I am not one to shy away from a gaming-related challenge—in most instances, I welcome it. But drawing the line between something that is "challenging" and something that is "unfair" can often be tricky, especially when looking at the entries from gaming's prepubescence. Nestled between the classic arcade era and nascent modern design (difficulty settings, saves, point-less), games of the third console generation had their fair share of problems finding a way to be challenging without being cheap (though not that many cared). What best typified a product caught between the two was the NES port of Capcom's Ghosts 'n Goblins—a game so tremendously daunting that it demands that you to beat it twice. Relentless enemies and cruel design choices await you if you dare tread upon its accursed grounds (after two hits you're dead!), but spend enough time with it and eventually you'll grow used to its sadistic nature.
While Ghosts 'n Goblins may share many similar external traits with Castlevania—reaction-framed platforming, predestined jumps, high difficulty despite infinite continues—the comparison diverges when you spend time with both. The latter is what I'd champion as a stellar example of how to make a difficult game with a precise control scheme while the former is... considerably less-than-stellar. Around Stage 2 of Sir Arthur's adventure it'll become apparent that Ghosts 'n Goblins is a very sloppy game: the frame rate is choppy, character movements are jittery, flying enemies are far too nimble, ducking tends to glue you in place, and bosses easily outpace and ram the player. Having played most of the notoriously difficult games in the NES library, I can honestly say that none of the other titles handle this poorly.
That's not to say it's impossible to get accustomed to the game's programming, but you certainly have a steep hill to climb if wish to survive until the end (er, both ends). The first red arremer you encounter is the harbinger of ill-tidings that await you, as you'll notice there's not much of a rhyme or reason to certain enemy attacks. Since the smirking devil is locked to your screen and not the location, avoiding his dives and getting hits off on him feels entirely like a gamble, each victory earned under the sweet grace of lady luck (and learning to get those two hits in before he's off the ground). Sure, the game is predictable enough that a no-death run is technically possible, but the initial foray into the world will have you scratching your head at every obstacle. Three separate sections in particular immediately spring to mind: Stage 2-2, Stage 3-2, and Stage 6; the rest of the journey is astoundingly tame in comparison.
Stage 2-2 will see you wrestling with dozens of ladders and beefy ogres that chuck blue orbs at you from above. As soon as you climb to their plane they'll charge at you and camp on top of your character, ensuring death if you allow them to reach you. Combining this with the undulating crows can create nasty situations, since if one approaches your backside while you're keeping the big monster busy, you have to quickly fire a lance at the bird and hope it hits. Tack onto this an awkward platforming section and two unicorns—the Stage 1 boss—lying in wait at the end (the first of which will jump behind you and ram you if you try to power through it), and you have a very bitter drink to swallow not five minutes into your quest.
A whole level later, Stage 3-2 assaults you with a cold nest of red arremers to stop you dead in your tracks. While it's hard enough fighting off one and surviving, having to battle 4-5 of these little devils in a row is a real test of willpower, since two hits is enough to end Sir Arthur. The fact that they lock themselves onto your screen once aggroed will make it tough to shake them (though occasionally they'll fly away), and as I said, trying to predict what angle they'll swoop in at you is infeasible for a beginner. Even when you have the correct route through the level mentally mapped, you'll die, die, and die again trying to figure out the precise timing you need to most quickly dispatch them. Topping off this soul-crushing sundae is a serpent-like dragon boss at the end that's also locked to your screen, meaning its lengthy swoops are just as deadly (oh, and it's immune to your starting weapon, meaning that if you're still carrying the lance you have to swap it out for the awful torch weapon).
Stage 6 is the final trial of the game and an arduous one, asking that you to fight a unicorn, dragon, two ogres, a red arremer, a legion of randomly spawning ghosts, and two Stage 5 bosses all while carrying a specific weapon. Think of something like Ninja Gaiden's Stage 6-2 or Batman's Stage 6 in terms of relentlessness, except instead of insane precision you just need six lucky die rolls in a row. During both playthroughs I had only a fraction of the formula required to make it through this hellhole unscathed, unable to figure out how to avoid damage for each part (towards the end I was kinda understanding how to beat the Stage 5 boss I guess). It's not only tedious and repetitive, but sometimes a skeleton will awaken too soon or a ghost will spawn on your position while you're on a ladder, meaning that if the game desires you dead it'll certainly find a way to make that happen. Your only reward is that the final boss is one of the most hilariously impotent foes outside of Gradius' big brain; there's nothing but a hollow victory awaiting you at the top of this troublesome tower.
I hope it comes across crystal clear from my descriptions, but a lot of this game is about you—the player—not being in control. For every instance where you conquer a red devil a ghost will fire a spike through your skull. Every time you narrowly avoid a stray projectile an ogre will camp a ladder. Every successful battle you have with the dragon on Stage 6 will allow the unicorn to charge right through you on your next attempt. If you touch the game after finishing loop two you'll likely notice you do in fact have a lot more power over your character than you thought, but it never feels like mastery; there's always some situation that will arise that you have no appropriate response for, other than to exhale and bite the dust. And in challenging games like these, as long as you could've deduced a solution, a death doesn't feel wasted—so expect a lot of wasted deaths.
I don't think that Ghosts 'n Goblins is by any means a bad game—I've reached its "proper ending" twice now and don't really harbor any anger or regret towards it. However, I do feel that the game could've been ported better, made more stable, or programmed to be less temperamental... axing loop two entirely from the equation (or rendering it optional) would go a long way to polishing its fondness. It's not a game I'm eager to replay but it's also not something I've sworn off and sold; Ghosts 'n Goblins occupies this weird territory where I want to like it more, but simply don't. The haphazard design, merciless encounters, and wonky controls make it so the experience can only be appreciated through nostalgia or a masochistic lens—viewed any other way, and it's impossible to understand why this game received any sequels.
(please excuse my cruddy laptop camera)