The ability to pause and rewind action is not something most video games include. While the idea offers a certain level of intrigue, it feels almost heretical to the idea of gaming in the first place. If a boss kills you, you’ve got to start over. Maybe not all the way over, but most games work off the idea that segments need to be completed from start to finish.
Rewinding the game, being able to zig when you accidentally zagged, time that roundhouse kick better, get that headshot when you hit a limb, sounds great. But many gamers would prefer to earn those rewards the old-fashioned way: by playing through over and over again, getting better with each run.
It’s an idea that makes a lot of sense. And for one NES game available to all Nintendo Switch Online subscribers with the Nintendo Entertainment System app, it’s better to play with heavy use of the rewind button — at least at first. Chances are that’s the only way you’ll get anywhere.
We’re talking about Ghosts N’ Goblins, which anyone with a paid subscription can download right now.
Understanding the difficulty of Ghosts ‘n Goblins makes more sense when you learn its director was Tokuro Fujiwara. Fujiwara, also known as “Professor F,” became notorious for his intimidating personality. When Fujiwara was named the 13th greatest game creator of all time by IGN in 2016. “He has some kind of different atmosphere than other people,” Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami told the site of Fujiwara. “He is not big or macho and he doesn’t raise his voice either, but he is really scary.”
Developed as an arcade game for Capcom in 1984, Ghosts ‘n Goblins quickly began gobbling quarters in Japan. It wasn’t long before it made its way to the west, distributed by Taito America. In the run-up to Halloween in 1985, Taito brought potential distributors to a haunted house in Atlanta, where jukebox trade publication Cash Box reported that they were “greeted by the likenesses of such ghoulish characters” like Elvira and Lurch. Celebrity cutouts aside, the distributors learned something downright spooky: The game was producing more than $400 a week, which is just over $1,010 in today’s money.
What made Ghosts ’n Goblins so addictive? Well, there’s a story that’s both similar to and very different from Mario, for one. The basic premise as described in the manual is the same — a kidnapped princess needs to be saved — but the context is totally different. Instead of a Mushroom Kingdom, they’re in a graveyard. Instead of turtle-like Koopas, there are demons, ghouls, and undead. The Mario series would be haunted a few years later when Super Mario World introduced the Ghost House, but Ghosts ‘n Goblins is a decidedly more gritty affair.
After a brief introduction, the player is thrust into the thick of it: You are the Knight (sometimes referred to as Sir Arthur, sometimes Sir Michael, just called “the Knight” in the manual) and you are here to throw as many javelins as humanly possible. Probably more javelins than humanly possible, if we’re being honest.
Here’s why Ghosts ‘n Goblins took so many quarters: It is incredibly easy to die in the game.
The Knight starts off in shining armor, but it’s not very durable. One hit reduces him to his underwear and the next one kills him. Attacks come from nearly every direction and they don’t stop. Obstacles like tombstones aren’t clearly marked and are to get stuck on, and once you’re stuck it’s already too late.
Bosses in Ghosts N’ Goblins advance on the Knight quickly, sometimes meaning that the only approach is to actually back up, facing past enemies at the same time. Bats fly all around, swarming in twos and threes. Piranha plant-type enemies referred to in the manual as “Green Monsters” fire at the Knight with annoying accuracy (Piranha plants actually debuted in Super Mario Bros. in 1985, meaning Ghosts got there first in terms of deadly plants). It’s possible to learn some defenses, like ducking against flying ghosts, but dodge one enemy and three more will likely pop to take its place. Unlike The Immortal, a very hard SNES game that practically challenges players to find all the ways it will kill them, Ghosts is very upfront about your demise.
Ghosts ’n Goblins did not debut in a vacuum. The arcade game came amidst the midst of the video game crash of the mid-’80s. The crash mainly affected consoles — a market flooded with cheaply made and poorly functioning games left players frustrated and turned off.
Ghosts is certainly not E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The game functions well. But it’s very easy to imagine a young player getting so incredibly frustrated with the game after a few tries that they give up completely. It doesn’t reward progress very much, heaps punishment on the slightest mistakes, and is all over in minutes. It’s telling that a walkthrough of the game made by a lifelong players starts off by saying, “I’m not sure if I love or hate Ghosts ‘n Goblins.”
Luckily, you are not a plucky young gamer in 1985. You can play this game with the Switch’s rewind feature, allowing for a certain level of raging against the darkness that the game would never allow on its own. The changes don’t have to be big — rewinding for a duck here, a dodge there — makes it feel like you have a fighting chance. The game is still very hard, and at certain points it might make more sense to just die and start again, but the option revolutionizes gameplay.
Or you could play it without using rewind at all. It’s your funeral. And as luck would have it, you’re already in a graveyard.