From Software's Demon's Souls and Dark Souls titles have been hailed as two of the most engaging games of this current hardware generation, praised by critics and gamers alike for their intense difficulty and complete lack of hand-holding. Set against other modern titles — which seem to fall over themselves to make the experience as frustration-free as possible — these two pieces of software are focused on rewarding the player for their dogged perseverance and guile.
The thing is, From Software's ball-busting duo aren't unique in their approach; just ask anyone old enough to have experienced Capcom's sadistic conversion of Ghosts 'n Goblins for the NES. The first in a lineage of titles which seemingly delights in kicking sand in the player's face, this 2D platformer is totally and utterly unforgiving — and just as is the case in Dark Souls, every death is part of a tortuously steep learning curve.
Ghosts 'n Goblins' storyline is virtually identical to its sequels; plucky hero Arthur must rescue his beloved bride from the clutches of an evil demon — in this case, the main man himself, Satan. Six levels stand between our armour-clad protagonist and his goal, and upon reaching the end Arthur is forced to replay the entire game in one of the cruellest — and most infamous — twists in video game history.
The armoured skin which Arthur wears protects him from a single blow — losing it forces our hero to soldier on in naught but his underwear. You'd better get used to seeing the lead character's pants, because Ghosts 'n Goblins boasts a devilish catalogue of ways in which to perish. Respawning enemies ramp up the already unfair challenge, and projectile attacks have an uncanny habit of hitting you when you're in the middle of a jump — which, of course, you can't steer once Arthur is airborne.
The passage of time hasn't been kind to Ghosts 'n Goblins, despite its uniquely spooky visuals. This was an early title in the NES library, and it shows. Compared to the coin-op original, this port looks blocky and primitive, and there's a lot of sprite flicker to tarnish the aesthetics. The audio fares slightly better, thanks largely to that downright iconic first level theme tune. Even so, in terms of pure presentation, this is the runt of the litter; the sequel Ghouls 'n Ghosts represents a quantum leap in terms of graphics and the excellent Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts improves on that, too.
As a result, when taken out of context and played in 2013, Ghosts 'n Goblins is very much like the weaker game of the series. While its gameplay is pure and refined, it feels overly simplistic when placed alongside its successors. The punishing challenge makes it stand apart from other NES classics, although the introduction of save states means that even the most cack-handed individual can complete the game if they throw enough time at it.
Although it will hold a place in the heart of many a NES gamer, Ghosts 'n Goblins is clearly the least appealing game in Capcom's taxing series. Visually it's rough around the edges, and Arthur's movement and weapons feel limited when compared to what came afterwards in the celebrated sequels. If you adored the game when you played it on your NES back in the '80s then it's worth another look, although you may be disappointed at how badly it has stood the test of time.