Capcom is keen to keep its classic properties in the limelight, as evidenced by regular compilations of popular titles like Street Fighter and Mega Man. Along with the release of Capcom Arcade Stadium and its sequel, the company also resurrected one of its oldest properties with a new entry in the long-running Ghosts ‘n Goblins series, which is known as Makaimura ("Demon World Village") in Japan. The original arcade game, released way back in 1985, was designed by Tokuro Fujiwara, previously of Konami’s Pooyan and Capcom’s Higemaru, and later of other seminal Capcom titles like Bionic Commando and Sweet Home. While the Ghosts ‘n Goblins franchise will be familiar to anyone who grew up during the '80s and '90s, its fame has waned in recent years – which is why we thought a refresher might be in order.

Early side-scrolling platforms like Namco’s Pac-Land (1984) and Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. (1985) were light and cutesy, but Ghosts ‘n Goblins has a markedly darker tone. The hero is a knight named Arthur, whose girlfriend Princess Prin-Prin is kidnapped by the forces of the underworld, led by the demon lord Astaroth. By default, Arthur is equipped with throwing spears, though treasure chests will regularly pop out of the ground, giving Arthur different weapons like daggers, torches, axes and crosses (or shields in the overseas version). He begins wearing a suit of armour, but a single hit will cause it to shatter, reducing him to his boxer shorts. Another hit will turn him into a pile of bones, sending him back to an earlier checkpoint.

Early side-scrolling platforms like Namco’s Pac-Land and Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. were light and cutesy, but Ghosts ‘n Goblins has a markedly darker tone

This dark comedy helps to offset the fact the difficulty level is insanely brutal. Beyond the strict health system, Arthur’s mobility is limited, as he is only able to throw his spears horizontally and is unable to change jump trajectory once he’s left the ground. Enemies throw projectiles from all angles, and constantly respawning foes like zombies make things even more troublesome. A particularly vicious adversary appears partway through the first stage, a red-winged demon named Firebrand (known as Red Arremer in Japan). He likes to hover just out of reach of Arthur’s attacks, then swoop in suddenly to launch an assault. Introducing such a troublesome character so early in the game sets the tone for the rest of the adventure, which only gets harder from then on out. There's a level map that highlights Arthur’s journey, teasing later areas that the player may never reach, an element re-used in many later games like Castlevania.

The kicker? Once you’ve managed to get through the game’s six stages and beat the final boss, you learn that you’ve been tricked by Satan, and need to replay the entire game at a higher difficulty in order to get the real ending. It ensures that you’ll have every level completely memorized by the time you actually rescue Prin-Prin, presuming you’re up for the challenge. Subsequent games keep this element as well, requiring that you obtain a special weapon on the second playthrough before you can conquer the final boss.

Despite its high difficulty level, Ghosts ‘n Goblins was still a pretty big hit. Its distinctive visual style – particularly the demonic grins on many of the enemies – along with the incredibly catchy main tune composed by Ayako Mori, turned the game into an instant classic.

Expectedly, it was ported to many home platforms. The Famicom/NES version released in 1986 was outsourced to Micronics, who also handled a few of Capcom’s other early 8-bit ports like 1942 and Son Son. Their conversions were typically very ropey, filed with glitches and other gameplay issues, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins was no different, but the core of the experience was still in place. It also hit many home microcomputers, including the Commodore 64, which had a totally different (and quite excellent) soundtrack by Mark Cooksey.

Treasure chests can also hold evil magicians that can curse Arthur with either the form of a duck or a baby, neither of which are conducive for fighting the undead

A sequel came three years later in 1988, called Daimakaimura ("Great Demon World Village") in Japan and known as Ghouls ‘n Ghosts elsewhere around the world. The basic premise is the same, but it brings several improvements, including the ability to toss lances upwards and downwards. In addition to the usual weapons, you can also find a golden suit of armour, which lets you charge up for a powerful magic attack, based on whichever weapon you’re holding. But as a particularly nasty surprise, treasure chests can also hold evil magicians that can curse Arthur with either the form of a duck or a baby, neither of which are conducive for fighting the undead.

This entry moved to Capcom’s more powerful CPS-1 arcade board, and the improvement can immediately be seen, with richer colour depth, higher resolution, and far more detailed backgrounds. This also allows for larger bosses, like the stone statue at the end of the first stage, who takes off its fire-breathing head and attaches it to its arm, and the giant insect that’s basically a clone of the Ohmu from the anime movie Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Lucifer, the ultimate foe, is as large as the screen and sits atop an enormous throne.

