Ghox, huh? I have no idea what that means. Is it the misbegotten hybrid of a goat and an ox? The sound of someone with a serious sinus infection trying to say “cocks”? Mysteries abound, and maybe we’ll solve them together by taking a look at Toaplan’s 1991 arcade ball-bouncer Ghox!

With a blood-splattered logo that reminds me of Golden Axe, Ghox’s title screen hints at a swords-n-sorcery epic of clashing metal and wizards with ludicrous names – and that is Ghox’s plot in a nutshell. The game itself doesn’t fill you in on the details of the story so I turned to the arcade flyer for information, and said flyer regaled me with the tale of Jagula the evil wizard and his straightforward if rather derivative villainous plan. Jagula’s summoned a bunch of monsters to attack the kingdom, as well as imprisoning Lucia the Goddess of Light. It’s up to two brave warriors to rescue the Goddess and save the kingdom. Nice and straightforward, then, and the heroic Axis and Bilious set out to save the day. Or Acshis and Briass, as they’re called in the game itself.
That all seems pretty straightforward. Find wizard, stab wizard, save goddess, the usual kind of thing you might find in a thousand other RPGs, beat-em-ups and action-platformers. The thing is, Ghox is not in any of those genres. We’ll see what kind of game it is in a second, but here’s a clue: the arcade flyer describes the heroes as “freely manipulating their magic balls.” I, erm, well, there’s not much you can add to that, is there?

Turns out that Ghox is a brick-breaking game, where Axis must manipulate his magic balls against a series of stone walls in a manner made famous by other arcade hits like Arkanoid and Breakout. You control Axis, who rides around the bottom-third of the screen in some kind of paddle-shaped steampunk flying machine, and it’s your job to clear each stage by eliminating all the bricks. Axis has magic balls – I’m sorry, these innuendos cannot possibly be avoided – and if the balls fall off the bottom of the screen you lose a life. Why am I telling you this? You already know how these games work. Breakout-style block-breakers are one of the four most foundational videogame concepts, alongside Pong, Pac-Man maze chases and invaders from space. The balls ricochet around at angles determined by the topology of the things they just bounced off, and you move your character left and right across the bottom of the screen to stop the ball falling off the bottom. Actually, Axis can also move forward and backwards a bit too, he’s not solely limited to the horizontal plane. This is itself is enough to make me feel a bit overwhelmed. I’m terrible at block-breaking games even when there’s only one axis of movement.

Some other quirks are apparent from the off. One is that Axis starts with two balls, badum-tssh. Yes, at the start of each life you begin by firing two balls out of your spacepaddle. This has the obvious benefit of providing double the brick-breaking potential, but in practise I tended to lose one of my balls almost immediately because they’re launched at separate angles away from each other so by the time they’ve bounced off the bricks and are on the way back down the screen they’re so far apart that it’s almost impossible to catch both of them.
The other thing is monsters. Okay, so it’s only one monster on the screen pictured above but he’s there, shambling across the screen in all his toga-clad zombie glory and generally getting in the way. Good for him. The monsters in Ghox don’t really attack directly, and they’re mostly there as an extra obstacle between you and a pile of smashed masonry, often causing your ball to bounce away at unpredictable angles because the foetid flesh of a reanimated corpse does not provide the same geometric certainties as a brick.
So, I batted the ball around for a bit, smashed a few zombies, broke some bricks. Everything was proceeding as expected, until I hit the fire button.

Oh dear. That’s too many balls.
What’s happened here is that you get one “bomb” item per continue and when it’s used your balls explodes into a shower of many balls, all careening around the screen at once. Obviously there’s little chance of you keeping all these balls in play, but you only need one ball on the screen to stay alive and the bomb power can go a long way towards speeding up the brick-breaking process.

And so goes Ghox, spreading the brisk-breaking action over a large number of stages – five “worlds” of seven stages a piece per playthrough, so by the time you complete Ghox you’ll have brought down more bricks than even David Hasslehoff’s singing. The stages get more complicated as they go on and new monsters are introduced but really if you’ve played one stage of Ghox you’ve played ‘em all so I’m not going to bore you by covering every single stage in the game. No, I’ll bore you by pointing out some of the game’s freakish creatures instead. For example, in the screenshot above the zombies have been joined by floating purple creatures with grimy vests and smoke where their legs ought to be, as though Die Hard ended with John McClane turning into a genie.

