Return to Ghosts ‘N Goblins

“Plain and simple, you won’t beat it. You don’t stand a chance.”
Anthony Ortale, January 23, 2012.

Welcome to hell.

Welcome to hell.

Back on January 23rd of last year I made an attempt to review Ghosts ‘N Goblins for NES. It turned into less a review and more a diary of rage as wherein I discovered the most difficult game I had ever played. It was in that prior review that my friend Anthony Ortale left a comment including the statement I quoted above- a fitting epitaph for my defeat. In that review, I stated that I had given up on level 2 of the brutally-hard game and swore never to return to it again.

I lied.
The lie wasn’t my fault, so much. I was amused to see one of my heroes, The Angry Video Game Nerd, review the game in October of that year. Moreover, I knew the game wasn’t finished; it sat tauntingly on my shelf, an ever-present reminder of my failure, until this week when I finally had a few days to myself and had enough of looking at it.

Oh god, I'm really doing this again?

Oh god, I’m really doing this again?

It struck me almost immediately on restarting the game how much of the frustration factor comes from the soundtrack. It seems almost like it was compositionally intended to be as grating to the human ear as possible. It isn’t dissonant, simply mockingly frantic. If you haven’t played the game, try to imagine the Phantom of the Opera banging on an electronic keyboard after a coke binge and you’ll be close to understanding what Ghosts ‘N Goblins sounds like.

In his review of the game, The Angry Video Game Nerd made three suggestions to follow if you wish to beat Ghosts ‘N Goblins: 1. Get the knife, 2. get the knife, and 3. GET THE KNIFE. If I might be so bold, I would like to offer a fourth: 4. mute the damn TV.

I mean no disrespect to Ayako Mori, and should state that I think her work on the 1942 soundtrack was impeccable. I suspect her work on Ghosts ‘N Goblins was of equal quality insomuch as it was intentionally designed to sound frantic and mocking, to enhance the inherent difficulty of the game. This is an idea that I’ll be returning to later, the idea that the insane challenge of Ghosts ‘N Goblins was not an accident but an intentional design choice.

Back into the apartment block.

Back into the apartment block.

In my prior attempt at reviewing the game, I only made it to level 2 before giving up in frustration at what I, at the time, referred to as the ‘apartment complex’ level with its ‘sumo guys’. It’s easy to make up your own descriptive terms with games from the 8-bit era and before, when things like stage design were much more abstract than now and could vary wildly even between games in the same series.

I was hungry to see the apartment complex again, to see if I could conquer it, and that might have contributed to how quickly I was able to tear through the first level in this playthrough, losing only two or three lives before I took down the boss of level one, the Cyclops (technically known as the Unicorn).

I see the neighborhood has not improved since my last visit.

I see the neighborhood has not improved since my last visit.

It wasn’t long before I reacquainted myself with the nasty trap of level 2’s apartment complex; in its latter part, during the descent out of the apartment, a bird will drop a firebomb weapon on one of the ladders the player must descend to escape. This is a problem since the firebomb in Ghosts ‘N Goblins is one of the most frustratingly useless weapons in video game history and, if picked up, it stays with the player until he or she finds a different weapon. Even if you die, when you respawn the firebomb will still be your only means of defense until you pick up the lance or knife again. The most common method for avoiding this is to stand on the uppermost level of the apartment and wait for a bird to come along and knock the player over the roof and outside the apartment, but this is a less than ideal solution since it results in losing your armor, bringing the player that much closer to death’s door.

It took me only a few tries to discover the great secret of the apartment building- if you don’t climb to the top level, the firebomb never spawns. Furthermore, the central support pillar of the apartment can be fired through, allowing you to kill all the sumo guys on the descending ladders before you even reach that part of the level. With these simple discoveries, I was able to leisurely stroll out of the level that had once caused me so much frustration. The remainder of the stage consists only of a few falling platforms and a brief boss battle, this time against two cyclopses again having only lost a few lives.

