I’ve recently been playing a bunch of old games (this statement being equally appropriate to introduce anything I’ve written here), as a means of casual fun and time passing, with a couple of friends about my own age. I’m 26, and as such was in the prime of my youthful interest in video games at the advent of the Super Nintendo era. This was also the era of the Sega Genesis for some, but I was never as taken with the console, its games I had played at friends’ houses, and its marketing tact (this remains one of the most scurrilous ads of its time). I’ve owned exactly one Sega system in my life — my ill-fated seduction by the Dreamcast, years later.
This was, I think, the correct decision in form and substance — the variety of games on offer always seemed more tantalizing to me on Nintendo’s side of the wager, to say nothing of their durable partnership with developers that had delivered for me before, Capcom highly among them. This isn’t to say the Genesis didn’t have any Capcom releases — they did, with thirteen titles — but a cursory glance at the consoles’ respective rosters makes clear which they favored, in both quantity and quality. The Mega Man franchise and its progeny Mega Man X, combined with the fact that the Genesis’ prominent Capcom game Street Fighter II had its own iterations available on the SNES, laid bare the preference.
These glory franchises aren’t all Capcom brought to early console gaming, however, nor were they anywhere near the most challenging. If you have it in you to experience true frustration and fleeting moments of rage-induced blood haze, rather, turn a wary eye to Super Ghouls’n Ghosts.
A game in the grand traditions of an arcade cabinet quarter-eater, Super Ghouls’n Ghosts strikes an awkward balance between thinking the highest and most respectfully of its players skill, perseverance and verve, while also aggressively trashing that goodwill determination. For the uninitiated (previous entries in the series, Ghosts’n Goblins and Ghouls’n Ghosts, have virtually identical conceits that may ring familiar), the protagonist of this arduous jaunt is Arthur, an armor-clad knight in the throes of a romance with a blue-haired princess. As this is a 1991 video game, the female principally involved is little more than pretense for Arthur’s adventure, hammered home by her shamefully stupid name: Princess Prin-Prin. Naming a valorous knight Arthur is rote. Naming a princess Prin-Prin is a whole new class of affront.
Anyhow, Prin-Prin gets nabbed by the aforementioned ghouls and/or ghosts, sending Arthur on his way to storm the demon king Sardius’ castle and save her life. The quest spans seven different levels, of wildly varying lengths and difficulties, the lone constant being that they’re pretty rough taken on their own, and damn near impenetrable in concert, with a limited number of lives and continues. This is for the most part because Arthur has no lifebar, and only his suit of armor to protect him. Get nicked by an enemy attack, or brush against the foe himself, and the armor shatters instantly. Now Arthur dons only his boxer shorts, though still armed with whatever weapon he had before. A second hit kills you dead.
Fancier armors can be found randomly in treasure chest drops throughout the levels, though you have to build your way up — a shirtless Arthur will only find a suit of plain gray armor, while the gray armored Arthur will find green, and green on to gold. Upon donning the green armor, your simple weapon (new ones are also found scattered in chests) gains new power, and when wearing the vaunted gold armor, a superpower can be charged, a la Mega Man, by holding down the attack button. But the gold armor and gray armor alike are utterly tenuous, to the point of crippling a player with nerves when they finally achieve it. You’re stifled with the knowledge that one mistake and the work is gone, broken away to reveal, once more, Arthur’s bony, boxer-clad physique.
The level designs are consistently just challenging enough to make skirting by untouched a very dubious proposition. As is sometimes the case with fanatically difficult adventure platformers, the bosses aren’t really the issue — some are middlingly hard, some mind-numbingly simple — but rather the meandering level design, treacherous enemy spawns, and remorseless gameplay are what tie up your time and energy. Fighting through to the final level is a tall order, to be sure. But once you’ve made it, and dispatched with the franchise’s traditional big goblin with a fire breathing stomach-mouth, you’ll finally…
What’s that, little man? You thought you’d won? When in fact, you’ve only just begun? In what ranks as perhaps Capcom’s most grim ever combination of dastardliness and laziness, now you have to play the whole fucking thing over again.
It’s kind of hard to overstate how unwelcome a realization that is when you’ve finally reached the final boss’ doorstep. And harder still to express the indignation, the sturm und drang that screams through every fiber of your thumb muscles when you’re booted back to the game’s first level. All over again. And this time, with a twist — randomly, one of the treasure chests you come across will contain the Goddess Bracelet. You have to find it, equip it, and avoid accidentally getting any other weapons from subsequent chests, because you need the thing for the long haul. You must fight your way back to Sardius’ lair, this time blasting foes with the bracelet’s divine power (which in some cases is less effective that the weapon you gave up in the first place).
If playing the game with friends, as I did most recently, the painstaking nature of this is mitigated greatly, as taking turns and vocal comradery makes thing feel more fun and collaborative. Everyone’s got to pull on the same rope if you’re going to beat a demonic empire, after all. And it also makes the angst over having to replay the game feel less insulting and more like an increasingly ill-advised, contentious challenge. But this much I know, having gone through this one solo all those decades ago — it isn’t exciting or steeling to be sent back to the starting line when you’re playing for one. In fact, it’s pretty soul-sucking.
Once you’ve trudged all the way back through, you’re given the honor of fighting Sardius, a giant blue demon in a gold suit of armor. He’s undoubtedly the stoutest boss in the game, though with a clear head and a sharp eye his patterns can be discerned and exploited in relatively short order. As you might expect for a game of this sort, there isn’t a tremendous amount of story to unpack after your victory. You save Prin-Prin, obviously, and there’s a characters/credits roll. This roll also helps the game depart on its most starkly objectifying note, as pertains to your paramour — you’re given her physical measurements. So, take heart, gamers of the world. That may have been grueling, and exhausting, and they made you play it twice, but at least your synthetic princess has huge tits.
I’ve managed to go on this long without mentioning the sound or graphics, which I should rectify, because both are areas of strength. The backgrounds strike a balance between crisp brightness and an unsettling macabre, perhaps none moreso than the fourth level, which partly takes place in what looks like the inside of some monstrous stomach. The soundtrack is, if nothing else, deeply (and somewhat even torturously) unforgettable. For the last twenty years I’ve often had the theme from the game’s first level stuck in my head, and that was before I picked it up again for the purposes of this review. Now, I fear I’ve signed up for another twenty.
At the risk of sounding old, the enduring lesson of Super Ghouls’n Ghosts is a microcosm of the defining generational divide between gamers and games back then, versus now: it used to be a lot harder. Games were often unrelenting, both in deliberate ways, and when an insufficient technology might be stretched beyond its means. This has especially been on my mind as I scream towards the finish of Bioshock: Infinite — a game I feel safe in calling a great one, still just shy of its conclusion, but also one which allows access and playability to all comers. Its reportedly hellacious 1999 mode accepted, it doesn’t set a taxing minimum skill level for a neophyte to beat. This is a positive thing, because it broadens the number of people exposed to its plot, environment, aesthetic beauty and simple brilliance.
But just as nostalgia’s tendrils are ever tugging at us from the past, there is something to be said, however gritted the teeth through which it comes, for those good old bad times. Back when up was down, left was right, you got two hits at best, and you had to do everything twice.