The Game Boy enjoyed one of the longest lifespans of any system to date, outlasting rivals and finding its way into the hearts of gamers the world over. Following a very basic logic, a system with a long lifespan will typically have a large amount of titles worth your time. In fact, games were being released for the original monochrome system over a decade after its arrival. Such a feat is reserved for only the most powerful console juggernauts, such as the NES and PS2.
So the question is: what makes a Game Boy game great? Developers took many different routes in terms of portable game design, with foundations ranging from simple Tetris-esque puzzlers ideal for short bursts to full fledged epics such as Link's Awakening.
For some, the sweet spot for a Game Boy game falls in-between but leans closer to the latter: a title that can be enjoyed in short bursts and doesn't require a consistent commitment, but offers the relative depth and features of a home console game. Capcom's superlative Gargoyle's Quest manages to locate this sweet spot with ease, and can now be enjoyed all over again on the 3DS Virtual Console.
Some gaming veterans may remember the original Ghosts 'n Goblins, including the red jerk who invariably took away Arthur's armour, and often his life. Well, Capcom decided to give him his own game. Firebrand – for that is his name – must set off on a quest to return peace to his homeland, which is an unexpected goal for a supposed villain. While your first instinct might be to throw the former antagonist into the first pit you encounter as an act of revenge, most gamers will immediately discover that Firebrand sits atop an incredibly satisfying adventure.
In fact, Gargoyle's Quest was one of the pioneers of genre-blending. Even while the RPG and Action genres were still being defined, Capcom took a chance on a bold new format. And like virtually all of Capcom's late 80's / early 90's efforts, this title is a pure dose of old-school splendour.
The primary gameplay of Gargoyle's Quest is that of an incredibly tight action platformer. Firebrand jumps pits, clings to walls, tackles moving platforms, and fights enemies. What sets the action segments apart from the many other games of this genre is Firebrand's hovering ability. He can hover for a limited amount of time, which not only helps him cross gaps, but also to set up well-aimed shots on enemies and bosses. Through the two fairly simple abilities of wall-climbing and hovering, this title immediately distinguishes itself from other action games of the time; controlling Firebrand is, pun intended, devilishly fun.
But that's not all, as the other half of the game involves RPG-like gameplay: Firebrand visits towns, talks to locals, collects items, goes on brief fetch-quests, and all the other staples of early RPGs. He also levels up his shot, life bar, and hover-time, adding a slight Metroid flavour to the mix. For example, a fallen bridge that leads to a new area isn't accessible until Firebrand upgrades his hover time far enough to cross the gap.
Gargoyle's Quest also showcases one of the not-so-romanticised elements of old-school RPGs: the random battle. While traversing the map, Firebrand will occasionally encounter a random battle, which takes him to a very small stage in which he fights a small handful of enemies using the platforming game engine. This can be slightly annoying, but it's comparatively rare in comparison to titles like Final Fantasy. Also, the map areas aren't ridiculously large as to guarantee many random battles.
While the graphics and audio are somewhat typical of the time, the puny eight-bit system does a great job of conveying the mood of Firebrand's world. The music has a creepy 'church-organ-playing-at-night' feel to it, and fans of Ghosts 'n Goblins will recognise several familiar themes. Similarly, the sights are grim and drab, painting a portrait of a grim world. Though static screenshots might not be terribly impressive, most who play the game will find that the atmosphere has been set quite well.
Although there is a password system, the Virtual Console functionality of suspend state saves and a restore point come in very handy. Even if you do use the password system, it is done well: there are no zeros (to avoid confusions with the letter “O”), the passwords are short and you maintain all of your items.
Beautiful in its simplicity, satisfying in its depth and assured in execution, Gargoyle's Quest is almost a painful reminder of how good games used to be, and is a solid indication of how potent a gaming platform the Game Boy was, even during its fledgling years. This is a truly timeless release that should be experienced by gamers of all ages.