Makaimura for WonderSwan
Game Overview by Mike Finkelstein
For a while the Ghosts 'n Goblins series was a reliable franchise for Capcom. The company produced regular, well received entries, both in the mainline franchise and the Gargoyle's Quest series, from 1985 through 1994. But then the series slowed. Whether it was the audience finding other games (maybe less challenging games) to sink their teeth into, or Capcom's own desire to focus on reinventing the franchise to boost sales (eventually releasing a pair of well received entries in the Maximo spin-off series), the main Ghosts 'n Goblins titles went from mainstays to something that might eventually come out, at some point, maybe.
There was a seven year gap between Demon's Crest and 2001's Maximo: Ghosts to Glory, and a full decade since the last mainline entry, Super Ghouls 'n Ghosts that most got to play. The only titles in between were a loosely related puzzle game, Arthur to Astaroth no Nazomakaimura: Incredible Toons, which only had the Ghosts 'n Goblins motif added right before the game was finished, and Makaimura for WonderSwan, which stayed in Japan because the WonderSwan handheld itself never left Japan. That meant that for a large swath of the world, a handheld, black and white mainline entry in the franchise never saw the light of day.
That's a pity because, for the most part, Makaimura for WonderSwan (literal translation as Demon World Village for WonderSwan, and likely would have had the branding of Ghosts 'n Goblins for WonderSwan had it been released worldwide) is a solid game. It's not as hard as most mainline entries in the series, maybe not quite as polished in some respects. But it's a fun, light, and enjoyable way to have Ghosts 'n Goblins on the go, something that wouldn't have been technically possible for another year at the time, not until the original Ghosts 'n Goblins was re-released on the Game Boy Color in 2000.
Considering the hardware, Makaimura for WonderSwan is a good translation of the series formula. You, of course, play as Arthur once again hot on the heels of the demons that have kidnapped your lady love, Prin-Prin, and taken her across the world of Astaroth. Arthur is a strong warrior, but he can only take one weapon with him at a time (for a lance, to a crossbow, torches, and daggers). If he takes any damage his armor will get knocked of. If he's damaged again then he dies and has to start back at the last checkpoint. Navigating through the game requires skill and maybe just a little luck as the armies of the damned come for the hero over and over again.
The game follows the basic construction you expect, without deviating far. Where it deviates the most is in reverting much of the play style of the game all the way back to the NES roots. Due to the color limitations of a four-color grayscale system, Makaimura for WonderSwan doesn't have different colored armors for Arthur, an innovation brought in with the second game, Ghouls 'n Ghosts. Those better armors would boost Arthur's attack power, giving him a better advantage in his travels. Arthur doesn't get that here, and that does leave him at the same power level throughout the game.
Honestly, it's an odd choice to make. I can understand wanting to keep sprites simple and effective, but considering Metroid II: Return of Samus, a game from seven years prior, game Samus upgraded sprites when she found better armor, you'd think Capcom could have done the same for Artie here. It does mean there's less need to experiment with weapons to see how the armor boosts them, thus likely leading you to settle on one or two weapons you prefer, ignoring the rest entirely.
The bigger more noticeable change is to the difficulty. Whether a conscious choice by the developers or simply due to limitations of the hardware, the game feels easier than previous entries in the series. This is, in large part, due to the fact that fewer enemies crowd the screen, and there are far fewer projectiles and other things to dodge. Unlike other titles in the mainline series, combat across the various stages of Makaimura for WonderSwan feels downright manageable. It's an odd, but welcome, choice for those of us that really suck at the hardest games in this series.
That's not to say it's very easy, though. There are still tricky points where it's obvious an enemy or trap is placed to catch the player off guard. And that says nothing of the bosses, many of which are large, complex, and can be difficult to defeat without taking damage. You will spend time learning the patterns of the various bosses, where the safe spots are for various attacks and what the right times are to launch your own assault. Beating them isn't impossible, but it can seem pretty difficult, especially with some of the later, most complex boss fights.
The other thing to note is that, like with all the previous mainline games in the series, you will have to play through this game twice (two loops) to fully complete the game. This is a standard requirement of the series, but considering this game never got an official English translation, many Online think this is a one-loop game. No, Prin-Prin did drop her necklace somewhere along the path to the endgame, and she only mentions this to Arthur once he reaches the end of the game the first time. A second loop is required to get the necklace (and keep it, of course) so hat the true final boss can be defeated. Those who know the series expect this, but not everyone knew this was truly the case.
What that means, then, is that this is a safe, fair translation of the series' core concept to a little portable system. It's a tad easier, a tad friendlier, than many fans of the series might have been expecting, but it is also fun in its own way. Whether it would have been a hit with the hardcore fans in the U.S. if it could have had a proper release is open for debate. But it did help keep the true concept of the series alive for a few more years until the next mainline entry could arrive in 2006.
Similarities to Castlevania Games
As with the other entries in the series, what associates Makaimura for WonderSwan the most is ambiance. This is a game that thrives with a dark, Gothic atmosphere. The Ghosts 'n Goblins games have always been good about providing that horror-tinged aesthetic. Now, this game does go with slightly cuter graphics, making it feel more like a cousin to the Kid Dracula games, but that's still a familiar association, playing in the same field.
And the game play for this fourth mainline entry does still feel Online with the platforming and mechanics that made this series great. Throw-able weapons that feel like Castlevania sub-weapons, tricky platforming and treacherous enemy placement. It's all here, just on the small screen. If this game has any leg up over the Castlevania portable titles of the era, it's that this title isn't horribly difficult. That, of course, is much more Online with where Castlevania would go, easing up on the difficult as it made its own transition into Metroidvania game play.