Some things just go well together at Hallowe'en. Pumpkins and carving knives. Tricks and treats. Cheap lab coats and copious amounts of fake blood. And, if you're looking for a pairing of supernatural monsters to mark the occasion, what could possibly roll off the tongue more pleasantly than a combination of ghosts and goblins? If only there was a videogame about that, hey?
Well, that's handy. Yes, today I'll be looking at Capcom's 1985 arcade classic Ghosts'n Goblins, also known in Japan as Makaimura and to anyone who has ever played it as "a game so relentlessly, brutally difficult it makes Dark Souls look like a colouring book." If you read the article about my struggles with various difficult NES games, you'll know that I am not blessed with an overabundance of gaming talent, so this should be interesting.
Ghosts'n Goblins is a game that should need no introduction, but as it did come out 27 years ago I should probably give a quick recap: Ghosts'n Goblins is the first game in the Makaimura ("Hell Village") franchise, a series that later spawned sequels such as Ghouls'n Ghosts and spin-offs like the Gargoyle's Quest games. The plot - and to be honest describing it as a "plot" is giving it a bit too much credit - is that in a distant fantasy/medieval kingdom, a princess is kidnapped by demons. A brave, bearded knight called Arthur sets out to rescue her.
What that doesn't explain is why the game starts with Arthur, clad in naught but his boxers, and Princess Prin-Prin (top-notch naming work there, Capcom) chilling out in a cemetery. A while ago, I put the question of just what is going on here to the followers of the VGJunk tumblr. My personal theory was that the spark has gone out of Arthur and Prin-Prin's relationship and they're hoping a bit of demonic abduction will spice things up. Tumblr user plasticpals came up with an alternative that I prefer, however - Prin-Prin, knowing that she's going to be kidnapped, is actually raising Arthur from the dead to protect her. See, that's what a bit of world-building can do for a game! Paints the whole thing in a different light, imagining that Arthur's a zombie - and it certainly explains his stiff-kneed jumping skills.
Because being a videogame princess in a graveyard is akin to binding your own hands and standing under a flashing neon sign that reads "FREE KIDNAPPINGS," it doesn't take long for a demon to swoop down and carry Princess Prin-Prin away. That's not just any demon, though - it's Satan himself! A furry, almost cuddly version of Satan, one that looks as though he could be from Jim Henson's Divine Comedy, but it's nice to see the ultimate evil getting out of his stygian pit for a bit of maiden-snatching exercise.
With his royal girlfriend abducted, Arthur can set out for the first stage. It's a haunted graveyard, populated by zombies that crawl from the ground and giant spitting flowers. The gameplay in Ghosts'n Goblins is simple, about as simple as this kind of thing gets, and all Arthur can do is move, jump and throw javelins at the enemies. Even his jumping is basic, and you can't alter his flight path once you've taken to the air. Many lives have been lost in GnG through poorly-timed jumps that seemed like a good idea at the time until you realise you're heading for a pit and you can't change course.
This first area isn't too tough. It's not easy, not for the very first area, but as long as you keep moving and stay on your toes you'll do okay. You might even start to wonder where GnG gets its reputation for nigh-impossible toughness. Then you meet this guy.
This. Fucking. Guy.
This is a Red Arremer, and the first time you fight him, you will die. You will probably die the second, third and fourth time you fight him. Hell, you'll be lucky to get past him after twenty attempts. Red Arremers must rank up there with some of retro gaming's most famous foes, and they're definitely in the top percentile when it comes to difficulty. Why are they so hard to defeat? Because they don't play by the rules, that's why. Enemies in videogames, especially in early videogames, did one thing and one thing only: they followed patterns. A Goomba walks from left to right. Space Invaders move back and forth, then drop down a level. They're simple, predictable, easy to plan for and to counter. Not the Red Arremer, a swooping, unhittable nightmare who seems to possess a level of intelligence far beyond what should have been possible in 1985, hovering just outside the range of your attacks and diving in whenever you make a mis-timed movement. To this day I have no idea how Capcom managed to create such a diabolically devious little bastard, and do you know what the worst part is? Look at his sly grin. Look at that smug little fucker. He knows exactly how infuriating he is, and he loves it. God bless you, Red Arremer, for making the videogaming universe a richer place.
Oh, and if you do manage to kill him, don't celebrate too hard - he'll be back later.
