Ghosts ‘N Goblins – NES
Platform: Nintendo Entertainment System
Release Date (NA): 1985
Reviewed by StarSpangledEggs
Be sure to also check out the sequel on the Sega Genesis, Ghouls ‘N Ghosts!
Let me take a quick moment to preface this article: this game and its addressing article are NOT for the faint of heart! If NES games had a solid system of alphabeitcal rating, this game would be rated “F” for the many times it will cause you to scream profanities that start with that letter! If you have already experienced what this game has to offer, then your muscles have most likely tensed and beads of sweat have formed at your temples from the sheer sight of the title. It was mentioned in the Aladdin review that this game is the 5th hardest NES game of all time. Don’t believe it? I don’t blame you. I didn’t believe it at first either. How could such a simple NES platformer drive droves of even the toughest gamers running for cover? Just you wait, I’ll tell you exactly why. You had better call your local exorcist, because we are about to enter the Haunted Graveyard of Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins…
Players take control of Capcom’s cartoon version of King Arthur, who sets off on a 6-level journey through literal Hell and back again to save the kidnapped princess. The first thing there is to notice about our hero…he is a little on the scrawny side. Look at him, he doesn’t quite look like the knight in shining armor I think we all envisioned the legendary King Arthur to look like. Well, a short way into the game, you will find that this almost seems purposeful as his physical attributes stand to no bluffs or boasts. Although he wears a silver suit of armor, it might as well be made of aluminum foil as it acts as little defense against the dark forces that attack. After even one little scratch from something as small as a passerby bird, his whole armor dissipates and Arthur is left to continue his quest in nothing but his comical pair of boxers (and in the original Japanese version, he didn’t even have that left, he was bare-butt naked). If he is hit again in this immodest state, he will lose his skin and collapse into a dead pile of 8-bit bones.
At first this almost reminded me of the Mario Bros. power-up system in the sense that if you have a power-up, you can survive 2 hits and lose the power-up in between. But unlike in the iconic plumber’s forgiving world that has power-ups aplenty, King Arthur is always hard-pressed to find any useful items whatsoever. There are tons of items that give you points to add to your accumulating score…but points do not help you beat the brutal stages or survive the ongoing onslaught that you must face. What’s worse is that some of the point-giving items even tease you by taking the form of miniature armor suits, making you think that salvation has finally come! …Nope, just 200 points, sucker!
There are other items in the game that come at inconvenient and random intervals, some even spawning over pitfalls and above enemy spawnpoints, just to mock you even more in your suffering. Instead of wielding the fabled Excalibur, King Arthur is granted access to a variety of ranged weapons to wield against his many foes. Arthur can wield his basic Lance weapon, a set of Throwing Knives, a bundle of Fire Torches, and even a strange Axe weapon found in level 5. Arthur can only wield one at a time though, so it is best to find the most universally useful of the four and stick with that, since good weapon drops (or ANY weapon drops at all) are so rare. The only problem is…there is only one universally good weapon, and that is the set of Throwing Knives.
The Lance is semi-strong, but it moves very slowly and will not allow you to throw any more than 2 at a time, which can easily get you killed if an unexpected enemy makes a fast approach after you have thrown the first two (which happens ALL the time)! The Fire Torch is tossed in an arc, often soaring over your closer targets, and landing to create a small pool of fire that lasts a few seconds. This is topped by an unfortunate limitation: you cannot throw another one until the flames die down. This makes it nearly impossible to defend against surprise strikes before you take a hit, since you have to wait for the fire of your last torch to die out before you can use another! The Axe weapon has an even more ludicrous arc, following a large ring-shaped flightpath, it renders itself even more useless as only 2 can be on-screen at a time as well! So in the end, the rapid fire rate that the Throwing Knives offer and the straight angle of attack make them the most useful and dependable weapon in the game. Finding a set may pose a challenge at first, and you will have to make do with the Lance weapon you spawn with until you can get the Throwing Knives to drop, but once you have them they are yours to keep.
…Or, well, almost keep.
One of the features that Capcom so generously incorporated into the game is that when you pick up a weapon, it replaces the last one you had (rather than simply adding to an amassing arsenal that you can cycle through at will). So if by accident you pick up an air-spawned Axe weapon or land on a Lance after dodging an enemy, guess what, the first weapon is now gone until you can work the miracle of finding another one. Until then, that inferior weapon you just picked up is yours until you get another one, regardless of death, game over, etc. This sucks if you get any weapon other than the Knives, but it is notably nice to have the weapon security “past death do you part” if you do have the Knives.
Aside from weapons, Arthur really only has one other defensive option: his jump. I laugh to myself at what this game dignifies a jump, as it is one of the worst jumps I have ever had to work with in a game. It does not travel very far horizontally, and vertically it follows a static pace from start to finish, not even pausing mid-air momentarily per rules of physics and gravity. And once you have locked in your jump input, you are committed to that jump angle no matter what. Arthur can turn and face backwards mid-jump, as if begging helplessly to go the other way…but it will have no effect on his mobility. Most platforming games allow protagonists the “free jump” mechanic that lets players alter their trajector at any time during the jump by holding down one side or the other. In “free jump” games like Mario Bros, one can even change their direction of momentum twice or three times in the air if given enough airtime. But this game isn’t other puny platforming games, this is Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins, where everything you do has a 100% committal rate for better or worse (and it will almost always be WORSE)!
