GameSpite Journal 9 | Ultimate Perspective: The Lesson of Ultimate Ghosts 'N Goblins

I don’t think my grandfather was a great man in the traditional sense of the word. He didn’t accomplish amazing feats as a World War II hero or invent brilliant machines to revolutionize modern life. But he was a good man, providing for his family as best he could (though certainly not always perfectly). He had a tremendous work ethic, he was active in his church and community, and he always had time to spend with his grandkids whenever we’d make the cross-country trek to visit him every other summer. I was profoundly moved at his funeral when hundreds of people came out to pay their respects to him. I miss the thoughtful cadence of his voice and the occasional wry glint in his eye that underscored an otherwise solemn demeanor.

Many things remind me of him, but few as vividly as the game Ultimate Ghosts ‘N Goblins. Which is weird, because the two have nothing to do with one another. I have no fond memories joining them. All they really have in common is that I detest UGnG as much as I loved my grandfather.

Five years later, after giving it several second chances (technically, a second, third, and fourth chance), I still think Ultimate Ghosts ‘N Goblins is a terrible game. It’s annoyingly cheap, with gameplay broken by clumsy controls that would be acceptable if the levels were designed with any sort of consideration for the limitations of the interface. Which they weren’t. So, rather than playing as a deliberate test of skill, UGnG is instead a haphazard test of patience. It’s a jumble of dated ideas and well-meaning ambitions poured into a half-baked casserole of unhappiness.

Normally, it’s the sort of game I would have put down after about an hour in annoyance and disappointment and never thought about again. Stupidly, though, I made the mistake of reviewing it -- not just once, but several times over, back when 1UP was affiliated with a bunch of Ziff-Davis’ magazines. Back then, I subscribed to the theory that if I was approached by editors for work, I should accept it without hesitation—not only to earn a little extra cash, but also to “get my name out there.” Ultimate Ghosts ‘N Goblins sure got my name out there, alright. Unfortunately, it was as public enemy #1 to the PlayStation’s most fervent fans rather than the reliable go-to guy for portable games and franchise revivals.

I really had no idea what I was getting myself into when I accepted those review solicitations. By mid-2006, no one else cared enough about either the game or the PSP to be bothered to write more than 90 words about it. No worries, I figured; UGnG had a decent enough pedigree that it was bound to be a good game. Granted, Ghosts ‘N Goblins can be infuriating at times, and I’m far more partial to the Gargoyle’s Quest spin-offs, but even if it was tough I was bound to have a good time. Right?

What I didn’t count on was UGnG launching a focused attack against my joy and well-being. My wife -- my girlfriend at the time -- was genuinely concerned for me the entire weekend I crunched through the game. “I’ve never seen you so tense or angry as you get when you play that,” she told me later. “Your breathing changes... and you swear so much.”

That anger wasn’t unwarranted, though. Despite the involvement of many veteran designers in its creation (including Tomba!’s Tokuro Fujiwara), UGnG was a huge letdown. It turned out to be the sort of game that aims for challenging but goes about it lazily. It’s hard not because each level is exquisitely designed with a keen eye for player interaction, but rather because the entire adventure appeared to have been assembled in complete ignorance of the limitations of the hero, Arthur. It was in the fourth world, in a grueling gauntlet consisting of blind jumps over yawning chasms with enemies that would randomly spawn in unavoidable locations as players were in mid-leap, that I realized I truly hated the game. But only in a reciprocal sense; I hated it because it hated me first. So I said as much. And then, the Internet hated me.

I can understand why, though; it was a fate I largely inflicted upon myself, and a lot of it had to do with how I presented my distaste. Rather than blogging about it as I went along (which I couldn’t do -- embargoes and all that), I expressed my opinion after it had been cemented. But I kept it glib and generalized (since I had to save my insights for the three different full reviews I stupidly agreed to write). This had the net effect of making me look cavalier and boastful about the whole thing, especially to those who didn’t typically read my blog and understand the context of it all.

And, a lot of it had to do with the fact that it was simply the wrong game to pan. PSP fans were feeling particularly put-upon by that point; the system had originally been pegged to wipe away the perceived triviality of Nintendo’s portable output but instead was getting clobbered by the DS, a system with a fraction of its power. Post-launch PSP software was curiously sparse, and the games that were available were generally ignored by the masses. Two collectives -- PSP fans and Ghosts ‘N Goblins fans alike -- looked to UGnG as the game that would revitalize the sagging fortunes of their respective favorites, and they didn’t take kindly to someone trashing their champion. Especially when said someone did it across multiple publications. Surely it was a conspiracy, and Jeremy Parish was a monster -- and fans said as much in hateful public conversations across the Internet, calling for me to be fired or, better yet, to die in a fire. Ideally after suffering cancer for a long and protracted period.

