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Gargoyle's Quest II (NES) artwork

Gargoyle's Quest II (NES) review

"Released towards the end of the NES’ reign, Gargoyle’s Quest 2 was largely overlooked, in part because the original Game Boy title that preceded it was not exactly a household name."

If there’s one Capcom franchise that is woefully underutilized, it would be Gargoyle’s Quest. I’ve always appreciated the darker, more serious aesthetics and RPG wrapping that these games were known for, and they easily stood apart from the bulk of Capcom’s huge library. Released towards the end of the NES’ reign, Gargoyle’s Quest 2 was largely overlooked, in part because the original Game Boy title that preceded it was not exactly a household name.

Although there’s a numeral in the title, this is actually a prequel to the black and white game, which in turn was a spinoff from Ghosts ‘n Goblins. The “hero” of this game is Firebrand, who might be more recognizable as the Red Arremer-- a foil to the heroic Arthur from that early Capcom arcade classic. In this newer adventure, Firebrand is a lowly recruit for the Ghoul Realm army. When the Black Light comes along and causes untold devastation to the Ghoul Realm--including the death of the king--Firebrand sets out to put things right.

In order to succeed, the young demon needs to gain information and power. Gargoyle’s Quest 2 features a traditional RPG overworld like others you might remember from the 8-bit era. There isn’t much to this part of the game, no random battles to survive or puzzles to solve. It does make the Ghoul Realm feel like a vast landscape, though, and Firebrand is rewarded for thorough exploration with vials that can be exchanged for extra lives. I was also impressed to find that people in the various towns and kingdoms in the game actually provide Firebrand with useful information, as opposed to those featured in other games who rarely have anything vital to impart to players.

Most of that info that NPCs provide will lead Firebrand on typical RPG quests. He needs the Goblin Stick to free King Barr, but before he can do so he’ll need to get the Night Drop for Hecate, and so on. It’s standard stuff, but it moves the game along at a good clip, and I enjoyed the need to “hit the pavement” to find out where the next level was located, as opposed to simply having a normal action game progression.

When Firebrand changes areas, the game becomes a side-scrolling action game that’s heavily dependent on precise platforming skills. As a winged demon, Firebrand can hover and fly in a straight line. Learning how to hover and fly like a pro is the crux of Gargoyle’s Quest 2; one slip up can lead to massive damage or (more than likely) instant death. I wasn’t a fan of how often the level design of the game would rely on one-hit kills thanks to fire pits and other hazards, but once I got the nuances of the hovering, this became less of a problem for me.

It was that sense of mastery over the game’s mechanics, coupled with the RPG-like character progression, that really made Gargoyle’s Quest 2 shine for me. Completing certain levels or quests will upgrade Firebrand’s jumping and flying abilities, and these improvements have a significant impact on the gameplay. I could tell that I was improving as time went on, because transition levels that I had to revisit often became much easier to navigate. Pulling off tricky maneuvers such as waiting until the last possible moment to hover, or dropping a few feet before resuming flight, became a joy. There really isn’t another platform game quite like this on the NES.

When it comes to combat, things become rote. Firebrand can spit fireballs as his main attack, and he gains a few other types of projectiles as his quest progresses. Most enemies can be killed with a single blast, and the bulk of the challenge revolves around taking them out mid-flight to avoid getting knocked out of the air (or avoiding them outright). The boss battles are much more engaging, blending that delicate flying mechanic with the need to return fire against some tricky foes. These arena battles almost always have tons of ways to trip up the less-than-capable demons in training, and they make up for the fact that the combat during levels feels somewhat tacked on.

I’m of the opinion that Capcom was one of the developers that could really squeeze every bit of graphical power out of the NES, and that holds true with this game. Gargoyle’s Quest 2 is a darker, more serious-looking effort than most of Capcom’s other titles, including Ghosts ‘n Goblins. The sprites are big and well animated, and I particularly liked the squatty, purposeful walk that Firebrand possesses. Backgrounds are intricately detailed, and somehow the game manages to pull all of this off with little in the way of slowdown or flicker. It’s exactly what I’ve come to expect from Capcom, circa 1992.

Not up to my Capcom expectations would be the soundtrack. Some of my favorite NES tunes come from their games, and even though nothing in this game is by any means bad, I wouldn’t say anything stands out, either. The music goes for that same creepy and gothic style that the Castlevania series successfully mined, but I didn’t find myself humming along to any of the level music in the way I do with most of Capcom’s NES releases.

This was a criminally overlooked second entry in a criminally overlooked trilogy. It’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever get another Firebrand adventure, but that’s why retro gaming is so fun. I can pop this cart into my NES and remember what a cool character and world Capcom created, and I can fantasize about what else could have been done with this series. I highly suggest you seek out a copy of Gargoyle’s Quest 2 so that you have the opportunity to do the same.


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Freelance review by Julian Titus (April 30, 2013)

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