Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts [Dai Makai Mura] (08/03/1989)

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.

This entry was posted in Action, Platformer, Summer 1989. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts [Dai Makai Mura] (08/03/1989)

  1. Samael Howard says:

    Holy crap, you pointed me out by name!


    *Sighs* So much for celebrity. For the record, I’m completely a dude, and even if I was a girl hiding here under a boy’s name in order to keep the drooling perverts at a distance ( Well, most of them ), I sound enough like a boy to pass for one, thanks to reasonable doubt.



    I knew I could count on your apathy.

    A solid review, well worth the wait. Again, you somehow pick up on details I missed. I never noticed the faces on the sprites before. The more I think about the game overall now, the more I realize the entire thing is a practical joke on us, the players. It’s the only platformer I can think of where even the background sticks it’s tongue out at me. Whoever created this, was laughing the entire time.

    For those who’ve never played it: want proof it’s not just paranoia? The last stage contains the last boss of the previous game as a common enemy. If you manage to survive, ( as our class did, the day before Summer vacation ) you race to find the soul of your dead princess and revive her, only to be told your weapons are completely useless against Satan ( Loki in America )…

    Thus you get to play the entire game all over again.

    Did I mention there are no battery save states? Or that it took us hours to get this far?

    Or that in order to win the game, you need a special weapon that can only be found in one treasure chest on the second half of the first level? Maybe I was trying to repress that part.

    If you’re hit even once before you find the chest ( Good luck! ) you never even get to see the weapon. If that happens, you have no choice but to play all the way through to the end, again, before you get another shot at it.

    Naturally, that wasn’t going to stop us. Somehow, using ninja skills that should have hard our sore thumbs registered as deadly weapons, we managed to soar over ghosts and goblins and raining tornadoes seemingly made out of angry prairie dogs to get that ultimate weapon. Yes!

    It fired electric holy blue. It fired blasts bigger than you. It looked like Heaven had given you permission for a genocide.

    Too bad it had less range than all the other weapons. Now the demons could laugh at you from a safe distance.

    The game had won. On the easiest difficulty.

    So we no longer had any reason not to use the cheat code. We warped directly to the last stage…

    We killed Satan.

    We didn’t even have the Holy Weapon.

    The game lied to us!

    Looking at it now, through the lens of nostalgia, it’s a wonderful joke. Still, one wonders how many broken controllers were to be found after Time recommended the game to mainstream America.

    Maybe Sega and Capcom weren’t the only sadists. 😉

    PS: This game was a big deal at the time due to it’s 8 meg size. It may not seem that big now, but it’s twice the size of the largest NES games. To get an idea of how big a deal that was to audiences at the time, think Blu-Ray vs. a standard definition DVD. You’ll soon be reviewing games that really took advantage of the extra space: Strider received an expansive audio upgrade over the arcade version, so that each stage now offered it’s own unique theme. It’s so near a port to the arcade version otherwise, that screenshot comparison is the only way to see where it’s (slightly) lacking in the graphics. Sword of Vermillion, on the other hand, demonstrates why more freedom for a developer doesn’t always make for a better game.

    I’m really rambling now, aren’t I? Is there a limit on how long posts can be? Maybe I should get a blog of my own? A pity I don’t have your writing talent.

    I’m really very sorry for the amount of graffiti I’ve left behind on your wall. No time to edit, so feel free to erase it if you must.

    • Nicola Nomali says:

      The Goddess’s Bracelet appears in any chest that would ordinarily contain a weapon when you’re wearing Gold Armor, not in any particular, set location. Prin Prin actually tells you this, in fact: “Arthur, put on your magic armor and open the magic box. I’m sure that the goddess will appear.” Since the progression of treasure chests on a given life is always Magician → Armor → Weapon, all you need to do is open the second chest that spawns without losing your basic armor, get the gold, and then get the Bracelet from the next chest. This is admittedly easier to do on Stage 1 than in the depths of Stage 5, but you have plenty of opportunities to pull it off throughout the second run.

      And just for the record, Loki’s name in the American arcade version and all Japanese versions is Lucifer. Satan was a boss from the first game—the one who kidnaps Prin Prin in the opening.

      • CJ Lowery says:

        Samael: Well, if nothing else, I am glad my writing could inspire that much of a response in anyone.

        Nicola: I didn’t mention the second runthrough of the game largely by oversight, but in the end decided that it was just too cliche to complain about. And having played this on the Capcom Classics Collection, I never realized how much the backgrounds took a hit, but this is still a more than acceptable port in 1989, and honestly neck and neck with Phantasy Star II as the best game on the system so far.

    • Sean697 says:

      Having submited myself to the torture of beating the first game on the NES I can honestly say that this was a cakewalk compared to that game. And yes you can get that super weapon in any stage on second playthrough. And that super weapon really wastes alot of the bosses so its not that bad. And Loki is almost laughably easy when you figure out his pattern with his legs.

  2. Dr. Sparkle says:

    I wonder how this compares to the PC Engine Supergrafx Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts? I’ve never checked that version out. Still, we all have to admit the SNES owners got the best deal with Super Ghouls ‘n’ Ghost, amiright?

    Great article, but “meteoric rise”? How the hell did that nonsensical idiom become so common? I’m not one of those prickly language dudes who freaks out over “I could care less” or that sort of thing, but “meteoric rise” just drives me crazy.

    • I’ve always thought it was about the speed of the rise and completely ignores the fact that meteors fall down instead of falling up.

    • CJ Lowery says:

      The Supergrafx version has some amazing backgrounds and very little slowdown, as seen here:

      As for “meteoric rise,” I liked the way meteoric-er fall rolled off the keyboard, since that IS what we associate with meteors and other space debris, after all.

    • Sean697 says:

      Well EGM did give this game of the year I think. But I think EGM also posted some previews way back of the Supergrafx version and the screen shots were pretty much dead on accurate to the arcade version. From what I’ve heard it is the definitive home version but was probably a case of being late to the party.

  3. Nicola Nomali says:

    I love this game, although the aesthetics are such an important part of the experience for me that I can only play the arcade version. But it’s easy to see that, as with Sega’s other conversions of CPS games like Strider and Final Fight, this was certainly close enough at the time.

    For me, the high points of the game’s soudtrack are the brief but incredibly dramatic sting from the opening sequence and Stage 5’s theme, which revisits the motif from the beginning of the Stage 1 theme and makes it even more ominous. From there, the organ synth escalates until about the forty-second mark (roughly forty-four seconds into this video), where it unleashes a stirring climax that, together with the vertical structure of the stage and the fact that you’re now casually laying waste to bosses left and right, firmly impresses the coming of Arthur’s final decisive battle.

    Finally, just because I want to tell someone, Prin Prin’s name comes from “purin purin”: Japanese onomatopoeia for the jiggling of pudding—or, in this case, something significantly cheekier. In retrospect, it’s no wonder the ending makes note of her measurements.

  4. Casey says:

    So I take it this blog is dead?

  5. Casey says:

    This blog is dead. Bummer. I liked it while it was still updating.

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