. Oh good, I was worried that this might be too easy. The Princess says that she believes Arthur will defeat Lucifer, but I’m not so sure.
Here we go again, then. I made it through the first stage just fine, and I had a good time doing so because the first stage of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is one of my all-time favourite stages in gaming: the richness of the graphics, the monster designs, the already challenging but doable difficulty level and the truly excellent musical theme. It’s great, and I love it.
The second stage is where I found the magic weapon, hiding in a chest underneath the rickety wooden bridges. This must be the Goddess of Battle, then. Notice how she has her hands clasped together in an almost apologetic fashion? She should be bloody apologetic, I could have had access to this weapon during my first playthrough!
At least the weapon is pretty good once you finally pick it up. It doesn’t travel that far, but it’s very powerful and the nice, wide projectiles mean aiming is a thing of the past. According to the ending this weapon is called the Psycho Cannon, so I guess we know where M. Bison got his powers from. The ending also says that St. Michael himself gave Arthur the Psycho Cannon. So… not the Goddess of Battle, then? Or is the Goddess of Battle actually Archangel Michael in disguise? It’s not a very good disguise, if so, what with her having red hair and angel wings.
I’ll be honest, I used some cheats when I reached the latter half of my second loop. The idea of losing the golden armour just before the end of the game was a torment too far in a game already dedicated to seeing the player suffer. Ghouls ‘n Ghosts’ reputation for difficulty is well-earned, but is it any harder than any number of other coin-guzzling, one-hit-kill arcade game? Erm, yes, I think it is. I reckon part of why GnG feels so brutally difficulty is that there are plenty of opportunities to put yourself in a position where death is inevitable. This is mostly down to the jumping mechanics, because once Arthur’s airborne there’s no way to change his trajectory, leading to a great many instances where you realise, mid-jump, there you’re about to land on something that wants you dead. It’s also easy to find yourself boxed in by more enemies than Arthur can handle – in other games, especially more modern ones, you know that if you play well enough you can weasel out of most tight spots, but with GnG sometimes you’re just screwed. It rarely feels unfair, though: it just demands that you practise, a lot. Learning where things are going to be is ninety percent of GnG’s difficulty, and it’s a short enough game that doing so isn’t an overwhelming challenge.
I made it all the way back through the game, past the Red Arremer Kings, across the tongue platforms and beyond Beelzebub, to be confronted with this: the final showdown with Lucifer himself! Lucifer doesn’t get up from his throne during the fight, which is frankly rather rude but he is the devil so that’s to be expected. Lucifer fights by pointing at Arthur so hard that lasers fly out of his fingers, all while sitting in comfort. For once, I actually do have some advice on how to beat this boss: there’s a spot between his legs (no giggling at the back, please) that you can stand in where his lasers have trouble reaching you. If you can find that sweet spot, stand in it and fire upwards, blasting your Psycho Cannon into Lucifer’s vulnerable face. See, if he’d had the manners to stand up when Arthur entered the room, I wouldn’t be able to reach his face and Lucifer would win by default. That’s why etiquette is important, folks.
If you take too long, Lucifer will begin destroying chunks of the floor, but that’s okay, You can just climb up on his knee and start smashing him in the face, just like that time I was ejected from Santa’s Grotto.
Once Lucifer is vanquished, a white bird carries the Princess’ body into the room (no, really,) and deposits it at Arthur’s feet. Then her soul flies back into her body from somewhere off-screen, Prin-Prin is revived and she and Arthur can get back to doing what they do best: making out. He’s a lover and a fighter.
You also get a surprising amount of backstory for your troubles, including such nuggets as the Princess’ kingdom being called Hus, the previously-mentioned information that Arthur is in league with the very angels of Heaven themselves and that he instilled magical power into all his weapons, knowing that the forces of darkness would rise again. Your time would have probably been better spent training up some other knights, Arthur, or maybe finding some armour that doesn’t explode when a skeleton’s robe brushes against it. The final coda is that the Demon World will rise again someday, so Arthur better get as much making out done as he can while he’s got the chance. That might be something of a paraphrase.
And so, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is finished. Finished twice, even, and as I slowly recover from the mental and physical tension it generates I’ve come to realise that playing GnG is like seeing an old friend you haven’t hung out with in a long time… but it’s your boisterous, over-the-top, drainingly exuberant friend who wears you out. You have fun hanging out together, but once they’re gone you’re glad you don’t spend time with them more often. In a lot of ways it’s a truly great game: it looks and sounds fantastic, the enemies and impressively huge bosses are fun and the level design is pleasingly fiendish. It’s just that difficulty level, the constant, unremitting tide of death, that has the potential to turn people off. Everyone’s different, and if you want a real challenge that you can devote yourself to mastering then Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is a wonderful option, but even if you’re like me and don’t have the time (or the patience) to do so then I’d still recommend you at least try it out – the first stage really is excellent – but don’t worry too much about saving the Princess. Just enjoy the ambience, and try to get into a fight with a Red Arremer. That’s definitely an experience.
For the final time this year (I know, I’m sad about it too) we turn to the Halloween-O-Meter, upon which Ghouls ‘n Ghosts scores a mighty 9 out of 10. The inclusion of more traditional Halloween monsters – if Arthur fought a Frankenstein, for instance – would have pushed it all the way up to ten, but nine is a perfectly respectable score and Ghouls ‘n Ghosts remains one of the most thematically-appropriate games you can play on Halloween.
That’s it for the 2016 VGJunk Halloween Spooktacular, then. I hope you’ve enjoyed it! I’ve enjoyed it, as I’m sure you’ve probably guessed. My only disappointment is that the promised sequel to Halloween Trick or Treat 2 didn’t materialise, so I will have to comfort myself by chucking a Lego man into my box of Halloween decorations and then trying to find it.
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