Though obscure as all get-out and possessing a name in no way indicative of its heritage, this highly underrated action-RPG from Capcom actually has a rich and thoroughly weird history behind it. Firebrand, the game's demonic protagonist, was first inflicted upon the gaming world as a villain; one of the nastiest villains in Capcom's classic Ghosts 'n Goblins (he later reappeared in Ghouls 'n Ghosts, with extra graphic detail and twice the bad attitude), to be more precise about it. Oddly though, his sardonic smirk and calculated randomness soon made him popular as a "love to hate" character among arcade gamers of the day (akin to that damn spider in Millipede and poor, pathetic Coily from Q*Bert), and Capcom, soon after the advent of the Game Boy, eventually got the idea of giving him his own game. That game was Gargoyle's Quest, a genuinely interesting action-RPG in which Firebrand set out to liberate his native Ghoul Realm from a pack of baddies who called themselves the Destroyers (note: you have to admit, this "Destroyer" crowd had balls if nothing else. Would YOU try to take over a world where only monsters lived? I'd invade, say, the Candy Bar Realm myself, if it ever came to a vote or anything). After gaining the power to shoot what appeared to be Jello molds from his mouth and using this new-found strength to rout Destroyer kingpin Breager, the recently-reinstated king of the Ghoul Realm entrusted the Earth to Firebrand, if he could only conquer it (gee, thanks). I never got a chance to play Gargoyle's Quest II on the NES, but I'd bet my arse that the plot somehow centers around Firebrand's attempts to take over this world (maybe it ends with the pivotal grudge match with Arthur in G'nG, only from the demon's point of view? Now THAT would be good game design! Bit unfair for Arthur though, seeing as how he always got slaughtered even when it was the other way around. ) Though neither GQ game was widely popular, both had a steady cult following, apparently large enough for Capcom to develop yet another sequel (under a different name, just to make life difficult), this time for the shiny new 16-bit SNES. So to cut a long story short (well, er, too late), Demon's Crest is the third installment of a series with a different name that centers around a character who used to be the scourge of arcade-goers everywhere. If that didn't make any sense to you, maybe you should try thinking harder.
Since Demon's Crest isn't supposed to be Gargoyle's Quest 3 (and never claimed to be anyhow...probably just a spinoff of the series), the plot makes very little sense as a continuation of the first two games. Apparently, a bunch of crests surfaced throughout the Ghoul Realm, granting great power to whoever finds them. Firebrand, undisputed badass lord of just about everything but still power-hungry for some reason, tracks them all down, but is critically wounded in the process. Some other Gargoyle named Phalanx uses this opportunity to swipe the crests from Firebrand, becoming insanely powerful and imprisoning Firebrand in a colosseum (where he'll fight for the amusement of others...what the hell is with this world? Don't you think they'd be in an uproar if their overlord/hero suddenly got relegated to slave gladiator?), all in one fell swoop. This being a video game, Firebrand escapes (pretty easily, quite honestly), and sets about retrieving the crests and putting a stop to Phalanx because...ermm...well, who knows? Firebrand can shoot Jello out of his mouth though, so he's probably the better ruler either way.
As per usual in the Gargoyle Quest series, Demon's Crest starts out with a long side-scrolling bit, in this case an "intro" where Firebrand escapes the colosseum (nuking the dragon in the process...if you can't do this, you may as well just quit playing video games and take up knitting or something), runs through a fairly long stage, and has his first encounter with the obnoxious General Arma (replete with a Kefka-like snicker) toward the end. The deceptively simple controls will be instantly familiar to veterans of the series, but newbies will probably be initially confused. The "jump" and "shoot a wad of flaming saliva out of Firebrand's mug" controls seem straightforward enough at first, but since Firebrand does have wings (a detail not lost on the on-the-ball designers at Capcom), a quick press of the Jump button while he's already in the air will cause him to hover there. Though the Game Boy game had a meter limiting how long he could do this, Firebrand seems to be able to hover indefinitely (which cramps the challenge a bit, I must confess) from the get-go. He can even fly left and right while hovering, and stop hovering (jump again) and start again (yeah, hit that A button one more time) before he hits ground to change his flying height a bit. Obviously, these controls are a bit unconventional for a game that's otherwise essentially patterned after Mega Man (Firebrand can also cling to walls and bash statues in the background, for the record), but the challenge starts out relatively low-key and presents the player with enough risk-free situations to learn the gist of the "hover" controls. Most players will have gotten the basic idea by the time Arma's been driven off at the end of the first stage.
