It’s common practice for developers to make games with a variety of difficulty settings. This of course is done with the express purpose of maximizing sales. With an abundance of quality games out there and only a limited time, people want to make sure they can fully enjoy what they buy. If you’re someone who doesn’t like crushingly difficult games but still wants to experience the next big thing, you want it to cater to your skill level. Similarly, if you crave a challenge, it’s ideal that the game you really want can provide that. Everyone has their own comfort level, and companies absolutely need to hit all those marks to maximize their reach.
This wasn’t always the case though. Before video games became one of the most popular forms of entertainment worldwide, most of what was available only had one difficulty. If that was too tough for you, your only options were to try again or give up. That was it. A lot of major properties started out this way, like Super Mario Bros. People always talk about how accessible Mario is, but they frequently gloss over how insanely hard later levels were. The same can be said about Mega Man, Sonic The Hedgehog, Metroid, Legend of Zelda, and pretty much anything else that began on the really early consoles. Despite how hard these games were, very few can actually hold a candle to one of the most punishing games ever: Ghosts ’n Goblins.
Ghosts ‘n Goblins takes no prisoners. It doesn’t care about you or your feelings. It attracts you with its basic style and easy to understand gameplay, and then it embarrasses you on all levels. Ghosts ‘n Goblins has now been around for 30 years and people still regard it as a game that requires nearly peerless skill to even get close to finishing. To many, Sir Arthur has never rescued Princess Prin Prin. Astaroth is still the reigning overlord of Demon World where all kinds of demons and monsters run amok. Countless have begun in the cemetery with Arthur decked out in armor wielding his trusty javelins, and most watched their hero die in his trademark boxers. Such is the fate that developer and publisher Capcom wanted their players to endure.
There are a few big reasons why Ghosts ‘n Goblins is so difficult. In terms of gameplay, Arthur is very much like other protagonists of his time. He can only take two hits until death and even the slightest enemy touch can hurt him. His weapons give him an advantage, but when skeletons, zombies, and gargoyles are coming from all directions, it’s very easy to be overwhelmed. The stronger weapons only provide just enough of an advantage to keep you alive longer. There isn’t much in the way of cushioning either. When Arthur is killed, he is either brought back to the very beginning of the current level or whatever checkpoint he was fortunate enough to pass. As if limited checkpoints, a weak character, and overwhelming enemy numbers weren’t enough, there’s a three minute time limit with each life. No lollygagging!
Ghosts ‘n Goblins is also notorious for one feature that will drive someone nuts if they had no idea it was coming. If you were lucky enough to reach Astaroth and actually beat him, which can only happen with the cross, you instantly learn that everything was a trap. Astaroth, being the living embodiment of evil, lives up to his name by forcing you back to the very beginning of the game. You now have to play through it all again on a harder difficulty. That’s right folks. The already extremely difficult game gets even harder if you want the actual ending. A lot of modern games give players the option to play again on a harder difficulty with extra perks. Ghosts ‘n Goblins forced you to do it and gave you absolutely no more advantages.
I enjoy a good challenge. When it comes to a lot of current games, which really are created easier than those like Ghosts ‘n Goblins, I usually default to hard mode on my first playthrough. That’s just the product of a lot of experience. To date though, I have never beaten Ghosts ‘n Goblins. I’ve tried it on several occasions and seem to get farther every single time, but I always hit a figurative brick wall. Every so often I get the urge to hop back in and try one of its many re-releases (I’ve never played the original arcade version), confident that this time with be different. It never, ever is.
Ghosts ‘n Goblins was the beginning of a pretty successful series for Capcom. This unrelenting first entry lead to a few sequels and several spin-offs, all of which continue the “extra hard” trend in their own right. Arthur himself has reappeared many times too. His most recent appearance was as a playable fighter in Marvel vs. Capcom 3. It was an extremely loyal representation, as expected, even down to the boxers he wears when his armor is destroyed. He’s also not the strongest of the bunch, a throwback to his past with only two lives. Clearly 30 years has only improved this game’s legacy. Arthur is still a hero despite his flaws, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins can still ruin even the most experienced player. Some things just never change.
Luke Kalamar is Pop-Break.com’s television editor. Every Saturday afternoon you can read his video game column, Remembering the Classics. He covers Game of Thrones, Saturday Night Live and The Walking Dead (amongst others) every week. As for as his career and literary standing goes — take the best parts of Spider-man, Captain America and Luke Skywalker and you will fully understand his origin story.