Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection Review — A Ghoulish Challenge

Review Copy provided by Capcom. Reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

In Capcom’s rich library of I.P., “Ghosts ‘n Goblins” is one of the last franchises I would have expected to make a sudden comeback. The series and its legacy of incredibly punishing medieval platformers has been close to dead for nearly fifteen years, since 2006, when “Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins” brought the series to the PSP. Series creator and Capcom arcade legend Tokuro Fujiwara has returned for “Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection,” his first game since Platinum’s “MadWorld” hit Wii in 2009. And while “Resurrection” doesn’t quite live up to the series’ peaks, it offers enough of a brutal, satisfying challenge to honor the “Ghosts ‘n Goblins” name.

It’s impossible to talk about “Ghosts ‘n Goblins” without bringing up its most infamous feature, its brutal difficulty.

It’s impossible to talk about “Ghosts ‘n Goblins” without bringing up its most infamous feature, its brutal difficulty. Before I started “Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection” I’d been playing “Nioh 2,” another game renowned for its harsh difficulty. Years had passed since I last played a “Ghosts ‘n Goblins” title, but I figured my experience with other recent “difficult” games would prepare me for Arthur’s struggle to find the princess.

But the punishment I received in “Resurrection” makes “Nioh 2” feel like hopscotch. There’s a thin line between enjoyment and frustration, and “Resurrection” is uniquely committed to violently trampling over that line with football cleats. The appeal of “Ghosts ‘n Goblins” has always been the wild sugar rush that came from dumping another coin into the machine and pressing on, past one more zombie, past one more bridge. The occasional spurts of anger and frustration are matched by the feeling of accomplishment and achievement. And while many great games thread that needle, “Resurrection” too often crosses over into frustration.

The selection of levels in “Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection” combines a number of remixed takes on classic levels with original content. Most notably revamped are boss battles, which are longer and more challenging than in the classic games. These brutal encounters are generally the highlights of their respective stages. There’s a skills upgrade tree in “Resurrection” that allows players to get permanent bonuses. Some are much more useful than others. One upgrade path gives Arthur an inventory for weapons and magic, allowing him to hold multiple weapons or spells at once. That’s a pretty fundamental change to the way weapons work in this series, but it’s a helpful feature and a welcome change.

The most rewarding games balance challenge and frustration with reward and understanding. So much of that approach is embodied in the boulder at the start of “Dark Souls.” A boulder unexpectedly drops from a stairwell, killing or injuring the player. At first, it seems unfair. But when the player finds the hole left by the boulder, it contains crucial instructions and a precious healing item. What makes challenging games enjoyable is that balance between discovery, risk, danger, and reward. The boulder may have killed you, but that failure opened up another crucial path and taught an important lesson that may prevent future deaths.

In Resurrection’s best moments, it excels at delivering those harsh lessons, executing them with precision and grace. The game’s last two boss fights in particular are great examples of well-balanced challenges, with interesting new mechanics and rewards. The coin-ops may be gone, but “Resurrection” still captures much of the original’s joyful arcade rush while updating the experience enough to capture a modern audience. There are checkpoints, difficulty settings, and upgrade paths that diverge from the classics, but, for the most part, this is authentic to what “Ghosts ‘n Goblins” has always been.

But “Resurrection” too often severs that link between punishment and education. The really frustrating bits of this game aren’t the moments when you fail an objective, they’re the parts when the objective is unclear. At one point, I spotted a checkpoint ahead of me and crossed it. But it failed to activate and I died. It took several tries before I accidentally discovered that the checkpoint isn’t activated by simply touching it like the game’s other checkpoints, but requires an event to trigger it.

The really frustrating bits of this game aren’t the moments when you fail an objective, they’re the parts when the objective is unclear.

Another moment finds the player hounded by a swarm of insects, but their movement pattern is unclear and unpredictable. When I finally evaded the swarm, it felt like I’d made it to the next area purely by chance. That’s not satisfying. I even booted up my favorite classic entry in the series, “Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts” on the Super Nintendo, for a more direct comparison. The levels in that entry are much more lucid: the objective and destination is always clear. When I died, it was because I failed to execute a jump or got hit with a projectile, not because the level design is saggy. I was frustrated, but I wasn’t confused.

There are still levels in “Resurrection” that live up to those peaks of the franchise, but there is more dead weight muddling the experience than in the classic entries. In one boss fight, there’s an easy but lengthy flying sequence where the boss can’t be harmed, followed by a difficult boss fight. But every time you die, you have to repeat the flying sequence before you can actually fight the boss. And you will die many, many times. That’s not difficulty, it’s tedium. The issue with “Resurrection” isn’t that it’s hard. It’s the artificial sense of challenge created by murky encounter design.

“Resurrection” hasn’t quite nailed the feel of the arcade classic, either. Arthur’s movement isn’t quite as responsive as the core gameplay demands. Movement in this series has always felt stiff, but combining that stiff feel with a slightly laggier character hinders the basic loop, even if it’s a relatively minor annoyance that players will eventually adjust to. But played back to back with the original, the difference was clear. Like so many other aspects of “Resurrection,” it’s almost right, but something feels slightly off.

Perhaps the most divisive change in “Ghosts ‘n Goblins: Resurrection” is the new artwork.

Perhaps the most divisive change in “Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection” is the new artwork. “Resurrection” discards the 2D-3D look of “Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins” in favor of a more hand-drawn style with a storybook approach to flat 2D animation. The change never gelled for me, and the more I played, the more that the artwork and animation felt uncanny. While there are certainly moments where strong art design shines through, other moments look a bit ugly. It’s a shame that the new artwork doesn’t always work because many of the individual designs are well-made. But something about the way they combine and animate can feel mismatched.

It may sound like I’m being a bit hard on “Ghosts ‘n Goblins Resurrection,” but I don’t intend to. This is still an exciting, devilishly fun retro platformer. It is absolutely worth playing. It’s only because it’s held up to the standard of excellence Fujiwara and Capcom have set with the other “Ghosts n’ Goblins” games that “Resurrection” feels a bit slight. This isn’t quite “Streets of Rage 4,” that rare beast of a retro revival that matches or even surpasses the original. In some ways, like the level design and sense of challenge, “Resurrection” is nearly there. In others, it doesn’t live up to those hallowed arcade classics, let alone surpass them. But while it may not have toppled that arcade Goliath, the fact that “Resurrection” is still so much fun proves that even the lesser entries in this phenomenal series are worth checking out.

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