There’s a school of thought which argues that modern gamers have it too easy, and that this generation of players has grown soft thanks to the fact that developers are all too happy to provide helpful tutorials and short-cuts intended to reduce frustration. You only need to spend a few painful minutes in the company of Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts to realise that this stance has a lot of merit — Capcom’s SNES exclusive is almost sadistically difficult, and makes no attempt whatsoever to ease you into the experience. Right from the off, it delights in repeatedly tripping you up and seemingly mocking your ineptitude — yet you keep coming back for more. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the hallmark of a classic video game.
Placed in the armour of Sir Arthur, your ultimate quest is to rescue your beloved Princess Guinevere from the clutches of the evil Emperor Sardius. To achieve this goal, he must battle his way through several ghoul-filled levels, taking down a fearsome end-of-level boss in each before moving onto the next realm. Arthur is protected by a suit of armour which is shed upon contact with a foe or projectile, leaving our plucky hero with nothing but his underpants to shield himself from the elements. Unsurprisingly, another hit results in death, but Arthur can collect a replacement suit from the many treasure chests which dot the landscape.
Armour upgrades come in Bronze and Gold forms. The first enhances the power of your weapons, while the second offers a special “charge” attack which comes in very handy during the game’s more intense moments. The Gold armour also offers a shield upgrade which will absorb one hit when you’re standing still — something which, in all honesty, reduces its actual usefulness.
You start the game with a lance projectile weapon, but other options are available throughout the adventure — each suited to a different style of play. To give two quite different examples, the knife is fast and direct while the flaming torch is thrown in an short arc, creating a wall of fire along whichever surface it touches. Depending on your preference, you’ll make a beeline for certain weapons and avoid others like the plague. Each one is imbued with different properties when in possession of the Bronze armour and produces the aforementioned unique “charge” attack when wearing the Gold suit.
Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is notable for popularising the double-jump — during your initial leap, a second press of the jump button will fling Arthur into the air a second time, giving you the opportunity to cover larger distances and even switch direction. Taken on face value, this new ability might appear to reduce the challenge, as you cannot influence Arthur’s trajectory when he’s in the middle of a standard, "single" jump. However, the level designs are built with the double-jump very much in mind, which actually serves to make things even more stressful — you often have to achieve pixel-perfect timing twice in a leap, rather than just once.
The double-jump and Golden armour are two significant changes over the previous game in the series, but when it comes to Arthur’s talents, Capcom giveth and Capcom taketh away. The ability to shoot projectiles vertically has been removed entirely, which consequently makes tackling enemies on higher and lower platforms a fiendishly demanding affair. The level designs cruelly exploit our hero’s inability to attack up and down, placing threats in locations which require deft movement and perfectly timed weapon deployment. The introduction of randomly-spawning monsters only serves to dial up the toughness; the game seems to have an uncanny habit of warping a foe into a space which was entirely empty when you began your jump.
As you’ve probably gathered by now, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is a supremely difficult video game, constructed with the sole intent of making the player’s life a misery. It would be dishonest to suggest that this stern challenge doesn’t result in frustration — it was only the high cost of the Wii U GamePad that prevented us from hurling it at the nearest wall several times during the review process — but although it borders on being downright unfair at times, many of the deaths which occur are usually your fault. The knowledge that you made a mistake spurs you on to do better next time.
And there will most definitely be a next time; the fantastic level design, inventive enemies and gripping gameplay lock you in for hours, despite the fact that for a large portion of that time you’ll feel like you’re banging your head against a wall. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is a product of a company firing on all cylinders; the early ‘90s was arguably Capcom’s golden era and this release represents one of the firm’s finest domestic projects. The only genuine fault you can level at the game — aside from the almost vertical learning curve — is the abundance of slowdown. This was a shortcoming of the SNES hardware and is of course replicated faithfully in the Wii U Virtual Console release. In many ways it comes as a blessing — the additional time afforded gives you more chance to avoid hazards.
The Wii U Virtual Console release offers players the lifeline that is save states, which thankfully reduces the amount of controller-hurling incidents dramatically. However, purists will undoubtedly feel that it cheapens and dilutes the experience; knowing that you can simply rewind and reload a previous save when you make a mistake robs the game of the tension which made the SNES version so compelling and rewarding. The temptation is always there, but true fans will reserve save states purely for those times when they can’t finish the game in a single sitting, and not as a device for patching up their failures.
Judging from the stream of frustrated and bewildered posts on the Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts Miiverse community, newcomers to this legendary SNES title could well be put off by its almost superhuman challenge. However, giving up too early means missing out on one of the most accomplished platform adventures of the '90s. Although it’s devilishly difficult, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is also inventive, enthralling, gorgeous to look at and joy to listen to. A superb enhancement of the already brilliant Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, this is 16-bit gaming at its most unforgiving, but with each level completed and each boss defeated, you feel like you’re growing in stature as a player — and surely that’s something all video games should aspire to achieve.