Hidden Treasures of 16-Bit: Demon's Crest
Root for the bad guy!
It can't be easy being a video game villain. After all, you're essentially designed to lose. In the 2012 Disney animated film, Wreck-It Ralph, they hit upon a great idea by having different video game villains like King Bowser from Super Mario, Dr. Eggman (it's so hard not to call him Dr. Robotnik...) from Sonic and Kano from Mortal Kombat making up a support group for video game villains to help them feel better about themselves. I actually wished they had fleshed this idea out and used it more in the film. Perhaps in the sequel coming in 2018...
But occasionally, a villain makes it so big that they get their own franchise. The most obvious example is Wario, who made his debut as the lead villain in Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins for the Game Boy, and a couple years later, got his own spinoff called Wario Land. This spin off (which must have seemed like a simple lark to Nintendo at the time) hit a nerve with gameers, and turned into its own series. Heck, Wario proved to be so popular that he even got his OWN spin off franchise, with the WarioWare series. Isn't it funny to think how many games Wario has by now, yet King Bowser has never had his own standalone game? Oh sure, there have been a few games (mainly the Mario RPGs) that have used him as a playable character, but he's never had his very own game. Even Princess Peach got her own game a while back on the Nintendo DS. I think Bowser is long overdue.
But long before Wario hit it big, there was another video game villain who got a shot at stardom, and that is Firebrand the Demon from Capcom's Ghouls 'n Ghosts franchise. Funny thing about Firebrand is that he's not a major villain. He's not even a boss. And yet, he's appeared in just about every game in the series, and is usually one of the most obnoxious enemies in the game. He likes to fly up high where the player can't hit him, and then swoop down to attack really quickly. If you don't know what to do, he can be one of the toughest of the non-boss enemies in the game.
That's Firebrand??? It looks more like a kid version of the Green Goblin from Spider-Man...
This enemy apparently struck a chord at Capcom, who in the early 90s, decided to give him his very own game called Gargoyle's Quest for the Game Boy. It was one of Capcom's early games for Nintendo's handheld, and I remember it got quite a lot of attention at the time. It was a strange mix of action platforming with some overhead RPG elements, where Firebrand would visit towns in the Ghoul Realm. The game proved to be successful enough that it got it's own sequel, Gargoyle's Quest II, this time for the NES. It was one of the later games for the system, and I believe it came out after the 16-bit consoles launched, so few have played it, myself included.
Still, Capcom decided to give Firebrand one last shot at stardom, this time on the Super NES. Demon's Crest is the game we are looking at today, and it is one of the great unsung titles for the legendary 16-bit system...
RELEASED: NOVEMBER 1994
Oh yeah, just look at this box art. It just screams "BUY ME!!!". Seriously, the dark and Gothic tone of the art alone is enough to set it apart, especially on the mostly kid-friendly world of the SNES. (Remember, this was around the time when Nintendo censored the first Mortal Kombat, taking out the blood, and toning down the Fatalities.) This box art actually reminds me somewhat of a heavy metal album cover or something. The way Firebrand is clutching that skull and just glaring at you with that insane looking smile, it's just so awesome.
Take the cartridge out of the box, and you are greeted by a wonderful game that is very ambitious. Sometimes a bit too ambitious for its own good, but I'll get to that later. Firebrand's 16-bit adventure can best be compared to Super Metroid, which came out earlier that same year. It's fairly open ended, and you have to track down powers and abilities that grand you the opportunities to explore further in previous areas. And as Firebrand's powers grow, you feel so incredible. It's so awesome playing as this demonic little ghoul who is essentially on a quest of vengeance. He's not out to save the world or rescue a damsel...Basically, he's pissed off, and he wants some satisfaction. Yeah, now that's something that wasn't used enough in games back in the day. Combine that with incredibly detailed and beautiful graphics and a soundtrack that will keep you awake at night (in a good way), and you have a game that was destined for greatness.
However, since it's in my Hidden Treasures of 16-Bit series, you probably already know its ultimate fate. Heck, I highly doubt you played it back in the day. Very few people did. Part of this I contribute to some very stiff competition on the console. Around the same time Demon's Crest hit, we also got the original Donkey Kong Country (which was pretty much stealing the thunder of every other game out there with its CG graphics), Final Fantasy III and the original Earthworm Jim. There were just a lot of heavily hyped games that came out in November 94, and Demon's Crest just got swallowed up in the middle of it all. Of course, it didn't help that Capcom barely let people know the game was out there. I don't think they really got behind this one.
So, I know I've already talked a little bit about what makes Demon's Crest a hidden gem on the SNES, but let's dig a little bit deeper, starting with the story.
When your game opens with artwork this beautiful, you know it's going to be good...
The game opens with a beautiful set of images telling the story of how six elemental stones fell from the sky and landed in the Ghoul Realm. Given the awesome power that these stones held, all the demons that inhabited the Realm quickly started fighting over possession of them, and a Civil War broke out throughout the different kingdoms of the land. When the dust finally settled, Firebrand was claimed the victor, as he possessed five of the six stones, and became one of the most powerful demons in the Realm because of it.
The last crest was in the hands of a Demon Dragon, and Firebrand challenged the Dragon to battle so that he could hold all six stones and achieve ultimate power. In the end, Firebrand was victorious, and held all six crests. However, he did not have the chance to savor his newfound power for long, as another demon by the name of Phalanx launched a surprise attack on our antihero, and stole all six of the crests. When Firebrand comes to after Phalanx's attack, he has lost all his power. Even worse, he finds himself staring down the zombie of the Dragon he killed to obtain the final crest. The Dragon's not happy about what Firebrand did, and Firebrand's upset because he wants his power back, and he's willing to go to the ends of the Ghoul Realm to get it.
The game literally throws you into battle with the Zombie Dragon as soon as the opening cinema plays out. This was very rare back in the day, to kick things off with a boss battle. Still, it's easy enough, and before long, you get the first crest back. This is the ultimate goal of the game, to obtain all six of the crests so that Firebrand will once again be the most powerful demon in the Realm, as well as get vengeance on Phalanx. As I mentioned, this is the primary goal of the game. Firebrand is not a "hero". He's in this for himself, and he basically wants to rule the world. Not only is it a fitting quest for a demon, but it really is a perfect plot for a game starring a villain.
So, now that we know the nature of the quest, let's take a close look at the gameplay.
The first two Gargoyle's Quest games were inspired by RPGs, and featured overhead maps and towns that Firebrand could explore. Demon's Crest removes this concept, and goes for a more straightforward action adventure approach. There is a 3D map you can use to fly around on in order to visit different areas in the game, and you will have to visit these places often, as the new abilities and powers that Firebrand gains during the course of the game will allow him to see more of previous areas.
Much like Super Metroid (which had been released earlier that year), the Ghoul Realm is made up of multiple areas with tons of hidden items, secrets and routes off the beaten path that lead to powerful items or abilities. This is definitely a game that rewards exploration. Just keep in mind, this is a mid-90s adventure game, so a lot of times, there's no real explanation about what you should do. More on that later. That being said, thanks to the dark and highly detailed artstyle, every area in the game looks downright beautiful. Jaw-dropping sometimes. From deep caverns, to water-filled ruins, right down to the dark forests and ancient alters, no two areas look the same, and they all show off the talented skills of the artists who obviously reveled in creating this world. Top it off with a beautiful soundtrack that I rank among the Top 10 SNES soundtracks of all time (and considering some of the great competition on the system, that's saying something), and you have one of the most atmospheric games of the 16 Bit generation.
Some of the forms Firebrand can take...
So, the goal of the game is to regain all six of the elemental crests, and to regain your lost power. You get your first crest (naturally fire) pretty much right at the start of the game, which allows our antihero to breathe fire, which will be his primary attack throughout the game. He can also fly and hover for short periods. Whenever Firebrand finds a new crest, he gains its elemental power, which gives him new abilities and skills. These naturally allow him to explore further in the game, as well as uncover secrets from past areas that he couldn't travel to before. The main elemental crests include Earth (allows you to break down barriers), Air (allows you unlimited flight), Water (swim and explore water areas), Time (increases damage you do to enemies) and Heaven (pretty much makes you all powerful). Firebrand's appearance changes depending on which crest he is currently equipped with, and some of the colors and designs are really awesome looking. You can obviously change your crest at any time from the menu screen. You can also find additional fire crests, which give you abilities such as climbing walls, creating platforms, and headbutting surfaces which allows you to find hidden items.
Naturally, these crests are not just going to be handed to you. They're usually guarded by a boss, and they can come in a variety of forms of different demonic monsters. Not only that, but the difficulty of these boss fights can be a bit uneven. Some are literal push overs, while others seem extremely overpowered. It does create a sort of imbalance within the game, but if you are smart, have the right abilities, and watch their patterns, they can all be beaten eventually. This is not a game that routinely cheats or will cause you to "rage quit". You can also find potions and spells to help you which can be bought at shops throughout the game, but honestly, I never really used them much outside of the "healing" potions. There is a potion that can revive you after death, which sounds useful, until you realize that it restores you with so little health, it's almost not worth it. The spells you can get are also generally not very useful, and cost a lot to summon, so you're usually better off just using your basic attacks.
This is a minor issue, however. Demon's Crest is a surprisingly deep game, with vast levels, a ton of secrets, and even multiple endings. If you want to see the game's true ending, you're going to have to find everything, and I mean everything. This is easier said than done, as the items and abilities that you need to get 100% completion are obviously hidden well. And as I mentioned earlier, it's not always clear what you need to do or where you need to go. There are some instances where trial and error are involved, and there are also some that seem to rely on just sheer dumb luck. For example, to find one thing you need, you have to enter a very nondescript area on the map that you probably don't even know you could enter in the first place. It just looks like part of the area you're supposed to fly over. If you want to complete this game, you're probably going to need a good FAQ or walkthrough, because there's no way anyone can find everything on their own. I can appreciate an old school gaming challenge, but honestly, the game can be a bit too cryptic for its own good at times, as could a lot of games from the era. It's not any worse than other games for its time, it's just kind of a frustrating reminder of the past, and makes you wonder how we solved any of these games from just information on the playground, and the occasional help from Nintendo Power. Games like this are what kept those Game Play Counselors at Nintendo in business. And yes, I remember occasionally calling that 1-900 number for advice.
So, Demon's Crest is a hugely ambitious game for its time, with a cool detailed look, interesting gameplay and decent challenge. Is there a major fault behind it? Unfortunately, there's a big one, and it's kind of tied into that detailed look. You see, while the SNES was a great system (one of the greatest ever, in my humble opinion), it was not the most powerful one out there. Anyone from the era knows that the games could suffer from slowdown when there was too much going on at once on the screen. If you don't remember, you will if you play this game, because slowdown is the game's biggest problem. The graphics are so rich and detailed, it would seem as if Capcom were pushing the system to its limits, and sometimes the poor SNES just can't handle what the game is throwing at it. There are some boss battles with massive enemies, or areas filled with sprites and detail where the game will literally slow down to a crawl for a short period. If you're used to this kind of thing and frequent the world of retro gaming, you probably won't mind, though it can still be frustrating. The game is so good, you obviously want it to be perfect. But, the slowdown is a major issue, as it happens a lot. Combine this with the sometimes unbalanced difficulty and the somewhat cryptic gameplay, and you have a game that does require a ton of patience to get the most out of it. But, it's nothing that a battle-hardened veteran of the 16-Bit days isn't used to. It just holds it back a little bit from the true greatness it could have achieved.
WHY I CONSIDER IT A HIDDEN TREASURE OF 16-BIT:
Are the issues I mentioned above a problem? Most definitely. But it does not take away from the fact that Demon's Crest is one of the standout titles for the system. It's dark atmosphere, lengthy quest, and overall theme really makes it seem so different from just about anything else out there for the Super Nintendo. It's a game that every adventure fan should experience. It's deep, it's long, it's challenging, and it just makes you feel so good as you power up Firebrand and start playing around with his new abilities. There is so much to see and discover, and the world of the Ghoul Realm is just so well designed, you can forgive any technical issues. You can tell that a lot of passion was put into this game, and it shows in the graphics, gameplay and especially the music. It's symphonic-style score really perfectly creates the right tone for every foreboding area you explore, and makes you want to keep on playing.
Now for the good news/bad news. If you want to track this game down, it's sadly going to cost you. Due to the fact that the game didn't sell well and Capcom did not put out a lot of copies back in the day, you're going to have to dig deep into your wallet if you want this cartridge in your collection. A copy of the game alone without the box or instructions currently goes for $100 or more. If you want it complete with everything (as I often do, as I like to display my gaming collection), then you're going to have to shell out a lot more, probably around the range of $200-300. The sad truth of retro gaming is that prices are going up every year, and probably won't go down anytime soon.
But here's the good news - You don't have to go broke picking this game up if you have access to the Wii U, as the game is available for the Virtual Console. If you have the means, I highly recommend downloading it, as the game is more than worth the small price you will have to pay for the download. Plus, it's much better than having to pay through the nose on EBay or Amazon for a used copy. Unless you're a diehard collector like myself, I would recommend the Virtual Console. I'm just the sort who enjoys having the original box, instructions and physical cart when I game. It's a personal preference, and if you don't share it, there's no need to break the bank.
However you track down this game, please give Demon's Crest a chance, and don't pass it over as you likely did over 20 years ago. This is a game that's gathered a large cult following over the years thanks to emulators, and it really deserves it. It's a shame Capcom never made another game starring Firebrand after this. I think he's appeared in some of their "Capcom vs." fighting games, but that's it. I would love to see a remake or remaster of the entire Gargoyle's Quest series one day. It's a little lost piece of gaming history that doesn't deserve to be lost. Fortunately, the games can still be found and collected for those who want to do a little bit of searching. The original Gargoyle's Quest for Game Boy is also available for download on the 3DS Virtual Console, though to my knowledge Gargoyle's Quest II for the NES never got revived.
That's it for this installment. I hope you are enjoying this series. Next time, I'll be looking at one of the last major RPGs to hit the SNES, one which was largely ignored due to the fact it came out almost at the very end of the system's life.
Until next time, Retro Junkers, keep the past alive!