[contains minor spoilers]
Exceedingly rare is it for the newest entry in a franchise to not only properly honor its inspirations, but to also outclass them with such finesse that it practically stands in a league of its own. There are very few games capable of this feat—I think Mega Man 9/10 and Gradius V arguably achieve this—but there is no greater disparity between the quality of the old entries and the new as there is with Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins and its ancestors. Ultimate G'nG is the game that I always wanted the series to be: quick, bright, fun, with the right amount of challenge...
... At least, that's what I thought after I had finished the first stage. Having finally reached the true ending, I must confess that I was utterly incorrect; Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins is the most bloodthirsty, cruel, and violently unfun game of the bunch.
The weird thing is that it's not the hardest entry in the series—that honor still belongs Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts, mainly due to its monstrous final stage. However what makes Ultimate G'nG so much more horrifying is that instead of having to resume from a checkpoint after you die, you restart right where you were slain, provided you have the extra lives to do so. "How does this make the game bad then?" I can hear you naively cluck, not realizing that the designers account for this new checkpoint system and absolutely flood the stages with enemies and hazards, every single screen a multi-pronged attack on poor Arthur. Prepare to be bombarded by nimble foes from several directions while you wait for slow moving platforms to ferry you across bottomless chasms, death a more likely outcome than any other game in the franchise. It's less of a test of endurance like the previous games were and more a cavalcade of bullshit you're forced to wade through, eating loss after loss as you struggle to reach the next stage. Most levels aren't too grueling to survive, but the back-to-back brutality of Stage 2-2 and 3-1 will most assuredly have you empathizing with my plight.
Oh but this isn't the worst part of Ultimate G'nG—oh no, not by a long shot. That only comes after you finish the game and are forced to go back to the beginning to replay it again. "Oh but that's what the other games did!" You brazenly bleat, without understanding that you have to pick up 22 rings randomly scattered throughout the game to reach the last boss. And when I say "random" I mean random: the rings are not hinted at, they're not shown on the map, and the game refuses to tell you anything other than the total amount you have. Did you acquire 21 rings but don't know what stage to visit for that final elusive one? Tough luck, you'll just have keep exploring until you spot it near some bottomless pit or free it from one of the game's many tombstones!
And yet, somehow, it gets worse—after crushing the faux-final boss, you're sent back again to pick up 11 more rings, 5 of which are obtainable only after collecting all of the red chests in every stage. "That does sound pretty bad..." I catch you murmuring, despite that you cannot truly grasp the overwhelming amount of misery this task burdens you with. To open a red chest, you have to touch a minuscule, invisible tag somewhere on the level that will then cause the red chest to appear so you can open it. With the rings you could at least see where they are; to activate the chests you'll have to dive into pits, enemies, and traps, and I assure you I'm not exaggerating—the tags actually are located near the bottom of pits and inside enemy spawn points! It's just such an insane, dolorous, time-wasting requirement that it drains any and all enjoyment you'll feel for the game. I've had to put up with a lot of odious design in plenty of video games before (triforce hunting anyone?), but this might just take the cake.
(EDIT: Just kidding I forgot La Mulana exists)
What frustrates me to no end is that Ultimate G'nG is, at its core, the best Ghosts 'n Goblins game in the series. The introduction I wrote above was not a red herring; Ultimate G'nG feels phenomenal to play, bringing back the fiery arcade action that was present in the Genesis title. It looks great in motion on the PSP (with fairly stable frame rate to boot!), and despite the stupidly high frequency and durability of some of its enemies, the stages are cleverly crafted and contain some neat tricks. The ghostly hay castle at the end of Stage 2-2 is both terrifying and alluring, an other-worldly setting that's exactly what I want out of a G'nG game. The bosses are all excellently designed as well, once again following in Ghouls 'n Ghosts' footsteps of prioritizing sharp reactions over mashing the attack button as fast as you can. I cannot stress enough how promising this game starts, before it begins to vindictively claw at your good will and drag you into hell with its obnoxious ring collecting.
This vile little title gets me so fired up that I forgot to mention that it shifts genres from action platformer to a metroidvania, now allowing you to revisit older stages to pick up spells and abilities you may have missed. While it's an interesting addition (it's pretty nice to be able to choose which spells to use for a particularly tough sections of a stage), the game absolutely stumbles with this, making poor decision after poor decision. For instance, you can only save the game after you finish a stage, meaning that any goodies you find in a level will require you to reach the end to keep them. That, or you can simply use a warp staff to go to the Red Witch's Lair and finish Stage 1-1 in a matter of seconds, which is something you're going to be doing constantly, especially when you're on the hunt for the red chests. Oh, but if you accidentally pick up a terrible weapon you get to hold onto that even if you restart a stage! Speaking of, why can't you collect weapons and swap them on the fly? And why in god's name do the warp staffs disappear in the second playthrough? You're already forcing me to replay through the game to collect all the rings, you don't need to make me jump into a pit again to pick up the Stage 4 warp staff!
I have so many minor grievances that I don't even know when to stop complaining. An interesting addition to the overall game is the dragon shield, a tool that effectively lets you fly for a limited time. I both love it and hate it: love it because it lets the player skip so many awful parts in the levels (like the ghost platforms in Stage 2-2 [why does dying reset your position and force you to ride them all over again?! Why?!]), but I hate it because it outright kills the "platforming" part of the game the series is known for. You never have to double jump again as long as you have the ability to fly over all obstacles, but try and use the dragon shield like a shield and it'll likely shatter, forcing you to find another one somewhere in the world. Shield durability is another absurd inclusion because you always use it when you duck, which means you're always putting your dragon shield at risk every time you try to avoid an enemy overhead. And it's not that hard to find a new one either—it's just extremely inconvenient.
You know, that's actually a good way to sum up a lot of design decisions in Ultimate G'nG—arbitrarily inconvenient. Like, why do the loading screens of secret areas double as stage checkpoints? Where is the challenge in the final boss rush if the game checkpoints you after every boss? Why do I have to mash the d-pad every time one of those accursed flying fish latch onto me? Why can't I use magic without my armor? Why do the transformations last so goddamn long?! It's like there was no rhyme or reason to the myriad of bad ideas here—the developers simply threw everything they could into the game and hoped it all worked out for the best. The one—one—thing I will acknowledge that could reverse my low opinion of this game is a playthrough of Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins Kai, a Japan-only release that rebalanced the game to be more like the traditional titles... but seeing as I only have the vanilla version in my library, that will have to wait for another day.
The Ghosts 'n Goblins titles are exemplary at showcasing why awful game design can ruin excellent gameplay systems. Each of them have their own strengths and weaknesses, by and large being decent platformers that can be fun to overcome depending on your tolerance for pain. Oddly it's the newest entry that's the most sadistic, Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins' stupendous controls and presentation strangled by a legion of incomprehensible (and downright spiteful) design decisions. Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins is—as corny as it sounds—the ultimate disappointment.
Images obtained from: gamefaqs.com, playstation.com, gearlive.com