Imagine being Capcom in the late-80s. You made a big name for yourself with an NES launch title, the now-infamous Ghosts ‘n Goblins, and continued to build on that franchise with sequels. Now Nintendo has this nifty handheld ripe for new 2D platformer adventures. But, instead of taking the established series and characters, you instead make a game about the enemies.
Gargoyle’s Quest is a bizarre game. You play as Firebrand, a gargoyle from the Realm of Ghouls, who is a descendant from an ancient hero that once protected their world from an invasion of “The Destroyers”. But now, these Destroyers are back once more and the ghouls are being rapidly overrun by their superior foe. You set out to fight off these enemies and fulfill your destiny as the hero of evil.
Primarily, this is a 2D platformer with most of its appeal lying in Firebrand’s unique moveset. As a gargoyle, his main attack is breathing fireballs at foes, giving you a nifty ranged attack right from the start. He can also jump fairly well and use his wings to maintain a set altitude in his jumps. Firebrand can even cling to walls, which resets the stamina bar for flying. All in all, this gives you a lot of mobility and safety; you can fly far, cling to platforms instead of landing on them, and hover at just the right height to take down enemies before you even approach them.
There are limitations, though. Firebrand can only fire sideways and much of his true potential of locked off at the start of the game, with higher jumps and extended flight becoming available as the game’s storyline unfolds. You also have just 2 hitpoints and some enemies do 2 points of damage, which is made even tougher by the size of the sprites and the tiny screen they must fit on. Dodging is no easy feat and you may find yourself taking hits as new enemies pop into view and immediately launch their attacks. It never felt unfair, but it sure gave me a run for my money.
The 2D stages are really good and possibly some of the best platforming I’ve done on the classic GameBoy. It’s challenging, the levels are creative, and there is a good difficulty curve to the game as Firebrand earns more powers at the same pace that new, tougher enemies become commonplace. Levels also go left, right, up, down, everywhere, there’s no straight run to the finish at the end and you’ll find yourself exploring quite a bit. My favorite stage ended up being the tower, as I took a liking to the vertical level-design and quite enjoyed the boss at the end.
I was also surprised with how well Gargoyle’s Quest contextualizes these levels. Between platforming stages, you wander around a map of the Ghoul Realm and visit towns where you meet random monsters and various important characters. While it’s a tad stilted, GQ has a real story to it with memorable moments. I particularly took a liking to a part where you are redirected to a new ally, only to arrive in the town and find that the locals have turned against you, calling you a pretender and claiming their lord is their true descendant of the hero.
This map does have shortcomings, primarily in that it’s kind of boring. You just wander around and can find some optional content, but most of the towns are mandatory to visit and the design railroads you into finding these. There is no sequence-breaking here, it’s just filling time. The map also bombards you with random encounters like an RPG, which all take place in the same few, tiny maps and generally last about as long as they take to load.
These random battles provide you vials, the game’s currency, but the only purchasable goods are talismans that act as extra lives. This does mean you can potentially rescue a bad savefile by grinding random encounters, but it’s a repetitive process that loses what little appeal it holds quickly.
Gargoyle’s Quest feels like it wants to try out some RPG mechanics, but every upgrade for Firebrand is mandatory and spaced-out in a very controlled way. I don’t mind having to walk around the map to enter levels and actually quite enjoy the world itself, but these mechanics feel more like Capcom was laying a groundwork with these concepts to expand on in sequels or repurpose this world map idea entirely for a different title.
Visually, I find the game quite appealing. The sprite art is detailed and full of character, with Firebrand constantly cracking me up because he’s such a stumpy little grump, especially when held next to his pumped-up appearance on the game’s cover. The soundtrack is also quite nice while it lasts; not something that left me humming any of its tracks, but it made my stay in towns that little bit nicer. This does come at the cost of the framerate. Gargoyle’s Quest does not appreciate it when too two or three enemies come at you at once. It usually manages to avoid such encounters, but the game becomes greedy towards the end, making for some lackluster final levels in an otherwise fun game.
This is also reflected in the final boss. I felt every boss had a unique challenge to it and was exciting to fight, but the final boss just had me standing still in place on a platform where none of its attacks could hit me, waiting for it to randomly drop all of its guards so I could hopefully land an attack before it went on the defensive again. There is no tact to this fight and it took me 15 minutes, because anytime I was randomly given a few seconds to land damage, I’d stress out and mess up my timings.
It puts a damper on an otherwise good game. Gargoyle’s Quest has its weird, experimental ideas that don’t pan out perfectly well, but it’s a great 2D platformer with a strong idea at its center. Firebrand is such a fun character to play as and the levels are expertly crafted around his unique moveset, allowing you to approach each challenge in numerous different ways. I also took a liking to the character designs and story, so all in all I was positively surprised by the game and I feel its hiccups and brief wastes of time are easily excused.
I give this game a glowing recommendation. It doesn’t follow the franchise’s usual penchant for cheap difficulty, instead choosing to make a pleasantly-challenging platformer with a unique twist to it.