Super Ghouls'n Ghosts (SNES) Review
On a chill October night, many years ago, I sat down to defeat the legendarily difficult Ghosts'n Goblins for NES, and after 2 straight days with the NES left on overnight, I pulled it off. It was BRUTAL. Of course, the next step was to move onto the sequel for SNES, Super Ghouls'n Ghosts, but there was one major problem that made this second journey much more difficult.
In the first game, you're graciously provided with unlimited continues, which didn't make the gameplay any less challenging, but it definitely cut you a bit of a break. This is not so in Super Ghouls'n Ghosts; you have to earn your continues. Thankfully, it still seems fairly generous in this regard, considering I'm not even sure how to get continues, but I usually had plenty. My problems began when I got stuck on the 2nd to final boss, who you're forced to defeat with a seriously wimpy weapon. I couldn't take him down, and I had to repeat the stage over and over, but I stopped earning continues and I eventually ran out... and this heartbreaking scenario happened to me twice before I finally got through it. So yeah, the game is hard, but is there more to it than its difficulty?
You play the NES game for bragging rights. You play this one for fun. Genuinely, this game is as fun as it is difficult. That is to say, it's pretty dang fun. There's something about the flow of gameplay that's addictive. You die a million times in a stage, but all the while you're learning the layout, learning where the hidden chests are and learning how best to take out the baddies. As your death count goes up, so do your skill and confidence. After you beat the "final boss", you're sent back to square one and have to play the entire game over again, which would be really frustrating if it wasn't so fun.
The gameplay (and aesthetic) is a finely-blended puree of Mega Man and Castlevania. It's a 2D sidescrolling platformer where you fight off bad guys with your projectile weapons, but your movement is stiff. Arthur can either jump straight up or to the side, and once he starts the jump, there's no stopping it or changing direction. This forces you to think and be more deliberate with your jumps, which adds an element of difficulty, especially when there are a lot of enemies and obstacles nearby. However, Arthur now has an ace up his sleeve... a double-jump! He can jump again in the air, and with this, he CAN change direction mid-jump. You can fully change direction or halt your momentum and go straight up, for example, if you're about to jump over your target platform and fall in a pit. This makes platforming pretty interesting, and you get a feel for where you're going to land pretty quickly.
There's also lots of weapons to experiment with, and while admittedly most of them are pretty bunk, there are a few situations where having the right tool can make a world of difference. Most weapons can be upgraded when Arthur grabs a new suit of armor, and there are three levels of armor. Level one is the iron armor you start out with, level two is the green armor, which upgrades your weapons and level three is the gold armor, which lets you charge up for an ultimate attack. What's really cool is that each weapon has its own unique ultimate attack, some of which aren't even really attacks. While the dagger fires off a dragon that tears through everything in its path, the bow strikes lightning which reveals all the hidden chests on the screen. Both can be very handy, but I mean come on, give me the dragon any day!
On the subject of weapons, there's one weapon that I hate more more any other, and that's the bracelet. On your second loop through the game, a new weapon starts appearing; a bracelet dropped by a fairy. DO NOT pick this thing up until the last possible moment in the final stage! It's an absolute piece of junk. It has brutally short range, it isn't particularly strong, and it isn't upgraded with green OR gold armor. It doesn't even have an ultimate attack! So knowing that, why would you want it in the final stage when you can totally mop the floor with the final boss if you have any other weapon? Because you have to. You HAVE TO use the bracelet on the final boss in order to fight the REAL final boss. If you use anything else, I hear you get sent back a few stages, maybe even to the very beginning again.
This is what got me killed and drained all my continues the first two times I made it to the last stage. I felt so robbed that I turned the game off for a few years the first time it happened. Then, after it happened again, you know what I did? I immediately started another run, which ended up being the big one. The funny thing is, that fakeout final boss is so brutally difficult with the bracelet, but the true final boss is a cakewalk even with the worst weapon in the game. If you were able to go in with, let's say the dagger, he might as well just get on his knees and beg for mercy. He'd suck his thumb and cry if he saw you in gold armor, rapid firing daggers and shooting off dragons of pure energy from your golden fists! All that being said, I guess I'm glad that the final boss is a bit of a pushover. It's not like I didn't spend the entire game getting my butt handed to me already.
The game has a pretty good soundtrack, and I especially love the first level theme, even though it's just a remake of the first game's stage 1 theme. The game over and continue themes are also very nice, which is good because you'll be hearing both of them a lot. The sound effects are mostly fine, but some of them can be a little annoying, like the buzzing sound when you throw a powered-up dagger. That and a few others come from the NES school of sound design, but they were held back several times because they kept skipping class to snort crushed-up Smarties out behind the library.
This game looks great! The art and animations are quite nice and it takes advantage of many of the SNES's more popular visual effects, such as rotating and resizing sprites and objects, like on bosses, for example. The overall art direction is, just like the gameplay, a cross between Mega Man and Castlevania, with the horror theme of the latter and the more cartoony coat of paint of the former. The borderline goofy regular enemies also provide a nice contrast to the huge, fearsome bosses, especially later in the game. There's a 3-headed hydra boss which I recall being quite easy, which surprised me considering how big and scary it was.
I should also note that in stage 4, there's a big issue with the visual effects in the latter half of the stage. That problem is that the way the stage rocks back and forth makes me wanna puke! The platforms you stand on remain stationary as they move through the stage, but the background tilts left and right. I would have much preferred it the other way around. It also becomes a problem when it's less clear where you're jumping because the background and anything attached to it is constantly moving. Even though I'm not big on autoscroller stages in general, I much prefer the end of level 2 to this one, because at least I'm not getting seasick on the raft.
Your standard save-a-princess affair; pretty weak. Sir Arthur has to save his sweetie-pie, Princess Bluehair, from demons, ghouls, ghosts and goblins. With a game this difficult, you'd be forgiven for expecting something a little more like Ninja Gaiden on NES, where the story unfolds more with each stage you complete. Super Ghouls'n Ghosts is just pure gameplay front to back, which is fine by me, but just a little something extra in the writing department would have gone a long way.
I'm a bit surprised people don't preach about this game the same way they do about Dark Souls. It's got soul-crushing yet ultra satisfying gameplay that will make you cheer when you finally conquer a stage for the first time, and when you're pushed back to the start, you're already so good at the stages that you can breeze through most of it, which makes you feel super powerful. Beating this game gave me a high I haven't felt since, especially with how many failed attempts lay before it. I consider this to be an excellent challenge for any fan of classic sidescrollers, and if you can manage to persevere through the storm, you'll feel a power welling inside you like you've never felt! Stand in triumph! Stand and accept your title of champion! You are the hero! You, the player! You did it! Three cheers, three cheers!