Saturday, October 15, 2016

Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts - Thoughts

The final console release for the mainline Ghosts 'n Goblins series stays true to its rough 'n tough roots. Being developed for the Super Nintendo instead of the arcade, Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts feels more mellow and purposeful than its jittery siblings, being polished and waxed until you can see your reflection shimmering on its surface. Ah, but the red arremer hides in the detail! Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts takes inspiration more from the first game than the second, proud to amp up the difficulty and force you to make every shot count. Lost is the Contra-like speed, brevity, and tamer difficulty that the Genesis entry had vitalized the series with; Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts is the textbook definition of "one step forward, two steps back".

My disappointment of the game notwithstanding, I have to applaud Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts for switching out vertical firing with the double jump. It's usually not a good sign to lose a major mechanic from one game to the next, but the trade-off here is balanced: you lose an offensive capability for more planar maneuverability. Now enemies directly above you pose more of a threat and a greater emphasis can be placed on pure platforming, as exemplified by the midpoints of Stage 1 and 3. You have a chance to correct for foolish jump by leaping backwards, but it also means that fudging the second jump is more costly, since it'll take you longer to hit the ground. While I was a fan of the vertical firing from the previous game, I feel the double jump brings plenty of excitement to the series, further expanding your options for approaching the challenges on the road ahead.

And what a road it is! Seven grueling stages will test your mettle as you work you way to the heart of the demon castle... and then retrace your steps for the harder second playthrough. Because Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts is slower than Ghouls 'n Ghosts, finishing the adventure will require quite a bit of endurance, especially on the last stage (more on that later). I was worried that the prettier, crisper visuals would lead to it being more "normal" than its kin, but there's plenty of kookiness and bizarre settings to be found as you charge nobly onwards to rescue poor ol' useless Prin Prin. My favorite location is the frozen mountain in Stage 5, the first half of the stage dotted by these crystalized, Seussian trees that hang overhead. It may not be as offbeat as the last game, but Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts remains a gorgeous title with a heckuva lot of charm.

Where I start to wane on the title is under the inspection of its design. Stage 1, 4, and 6 are perhaps the only levels that I don't really have qualms with—every other stage in the game is hampered by some questionable piece of design that slows it down. Stage 2 has the loooong raft section that overstays its welcome, Stage 3 has these bland and listless towers, Stage 5 doesn't do enough with its cool avalanche mechanic, and Stage 7 is just a god-awful gauntlet. Compounding this are bosses that are pretty hit or miss, losing a lot of the simplicity that made them so fun to fight in the last game. The second boss can't be jumped over for some reason, the third boss is pretty unintuitive and confusing, the fourth slows the screen to a crawl, and the fifth is just plain stupid (it only has one real attack and looks absolutely dopey without its legs). These are admittedly minor nitpicks that don't significantly detract from the overall experience, except with regards to Stage 7.

Stage 7 is bad—Ghosts 'n Goblins Stage 6 bad. I have no idea who thought it was a good idea to place so many cockatrice heads in the vertical climb at the start, but it makes playing through that section a vile chore every time you die. Some parts of the stage are laudable—the dual cockatrice fight in that one chamber and the ghosts harassing you as you bolt to the boss are clever (and fair!), but needing to get through all this (and a red arremer!) to face two similar, tanky bosses at the end is extremely taxing. Perhaps you'll feel that this degree of challenge is to be expected while running through it the first time, but it's the second playthrough that pushes this endeavor beyond humane limits, requiring you to basically not get hit once the whole level (since you have to have the gold armor to stand a chance against the boss). Reducing the health of everything on this level by 50% would alleviate a lot of my complaints, but as it currently stands it's arguably worse than Ghosts 'n Goblins Stage 6, largely because it takes so much more time to beat.

Besides the unjustified whipping I got while trying to finish the game, there's a couple of odd discrepancies that hampered my enjoyment of Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts. Continues are now limited but can be restocked by collecting money (I think?) such that it's not really a problem... though their presence adds unnecessary stress. The bronze armor and shield add some more flavor to the game, but the shield requires you to stop moving to work and getting hit once outside of that immediately reduces you to your underpants. Your weapons are slower so there's barely a reason to use anything outside of the knives/lance/crossbow combinations (all of them being the fastest firing weapons), and the red arremer is absurdly obnoxious this time around, being able to instantly dodge all of your attacks unless you hit them as they're swooping down upon you or have an upwards firing weapon. It really is something you have to experience for yourself; even the original red arremer incarnation was more fair than this! Again, none of these are game-breaking problems, it's just that they contribute to how exhausting it feels to play through the game twice in a single sitting.

I wanted to be blown away while playing Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts—after all, I naturally lean more towards SNES games than Genesis, so I had high expectations diving in. What I had yet to experience was just how prickly this game was; limited continues, longer stages, and a ferocious final level barred my entry to the credits, Capcom asking if I had what it took to best their devious design team. There were certain moments throughout my journey where Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts astounded me with its creativity and visuals, but far too often I found myself groaning in frustration or questioning if certain sections could've been made better or more interesting. Perhaps during a replay I'll look upon it with a fonder gaze (I still do want to replay it after all), but that horrid requirement for a second playthrough will likely continue to keep my appreciation at bay.

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