Gargoyle's Quest II: The Demon Darkness
Game Overview by Mike Finkelstein
Capcom has not always known for innovation in their franchises. Once they have a good idea -- say, Mega Man, as an example -- they would then run that one idea through yearly installments that barely evolved the franchise from game to game, sucking every last bit of life from the concept. When an idea works, the company would iterate and iterate on it, over and over, until finally the fans get bored. It's the Capcom way (but, in fairness, many other game companies have done this same "strategy" over the years).
In some ways you could see this same dynamic at play in the Ghosts 'n Goblins franchise. While the games are distinct enough from one to the next, they all had key similarities that make the blend together. A human, going through a world where every hit brings them right to the brink of death. Gothic monsters set to kill them at every jump and turn. A forced double-loop through the game just to get the real ending. It was a formula set in the very first title and then repeated over and over again because it worked and that's what Capcom wanted.
The only time the company deviated from this, early one, was in the creation of Gargoyle's Quest, an RPG-like action adventure spin-off from the main series. Instead of a platforming game designed around the "make sure they die in three minutes" principles of the arcades, Gargoyle's Quest presented players a (slightly) kinder top-down adventure intermixed with platforming battle arenas. It still felt like a part of the Ghosts 'n Goblins franchise but it did find its own distinctive note in the process.
So, of course, Capcom pushed out a sequel two years later that marginally iterated on the previous game. Released first for the NES (where the original was on the Game Boy) before then also joining its predecessor (in Japan) on Nintendo's handheld, Gargoyles Quest II could almost be considered a remake of the previous game. The exploration is similar, the progression is similar, the story is similar, and it's only in a few changes where the game finds its own distinction. If you had already played the previous game, this sequel essentially gave you more of the same... again. If that appealed to you was really based on how much you liked the first adventure.
As with the previous title, Gargoyles Quest II stars Firebrand, one of the nasty red gargoyles who would harry King Arthur in the main games. As one of the only creatures of the Demon Realm powerful enough to handle a massive quest, Firebrand is tasked with going out into the realm to gather the powers necessary to take on an evil demon king who threatened to take over the Demon Realm. For the fate of his homeland, and all the demons within, Firebrand had to find the strength within to take on all the challenges and become the legendary Red Armorer (...again).
As far as plot is concerned, this game basically has the same story as the previous title. Firebrand starts out weak and basic and has to fight through various areas, gaining power-ups from bosses, or from kings and queens he'd talk to along the way, until (via a very basic and light form of exploration and collectible collection, a la a Metroidvania) he would become powerful enough, and capable enough, to reach the end. It's the exact same story as the first game, with very minor changes... but then, that's also how it goes in the main Ghosts 'n Goblins games. Arthur is always out to save his lady love who, once again, has been kidnapped by the demon king. This series is not known for innovating on its stories.
Structurally, too, this game plays a lot like its predecessor. Firebrand starts out on a top-down overworld and can go into towns (presented in a similar top-down perspective) to talk to NPCs, stop at the inn, buy items, etc. Then, as he explores around he'll find set encounters he has to battle to progress. Various dungeons dot the area and these are deep and long action sections (presented from a side-scrolling perspective), usually finishing with a boss at the end. That's how the first game played and its the same here, just with one key difference: the random encounters of the first game have been removed.
Frankly I think this change was good. These games don't feature any kind of experience, with all health and power increases given by NPCs. The random encounters in the first game, as such, were more of a nuisance, something to pad out the length of the title without really adding anything of merit. Removing them, and adjusting the game to just have fixed encounters, smooths out the experience and keeps everything far more playable. In that regard, I feel like this game does advance the property nicely.
Of course, the other big change is that this game has full color 8-bit graphics. Designed for the ground up for the NES (and only later ported to the Game Boy with a couple of extra zones, and power-ups added) the graphic style of this game is nice. The colors are bright and vibrant and everything has that lovely Capcom charm that's so easy to appreciate. Sure, the Game Boy's graphics were decent, and I never felt like they lacked anything (as Capcom is good at designing for the Game Boy, too), but to have the game in full colors was a nice touch. It works, and works well, considering the era.
But then, it's hard to say how many played this game and would have complained about how similar it was to the original (or got a chance to appreciate what small improvements were put into the sequel). This game came out in 1992, right at the end of the NES's life cycle when the SNES was already out and gaining momentum. Likely fans were waiting for an SNES title to play instead, cutting into the audience this game could have had. And, considering the new console already out and waiting for players, a game that didn't really innovate but only iterated on what came before had to feel like a bit of a disappointment, for sure.
It's not that Gargoyle's Quest II: The Demon Darkness is a bad game. It's just that we can't view it in a vacuum. It had a previous title that played very similarly (down to the same beats and powers). It came out on a console that was already on its way out. It's an odd little title that didn't really fit by the time it was released. Fans of the series likely enjoyed this game, but for everyone else, the SNES was waiting and it would have a sequel that really did push the format for the series forward: 1994's Demon's Crest.
Similarities to Castlevania Games
As with the previous title, this game doesn't really feel like it has any relation to Castlevania or the exploration-based games Konami was crafting. Instead, they're all playing in the same pool of ideas, tapping into that nascent, "we can add exploration to this," vibe that games were looking into. If anything, it acts as a stepping stone for Demon's Crest, which is a game that very much committed to the Metroidvania conceit.
And I can't even say that we needed Gargoyle's Quest II to get to Demon's Crest. We already had the first Gargoyle's Quest, which set up Firebrand and his adventures. This sequel didn't really need to come out for the third game to happen. Sure, it's a nice little adventure, but hardly what I'd consider essential.
With that said, at least this game did remove some of the more annoying aspects of the first game, like the random encounters, so that Demon's Crest has a cleaner slate to work with. And, hey, anything that streamlines the Metroidvania experience to make it more playable should be lauded.