Retro Review: Ghosts n’ Goblins
In a great game, every moment is a tutorial. You can’t learn the difference between Solitaire and Rummy by sitting with a deck of cards, but video games come uniquely prepackaged with the teacher. The rules and goals of the game can be communicated in an instant, an instant in Mega Man in which you are safely subjected to an enemy pattern before testing the knowledge over a perilous pit, or of careening left to right in Super Mario Bros. using enemy heads as a bridge out of your own momentous necessity.
Ghosts n’ Goblins is notoriously difficult, not because its enemies are harder or its hero weaker, but because it teaches less. Its landscapes are player-hostile, with enemies moving in erratic patterns and intruding on the player’s forward movement without often clearly teaching the player about a new pattern outside of that exact moment. Adversity is harder to predict so progress is more jagged. The world of Ghosts is an oppressive place where maps were drawn from eye level with inconsistent terrain. Monsters perch in its dark corners. Its animosity towards the player inhibits your ability to beat the game, and this has been codified by history as the scapegoat for the quality of the game’s design – no one remembers anything about it, except that it’s hard.
Games today, out of nothing more desperate perhaps than the desire to be memorable, have become easy and therefore more available to more kinds of players. Tutorials have been severed from gameplay and given their own segments of explicit and intrusive logic. Even at the expense of gameplay for the common gamer, Ghosts institutes tutorials every second, not to teach its mechanics, but to communicate its tone. This kind of implied story – integrated with the player’s intentions – is the way a great game forces its theme to be a compulsory reaction by its ideal player. Ghosts reshapes you in its image, as a more passive game experience with more literal cinema can never do.
The norms of the time can change how people respond to hostility. The Binding of Isaac is lauded for conditioning its mood with its mechanics, telling a story of desperation and violent futility through the action of the roguelike itself – procedural generation becomes a corollary for the shifting nightmare realms of childhood uncertainty. Player-hostile rooms like the ones that require you to self-immolate for rewards produce for the player the same sadomasochism perpetrated against Isaac by the conditions of his infant rebellion. The Binding of Isaac fashions a mood from a thousand paths that Ghosts creates with one.
The hero of Ghosts, like the player, is not stalwart. He’s caught by a demon as he’s sitting in a graveyard in his heart-dotted underwear. He puts his armor back on and flings himself against the entropy of his hostile world, immediately to the right of where he sat moments before, chatting with his princess. Ghosts is not merely difficult – it enacts specific decisions in the pursuit of a mood. If it wanted to be unbeatable, like any of a thousand Flash games, it could be. Difficulty is not its goal, but its theme.
Take for instance something as small as the level numbers. The first level, the graveyard, which ninety percent of people who play Ghosts never beat, is labeled “0.” The learning curve is steepest before level “1,” in this graveyard in which you are at your least intrepid. Beating it should be a triumph for the average gamer, but they are greeted with the prospect of their work only allowing them to make it to level “1.” The level numbering produces utter futility without mechanically changing anything: there are still the same number of levels, no matter what they’re called. You come away feeling the immense task of beating Ghosts, but the game has not proved its difficulty – it has only implied it. Then there’s the infamous restart – in order to get the game’s ending, you have to play the whole thing twice in one run. But the levels don’t get harder – this is not Ghosts torturing its player, but edifying difficulty with design.
Ghosts is difficult, but a working knowledge of its levels and their inhabitants is the most valuable currency in your pursuit of victory. The worst thing to do against the erratic Red Arremer is to keep back, hesitate – “Firebrand” is his name and he eats hesitation at every meal. His weakness is Arthur’s arousal into a hero. You have to bluff his approach, suffocate him with heroism, lances blazing. The mechanics of this enemy pattern teach the player, not the game’s limits, but their own, imparting by necessity what kind of player will win this game.
This silent personality graft has for all history equated the theme of Ghosts with its nature. It is difficult, but no more than The Binding of Isaac or Spelunky or even Mega Man, a game whose visual themes drastically change the tone of its reception. Ghosts, like Dark Souls, is an aesthetic exercise in intimating a feeling through action. The limitation of Estus Flasks and their renewal at the bonfire forms within the player a conscience, to feel safe at the fire and in peril chasing after the hurt and shadow of the world. It does not aim to make the game more difficult, but to assemble the feeling of a quest through mechanics.
The mechanic in Ghosts that achieves this effect is purely visual – the map of the levels that appears between them, a singularly effective visual corollary for the player’s mood. Without it, the futility of the game’s beginning, railing against an unfeeling world through level “0,” would not convert to confidence and heroism in its player, but only into resignation. The addition of the map, which technically does not help you at all and over which you have no control, offers the knowledge that the quest has an ending to strive for. The map is what protects difficulty in Ghosts from the masochism it would imply on its own by equating your mood with your progress. Dark Souls contains these ameliorating checkpoints and from them makes its poetry of difficulty, of which Ghosts is a stanza. It is a work of shorthand in communicating the temper of its universe and for the subset of gamers who have become Souls players, it is one of the mainstream signposts to their ideal.
The most difficult thing about Ghosts is accepting that for all its grueling reconstruction of the player, all its pretentions of pain, it captures an adversity that players either strive for, or wish to. “They yearn for what they fear for,” Dante said in the Inferno. The difference with games today is not that they journey to hell, but whether or not they ever bother to contain a guide.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org