You know that bit in Superman Returns when Clark Kent finds out that, in his absence, that filthy hussy Lois Lane has been shacked up with Cyclops from the X-Men? And in his pent-up frustration he inadvertently squeezes the picture frame so hard that he shatters the glass? I did that to my PSP while playing this, the long awaited fourth game in the Ghosts N' Goblins (or more accurately, the G&G) series. True story.
Well, OK. I didn't actually shatter the glass. I'm far too feeble, and thrifty, to smash a console as an expression of impotent rage. But, if I were blessed with the powers of Krypton's only son, my PSP would surely be lying in ruined shards at my feet right now.
Because, yes, Ghosts N' Goblins is back and it's as teeth-gnashingly brutal as ever.
Ghoulfriend In A Coma
The Ghosts N' Goblins template already received a modern day facelift in the Maximo games, but this official sequel takes a rather more traditional route - no doubt helped by the fact that a pure bred 2D platformer sits better on a handheld than on a Xbox 360. Right from the start, it's exactly how you'd expect a modern take on Ghosts N' Goblins to look and feel. They've not tried to turn it into an RPG, there are no NPCs or other unnecessary distractions. It's simply a left-to-right scrolling platformer with an admirable pedigree and some 21st Century tweaks.
The playfully gothic tunes are the same, the characters are the same, the animation of Arthur collapsing in a skeletal pile is the same, the endless flurry of javelins is the same. Of course, given that original creator Tokurou Fujiwara is at the helm, that's not a massive surprise. The whole caboodle has just been given a glossy modern sheen, with the flat sprites of yesteryear replaced with recognisable (and, it must be said, slightly lumpy) polygon versions and some sporadic 3D effects to fill out the playfield. Visually at least it most resembles Pandemonium, the linear PSone platformer from Crystal Dynamics that served up smart 2D gameplay in a funky 3D style.
The gameplay changes that have been made are really just extensions of the direction the series was already taking way back in 1991's SNES outing, Super Ghouls N' Ghosts. Sir Arthur now has more weapons to wield, including a Castlevania-style whip and crossbows that fire projectiles in several directions at once. He can collect shields, magic spells and other items which allow him to summon fireballs, slow down time and even fly for a limited time. His armour can now be boosted to absorb more damage before you're left fighting in your boxer shorts, and he's become slightly more nimble than he was in the past too. Arthur is now able to grasp ledges, block certain attacks and dash to safety. He won't be troubling Sam Fisher in the agility stakes, but he's no longer merely a left-right-jump kinda guy.
The game also, for the first time in its history, makes gracious concessions to gamers whose reactions are merely human. Not only can you now wallow in the warm, buttery luxury of - gasp! - saving your game between levels but there are also three difficulty settings to choose from: Novice, Standard and Ultimate. The latter is equivalent to the original games - tough as nails, death is impossible to avoid, and you have to start the whole level over again each time you fail. By contrast the new Novice mode softens up the enemies, beefs up your weapons and allows you to respawn close to where you perished. Standard, as you'd expect, sits somewhere between the two, with tougher enemies and more obstacles while still being more lenient than the savage Ultimate mode.
Ghoul, You'll Be A Woman Soon
And yet, bragging rights be damned, this is still an absolute bastard of a game. It punches you in the gut, and then knees you in the face as you double up in pain. And then, as you writhe on the floor, it sticks drawing pins in your nadgers. Even playing at Novice level, the enemies come thick and fast, jumps must be timed with painstaking precision and bottomless pits litter the landscape with a cavalier disregard for common sense. You may start with a generous nine lives, but they're easily used up getting past a particularly heinous obstacle. To give an example, before you even reach the end of the second stage you find yourself making a series of blind do-or-die leaps onto disappearing platforms while being assaulted by monsters from all sides and, just for good measure, a tidal wave of blood that periodically sweeps across the screen killing all in its path. Oh, and you're playing against the clock. Apart from the platforms and pick-ups, literally everything in this game hurts or kills you and, quite frankly, it's exhausting.
