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Friday, February 20, 2009

Review: Ghouls 'n Ghosts

The second, and possibly the best-known title in a serious of infamously difficult platform shoot-em-up games by Capcom, with a comically medieval aesthetic. Considering that the NES received a conversion of the original, 8-bit Ghosts and Goblins, it is curious that Sega chose for their own 8-bit system its sequel: a game programmed on the same high-powered hardware as MERCS and Strider, and patently not one that the humble SMS could hope to convert 100% accurately. Was this ambition worth it?

Ghouls 'n Ghosts SMS CoverGraphics:

Ghouls ‘n Ghosts was converted to many home systems, and even in the 16-bit conversions, such as those for the Genesis and Amiga, the lush graphics of the arcade – especially the detailed backdrops – were the most obvious casualty. That applies even more for the 8-bit conversions, and of these the Master System is easily the best-looking.

That said, there are negative points: limitations of memory resources show in the use of some unmasked, black-outlined sprites; some glaringly blocky backdrop design (especially in the first two levels, though it improves considerably from level 3 onwards); and stiff animation even in comparison to the C64 version. Some enemies, such as the “mud knights” and “goblin hands” (it’s a weird world out there …), don’t animate at all in this version, and nor do some of the bosses. The sprite limits are pushed too far on occasion, leading to a good deal of flicker and even to disappearing sprites. Some complex, multi-sprite enemies are absent altogether, although this is a blessing in disguise, as it makes the relevant sections of the game (such as level 1’s hill, riddled with random tentacle attacks in the arcade) a good deal fairer. Finally, the presentation (including the end sequence) is on the minimal side.

On the plus side, however, there is a good deal to praise: the sprites are large, colourful, detailed, and all very recognisable from their arcade originals. All but a few of the enemies have survived the conversion. Even the multi-sprite bone dragons from level 5 have made it across, albeit a little shortened to keep them within the sprite limits.

As for the backgrounds, after a somewhat disappointing beginning (especially a very poor rainstorm effect in level 1, and flat windmills in level 2 that looked better even on the Amstrad CPC) the level graphics start to improve dramatically, with impressive renditions of the burning, earthquake-stricken town; the “gargoyle tongue bridges” level (I said it was weird); and levels 4 and 5 (crystal caves and Lucifer’s castle), which look almost 16-bit-quality. Best of all, however, are the huge bosses, which are depicted using the same trick as in MERCS: to draw them as movable backdrops rather than attempting to expand or join together sprites. Whilst this limits their mobility and animation, and in consequence necessitates changes in their original attack patterns, it allows them to be huge and detailed in high-resolution, even to the point of looking almost arcade-quality.

This is also the only 8-bit version of the game to include the final boss, Lucifer … known here as Loki, perhaps to avert criticism that the game had Satanic themes (though I’m not sure that hurling fireballs in Satan’s face counts as a pro-Satanic activity). As he was a very static boss even on the arcade, he comes across very impressively on the SMS; better even than his Amiga depiction. He is however, a laughably easy kill, but that is a gameplay issue.


Ghouls Ghosts Sega Master SystemSound:

The first version of this game I owned was on the C64, which had a recomposed, prog-rock influenced soundtrack by Tim Follin, generally held to be one of the classic video game soundtracks. The SMS version has the standard arcade tunes, which were, I must admit, rather disappointing on first hearing: alright enough, but not as atmospheric as the C64 and Amiga remixes.

Compared to the actual arcade soundtrack, however, the Master System does manage to hold its own. The medieval-style ditties are well suited to the limited instrumentation of the Z80 chip, and actively help to preserve the atmosphere of the game. Even the sound effects, rarely a feature of much note on the SMS, show some creative flair here: the guillotines in level 1 descend with a metallic “clang”, level 2’s rock turtles bounce crashingly along, the earthquake rumbles as the screen shakes, and bats come swooping down with a very cartoon-like descending note effect. Unfortunately, every so often you may hear a sound effect cause one of the music channels to cut out. However, in all fairness the C64 version could only run either music or sound effects – not both simultaneously – so in spite of the renowned C64 soundtrack, the SMS still has the edge even in this department (which is hardly its strongest, as a rule).



Basically the same running, shooting, ducking, and ladder-climbing action as in the arcade version, but with significant alternations, some of which are due to the limitations of the SMS and the rest of which are deliberate changes. In most cases, these work to the game’s advantage, and actually make it my favourite version.

As in MERCS – another Capcom 16-bit conversion – the sprite and memory limits mean that attack waves have been simplified. Enemy numbers are reduced, some enemy types are missing, and some attack patterns that were random in the arcade are consistent in this version, making it possible to memorise one’s way through levels and reducing the reaction-based nature of the gameplay. Although this makes for a less adrenal experience, it is a lot less frustrating than the arcade, in which even level 1 required split-second responses to randomly spawning enemies.

Similarly, the boss attacks are simplified, and far easier to deal with. A notable exception is the level 4 boss, which is extremely impressively rendered (bearing in mind that its arcade attack pattern was also very simple). However, all of the bosses can be very easily dealt with by using magic.

