Across its 21-year history, Capcom's Ghosts 'N Goblins series has always elicited an appropriately ghoulish mix of exasperated sighs and lilting murmurs of approval. Mechanically solid and well designed, technically attractive (notably in the 16-bit dazzler Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts) and notoriously bastards to beat, the games' legacy is attributable to their sheer quality of construction that, in spite of many a bitter anecdote attesting otherwise, most players simply cannot deny.
As one of the longest-lasting bastions of side-on platform action, the setup is both immediately familiar and refreshing for its rarity in modern gaming. Play as legendary knight Arthur and run from left to right, using a variety of weapons to fight off the demon hordes that stand between you and the captive princess. As it turns out, things do get a little more complicated in this latest instalment, but more on that later.
And so, neatly double-jumping with pixel-precision over the fact that it's now 2006, Ultimate Ghosts 'N Goblins (UGG) successfully rises to its title's challenge of establishing the definitive iteration of the series on one tidy UMD package. And tidy it certainly is. As if to prove once and for all that the developers flogging their PS2 wannabes and ports onto the PSP are profoundly missing the point, Capcom's latest is as stirring a display of side-scrolling beauty as Sony's Loco Roco—or for that matter their own Viewtiful Joe. Backgrounds and foregrounds creep and ooze alike, whilst never overshadowing the compulsive light shows of birth, death and re-birth that the incessant enemies stage in their midst.
The traditional orchestral audio also serves the action as well as fans would expect, although only fleeting aesthetic appreciation is sanctioned in UGG given the intensity of the gameplay itself. Even with Arthur's initially modest mobility, there are times when the zoned-out sense of flow that accompanies busier moments earns UGG genuine bragging rights among the very best of instinct-fuelled twitch games. Only the precarious jumping and double-jumping requirements and the inclusion of a few irritating ladders could really spoil the party for those who feel the game should always be more forgiving than the player.
So yes the legendary ruthlessness is still here, but so too is the acknowledgment that the game would not be what it is without it. The fun comes from immersing yourself in a symphony of death and chaos and not only wading through it, but appreciating the wily deviousness behind its composition. Thankfully, since the ability to pick yourself up and try again is virtually a pre-requisite for enjoying the game, UGG's Novice and Standard modes do at least cut us modern lightweights some slack with numerous lives that offer instant regeneration and save points after every level and major boss fight.
Another break in series tradition comes in the form of an inventory for keeping track of collectable abilities and power-ups. These become more important as the game progresses (and on the harder modes), but it is perhaps both a testament to the finely tuned game balance and also a criticism of it that it is possible to survive without paying too much attention to the inventory screens. Likewise, though modern gamers may feel slighted that simply walking into (or falling onto) a weapon will irreversibly pick it up and replace their current one, the fact that all the weapons are of good use in just about any situation is either marginal justification of that quirk or surprisingly impressive tuning depending on how you look at it.
And what of the series' laughably sadistic final levels that order the poor weary gamer to complete the game all over again to view its 'true' ending? Well, that's still here too—the player must collect a number of hidden gold rings to enter the final lair—but this time it's somewhat more welcome given the anaemic length of the game by today's standards. Despite the slightly random ring locations, it remains satisfying to comb the nooks and crannies of previous levels with a new suite of abilities (most notably a hover ability that alleviates many platforming woes), warping access rights and, perhaps more importantly, a better knowledge of how to beat them. Which is a good thing too, since there are actually 3 'true' endings to find this time. Is that a sigh mixed with a murmur of approval I hear?
And so it is that the series's venerable blend of cut-throat peril and exemplary platform action is not only maintained, but arguably kicked up a notch with newfound levels of visual splendour, hellish level design and structural ingenuity. Though far from universal in its appeal, Ultimate Ghouls 'N Ghosts is quite simply a masterfully executed platform game.