Sunday, October 12, 2014

Forgotten Gems: Demon's Crest

Time for more Halloween madness! Kick the tires and light the fires, big daddy......

The definition of hard.....

There have been many video games over the years that I would say fit into those classic Halloween themes, such as the one I covered last year, Monster Party. There's also the almost-always-awesome Castlevania series (which I will cover at another time, for sure), or the old Resident Evil games, etc. etc. However, one series that really stands out, is the Ghosts n Goblins series, both for it's own cavalcade of monsters, as well as it's screen-punchingly hard difficulty. One of the coolest monsters, and one of the most frustrating enemies in any of the games (Ghosts n Goblins, Ghouls n Ghosts, Super Ghouls n Ghosts), was the flame-red gargoyle called Red Arremer, otherwise known as Firebrand. That motherfucker would float and dive at you, at the worst times, killing you right when you're near the end of the game, and haunting your nightmares. Well, in their once upon a time seemingly unlimited well of wisdom, ol' Capcom decided to give the little bastard his own game.....

BEHOLD!............hey why's he green?

So in 1990, on the Game Boy no less, out came the eponymous spinoff, dubbed Gargoyle's Quest. As with many Game Boy games of the era, it had a cool but questionably odd cover art (white Kirby, anyone?), as RED Arremer, the new anti-hero Firebrand, was depicted as GREEN. Who knows....

One of the first games to allow you to play the "bad guy" from a previous game.

In the game, you play (obviously) as the demon Firebrand, who serves the ruler of the Ghoul Realm, King Darkaon, and strives to become the "Red Blaze" of legend, to thereby save the land from the armies of the King of Destruction, King Breager. The game was a unique mix of side-scrolling action/platformer, as well as having light rpg elements. You explore towns and maps from an overhead view, ala rpgs, and collect items and grow more powerful throughout the game. But the main action, as seen above, took place in that traditional side-scrolling view, and was definitely action oriented, with a mix of fighting monsters, floating on your gargoyle wings, and utilizing your cool wall-clinging ability. One of the elements that lends itself to the challenge of Gargoyle's Quest, is the fact that while you have wings, you cannot simply fly all over the screen as you please, the game instead allowing you to float for limited amounts of time, gauged by the little "W" bar at the bottom of the screen. The game sees you travel through various areas, fighting the five game bosses and collecting items to improve your abilities. In a rather fucked move on Capcom's part, the sixth and final boss battle, with King Breager, gives you an option before the battle, and depending on which option you choose in the dialogue, you either get to keep all your items and fight the boss normally, or are totally stripped of all your items, making you incredibly weak and virtually unable to actually beat the boss. A fine example of some of the total dick moves that certain classic games used to pull on players, though I'd label that one of the worst. If you beat Breager, you save the Ghoul Realm, and all is evil.....I mean GOOD again. That is until..........

BEHOLD!......that's more like it, eh?

In a somewhat surprising move that reversed the trend of the early 90s (along with Kirby's Adventure), of NES games getting sequels on the Game Boy (Kid Icarus, Metroid, etc.), in 1992 Capcom released a sequel on the NES, in all of it's full color 8-bit glory. In all honesty, while the first Game Boy game is awesome, I'm not really sure why they didn't just make it an NES game itself, as it certainly would have benefited, or at the very least, they could have released both games on both systems, as they did for certain other games, like Duck Tales.

Color suits him well, don't ya think?

Gargoyle's Quest II is very much the same type of game as the first, an rpg-like game where you travel around an overhead-view world map, and go to areas ("dungeons") in a regular side-scrolling manner. It would seem that while it's numbered as a sequel, the game is actually somewhat a prequel to the first, as it's supposed to feature a younger Firebrand, who is in training. While he is away training, a dark force called the "Black Light" comes and destroys his home, and naturally, once he returns, he must be the one to set off and find out what the hell (literally) is really going on. Again, it's a fun, though very challenging game, with various different landscapes to explore, and giant monster bosses to fight. Though I will say, one thing that the Gargoyle games have over Ghosts n Goblins, is that while both are very hard in their way, in the GnG games, half the difficulty comes from the awkward jumping mechanics. Whereas, in the Gargoyle series, you actually do have a much greater degree of control over your character, whether it be jumping at varying heights, floating in midair for limited time (which your bar increases, seen in the screen above, as you progress and get more items), or clinging to walls, which can and will really save your bacon innumerable times throughout the game. In another odd turn, GQII was ported to the Game Boy in Japan only, in 1993, and surprisingly, it was even given two extra levels. They were supposedly going to bring this "enhanced" version of the game to NA as well, but cancelled it. To me, even if they had, that's a rather cheap move on any game company's part, to release a game, and then just a year later release a "better" version of the game with more levels? I think a lot of people in NA would have been pissed if they'd done that. Though in all fairness, it wasn't unusual for Capcom of all companies to do things like this. Just look at Street Fighter II.......

Bad ass.