Magic spells are selectable from a menu in this version, rather than only one being available at a time depending on which weapon you are carrying. More spells are gained by choosing better “helmets” from the upgrade screen (which is accessed through certain treasure chests, and is the main deliberate alteration to this version). Although your spell-casting power is limited (albeit rechargeable), the powers it gives you – lightning bolts, fireballs, temporarily doubling your firepower, temporary invincibility, smart bombs, and healing – make the game significantly easier in its later stages, and make the final boss in particular ludicrously easy. This particular aspect of gameplay could have been better thought out, although on the whole the upgrade system works to make the game more user-friendly than its insanely difficult arcade counterpart.

Other upgrades include stronger armour which can stand more hits, although enough strikes will still leave your knight in only his underpants (almost the trademark of this series); and faster boots which must be collected before the armour, as heavier armour without matching boots will seriously impede your jumping ability. Also, the weapons system has been changed from the arcade, in which the six weapons were randomly acquired bonuses, although three of them – the axe, torch, and sword – were next to useless and could ruin the whole game if you were luckless enough to collect them. The useless weapons have been altered and / or removed from this version, and increasingly powerful weapons are collected in sequential order at the upgrade points, just like the armour. The different stages are javelin (standard, adequate weapon), dagger (rapid fire), axe (stronger), discus (strong, and can follow the terrain), and fireball (strong and very rapid fire). The final weapon of all, required for the last boss, is the psycho cannon, which is a full-range weapon in this version, unlike its short-range arcade equivalent. Although it was somewhat of a deliberate challenge in the arcade, forcing the player to accept a short-range weapon in order to win, it is certainly a lot less frustrating in this version to only suffer a small downgrade: the SMS psycho cannon fires less rapidly than the fireball weapon, although that does at least mean it causes less sprite flicker.

Finally, it ought to be noted that although the infinite continue and upgrade options make this game winnable without actual cheating, you are still likely to expend many lives (and continues) in the process. It essentially offers the player the choice of how long they wish to go on, which is no different from the arcade (except for the small advantage that you don’t have to put more money in your Master System).



Looking back, I can’t help but wonder if Sega were being deliberately cheeky in upstaging the NES conversion of Ghosts and Goblins with a surprisingly impressive version of its 16-bit sequel on their own 8-bit machine. In fact, most home versions of this game, with the exception of the slightly disappointing Amiga version and the Amstrad version (which suffers from dodgy scrolling), manage to retain much of the original game’s surreal charm (it helps that it has a basically simple game style, albeit complemented with cutting edge – for the time – 16-bit graphics). The Master System version has additional advantages, being the only version to specifically tailor its gameplay with user-friendly features and make it less frustrating than the arcade. Granted, some of these changes actually make the game too easy in places, but it is still a respectable challenge if one limits one’s continue-plays (but if you want to play through to the end, the option is there). Furthermore, it is an excellent showcase of the system’s graphical power, even outshining the Amiga version in places and spectacularly upstaging NES Ghosts and Goblins.

This game is a superb example of what the Master System could achieve in the hands of dedicated programmers who played to its strengths, worked creatively within its limitations, and did not attempt to take their lead from conversions on other systems. For the ignominious results of that sort of approach, see Strider, SMS version of … then play Ghouls ‘n Ghosts again to take away the taste.


Friday, February 13, 2009

A bit of PD Master System Picross

It's an unfortunate and sad truth, but a truth nonetheless: the SMS homebrew community is far from vibrant. Or blooming. Or -of course- booming. And that's what makes the version of Picross pictured above all the more impressive. That and the fact that it's a brilliantly adapted for the Master System puzzle game complete with nice graphics and deeply addictive gameplay. You can download it from this place. For free obviously.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Master of Darkness

Still reeling from the horror of SMS Batman Returns, I now turn my attention eagerly to a platformer that shows the Master System could indeed pull off an atmospheric gothic adventure with a dramatic and well-presented storyline woven in …

Master of DarknessJust for the record, I have never played Castlevania, though I am aware that this game is often accused of ripping off that illustrious title. However, while Castlevania, as far as I understand, is based in a medieval setting and draws its inspiration from classic horror films, Master of Darkness is a much more Victorian offering, with a dash of Jules Verne-type Steampunk, but mainly inspired by Bram Stoker’s Dracula (the novel rather than the film, which had its own – far inferior – SMS game), pulp penny-dreadful fiction, and Spiritism. In-game enemies include Jack the Ripper, poltergeists, evil waxworks in Madame Tussaud’s, a child medium possessed by an evil spirit, and Count Dracula, who is actually depicted as he is described in the novel (in the close-up shot you will see of him if you fight through to the end) in contrast to the monstrous, demonic figure he cuts in Castlevania.

