Ghosts ‘n Goblins is famously one of the harder games for the NES and which earned the system a reputation for difficult, masochistic games that required thorough mastering (and luck) to overcome. It was also one of the first games that James Rolfe, The Angry Video Game Nerd, played as a kid and which may have contributed to the anger and hatred portrayed in his persona. Having replayed the whole thing now, I was quickly reminded why I too am an angry gamer.
The story for GG is quick to get you on the move. You’re spending a lovely, romantic night in an abandoned, monster-infested cemetery when a devil swoops on by and kidnaps your beloved. You set out on a chase across several different levels to rescue her, which is where the storytelling ends.
It doesn’t take long to figure out what earned the game its infamy. The controls are stiff and unsuited for dealing with the problems ahead of you. You can jump and use a projectile attack, but your jumping skills are pathetic when compared to Nintendo’s own efforts and leave you with terribly little control. I died numerous times just trying to get on a little hill in level 1 by jumping on a gravestone and then unto the higher ground, before eventually figuring out this was just background decoration.
If you jump from a standstill you can’t move much and, even when moving at full speed, mid-air control is terribly limited. This is especially a pain when dealing with flying enemies, but I also frequently found myself having to perform leaps of faith or dealing with platforming where I’d fall through the ground or end up stuck in walls.
Levels are either too busy and cause obnoxious sprite flickering or they are hollow and boring. Backgrounds clash with the playing field or obscure enemies and projectiles you would have seen coming otherwise. It is a stylish game in places and I like the soundtrack and sound-effects, but it’s technically lacking and seems to constantly struggle to keep itself together on the humble NES. Platforms and objects constantly pop into existence at the last moment, reset when briefly off-screen, or even fail to spawn if there is too much going on.
Level 2 further confirms that the controls are unsuited to the task. You are constantly going up and down ladders, but if you press up or down at the wrong times, you just freeze up and are left unable to move. You can’t jump unto or off ladders, yet are expected to deal with fast, projectile-throwing enemies whose semi-random AI leaves them camping the area around ladders until you defenselessly make your way up to them. You can’t attack up or down or do anything to increase your odds besides hoping the AI will goof up and afford you an opportunity to react.
Everything in Ghosts ‘n Goblins is too fast, too aggressive, and too random. Enemies can spawn in literally where you stand and immediately start doing damage. You got entire hallways littered with red devils who swoop through the skies at angles and heights you literally can not reach, hurling projectiles and punishing your every move by flying in diagonally to score a hit. A single hit will knock off your armor and one more hit after that will kill you, setting you back to the last checkpoint. The game is forgiving with Game Overs and doesn’t require complicated passwords, which is a rare act of mercy on its behalf.
I will say that I enjoy the diversity of the game’s weapons. You start the game with a lance that travels in a straight line, which can be exchanged for a knife that is faster, a fireball that travels in an arc and causes an area-of-effect hazard, an axe that cuts through enemies, or a shield that blocks projectiles. Each weapon feels different to handle and has its advantages. It’s a bit cheap that some enemies are arbitrarily invulnerable to some weapons, especially when you have no means of swapping them out during bosses. On the flipside, some weapons make short work of certain enemies and turn tough battles into a cakewalk.
A downside, however, is the lack of interesting power-ups. There are some rare instances where a suit of armor can be found to restore a lost hitpoint, but every other item just exists for points that are ultimately meaningless.
The bosses were much to my liking though. Ghosts ‘n Goblins does have a nasty habit of recycling its bosses, but they are a fair challenge with interesting patterns and movement. Unlike regular enemies, they are never too fast and very fair to fight. The Satans, for example, are clearly meant to be upgraded versions of the Red Devils, yet end up being way more fun to deal with. The same applies to the dragons that are very fun to battle with the axe or the famous Unicorns, which are a tough but fair challenge.
Ghosts ‘n Goblins will always have a place in gaming history and was tone-setting for the NES’ games library. For fans of retro games it may always be a rite of passage, but it’s a severely flawed one. Its challenges are not impossible to overcome and it offers ways to make them easier, but they are undeniably cheap in nature. Had the game offered directional attacks to deal with the enemy’s movements and improved your own mobility, that would already resolve numerous issues.