You need to play the most underrated Metroidvania of all time on Switch ASAP
The gargoyle demon Firebrand stars in this Ghosts ‘n Goblins spinoff.
Video game designer Thomas Grip, who helped make horror games like SOMA and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, once told Vice that for a “pure sense of primal terror, there is nothing that can beat a game.” Games offer a level of control and immersion that can feel like a power grab at times, but can also feel terrifyingly powerless. However, Grip said, the “personal horror” that could be felt in movies like The Exorcist was often missing from horror games.
Video games can hook a player into the journey of someone they’ve never been. To find that personal horror, why not spend a few hours in the body of a demon? That’s the idea driving the 1994 Capcom game Demon’s Crest, which, if you’re a paid Nintendo Switch online subscriber, can be played right now by downloading the Super Nintendo Entertainment System app.
Demon’s Crest isn’t a horror game in the way the term is often used today. There are no survival elements to the game, and the main character, a demon named Firebrand, doesn’t feel underpowered. Rather, it’s a well-made side-scroller platformer with some RPG elements that falls squarely in the Metroidvania subgenre. The game just happens to have a wonderfully spooky main character and setting that both ooze with with style — and power.
What is the titular demon’s crest? Well, there are six of them, actually. The game’s plot revolves around six Infinity Stone-esque gems that grant their owner incredible abilities. Demons have been fighting over these stones for eons, and just as Firebrand was about to emerge victorious, his victory was thwarted by his rival: Phalanx. Firebrand was locked up in a dungeon, and now it’s payback time. After defeating a dragon in the dungeon, it’s back out into the haunted world for Firebrand.
Originally an enemy from the notoriously challenging Ghosts n’ Goblins series, Firebrand starts off in that series’ home turf: a graveyard. Originally armed only with fireballs and the power of flight, Firebrand can waste the undead with an efficiency that the protagonist of Ghosts n’ Goblins could only dream about.
This early gameplay is fun. Firebrand can also hook himself into any surface, making vertical levels a fun challenge. The enemies are well-designed, including wonderfully creepy flower monsters that populate pits. But the game really takes off when Firebrand picks up the Stone of Earth.
Now, Firebrand can transform into a goblin who can jump higher and shatter stone statues. The game also moves into a sort of open-world structure, zooming out over a map and allowing Firebrand to fly to various levels. All of these show a world in decay, sometimes with piles of human skeletons falling out of windows. A few NPCs offer insights into Phalanx's plans, but mostly it’s just Firebrand in this world, a demon alone in a hellish world.
Each upgrade feels significant in Demon’s Crest. Mostly it’s obvious which talents are relevant for each level, but when it comes to the game’s bosses, some trial and error is needed. The bosses require impeccable timing and constant attacks, and each one feels spooky enough to pose a legitimate threat to a demon. A giant skeleton with a sword named Bleth especially stands out.
Reviewing Demon’s Crest in 1994, Electronic Gaming Monthly predicted that the game would “probably be one of those sleeper games.” By the standards of the time, EGM thought the game was “gorgeous” with “some of the most detailed graphics seen in an action game.”
Like another slept-upon game with mystical vibes, The Immortal, Demon’s Crest is a masterpiece of pixel art. All of the enemies, even the white sheet ghosts that fly around a few levels, feel hand-crafted. The levels are easy enough to navigate, although having a walkthrough either on YouTube or an FAQ can be very helpful.
What sets apart a game like Demon’s Crest is its attention to detail. The music is filled with creepy organs, the NPCs are a bunch of creepy weirdos, and watching Firebrand fly over the map is a delight.
If you want to play one old-school game to get into the Halloween spirit, make it Demon’s Crest.