Super Ghouls 'n' Ghosts: The true Dark Souls starts here

This is the fourth in a series of short essays I'm writing to highlight relevant design lessons we can derive from Super Nintendo games—specifically the ones I'm playing on my SNES Classic Edition. Check out the introductory post here for some additional context.

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Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts

Capcom | 1991

For as long as I can remember, there's been this debate running throughout the video game world: is it ok if games are too hard for some people to finish them?

Recently, game designer Rami Ismail wrote an essay in Rolling Stone on this topic with maybe the best take I've seen on the topic to date:

"As our industry grows, we’ll see a continued increase in player diversity and game diversity. That means that a difficult game like Cuphead now ships with a Simple and Regular mode...

In no way does that mean that hard games have to offer an easy mode, or that easy games should offer a hard mode. It just means that there are many game experiences that could be enjoyed by more people...

To me, it seems only fair to try and make sure as many people as possible can access what is within, and carry those experiences in their heart."

That's a progressive perspective from the year 2017. I agree with it, and it's a philosophy I endeavor to incorporate in all of my games.

Around the same time I read this piece, I started digging into Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts, Capcom's 16-bit successor to the challenging arcade and NES platformer Ghosts 'n Goblins. And, uh...wow. Here's a game that just doesn't give a damn whether you win or not.

Own your challenge

Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts doesn't set out to convey a strong sense of place or purpose. Its narrative is trite, conjuring up essentially the same premise of the previous games in the series. It's not particularly nice-looking—in fact, it's probably aged worse than the average Super Nintendo game. Instead, Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts seems solely concerned with providing an exorbitant challenge for the player's skill and reflexes.

Previous articles in this series have been about what games do right. And don't get me wrong: Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts absolutely does some things well. But it's a perfect example of a game that would've been dramatically improved by paying attention to its difficulty curve and where a broader player base may be coming from. Because...okay, look. I'll be honest: I like this game a lot. I'm actually pretty good at it. But getting to the point where I was reasonably competent at the game took way too long.

A lot's changed in the way challenging platforming games are made since 1991. Games like Super Meat Boy delivered an extreme challenge, but they often pair it with a fair, reasonable, and finely tuned difficulty ramp. They don't just throw you into the deep end; they guide you intuitively from concept to concept and allow you to put everything together at your own pace. This year's Cuphead is very tough, but thanks to a clear tutorial and an optional "simple" difficulty mode, it provides a variety of entry points depending on how sharp your old-school gaming reflexes are. 

One lesson that's really hit home for me in my life recently is that talent isn't a measure of potential—it's just your starting point. What makes the biggest difference is the effort you put in from that starting point; that's the primary determinant of how far you'll go. Games like Cuphead and Super Meat Boy give you a pretty reasonable starting point, which means even inexperienced players can make progress almost immediately and begin intuiting what they need to do in order to develop the skills needed to finish the game.

Unfortunately, Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts doesn't do that. And why should it? Hindsight's 20-20, and we no longer live in the era when direct-from-arcade ports constituted a large portion of console games.

But that's the biggest lesson I'm taking forward from my time revisiting this old, unforgiving, lovable quandary of a game: challenge is nothing to shy away from, but in an ideal world, everyone deserves a shot at getting there. And you don't have to compromise your ceiling by lowering the floor.