Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Gargoyle's Quest (1990)

Box art scan shamelessly stolen from GameFAQs.
Someone at Capcom USA should have been sacked for turning
Firebrand into a green gargoyle instead of his signature crimson.

From time to time, video game companies see fit to tinker with their intellectual properties.  This may be due to creative surges within the development teams, wanting to try something new.  Sometimes a dev team knows the formula within a given series has become stale or rote, and they feel the need to mix things up.  There are examples where changing the formula has had resounding success, such as Konami's Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, as well as instances where this approach completely flopped, as was the case with Accolade's Bubsy 3D.  Whatever the reason, creative minds generally need to branch out to do different things on occasion, to keep things fresh and flex the creative muscle.

Even though the box doesn't specify the Ghosts 'n Goblins
subtitle, the title screen makes sure you know what's up.

Such is the case with Gargoyle's Quest from Capcom.  It's sort of an off-shoot of the Makai-Mura series, better known as Ghosts 'n Goblins, or Ghouls 'n Ghosts.  In Japan, the game is known as Reddo Arima: Makai-Mura Gaiden, which can be roughly translated as Red Arremer: Demon World Village Side-Story.  Rather than starring the main protagonist of the Ghosts/Ghouls series, Arthur, it actually stars the "red arremer" enemy from the original game, known as Firebrand.  Based on the game's plot, it could be seen as a prequel to the original game, which you find out at the end of the game.

Nothing like initial story exposition from a series of ghouls dying
right in front of the main character. And this was a children's game?

Gargoyle's Quest is a side-scrolling action title, like its source material, but where the previous games were content just being ultra difficult, quarter munching arcade action games, Capcom changes up the formula.  Alongside the action sequences, you also have an overhead world, much like a classic JRPG, including towns where you can converse with other ghouls from the ghoul realm, and perform other tasks.  Each town has someone who will exchange the game's currency (vials) for talismans that act as additional lives.  There's also someone who will give you a resurrection spell (aka, a password), that you can use to continue your game if you need to power off your Game Boy, or you lose all your lives and want to continue your progress near where you left off.

For a game within the first year of the Game Boy's life, this title is
absolutely gorgeous. The flames in the windows flicker and burn,
and the rest of the backdrop is lush and detailed. Also, fish bones.

The game begins with the requisite story told via scrolling text, then a short bit of exposition via a few conversations seen in the overhead view.  Once that sequence is done, you're thrust into the first action level, culminating in a boss fight at the end.  Once that first level is done, you're taken to the overhead view, and get a chance to walk around the world to find the next town, where you'll discover your next objective.  In the overworld sections, you can encounter random battles; unlike a traditional RPG, however, you're placed back into a side-scrolling action sequence again, with between 1 and 4 enemies you must dispatch, to complete that action sequence and go back to the overworld.  After each of these random encounters, you'll earn "vials", which you can use later to purchase extra lives.  When in the overhead view, you can press the A button to access a menu, and you can choose to TALK to a person, USE and item, check your LVL or level, to see what your stats are, what weapons, items and magic are at your disposal, and so forth, and finally, you can CHK to check, or examine an item you see laying on the ground, or look for a secret.

"Whatcha doin', Firebrand?"
"Just hangin' out, dude!"

The basic flow of the game is thus: explore the overhead world, fight random battles, earn vials, find the town, talk to the town's ghouls, buy extra lives, get your password, then talk to the town's ruler, who will usually task you with a quest (hence the name) to retrieve a magical item or beat a baddie who they can't defeat.  Prior to taking on that task, this ruler usually bestows some power or item upon you that will upgrade your attack, or your life/defense, to aid you in completing your mission.  Once you complete that mission, you return to that ruler to either get directions as to where to travel to next, or sometimes get upgraded further before venturing on.  Some areas of the map have bridges you have to cross, which are often devoid of enemies, but are still side-scrolling action sequences, though more focused on avoiding traps, pitfalls, and environmental hazards, rather than combat.  Each major action stage includes a boss, and as you power up Firebrand, you will often need to use different attacks to take on those bosses, as well as to help traverse the stages themselves.

Now that is one ugly flying fish. Turn him into sushi, Firebrand!

Firebrand has a number of abilities.  He can jump in the air with the A button, and because he has wings, by pressing the A button again when he's in the air, he can hover or fly for a brief moment, until the "W" meter at the bottom of the screen is empty.  If you jump or fly up to a wall of most any kind, Firebrand will cling to it with his claws.  This particular ability is a key component of the game, because it's required to traverse each action sequence.  It's also key because, each time you touch the ground or cling to a wall, the "W" or "Wings" meter refills, giving you another brief moment or two to fly or hover.  When you're clinging to walls, you can fire in the direction opposite of the wall you're on.  You can also cling to a wall, jump, and then cling to the same wall higher up, allowing you to climb to the top and access more of the stage.  If you press the Start button while in an action sequence, not only does that pause the game, but you can then select between any of the weapons you have.  Also, if you have collected the "Essence of the Soulstream" item, it gives you a one-time use ability to refill Firebrand's health during an action sequence.  This ability will recharge for subsequent action stages.

This is one of the random battle encounters you face. Unlike a
regular RPG, you get a small action sequence where you have
to kill all the enemies to get back to the world map.

