The Capcom of today is commonly associated with the likes of Mega Man and Resident Evil. However, their portfolio contains a plethora of other short-lived franchises whose relevance cannot be understated. You have cult classics such as Bionic Commando, Son-Son, and Forgotten Realms. Then there’s the infamous Makaimura series (known here in the states as Ghosts ‘n Goblins). They are known for its high level of difficulty, spooky settings, and the notorious red Arremer enemy that’s claimed thousands of unsuspecting knights.
The GnG series is a rite of passage for the seasoned gamer. Sadly, it’s also a series that hasn’t seen much love outside of independent developers’ spiritual successors in recent years. Dim the lights and pour yourself a glass of red wine- we’re going to take you through the surprisingly complicated history. Ghosts ‘n Goblins is (in my opinion) one of Capcom’s best short-lived franchises.
Set loose in Japanese arcades just under a week after the launch of the original Super Mario Brothers. Ghosts ‘n Goblins was the brainchild of Tokoru Fujiwara (who later became a producer on many of the NES Mega Man titles and Resident Evil). To come up with the iconic cast of monsters that Sir Arthur would have to fight his way past on the way to rescue his beloved from the clutches of Satan. Fujiwara is cited for having been inspired by the “cartoons of his youth.” Interestingly enough, the creatures depicted in flyers and the NES port’s box art are more in line with western animation than manga or anime.
While the standard gameplay formula of Ghosts ‘n Goblins is similar to that of Nintendo’s iconic plumber (right down to having to save a damsel in distress). The differences go far beyond the dark, unsettling environments and bestiary. Arthur can fire right and left (much like a particular blue bomber). However, that heavy suit of armor prevents him from having the same airborne dexterity. Once you jump, you’re locked in and can’t change direction. Of course, this movement requires the player to think out their path forward frankly. It is partly responsible for the game’s higher-than-normal challenge.
There’s also the matter of dueling with the game’s most notorious monster- the dreaded red Arremer (sometimes called “the red devil”). This creature struck fear into the hearts of 80’s kids everywhere with his wildly unpredictable patterns. He was often swooping right into our poor protagonist and knocking his armor clean off when it’s least expected. Oh…and don’t forget- you’ll have to beat the game twice to see the ending. (This would go on to become a series staple, save for the later spinoffs!)
Ghosts ‘n Goblins may not have had Mario’s numbers. However, it was successful enough to be converted to numerous consoles and computers at the time by a myriad of different developers (including an NES version that’ll forever live on in infamy). In 1988, a somewhat similar sequel by the name of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts haunted the arcades. It was (again) ported to numerous home consoles, including the then up-and-coming Sega Genesis. While the gameplay remained mostly the same, it introduced the ability to fire vertically. While that may not seem like much to the naked eye, it’s a vast improvement and makes eliminating airborne enemies (especially that pesky red devil) all the more manageable.
The Genesis port released the same year as the console launched in 1989. It was programmed by some guy named Yuji Naka (you know… the same guy who helped create one of gaming’s most prominent icons that ran laps around Super Mario (Sonic The Hedgehog). People may say I’m biased as this was one of my very first Sega Genesis games. However, I would say this port, in particular, is the definitive Ghosts ‘n Goblins experience. Aesthetically, it’s amazingly close to the arcade version and is slightly less daunting thanks to one additional checkpoint per board alongside infinite continues. That’s not to say it’s a cakewalk, in any case. You’ll be reduced to a pile of bones again and again, even after some time with it. This version is arguably the best place to start if you’ve any interest in the series.
The last major installment in the series came in the form of Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts in 1991, and it was the first (and last) title to be a console exclusive. While it dropped the ability to fire up and down from the previous game, it introduced a double jump and various suits of armor with unique effects. There’s also quite a bit of Mode 7 at play here, with one of the most memorable stages being inside the belly of a beast that’s continually scaling and rotating. Nintendo later ported Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to the Gameboy Advance with a few added levels and boss fights.
Spinoffs…and a cancelled MMORPG?
While there wouldn’t be an installment in the main Ghosts ‘n Goblins series until the arrival of Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins for the PSP in 2006, numerous spinoffs and an interesting scrapped project surfaced throughout the ’90s and early 2000s.
Gargoyle’s Quest, an early title for the Gameboy, was an RPG/Platformer hybrid starring the red Arremer (now named Firebrand). You’re tasked with taking on an invading army of hellish denizens known as “The Destroyers” while touring the Ghoul Realm and increasing your capabilities. Its formula is very similar to that of The Legend of Zelda II– you have an overhead map with random encounters you’ll travel across. At the same time, the meat of the game lies in its sidescrolling sections.
In comparison, the RPG side of the experience is relatively light and riddled with good ol’ Engrish. Gargoyle’s Quest truly shines when you’re running, flying, and scorching your way through its platforming areas. It was successful enough to spawn a sequel for the NES (as well as the Game Boy, which unfortunately was never ported from Japan). A third game, Demon’s Crest, eventually made its way onto the Super NES in November of 1994, sporting a grittier atmosphere and multiple endings.
There were plans to bring the world of Ghosts ‘n Goblins to the third dimension during the fifth generation of consoles. It wasn’t until 2002 that a spiritual successor made its way onto the PS2 Maximo: Ghosts to Glory. Interestingly, the project was spearheaded by David Siller. He was responsible for the creation of Crash Bandicoot and the lesser-known Aero the Acrobat.
Suppose you’ve ever played any of the previous titles. In that case, this is what you would expect a 3D GnG to be- a linear 3D hack and slash platformer with a relatively high difficulty level and several hellscapes to explore. While it’s still worth playing in 2020, if you’ve exhausted the other titles in the series, it’s easy to see the remnants of a game that was in development for older hardware. The camera is a bit iffy, similar to the first Crash Bandicoot. The save system is somewhat archaic—fortunately, Maximo Vs. The Army of Zin was able to remedy nearly all of the faults with this first game and hold up incredibly well. It’s just a shame that Maximo 3 never happened– I think Capcom was indeed onto something here.
The last, and perhaps most ambitious spinoff, sadly never saw the light of day. In 2003, Capcom made mention of an MMORPG that would have been called Ghouls ‘N Ghosts Online. It would have been multiplatform and included features common to the genre, such as guilds. Some footage exists (as shown below) but appears to be in a very early state. News of the project stagnated after its announcement at GDC (Game Developer’s Conference) in 2003, eventually fading into obscurity alongside the Maximo spinoff series. Another company known as Steparu attempted to revitalize the project in 2013 with a much smaller scope, but again, it never came to fruition.
What’s in store for Sir Arthur and his demon adversaries moving forward? Truth to be told, it’s anyone’s guess. Capcom has not done anything with this series since the sixth generation of consoles. However, its legacy lives on through indie titles such as the excellent Cursed Castilla. It’s GnG in everything but name and the warrior you control. Considering the immense popularity of From’s Dark Souls, a modern riff on the series could very well take off in a day and age where gamers are itching for the brutal difficulty of yesteryear. A follow-up akin to Megaman 11 could also work- I’d love to see a 2.5D game retaining the cartoony art direction of the eight and 16-bit installments just as much as a modernized take. We’ll have to wait and see but hopefully not before we’re all in the cemetery.