Beyond the Red Arremer - who I should remind you isn't even a boss - the level continues in a slightly more gentle vein, introducing pits that must be leapt across and these flying things that look like the ghosts of burritos. The first stage also lets you get acquainted with the two gameplay elements that fall outside the otherwise extremely basic "jump and fire" mechanics. The first is that you can collect different weapons - your default is a lance or javelin that travels straight forward, but you can also collect daggers that travel faster, axes that move in an arc and, most commonly on the first stage, a flaming torch. Woe betide anyone, or probably just me because I don't know what I'm doing, who picks up the torch - while it's decently powerful, it can only have two projectiles on screen at once and if you miss an enemy, the torch lands and sets fire to the ground. This means you have to wait for the fire to go out before you can attack again, and in GnG standing around with no means to defend yourself is a gilt-edged invitation for any nearby demon to swing by and kill you. It's probably just me, and I'm sure the torches have their uses, but I much prefer the predictable, dependable javelins.
The other thing is that Arthur starts his adventure wearing a suit of armour. If he gets hit, his armour (which is obviously not suitable for battlefield conditions) falls off, leaving Arthur to battle on valiantly in his boxer shorts. Get hit in your underwear - I mean, "get hit while you are clothed only by your undercrackers" and not "get punched in the groin" - and you die. I mean, you don't just die, you explode into a heap of bleached and fleshless bones, but you're definitely dead.
It might seem odd for a game so renowned for being difficult to give you two bites of the cherry, as it were, especially when one-hit-kills were common enough in the arcades that no-one would have batted an eyelid had Arthur keeled over after just one attack. Personally, I think it serves to illuminate what I believe was Capcom's true intention when making this game, and that was to create a videogame that contains nothing but pure scorn and utter contempt for the player. They want you to suffer, they want you to curse, but they also give you just a tiny glimmer of hope, because then you might believe you can succeed... only to be defeated time and time again. Capcom wants to see your hope die. If you want to know what the armour means, imagine a Roman Emperor throwing a slave to the lions. Just before the coliseum gates are opened and the ravenous beasts are released, the Emperor throws the slave a toy wooden sword and winks at him.
After all that, the boss ends up being alarmingly easy to defeat. It's a dopey cyclops whose wardrobe just screams of a backstory where he once told his family that he likes studded red leather, and now that's all they get him for every Christmas and birthday. He's certainly much easier to dispatch that Red Arremer, and all you need to do is throw javelins at him while moving backwards. Even this is tainted, however, because you can't help but think about how it was a little too easy.
Still, I get to take a key for coming in and at least that's something... hang on, that sentence makes no sense. Is the key my reward for "coming in" to stage one? The cheery exclamation point definitely has the celebratory air of me being rewarded for something. Actually, I think the more logical answer is the arcade-standard poor translation and the meaning of the sentence is supposed to be something like "Collect key to enter." Huh, that's much more banal. I think I'll stick with the more cheerful reading, and with that stage one is over but the pain has just begun.
Stage two begins on these icy pillars, and already it feels very different from the first stage: where that was very flat, this one is much more about vertical movement. That and trying to destroy the tiny Arremers the moment they appear, before they start following you around the stage. The one saving grace of this area? The platforms aren't slippery. Thank god for small mercies.
Soon enough you arrive in a town, where purple monsters - possibly the titular goblins - fly out of the windows of a haunted house. That goblin isn't carrying that pot on his head to collect water from a distant well, that pot has a power-up inside it. I say power-up, it could easily be those bloody torches.
Further on into the town, and this is generally the point where I gave up whenever I've played Ghosts'n Goblins in the past. To continue, you need to navigate your way between the different levels using the ladders. The problem is, this entire area is patrolled by these speedo-wearing thugs. They take a lot of hits to kill, they have a projectile attack (which they can fire straight downwards, leading to many deaths where their ball-and-chain smashes into the top of your head from a higher platform while you're concentrating on the enemies in front of you) and they're very fond of waiting at the bottom of the ladders. Hey, they're in no rush - but you are. Like most games of its ilk, GnG has a timer, but unlike those other games it actually means something. You can definitely run out of time unless you move quickly, and there's precious little time to waste waiting for these fat gits to move. So you rush, you make a mistake, and you die. Welcome to the wonderful world of Ghosts'n Goblins!