There are 4 attack types you have access to throughout the game.  The first is a basic flame attack, which you have at the start.  The second is a sort of spinning, boomerang-like weapon that can also double as a means of breaking certain blocks, to clear a path.  The third is known as "Claw", and is a large ball that, when spit out against a wall of spikes, creates a temporary place for Firebrand to cling to, useful for scaling large walls of spiky terror.  The fourth and final weapon, obtained just prior to the final boss battle, is known as Darkfire, and is a large flame.  This weapon shoots slowly, and can only be fired one at a time, but it's required to take on the final boss, the King of Destruction.  As you progress through the game, using the most recently acquired weapon is good for most situations, though toward the end you'll find yourself switching between the boomerang and the claw from time to time, depending on the circumstances.

Something tells me this guy's not happy to see me...

Gargoyle's Quest is a gorgeous early Game Boy game, really flexing the graphical muscle of the handheld.  Sprites are large and detailed, and generally speaking, animations are fluid and well done.  Terrain and locales are all rendered interestingly, with nice touches, such as the spooky looking tree trunks in the opening stage, to the floors of flame or blowing grass in some of the later stages.  Backgrounds are sometimes a bit sparse, but paired with the excellent foreground graphics, it becomes a total package that really shines on the handheld, and shows just what it was capable of so early on.  The overhead areas are also detailed and interesting, though Firebrand's 2-frame walking animation seems pretty basic.  All in all, the game wastes no time impressing visually.  I also wanted to make special mention of the "explosions" in the game, or the interesting visual effect when some enemies die.  It's a neat effect where the enemy sprite sort of simultaneously explodes and implodes, but with a bit of a sideways motion.

Who would create such an idyllic little town in the middle of a scary
forest? Looks like the real estate agents in the ghoul realm forgot
the 3 cardinal rules or property: location, location, location!

In the audio department, Gargoyle's Quest also shines brightly.  A couple of the game's themes recall the original Ghosts 'n Goblins or Ghouls 'n Ghosts main themes, though in a more subtle fashion.  The rest of the original music in the game is excellent, with a varied mix of energetic tracks played during action stages, along with more somber, contemplative material for the overworld map and town sections.  The short ditty that plays when you activate a random battle in the overhead view is foreboding, and the jingles that play when you defeat enemies and earn vials will get stuck in your head.  As for sound effects, they're well done also.  Capcom used more than one sound set for creating the "voices" that you hear when townspeople are speaking to you, and the various other sound effects all fit the game's mood, aesthetic, and overall presentation.  Kudos to composers Harumi Fujita and Yoko Shimomura (better known for her work on Final FightStreet Fighter II, and later Parasite Eve) for such an expressive, emotive set of music to accompany this game.

This little sandpit can be tricky to get to. If you don't approach it
just right, you'll get flung back, as if you were in a windstorm.

The game has a few interesting design quirks.  First and foremost, while the overhead sections serve to function a bit like a proto-RPG, the random battles that ensue are treated as individual entities.  By this, I mean that, when you enter a random encounter, you have full health.  After each random battle on the map, your health refills.  This is by design, I'm sure, since you start with only 2 hits, and the game would require even more patience and persistence to clear, were it not for this small mercy.  The password system, while only 8 characters long, is full featured.  Each password takes into account the town you're in, the items and powers you've collected, the number of talismans (lives) you have, and the number of vials you have collected.  Because the game is reasonably linear, there are probably a relatively finite number of passwords, but it's still relatively robust for what it is.  Also, despite the fact that, in the overhead view, you have 4 menu choices, you only use the "USE" command a couple of times in the game, rendering that feature relatively pointless otherwise.  Oh, and you'll want to stock up on extra talismans early in the game.  Toward the end, each extra life costs 32 vials from the local merchant - ouch!

Capcom really used the potential of the Game Boy's hardware
when making the graphics for the game. Even today, they're
stunning, with intricate designs, and lots of fine detail.

Gargoyle's Quest is a difficult game, and at times, can be pretty punishing.  The ability to purchase extra lives helps, though I found myself forced to "grind" through dozens of random battles toward the end, to earn enough vials to purchase extra lives, so as much as I was making mistakes in the later action stages, I could foul up and still be able to muddle my way through.  This game moves at a bit of a slow pace, though it's still action packed, and because Firebrand sort of moseys through each level, sometimes the enemy or hazard placement can feel cheap, though, like with most any action platformer, level memorization helps alleviate some of that.  In general, slow and steady wins the race.

The pause menu has a handy-dandy heads-up display, showing
you the number of lives, how many vials you've collected,
which weapon you have selected, and more.

Incidentally, I played through most of the game on the original Game Boy DMG model, and switched over to playing on the Super Game Boy toward the end, just before the second to last boss encounter, when the difficulty started to ramp up.  Despite the motion blur on the DMG, the game's excellent graphical design and generally slower pace made for a pleasant experience on the monochrome handheld, even after all these years.  For a game to still be fun to play, and still play well, on the monochrome Game Boy, it has to be a good game.  It's easy to have fun with most any game from this era, played on a Super Game Boy, Game Boy Player, or later iterations of Game Boy hardware; but for a game to still excel and not feel like a chore to play on the original hardware, when there are so many better alternatives?  That's a sign of good game design, and Capcom delivers that in spades with this title.  Despite the fact that this game is very common, it has gone up in price in recent years, to around or above the $15 mark.  With most Game Boy games, I would recommend looking for something less expensive, or waiting for a good deal, Gargoyle's Quest is worth every penny, and is an essential cart for the discerning Game Boy fan or collector looking to get the best titles for the library.  If you haven't played this game, and you even remotely enjoy action platformer games, or action adventure games with light RPG elements, you owe it to yourself to check this game out.  Highly recommended, if not downright essential.

1 comment: