Ghosts ‘n Goblins is a series that honestly needs no introduction. Beating Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts on the Super Nintendo has been a holy grail for me since I was a kid. It’s an unforgiving, uncompromising classic, a mostly-fair challenge that throws some bullshit at you from time to time and yet you can’t help but come back for more. King Arthur is fragile, always just two hits away from death, and moves very deliberately, like Simon Belmont from Castlevania with a double jump. It’s tough, but the music and art style really grab me, and I love a tight platforming challenge. These days, I’m still working on my goal of finishing it for the first time: it’s a game that has absolutely earned its reputation.
Twenty-ish years ago, when video game emulation was still starting to take root, a lot of opportunities opened up to try games that I’d never heard of or had a chance to play when they were new. Lists of hidden gems on each platform began to circulate thanks to message boards, blogs, and gaming homepages. One of the “best kept secrets” of the SNES was a game called Demon’s Crest, a spin-off of Ghosts ‘n Goblins starring a recurring gargoyle enemy known as a red arremer. His name was Firebrand, and getting to play as this perennial thorn in Arthur’s side was a really neat twist.
In fact, seemingly everything about Demon’s Crest was a twist on the Ghosts ‘n Goblins formula. Firebrand moved with a lot of freedom, as he could switch directions in midair and even hover indefinitely. He could take several hits, and his maximum HP improved over time. The stages in Demon’s Crest were non-linear with multiple paths that opened up as you earned new abilities, almost like a combination of Metroid and Mega Man. The difficulty was lighter, too, still offering plenty of challenge but wrapping it up in a more forgiving package with a smoother learning curve. Despite the new gameplay direction, the haunting music and gothic atmosphere remained intact, and it unmistakably belonged in the same universe as its cousins.
So yeah, I loved Demon’s Crest. The slower-paced adventure was a refreshing break from the punishing run-and-gun arcade style of Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts. It scratched the same itch for a broody fantasy platformer but it felt manageable. I even ended up picking up a used copy for cheap so I wouldn’t have to emulate it. These days, Demon’s Crest isn’t much of a hidden gem anymore, but I’m glad it finally gets to enjoy the recognition it deserves. It was re-released on both the Wii and 3DS Virtual Consoles, and if you’ve got access to Nintendo Switch Online, you can play it right now as part of its SNES library.
I ramble through this wistful preamble because Demon’s Crest was actually the third game in a series known as Gargoyle’s Quest, and I finally took the time recently to play through the first two. Gargoyle’s Quest was released on the Game Boy in 1990, followed by Gargoyle’s Quest II: The Demon Darkness on the NES in 1992. These are games that I routinely hear in conversations around the best games from each system, but I’ve just never really gotten around to trying them until now.
And, holy crap – if you have the means, I highly recommend trying both games. They are absolute gems. Game Boy and NES games don’t always age gracefully, but in my opinion, both of them are still very playable today. They do have a lot in common with one another, to the point where you would be forgiven for thinking that GQI is just a portable adaptation of GQII at a glance, so it’s easiest to talk about the general structure that they share before getting into their differences.
Both games take place in the Ghoul Realm and star Firebrand, the titular gargoyle. Some kind of evil darkness is threatening the Realm and it’s probably up to no good, so you need to become the legendary hero and put a stop to it. To be honest, I totally glossed over the story; it is absolutely minimal and only exists as an excuse to propel you forward. In that way, it’s fine, but there are certainly no surprises here.
Gargoyle’s Quest wears the clothes of a JRPG but it never fully commits to the genre. The exploration portions take on a top-down perspective where you roam around town and countryside, talking to NPCs and resolving story quests. You don’t earn experience and you’ll never need to manage items or equipment, but you will get stronger and gain new abilities over time. The game’s currency is vials, which you earn in encounters or find from time to time on the ground. Vials can be exchanged for extra lives in each town, but beyond that, there isn’t anything else to spend your money on.
The meat of the experience comes in the encounters, and much like Demon’s Crest, this is where Gargoyle’s Quest shines. When you enter a dangerous area, the game shifts to a sidescrolling perspective and becomes an action platformer. Firebrand is super agile compared to lame-o King Arthur, and controlling him just feels wonderfully responsive. He attacks with a fireball projectile, clings to walls, and can hover for a short period of time, allowing you to cross gaps and spikes or line up your attacks with an enemy above you. His jump strength and hover distance improve over time at set intervals as you progress through the game, which is sometimes used to gate off new areas in the overworld (usually with an NPC blocking you and saying that you aren’t strong enough yet to move on). He also learns new attacks throughout the journey which you can switch between at will and use to overcome various obstacles. For example, the Buster destroys certain rocks; the Claw creates a temporary wall against spikes so you have a safe place to perch.