No-one thought to include Sweeney Todd, alas, but we can’t have it all. ;)


With a view to getting the bad news out of the way first … Level 1 contains some railings and animated trees which haven’t been masked properly, and have ugly black outlines, which is a shame as the backgrounds are generally of very high quality for an 8-bit game. Also, some of the animation on the sprites is a tad stiff, but no worse than in the 16-bit Revenge of Shinobi.

Now for the good: with few exceptions, both sprites and backgrounds are of excellent quality. The level settings are distinct, even from one “act” to another, and really enhance the sense of a journey. For example, for the first set of three levels (first “zone”, so to speak) you begin in the vicinity of London Bridge, traverse the river Thames, and finally fight your way through seedy East End docklands to a showdown with Jack the Ripper. All of the levels continue this sense of progression, and are linked with well-drawn and annotated cut-scenes that really help to set this game apart from the average action platformer (As a side note, SMS Strider also had cutscenes, but no amount of icing could redeem that particular cake). There are several animated elements in the backdrops, the highlight of which comes in the “Epitaph” church clock tower level, with swinging, 16-bit Sonic-style pendulums on multi-sprite chains, and intricate patterns of gears and wheels in the background.

An enlightening video of Master of Darkness in all its Victorian glory.

There are many enemy types, and no confusion over what they are meant to represent: the zombies look thoroughly rancid, the skeleton soldiers as menacing than their relatives in Golden Axe, not to mention attack dogs, bats (with annoyingly erratic attack patterns, but they do keep you on your toes), eagles, flying vampiresses (who either patrol or act like homing missiles, so eager are they for a bite), poltergeist-haunted furniture, knife-throwing dwarfs in robes (possibly Victorian Jawas … definitely the silliest-looking of the game’s enemies), haunted waxworks, gun-toting ruffians, and bosses after every third level. These guardians are rather small, but they give you a good fight until you have worked out their patterns, whereupon they are easily trounced … which seems quite fair to me, as I prefer a game with a learning factor.

There are several weapons available – 4 melee weapons (knife, sword, stake, and axe) and 4 limited long-range weapons (pistol, grenades, boomerangs, throwing stakes) – all of which are clearly animated. There is only one generic white explosion for everything (except your own death sequence), which does get a bit tiresome, but we can assume it is saving sprite memory, bearing in mind the quality and variety of the graphics.

The end sequence isn’t much to write home about, though I have seen many worse.

90% (Good, detailed graphics throughout, and on occasion apt to be mistaken for 16-bit quality.)


Never the strongest link with the Master System, but Master of Darkness does a commendable job of squeezing some pleasantly spooky and well-instrumented tunes out of the old Z80, including incidentals riffs, boss music, cutscene music, and a different theme for each set of levels. Some are better than others (level 3 is excellent, level 2 is simply grating) and all could benefit from being longer, but the musical variety certainly adds to the gaming experience. One need only contrast the interminable, unvarying music that plays through all of the levels of Strider, and the effect it has on a game already gravely in want of atmosphere.

Sound effects serve their purpose, though there is nothing particularly of note. One wishes, for example, that Dracula might manage a digitised scream when you finally dispatch him. Nothing disgraceful, though.

75% (Surprisingly good music, serviceable SFX.)


The awkwardness of climbing up stairs and trying to hit the very pesky and unpredictable bats may put you off at first, but this is a game that rewards persistence. The rules are the same each time you play, so careful progress and observation will enable you to evade and destroy enemies who may have wiped the floor with you previously. There are a few annoying, unannounced pitfalls (Recommendation: do not take a fall unless there is no other way to go) spikes wipe out a very harsh amount of energy compared to baddies, and dying deprives you of your long-range weapons, but it is definitely a winnable game, even without the built-in cheat mode (that would be telling … ;) ).

The different melee weapons all have their appropriate uses (except the knife, which is rubbish and should be replaced forthwith). The sword has great range, but its poor damage can be a risk when fighting bosses, who go down much more quickly with blows from the short-range axe. This adds a small but welcome strategic element to combat. With the long-range weapons, the best choices are the grenades (especially for the last boss, hint, hint) and the throwing stakes. The boomerang is a bit pointless, though it does animate quite nicely.

Power-ups are liberally spaced, but beware of picking up unwanted weapons, as replacement is automatic. Enemies respawn instantly if you backtrack, so never forget to clear an area thoroughly (always with an eye on the time limit). As mentioned before, the bosses tend to be tough at first, but careful observation of their patterns will pay off. The last two-stage boss is quite a challenge (unless you took that previous hint). Not the most difficult of games, but not a patronisingly easy one either. Apart from one or two slight annoyances, very well-balanced.

80% (Unoriginal, Shinobi-esque stuff right enough, but why not try an old and successful game formula in a new setting? The selectable weapon system and occasional simple puzzles add a little variety, but the combination of solid platforming action in an atmospheric, well-presented setting is what really makes this game work for me. Nor does it hurt that it is fair and winnable.)



Frustrating to begin with, but one that I keep coming back to, with some of the best presentation on the Master System and a gripping gothic atmosphere. A rewarding and dramatic game that might not quite hit the top rank of 8-bit platformers, but still puts a good few to shame.