It's a story as old as time itself: boy meets girl, boy takes girl out for a walk, boy is murdered by mobsters who kidnap girl, boy possesses vampires and kangaroos to get her back.
Jaleco not only provides us with a bizarre and attention-grabbing backstory for the game, but they made sure to craft a memorable and unique enough experience to justify it. Avenging Spirit probably isn't a game many people remember, but it's certainly one worth rediscovering.
The story, indeed, finds you controlling a young man who is already dead. As if that weren't an auspicious enough start, you spend the game as a ghost, periodically possessing other people (and robots, and animals...and monsters...) in order to find and free your girlfriend from the clutches of the mobsters who killed you.
You won't spend much time playing as a ghost, however: in fact, you can't. If you remain outside of a physical body for too long, you will die or whatever. The vocabulary isn't important. The point is, your game will end.
Because of this, you will have to continuously jump from vessel to vessel, taking control of other peoples' thoughts and actions, using their bodies to fight enemies and traverse treacherous paths.
It's a pretty dark concept for what, on the surface, appears to be a darned cutesy game. While you can possess anybody you like (more on this later), you basically get them killed one by one in the service of finding your girlfriend. Anybody you possess is as good as dead; you either get them killed, or you abandon their form, leaving their corpse behind. In the case of animals, you actually just leave a depleted skeleton. Creepy.
Switching bodies gains you the weapons and abilities of whatever body you happen to occupy at the time. Some bodies are more durable, and some are frail; some can jump high, and some are difficult to manoeuvre. It's reminiscent of the Kirby series, as the way you're playing the game one minute can change entirely the next when you steal somebody else's abilities. The difference is that Kirby never left a pile of rotting corpses behind to stink up Dreamland.
At any point, you can abandon the body you control, and become an intangible phantom again, as will also happen if your body dies. When this happens, you have only a short period of time to find a new body or the game will end. Of course, you can't take damage as a ghost, meaning it can sometimes be a wise strategy to become a ghost in order to float through a difficult part of the stage, and hope there's a body close enough to reach on the other side. It adds a surprising element of elasticity to the platforming, and that's certainly appreciated.
It's an interesting twist on an otherwise straight-forward "rescue the girl" plot, and as the dead bodies mount up, it's difficult not to question the wisdom of your quest, which adds an element of passive philosophizing to the gameplay as well. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the game is a huge deal of fun.
The controls are very tight when they need to be, or very stubborn if you're piloting a body that isn't quite as agile. In other words, the controls are exactly what they need to be for any given situation. The graphical presentation is misleadingly adorable, but that only makes the darker elements of your quest stand out in sharper contrast. The game's soundtrack is good, but nothing too memorable, barring a pretty excellent boss-fight theme.
It's also amazing just how varied the gameplay is for a Game Boy game. Being able to possess any body in the game (barring bosses) is quite impressive, especially when they all do control and attack in such unique ways. In fact, this element of the game is also what redeems it from being so short: by being able to play through the game in different bodies each time, you will always have a unique experience. Again, an impressive feat considering the game's original platform.
There isn't much bad to say about Avenging Spirit. The concept is delightfully weird, the controls are solid, and the experience is a memorable one. Some of the levels are maze-like and can get a bit confusing in their layout, but that's more a word of caution than a complaint.
Any fan of platformers with interesting twists should at least check out Avenging Spirit. Your mileage may vary, depending upon how keen you are on playing through the game several times in order to experience each different body, but even if you only play through it once, we doubt you'll forget it.
There's no two ways about it: Avenging Spirit is a forgotten gem, and its reincarnation on the 3DS Virtual Console is apt: like the murdered hero of the game, Avenging Spirit is getting a second chance on a new platform to show what it can do. Your own enjoyment of the game is going to come down to how much you enjoy the character possession mechanic, but we found it to be both addictive and deliciously dark. The odds are very good that you missed Avenging Spirit the first time around, but we hope you don't let this game go gently into that good night again.