Level 3 is full of these demons.

Level 3 is full of these demons.

I don’t even remember the first part of stage three before the mid-level checkpoint. I must have shredded through it without losing a single life, probably carried by the momentum of my exhilaration at having finally cleared level two.

The second part of stage three, though, served as a descent into hell. It consists of a blue cavern filled with ghosts, bats, and demons (who the series names Firebrand), the game’s most brutal enemy. A single demon is encountered in level one, and defeating it there is difficult enough for new players, but level three consists of a mad scramble through multiple demons. They deal damage with a touch, fire spiky projectiles, and move in patterns that seem almost random. I discovered something of a strategy in dealing with them, jumping away from them when they flutter down close with their claws and turning and firing knives at them in mid-air, but the randomness of their movements made any strategy unreliable at best, and I remembered the frustration I felt at level two’s apartment complex during my prior attempt at the game as the demons clawed me to the game over screen again and again. I began to keep a record on notebook paper, marking down each death as I searched for a safe path through the level. I never found one, but I did manage to hack through on pure tenacity alone, and upon finally reaching the level boss hours later- a blue dragon- I met him with a flurry of knives and made it through the level, after losing 115 lives.

The dragon of level four.

The dragon of level four.

Steeling myself for the worst, I entered stage four- and found it to be a joke. The first part of the stage is a brief platforming segment, and you’ll need good timing to make some of the tricky jumps, but after the sheer aggravation of stage three it’s almost like a break. The second half of stage four, a bridge with a few ghosts and a random demon or two, is easier still. I died a few times during the platforming segment but tore through the bridge on a single life, and the end boss- another blue dragon- died under my knives just as quickly as his cousin had in the prior level.

Level five is more annoying than brutal, unlike what comes after. I did discover an enemy there that amused me more than anything else in the game- a skull on the ground that, should the player walk near, turns into a spooky jumping skeleton! It’s easy to kill from a distance by simply throwing a knife, and I almost felt badly for them when I killed them without their even having had the chance to jump out and go BOO!

A jumping skull reduces RedgoateeRob to a pile of bones.

A jumping skull reduces RedgoateeRob to a pile of bones.

The sumo guys who made their reappearance later in the level were more serious a threat, but after the experience in the apartment building- and given that level five allows the player much more room to move- they didn’t pose an insurmountable challenge. After moving past the sumo guys I found the level features a great massive demon as its end boss, and I died under his attacks a few times before realizing that he was vulnerable only as he swoops down and his protective wings were open. I checked my notebook after felling the great demon and was pleased to discover I had lost only twenty lives on level five. I began to wonder if I had seen the worst the game had to offer back on level three.

I had not.

The dragon of level six, guarding the shield you need to win the game.

The dragon of level six, guarding the shield you need to win the game.

Level six- or what I came to think of as The Climb Out of Hell- is not only the most difficult level in Ghosts ‘N Goblins, it may be the single most difficult video game level ever made. It starts with a ghost descending upon you from above. Don’t step to the right, or you’ll trigger the seven or so jumping skulls that line the floor. A ladder sits past the skulls, and atop the ladder a Cyclops waits. Defeat him, and you’ll get to face the blue dragon waiting two ladders above.

Defeat the dragon and the hard part begins.

The levels above the dragon are a series of floors connected by single ladders, patrolled by at least two sumo guys, two demons, and numerous jumping skulls per floor. This doesn’t sound so bad- all of these are enemies that the player has faced and defeated before- but the difficulty comes from their placement.

A sumo and a jumping skeleton divide the bones as a demon watches.

A sumo and a jumping skeleton divide the bones as a demon watches.

The sumo guys walk directly back and forth across the tops of the ladders, and in most cases, a demon sits on one side of the ladder with a jumping skull an equal distance away on the other side. You’ll have to wait until the sumo has walked away from the top of the ladder before ascending, but once you have reached the top of the ladder, a step too far in one direction or the other will waken another monster to come kill you before you can fire off the ten shots necessary to kill the sumo. There is, to the best of my knowledge, no extant strategy that allows the player to reliably survive these encounters through each of the three floors of this that he or she will face. Survival is a matter of getting incredibly lucky and ascending the ladder, finding the right pixel to stand on atop the ladder, and pressing the fire button at exactly the right speed not once but three times. It is, in some ways, equivalent to dropping a coin and landing it precisely so it stands on its side three times in a row.

The final demon.

The final demon.

Should you somehow manage this, you’ll face the end boss of the level- the gigantic demon boss of level five, doubled. The player needs to defeat both of them to progress. Moreover- as the Angry Video Game Nerd mentioned in his review of the game- should you finish level six using the knife, you’ll be immediately sent back to level five. The only way to reach level seven is to defeat the twin demon bosses with a new weapon- the shield- which you’ll find near the dragon. It is a vastly inferior weapon to the knife in every way. It’s difficult to describe how something so simple and irrelevant as a video game can inspire such a deep sense of despair in the player as this game does when you realize exactly what you’ll be facing in level six of Ghosts ‘N Goblins. By the time you reach the level, hours will have likely passed, your thumbs will hurt, your eyes will be sore, and you begin to realize that, although you have no realistic chance at beating this level, if you do not do so all the work you’ve done to reach this point will have been for nothing.

It is one of the greatest regrets of my gamer career that I was not diligent in marking down my deaths on this level, but counting through the ones that I marked down and recalling the end, when I had thrown the paper to the side and started counting them mentally, I cut down the twin devils and finished the level after losing somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred and seventy lives.

Level Seven isn’t a level, it’s just a boss fight. Astaroth, the final boss, stands on one side, and behind him the princess waits. If you can still move your fingers you’ll need to hit him only ten times before he falls to the ground dead. And when you expect to run to the princess, the game instead gives you this message.

What? WHAT?!?!

What? WHAT?!?!

Then, in the biggest middle finger a developer has ever given its fans, the game loops you back to level one, letting you know you’ll need to play through the game a second time to see the true ending. Or, being that it’s 2013, you could simply look it up on Youtube. I wasn’t about to subject myself to the tooth-grinding difficulty again, and although I suppose it could be fairly said that Anthony Ortale was right- I did not “beat” the game fully- but I’m still chalking this one up as a win.

Despite The Angry Video Game Nerd’s joke that the game might have been meant to have two modes- beginner and expert- and the beginner mode was accidentally removed before the game shipped, it seems clear that the difficulty- and unfairness- was intentional. From useless weapons being spawned in the player’s path to unavoidable deathtraps to a nerve-rattling soundtrack, players could be forgiven if they decide that Ghosts ‘N Goblins itself was the trap and illusion devised by Satan. I can’t recommend playing it, but I know most will, and they’ll fall into the trap and illusion too.

Be sure to come back for my next article, when we’ll be going back to that same ol’ place– the NES- for more horror.

Ghosts ‘N Goblins and all associated IP are the property of their respective owners. Low-res screenshots in this article are intended compliant with applicable Fair Use for the purposes of review. 

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~ by Redgoateerob on May 19, 2013.

3 Responses to “Return to Ghosts ‘N Goblins”

  1. Bravo sir! You beat the game in my book. I applaud you for having the guts to take this game on again. Reading this review has only made me want to buy it myself, and take on the challenge 🙂

    • Aha! See, I told you so! No one will listen to my warnings, and all will fall for the trap and illusion of Satan that is Ghosts ‘N Goblins!

      Just kidding. 🙂 Thanks for the support bro! If you do get the game, make sure it’s the original NES version. I’ve heard later versions like the PSP one are easier. See if you can do it losing less lives on level 3 and level 6 than I did for extra challenge!

  2. […] my prior review I described my journey from my initial rage at the grinding difficulty of Ghosts ‘n Goblins to finding a way to beat the game through sheer tenacity. In an earlier review I described the […]

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