Many people consider Ghosts 'n Goblins an all-time classic in the 2D action genre. An equal number of people consider it a simplistic, ball-busting torture device that's best left buried in the past. Both groups are right, and now that the Nintendo Entertainment System's version is available in the Virtual Console shop, you can spend 500 Wii points to find out which camp you belong in.
Ghosts 'n Goblins is a run-and-gun shoot-'em-up with a horror atmosphere. You play a knight named Arthur who has set out to retrieve his kidnapped bride from the clutches of Satan's palace. To do that, you have to run, jump, climb, and shoot your way through six ghastly environments populated with ugly monsters--twice. Your main weapon is a throwing lance, but you can pick up knives, axes, and flaming torches along the way. Zombies, ghosts, and hungry birds are your most common enemy, though you'll also have to contend with some mad tricky jump sequences and the bosses waiting at the end of each level.
Back in the day, Capcom lured arcadegoers and NES owners alike to Ghouls 'n Ghosts with its stylish graphics and unsettling music. Even today, watching Arthur throw lances at those scowling 8-bit pig monsters will give you the urge to pick up the controller. However, if you do pick up the controller, you'll fall into the same trap everyone else did 20 years ago: This game is sadistically difficult.
Zombies crawl up from the dirt relentlessly and flying creatures are constantly swooping down at you. Dodging them is often a better strategy than shooting them because Arthur can only shoot left or right, not up or down. The bosses, which are typically three or four times Arthur's size, take multiple hits to vanquish, as do many of the so-called "normal" enemies you'll encounter as you travel through frozen forests, burned villages, and the devil's castle. On top of everything else, Arthur can only take two hits before he's dead. The first knocks his armor away, revealing his heart-speckled underpants. The next will turn him into a pile of bones and send you back to the beginning or middle of the level, depending on how far you've made it. Until you've put in hours of practice, the going will be very slow because of all of the split-second jumps and surprise enemies the game throws at you.
Thankfully, the controls never let you down. You may be overwhelmed by enemies or miss a moving platform because of slow reflexes, but the controls are always precise and responsive. That's ultimately what makes Ghouls 'n Ghosts so addictive: You know in your heart of hearts that you'll make it farther the next time if you just remember to take out that fire-breathing plant that zapped you the last time. The transition to the Wii hasn't hurt the responsiveness of the controls one bit, although you may want to hook up a Classic Controller just for the comfort that the rounded edges and buttons afford. One welcome aspect of the Virtual Console release is that exiting the game doesn't clear away the continue data, so you can gradually work through the quest without starting from scratch every time.
Later installments in the series, under the Ghouls 'n Ghosts banner, gave Arthur more weapons and the ability to shoot up or down. They also jazzed up the graphics significantly. Still, some people prefer Ghosts 'n Goblins because it's the one that started it all. In any case, this game is for those folks who consider dying a lot and investing countless hours of trial and error as two of the necessary components of a good side-scroller.