This interview with Ghouls 'n Ghosts' staff featured over at Shmuplations indicates that the development team for this sequel was almost entirely different (outside of Fujiwara), mostly being fans of the original game who excitedly had their own ideas to improve it. They also observe that the original Ghosts ‘n Goblins was the first game featuring zombies (that they knew of), which is amusing considering their regular presence as enemy fodder in modern games.

One of the first ports of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was to the Sega Genesis, handled by Sega itself – Yuji Naka was the main programmer. While it’s not quite a perfect port, it certainly proved that the system could closely replicate the arcade experience. Those massive bosses also made great selling points in advertisements for the system. Another port was released for the NEC SuperGrafx in Japan, one of the six games released for the platform, which is solid if not quite as impressive. It also made its way various European computer platforms, notable for its soundtracks by musical luminary Tim Follin. A unique port to the Sega Master System added a new upgrade system to enhance different abilities, though this version has never been released elsewhere and is quite the collector’s item now.

The third title, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, skipped an arcade release and was instead crafted as an early title for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1991

The third title, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (Choumakaimura, or "Super Demon World Village" in Japan) skipped an arcade release and was instead crafted as an early title for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1991. Arthur is now granted a double jump, making him a little easier to control, though he loses his vertical attacking capabilities. To make up for it, there are extra levels of armour upgrades to find, which even include shields. With eight levels total, it’s also a little longer than its predecessors. However, like many early titles for the SNES, it suffers some technical issues and has some significant slowdown.

This entry was not as widely ported as its predecessors, though it did appear on the Capcom Generations 2 compilation for the PlayStation and Saturn, which fixed the slowdown and included the arcade versions of the prior games, as well as on assorted PlayStation 2 and Xbox compilations. A Game Boy Advance port also adds in some extra stages taken from earlier games, while a Japan-only release for the WonderSwan portable console also contains elements from all three titles.

Outside of some spinoffs, the Ghosts ‘n Goblins series took a long rest after the SNES game, only resurrected in 2006 for the PlayStation Portable for Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins (Gokumakaimura, "Extreme Demon World Village"). Capcom had already upgraded Mega Man and Mega Man X for the PSP using 2.5 visuals, and it took a similar path with this game, although it’s a brand new fourth entry rather than a remake. Visually it’s quite nice, though the slightly dodgy hit detection and the 30 FPS frame rate means that it’s neither as smooth nor as precise as the old days.

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Gargoyle's Quest took one of Arthur's most annoying enemies and gave him his own series — Image: Capcom

But more significant are the many changes to the core formula. Perhaps uncomfortable that a super difficult arcade-style game wouldn’t fly in 2006, it has instead been reconstructed to be a treasure hunt. While still level-based, you need to explore each stage to find all the rings, which in turn will unlock the final area. Many of these are unobtainable at first, until you get an ability later in the game, so you can revisit that stage and be able to reach them. Along with this are even more new armour and magic types, including many that actually give Arthur a "proper" life meter. The game even resurrects you on the spot after dying, though you still need to keep track of your lives. An “Arcade” difficulty level makes these rules more consistent with the old days, but the focus on exploration still makes this entry feel very different than the others.

Capcom felt the disappointment of longtime fans, and a year later in 2007 released Gokumakaimura Kai. This edition included a completely rebalanced mode that turned it into a linear arcade-style game, along with the original modes. However, this version was not released outside of Japan, leaving international fans to resort to import shops… but at least there’s not much in the way of text.

Firebrand was such an iconic enemy that Capcom gave him his own game for the Game Boy in 1990

Technically, that spells the end of the mainline Ghosts ‘n Goblins series, outside of two mobile spinoffs subtitled Gold Knights, and an online game from Korea that only lasted for two years between 2013 and 2015, but its spirit spread to different forms to a few different spinoffs.

Firebrand was such an iconic enemy that Capcom gave him his own game for the Game Boy in 1990. The game was called Red Arremer: Makaimura Gaiden in Japan, though the relationship was made less clear in the international release, Gargoyle’s Quest, whose cover recoloured the infamously red demon to green. Despite still focusing on the demon world, the game was still aimed towards the younger Game Boy market, and so it’s not nearly as difficult as the series that inspired it. Firebrand’s move set is also much different than Arthur’s – his flying skills aren’t quite what they are in the mainline games, but he can briefly float and latch on walls, plus there are several upgrades that offer different projectile types and other enhancements. There are also some RPG-style segments where you can walk around and talk to other demon world inhabitants.

