Platforming games on the original Nintendo Entertainment System were notorious for their high difficulty, but few tested players’ dexterity and patience like the original “Ghosts ‘n Goblins.”
Released by Capcom as an arcade console in 1985 and later ported to Nintendo’s first home console, “Ghosts ‘n Goblins” remains infamous for its forbidding challenge, and its reputation as one of the most difficult video games in history still holds up despite how much of a crucible the platforming genre has become in recent years. And while the franchise has been dormant since 2010, it’s no surprise that it’s being dusted off for another go on the Nintendo Switch now that hits like “Sonic Mania” and the “Super Mario Maker” games have proven the market for modern takes on classic platforming IPs on the system, while viciously challenging side-scrollers like “Hollow Knight” and “Cuphead” have enjoyed major acclaim despite their considerable learning curves and sadistic mentalities.
Enter: “Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection.” Part sequel and part reboot, “Resurrection” is entirely a throwback to a bygone era of gaming. Longtime fans will be immediately at home here, as many of the enemies, locales, and power-ups in “Resurrection” are faithful to those in the series’ classic titles. Maybe too faithful. Here is a platformer that has willfully ignored almost every advancement the genre has made in the last two decades, and only reveals how far the form has come by falling well short of its modern standards.
The premise of “Resurrection” is as simple as it was back in the day: The princess has been captured by a demon, and it’s up to Sir Arthur to wade through an army of monsters and tricky platforming challenges to save her. Alas, this is not a job that Arthur is cut out for. Like its predecessors, “Resurrection” is about as brutal as platforming games can get and nearly every element in every section of every stage is designed to kill you in one way or another. The screen is constantly swarming with enemies and projectiles, while pitfalls and other roadblocks are placed in locations that are designed to force the player into awkward positions. Most enemies and their attacks can pass through terrain that impedes Arthur and his weapons, which can only be thrown or swung in four directions.
Life isn’t fair, so it’s a good thing you have a lot of them. But while infinite lives ensure that too much progress isn’t lost upon death, the margin for error is still practically nonexistent; Arthur can receive damage a set number of times (which varies by the game’s adjustable difficulty level) but hits will cause him to bounce backwards, usually down a bottomless pit or into a horde of enemies. It’s a surprise — and also something of a relief — that “Resurrection” is most manageable during its boss battles, which are suitably challenging but operate more fairly than the rest of the game, if only because there aren’t quite as many random lava pits and cheap tricks sprinkled throughout each encounter.
The game’s monsters and environmental hazards are legion, but the biggest challenge in “Resurrection” — and the main reason why it’s such a frustrating and unintuitive experience — is the clunky controls. Arthur runs at an agonizingly slow pace and grinds to a halt whenever players use their weapon. Standing still for more than a second is typically a death sentence, which means that players are required to memorize every ghoul that must be attacked, and every goblin that can be avoided. Though enemy attacks are simple and telegraphed, learning how to dodge incoming fire is a cumbersome experience thanks to Arthur’s stodgy movements, and never feels fluid even after long hours of play. Arthur can unlock helpful magic spells, which range from restoring your armor to damaging all enemies on the screen, but using them requires lengthy charge-ups that leave the character unable to attack.
Arthur’s ground game is dismal, but “Resurrection” really falls apart when jumping enters the equation. Arthur can use his weapons while moving in the air, but — in a throwback to the pre-“Sonic” days of platformers — the character’s movement can’t be adjusted while mid-air. You can jump straight up or in a fixed arc to the left or right, and that’s it. “Resurrection” is full of platforming sections that require multiple precise jumps while evading hordes of flying enemies but the inflexible controls make these sections a slog to clear even after players have timed the board to perfection. Franchise purists wouldn’t have it any other way, and this game is targeted right at that core demo of gamers who’ve conditioned themselves to think of Sir Arthur’s battleship-like agility as more of a feature than a bug. But there’s a fine line between “classic” and “archaic,” and “Resurrection” makes it all too easy to see where it’s drawn.
Still, Capcom has made some concessions to the 21st century. Most crucially, “Resurrection” diverges from the older titles in the series by offering multiple difficulty levels so that players can select their own degree of suffering. The Legend difficulty is billed as the true “Ghosts ‘n Goblins” experience; players can only take one hit and checkpoints during each stage are sparse. Two “medium” difficulty levels allow Arthur to sustain more damage, unlock additional checkpoints, and lower the amount of enemies, while the Page difficulty grants Arthur immortality, ensuring that practically anyone will be able to make their way through the game.
While the easier modes helps mitigate some of the game’s frustrating elements and make it more accessible, they also lay bare how little “Resurrection” has to offer aside from its difficulty, especially when compared to recent titles that have raised the bar for this kind of gameplay. “Hollow Knight” and Moon Studios’ “Ori” series require the same precision as “Resurrection,” and can be every bit as mercilessly unforgiving at times, but those games also boast clever puzzles, rich ambiance, more thoughtful enemies, and an organic challenge that makes players more frustrated with themselves than with the game. Remembering enemy attack patterns and stage layouts is a key part of every platforming game, but “Resurrection” gives the player such little room to maneuver throughout its myriad challenges that each encounter feels more like a suffocating mix of trial-and-errors and memorization than engaging tests of skill.
On the presentation front, “Resurrection” is fairly middle-of-the-road. The graphics are reminiscent of 2000s-era browser games, which is a major divergence from the darker fantasy design of the first few “Ghosts ‘n Goblins” games, but there’s a certain charm to its “storybook” presentation, especially when characters move on different layers of the screen. The cartoony music and sound effects are serviceable (the lack of unique themes for each boss is a curious omission), but be prepared for the beginning of each stage’s song to be bored into your head — the music restarts every time you go back to a checkpoint.
There’s the occasional diverging path and a handful of unlockables to round things out, but “Resurrection” just feels threadbare compared to games that have been pushing side-scrolling to incredible new places in recent years. “Celeste” gave players few tools to work with but more than made up for it via smart level design and an affecting; “Ori and the Will of the Wisps” aptly meshed freedom of movement with rewarding combat. Take away its thin veneer of nostalgia and “Resurrection” is just another platformer — one that can never jump high enough to reach the rest of its genre.
“Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection” will be available on Nintendo Switch on Thursday, February 25. This review was based on pre-release Nintendo Switch code provided by Capcom.
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