You know Ghosts ‘n Goblins by now. 2D action-platformers with a horror vibe. You know the dark of the series’ scrolling night. The creep and shudder of the monsters rising from its graveyards. You are a knight, powerful but also delicate, the merest hit shedding you of your armour and leaving you scampering around in your underwear. It is a gothic world, devils and skeletons, but it’s also quietly funny: that underwear, but also huge hands descending from the sky to grab you, and there’s something charming and comedic about the fist-pumping, knees-up run of yours, somehow so little of the expressed energy channeled into useful speed.
I love this world. It’s so wretched, but so inventive. Even before you get to the difficulty, just look at it, and listen too: the classic video game graveyard, with the yawning, dancing, Addams Family accompaniment of an organ on the soundtrack. Beyond the graveyard are crystal palaces, or is it ice? Dragon rides through the clouds, swooping and circling and jumping from one beast to the next. A little intestinal travelling, a little peristalsis, as you move through demon guts surrounded by razor teeth instead of waving villi. Around you: vampire bats! Hungry caterpillars! Clown skeletons! All of it delivered with an art style that was controversial at first but turns out to be pretty wonderful, really, everybody you meet a collection of jangling, jolting articulation points, everyone paper thin, all but dangling on strings. The rich dark colours recall folklore prints, or those lacquered Russian boxes containing secrets. The perfect style for a hideous way of life lit only by the moon.
Venture out. Resurrection feels like a victory lap. Early on at least, you get to choose which level to tackle from a pair, but they’re all filled with precision horrors, stuffed with secret challenges, hidden treasure chests and nasty surprises. Then things narrow. Onwards through a short campaign that stretches into hours and hours when you realise that actually it’s all about mastery – running these levels on higher difficulties until you feel like you can take on anything, unlocking alternate versions, getting to the point where you can beat the intestinal fly boss while on the phone to your dentist.
Yes, it’s hard. And amusingly so. It piles on the horrors in a way that makes you shrug and then engage with them because it’s all so unreasonable. You can hear the developers laughing at their own audacity. At one point I was running up a very tall staircase battling some kind of ancient evil when the game decided to chop the staircase into sections, and then move some of the sections up and down. Another time, I was fighting a boss when the game decided that the ground should collapse and I should leap from one piece of rock to the next or fall into the magma. Another time, the hill I was on was not a hill at all. At another, creeping plants grew out of the earth, blocking me in, while their flowering heads spat globules of papier mache at me.
Then there are the weapons chests that might give you something great, or might give you something pretty useless. The first time I fought that fly boss, I had nothing but a sort of bright blue alcopop to throw at him, which was great for setting the ground on fire but terrible for battling a boss who didn’t spend much time on the ground. Once, riding a dragon, I found myself chucking what looked a lot like rotten cabbages around. I made do. I had to.
That said, there are concessions. This is what I really like about this Ghost ‘n Goblins. It wants you to enjoy yourself regardless of your skill level. It wants to balance the pure evil of the stuff that the hardcore want with an easier setting in which you are reborn exactly where you stood the moment you die, and where you continue to be reborn from each death until the end credits roll. And settings in between!
Even if that’s all a bit too kind, there are other options. Scattered bees hidden throughout each level unlock skills on a strange tree, and you can cobble together different selections of them, allowing you to switch between casting lightning, say, and creating a ghost version of yourself to fight alongside you, to turning yourself into a boulder. You can go into battle with a bunch of these skills alongside your standard weapon, but only if you can find those bees to cash in, and that’s tricky. And only if you can hold the button down long enough to fire up each spell without being hurt while you do it, and that’s tricky too. Balances!
Resurrected is filled with this stuff. With secrets and set-pieces and a decent local co-op mode in which one player is a sort of protective phantom. And it reminds me: I have always loved Ghosts ‘n Goblins as a series, because it’s so beautifully video gamey. It is filled with things that feel like classic elements. That tinny organ riff, theatrical dread meeting the tannoy at a basketball game. That neat pile of bones you rattle yourself into when you’re dead, such a polite monument to your toil. What astonishes me here is that this game manages to balance the desires of an expert audience with the fumbling progress of a willing chancer like me. Somehow nobody gets short-changed.