Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Gargoyle's Quest II (NES)

As I mentioned in a previous review, Capcom can more or less do no wrong. They created the Mega Man series, they made movie/tv license games that were actually fun, they crushed the arcade with the juggernaut that is the Street Fighter series - but it's another arcade title that took the world by storm with its bizarre bad guys, mammoth difficulty, and near flawless platforming action. That game series is Ghosts 'n Goblins.

Old-school gamers typically remember the Ghosts 'n Goblins series with a fond layer of nostalgia - and for good reason. These games are fun-as-the-day-is-long, challenging as all get-out, colorful and quirky and full of arcade style action. The plot was always really simple and well-worn territory: you control a hero (in this case King Arthur) and you fight hordes of monsters in order to save your captured princess. Sounds sorta familiar, huh? Just like with Mario and Link - his lady just keeps on getting captured! But that's another review for another day. The real question is: "Have you ever wanted to play as one of the monsters?"

If this red guy came down the chimney - the kids would need therapy.

If your answer is "Yes," then Capcom's 1992 entry in the series, "Gargoyle's Quest II" is the game for you! Aside from being a spin-off game about the red gargoyle Firebrand and sharing some familiar enemies - most of the similarities pretty much end right there. The plot revolves around Firebrand, a gargoyle who is living in "a town of the Ghoul Realm, Etruria." If we're going to go along with the history of Ghosts 'n Goblins canon - this game could be seen as a "sequel to a prequel." After all, Firebrand is fighting in a world before human beings exist - so clearly Arthur hasn't come around to start tossing lances at ghosts yet. The plot is relatively similar to the Gameboy title before it - Firebrand must train himself to become a great warrior to fight an evil force that is sweeping through his Ghoul Realm. In this particular game the evil comes in the form of a black light...

No... Not that type of Black Light!

...which makes most of your fellow townsmonsters and your beloved King Morock bite the dust. So Firebrand must travel to different towns, speak to fellow monsters and perform various tasks in order to receive help along the way.

If you owned an NES and wondered, "when the heck did they release Gargoyle's Quest 1?" then you're not alone. I didn't know before recently that the original was a Gameboy exclusive. I always wonder if it confused NES owners back in the day when games like this or Kings Quest V came out and the person never owned a PC or knew anything about the first four games. Also, I wonder if people knew back in the day that this game is an off-shoot of Ghosts 'n Goblins (also something I didn't know until recently.) Makes you wonder.

Just a little grammatically challenged.

The gameplay is an interesting mixed bag. The game can best be described as an "RPG platformer." You will spend quite a bit of your time walking through towns and talking to others or trekking across a map screen ala Final Fantasy, Dragon's Quest, Zelda, and of course - the first game. To be honest - it feels as if these RPG elements are a little undercooked. In the original game you would wind up fighting enemies in random encounters (ala Final Fantasy, Dragon's Quest...etc.) but in Gargoyle's Quest II, the map screens are mostly barren (save for the occasional monster that stands still and only actually spawns a battle if you walk up and talk to them.) Unlike games such as Ultima or Dragon's Quest - it's only barely required of you to talk to townsfolk and there really isn't much more than some hand-holding "You need to go see person A, but bring them item B first" kind of instructions. Anyone looking for really deep, in depth RPG action should probably look elsewhere as it really felt kind of rushed and underdeveloped. Don't get me wrong - it's a really innovative feature for a platformer to feature RPG elements: it just seems like it was pulled off a bit better in the Gameboy version before it. The upswing is that Firebrand moves lightning fast across the maps and through towns - which is a huge bonus to anyone who's slugged their way across a map screen ala Ultima.

Call the Meat Puppets - I finally found the "Lake of Fire!"

The other element to the gameplay is the more traditional Ghosts 'n Goblins style platformer sections; with a few key differences. For starters - Firebrand can glide through the sky (briefly at first) and shoots sparkly fireballs. A lot of your time will be spent clinging to walls ala Ninja Gaiden or Werewolf: The Last Warrior - and the same control frustrations that are in those are present here. IE: I'm too high to jump under this lantern, I'm too low to jump across this pit of spike-balls, I'm gonna have to hit this enemy and hope I don't die in the process, etc. The RPG element rears its head again here in the platformer elements by way of leveling up your stats. When you start the game, Firebrand moves really slowly, jumps a pretty mediocre distance, and can stay flying in the air for about 3 seconds or less. These things can be improved by leveling them up through your questing.

So how does the presentation stack up for this 1992 entry in a truly classic Capcom series? I'm quite impressed by the graphics. The platforming sections are solidly presented with detailed sprites, arcade quality/style graphics and great looking/well constructed levels. This is definitely proof that some of the later NES games really utilized the full capacity of the NES's graphics capabilities. The map/town graphics are impressive because it's one thing to make big sprites and characters to have a lot of shading and detail but to squeeze that into tiny little sprites is truly something! The music is great in the game as well (though not quite as awesomesauce as the older Ghost 'n Goblins games or the original.) The original Gameboy release had an awesome version of the old memorable G & G theme song and this game has music more akin to the Castlevania series. The sound effects are not nearly as impressive - most of the sound effects sound like garbled glitch sounds. I guess it's appropriate for a group of monsters to talk in "Gwwwwaaaaaarrrr" sounds, but it can seriously get grating when text boxes come up.

Err...do what now?!

The game has a medium level of difficulty. Clearing the first couple of platform sections and the first boss is a piece of cake - once you start exploring the forest level, to me, the game begins. Those darn floating, spitting rock heads are the height of annoyance. Firebrand's floating-jump will not only help but become absolutely necessary. Accuracy is crucial and that can be tough starting out as the wall-climbing, short-floating action leaves very little room for error. But most enemies don't put up much of a fight and after the first few stages you'll be more worried about getting knocked off of platforms, falling platforms, or accidentally jumping into pits than worrying about the difficulty of enemies.

Moving, shooting platforms: fun as electroshock therapy!

Gargoyle's Quest II is a really fun and underrated RPG/Platformer hybrid. While I do think there are areas where the developers could have expanded the game's capabilities (IE: the underdeveloped RPG elements) it is a fun, fast entry in the Ghosts 'N Goblins series. Besides, how often do you get to fly around as a big red demon shooting glittery fireballs and climbing walls? This game is available right now through Lukie Games. Give this game a shot! You know you need it for your collection!