Or how about a nice moss monster? Everyone likes a good ol’ pile of ambulatory algae, don’t they? Moss Man was a good guy in He-Man, and for better or worse the He-Man franchise did a lot to shape my preconceptions about what kind of creatures are good and which are evil. So, elephants, robots, robot elephants and guys called Fisto are good, and snakes, skunks and “He-Man but blue” are evil. It’s a simple system but it’s served me well over the years.
The fairy in the screenshot above isn’t a monster, by the way. Instead they’re power-ups, with fairies of different colours providing special effects when freed from the treasure chests that litter most stages. They can make your paddle bigger, slow down your balls or cause your balls to travel through the bricks, so the fairies are definitely worth trying to catch if you can break away from the relentless barrage of balls for a moment.

Moreso than most block-breaking games I’ve played, Ghox is fond of the more gimmicky kind of stage lay-out, often require precision ball manipulation to succeed. For example, here you’ve got to fit your balls down this narrow passageway, but that’s a lot easier said than done. Now, I’m not generally a fan of block-breaking games. I find them a bit tedious, because so much of the gameplay feels removed from your control as your ball moves at the whims of the not-always-accurate physics model. Most games try to get around this by giving you more control over the ball when it meets your paddle, such as sliding your paddle to slice your rebounds along a shallower angle, that kind of thing. Sadly while Ghox employs that idea to some degree, it’s not nearly precise enough and I never felt like I was really in control of what was happening, especially in situations when I needed thread the ball through a narrow gap. The only saving grace is that when you do get your ball in the correct position you can often activate the multi-ball bomb and I’ll concede that it’s very satisfying to see your balls wreak havoc in an enclosed space. Again, I must apologise, I swear I’m not trying to make this sound filthy.

Every seventh stage is a boss battle against one of Jagula’s lieutenants. I assume they work for the evil wizard, anyway, but I’ll concede that enormous tentacled turtle-dragons could simply be part of the kingdom’s natural fauna.
The boss battle are a little strange, because the bosses can’t kill you directly. Their projectiles knock your paddle around the screen and they often obscure the position of your ball with their bulk and their fancy graphical effects, but they (mostly) work the same as the brick walls of the regular stages, except their larger size makes them particularly susceptible to the ball-bomb power.

The the first boss defeated, it’s time to move on two world number two… except there are two world two’s and you get to pick which one to tackle. Hey, it worked in OutRun, so why not in Ghox? I kid, it’s always nice when a game offers you a choice of routes and for someone like me who’s not really a fan of block-breaking games it’s doubly nice that Ghox doesn’t expect me to play through all 56 stages in a playthrough. I will play them all, though. Because I’m an idiot.

On this first run I’ll be picking the left-hand choice each time, which has lead me to this castle-themed world that’s dotted with the occasional bit of greenery. One thing I definitely cannot fault Ghox on are the graphics, which are in that pin-sharp, micro-scale aesthetic that I personally find very appealing. The whole look of the game reminds me of The Chaos Engine, and I most certainly mean that as a compliment.
As for the stages, from here on they’re either the same block-breaking action with slightly too many narrow gaps or they’re built around a specific gimmicky feature. We’ll get to some of those, but for now please enjoy this werewolf conga line. They’ve definitely choreographed this routine, they’re all wearing matching dungarees. There are also creepy faces on the walls that spit out projectiles – except the projectiles are money and you can get hit by them for extra points, which marks the first time I’ve wanted to get shot while playing a videogames since I covered Rugrats: Totally Angelica.

World two also introduces these yellow cubes that warp the gravity around them, causing your balls to loop and curve when they pass by. It’s fair to say I’m not a fan of the cubes. I was having enough trouble predicting where my balls were going without the addition of space-time manipulation nodes, thanks very much.

I’ll give the cubes a pass, though, because world two has the best boss in the game – a huge demon summoned from a stygian pit by a convocation of ritual-performing priests. Once again my decision to play a videogame I’m not that bothered about just because it’s full of weirdo monsters has paid off. What was the boss battle like to play? Who gives a shit, just enjoy the majesty of Satan Junior here, the mighty and terrible demon that was raised from the underworld and then immediately sent back to hell by a kid riding a flying metal baguette.

