Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Ghouls 'n Ghosts - Thoughts

Capcom's second attempt at the Ghosts 'n Goblins franchise is—without a doubt in my mind—a superb improvement over their original formula. There's a greater variety of stages, more interesting weapons, a gentler difficulty curve, snappier controls, and better design overall. It's still loyal to the G'nG formula (ie, you're going to die and you're going to die a lot) but it no longer leans so heavily on you fighting against lightning-fast foes. Whereas I felt the first experience was surprisingly devoid of merit, the Genesis port of Ghouls 'n Ghosts is when the franchise finally comes into its own, letting you truly enjoy running around in your underwear.

Before I begin, I have to get something off my chest: I think being required to finish the game twice before reaching the credits is dumb. I didn't know before diving into the series that this was a part of every game, believing it to be a design choice that made the first game—not the franchise—infamous. Besides artificially extending the length of the game, it constrains the player into a particular playstyle (since you need to wield a certain weapon to reach the endboss) and makes the loop typically reserved for experts unfortunately mandatory. In most games, replayability is naturally enforced by tiered difficulties or optional paths; forcing the player to retrace all their steps under a specific condition is cruel and unusual. I firmly believe that axing the second replay would go a long way towards making the series more approachable, and dare I say appreciable.

The compulsory replay really gets my goat because I think Ghouls 'n Ghosts is an excellent game barring that one criminal exception. It's similar to Castlevania but sped up to play more like Contra, requiring a mastery of your arced jump but with the stipulation of a sharp reaction time to neutralize any problem you'll suddenly encounter. Sir Arthur doesn't feel responsive but you actually have a surprising amount of control over what happens onscreen, provided you respond quickly enough. Granted, you'll get cornered into plenty of instances that are impossible to escape unharmed, but with infinite lives and two checkpoints per stage on your side, no death should theoretically break your indomitable spirit. The journey ahead is not an easy one, but thankfully nothing like Stage 6 from the original awaits you on your quest.

What sticks out to me the most about Ghouls 'n Ghosts is how frankly odd the levels are. While you still have to traverse through a mountain to reach a hell castle, the locales are a bit more... exotic, shall I say? This time around you'll be traipsing through a stormy forest, climbing windmill-dotted dunes, hopping across a mountaintop of stone heads, and a delving into a gem-encrusted cave, each setting vibrant and distinct from the last. The bosses too are a delight to look at (and battle!), my favorite probably being the double-screen filling slug in Stage 4 that requires you to keep track of its numerous babies in-between attacking its throbbing lung sacs. Though certainly colorful, the game isn't exactly a looker in the same way its Super Nintendo sequel is, but thankfully the bizarre locations and enemies more than make up for it.

Mechanically, Ghouls 'n Ghosts doesn't play any different from its predecessor except in one major area (well, besides fixing the controls): you can fire up! This shows how an adjustment as small and innocuous as adding another direction of attack can vastly change the way you approach foes, Sir Arthur now able to swat them out of the sky before they descend upon his fragile person. You'll often find that if you're struggling with a section or boss battle, it's probably because you're not thinking vertically; even the new and improved red arremers will hastily fall victim to a flurry of knives in the rear. True, the game isn't all that difficult thanks to it (I managed to beat the final level of the second loop on my first try!), but being able to complete the adventure in a single sitting is personally a godsend, not a curse.

Ghouls 'n Ghosts isn't as cutthroat as Ghosts 'n Goblins but it's a far more fun experience by journey's close. Though the mandatory second playthrough still irritates me to no end—especially since if you play on "normal" since there's no noticeable difficulty increase in the loop #2—it's impossible to spite the game for it. Its improvements are in equal parts level design and player control, having more fun things to throw at the play along with updating the movement so you can now deal with oncoming threats. No longer do repeated deaths feel like the game pummeling you into oblivion until luck is on your side—there's always a way out and you're always learning. I think as time spirals on, I'll look back on Ghouls 'n Ghosts and envision of it fondly as one of the best platformers in the Genesis library.

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