Among console gamers there is an understanding that games just aren’t as difficult as they used to be. While there is certainly a modicum of skill and familiarity necessary to conquer even the easiest games of the current generation, there’s usually an understanding in, say, a modern first-person shooter that if you play a game on the “Normal” setting, you won’t have to restart at the same checkpoint all that many times to get past a given stretch of gameplay. Games have inserted convoluted stories and pure length in place of the marathon practice sessions of the past. If a given game actually presents a pure challenge, a stretch that even the dedicated player willing to put in hours of practice might not pass, references to the 8-bit game of ages past start flying.
“That’s Nintendo hard.”
“That might challenge Castlevania.”
“That’s so fucking Battletoads.”
Ghosts and Goblins is one of the most legendary of the “Nintendo-hard” games, an arcade experience translated as faithfully as 8-bit technology would allow, a journey that even kids with all the time in the world had a hard time getting through. That game’s arcade iteration is one of the three in Capcom Arcade Cabinet‘s “1985-1 Pack”, a pack that seems expressly designed to remind you just how unforgiving arcade games could be back when the expectation of success wasn’t a given.
These were games designed to punish you, games that didn’t care how many quarters you put in. Sure, every one of these games has checkpoints and feeding quarters into the machine allowed the player to save progress to an extent, but none of them allow you to simply start up again where you left off. Dying comes with a price, and in that era, that price was often a loss of progress that could at times seem insurmountable.
It likely comes as no surprise that this version of Ghosts and Goblins is just as difficult as its NES counterpart. Where some aspects of it feel more forgiving — the default javelin feels much less sluggish, for example, and well-timed shots can stun some larger enemies in place — other pieces feel trickier. The density of the enemies is a little higher, their attack patterns a little less predictable. That said, it also looks prettier than its often-ugly NES counterpart, which manages to slightly counteract the psychological toll that constantly getting killed and starting at a frustratingly distant checkpoint has on the player.
Gun Smoke, from the same pack, isn’t much better and is actually the first game in the whole set that I used the built-in autofire function for. One false move and you’re dead in Gun Smoke, and the tenaciousness of the enemies — not to mention the constant fire of the bullets, grenades, and even knives — ensures that you never have a moment to relax. Even getting through the first stage of Gun Smoke, autofire enabled or not, feels like a feat; getting through the whole game can feel like conquering Everest and K2 in the same week.
Section Z rounds out the pack, making it a cool three-for-three in the NES-conversion department. The arcade version of Section Z is simply a horizontal shmup, with none of the interesting pathfinding of the NES version, and it actually manages to be the easiest of this group. Still, the last few stages could inspire a thrown controller or three, and I got the impression by the end that the game may well have taken pity on me after so many failures; at no point did I feel as though I conquered it. Perhaps I simply lucked my way into finding the final magical checkpoint spot.
Despite being strong enough games to have inspired NES conversions, Gun Smoke and Section Z feel inferior to Ghosts and Goblins. More than anything, they feel like genre exercises with small twists — in Gun Smoke, you can shoot three ways; in Section Z, you can turn around at any point to address threats on either side — without much in the way of distinctive visuals or sounds to back them up. They’re not bad games by any means, but neither inspires the sort of nostalgic wistfulness that the brilliant and difficult Ghosts and Goblins manages to muster.
This is, I suppose, the same criticism that could be levied at the 1986 Pack, which includes Legendary Wings, Side Arms, and Trojan — three more brutally hard arcade experiences that simply don’t offer the same sort of nostalgic wistfulness that Ghosts and Goblins and previous entries 1943 and Black Tiger managed to muster. The most interesting of the three is Legendary Wings, another in the top-down shooter collection this package beats into the ground that offers the additional challenge of some side-scrolling platformer-style stretches. It’s disconcerting when it turns from a 1943-alike into the arcade equivalent of the action sequences in Actraiser, but it at least keeps things from getting stale; that both styles of play offer unique and difficult obstacles keeps things fresh and interesting throughout.
Really, of all the games introduced thus far, Legendary Wings may well be the most likely to be enjoyed by someone who’s had no experience with any of them.
Trojan is not actually a half-bad game either, in that it offers swordplay over shooting action. The action of the sword and shield is difficult to master, but it also offers the most opportunity to impress an observer with mastery. Like Avengers before it, Trojan is particularly challenging at the boss fights, high-speed chess matches where the bosses offer patterns but not predictability. It is truly a game in which success lies in mastery of the primary mechanic rather than in simple repetition.
Finally, there’s Side Arms, one of those sub-par shooters that feels too fast for its own good and comes off as overly easy when you stay alive long enough to build up a superpowered devastation machine, but is also ridiculously, stupidly difficult once you lose those powers. The good(?) news is that you can feed it “quarters” until it mercifully ends.
Of course, if you grew up with Side Arms, you think I’m full of shit.
Nostalgia has everything to do with how you’ll feel about these games. I’d like to think that I’m not off-base in thinking that Ghosts and Goblins is objectively the best of the six games under review here, but I grew up with Ghosts and Goblins. Objectivity is an impossibility. The only way to get a truly objective opinion on these games is to ask someone who wasn’t there for an opinion.
My kids think they’re all dumb. Does that help?