Remember Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts? The Dark Souls of the ’90s

Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is one of a handful of games that I simultaneously love and loathe, almost in equal measure.

A favorite of mine from the SNES days, Capcom’s platformer has been thrown to the wayside over the years, forgotten by the majority while fans of the developer’s ’90s output mainly stick to repeatedly asking for a Mega Man comeback. Well, guys, Mega Man is finally getting a brand new game, so now it’s time for Arthur’s renaissance.

Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is brutally difficult. Sharing the same design ethos as its arcade predecessor Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, that game was created with the intention of convincing kids to pile more quarters into arcade machines. With Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts being a SNES original and not appearing in an arcade cabinet, there was really no reason for it to be as tough to beat as it was, aside from Capcom wanting to make us suffer. And suffer we did.

Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts retained the look of the 1988 arcade game, though featured wholly unique levels which rank among some of Capcom’s finest work, putting most other non-Mario platformers to shame. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts throws players in at the deep end, with it refusing to hold your hand even in its opening stage, sending you on a journey through a sprawling haunted graveyard.

Drag Me to Hell

You’ll fend off zombies and weredogs, navigate thin ledges across an ocean as tidal waves threaten to pull you away to your death, desperately try to jump over flaming carts made from the skeletal remains of the deceased, before fighting a giant, long-necked bird who attacks you using the egg of its offspring that it propels at you from its gaping maw. And this is just the first level.

Every stage presents new Lovecraftian horrors that want you dead, and as a kid, most of these enemies scared the bejesus outta me. What separated Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts from Super Mario World — my other favorite game at the time — was the distinct differences in the psychology of its enemies. In Super Mario World, most enemies don’t actively pursue you. It’s the reason why its ghost houses stand out — with most other enemies in the game, you’ll be killed by them if you accidentally stumble into their pre-designated movement pattern, while the ghosts are actually looking to hunt you down and off you.

In Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, more-or-less every enemy wants to kill you. Demons circle around your head firing projectiles at you, towering cat beasts try to freeze you with their icy breath, and each boss fight presents a battle against some otherworldly nightmare deadset on dragging you to Hell with them. Even the environment is conspiring against you, with fatal vines sprouting up from beneath the ground and trying to prick you with their poisonous needles, or avalanches tumbling across the screen in an effort to bury you alive. The ’90s featured a plethora of difficult games, but even for its era Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was an extraordinarily tough experience.

I Have to Do WHAT?!

The outright hostility for its players’ patience was exemplified by its conclusion. After forcing Arthur through a series of increasingly punishing levels and defeating the final boss, the player is informed that actually, you need a bracelet tucked away at the beginning of the game to beat it. It then sends you back to the very start, with you having to play through it all over again in order to get the “true” ending.

Without the luxury of the internet pre-warning me about this twist in the tale, this revelation was maddening when I played it as a kid. It took me weeks to fight my way through the game, and then after finally beating it, being sent all the way back to that fucking haunted graveyard was almost enough to convince me to turn off my SNES. Of course, if I did that then the absence of a save system would mean that I’d be forced to start the game all over again. So I kept playing, inevitably ran out of lives and was forced to contend with the fact that I would have to beat the game TWICE to finally close the book on it.

I can’t remember how long it took me to beat Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, but when I did, it was a triumphant moment. Sitting back and watching those end credits roll with my dad, who had been playing the game alongside me, a wave of relief washed over us as we could now find something else to do on our evenings other than fruitlessly try to complete it.

Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts‘ legacy deserves to have endured beyond its absurd twist. It’s unfortunate that it’s now only really remembered for its ending, as it offered something truly unique in a sea of platformers aspiring to be the next Mario. Considering that a high difficulty curve is once again perceived as a hot commodity by many, with games such as Cuphead and, yes, the SoulsBorne series being the subject of much discussion as a result of them being hard to beat, it’s surprising to me that Capcom has yet to dust off the Ghosts ‘n Goblins series. I hope that changes in the future.