For some reason, Capcom had stubbornly refused to make a true GnG sequel after Super Ghouls 'n' Ghosts. They instead concentrated on fleshing out the spin-offs, like Gargoyle's Quest and the PS2 action-platformer Maximo. With the mediocre sales of the second Maximo game, Army of Zin, Capcom figured that it was time to take things back to their roots—none of this spin-off gobbledygook anymore—and, completely out of left field, announced Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins for the PSP (Goku Makaimura, or "Ultimate Demon World Village" in Japan). So intent was Capcom on making a true GnG sequel that they hired the mind behind the first three games to once again breath life into the series. And, for the most part, he did.
As you might imagine, Ultimate Ghosts 'n' Goblins is not very plot-heavy. Prin Prin is once again abducted by demons, ruled by a much bigger devil than in any of the previous games, Knight Arthur has to save her, etc. Nothing new here, except that some of the introduction text can be construed as a plot to impregnate Prin Prin with demon spawn. Thanks, Japan.
Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins is by far the prettiest entry in the series, and one of the most gorgeous 2D games to grace its generation. The graphical style is the ever-popular "2.5D" that seems to work well for the PSP crowd. No complaints about that, though. The stages are wondrously detailed; every rock or tree has a remarkable design, so much so that one could be fooled into thinking that it's pure, hand-drawn 2D. There's a lot of variety to be had, as each stage is divided into two halves with a completely different motif within each. For example, stage 1-1 is a forest haunted by wraiths, and stage 1-2 is a demon-infested bog, complete with tidal waves of blood. Stage 2-2 is infested with malicious bales of hay, which will strangle you if you're not careful. You could very well spend hours just looking at individual parts of the background, and there are some extremely impressive effects, especially on some of the bosses. The music is also well done. It's exactly what you would expect from GnG, no more, no less. Of course, stage 1-1 has another remix of the ever-popular original Ghosts 'n Goblins theme, but the rest of the soundtrack is new.
Gameplay-wise, Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins is an odd duck. At its core, it's a true GnG game, but the developers wisely decided to add different levels of difficulty for those who don't like their games face-punchingly hard. The two easier difficulties now carry a life bar system, so Arthur only dies after several hits instead of one, and is resurrected immediately where he dies instead of getting sent back to a checkpoint (except when he fall in a pit, where he's sent to the beginning of the platforming sequence). There's Novice, which is quite liberal with lives, power-ups and continue points. Then there's Standard, which is similar, but a bit harder, and doesn't give you a powered up weapon when you die. And then there's Ultimate. Oh dear God, is it hard. Ultimate gives you neither the benefit of a life bar nor restart points. If you die, back to the beginning of the level with you. This kind of difficulty is inevitable, considering the GnG background, but good Lord, would it have killed them to allow for a checkpoint or two per stage?
Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins
Aside from the different levels of difficulty, Capcom added many extra things to do in Ultimate. At the end of level 1-1, Arthur first gets a little boot icon. Grabbing the thing enables him to execute a double-jump like in Super Ghouls 'n' Ghosts. So for the first time, he can double-jump and fire up and down. Much like the more recent Castlevania titles, Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins has a variety of objects and artifacts that give you nifty powers. There are several shields you can equip, which let you absorb enemy projectiles while kneeling. One of them even makes Arthur fly. There are also hidden magic spells that can be gathered and also equipped through a menu. Unlike the older games, you can only use these a limited number of times. There are several different types of armor, some of which modify your speed and magic ability, in addition to a bunch of cool new weapons, like the Grand Lance (more powerful version of the main weapon), Shallow Blade (which automatically targets enemies), the Boomerang Scythe, the Fire Bottle (similar to the Holy Water in Castlevania), and the Thorn Whip (again, like playing as a Castlevania hero.) There are also a good number of herbs and body parts you have to give to witches. Also helpful are the Transport Wands, different colored rods that allow you to warp back to the level in which you found them. (These are especially crucial to finding everything in the game.) Perhaps the most irritating of these items are the rings scattered throughout the levels. Be sure to grab these if you can, because you need all 33—that's right, thirty-three—to get the true ending.
And this is probably the biggest problem. Ultimate GnG, it seems, uses these items and trinkets as a way of appeasing the RPG obsessed masses, who complain about games not having enough replay value and side quests. Unfortunately, while the extracurricular items are interesting, they steadily become less of a prize, and more of an infuriating fetch-quest whose destination is unclear because you can't pinpoint the exact red chest you missed in X level. This kind of padding doesn't seem to belong in a GnG game. It's supposed to be about the precise movements and actions taking place within the level. Why add RPG elements to a series that was perfectly fine without them? Why couldn't it have just been an arcade-styled romp through awesome-looking gothic and demonic levels, like it's always been? Technically there are only eight levels (and a number of boss fights), so it's obviously a means of extending the total play time. But what we end up with is a game that's 80 percent arcade action, and 20 percent find-the-mystic-candy-to-open-the-portal fetch quest. Considering how hard the game is already, it's kind of irritating to have to revisit previous levels, only to have them destroy you over and over again when all you want is a ring or a leaf. As if we needed more distractions than Red Arremers smacking into Arthur from above.
Still, UGnG as a whole is a damned fine game. The music is catchy, the visuals are nothing short of spectacular, and it's still the same, masochistic franchise we all knew and loved (or hated) growing up.
Ultimate Ghosts 'n Goblins
In Japan, at least, Capcom heard the cries of disgruntled gamers, annoyed at the collection aspects. A year after the original release, Capcom issued a budget priced version version called Goku Makaimura Kai, which offers an additional mode that more closely resembles the original games ("Kai" basically means "Revision"—Capcom did the same thing years earlier with their shooter "1943" and its upgrade, "1943 Kai".) There are three different play options that give you different amounts of lives and continues. No unlimited continues here. There's no life bar either—one hit, and your armor crumbles... take another hit and you're dead. In that sense, it's similar to the Ultimate mode in the original release, but they actually added mid-level checkpoints this time around and rearranged many of the enemies, so it's not quite as brutal as it was before.
The collection aspects are, for the most part, gone. Arthur begins with the double jump instead of obtaining it after the first stage; magic spells and shields are regularly found in item pots, instead of having a single hidden one that's in your inventory. Shields can now absorb direct attacks from enemies, but they break after a single hit. You can only carry one magic spell at a time now, but it works like the previous games—you can use it as much as you want, but you need to charge it up for a few seconds. The rings are still here, but they're entirely optional—collect three and you'll get an extra continue. There's no need to warp back and forth through any of the stages any more, although in classic Ghosts'n Goblins tradition, you have to run through all of the stages twice in order to face the true final boss.
All of the problems of the original release are thus fixe. It does raise the question though—why wasn't this included to begin with? Capcom claims they were just responding to their fans, but it's a bit strange plunking down extra cash for what amounts to rebalanced gameplay mode, with no real content. Some kind of free downloadable patch would've been much nicer, but apparently that kind of generosity cannot be expected from major video game companies. It's also restricted to Japan, after the original release of Ultimate GnG didn't exactly set the charts on fire in the West.