So now we come to the article's namesake, and my personal favorite entry in the series, in fact one of my favorite SNES games of all time, Demon's Crest. It would have made more sense for them to name the game "Gargoyle's Quest III: Demon's Crest", but instead they just dropped the original title completely, adding to the confusion of those who do not pay attention to such things. But make no mistake, it is in fact the third, and thus far last Gargoyle's Quest.

Well would ya just look at that......

Demon's Crest was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of those games that really showcased just what the SNES could do, when it released in 1994. Hell, '94 was already a bad ass year for SNES, what with the releases of Super Metroid (Metroid III), a great port of Mortal Kombat II, Final Fantasy III (VI), and Donkey Kong Country. Demon's Crest just added to that glut of awesomeness. And in all honesty, just as much as Super Metroid, FFVI, or DKC, Demon's Crest really displayed the height of the kinds of graphics and sound that it's games could be capable of. As you can see above, for its time, the level of graphical detail was rather incredible, and while you can't hear it by reading this article, the soundtrack was also bad ass, and featured some really fittingly creepy and mood-setting tunes.

The game starts off with a real bang, again as you can see above, that is the very first opening area of the game, and you immediately encounter this enormous, undead zombie/bone dragon. When I first rented this game, and fired it up, pressed start, and got into this area, and this thing just tramples on-screen, I was literally like "Holy Shit!". The battle itself, being the first of the game (and a clever way of getting you familiar with the controls by just throwing you in the water, unlike most modern games that force you through this painfully slow gameplay "tutorial"), isn't all that hard, but you are presented with a rather clever "psych-out" moment, as you beat this guy, he crumbles, and you exit stage right, feeling awesome about yourself, to the next screen, only to immediately have the even-more-crumbled bone-dragon head burst through the wall, and you kinda-sorta have to fight it a second time! Really a great way to start a game! One of the coolest openings to any game ever, really.

One of the cooler features of the game.

So the set-up of this game seems a bit different, to be sure. In the previous two games, Firebrand is presented more as an almost straight-up hero of his (admittedly "evil") monstrous Ghoul Realm, saving the day and such. In the third outing, the focus sees Firebrand seemingly growing beyond just serving demon kings and saving lands and such, instead showing him almost rather as a would-be conqueror in his own right. It seems that there are six magical Crests in the Demon Realm (what they call the Ghoul Realm now, which, as if it weren't clear in itself, is the place where the monsters Sir Arthur fights in Ghosts n Goblins/Ghouls n Ghosts come from), and anyone who attains all six, can basically wield god-like power, and "conquer all realms". That bit really reminds me somewhat of the six Infinity Gems in the Marvel Universe (which were, ironically enough, the focus of several big Marvel Comic cosmic story arcs in the early-to-mid-90s, around this same time).

At the outset of the game, it seems Firebrand has already come into possession of five of the crests, Fire, Earth, Water, Air, and Time. By defeating the demon bone-dragon in that opening battle, he collects the sixth, Heaven, but is left in a weakened state from the battle, and is set upon by another demon, Phalanx, who attacks you and takes them for himself. Somehow those damn things wind up getting scattered across the realm again, and it's up to you to go beat some ass and find them.

That son of a bitch.....

The game again features much the same gameplay, though the overhead rpg map style exploring is now replaced by a streamlined "Mode 7" 3D-ish flight around the world map, similar to the SNES Final Fantasy games (once you get an airship, that is). However, one major new addition, as can be seen above, is that as you collect the different elemental crests, you also gain the ability to transform into other gargoyle forms, which give you differing abilities. Your normal fire form, of course, allows you the same floating/wall clinging powers, as well as your fire breath. As you get the other crests, you can at will change into Ground Gargoyle (smashing stones), Aerial Gargoyle (can fly much better), Tidal Gargoyle (seen above, can breath/survive under water), as well as later Legendary Gargoyle and lastly Ultimate Gargoyle. It's a pretty cool new feature, and really livens up the gameplay. The game, much like the previous games, only features about six levels, though in this you have to backtrack to earlier levels with new powers to access hidden areas.

If I had one real complaint about Demon's Crest, that would be it: that it feels a bit too short. If it even had, say, one more full-length, seventh level, or better yet eight or more, it might feel like a bigger adventure. As it is, if you know what you're doing, you can kick some serious ass and the game will be over before you know it. That was the feeling I was left with upon beating the game all those years ago (the only one in the series thus far that I have beaten, without Game Genie), was that the fun ended too quickly. It's a really enjoyable game, and the controls and gameplay are even more fun and finely tuned than they were in GQI and II. So if it had been a bit longer, that would have made it more or less perfect. As it is, it's still one of the best SNES games in an already excellent catalog, by this man's estimation. And it, as well as the series as a whole, is totally "Halloween Material". So if you find yourself here in October, leading up to Halloween night itself, wanting to play some games that really fit the season? Then find yourself a copy (somehow....there are ways), and play these great games! And if you can only play one, make it Demon's Crest. You'll be glad you did.

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