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Maximo was a 3D take on Ghosts 'n Goblins in all but name — Image: Capcom

This led to a sequel, released internationally on the NES as Gargoyle’s Quest II (Red Arremer II in Japan for the Famicom, Makaimura Gaiden: The Demon Darkness for the Game Boy). A third and final game, Demon’s Crest (Demon’s Blazon in Japan) for the SNES has several different levels connected by a Mode 7-rendered world map screen and several different forms for Firebrand to transform into. While the first two games were confined with 8-bit hardware, Demon’s Crest makes strong use of the SNES’ visual and aural capabilities, with darkly gorgeous visuals and a haunting soundtrack, which sets it apart from the cutesier fare that the platform is more generally known for.

Probably the weirdest spinoff is Arthur to Astaroth no Nazomakaimura: Incredible Toons (“Arthur and Astaroth’s Puzzle Demon World Village”). This is based on Dynamix’s Sid and Al’s Incredible Toons puzzle game, itself a cartoonish version of their The Incredible Machine games. The player needs to set tools and machines to accomplish various goals, all featuring Ghosts n’ Goblins characters. Even though this was based on an American PC game, this particular entry was only released in Japan for the Saturn and PlayStation.

The final spinoff is the Maximo duology, though it’s more of a spiritual successor, without much direct connection

The final spinoff is the Maximo duology, though it’s more of a spiritual successor, without much direct connection. Created by the Capcom’s American branch – Capcom Digital Studios – for the PlayStation 2 in 2001, this is a 3D action game where the eponymous knight fights off hordes of the undead, much as Arthur before him. However, due to the perspective change, it plays quite differently, with an emphasis on sword combat. It pays some very obvious tribute to Ghosts ‘n Goblins, as the music references its main theme, and Maximo ends up in boxers when his armour is shattered. Plus, the exaggerated designs of artist Susumu Matsushita, known for his Famitsu illustrations, also lend it a similarly sardonic feel. It also keeps up the tradition of being brutally difficult, requiring that you gather enough coins just to save the game.

A 2003 follow-up, Maximo vs. Army of Zin, introduced an army of mechanical foes, refined some elements and tuned down the difficulty, though at this point, the series was overshadowed by Capcom’s other 3D action game, Devil May Cry, and so it ended here. Capcom Digital Studios would be renamed Capcom Production Studio 8 and its next venture would be an ultimately unsuccessful reboot of Final Fight called Final Fight: Streetwise, also on PS2.

Switch GnG Resurrection Hero
Image: Capcom

While not as prolific as Mega Man or Street Fighter, characters from Ghosts ‘n Goblins, primarily Arthur and Firebrand, have regularly made cameos in other titles. The crossover Neo Geo Pocket Color game SNK vs. Capcom: Card Fighters Clash includes some cards based on these games, and the fighting game SNK vs. Capcom: The Match of the Millennium includes a minigame featuring Arthur. Firebrand appears as a fighter in the Neo Geo game SNK vs. Capcom: SVC Chaos, while both him and Arthur are playable in Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 and Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite. Arthur also appears in the crossover RPG Project X Zone on the 3DS.

Although not officially part of series, it’s well worth checking out Locomalito’s tribute game Maldita Castilla, also known as Cursed Castilla. Available on several platforms, including the Switch and 3DS, it’s based off Spanish legends and is very much in the style of Capcom’s games, with a difficulty level that’s demanding but a little more even-handed.

Outside of the two arcade entries that will be featured in Capcom Arcade Stadium, the home ports of the games are readily accessible. The NES version of Ghost ‘n Goblins and Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts for the SNES is available on both Nintendo Switch Online and their respective Classic Mini consoles, plus Demon’s Crest is on the Switch Online as well. The Genesis and SuperGrafx ports of Ghouls ‘n Ghosts are also featured on the Genesis/Mega Drive Mini and the TurboGrafx-16/PC Engine Mini respectively. Ultimate Ghost ‘n Goblins was never ported, though it’s still downloadable for the PSP and PS Vita.

Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection, the latest entry in the franchise, arrived in February 2021 to positive reviews which praised the stern level of difficulty – a feature which ensured the game stayed true to the brutal original. With series creator Tokuro Fujiwara at the helm, Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection is an astonishingly faithful update of the series – and while not everyone was enamoured with the visuals, it captures the unique atmosphere of one of Capcom's most memorable franchises.

Let's just hope we don't have another long wait ahead of us for the next instalment...

This article was originally published by on Sun 20th December, 2020.