These upgrades, combined with occasional increases to your max HP, give you a really nice feeling of progression, similar to a Metroidvania. At the beginning, you already feel pretty powerful thanks to Firebrand’s versatility; by the end, you’re a flying tank, soaring across great distances and weaving through obstacles with confidence. Typically, action platformers gives you fixed health, fixed abilities, and maybe some variance in the form of power-ups or weapon pickups, then build levels around those mechanics. It’s not often that you see them include RPG-lite mechanics and permanent upgrades over time. Despite its exploration elements, Gargoyle’s Quest is mostly linear, so getting to experience that sense of progression in this context is a real treat and feels absolutely fresh.
I think a big part of that freshness is the fact that having your character evolve over time allows the levels to evolve over time, too. Higher jumps and longer flight distances mean that the stage design can get bigger and trickier the further you get. As your arsenal expands, so do the obstacles that you face. The Claw is a perfect example: while you may be hopping up sheer, flat walls early on, you’ll be up against vertical spike shafts later that require you to make your own safe landing points. It really let the developers ramp up the challenge intelligently and naturally without having to rely on cheap tricks to make the later stages harder.
Despite all this delicious progression, though, it is mostly linear, which was a small disappointment. You can revisit locations and there are random encounters (in GQI at least) and you sometimes have a couple of places you can visit at the same time, but there is no optional content, no real globetrotting. GQ’s quests take you from point A to point B, and sometimes from point B back to point A, and then you move along to C, D, E, etc., until you finish the game. Most of your tasks boil down to a guy saying “Crap, something bad happened. Can you go beat this level? Then come back and talk to me and I’ll give you this, magic fingernail, or whatever.” But, hell, that is just fine. I thought this structure provided exactly enough adventure and never overstayed its welcome.
It’s also surprisingly forgiving for the early 8-bit era. Most towns have an NPC that will teach you the “spell of resurrection,” aka a password. When you die in a stage, you lose a life, but when you lose all your lives, you simply restart from wherever you found your last password. And as far as I could tell, you don’t lose your actual progression when you die, so you’ll maintain any upgrades or vials you picked up before you perished. The game doesn’t even take half of your resources! You simply lose some time and have to replay the (great) stages once more to get back to where you left off. (I will say that the passwords might be a gripe for some, but they’re pretty short, and I honestly prefer passwords over fragile battery-backed saves, and besides, chances are good that you’re emulating it somehow today so you have easier ways to save your progress anyway.)
All of this adds up to create a satisfying, accessible experience that was a total joy to play. The levels are challenging without being ridiculous, the controls feel fluid and responsive, and the graphics and music are top-notch for their era. Gargoyle’s Quest II is especially impressive, having come late in the NES lifespan and thus been the beneficiary of years of design and programming experience with the console.
And, ultimately, that’s the big difference between each game: the power of the consoles and the experience of the developers. The only exclusive feature of Gargoyle’s Quest I that comes to mind is the random battles on the overworld map. True to JRPG form, you’re occasionally accosted by enemies, which amounts to a one-screen battle with a handful of foes. You usually only face one or two bad guys, you earn a couple of vials from each encounter, and the world map isn’t particularly huge, so it’s not a big deal – but they still bring progress to a halt for very little return, so I could honestly do without them.
Luckily, Gargoyle’s Quest II learned from this and a few other quirks to really polish the gameplay to a shine. It drops the random battles entirely, replacing them with avoidable NPCs on the world map that taunt you and then engage you in combat. Neither game has terribly difficult boss fights but they’re definitely better in the second game with more interesting patterns and strategies. There are a couple of new abilities and a higher HP ceiling. The story, for whatever it’s worth, is a little more in-depth this time and its fetch quests get a twist now and again. Best of all, the larger screen size and range of color allowed the designers to create far more intricate levels with plenty of room to breathe. And, God, it looks GREAT for an NES game. GQII is chock full of personality. There are a lot of little details that just bring the game to life.
Perhaps best of all, both games were delightfully short and to the point. I finished Gargoyle’s Quest II in about four hours and probably spent the same or less on Gargoyle’s Quest I. Neither game is padded out with artificial difficulty or esoteric riddles or needless grinding. They’re paced exceptionally well and never feel stagnant. I can see myself revisiting GQII again in the future when I’m looking for an NES platforming fix.
This year, I plan to spend a lot more time tackling my backlog, and thanks to these two games, 2022 is off to a fantastic start. If you enjoy platformers with a more methodical pace, like the Ghosts ‘n Goblins aesthetic, or are just looking for a fresh, fun 8-bit game that you might have overlooked, then I strongly recommend checking out Gargoyle’s Quest I and II. And, hell, if you haven’t played it, try Demon’s Crest, too. Every game in the series is well worth your time.