Ginger Nuts of Horror
Who remembers Ghouls 'n' Ghosts?; That nigh impossible, Demon's Souls of its day; that coin-munching, teeth-grinding, temper-fraying icon of arcade cabinets and home systems of the 16-bit era?
I do. I have many (sort of) fond memories of being hunched over an arcade cabinet whilst on a family holiday in Cypress, mashing those buttons, wrenching that joy-stick, desperately trying to take my limited supply of coins as far as they could go (without, of course, pestering Mom and Dad for more).
A title that still resonates; part of video gaming's history; essentially a platform game with a cartoon-horror motif in which, as the Knight Arthur, you set out to rescue your bride-to-be from the clutches of Satan himself. Along the way, you battle undead hordes, scabrous vultures, werewolves, titanic cyclopses, wolves of living fire and many more bizarre and miraculous beasties.
Most players recall the half way point of the second level (if only because that's as far as many got, owing to the game's fiendish difficulty), at which point you would encounter a mountain of skulls, atop which crouches a red, winged demon who dive-bombs Arthur with such speed, he is almost impossible to dodge.
This unambiguous bastard (who, from this point, is encountered at various points throughout the game) is Firebrand, a demon who, in one of the most bizarre marketing decisions in history, became the subject of his own spin off game, Demon's Crest.
Now, I imagine most of you who were even into video games during the era are scratching your heads and wondering whether or not I'm making this up. This is due to the relative obscurity of the game, certainly in Western markets: having only an extremely limited release in the US And, I believe, none at all in the UK and most of Europe, the game went largely unnoticed by the video game playing public and press of the era.
And that is a crying shame, as, it's ultimately one of the best titles you can play on the Super Nintendo; a genre-defying mixture of platform and RPG elements, the game has more than a whiff of the Mega Man X series about it in terms of dynamic and structure; as Firebrand, you travel the demon world (more or less at your leisure; the structure of the game is extremely open owing to Firebrand's ability to fly around a world map and land in particular areas, at which point the game switches to a side-scrolling adventure), seeking out rival demons and the eponymous crests they have stolen from you (the crests are magical items each representing particular elements, which lend the demon who wields them power over the entire demon realm). By facing your rivals and not only recovering the crests (which are stolen from Firebrand early in the game), but absorbing their powers as well, you become gradually more powerful, able to switch between various modes that allow you to traverse obstacles in the playing arenas (for example, one power allows you extended powers of flight and greater navigation, another allows you to batten onto walls and climb, another to break certain barriers and so on and so forth) and to defeat enemies who were previously all but impossible.
The game is expansive, even the smaller, side-scrolling stages vast and multi-layered. Owing to Firebrand's ability to fly and climb (and later, to burrow and blast through floors), the stages are unusually expansive for games of this type and era, containing any number of secret passageways, sealed off areas and various obscure pick ups. Each one bears revisiting numerous times as Firebrand's abilities grow, if only to find what has been missed and to unlock the game's numerous secrets (there are potentially numerous endings to the game, depending on what Firebrand has managed to uncover).
In terms of style and design, the game is redolent of its parent, Ghouls 'n' Ghosts, in that it is a fantasy game with vaguely horror overtones, but here, the latter element is emphasised: the demon realm is, as you'd expect, a cruel and Hellish place, the earliest encounter in the game fairly tense and distressing: inside an immense, bone-strewn necropolis, Firebrand encounters the current wielder of the Crest of Heaven: an immense zombie dragon; a decaying titan of bone and exposed organs, of loose, tattered skin and burning eyes. Like most encounters in the game the monstrosity has weight beyond simply being a big boss monster; initially, you hear it growling, dragging its claws and tatters across the floor. Then it emerges, bursting through a sealed doorway, rampaging at Firebrand, leaving the player little time in which to react. Being the first encounter in the game, it's actually deceptively easy, but the panic induced by the sudden emergence of the immense and beautifully grotesque sprite is enough to unsettle the player and disrupt their reactions. This is a consistent theme throughout the greater encounters in the game; all are set up with small, visual set pieces or heralded by ominous sounds, distressing music, enhancing tension and making their eventual revelations all the more impressive.
Certain encounters even boast dialogue; another rarity for games of this type, establishing Firebrand's relationship to consistent rivals and his desires for dominion over the demon realm. Most consistent in this regard is Arma; lieutenant to the game's principle antagonist, the demon king Phalanx, who currently controls the majority of the crests. With each encounter, Arma demonstrates new abilities based on the crest he wields, expressing a degree of grudging respect for Firebrand each time he is defeated. Arma is very much the consistent nemesis of the piece, every encounter with him having the feeling of a grudge match, making him far more than just a boss to defeat.
The boss encounters in general are fantastically designed and deliciously atmospheric; providing fitting culminations for the fiendish levels, each of which is macabre, intricately detailed and fun to explore.
The gameplay can be occasionally frustrating, owing to re-spawning enemies, some truly malicious traps and enemy placements that are, at times, irritatingly difficult to overcome. There are also potentially problems with the RPG or “free roaming” elements of the game, in that part of its longevity relies upon replaying the same stages over and over in order to find what new secrets can be unlocked there. This can become a little repetitive, certainly towards the game's latter quarters.
That said, the game is notable in that it actually transcends the parameters of its parent by leagues and bounds: Demon's Crest is the superior game, in terms of design, atmosphere, graphics, music, structure...in almost every aspect; a rarity not only amongst video games, but media in general: how often to spin-offs and sequels, especially those this bizarre in conception, actually prove successful, let alone enough to supersede what spawned them?
Hardly ever at all.
Were the game more broadly released, I have no doubt it would have garnered classic status on the Super Nintendo and likely been one of the iconic titles of the era. As it stands, it's a well loved, cult obscurity; a game that is still highly playable, even in the present day, and which is slowly gathering a degree of well deserved, posthumous praise.
is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.