Article by Nicola Nomali | Nov. 7, 2010
The original Game Boy was a platform ripe for experimental game design. As a portable system whose technology was well behind the curve, it encouraged developers to sell on unique concepts instead of aesthetics; at the same time, it provided a relatively low-risk arena in which to toy with standing formulas and see what might stick. Super Mario Land practically exemplified this, handing Nintendo's top brand to a different staff who endowed it with such weird embellishments as shoot-'em-up sequences. Mario Land continued in this vein until it mutated into the practically unrecognizable Wario Land series, which then started subverting such staid conventions as death. As avant-garde as it seems in unassuming 8-bit monochrome, this would all have been too esoteric to justify a full-size, full-budget console release—at least until it had proven its worth.
Capcom's Gargoyle's Quest was a similar case. Ostensibly a spin-off of the Ghosts 'n Goblins series, it paid only the barest tribute to its source material in favor of something bizarrely unique. While it starred the Red Arremer, an infamously agile enemy more frustrating than any boss (one usually only beaten by faking out his programming), the platforming was relatively methodical—featuring wall-jumping and hovering short distances rather than the lightning-fast swoops and dodges that gave the character (here named Firebrand) his notoriety. Moreover, the action was inexplicably mashed up with some cursory RPG trappings: towns and the world map displayed in an overhead perspective, with single-tile character sprites and home decor right out of Final Fantasy. Interacting with anything required navigating a Dragon Quest-style window menu ("Talk," "Check," etc.). The world map was littered with random encounters (brief side-scrolling fights). The game flow consisted of a steady sequence of fetch quests.
The game's appeal led to an NES sequel two years later: Gargoyle's Quest II: The Demon Darkness. As seen with Kirby's Adventure a year later, the NES at this point served as a sort of easy in for a Game Boy title to graduate into the console sphere. Unlike Kirby, though, the game was little more than a rearrangement of the first, with the same basic premise and structure, and even the same MacGuffins and rewards. About all it had gained was a larger screen resolution and some very nice late-era 8-bit graphics. But someone at Capcom quite clearly had ideas for Firebrand, because in another two years, the series strode onto the SNES with a revolution. From humble origins, it immediately received its Mega Man X, its Super Metroid, and its Symphony of the Night: Demon's Crest.
If The Demon Darkness was a rearrangement, Demon's Crest is a total reinvention. It appears to be a more action-oriented game, but the RPG conceits of its predecessors haven't been discarded so much as completely rethought. While the earlier games' juxtaposition of disparate genres had been novel, it always nagged in how arbitrary it was. The RPG elements neither did justice to their inspiration nor served the main side-scrolling action. Firebrand "leveled up" his jump height, hover distance, and maximum health, but only in set places as the plot dictated. The sole reward for random battles was currency in the form of vials, but the only thing on sale was extra lives. The world map, aside from some dead ends and branches leading to more vials, was a single twisting line from one dungeon to the next—even posing points of no return. Every "town" was a tiny, interchangeable pit stop to receive a password or trade in vials.
In Demon's Crest, Firebrand's upgrades are not only more numerous, but more organic as well. He begins with the ability to wall-jump, hover infinitely, light torches with fire breath, and destroy objects with a headbutt. He gains power and mobility from items hidden throughout each stage—particularly five elemental crests that allow him to take on different forms. These include the Ground Gargoyle, which can break barriers and knock around scenery with a shoulder charge; the Aerial Gargoyle, which can ascend while hovering and navigate terrain with no footing; and the Tidal Gargoyle, which can travel the deep. He can also recover fragments of his shattered Fire Crest to augment his default skill set. While each special form has its own specialties and weaknesses, the normal form never becomes redundant—nor does one form unilaterally outclass any other. The player must switch between them to traverse the demon realm and uncover its secrets, which include empty vials, blank scrolls, and talismans with effects ranging from doubled defense to more frequent money drops. Money can be buy potions and inscribe spells on scrolls; with such properties as life recovery, shields, and screen-wide attacks, these can be as indispensable as they are curious.
Firebrand soars freely over a Mode 7 world map, and any stage with a visible entrance can be accessed in any order. While the areas are traversed with straightforward platforming, they're littered with opportunities to reach alternate paths, hidden items, and optional bosses; if anything, their brevity makes backtracking simple and inviting. And backtracking is a necessity: No single ideal path exists, and you can even blunder into a bad ending by unlocking a final battle after the first set of stages. By contrast, finding every last item in the game will display a password to unlock Firebrand's ultimate form and true last boss, whose difficulty is legendary. Linear pieces add up to a free-form whole, constantly recontextualized by Firebrand's ever-expanding arsenal and move set. While the structure is tailored to complement the action, it still realizes an RPG's ideals of escalation, empowerment, agency, and choice with far more success than either of its predecessors, and even some actual RPGs.
On top of being excellent as a game, Demon's Crest simply offers an incredibly memorable experience. While Gargoyle's Quest and its sequel retained the jaunty cartoon style of Ghosts 'n Goblins, Crest puts the SNES hardware to work creating a world as grim as it is beautiful. Incidental locations bristle with detail, such as the tiny pots in the background of the talisman appraiser's house that can actually be smashed with the headbutt, or the ray of light leaking through the window of the potion shop—and the oversize fetus in the jar on the high shelf. While there is some dialogue to convey the main plot, the best storytelling is purely visual.
The game opens with Firebrand imprisoned in a colosseum. As the music swells ominously, the glowing eyes of a shrouded figure peer through the barred window; a moment later, the gate rises, and in walks a giant, half-decomposed dragon. Twisting the struggle into an escape lands him in the midst of a lantern-lit forest blanketed in fog, from which the entire demon realm spreads out before him.
Even the bleakest settings are usually balanced by the reassuring light of their heroes, but the demon realm is an utter no-man's land: a macabre wilderness not divided by good or evil but ruled by might. Gargoyle's Quest positioned Firebrand as the realm's savior from invaders, but here, he's just the most ruthless contender out for the same prize as everyone else.
The shops and town are populated by demons like him, but the collapsed architecture and human skeletons piled in the windows implies they're living in the aftermath of some major apocalypse. The residents are few and far between, and the landscape stretches into endless darkness towards the horizon. The haunting musical score, rich in organs and woodwinds, drives home a solemn atmosphere of melancholy and bittersweet loneliness. Perhaps no other game has ever captured the same sentiment, as vague as it is unmistakable.
Demon's Crest never received a follow-up, but like other games of its caliber, that it exists at all is a matter of wonder. Thanks to its structure, it remains ever replayable, and those who know will continue to return to it (if only to take another shot at the final boss). Years later, the demon realm shines just as darkly, awaiting the devoted with spindly, grasping arms.