Capcom couldn't have picked a better time to release Ghosts 'n Goblins onto the 3DS Virtual Console. It's Halloween, after all, and this is one of the most classic spooky games there is. The real question is how well it holds up today, and that's one we're happy to answer: quite well, actually.
Despite the fact that it was released only one year after the NES left Japan, the graphics and sound of Ghosts 'n Goblins have both aged very well. There's an effective darkness and dingy feel to the visuals that reflects the oppressive danger that you'll have to face, and the soundtrack moves from teasingly catchy to sombre and foreboding so effortlessly that you might not even notice. For such an early title, it feels impressively polished.
Of course, it's not perfect, and both slowdown and flicker are common annoyances. On the audio side of things, there are enemies that swarm you and howl irritatingly, which may well make you reach for the volume control. Still, it's quite an effective package overall, flawed though it is.
As for the adventure itself, you control Arthur, who is innocently lounging in a graveyard in his underpants when his girlfriend is kidnapped by demons. We've all been there, Arthur.
Of course, it's his duty as a courageous knight with paper-thin armour to get her back, so he takes up his lance and not much else on his way to slay the army of the underworld.
Controls are simple: A jumps, B throws your weapon, and you move with either the circle pad or the D-pad. We have no issues at all with the way Arthur controls, though compared to later, more refined games he does feel a little stiff. Your main weapon is the lance, but you can pick up others, such as the knife (which is fast), the shield (which is required) and the torch (which is useless). You retain these weapons when you die, which is great when you have something you like, but downright evil when you're stuck with something ineffective.
What really gives Ghosts 'n Goblins its identity, of course, is its difficulty, and while the level design often resorts to cheapness — such as level 3's gargoyle maze or level 4's moving platforms — it's never anything that can't be overcome with a little memorisation. Each death is essentially part of the experience, and while it would literally be impossible for anyone to finish this on the first pass, the game is constantly training you to play it, to the point that you can begin to anticipate traps...just in time for something totally different to happen and kill you outright.
You will die often in this game, and whenever you do you become the straight man in Ghosts 'n Goblins' hilarious comedy routine. Learn to leap quickly from a falling platform and you'll find yourself jumping right into a bird. Defeat a pesky gargoyle enemy and run into a ghost that spawns right in front of you. Spend your time fighting waves of zombies off from the front and get killed by a tiny bat that snuck up from behind. It's not enough that Capcom made Satan the final boss in this game...we think it also let him design the levels.
The game is so challenging it almost dares you to keep playing, and it's indeed quite addictive. Infinite continues and checkpoints that stay in effect following a game over will keep beckoning you to give it one more try, and it displays its entire world every time you die, just to remind you of how far you still need to go. It's a brilliant tease, and it'll keep even the most frustrated gamers coming back for more punishment.
With only six levels it might seem like a short experience, but even with the benefit of restore points you're not likely to finish it without a lot of work, as laying down a restore point may well stick you in an unwinnable situation, requiring a death and a respawn after all. And if you do manage to finish it — cheating or not — Ghosts 'n Goblins will ask you to play through it a second time to see the real ending. Good luck resisting that temptation.
In fact, it's so addictive and demanding that it really is unfortunate that it's marred by regular graphical overload and a stiff-legged Arthur, who isn't nearly as responsive as he was in the arcade and as he would be in later games. It's also more than a bit irritating that the levels earn their fiendish difficulty by way of cheap surprise rather than through fair but demanding challenge. That's the biggest complaint that detractors tend to have with Ghosts 'n Goblins, and we find it difficult not to agree.
So it's true that Ghosts 'n Goblins is unfair, and it's true that it absolutely relishes your failures. After all, being forced to run around in your underwear after taking a hit is still one of gaming's greatest humiliations. But it's also true that Ghosts 'n Goblins is fun. It may be evil and it may be cruel, but success in this game is such a satisfying experience that we can't keep ourselves away, and we're happy to see it reanimated once more.
A milder climate of difficulty in modern games makes Ghosts 'n Goblins seem even more challenging than it was upon release, and it's absolutely not for the faint of heart. It's unquestionably a classic, however, and its relentless difficulty only feeds into its charm. Restore points soften the frustration of the more punishing sections, but by no means do they make this game easy. Those seeking a brutal, seasonally-appropriate challenge will be more than well served here, but anyone who is not prepared for the fight of their lives is advised to leave this behind and move along, quickly, before those red gargoyles see you.