The Moon grimaces through the mist to cast a feeble glow on the cemetery, and something is astir. Beneath a moss covered tombstone, the soil is disturbed as one bony hand breaks the surface. It cloys the air, grasping, reaching for a root. With an ungodly sigh, it grabs hold and starts hauling itself out. The grave bursts open and a hooded, skeletal figure thrusts itself into the night. It examines its robe, and the flash of a scythe catches a sparkle of starlight. Sightless eyes scan the scene. It begins to shuffle forward ... and explodes into a pile of bones and dust. Picking up a lance from amid the debris is our knight in shining armour, ready to hurl it at other graves vomiting forth cruel mockeries of the living. If Ghouls 'n Ghosts for Sega's mighty MegaDrive had a pulpy opening, it would probably go something like that. Yes, it's All Hallow's Eve so it's time to cash-in with an opportunist post on a scary video game. After all, it's not like anything's happening in the world.
Before Sonic the Hedgehog came along and sold millions of machines for Sega, the MegaDrive's main selling point was its ability to host arcade conversions that were supposedly indistinguishable from the coin operated original. There were a few failures, but some very creditable efforts. But supreme among them was GnG. An arcade monster from Capcom, for a period on import it was then the most expensive MegaDrive game yet seen (weighing in at £44.99 in 1989 money). Probably because the cartridge was a whopping six megabits, which is a mammoth 768 kilobytes to you and me. Small, but as it turned out, perfectly formed.
Cast as Arthur, the hero of Capcom's 1985 arcade hit, Ghosts 'n Goblins, you're back again after the evil Loki kidnaps Princess Prin Prin and unleashes his army of demons and undead upon the world. What a swine. Your job, unsurprisingly, is to mount a rescue. This means fighting your way across hellish landscapes to do away with Loki's minions and, in the end, offing the Grand Poobah himself. The game is a mix of platforming and shooting things with a variety of mediaeval weapons - the aforementioned lances, and shields, daggers, blue flame, axes. A powerful sword with limited range is available, but truth be told the last three weapons are absolutely dire and can slow your progress right down. For, it has to be said, GnG is one of the trickier games in the MegaDrive's library. It seems deceptively straight forward. There's no reason why, for instance, you shouldn't be able to get through the first level in one piece but more often than not it hands you your ass on a platter. The stingy stamina allowed Arthur is part of the story. One hit and you lose your armour, forcing you to battle the legions of Hell in just your grundies. Another and your transmutation into a pile of bones is immediate. Things don't get better if you secure the fabled and endlessly useful golden armour. It looks swish, you can throw magic about the screen with murderous abandon, but a single brush with a foe is still going to reduce you to your smalls. It's not like the collision detection is off, the game cheap, or the attack patterns overly complex. It has something to do with the mass of the enemies and the unevenness of the terrain. Gamers familiar with its sequel on the SNES know what I'm talking about too.
Yes, the game is hard. Indeed, in the canon of hard retro games it can often find a citation or two. But what makes it particularly fiendish is a little trick Capcom include in the franchise's games. Picture the scene. Your armour is rusty with the ichor of demons. In each of the lands behind you, corpses of dead bosses and assorted abominations are attracting flies and carrion eaters. You fling the final daggers into the huge fly thing waiting at the end of the game. It explodes like so many others, the gates open and ... you're sent right back to the beginning of the first level. Yes indeedy, you have to go through the game twice to complete it. No, that's not annoying at all. The in-game narrative justifies it in terms of having to backtrack to acquire a weapon that can slay Loki - the wonderfully named Psycho Cannon. In truth, it's a fancy ball of blue lightning, but to have to go through an already tough game again is proper trolling.
What Ghouls 'n Ghosts does is make explicit a ludic strategy all game developers rely on: that of repetition. Repeating the game to give the impression of more value for monies exchanged isn't necessary here; a single play through is hefty enough (as well as an accomplishment in itself). Yet they do it anyway. In too many other games, lack of content is made up for by doing pointless tasks. All the crafting in contemporary role playing games fall into that category, for instance. In the RPGs of the day, it was grinding, or the appearance of very similar games under different titles. What the second playthrough of GnG does is underline its pointlessness, perhaps reminding the player that, ultimately, gaming has no meaning beyond that we bestow.
Ghouls 'n Ghosts was about as scary as games got in the late 1980s. But it also pulls the trick of binding existential dread up with rock solid gameplay. Terrifying.