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How Ghosts ’N Goblins helped video games find comedy in failure

Art: The Ghost 'N Goblins arcade flyer/The Ghoul Realm
Art: The Ghost 'N Goblins arcade flyer/The Ghoul Realm

Failure is comedy’s natural ecosystem. There’s a primordial delight in watching something, and especially someone, fall down. It’s even better if it happens again. Hell, make someone fall over so many times that it stops being funny and then comes back around to being funny again, and you have the potential for some real gut-busting laughter. What’s funnier? Homer Simpson opening a bag of chips, getting a chip snatched from his hands by a puppy, and him saying “D’oh!” or Homer opening the chips and losing eight of the damn things to sneaky mutts, each theft preceded by luxurious confidence that’s destined to be crushed?

Video games get a lot of juice out of failure, too. The economics of game design from the outset were based, as in traditional forms of competition, on there being a winner and a loser. It was you versus a buddy or you versus the game, and no matter what, someone was getting their ass handed to them. At the arcade, that meant you were out cold, hard cash, a stinging defeat in any circumstance. Most games tried to lighten up your failure to soothe the loss. Pac-Man touches a ghost, the music stops, and the game bloops as the little semicircle winks out of existence, vanishing with the last of your extra lives. The sounds are disappointing in tone but fun in execution, enough to make another quarter seem worth it. And in 1985, Ghosts ’N Goblins made failure infuriating but also hilarious, giving video games their very own comedic language.

Screenshot: Ghosts ‘N Goblins

Designed by Tokuro Fujiwara long before Capcom was a household name, Ghosts ’N Goblins still has a reputation. It’s hard—brutally hard, as noted by at least a billion YouTubers. Most famous for its notoriously bad NES port, Ghosts ’N Goblins felt like it was constantly punishing you for some kind of personal slight regardless of what machine you played it on. Arthur, the heroic knight you control, trundles forward hurling weapons straight ahead, but even in a full suit of armor he’s about as fragile as a paper kite. Just two hits from the freaky demons flying around and Arthur’s down.

Acclimate to the rhythm of Ghosts ’N Goblins, and you start to notice that it’s not just pummeling you in the interest of elongating the game. Unlike in Double Dragon, another game of the same vintage where your character will literally become trapped in the environment while greasy thugs beat you, Ghosts ’N Goblins isn’t using difficulty to just bilk you out of more money or keep you from beating the game too quickly. It’s trying to do those things, but it’s also trying to make you laugh. Everything about Arthur is telling you not to take things too seriously. Yes, he’s surrounded by monsters as he runs through a graveyard full of leering trees, but the goofball runs with an elongated stride straight out of Monty Python’s Ministry Of Silly Walks. When he’s hurt, a life bar doesn’t go down; he’s left standing there in his underpants. When he’s put down for good, he’s thrown backward and crumples into a musical pile of bones. Everything about him feels like failing bravado; he’s a goof, a cad, the guy falling down.

But the slapstick is only one part of GNG’s recipe. What makes its comedy so distinct is that it’s not just showing you failure; it’s relying on you to instigate it, to be the target. The game thrives by putting you down at the exact moment you succeed, snatching the chip right out of your hand. The classic Ghosts ’N Goblins bit goes like this: Go through a stage, and you’ll inevitably run into an obstacle you can’t get past on the first try. But on the other side of that roadblock, waiting for your glorious moment of victory over the last seemingly impossible obstacle, is another one you have to deal with immediately, a proverbial rug ready to get pulled out from under you the moment you land. Fujiwara would haunt people playing early versions of the game to get the timing right. “If the players that tried the game tended not to get stuck at a certain point, I’d have to hurry back to the company and redo that portion,” he said in a 2009 interview. “I couldn’t let them get by so easily. There are tricks you can use to avoid dying, right? Once I figured out what they were, I’d quickly thwart players who attempted to use them. You’ll have to forgive me.”

Subsequent entries in the series found new ways to improve the rhythm. The second stage of Ghouls ’N Ghosts, for example, is ridiculous. At one point, Arthur has to run up a hill as monster-turtles tumble down toward him, some bouncing like ugly beach balls and others crawling. They’re spaced perfectly to force you to jump at uncomfortable moments, leaping to see the next section of the stage and throwing kinks into the process. Once you get past the first few turtles, there’s suddenly a rock you have to jump over to proceed, screwing up the rhythm you’ve established to avoid the beasts. Clear the rock, and a chest appears behind you, potentially holding a new weapon! But if you backtrack and open the chest, avoiding more turtles on the way, your only reward is a magician who’ll turn Arthur into a frog or baby, something not nearly nimble enough to get past the damn turtles. And if you survive all that and finally crest the hill? There’s a rope bridge… that collapses the moment you try to walk over it. Failure into failure into failure into a small success and then back to failure, all of it couched in Arthur’s exaggerated movements and his pants around his ankles, metaphorically and literally.

Ghosts ’N Goblins’ tradition of relying on the audience to take a pie in the face rather than act as a clown on a stage lives on. Super Meat Boy’s penchant for silly character design is funny on its own, but the game would get frustrating fast if every time a failed jump across one of its stages didn’t end with a perfectly timed squelching noise. Dark Souls’ oppressive atmosphere would be wearying if it didn’t make you laugh when some slavering freak jumps out of a pile of debris after you finally got past the knights guarding a bridge. By making players laugh at themselves, by designing a game as not just a colorful challenge but more of a prank, Ghosts ’N Goblins creates a new incentive to overcome and embrace failure as you play.

The tradition has also metastasized into nasty strains of comedic games. Think of them like the gaming equivalent of stand-up hacks. In fact, the world of homemade vintage games—both home-brew games that actually run on vintage hardware like the NES and others that just ape the aesthetic—is plagued by the notion that relentless difficulty is part of the entertainment value. Anyone who’s played Battle Kid: Fortress Of Peril knows that the nonstop deaths are only funny when done with grace. It may look like an ’80s Capcom game like GNG, but it certainly doesn’t feel like it. And that design impulse carries into more mainstream games, too. When Super Mario Maker came to Wii U, its user-created levels were a mire of nasty gauntlets and even one-note gags where you’d get bounced into spikes, fire, or bottomless pits unless you knew to run as soon as the stage started.

The working formula that Ghosts ’N Goblins established, then, is one of balance. The pratfalls and the challenge aren’t the source of the humor. The laughs come from the relationship between player and game, not as adversaries, with one trying to defeat the other, or as a blunt prop. The player has to be more than the watermelon smashed by the video game Gallagher. The real relationship between the player and GNG is more akin to the straight man and the wild eccentric in a farce. The game sets you up, you get knocked down, and you feed it another quarter to see what else it’s got.