The squires of the gallant Sir Arthur know that to master Ghosts ’N Goblins, you first have to master yourself. Haste, imprecision, hubris and fear: all must be slain if you’re to cross the realms between graveyard and throne, past chasm and grasping claw, into the arms of Princess Guinevere. Of all the quests in gamingdom, few can be as perilous as to make so many jumps with such scientific accuracy, even the smallest hop a commitment from which there’s no escape. Few, that is, beyond making a fully 3D sequel.
Officially, no such game exists, just a PS2 ‘spin-off’ called Maximo which, for all its loyalty and valour, never bore the family name. The one it has instead, Ghosts To Glory, cries out for an N and an apostrophe, but King Capcom never touched its shoulders with the sword. Its hero wears the series’ heart on his shield: eight arrows, one for each direction of an arcade stick. He even wears the pants. But he’s denied. Why? Maybe someone checked his passport.
Maximo, you see, is an American, created by Capcom Digital Studios, also known as Production Studio 8. Or, to really put the taint on him, he’s not Japanese. And even if he was, or if the decision to rebrand came from developer rather than publisher, it’s hard to imagine anyone thinking a 3D Ghosts ’N Goblins would have a happy ending, much less be one of the smartest and most intuitive updates of any coin-op ever. Yet braving the third dimension, a place now splashed with the blood of Bomberman, Golden Axe, Sonic and – heavens – the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Maximo took the series’ boldest leap and landed it unscathed. Legend tells of many injustices in the court of King Arthur; this game’s absence is one of them.
To understand why, it helps to know its origins. Unbeknown to most, Capcom Digital Studios had its own version of G’NG creator Tokuro ‘Professor F’ Fujiwara. Better, he even had the pseudonym to match. In his days at long-running US magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly, studio head David Siller created an alter-ego, Sushi-X, who for a generation of gamers came to symbolise the manic elitism of the coin-op hardcore. Maximo, he would later suggest, was his gift to that endangered species. What he didn’t – perhaps couldn’t – put into words was the mathematical precision and considerable passion with which that ethos would be applied.
Starting a new game in Maximo is like visiting an old friend. Like all G’NGs, it opens in a graveyard, the land of the living literally giving way to the kingdom of the dead. Churches sink into lava while platforms are forged from collapsing rock. Coffins rise like elevators from the soil, their lids swinging open as their passengers stumble out. Get too friendly and it’s off with your helmet; a few more times and it’s your armour; a few more and it’s curtains for your cottons. In the background, almost on the breeze, a score by Earthworm Jim composer Tommy Tallarico drifts in and out of the most hummable tune in videogames. Up in the trees, the local wildlife has mischief on its mind. It looks like G’NG, sounds like G’NG, and when the level-complete screen confirms that you’ve completed four per cent but ‘mastered’ only two, the suspicion is confirmed: it is G’NG.
Warmly received by the press, Maximo came with a caveat: it was, when it cared to be, infuriatingly hard. But it doesn’t take the series’ ruthless reputation lightly, or emulate it arbitrarily. It knows that if the unwritten law of console adaptations is to embrace and appease the format in question, the unwritten law of G’NG is to kick it in the nuts. This is a series whose idea of a tutorial is to trip you over, reach out a helping hand and, if you accept, slap you with it. There endeth the lesson. Having helped pioneer the infinite continue with Ghouls ’N Ghosts for Mega Drive, it’s been atoning for that mistake ever since, publicly wrestling with the entitlements of playing at home.
In Maximo, that manifests itself as the Grim Reaper, a miserly sort who runs the underworld like a crooked prison. Continues are his trade, paid for with ‘Death Coins’ that don’t come easily. And if he has to pay a return visit, he adds inflation. The four sorceresses imprisoned in towers aren’t a whole lot better. Only they and a scattering of magic pools (charge: 100 coins) grant the ability to save, and before them stand hundreds of foes, a boss, and a fair few plummets to the centre of the Earth. Set them free and you’re offered a choice of health, upgrades or a solitary save. A sacrifice, in other words, for something you foolishly took for granted.
For players used to games practically taxiing them to the end, this is a shock. Without doubt, there are copies of Maximo that have come and gone without once touching their owners’ memory cards, possessing consoles before vanishing without a trace. The effect on the game itself is profound, effectively turning each batch of levels into a mini coin-op odyssey; a feat of endurance which counts for nothing unless you survive.
The amount of collectible coins didn’t sit well with some critics, as is the fate of so many games, half of them made by Rare. But Maximo makes better use of its bounty than even Mario 64, a game which provides much of its scaffolding. Players are greedy and weak, it concludes. They are all ripe for exploitation – and what is game design if not one giant exercise in mind control? There’s no more thrilling danger than one you invite upon yourself, and 90 per cent of Maximo falls into that domain.
The ground beneath a simple trail of coins will invariably collapse. Treasure chests are as likely to spring fangs and chase you across the map as they are to cough up booty. Secrets sit patiently behind doors and traps; and he who forgets to hop, skip and jump his way to the key will even have the soil to answer to.
If that wasn’t enough, the game knows the one thing a player hates more than a missed opportunity: a mugging. You see and hear him everywhere, that bastard bird, and he is surely the greatest pickpocket in videogames. No matter what your tactic as he swoops, or how sharpened your senses have become after the action elsewhere, he will always have it away with your precious gems, his vertical escape teasing you to jump and swipe at air and feathers. Science has no explanation for how he does this so often. What is known is that his actions aren’t entirely selfish, but serve the game well. Remember that one patch of ground so obviously lethal you almost laughed at its inclusion? Guess where the urge – the need – to get your money back will take you. And if it’s not the bird, it’s a ghost making off with your spirit souls, leaving you short when the Reaper comes a-knocking at your door.
Such miniature masterstrokes are everywhere in Maximo. The select use of physics that sees your sword clang off nearby rocks, for instance, rules out any single tactic for close-range combat. The exact timing of everything from a lunge to a landing forecasts your fate long before (on a scale of milliseconds, at least) you fall off a cliff or get blasted by a flying shield. The precise measures of health make a moment out of every error. Crisp audio provides both warnings and rewards, the game sounding like Caesar’s Palace staffed by real gladiators. The health and armour sold by occasional ‘prize wheels’ – never restocked and always overpriced – are actually worth considering. Risk and punishment are finely tuned; injury dealt when it can be avoided, inconvenience when it can’t.
Yet to the layperson reading the back of the box, this could be a game entirely in and of itself, even though it lives and breathes the essence of another. And there’s a grander irony than it being divorced from a series it obviously loved. Four years after its release, and after the similar success of sequel Maximo Vs Army Of Zin, Capcom Digital Studios finally embarked on an ‘official’ 2D update: names, characters, the whole shebang. And what happened? Final Fight: Streetwise happened.
This Guy Ritchie-inspired concoction – or to give it its proper name: ‘Lock, Stock and 43 Per Cent On Metacritic’ – was such a mangled, gangrenous affair that Capcom all but amputated the entire series in response. Guy? Cody? Sorry, never heard of ’em. Then, in a quick but officially unrelated manoeuvre, it lopped off the entire production arm that made it. The game hit the streets, shortly followed by Capcom Digital Studios, completing a story of going from ghosts to glory and back again.