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Monday, March 17, 2014

NES Replay: Ghosts N' Goblins

Developer: Capcom
Publisher: Capcom
Released: November 1986
Ghosts N' Goblins has a reputation for one thing, and one thing only: Difficulty. It's a really tough game, and that difficulty is compounded when you reach the end and find out you have to play through the whole thing again to get to the "true" ending.

Yet, people talk about Ghosts N' Goblins fondly. For such a punishing game, that seems strange. Why do people like it so much? Is this is a case of gaming masochism? Do the blinders of nostalgia cause people to think better of Ghosts N' Goblins than they should? Or is there something we can learn about difficulty?

There's a very good reason that people still like Ghosts N' Goblins. Ghosts N' Goblins, while a very difficult game, still feels fair. It's such a tough balancing act, but Capcom managed to nail it in a way that few developers can manage. Here's why.


A lot of developers at the time artificially inflated difficulty by making your character difficult to control, giving your player a limited range for their attacks, or making each character take hundreds upon hundreds of bullets / punches / fireballs before it dies. However, Ghosts N' Goblins bucked that trend by keeping the main character, Sir Arthur, completely functional. His spears travel as far you need them to, enemies mostly die with one hit, and Arthur moves quickly and responsively.

Also, Arthur can also take two hits before dying, which is incredibly fair for a game of the time. Once again, Capcom gives the player every possible chance to succeed. However, they did something incredibly evil: When Arthur gets hit, his armor falls off so he has to run around in his underwear. Your powers don't change and you don't become weaker, but just that one thing makes it feel like you lost. It's a great, great, way to mess with players.

So, Capcom gives you every opportunity to win, and yet Ghosts N' Goblins is still tough. How? What makes Ghosts N' Goblins so difficult is the relentlessness and number of the enemies. You have to keep moving or you'll get swarmed.

This is brilliant, because our human nature makes us stop and try and fight the enemies, but in Ghosts N' Goblins, that way lies madness. In order to proceed, we have to fight our basic inclination to stay and do battle. For lack of a better way to explain it, the way to play Ghosts N' Goblins is to play it like Run Away: The Game. I mean this in the best possible way. Ghosts N' Goblins is winnable only if you swallow your fears and venture into the unknown. That's awesome.

Once again, the whole time Ghosts N' Goblins gives you every advantage. You're presented with a near-impossible task, but you have all the tools to achieve that task. That's something that a lot of developers didn't understand back then and some of them still don't get, and it's a marvel that Capcom understood it back in 1986.

It certainly doesn't hurt that Ghosts N' Goblins has style oozing from every pore. They manage to make an environment that's as oppressive as the difficulty level. More amazingly, they accomplish this while using every color at their disposal. It's not just a game full of blacks and grays.

So, there's a very good reason that Ghosts N' Goblins is still a highly regarded game. It's brutal, but fair. It's asking you to do something completely crazy, gives you the tools and gets out of your way.

Final Rating: