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Avenging Spirit (Game Boy) artwork

Avenging Spirit (Game Boy) review

"A bit on the possessive side."

Avenging Spirit for the Game Boy is a 1992 port of an arcade game released one year prior. It casts the player as a vengeful, recently murdered boyfriend brought back from the dead to save his abducted girlfriend. Gangsters are trying to use their comely captive as leverage to convince her father to share the details of his research into ghost energy. The joke is on them, though, because the mad scientist decides orchestrating a rescue mission makes more sense.

Players thus lead a spectral form through six action stages, hopefully collecting three keys along the way so they can free the damsel in distress from her cell and possess her body, the better to kill the nefarious gang leader using a ray gun. The game's main hook is that it's actually possible to slip into the body of any non-boss enemy and control that form. If you ask me, that's pretty darn cool. Unfortunately, it works better on paper than it does in reality.

My problems with Avenging Spirit are myriad. I'll devote a paragraph to each of my pet peeves, because I'm generous like that.

First on the list are the game's brevity and lack of meaningful variety. Stages cover about half as much ground as the typical Mega Man level, and there's not much reason to go through the campaign again once you clear it the first time. There also aren't a lot of unique enemies to possess, and the available options are too similar (though given the plot, there's actually more range than one might expect). In addition to a guy carrying a pistol and another one firing homing missiles, there is a Dracula that sends out vampire bats, a giant lizard that breathes flames, robots that fire explosives and a few other enemies that don't really make any sense. What are they doing in a gang? Why does their leader even need "ghost energy" when his lackeys can already can fly and breathe fire and so forth? No one knows.

More damning than the lack of variety, though, is the impotence. Bodies you come to possess feel as if they were constructed out of facial tissues. I suppose this was probably done both to ratchet up the difficulty and to give the player good reason to constantly swap bodies, but I don't like it. Every character moves as if wading through sludge. Jumps are somehow floaty and overly tight at the same time, which makes jumping between moving platforms a pain in the butt. Eliminating foes often requires you to land a few direct hits, but those same enemies may be able to quite easily kill you with a single shot.

When you lose the use of a body, you have a limited amount of time to fly to the next available victim and keep going. However, I often found that I would fire a projectile just before an enemy shot hit me. That meant I lost my current host body but had nowhere to go because my own shot would connect and turn a promising destination into a dead end. Sometimes, that left me free to fly throughout the stage for a considerable amount of time, but often one has only a few seconds before the the game ends.

While there are unlimited continues available, they come at the cost of checkpoints. This isn't a huge problem when so many of the stages are short, except it takes a long time to safely get anywhere. Enemies tend to come in groups of two or three and a lot of them fire speedy projectiles you only just barely have time to avoid even if you're paying close attention. If you kill a foe and then backtrack left before returning to the right (or something similar), the target you eliminated will have returned and probably has been joined by a pistol-wielding friend or two. This feels like punishment to the player who likes to explore the not-completely-linear stages, since it kills time for no particular purpose.

Boss encounters only make things worse. Often, I would reach a boss with limited health (because enemies had whittled away at it, and because ghost energy capsules and life restoring kits are only available in a few places throughout the game and don't re-spawn), then fail to do much damage before I lost and had to start again from the beginning of the stage. Boss patterns are relatively simple, but space is so limited that it's hard to avoid the projectiles later adversaries like to fire. Also, your armor is very weak and theirs is... not so much. This means fights drag on longer than they should and increase the likelihood that you will lose and be forced to tackle the stage again from the start.

One of your goals as you clear stages is to grab keys, as I already mentioned, but it's possible to reach the end of the game without obtaining all three of them. Not every stage even has a key, so unless you know which ones do, you have to explore everything just to make sure you aren't leaving behind one of the three. Which, as I've noted, kind of stinks because of the re-spawning enemies. The final key is also a bit of a pain, because you have to spell out a (thematically appropriate) word by stumbling across letter tiles throughout the stage, which then allows you to backtrack to a shed where you can grab the final key. This is not spelled out, per se. You mostly just have to figure it out on your own.

Although the game has a neat premise, it doesn't do much to capitalize on that early genius. There are brief panels between levels that let you know how things are going, but the narrative wouldn't really have been any worse off without them. Your character basically just says "Oh, I think I might find something in this tower." Then the next stage begins. Any good stuff happens in the intro, or when you beat the game and get to see a few anime-style character portraits. I wish the writers had found more time to explore the setup and maybe give the enemies and heroes actual personalities. I don't ask for much, but the concept here was cool and it is largely squandered.

So, I've griped a lot about Avenging Spirit in this review, and yet I am awarding it a not-completely-awful score. You might wonder what I feel keeps it from being an absolute disaster. The answer is that I can't help but appreciate the ultimately flawed ambition on display, if only up to a point. Even though the developers didn't do nearly as much with their idea as they should have, they deserve credit for coming up with a reasonably fresh concept (at the time) and making it (mostly) work. The music also isn't bad, and the visuals--particularly the boss designs--are handled well given the limitations of the original Game Boy hardware. In this day and age, we have better options that cover similar ground more memorably, but I do see value in taking a look back at early attempts like this one. Go into it expecting a historical curiosity and you'll likely come away somewhat satisfied. Expect much more than that, however, and you're in for a disappointment.


honestgamer's avatar
Staff review by Jason Venter (May 02, 2020)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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