Tuesday, 18 October 2016

October Nightmares II #18: Ghosts 'N Goblins (1985), Ghouls 'N Ghosts (1988) & Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts (1991) - One Hit Wonders...


Is there a better fitting game series for the Halloween season than Ghosts ‘N Goblins - the series which features more tacky horror imagery than a discount Halloween supply shop. Ghosts ‘N Goblins is a hellish experience, not least because it’s unfair, but rather that plonks you into your own self-made (and masochistic) Hell. This series is harder than a Klingon themed word search; a Sisyphean punishment in which you’re constantly throwing yourself into the meat-grinder. On the surface Ghosts ‘N Goblins is the cheesy fairground ghost train, but underneath it’s goddamn Hellraiser.

Capcom’s 8th bestselling franchise (according to Wikipedia) first came to arcades in 1985, a format which was perfectly suited for rinse and repeat nature of the game. It probably earnt Capcom more money than a prostitute who also does your maths homework. As with Dark Souls, it's a game in which you’ll likely have died at least fifteen times within five minutes of playtime. The set-up for Ghosts ‘N Goblins is a find-and-replace copy of Super Mario Bros: The Princess (Prin Prin) has been kidnapped by a large demon (Satan) and it’s up to the hero (Sir Arthur) to run and jump his way through a collection of themed worlds. This was the Eighties mind, what else were they supposed to do? Games stories didn’t really evolve until the Nineties’ introduced the ‘you are a marine, kill everything that moves’ set-up.

From this humble starting point, Ghosts ‘N Goblins takes the player through graveyards, to caverns, to end-game dungeons which threw everything at you. For a game in which you die in just two hits and have only five lives, however, the art style is paradoxically whimsical. Ghosts ‘N Goblins has a charming cartoonish quality, unlike Konami’s Castlevania (released a year later) which sought as macabre a style as the NES would allow. Even for its time, Ghosts ‘N Goblins was always more akin to Funnybones than a full-blown horror themed game. “In a dark, dark town there was a dark, dark street”...But I enjoy that about it. As was the case with Symphony of the Night, Ghosts ‘N Goblins plays like a celebration of horror tropes; there are creaky cemeteries, shuffling zombies, even frail skeletons. It’s like one of the early episodes of Buff the Vampire Slayer.

Ghouls ‘N Ghosts & Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts (released in 1988 and 1991 respectively) were pseudo-sequels which retained the formula but doubled-down on the horror elements. The former had Loki as a hundred foot sinewy demon sat atop a throne of skulls, and horrifying mutant earth worms, creepy magicians, and the Grim Reaper. Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts also added the body horror element with the Sponge Queen and fleshy blob monsters, not to mention the level seemingly set in some kind of stomach. These two games carry on the same “your princess is in another castle” dick move that made the first one so infamous – essentially sending you back to beginning once you reach the end, so that you replay the entire game again with the special item needed to beat the final boss. The game’s like your mum sending you back home to get your coat because it’s a bit nippy outside.

The 1988 and 1991 games highlights the series’ shift towards the horror imagery of Castlevania, and I genuinely believe the Ghosts ‘N Goblins series could have rivalled Konami’s flagship series had they kept going. Both elevated the platformer and showed what it was capable of: Ghosts ‘N Goblins as a proto-Dark Souls by way of Contra and Ninja Gaiden, and Castlevania combining the genre with RPG elements – eventually cumulating in SOTN. As it stands the Ghosts ‘N Goblins games are merely enjoyable horror-lite romps, where the primary source of terror comes from the minute-to-minute gameplay. You’re never sure where you’re going to buy it from next – the enemies which suddenly appear on screen due to the lack of processing power, the dodgy platforming, or the omnipresent timer counting down to your doom. A truly organic style of horror as it’s true to how the game plays: one hit and you lose your armour, second hit and your dead – at which point you’ll have start the entire game over again. The prospect of this is far more terrifying than anything you’ll actually see in the game. Apart from the final boss of Ghosts ‘N Goblins that is. Dickless and with a tooth-filled vagina for a chest, he looks like one of those gender-queer Social Justice Warriors you see on TV trying to get Game of Thrones banned because it's 'sexist'.