Ghost n’ Goblins is a classic videogame in many ways, not least when it comes to being one of the hardest games ever made, a game that still punishes gamers today, thanks to several re-releases on modern platforms via online arcades. It’s a basic platformer, one that’s stood the test of time, and it also spawned several sequels and even spin-offs, including Maxmio, and the lesser known Gargoyle’s Quest.
The latter of these didn’t take inspiration from its source material in the way most other games would. It didn’t star Ghost ‘n Goblins‘ main hero, Arthur, and didn’t follow the same basic formula. Instead, Gargoyle’s Quest starred Firebrand, the red gargoyle enemy you fought in Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Called Red Arremer in Japan, this very minor enemy somehow found his way into his own series of games, which began life on the Nintendo Game Boy in 1990.
Winged demon rising
Gargoyle’s Quest retained some side-scrolling platform elements, but the whole game was much more of an RPG, complete with top-down adventure and exploration sections akin to Zelda or Pokemon. Firebrand, as a gargoyle, could grip onto and climb walls, and could fly, or at least hover, and had to travel various lands fighting bosses and facing enemies in random battles. It was very different from Ghosts ‘n Goblins, but still retained much of the same feel. The second game, titled Gargoyle’s Quest II: The Demon Darkness, was released for the NES in 1992.
This sequel made the most of the greater power offered by the NES, not only being in full color, of course, but offering a bigger, better overall game. Again it split the mechanics between top-down adventuring and side-scrolling action, and Firebrand retained his abilities to climb walls, shoot fireballs and fly for limited periods. He could also grow in power, finding items to increase his abilities. This included special projectiles that could do such things as destroy blocks to open passages you otherwise couldn’t explore. Random battles were removed from the game, however.
In Japan, the second game was actually ported to the Game Boy, and even featured extra levels. This version never made it out of Japan, sadly. Thankfully, the next game in the series did, even if it did fly very low under most people’s radar.
Super Gargoyle’s Quest
One of the few continuations of a series on the 16-bit Nintendo machine that didn’t slap the word ‘Super’ before it’s moniker, Demon’s Crest is the game we’re looking at here, and is one of the best SNES hidden gems you really should check out. It’s the third game in the Gargoyle’s Quest series, even though it doesn’t have the same name. Once again it stars the protagonist, Firebrand, who has been imprisoned by his nemesis, Phalanx, who has stolen the powerful crests, once possessed by Firebrand. Stripped of his power, Firebrand must escape his prison, regain his power, and defeat Phalanx.
Although Demon’s Crest received a western release, it went largely unnoticed by many, possibly because it didn’t bear the Gargoyle’s Quest name, and instead went with a different title. This is a shame, as it’s a fine example of action adventure, and it bore similarities to its predecessors, as well as classics Metroid and Mega Man.
One thing that always sticks in my mind from my first play through of the game was the very beginning. Unlike many games, especially today, that hold your hand and start you off easy, with a quiet level full of easy foes and non-threatening situations, Demon’s Crest began with a fight against a giant zombie dragon Yes, long before Dark Souls, Demon’s Crest threw you in at the deep end to see if you could swim.
In truth, this fight wasn’t too hard once you figured out the controls and the dragon’s weakness, but it was nonetheless something of a surprise back then, and made for a great set opener to a very tough, and surprisingly complex game.
Once free of the dragon (or were you?), you ventured out into the first level, which delivered much the same gameplay of the previous Gargoyle’s Quest series, only with a 16-bit makeover. Controls were better, the action looked a whole lot more impressive, and when you completed the first area, you found yourself in the game’s overworld map. This was presented via Mode 7, and Firebrand could fly around the world, descending into various areas in a non-linear, open world fashion. These locations included actual quest areas, as well as towns and shops, including areas where you could play mini-games to earn more money.
Shops sold various potions and spells that could augment Firebrand’s skills, but your major abilities came from defeating bosses and finding power-ups.
With your powers combined…
When you defeated one of the game’s major villains, Arma, who returned again and again to challenge you, Firebrand earned a magic crest. These crests allowed Firebrand to transform into different types of Gargoyle, each representing the elements of Fire, Earth, Water, Air, Time, and Heaven. These forms changed Firebrand’s appearance, and gave him access to special abilities, such as being able to smash various barriers, swim underwater, and fly.
This is where the game’s Metroid-style content came in. As the world was open, allowing you to return to visited areas, you had to earn new abilities and then retrace your tracks to find new sections you previously couldn’t explore. This could include small treasure rooms, hidden items, or even whole new areas and boss fights. These secrets often required Firebrand’s other forms, or his normal form’s additional firepower, as he could also find new projectiles that could smash rocks, help him climb walls, or jump higher.
This all made for a very puzzling exploration, and one that demanded you always keep your eyes open when progressing through levels, remembering those suspicious areas you were unable to access so you could revisit them later with he right skills.
Of course, the best of these new abilities weren’t just sat around waiting for you to pick them up, and many were in the hands of bosses. Let me tell you, some of these bosses were tough in the extreme.
Boss fights in many classic platform games, particularly of the 80s and 90s era, had patterns of attack. These patterns could, with time, be learned, revealing the best methods to defeat each foe. Demon’s Crest was no different for the most part, but it had one little quirk that made it all the more difficult.
Often the bosses you come up against have a wide range of attack patterns, but these don’t flow in any set order. The AI picks from its various attacks and movement at random, resulting in some of the most unpredictable bosses you’ll take on. This ramped up the difficulty to quite a degree as each fight required real skill, and not just a good memory. You had to be able to react quickly and change up your tactics in a split second. The fights could also last a long time, meaning this level of skill was needed for long periods. These fights were tense.
One fight I always remember was the fire demon in the woods. Starting off as a relatively easy humanoid form that threw fiery birds at you, its second form was that of a flaming skull, and it was one of the most unpredictable enemies I’d seen. Worse, if the enemy itself hit you, it took two life points, and not one. As I fought it early on, before I powered up more, this made for one nail-biting, controller-gripping confrontation. It also took a lot of damage, so this lead to having to quickly avoid attacks and react to its constant change-ups for a prolonged time, otherwise it’d be back to square one. Nightmare.
All bosses could be tamed with the right moves, however, and Firebrand’s various abilities could often make an otherwise difficult fight easier. For this reason, it was all the more important to explore and uncover the many abilities before taking on the more powerful foes.
Perhaps the best feature of Demon’s Crest was that it was dynamicallydifficult. It was tough as nails, unless you embraced the game’s open nature, and explored to power up. Unlike Metroid, which often denied you access to various bosses or areas until you found a specific item, Demon’s Crest often let you proceed to a boss regardless, meaning you’ll end up as a pile of dust sooner than later. This made for a unique experience, as hardcore gamers could defeat foes without powering up first in order to show off their skills, and others could instead prepare and be more ready for the task at hand. It was open, and the challenge came from more than just forced difficulty; it gave you the chance to tackle barriers at your own speed. Sure, many areas did require certain skills to open up, but there was some flexibility, and I admired that.
Even today, the game still stands the test of time, and is a great example of the Metroidvania style of game, even though it came out long before that genre name was coined by Symphony Of The Night. Even better, you can now get it on the Wii U Virtual Console, if you have a Wii U, which I highly recommend you do if you like a challenge.
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