World three now, with new stone blocks that require more bounces to destroy and more maze-like layouts that require ever-more accurate positioning, although to be fair once your ball is in there it’s going to ricochet around for a while and do a lot of the work without additional input from you. There are some new monsters, too, like these hulking purple brutes and what seems to be a gun for a hand. Terrifying, I’m sure you’ll agree… until you look closer and see the black pixels at the side of their heads that look like floppy puppy-dog ears. I found it hard to take the monsters seriously once they were reminding me of Spot the Dog.

This boss is a change of pace from the others, and not just because it’s a barely-decipherable hovering thing that might be a robot housefly. I may not know what is is, but I know that I want an action figure of it. Anyway, unlike all the other boss battles in Ghox you don’t beat this thing by battering it with your balls; instead the challenge is to get just one ball past the fly and over the goal line at the top of the screen. This, of course, is easier said than done, because the flybot moves extremely fast and will block any ball coming near it with seemingly perfect accuracy. I spent a good ten minutes trying to knock a single ball past the boss but it was cleared off the line every time. Eventually I got frustrated enough to hit the bomb button, only to see the boss knock back multiple balls at once and I was getting rather nervous that I’d never clear this stage until one stray ball crept in at the corner. Perhaps an unduly stressful boss battle, then, but it’s nice that this sporting event drew a big crowd and managed to unite the skeleton crocodiles, ancient Greek hoplites and worm-people of Xangarn-5 in celebration.

You can’t even escape from sewer levels in Breakout clones, it seems. I don’t mind too much, because these stages are covered in teeny-tiny scurrying spiders. The spiders don’t effect the gameplay, but they do jazz things up a little. A lot more moving parts in these later stages, too – the wooden barricades in the centre of the stage move up and down, for instance, adding yet more unpredictability to the stages.

This stage’s boss is a little underwhelming after the ones we’ve seen before, lacking the pizazz of the demon summoning ritual or the attempt at mixing up the gameplay we saw in the previous boss battle. Hell, the first boss kinda covered all our “stretchy dragon” needs, if I’m honest, although at least this boss has a pleasingly horrible face. “No eyes, just holes with skin stretched over them” is the kind of look that might keep you up at night if you couldn’t destroy it by bouncing a ball off a paddle. That does rather reduce the dragon’s menace.

Here’s the final world, and it starts off with an absolutely bullshit stage, just get your blood all angered up before the final boss battle. There’s one block to break, but it’s behind this big house. All you can do is launch your ball through the front door and hope. The ball bounces around inside for what feels like an eternity, occasionally passing by one of the windows that were surely included just to remind you that no, the game isn’t broken. You’ve got no control over anything that’s going on, and if I just wanted to watch a round thing getting lost in a large building I’d get hold of the security footage of me, any time I ever have to visit a hospital.

As you’d expect, the final stages are packed with all kind of nasty tricks and traps. Some of them are okay, like the stage where you have to hit a series of switches to open various doors, while others are just a pain in the arse, like the stage pictured above that gives you one tiny opening to attack the blocks from and no space around the blocks so you can get in behind.
It’s boring, sure, but even at this stage Ghox is just about redeemed by the graphics and especially the monsters. I mean, just check out this floating face that’s constantly switching between the contented expression of someone soaking in a hot bath and a razor-fanged horror that was kicked out of Pinhead’s cenobite entourage for being “a bit much.”
At the end of this world waits the evil wizard Jagula, but what about the other worlds that I didn’t select, I hear no-one cry? Okay, fine, let’s have a quick look at them.

The alternate stage two has a vaguely mechanical feel and some fairly interesting stages that don’t get too frustrating – although this one, with the constantly-respawing stone blocks is another one that feels like it relies too much on luck. Nice imps, though. They look like they’re having a good time, and this world also feature plate-armour-wearing knights that do little besides walk around the screen and occasionally chuckle to themselves. This is the fun district of Hellworld, apparently.
The biggest disappointment is that the alternate stages end with same boss battles I’ve already seen, and while it was nice to see that big demon get summoned again most of Ghox’s appeal lies in its weirdo monsters and I’m sad I won’t be seeing any new big ones.

