Saturday, February 14, 2015

Gargoyle's Quest - Thoughts

Video game spin-offs often present an opportunity to create a novel idea. Mainline entries may be expected to tow the line, but when given the keys to a universe with an established setting and characters, designers can crank out some brilliant variations. With that being said, Ghosts 'n Goblins is a series I wouldn't have said deserved a spin-off—Sir Arthur's brutal action adventures have always been fun romps that deserve their merit, but creating yet another platforming game in the same (relatively uninvolved) universe seemed unnecessary.

Thank god I was wrong though—Gargoyle's Quest is one of the best platformers on the Game Boy.

The game stars Firebrand of the Red Arremer tribe (those nasty crimson buggers that hound Sir Arthur throughout all of his perilous adventures) and lets you take control of the fiend as he trudges his way through the Ghoul Realm to save it from destruction. The story is less incidental than its parent series but only goes skin deep, hitting plenty of often-plucked notes the hero's journey is known for. It can be amusing at times (like encountering a town where its inhabitants punish loafing with cannibalism), but the prose is far from the main course—that dish belongs to the flight-fancy gameplay.

Gone is the notorious swoop from Firebrand's genetic arsenal—instead the player must balance limited flight time with wall climbing. This slows the gameplay down but allows for considerably more horizontal & vertical interaction as you scale up walls and hover over tracts of spikes. Later on you get the ability to spit a gooey orb which will stick to sharp surfaces, enabling safe contact with them and leading to some pretty gnarly gameplay sections. As the game progresses, Firebrand will learn new skills and increase his endurance, but the traps and enemies become more devious to compensate (although I'd argue the tower in the first part of the game is probably the hardest challenge).

Looking over these bullet points may not make the game seem that impressive, but the level design is excellent and suits the mechanics well. Enemies are wisely implemented and your options for movement are limited, forcing you balance out of your flight meter as best as possible (which gets complicated when you're climbing up a serrated tunnel with homing creatures on your tail). Since movement is slow it feels a bit more like Castlevania than Ghosts 'n Goblins, demanding the player have a mastery over the controls and enemy placement in order to survive; rarely is the absurd precision G'nG demands present here. The use of vertical movement may not seem like much but it's a unique approach to traversing a stage that's rarely seen in platformers (or implemented well).

There's an overworld latched onto the journey that helps expand the gameplay beyond it's admittedly sparse six "main" levels, though it's not without its unflattering bumps. The enemy encounter rate can feel bloated at times, especially after you figure out how to best win the battles. The towns often feel more like side-shows than places you'll be excited to visit, and the mini-stages scattered around, while fun and clever the first time, get stale upon sequential retreads. It's nothing egregious, but overall the overworld can start to drag on when you're sent back to a town after yet another game over.

Luckily the meat of the game remains untarnished—the main levels are far and away the best thing the game has to offer, each long trek ending with a frantic boss battle. The treacherous arenas you encounter the bosses in only serve to aid their attack patterns, making every engagement kinetic and frightening. The final showdown features an impressive screen-filling devil but ironically winds up being the most boring and repetitive fight of the bunch. The other colossal beasts are enormously fun to tackle though, especially Rushifell, who launches a homing projectile at you as you work your way around a bottomless pit (with only small blocks available to replenish your wing meter). The levels themselves are quite entertaining too, remaining challenging even up to the final stage (where you'll have unlimited flight, which must have been a headache to develop a stage around). However, one last negative tally goes to the penultimate stage's drills for being absolute garbage, requiring absurd timing to pass through unscathed—probably the biggest design choice that I was scratching my head over.

Besides the few off-kilter diversions, Gargoyle's Quest is a fantastic game. It introduces a flurry of great mechanics that put it well beyond being a simple platformer, challenging the player with wall climbing, wing management, and a whole lot of projectile dodging. Besides the overworld, nearly everything about it is engaging, the difficulty ramping up quite nicely throughout the quest. Gargoyle's Quest sums up to be something more than just a pocket adventure, and joins the Game Boy's hierarchy of sublime video games.

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