How Metroidvania is it? Barely Comparable. There are ability upgrades and gating, but the game is basically a linear path from start to finish with no ability to backtrack to earlier areas
Primary Challenge: Ranged Combat
Time to beat: ~4 hours
Review Info: Gargoyle's Quest was played on the Nintendo 3DS using the Virtual Console
Buy Gargoyle's Quest if you like…
- Movement Upgrades
- Old School Challenges
- Ghouls 'n Goblins Universe
- Gameboy Chip Tunes
- Zelda 2 Style Maps
▼ Review continues below ▼
Putting aside strict genre definitions for a bit, Gargoyle’s Quest has quite a lot in common with Metroid and Zelda. Because of this in the back of my mind I always thought I should review it at some point. I played this game growing up, but I never owned a copy for myself, and between that and this game’s high difficulty I never actually beat it. It turns out that Gargoyle’s Quest is way less Metroidvania than I remember, but it’s certainly still worth talking about even if it doesn’t check the necessary boxes to get even a “low fit.” Ultimately I am right here reviewing it, and The Metroidvania Review is about finding good games and less about arguing whether a game belongs in the genre. So how does Gargoyle’s Quest hold up as a game overall? The best thing I can say about it is that it’s very good for a Gameboy game. While there were some stand out examples it was really rare to find a Gameboy title that handled combat and platforming in a way that compared to its home console 8-bit brother the NES. Gargoyle’s Quest definitely suffers from the screen size issues and other technical limitations that were endemic to the platform however. While it might have been exciting to play a game that is as good as this on the Gameboy Brick’s green screen back in the 90s, it’s a lot harder to recommend Gargoyle’s Quest to anyone not looking to relive their nostalgia.
You might notice that the game’s title screen includes the subtitle “Ghosts ‘n Goblins”, indicating that this game apparently takes place in the same universe. It was kind of a bizarre choice for them to do that, unless they were just going for name recognition. Firebrand is a character in Ghosts ‘n Goblins, but in that game he’s just a regular enemy, so he isn’t hardly reprising a role by being the protagonist of this game. This is especially true since this game follows one of the most basic hero prophesy plots imaginable. Firebrand is summoned to the Ghoul Realm to save it, and takes on the identity of an ancient hero called Red Blaze during his quest to stop the evil King of Destruction. The prophesy is true, the evil king is evil, and besides your friends all being ghouls and other gargoyles, there’s little difference between this game and your regular heroic knight plot. The “play as the badguy” theming does have its charms however. Everyone uses these esoteric names for every mundane trinket. “Lives” are called “Talismans of the Cyclone”, and throughout the game you have to find all these random relics that the Ghouls assign incredible value to. Things like “Gremlin Sticks”, “Fallen Angel Wings”, and “Poltergeist Candles.” Most of these objects don’t even have an icon to represent them, and are only spoken of in text. It’s such a simple thing, but the odd names manage to add an alien flavor to the game giving a sense of genuineness to the theming.
The way you move through the game’s world is somewhat similar to Zelda 2. You traverse an overworld as a chibi version of Firebrand, and you can visit towns where you talk to NPCs for hints on where you need to go next. You’ll need to acquire items to in order to progress, but there’s very little backtracking or exploration involved. In fact, I feel like the game’s mechanics actually discourage exploration. There aren’t any hidden power ups to find like extra health or the usual suspects. Every permanent upgrade is pretty much either directly in your path or required to progress anyway. So there’s no reason to explore, and if you try to, you get to enjoy random encounters. Like Zelda 2 you can run into enemies on the world map which warps you into the game’s 2D platformer mode to take on whatever enemy attacks you. Unlike Zelda 2 though, these encounters are compulsory – there’s no way to avoid them and you can’t get out of them without defeating every enemy in them. Once you’ve done the same encounter a couple of times, any further repetition becomes that much more annoying. You do get jars which you can trade for lives (aka “Talismans of the Cyclone”) from these encounters so they’re not a complete waste of time. That is, as long as you haven’t also developed a hatred for this game using a lives system in the first place.