The other stage three is a biomechanical fleshscape of polyp-like growths and a sea of flowing brown sludge that it’s probably best not to think about. An enjoyable setting, I’m sure you’ll agree, and the mushroom-beetles and grim reapers that haunt its stages are a welcome addition. I was slightly taken aback by one of the stages in this world being shaped like a massive swastika, but then I remembered that manji are a thing. Phew. Although thinking about it I’d like Ghox more if it gave you the chance to destroy Nazi iconography.

Lastly there’s world 4-B, a melange of sewerlike areas, brickwork and one stage that appears to take place in a ghost train ride complete with moving seats. It’s… weird, and perhaps less frustrating to play that the other world four. In fact, I’d say that all the stages on the right-hand side of the stage select screen are more fun than their counterparts. This is especially true here, because this stage has tiny one-eyed skeletons that dance a merry little jig as you play. And they used to say heavy metal music and Dungeons and Dragons turned kids towards Satanism while overlooking Ghox, a game that casts being a demon as a wonderfully jolly experience filled with dancing and smiles.

At long last, it’s time for the final battle with Jagula. Couldn’t conjure yourself up a decent outfit, huh, Jagula? Not even a billowing robe or pointy hat, you’re a disgrace to the wizard community. On closer inspection, Jagula appears to be the protagonist from Dragon Quest V, which I did not expect. What I did expect was for this boss battle to be chock-full of vision-obscuring sprites, and indeed it is, from flying insect swarms to bouncing jelly-blobs that also knock your paddle around the screen when they hit you. The best thing about this fight is Jagula’s ability to gradually split himself into a horde of tiny Jagulas, with the main Jagula getting smaller and smaller as he does so. It’s a neat effect, and the fight as a whole isn’t terrible. It’s very difficult, and it seems the game doesn’t expect you to be able to beat it without abusing the bomb ability, so I did that and eventually finished Ghox.

The war is over, but the Goddess of Light remains resolutely un-saved. Whoops. So I managed to get the bad ending, which is appropriate because I was pretty goddamn bad at the game. At least the evil wizard is defeated, but poor old Goddess Lucia is stuck in the underworld that corruption, madness thrive. Look, she’s a goddess of light, if she can’t find her own way out of Hell than what hope do I have? I’m just a small man riding a metal paddle. “The gods help those who help themselves” seems like it should apply here.

There is also a good ending, of course, where Lucia is rescued and the two heroes become, I dunno, extra heroic? The main take-away from the good ending is that Lucia’s hair was made in a Play-Doh Fun Factory.
I order to get the good ending you have to finish the game while riding the Ultimate Paddle, which isn’t an expensive BDSM toy but rather the fancy-lookin’ paddle-ship you can see in some of the screenshots above. It can fire little arrows! Sometimes you’ll get Gradius-Option-style angels to protect you! It’s all very exciting, but the problem was that I’ve got no idea how you unlock the Ultimate Paddle outside the method I used (cheating). Sometimes treasure chests will drop coloured orbs that you can collect to fill the orb-meter at the bottom-left of the screen and I think it’s something to do with these orbs, but I don’t know what. I had an orb of every colour and an orb-meter of all one colour and neither summoned the Ultimate Paddle, so if anyone know how this system works feel free to let me know. I bet it involves being good at the game, doesn’t it? That’s always my downfall.

Somehow I’ve managed to to write three and a half thousand works about Ghox, a game that isn’t very interesting besides its cast of monsters. Sorry about that. I’m unfairly biased against block-breaking games, I admit, but even so Ghox seems a bit lame. Far too often the feeling that my input on the gameplay was minimal crept in and I was almost reduced to being a spectator, and lots of the stages have frustratingly precise passageways to navigate using controls and ball physics that don’t allow for delicate movements. At least it looks nice, and Toaplan did take the effort to make the stages fairly unique, even if that doesn’t necessarily make them fun. But like I say, I’m biased, and if you do like ball-and-paddle games then you might get some enjoyment out of Ghox. No promises, though.

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