For most of my life, Sega has been The Sonic Company. Sonic the Hedgehog saw release shortly before my seventh birthday, officially making the Sega Genesis the most desirable object in the world, and Sega immediately set out to start burning through consumer right after that, until the Dreamcast floundered right after I entered high school and the company stayed afloat almost entirely by an endless stream of awful 3d Sonic affairs, punctuated by the occasional brilliance of a Sega Soccer Slam here or a MadWorld there. In fact, the meteoric rise and steady decline fall of stock in the Sonic brand is what inspired this blog in the first place. Specifically, I wanted to see what made Sega tick as a brand beyond their mascot, and what America knew them for before the nation was swept up in the anti-Robuttnik rebellion. The answer is actually fairly obvious, if remarkably underexposed even by the company that makes a living exploiting their past glories – Sega was the console manufacturer that understood the arcade experience. Nintendo had long since exited the arcade market by 1989 with the extremely forgettable Arm Wrestling and had been subverting the arcade formula since then in their home releases, and while the PC-Engine’s killer apps were more often than not arcade ports, NEC was a computer company at heart.
So it really was not that much of a surprise that Capcom trusted Sega to do development of their arcade classic Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts in house. While not quite matching the success of its predecessor Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins, Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts is really the much better game, expanding on the strategic platforming of the first game in creative new ways. For those unfamiliar with the series, Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins was a very difficult and deliberate arcade platformer with the same pseudo-horror themes that would go on to become the hallmark of the Castlevania series. Series hero Sir Arthur finds himself perpetually trekking across the increasingly hellish landscapes of his kingdom (which apparently has an economy based on monster herding and nightmarish living tower construction) to rescue his true love Princess Prin Prin from the forces of Satan or whatever Satan stand-in might be currently ruling the underworld in that particular game. What makes this particular holy diving experience unique (beyond Arthur’s spring-loaded plate mail that leaves him in his boxers after a single hit) is that Arthur commits to a jump – as soon as you press the button, Arthur can’t change his path and you are more often than not left to watch him be flung into lava, antlions, a guillotine, or any number of OSHA unapproved workplace hazards. Where the first game didn’t take this into account and constantly swarmed you with enemies and obstacles in frankly unfair patterns, Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts is much better balanced, with a slower pace that encourages the player to learn stage patterns by seeing how the world reacts to his or her various jumps and thrusts, giving the standard arcade pattern memorization a slight strategic twist.While the gameplay itself is enough to make the game a classic, the presentation is really where everything comes together. The graphics obviously lack the detail of the arcade original, but are still incredibly evocative. The monster sprites in particular burst with personality rarely seen in modern games. The vultures look hungry and annoyed, vomiting pig demons just look happy to have a chance to kill the player, and tougher foes like bosses and series mascot/brick wall red arremer (giant flying red demons that are often difficult to hit or avoid, one of which stars in the spin-off series Gargoyle’s Quest/Demon’s Crest) more often than not have cocky smirks, rightfully doubting the player’s ability to get past them. Special attention should be paid to the music in particular. The series overture shows up in the first stage, and sets the mix of sweeping composition and irreverent whimsy that defines the series at it’s best. Commenter Samael Howard mentioned how it was the first time that they had heard stereo sound in a game, and how it “showed [him] just how limited [his] eyes could be…” A valid point, as while game composition was no stranger to excellent songs by the late eighties, technology had reached the sweet spot where it was just limiting enough to encourage some truly great music, such as the theme to level two:
While not quite the coup it could have been, Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts really feels like the point where the Mega Drive really arrived as its own unique console, though it largely got there via the efforts of Phantasy Star II in that both are displays of what the next generation could be capable of. The game could also be seen as the opening volley in Sega’s end of year retail onslaught – while the autumn was fairly slow, Sega had some heavy hitters lined up to close out 1989 with some high quality and highly iconic titles. While that is still several months off, Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts feels like the point where Sega cleared their head and realized what they wanted with the console, a brief moment of lucidity leading to several years of solid classics, as well as two decades of steadily losing their corporate mind. While merely a solid arcade port, Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts gives off the impression that this is where the golden age begins – and where it begins to end.