I managed to make it through by getting most of the way to the end by being very careful, realising my time was running low and then careening into the last monster, praying that my brief period of post-hit invincibility would take me past the danger. Somehow it did, and after a brief platforming section populated by birds so angry that they, um, they... oh man, if only there was some game about birds being angry I could compare them to. Anyway, there were a lot of birds that wanted Arthur dead, but I got past them and encountered the boss.
Bosses, even, as to clear stage two you need to defeat a pair of those cyclopses from the first stage. If you can keep them separated they still don't pose much of a challenge, and once again I'm left scratching my head at the notion of the bosses being the easiest part of this game.
Stage three, and Arthur takes a shortcut through a cave. Unfortunately, it is the cave where all the Red Arremers live. Yep, after a brief first area filled with more bats than a sporting goods shop run by Dracula, the rest of the stage is a running battle with a bunch of Red Arremers, and you know what? In a way, I'm glad. For one thing, their unique attack patterns are always interesting to fight against, but more importantly I always know where they are. Whenever you encounter an Arremer, there they are, sitting still and waiting for you to arrive. One of the many factors that makes GnG so ball-bustingly difficult is that normal enemies just... appear, usually without warning and often right in your goddamn face, especially when you're running away from another hell-beast bent on tearing the very flesh from your bones. The Red Arremers deserve some credit for having enough sportsmanship to fight you man-to-man, or at least man-to-gargoyle.
I eventually reached the boss, but Arremers are tenacious bastards and one of them followed me all the way to this big purple dragon. The battle did not go well. On my next life, I put into practise what I had learned from my folly, namely you shall not suffer an Arremer to live. Wipe them out, wipe them all out, and only then will you be ready to fight the boss. It's a dragon! Oh, I already mentioned that. Well, did I tell you it floats around, trying to headbutt you and occasionally spitting something that doesn't really look like fire? Well, it does. You can shoot the segments of its tail off until it's nothing but a floating head, and then finish the job. After all the Arremers, it's a blessed relief. Right, what awaits in stage four?
Oh goody, it's some platforming - and the platforms are made of clumps of floating eyeballs. Well, it's still probably cheaper than a stairlift. Sadly the platforming is the weakest aspect of Ghosts'n Goblins, with Arthur's awkward jumping and the tendency for him to get stuck in the sides of platforms leaving the jumping-over-holes bits much less satisfying than the rest.
After that, there's a section where you must travel across a rope bridge whilst the lava below periodically bursts through. It's a good section, but I was concentrating so hard I forgot to get any screenshots, so pictured above is a shot of the very start of the bridge. I am being killed by a Red Arremer. To be honest, about 85 percent of the screenshots I took showed me being killed by a Red Arremer.
The boss is another dragon. I know it's a classic knight-slaying tool, but it's still a little disappointing to see Satan reusing it so quickly. At least no enemies followed me this time.
By the time you reach stage five, Ghosts'n Goblins starts throwing a little bit of everything at you. There's a lot of ladder-navigating that needs to be done, and it's even harder than it was in stage two because now there are burrito-ghosts flying everywhere and the ground is littered with skulls that erupt into un-life if you venture too close to them. The small blue demons return, and during their absence they've learned how to fire projectiles, which is good because we wouldn't want the player getting any kind of respite, now would we?
I think this brief corner of the level was the bottleneck, the mental gauntlet, the section of the game where I came within a hair's breadth of quitting Ghosts'n Goblins and spending the next four hours jabbing a barbeque fork into my thigh to relieve the tension. I know it doesn't look like much - in fact, the first thing that catches the eye is that Arthur's ladder-climbing sprite clearly shows that his armour includes a pair of finely-moulded buttocks - but this area brings together so many of GnG's most fiendish aspects that it feels intentionally designed to push you to the edge. Hard-to-kill monsters patrol narrow walkways, there's a bit of platforming and a never-ending stream of enemies assail you from every angle. You can see one creeping into existence on the left-hand side of the screen, and just look at the subtle way he's going about it: no shower of magical sparks to announce his arrival, just a ghost creeping into battle with no warning, and if you stop paying attention for even a moment you'll be overwhelmed.
If you do somehow, someway, manage to make it past the stage itself, then your reward is a battle against Satan. It's odd that in a game as brutal as Ghosts'n Goblins, Satan is a cheerful, fuzzy fellow with all the menace of Elmo in a vampire costume. He fights like a Red Arremer but not as well as a Red Arremer, and by this point in the game I'm relishing every boss battle as a chance to give myself a breather.