By all rights, this should have gutted me. I don’t write about video games because I want people to actively call for my death. I write about video games because I enjoy games as much as I enjoy writing. I hope people will enjoy my work and, ideally, respect how I express an opinion even if they don’t share my sentiments. Had this blowback happened any other time, it would have been a huge, crippling blow to my self-esteem.

It wasn’t, though, because just a few minutes before a coworker made me aware of the growing anti-me sentiment blooming across gaming forums everywhere, I received an envelope in the mail from my parents. In it was simply a laminated clipping of my grandfather’s obituary. There’s nothing like a little perspective.

My grandfather had passed away a few weeks before -- just a few days after E3 2006, in fact. No sooner did I get home from covering the show than did I have to hop on a plane and fly to Michigan to attend his funeral. His passing hadn’t really been a surprise, as he’d been increasingly sick and weak over the past couple of months. I’d even flown up to visit him a couple of weeks prior to E3, spurred by an instinct that it might be the last time I’d be able to talk to him. He was wan and tired in his hospital bed, but he was still the same ol’ Grandpa that I knew, chiding me gently for having put on some noticeable weight before asking me how my “friend” was (because he was far too old-fashioned to ever use the term “girlfriend”).

I flew 2,000 miles and spent three days in Michigan just to wait for a 15-minute window of time where my grandfather would be up to having visitors, but it was worth the effort -- I have a memory I’ll cherish forever. And, because I had prepared myself for his loss, I wasn’t devastated by news of his death. The funeral didn’t even seem real, with him laying in state, looking so waxen and small compared to the tall, solidly built man I’d known in life. No, the reality of his death didn’t hit me until I opened that envelope and the obituary slid out. Chalk it up to the power of print, but I couldn’t even make it all the way through the brief article before my vision became a blur of tears. I was overwhelmed by memories: Summers spent playing in his backyard, climbing his slender apple trees, helping him pick and clean lima beans from the garden, the citrus smell of the non-toxic glue he’d buy so we could build model cars on the screened-in back porch. I guess it’s the little things that hit us hardest, like the way that nothing makes me sadder about the loss of my grandmother than remembering the smell and taste of the amazing homemade strawberry-rhubarb jelly she used to make for us, spread across the dense, buttered yeast rolls she was so good at baking.

My heart was still heavy with that grief when I was pointed to the Internet’s screeds about my presumed vendetta against Ultimate Ghosts ‘N Goblins and the PSP. By all rights, it should have been the final straw for that particular day -- dozens, maybe hundreds, of people were wishing I would be afflicted with the same cancer that had just taken my grandfather from me. That’s awful. But rather than taking these attacks personally, I experienced a moment of calm and clarity that made me realize how utterly petty the whole situation was. I was just some guy whose job was to review a video game; I found that game lacking and stated as much (admittedly in an occasionally inflammatory way). In the grand scheme of things, it hardly mattered. Maybe the game’s sales would be affected ever so slightly, but that wouldn’t have any impact on anyone who didn’t help create the game. It certainly didn’t diminish the pleasure other people managed to find in the game. It didn’t change anything at all, really. It certainly wasn’t worth wishing for someone’s death, and in turn I certainly didn’t need to get worked up about the anger of a bunch of strangers who reacted so violently to a difference of opinion over what was ultimately a slim trifle of amusement. I had just lost someone who was deeply important in my life, but I never shouted in rage or blamed anyone. It was highly unlikely that anyone was really that worked up over a video game. In the end, it was all a lot of meaningless games -- not only the product in question, but the message board posturing and rallying cries of fury as well.

Something changed in my perspective that day, and it changed my approach both to work and to life. There’s just not enough time in the world to get bent out of shape over trivialities, and there’s certainly no reason to take anonymous Internet rants personally. Which isn’t to say I sometimes don’t get bent out of shape over dumb things, or that spiteful written barbs don’t sometimes sting. But then I think back to how I felt that day. I think about the absurdity of the disparity in reactions -- my silent tears at my desk over the loss of a loved one versus frothy mob zealotry over a criticism of a video game -- and remember that even the most hateful barb will eventually fade. And everything falls back into perspective.

Now, as I approach the fifth anniversary of his death, having returned from E3 2011 only to learn the following day that my other grandfather doesn’t have long for this world, either, I find myself thinking about Grandpa fairly often. I remember looking up to him as a child and relating to him as an adult. I remember all the unexpected ways he would surprise me -- like the time, a few years after my grandmother’s death, that he asked me (in his bashful, circumspect way) for dating advice. But most of all, I keep thinking about all the lessons he taught me about being a good person and having the proper attitude to deal with all of life’s misfortunes. They were lessons he passed along, as in this case, even after he was gone.

And I suppose I owe a little gratitude to Ultimate Ghosts ‘N Goblins, too. I don’t have to like the game, but even an enemy can be a teacher.

By Jeremy Parish? | August 21, 2011 | Previous: The Last Express | Next: Let the Giants Rest Their Shoulders