The combat is quite good – for a Gameboy game – but it’s brought down a little bit by just how punishing it is. Ghosts ‘n Goblins is infamous for its almost puzzle-like combat where you inch your way forward and try to predict each exact move you should make, thanks in part to how heavy Arthur is and how committed each movement must be. In Gargoyle’s Quest you have way more control over your character. You can cling to walls and generally manage your positioning in a way that you can fire your breath attacks at enemies with pinpoint accuracy. You take up a much larger part of the screen than you probably should though, so dodging attacks can sometimes be a bit of trial and error – a harsh setup considering how few HP you usually have. Still, bosses and enemies are pretty well designed, so the game’s limitations aren’t really a deal breaker. That is until you run out of Talismans of the Cyclone. Then you get kicked back to whatever village you last chanted the resurrection spell. The final dungeon includes two bosses and a long walk through the overworld, so in the endgame this setback is pretty devastating. The pain inflicted by the enormity of this loss starts to magnify Gargoyle’s Quest’s little issues. It doesn’t help that the final boss is the worst boss in the game. By default the game seems to expect you to grind out vials to buy talismans every time you have to continue – that or you just need to get good with the lives you’re given when it happens. In either case, I don’t think I have to say that I’m glad the 3DS included a save state option.
Gargoyle’s Quest is not all about lives and combat however. One of its main appeals for me is how Firebrand gets stronger as you play the game. You start out with the ability to fly horizontally, but it only lasts for about two seconds before you fall straight to the ground. Catching walls or landing replenishes Firebrand’s flight meter instantly, so platforming is often a fun management of this limited resource. Finding relics and completing main story events gives you more meter power, eventually culminating in what feels like ultimate power by the end of the game because of how weak Firebrand starts. Besides flying longer, jumping higher, and increasing the amount of times Firebrand can be hit, you also find different types of breath attacks you can switch to. There is of course the brick breaker breath that lets you knock down walls, but unconventionally one of the other breath abilities puts a cushion over spikes on the wall, giving Firebrand something to cling to. These powers are utilized in the game’s platforming in novel ways. The sheer creativity with these powers, and that feeling of progress that comes with them, is where Gargoyle’s Quest shines, even as a relic of the past.
If you have a way to avoid Gargoyle’s Quest’s sharpest edges by using save states, then the game is pretty fun to play overall. The last boss is a bit of a drag, but everything else leading up to it is caked with creativity and charm. The random encounters can get a little annoying, but even in repetition Firebrand controls well and is rewarding to master. The sense of progression this game gives sets it apart even from its more popular SNES descendant Demon’s Crest, although that more robust sequel has better “Metroidvania” exploration. The concept of evolving flight and various breath attacks is neat, and I would love to see a modernization of what this game tries to do. If this was back in the 90s when your options for portable gaming were a lot more limited, I might have included this game in a top 10. In a modern context there are just better things to play, but that doesn’t mean there still isn’t fun to be had here.
Quite good for a Gameboy game, although some bosses are a bit unfair or tedious
The zoomed in nature of the Gameboy screen restricts any major complexities, but the limitations of your wing power in tandem with pretty decent level design makes for some interesting challenges
There isn't anything hidden in the levels themselves besides avenues for more lives as all upgrades are required for progression. Exploring the world map just triggers more unwanted random encounters. Just avoid exploring as much as possible.
Some cryptic or poorly translated clues lead to trial and error tedium rather than to interesting levels to solve
The way the ghouls talk about artifacts like the ''gremlin stick'' in such a matter of fact way is charming, but the story is pretty straight forward prophesy fulfillment otherwise
It's that dot matrix charm, you're either nostalgic for it or you're not
Many of the tunes are extremely catchy, as was the Capcom way in that era
Other than for the nostalgia trip, there's little here to entice another playthrough