Poor little guy. My PSP is only just over a month old and until now his most strenuous exercise came when I momentarily lost my cool during a Syphon Filter shoot out. Sorry though buddy, I'm not done yet. I can't fight the final demon until I've collected all the gold rings and, until that day comes, the eternal torment of Ultimate Ghosts 'N Goblins continues. Yes, as you have probably already heard, this game is ridiculously, sometimes maliciously, difficult, but, if you have the patience (or a couple of valium to hand), you will persist because there is nothing more satisfying than conquering the seemingly unconquerable. Still, I have to admit, there were a couple of times where my shiny white handheld nearly ended up as an expensive new wall decoration or tastefully remodelled with a hammer.
Anyone hoping Capcom would be reinventing the wheel with the fourth in its illustrious series should prepare to be disappointed, but if you're a retro head, who lives in denial of the existence of 3D (like those folk who refused to believe the earth was round), get ready for a real treat. Brave Sir Arthur is back and, once again, he's brought his boxer shorts. Although the opening cut scene of the princess being whisked away by a villainous demon is rendered in three dimensions, once the main action starts it's 2D-style all the way. The only concessions to modernity are a spooky orchestral score (in place of 16-bit bleepings) and the gentle use of 3D effects to add depth and shadows, in a similar way to Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow, Sonic Rush or New Super Mario Bros on the DS.
Starting out in the Evil Forest, your task is to guide Sir Arthur across scrolling levels, each brimming with platform challenges and countless enemies all hell-bent on stopping you from getting to the Demon Realm and rescuing the helpless maiden. It's a testament to Capcom's commitment to retaining the spirit (no pun intended) of such a cherished franchise that it's left the basic formula the same, but such stoic commitment to retro gaming is not without its side effects. While it's undeniably charming to romp through another campy, gaudy and downright thrilling Ghosts 'N Goblins adventure, there are plenty of occasions when the gameplay becomes more of a chore than the simple joy it should really be. Capcom has touted Arthur's new-found abilities to double-jump, dash and grab onto ledges but, to be honest, he remains almost as unwieldy to control as ever. The leaps are a particular niggle, as our hero cannot be manoeuvred in the air and all too often it takes many frustrating attempts to traverse the frequently complex levels. Matters are further hindered by the swathes of undead enemies that constantly attack you. It's hard enough trying to time a double-jump at precisely the right moment, but pulling off such a manoeuvre can be next to impossible on a screen filled with enemies that can fly through walls and platforms. Wisely, Arthur is allowed to shoot upwards now, rather than just horizontally, but a diagonal blast is - somewhat ridiculously - still out of the question. This is hardly an ideal situation, especially as no such problems afflict your assailants. Maybe it's that protective iron suit weighing down Arthur's little arms that causes this deficiency, but he won't be getting much sympathy from you.
Speaking of armour, the game's hero starts off with basic metal coverage but further layers can be picked up along the way. Each enemy hit, though, knocks off a layer until, in homage to earlier games, Arthur has to battle on in only skimpy undercrackers. There are three difficulty modes (Novice, Standard and Ultimate) but only the most hardcore of gamers will stray beyond the lowest setting, which affords you with more lives and mid-stage spawn points. Even on Novice, Ultimate Ghosts 'N Goblins remains one of the hardest games to progress through in recent years and often feels like a 2D version of Capcom's other thumb-killer, Devil May Cry 3. The action is truly relentless and all too often relies on blind leaps of faith into new sections, which must then be committed to memory to prevent a constant recurrence of the dreaded Game Over screen. Plus, if you do make it all the way to the end, there is a nasty sting in the tail that forces you to use Warp Keys collected throughout the game to revisit certain levels (here's a clue, every time you see a big gold ring try and grab it).
The good news is there are plenty of power-ups and extra weapons (from shields to homing blades) to collect, some of which spawn at key points in the game if you are struggling too hard. Here's the kicker though; often these are in hard to reach places and you have to weigh up the risk of going after them or blundering on with what you already have. Yes, we are in rock/hard place territory here, but at least it makes the power-ups feel worthwhile and a genuine bonus to your experience when you pick them up. You will particularly need a good arsenal at your disposal when facing the end of level bosses, who get a special mention here for making imaginative, surprise entrances and always proving worthy foes. But, beware, not all the power-ups are friendly and a misstep into a witch's cauldron can see poor Arthur double in size, become a chunky old lady or even a chicken - all of which are obviously useless come crunch time. Tread carefully people.
While it may lack the PS2 worthy polish of Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror or the uniqueness of PSP platform marvel Loco Roco, the latest Ghosts 'N Goblins remains a solid entry to the series that is well deserving of its Ultimate moniker, thanks to addictive gameplay and polished design that's ideal for the format. Whether or not you will embrace it, though, all depends on either your loyalty to the franchise or the seriousness of your masochistic tendencies. While you're mulling this one over, spare a thought for your PSP too - can he really take the punishment?