There are none of The Haunted Mansion’s “Grim, Grinning Ghosts” in the Haunted Graveyard, the first and seemingly longest stage in the game. This setting is forever buried in the recesses of every player’s fear-themed psyche. This stage seems humble in design at first glance, filled only with rare pitfalls and falling hazards, nothing too overwhelming at first…until the enemies start to spawn. Countless cobblestone tombs rise from the ground to spit endless hordes of zombies stumbling your way. Each of them are a one-hit kill with any of the game’s weapons, not too threatening by themselves…but then the wolves appear. These monsters take 3 hits from your basic Lance weapon, 4 from the Throwing knives, and 2 from the Fire sticks (not the flames, the sticks themselves if you hit them with the stick before the stick ignites the ground aflame). They are scattered atop the hillsides waiting anxiously to pounce on you. Because the wolves prefer to pounce their innocent pray, they are extremely hard to hit after they jump as no weapon is suited to aim very far above Arthur’s lowly head by nature.
But the wolf is not alone in being a shifty son-of-a- goblin, oh no! The game’s poster-monster “Firebrand” is the leading cause of game-induced conniption fits! As if the overwhelming ground hazards of zombies, wolves, and fireballs were not enough, Firebrand is one of a number of creatures that can fly! Yup, you read that right, Firebrand can fly! Even the sky is unsafe in this machine of mind-melting madness! Being that every weapon is either a straight shot or a silly arc, pretty much EVERY weapon useless at any distance since he loves to hover near the top corners of the screen! One of the most viable ways to beat this hellspawn is to attempt “sniping” him from the edge of the screen before he is awakened, but this strategy is immensely difficult because of the constant stream of ground-based threats that constantly amass at your footstep threatening your every leap! What makes him extra bothersome is the fact that he dives at you from such strange angles that he is very hard to effectively dodge whilst also making sure to land in a safe spot. These diving passes he makes at you are also your only time to strike him in his awakened state, which often involves coming dangerously close to his attack. And just to add the ghastly sewage sludge topping to the rotten pound cake that he is, he tracks you throughout the level until you’re dead or he is! You cannot outrun him no matter how hard you try!
In most encounters, it is much more likely that you will be the one to die, as he takes what seems like a hundred hits and you can only survive a simple two! When I first fought him, I thought he was the stage’s boss! …But to petrifying terror, he is just a normal baddie, and many more of him are scattered throughout the game’s other levels. One of him alone is harder than most of the bosses in the game…and only God’s grace can save you if you awaken 2!
You will also find swarms of dime-sized mini-Firebrands scattered throughout the stages. How does a substantially smaller target that carries the same abilities, speed, and lethality sound? You know, for those dead times when you aren’t being stalked by the real deal? They easily take second slot as the most lethal enemies in the game aside from full-sized Firebrands, but only because they die in one hit. Do NOT underestimate them; they are a forced to be reckoned with in numbers!
If you do not already want to jump out the window of the nearest 10+ story building by this point, it gets even better! Arthur is given 3 lives at the start of the game, which is the rough equivalent of 6 base hits to complete the level with. These are not Mario-length levels though; there are only 6 in the game after all, so these are LONG levels. I am always pressed to rather call them “Worlds” as they are about 2-3 level lengths smashed into one gauntlet of gut-wrenching horror. There are checkpoints throughout these “Worlds” that would easily have counted as perfect level transitions…but Capcom did not want players to feel ANY semblance of safety at any time during the gameplay experience! If you lose all of your lives, that’s a game over and you have to start the level all over again. That means, even if you get to the boss and he nicks you one hit away from his death, you’re going right back to the beginning.
The first stage seems the longest because it’s the first time players are introduced to the brutal barrage of bullcrap that Ghouls ‘N’ Goblins will put you through. Being accustomed to friendlier titles of the gaming age like Frogger, Root Beer Tapper, and Lunar Lander, many are not amply prepared for the Armageddon-level scope of this game’s force! As such, they die…a lot. I can’t help but be reminded of my 8 year-old self screaming swear words through waterfalls of tears from my tomato-red, rage-filled face as I failed again and again at this accursed first stage! It is truly one of the most frustrating games to grow accustomed to, as you will have to restart thousands of times and hear the game’s eerie soundtrack looping infinitely all the while! If you ever wanted to hear what the Devil plays over the loudspeakers as his theme song in Hell, listen to the Haunted Graveyard theme! It will permeate into all of your darkest nightmares and corrupt your very soul! Before long, every second of solemn silence will be filled with that dreaded tune! Like Pavlov’s dogs, you will biologically react (in fear, not hunger) to its sound alone!