It's also quite invigorating and, when the game hits its stride, the experience is pure twitch gaming of a truly old skool stripe. You find yourself stymied by some seemingly impassable combination of moving platforms, instant death falls and dozens of enemies. You try over and over, over and over again, hitting the Continue button through gritted teeth. It's frustrating, infuriating and you hate the game with every fibre of your being - and then suddenly, by some accidental mixture of luck and judgement, you make it past the obstacle that was causing you such grief, and you feel a rush of giddily euphoric achievement that you rarely experience these days. The feeling keeps you buzzing for another five minutes, and then you hit the next impossible section and the cycle begins again. During these moments Ultimate Ghosts N' Goblins works like a joyous retro charm - it's refreshingly simple, brutally addictive and a damn good laugh.
Sadly, there are other moments where that exquisite masochistic frustration spills over into seething annoyance, and you sense that the game simply isn't playing it fair. For all the moves added to Arthur's arsenal, he's still a fairly stiff and unforgiving fellow when compared to his closest rivals. Most notably, you have no control over his jumps. Once you're in the air, you're destined to land wherever your arc ends. You can reverse direction by doing a double jump, but this often compounds the problem and sends you smack bang into a suddenly-spawned bad guy, and then spiralling into oblivion. This makes some of the trickier moments of platform navigation the stuff of nightmares, and even an apparently simple leap across a spiky pit can whittle down your lives if you don't get it exactly right first time. It's rather unforgivable when you consider that Mario has been changing direction in mid-air for over twenty years. To add insult to injury, there are magic cauldrons in the game which transform Arthur into different forms. Sometimes he becomes twice the size, or really small. Sometimes he becomes a skeleton, or a chicken. And sometimes he becomes a fat old woman. But here's the kicker - when he's a fat old woman, suddenly you can change direction in mid-air, but you can't double jump or pick up items. Grrr.
Demons Are A Ghoul's Best Friend
There are also other minor niggles that, combined with the remorseless difficulty, conspire to make your experience less fun than it should be. You still can't shoot diagonally, even though your foes have no such limitations, and while on a ladder you're utterly defenceless. Despite his expanded arsenal, Arthur can still only carry one weapon at a time, and he automatically picks up a new weapon should he walk over it. In the thick of the action, it's all too easy to lose a really useful weapon (such as the homing scythes) and be lumbered with a truly crap one (bombs) purely by accident. When this happens right before a boss battle, it can completely destroy your chances of success.
The game also retains the original kick-in-the-nuts ending, sending you back to play through again just as you think you've made it. This is the sort of game where you scramble to the end of each level, breathing a sigh of relief as the save screen appears, so when you're crudely informed that you should have been seeking out and collecting a series of gold rings (which you often see, dangling in impossible places) it's hard not to feel slightly cheated rather than overjoyed at the prospect of doing it all again. Especially as these bloody rings can only be retrieved using power-ups that you get later in the game.
Unlike the previous games, you can warp to the start of each section rather than playing them all through in linear fashion, but to do this you need to collect Warp Keys which - yes - are often found dangling in impossible or hidden places that can only be reached using power-ups you didn't have first time around. Cruel moments like this nudge the game from being tough-but-fun into fairly sadistic territory and will probably mean that, no matter how much fun you have slogging through the levels the first time around, only the most dedicated players will bother seeing the game through to the actual ending.
Ultimate Ghosts N' Goblins is a surprisingly organic and commendably faithful evolution of a much-loved franchise. It looks nifty (though it doesn't push the PSP as far as it perhaps could) and the presentation has been polished until it shines. Hardcore devotees of Sir Arthur's previous adventures will whoop like pandas at the news that the game's legendary toughness has not been completely castrated for today's lily-livered gamers, though it's sometimes hard to shake the feeling that the relentless challenge comes from clunky controls and respawning monsters just as often as smart level design. With that disclaimer in mind, this is still a worthy sequel provided you can take the punishment.