The scariest thing about Ghosts 'n Goblins isn't spooky graveyards, or things rising from the ground arms outstretched. Nor is it the fact that the game's renowned for being one of the most challenging platformers of all time. It's the fact that it's now over TWENTY years since we first played it. Crumbs, blimey and indeed 'zoiks' that makes us feel old.
But rather than merely trawl out some sort of compilation in the name of misplaced nostalgia, Capcom has had the decency of going back to one of its most treasured old brands and breathe new life into it without simply resorting to an equally tedious 3D update. As you know, Maximo filled that role nicely (and without being tedious, too), so there was no need to go down that particular path of creative doom.
Better still, this first entry into the hallowed G'nG series in 15 years (the last one came out on the SNES, fact fiends) has been put together exclusively for the PSP by members of the team that worked on the original, and from the brief playtest we enjoyed down at Capcom's European HQ in London it's shaping up to be by far the most fleshed out and accessible yet.
As with all the previous games in the series, the game stars the heroic Sir Arthur, on a noble quest to save a princess from the "clutches of evil". Why she keeps getting captured is one of those questions you want to ask Mario. Perhaps she's got an endearing squeal that the undead are drawn to. Who knows?
Aaaanyway, the game kicks off almost identically to any of the previous games, in a graveyard that's apparently the gateway to the underworld, and host to a whole new realm of undead evil. Arthur, as ever, comes dressed for the part, resplendent in shiny armour that keeps the devil's minions at bay for a few touches before it falls off and displays our bearded hero in just his snazzy boxer shorts. But before we go into some of the new powers available to you, the game's visuals are the most strikingly enhanced part of this new chapter in the series.
Without straying from its 2D side-scrolling roots, Capcom has managed to use a delightful 3D engine that gives the backgrounds a great deal of depth and the kind of rich detail that was only hinted at back in the old days. Like a delicious re-imagining of the old parallax scrolling routine that was a staple of the 8- and 16-bit eras, the game is a striking example of where the PSP's strengths may lay.
In addition, the greater breadth of animation has given Capcom license to bring the look and feel of Arthur up to date without losing the old school essence of what made the game look so remarkable in its era. Predictably, the purity of merely being able to jump, shoot, and pick up new weapons has moved on a notch, but not to the extent where it feels too removed from the classic trilogy. Importantly, the game feels right from the word go.
For example, the basic move set remains just as you remember it, and your initial attempts at taking out the procession of undead feels remarkably faithful. Fortunately, this isn't some tedious retread to appeal to old farts, because Capcom has taken care to flesh things out to encompass such platform staples as being able to grab onto a ledge, double jump, dash, and shoot in various directions. But the real major additions emerge elsewhere in the form of a typically Capcom-esque levelling-up system that allows you to eventually gain and upgrade magic abilities and attacks. And as tricky as it remains, there are now some concessions to mere mortals, with extra lives, various difficulty levels (from Easy to Ultimate, which is said to be pitched at the same level as the old arcade titles) and the ability to (gasp) continue from where you were killed, as opposed to being chucked back to the start.
As ever, Arthur will be able to collect all manner of booty that's left behind, but this time it's a little more useful, with all sorts of shields to collect that can help you out in a variety of cunning ways. For example, the Cracked Shield protects against a single attack, the Knight's Shield protects against a couple of attacks, the Supreme Champion's Shield is even more durable, while others include the Devil's Shield, the Dragon shield and the super-mysterious Mystery Shield (woo!). When equipped the shield will appear on Arthur's back and by pressing down on the d-pad he will hold it out in front of him to guard against an attack. Arthur can still use a shield even if he has lost all his armour, which is a nice touch.
A kind of magic
Slightly more useful, though, are the ten different types of magic you can equip, including time magic, invincible, discovery, unseal, spirit, wave, gorgon, flare inferno and more. Needless to say, within the limitations of the demo session we were treated to, we didn't have free reign to explore and try everything out, but suffice to say the game is far more fleshed out than we ever expected.
Capcom also promises that Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins will be a less linear experience, with "plenty of branching sub-missions" that encourage exploration and promise "a more open-ended experience". Incredibly, you can even save your progress [sacrilege! - Ed] and go back to old stages to track down paths you may have missed to pick up the booty you left behind.
Not only that, Capcom is throwing in a bunch of other tantalising new features, such as natural disasters to avoid, such as lightning strikes, tornados, strong winds and the Grey Giant's earthquake attacks - all of which promise to make it a real return to old school platforming values that are so hard to come by these days.
In terms of the game's enemies - well, the truth is we didn't get a chance to see that many, but they're of the variety that you might expect from the old games, like little ghost women, a bat thing that dive-bombs, creatures that fire directional fireballs at you from their vantage points, and big wiggly purple hands reaching for you from trees. We did, though, get to the first boss, which can only be described as a flying goat head man, who flies above launching fire attacks. And then hands reach out of the ground... and we turned into a chicken and died. Typical Ghosts 'n Goblins, then...
So far, the game feels remarkably tough next to modern platformers, but one that should appease those of us brought up on stronger stuff. Without doubt, it's a real surprise offering, and one that hopefully points the way for future retro revivals that may signal that publishers are finally seeing an opportunity to do more than simply re-release their back catalogue. More of it, please.
Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins is due out on PSP in Europe this summer.