31 years ago, this spooky Capcom game changed platformers forever
Play as a knight in his underpants.
In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, the comedian Bob Einstein gained a wave of cult fame by appearing as an Evel Knievel-type stuntman known as “Super Dave.” Einstein, who later rose to prominence on Arrested Development and Curb Your Enthusiasm before his passing in 2019, turned Super Dave into a living Looney Tunes character. Playing one 1991 SNES game in particular via the Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack recently made me wonder if its developers based their hapless, brave hero on Super Dave.
You see, Super Dave’s stunts would inevitably end with him getting mangled, brutalized, pulverized, run over, and just generally destroyed in ways that would certainly destroy a person, yet he always returned for another sketch. After appearing on Johnny Carson and David Letterman for years, the character finally hit the big time with Super Dave, a variety show that ran from 1987 through 1991. Given that the show only aired in America and Canada, it’s unlikely, but it would make a lot of sense.
Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, one of the most difficult games ever made, definitely gives off Super Dave vibes as its knightly hero Arthur runs around in his underpants after getting pummeled by all manner of ghosts and ghouls.
SGG is a comically difficult game, one where losing is part of the joy, and what you’re most likely to do.
A continuation of the already extremely hard game, Ghosts n’ Goblins, SGG keeps the same basic plot and doubles down on what made the game (in)famous in the first place. You’re Sir Arthur. You’re rescuing Princess Guinevere and trying to banish the evil Emperor Sardius. You’ll have to read the game’s manual to gain any of this plot because the quick cutscene at the beginning simply shows you a guy in armor who is in love with a princess, then a demon steals said princess, and you’re then dumped onto a world map. Let’s go!
Getting thrown into the world of SGG is a rapid-fire experience. While the game loosely shares a plot with Mario, there’s no gentle World 1-1 here to get settled. Zombies instantly swarm Arthur, not to mention pouncing hyenas, flaming creatures that shoot blasts of fire, exploding brain-bomb-looking things, and menacing clams spitting pearls.
Arthur has unlimited lances to chuck at these ghouls, as well as a double jump and his armor that will boldly protect him from one attack. After that, he’s down to his underwear, and after that, he just becomes a pile of bones.
If the enemies aren’t enough, the environment also messes with the player. After surviving a particularly difficult encounter with the jumping hyenas, I leaped through a series of small grass areas only to have the ocean behind me rise up and wash me out in a tidal wave. Only after several attempts did I realize I had to stand on top of a statute to survive the wipeout.
SGG has a number of moments like this. Under fire from different statues spewing out bones, as well as a shifting terrain, I eventually made my way over to a chest, which I had to break using several lances. Out popped a malicious wizard, who turned me into a baby who couldn’t attack or jump. I simply had to laugh as this adorable infant started crawling around.
SGG knows how cruel it is and enjoys rubbing it in the player’s face.
The game rewards players with trigger fingers and a penchant for punishment by offering some pretty sick levels within, especially one inside a giant ghoul’s stomach. The floors turn from intestinal lining into grotesque teeth, with Arthur needing to jump away into a bone-elevator of sorts that rotates the level to get to the next platform. It's very cool.
It’s possible to beat SGG, as playthroughs on YouTube show. In the comments, players share memories both warm and furious, especially when they learned back in 1991 that they had to beat the game twice to get the true ending (like I said: it is cruel). But for the truly committed holy knights out there, the ones who don’t mind dying over and over (or rewinding on the Switch), Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts is a testament to an era when games would push players to their absolute limit.