If you somehow manage to discipline yourself through this traumatizing torture, you can congratulate yourself as you are one of only 20% of players who make it past the first level! But, you will soon be disheartened to learn that you still have to endure 5 more world-length levels before you reach the stage where the final boss resides! Each of these levels bring their own nuisances to learn about and you can bet your life savings that death will be overly plentiful, but I found that they were not as difficult as the first level because I heightened my senses to expect death from every direction. This is NOT to say that they were in any way easy, however! The learning curve was simply tapering off after the first bound. They were simply difficult for other reasons, like having a lot more environmental hazards and traps to deal with on top of the enemy’s battering!
In Stage 5, you will find a shield that is VITAL to beating the game. If you pass it by, thinking it will not be as effective as the Throwing Knives, you will have to repeat the level as it is a necessary tool to beating the final boss. The game itself will not let you go to stage 6 without it! And the shield is not a shield at all really; it’s actually a ranged weapon…yeah, overflowing with logic there.
And then, it happens…
After all this, after surmounting the deepest wells of the underworld and toting weapon shield in hand…you have reached the ultimate part of the game: the final level, level 6. You never thought it would happen, and you doubted your sanity and skills all the way…but you are finally here. The luscious scent of closure is practically brimming from your Nintendo console and tickling your nostrils. Your bruised thumbs feel a comforting coldness soothe their tips, knowing that their abuse will soon be at its end. This is the level where your efforts finally pay off, where your final battle will ensue, and where you can finally leave this all behind you and walk away with the love of your life in your arms! She must truly be something for Arthur to have gone through all this trouble for her; Mario’s puppy love for Princess Peach is absolutely nothing compared to Arthur’s love for his bride! So, proudly you take your first step into your impending glory and you receive a message:
“This room is an illusion (devised) by Satan. Go ahead dauntlessly! Make rapid progress!”
Shortly after reading this strange message…the worst thing imaginable happens. The screen blinks black for a moment, and then shows your character icon back at stage 1 on the map screen and the theme song of Hell begins playing again…
Arthur then spawns right back at the beginning of the first level…
Player: “…..no no no no no…this can’t be happening….”
And then you are prompted to go, as if you hadn’t done anything at all…
Like I said, Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins should have been rated “F” because this game F’s you in every single pixel of its being! You have to beat the game TWICE in order to actually beat the game!! That’s like building a brick wall in your yard, only to tear it down upon completion and have to build it all over again!! This is one of gaming history’s greatest trolls to gamers; and something inside me tells me that the developers were having one heck of a hoot when they programmed this soul-crushing development! What kind of sadistic masochists formed the idea for this sick joke?! Sure the programmers could have simply made 12 levels, but that would be too kind for this twisted and evil game!
And I will be honest; I bawled my poor 8 year-old eyes out for hours when this happened to me! I had invested nearly a straight week into beating this game, never turning off my Nintendo once due to a lack of save points or passwords. I had already invested one 12-hour run into the game prior to this, but that ended when the power to our house flickered, resetting the game and my progress.
I did not ever beat this game; I had not the heart to bear through its pains and toils a second consecutive time. I have seen the ending though. If you beat it through the second time, a black screen with heavily misspelled text reads:
“(Congratulations), this story is happy end. Thank you. Being the wise and (courageous) knight that you are, you feel (strength) welling in your body. Return to starting point. Challenge again!”
…Well, doesn’t that just make it all seem worth it? There is a completely satisfying ending right there…
Oh yeah, and I almost forgot to mention that there is A HARDER DIFFICULTY!! Apparently Capcom thought people would enjoy penalizing themselves more with a harder version of this already insurmountable experience, and so they programmed a version of the game that can somehow be even harder than it already is! I would rather offer my eyes as pincushions than attempt to beat that kind of nightmare!
In the end, it’s not that Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins is a bad game…it’s just difficult beyond mortal comprehension or belief! The sound effects, though mind-grating after extended periods of play, are well-done and the visuals are great for the NES…so in those aspects the game is on perfect par. Mere words just cannot adequately describe the feelings that arise when you get to that pseudo ending point (not knowing about it prior, of course) after all the hard work you put in getting there. It’s like working to write your Master’s degree college thesis essay in pen to have your teacher shred it page by page and laugh as she tells you to rewrite it all. Capcom made an experience unlike any other, and I can honestly say that despite my life’s trials and troubles, I have NEVER felt any sorrow like that Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins pseudo-ending sorrow.
I know that some of you reading this are probably thinking I am exaggerating…and if you think that, I offer you a challenge. Prove that I am off my rocker with this review! There is only one true way to fully understand the thoughts and words expressed in this review for yourself…if you think you have the stones, suit up in that tin foil armor and throw down in the undead apocalypse that is Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins! NOT using an emulator that allows for Save States and other cheats, the real deal: on an NES console, with an NES controller, raw and authentic. It will be a chilling experience that you will carry to your own Haunted Graveyard.
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