I’m a thirty something male, which means that, like many of my ilk, it is possible for me to communicate with other humans entirely through Simpsons quotes. I don’t think I ever consciously meant to learn this language, but somewhere along the line, well, me fail English? Also, thanks to usually gaming alone and having absolutely no regard for anyone that might be on the other side of a wall, I’m a generally verbal gamer. By which I mean I frequently shout at a television screen that I’m pretty sure can’t hear me (why did my Xbone just turn on?). Combine these two facts, and, yes, I do shout Simpsons quotes at an uncaring, unfeeling videogame cartridge on a pretty frequent basis. Sometimes it’s just to amuse myself (parroting Homer’s “That will require a tetanus shot” after being gunned down in any given game is always fun), but, more often than not, it’s an angry reaction to something that happened in the game. Some people swear, I quote the Simpsons.
This brings us to one of my oft-repeated quotes. Frinkiac, take it away…
This one gets used for two distinct occasions. The first, which seems to be happening more and more often in modern games, is reserved for when a game “gently” tries to nudge me into actually following the plot, and not just dicking around with some stupid little doodad for the afternoon. This can apply to sandbox games (“The only way Crime Boss is going to stop his reign of terror is if somebody stands up to him!” “That’s great an’ all, but I’m really trying to jump this sweet ride over that bridge right now.”) or JRPGs that have a tendency to chastise the player for wandering off the beaten path. Even when games I enjoy commit that sin, it’s still met with a fair bit of “yelling at the game”. Hey, I gotta vent somehow. And the second most common situation for this Willie-ism is… pretty much the entirety of Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins.
Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins is a PSP game from 2006. It feels weird to say this about a game that is now over a decade old, but, when it was released, this now-retro game was meant to be a retro throwback itself. After Maximo failed to revitalize Capcom’s ancient GnG francise (and well after a certain Demon similarly failed to gain any traction), Capcom decided to get back to basics, and simply toss a nudity-prone Arthur against the hordes of the Demon Realm in a 2-D sidescrolling action game. The king is dead, long live the king.
And, technically, there’s a lot about UGnG that should impress me. It’s “old school” action, but now with a bit of a Metroidvania twist. Arthur acquires new skills as he goes, so stuff like the sublime double jump of Super is obtained (permanently!) like any other powerup. And the game design actually accounts for this! There are places that are inaccessible until you find the right power, and then, bam, you can return and find all new treasure and routes. Finally there’s a reason to replay a GnG level other than “because the princess said so”. And, assuming you’re playing on the “standard” difficulty level, the whole “Arthur is fragile” thing is greatly mitigated by armor HP. No more do you have to worry about nabbing that sweet golden armor and losing it a second later to a damn imp and his teeny tiny balls (erm… deadly balls? There’s… just no good way to phrase this). Arthur is large and in charge, and, complete with instant respawning and save points, this might be the most conquerable of GnG games.
Except…. All those “concessions” led to some really sloppy game design.
The GnG franchise has always been difficult. If you meet someone that claims they beat the second level of Ghosts ’n Goblins NES, then, fun fact, you are talking to a liar. But, as of the 16-bit era, GnG started to earn its “tough but fair” rating. Super and Ghouls ‘n Ghosts are both difficult to the point of madness, but they’re both manageable. I’m doing my best to not compare the franchise to Dark Souls… so let’s say it’s like the Castlevania franchise. Once contemporary concessions (or a Game Genie) allowed for infinite continues, it was clear that the GnG franchise just needed a lot of practice, and playing haphazardly like you’re some kind of mega man would only end in tears. This design philosophy was carried forward to Maximo, a game that has a “modern” save system that practically begs you to repeat a level “the right way” to better manage resources. In short, every GnG game was carefully designed to be hard, but with an emphasis on that “carefully designed” part.
Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins… not so much.
It’s a simple, stupid thing, but the addition of “health” and “instant respawns” seems to have given the designers of UGnG carte blanche to make the game… not Ghosts ‘n Goblins. GnG has always had bosses and instant kill traps, but UGnG is just lousy with ‘em. There’s a miniboss about every twelve feet, and they’re the spongiest of damage sponges. There are instant kill traps that are funny the first time, but very likely to kill you another six times before you’re through the area. Whoops, got the timing just a liiiiittle bit off? You’re dead. Over and over again. And, somehow, it doesn’t matter. You respawn immediately, five feet from your last death, and any given stage doesn’t seem to take longer than a few minutes. Death, for the first time in the franchise, is little more than inconvenience.
And Willie hear ya, Willie don’t care.
Oh, I’m not supposed to ram Arthur into that stupid boss and go for a thousand free hits while I’m temporarily post-death-invincible? Yeah, sure, don’t care. Random wave of blood just killed me out of nowhere? Don’t care. Oh no, I lost all my points thanks to a continue? Absolutely do not care. And now I’m surrounded by a pair of damn cyclops with the absolute worst weapon for the job? Meh, I’ll be right back at this spot with daggers after another two deaths, so who cares?
And “who cares” makes for a terrible play experience.
Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins, in short, encourages the player to not care, as, while it is difficult, any given death is about as impactful as a drifting fart. It’s gross and terrible for about half a second, and then it’s gone, off to menace some other molecules. Live, die, repeat. The game seems to revel in its myriad of ways for Arthur to be stripped down to his very bones, and then you’re just an unwilling participant in some manner of digital slapstick. It took until about the second stage (not even full level, second stage) until I was at my patience’s end. Somewhere about there, I just started shouting the same damn Simpsons quote at the PSP repeatedly, because, seriously, who cares? The designers of UGnG didn’t, so why should I?
Willie hears ya dying, Arthur. Willie don’t care.
FGC #269 Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins
- System: PSP, but also available for the Vita. I’m not certain if anyone on Earth skipped the PSP but picked up the Vita. Seems like it would be a perfect overlap.
- Number of players: Dun dudua duda duh DUH! … Sorry, had to get that out of my system. One player.
- Favorite Weapon: The new thorn whip is pretty rad, but a short-range weapon in a GnG game is still just as useless as it’s ever been. The boomerang scythe, however, damages enemies and allows you to easily retrieve bonuses, so, ya know, clear winner.
- Favorite Boss: The good ol’ Red Arremer aka Red Devil aka Firebrand appears as a mini boss at a couple of points. On one hand, he always deserved a promotion, but on the other hand, it’s kind of lame that he won’t be around to menace Arthur all the way through a stage anymore. He still beats the pants off every other generically “monster” boss in the game, though.
- Did you know? Japan scored a remix of this game that apparently tweaked the difficulty and layouts to be closer to “franchise” difficulty levels. Maybe it’s an improvement, maybe it’s not; all I know is that the West is never seeing such a thing.
- Would I play again? I… I don’t care.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Kickle Cubicle for the NES! Ice to meet you Kickle, let’s chill some badguys! Stay cool, and please look forward to it!