You're a harsh mistress. You kick me in the nethers, you slam the door in my face, and you treat me so bad. But in the end…Ultimate Ghosts and Goblins, you've got the goods. I'm a masochist for you baby, under the pointed toe of your leather boot I experience pleasure in my pain. Hurt me and you'll get the love back in spades, or the number of lashes I willingly incur on my body.
If there was ever a video game equivalent of a dominatrix, it would be the Ghouls and Ghosts series, now resurrected for the PSP. The series has always been notorious for the frustration and controller-lobbing rage it induces, so you might be pressed to ask why anybody would want to touch it in the first place. At a glance, the archaic mechanics may seem like bad design, but fans of the series would have it no other way.
For instance, our protagonist – the knight Arthur bred from the gentlmanliest of loins – still jumps with a predetermined arc. You can't control him in mid-air, so you can either leap straight up or to the left or right and land where you land. Since so many other series have moved past such restrictive mechanics, this could be construed as an unnecessary leftover from the realm of the retronauts. But it isn't, and that's what makes Ultimate GnG so incredibly beautiful. Each of Arthur's maneuvers or weapons serves a specific purpose that is part and parcel of the level design. Playing through GnG is one half reaction and one half memorization. Learning enemy patterns or the ways in which parts of a level move or deform is crucial to truly understanding the game.
Jumps are literally built with this arc in mind and the developers like to tease the player by putting power-ups exactly where a player could screw up if they don't know how the game is played. They'll put a treasure bonus bag with 10,000 points over a gap knowing that you'll try and go for it, but if your timing and trajectory aren't right, you'll probably go sailing over it into the abyss below. This sense of "knowing" and predicting a player's actions is what lifts Ultimate GnG out of level design hell. It is truly the mark of a well-crafted game.
That said, it's still one of the toughest you'll ever encounter, with the novice difficulty equivalent to the "hard" modes of similar side-scrollers. Standard difficulty reinserts some of the challenges and level features removed in novice, but retains the "immediate resurrection upon death" mechanic. Ultimate (aka Arcade) mode will simply make you break down in tears. Every time you die, you start right back at the beginning of the stage, and unlike the multiple health tiers of the other difficulties, you get two hits no matter what kind of armor you're wearing.
If that scares you off…well, there are plenty of other games to play. Go find a copy of New Super Mario Bros and have yourself a ball. I think it takes a certain type of gamer to tackle the nigh insurmountable challenges UGnG likes to throw at them, but new additions to the formula make it slightly more accessible than its predecessors. There's a whole new item system in place that allows Arthur access to new abilities as the game goes along as well as special magic and shields which can be equipped and then unleashed upon the enemy. There are restrictions on these, as well…magic requires potions and shields only last as long as their durability allows. It may seem unfair, but once again, the game is all about efficiently managing what is given to you.
There are also a number of new and familiar weapons Arthur can pick up. Contra-style, though, picking a new one up with make you lose the old one. It's a good idea to remember that since each weapon is useful in different situations and they have their own rate of fire/power levels. For instance, the sickle can be thrown like a boomerang and picks up power-ups in its path, while the knives have a faster of fire than any other weapon. It's easy to feel out what weapon is appropriate for each situation after a couple play sessions.
The game itself isn't very long. Harkening back to its arcade roots, there are only eight full levels, but the challenge ensures that it'll take quite a bit of time to really master them. On Ultimate difficulty alone, you could probably spend a couple dozen hours perfecting it (assuming you ever do). Plus, plenty of exciting boss fights, bonus rooms, secret paths, and hidden treasure can be found in every nook and cranny of the game. Replayability is quite high for something so inherently compact.
Capcom did a great job of updating the aesthetics, as well. Much like Maverick Hunter X and Mega Man: Powered Up, everything is made of polygons that mesh surprisingly well with the two-dimensional gameplay. Even more so than those other two updates (and it should be noted, those we remakes – UGnG is a whole new game despite sharing similar themes), the environments are incredibly detailed and dripping with details here and there. The horror atmosphere is put to good effect and there's generally a lot happening on-screen with no noticeable slowdown. The music sounds nice, though it's exceptional in no real way other than hearing the familiar tunes which really didn't need to be changed anyway.
Ultimate Ghosts and Goblins is about as classy of a package as you could possibly ask for. The challenge is no doubt going to turn away a lot of people. As I said, I think it takes a certain type of gamer to really get into the game, one who relishes overcoming the greatest of odds. Ultimate mode would test even the best players to their limits. I say this because the entry price is $39.99, which is deserved, but not appropriate for those who'll get frustrated just trying to make it through the first level.
But if you've ever had late-night liaisons with a lady dressed in black leather and cracking a whip, then you've probably already bought it.