Once you've defeated Satan - a phrase I'm going to allow myself to savour for a moment, because it's not often that you defeat Satan - you might be expecting the Princess to be returned and peace restored to the kingdom, yadda yadda yadda. This is Ghosts'n Goblins, though. You haven't suffered enough yet. Capcom will not be sated until your mind shatters completely and your tears run free, so on we go to stage six.
Pictured here: how not to play Ghosts'n Goblins.
This stage is very similar to the last one in that it's a climb to the top punctuated by areas of extreme difficulty - and yet it doesn't feel as tough as the last stage. There are Red Arremers everywhere, sure, but much of this stage sees you re-fighting the bosses you've already defeated several times. You know what you're doing, you've done it before, and the faintest glimmer of something approaching hope flickers in the distance. The Princess might be saved yet.
At the top of the tower, there's a fight against two Satans. If you're lucky, you'll kill the first one before the second one activates. Huzzah! Double-Satan is dead, Arthur is triumphant and somehow I've managed to reach the end of the game without gnawing my own fingers off in a frenzy of impotent rage. At least, that's what you might think, but as you're celebrating, Capcom are pulling their legs back in order to deliver a swift kick right into your tender gaming knackers.
It turns out stabbing Satan with flying lances isn't as effective as it appeared - you need the power of good ol' religion to win the day, and you can't progress unless you have the cross weapon. Then the game kicks you back to the start of stage five so you can find one. That'd be stage five, the really hard stage? Yep, that's the one.
That's not even the worst thing about this screen, though. That screen clearly says "Get A Cross," with a picture of a cross and everything, right? Well, I hope you're not taking it too literally because if you're playing the western releases of GnG, there is no cross. It's been replaced by a shield, presumably to avoid causing any religious offence because scripture tells us that if there's one thing Jesus really, really hates, it's being associated with videogames. It's hard to imagine even the strictest fundamentalist being that upset about the cross appearing in a game where its only purpose is to defeat Satan, but there's always one out there who has to ruin it for the rest of us.
Of course, Capcom's oversight in forgetting to change that graphic from a cross to a shield means there must have been at least one occasion where someone got to the end of GnG and was driven to madness by being unable to locate a cross no matter how long they played, their faces twisting with rage as they pick up yet another shield and scream "NO! I need a cross!" Somewhere, atop a distant, moonlit tower, the Ghosts'n Goblins development staff's wicked laughter rings out into the evening sky. Then one of them kicks a puppy. Cue more laughter.
So, I found a shield. It's not a bad weapon, all things considered - it does have quite a short range, but it can destroy enemy projectiles, so that's handy. Not so keen of the way it seems to fly straight out of Arthur's face, but if it means I can complete the game, I'll have to live with it. With shield in hand, I once again battled to the top of the tower and defeated the Super Satan Brothers. That was not the end.
Here's the true final boss, a one-on-one battle against the Demon Lord Astaroth. Prin-Prin, you're looking very... cozy with the Infernal Lord of all Darkness there. Did I interrupt something? Whatever the case, the Princess moonwalks off the screen and battle can commence. Astaroth, as befits his status, is tougher than all the other bosses but still he's hardly infallible - all he does is shuffle back and forth, launching fireballs from his mouths. The hardest part of this fight is hitting him, because you can only hurt the face in his chest, and there were a lot of inaccurate face-launched shields that hit too high or low, but once I managed to get a bit of space I got into the right rhythm and soon Astaroth was no more.
Now, if you've played Ghosts'n Goblins before, or if you know anything about the game, then you'll know what's coming next. If you're new to the franchise, however: whoo boy, this is going to be a treat.
Thwack! Another solid blow to the babymaker, and the true depths of Capcom's villainy are revealed. That boss fight you just did? Totally didn't happen, it was "a trap devised by Satan." I've gone right off you, Fuzzy Satan. It says "Go ahead dauntlessly!" but go where? I've done all the levels. There's nothing left to do...
...except complete the whole game again. Did I mention that the difficulty level is increased for this second run? Well, we can't have it getting too easy. It really is true: your reward for finishing the game is that you must play through the whole thing again. It's a design move of such despicable cunning that that it's rightly famous, but the question is why? Why did Capcom dangle victory in your face, only to snatch it away like the school bully stealing your lunch? One reason might be to pad the game out, because at only six short levels it doesn't take long to get through, assuming you have the skills to beat the game. Arcade games being short was hardly uncommon, however, so in the end I can't really ascribe it to anything other than pure malice.