Once shown up, Arma (his ego damaged not a whit - what is it with these video-game villains? They must take speed or something) relinquishes the Earth Crest and flies off with a promise that he and Firebrand "will meet again" (gee, didn't see that coming, did you? Someday I'll play a game that isn't 100% predictable, or die trying). From here, things move out into a Final Fantasy-style map screen, where Firebrand soars around the map in glorious Mode 7, landing in houses or other locations as he sees fit. The lone town (laid out much like the towns in the quasi-classic Simon's Quest) and houses scattered around the map where you (unsurprisingly) buy stuff, get information, and gamble hard-won cash away. The other locations are usually short (though secret-packed; as in the Mega Man X series, there's all kinds of good crap hidden just out of plain sight in this one) action bits that culminate in a battle with a boss (actually, there may be several "hidden bosses" in each stage as well), who'll cough up anything from a life extension to a new item when he/she gives up the ghost. Of all the available items (and there are many, ranging from projectile enhancements to life potions), the Crests are probably the most interesting; each allows Firebrand to morph into a slightly different gargoyle with altered abilities (example: the earth gargoyle can't fly, but it CAN shoot nasty seismic shots along the ground and bash things with its shoulder). The first four stages can be tackled in any order (classic Mega Man style; they can also be revisited after completion to find hidden stuff), upon completion of which more will appear, until it all culminates in a showdown with Phalanx for the Heaven Crest (or so I'd guess..maybe Breager or Arthur will put in an appearance though? That'd be neat, eh?).
Had I not just lived through the Resident Evil period (which probably isn't over yet...I'm sure we'll see another RE game, and no complaints here; I liked 'em), I never would've believed that Capcom (who are responsible for MEGA MAN and all those Disney games, for pete's sake!) could pull such a dark, eerie, and foreboding game off so utterly perfectly. Everything looks like an unholy melding of Ghouls 'n Ghosts and Castlevania; dark, gothic-y backgrounds, scary-looking enemies, and haunting music abound. Since the game is essentially set in Hell (they can't TELL you that though, can they? Not with the WASPs in Congress running things, no siree...), the graphics and sounds accentuate the atmosphere perfectly; even Firebrand looks properly demonic (he looked pretty cute in his last two games, to tell you the truth). The music and sounds are equally inspired; as I said, the music never fails to complement the mood (whether you're battling an undead dragon or soaring over the Realm), and the sound effects do their part- you'll hear footsteps, laughing, and all the other, more obligatory action-game sounds (explosions et al).
So what's the problem then, you ask? Well, from both the action and the RPG perspectives, Demon's Crest is found wanting in a few departments. Skip this one if you're an RPG buff who likes to explore huge worlds; the Ghoul Realm is tiny here, and Firebrand can only land on pre-set locations anyhow (no wandering or random encounters allowed). This is forgivable in itself (the map screen is really just a dressed-up stage select when you get right down to it; in fact, the game highly resembles Mega Man X in many respects, right
down to the inability to duck or shoot in any direction other than horizontal), but the pace of the side-scrolling bits bugged me as well. There's really not a lot going on enemy-wise; most of the stages are more obstacle courses than anything else. This is fine if you like tests of dexterity, but I really don't- I like to KILL things, gosh darnit!! DC is also quite a bit easier than the original GQ game; due in part to the comparative lack of enemies (GQ was always throwing a few dozen at you) and much more forgiving life system. Again, this is fine if you like to mow through games of this type, but I'd much rather be challenged and spend a decent amount of time with my purchase rather than rush through it.
Is Demon's Crest the best RPG ever to appear on the SNES? Obviously not. Is it the best action game? Hell no. Is it a novel approach to both genres that will undoubtedly appeal to fans of either that have tired of more conventional fare? Definitely. While it could be better, Demon's Crest is undeniably well-executed from a technical standpoint, and the game really isn't all that bad either. Not the deepest RPG you'll ever play by a longshot, but quite possibly one of the more entertaining ones. Check it out if you're sick of Final Fantasy and Mega Man.