As I made my way through Ghosts'n Goblins a second time, I wondered why it was and remains a classic, even if it's more on the "cult" end of the classic spectrum. Many people, indeed most people, who played GnG or the equally infuriating sequels will not have progressed very far into the game before the overwhelming difficulty forced them to quit, and that's understandable, perhaps even a sensible decision, but there must be something there for the game to retain its status.
On a basic level, the presentation is very good. The mood of the game is a big plus, especially as it's from a time when horror-themed games weren't very common, with a cartoony, Hallowe’en-y atmosphere that finds a fine balance between lightness and gloom. The graphics are charming, especially some of the animations like the Red Arremers' bow-legged waddle, and the music is great throughout with one stand-out track: the first stage's music, which has become the de facto Makaimura series theme.
There really aren't many better videogame music tracks to listen to during the Hallowe'en period, an instantly memorable and infinitely hummable tune that manages to be upbeat and sombre at the same time and remains one of my favourite videogame tracks ever.
So the presentation helps, but it's not enough to account for Ghosts'n Goblins' success - for that we have to turn to the gameplay. On a mechanical level it's fine, and aside from the occasional issues with making Arthur climb ladders it controls well and (most importantly for this game) predictably. I think the thing that really gives GnG its enduring appeal, however, is the very thing that you'd expect to turn people off - the remorseless difficulty.
It is clear from the outset that this game has nothing but contempt for the player. It wants you to die, and die quickly, so it can laugh at you. And you will die, but you'll try again, and if you're of the correct mindset for the game then you'll keep on trying, because this game is like Mount Everest - you have to do it, because it's there. The extreme difficulty serves to take the weight of expectation from your shoulders, allowing you to play freely because you know you will fail, and you won't feel bad about it when you do because what other option is there, really? Every part of the game is crafted to make you feel close enough to death that it becomes an almost Zen-like experience in survival. This might just be me, but it seems like even having armour and the apparent luxury of dying in two hits piles on the pressure, because while you have the armour, you're desperate not to get hit because you have something to protect.
Of course, that might just be me looking into it too deeply. On a more basic level, the challenge is the fun. In an era where videogames are easier than ever, there's still a market out there for digital punishment simulators, as the unexpected success of Demons and Dark Souls has shown, and GnG offers the very pinnacle of gaming toughness while still somehow, almost miraculously, managing to feel fair. If you fail, it's your fault, not the game's, and Capcom really must be commended for creating a game that's so hard but yet never - or at least very rarely - feels wrong-headed or pointless or unfair.
And look, while I've been blathering on I managed to clear all the stages and defeat Astaroth once more. This time, the game really, truly is complete. Arthur's reward?
Floating hearts. I'm amazed I didn't die the moment the Princess touched me. Anything else?
I suffered all these hardships, traversed the demon world two-and-a-bit-times, did battle with the foulest beasts from the most barren depth of Hades, and what do I get? A screen of text that reads like the set-up for a joke where the punchline is an erection. The welling strongth is Arthur's penis!
So that's Ghosts'n Goblins. It's quite the experience, and I think its status as a classic is justified. It's not a classic like Super Mario Bros. that you'd expect everyone to enjoy, but it's such a well-crafted, engaging piece of work that it earns its place in the annals of gaming history. Most importantly - and really this is the only important thing when it comes to videogames - it's still fun. Brutal, sometimes demoralising, always tense fun, but fun none-the-less. In fact, I want to play it again.
Oh god I didn't mean right this second aaahhh!
Let's not forget that this is Hallowe'en season, so that means it's time to check in with the Hallowe'en-O-Meter.
Eight and a half, a respectable score reached by a combination of the sinister setting, the menagerie of monsters and that first stage theme which is worth about five points on its own. The only thing holding the score back from the top of the chart is GnG's tendency to move towards more of a "fantasy" setting and less of a "horror" one as the game goes on, and a total lack of pumpkins. I'm starting to think I won't see a single squash this year.
Oh, and one last thing - I designed a t-shirt with Red Arremer on it!
If you want to look cool and help me avoid abject poverty, you can buy a shirt here!