This article was written as part of the Make a Wish Week Amigathon. Donations are now being accepted to help fulfil the dying wishes of terminally ill children.
Ghost Battle is one of those games that seem to have suffered a bit of an identity crisis growing up. It can’t decide if it wants to be a Shadow of the Beast, Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins or Green Beret homage so instead you get three very muddled platformers for the price of one.
Even before I point out that it was developed by Interactive Design and published by Thalion in 1991 you may be able to spot some stylistic correlations with Flink and Lionheart… two of the most visually enticing titles the Amiga has to offer. There’s a logical explanation for that; the same coder, Erwin Kloibhofer, and graphician, Henk Nieborg, worked on all three games. Musician, Jochen ‘Mad Max’ Hippel, didn’t, though did lend his immense and at one time prolific talent to today’s spotlit title. Unfortunately he no longer composes and is thought to be working in the field of logistics for Matheis+Koebig Baustoffe, though this information is now very old and may no longer be accurate.
It’s possible there may be some elaboration to the ‘plot’ in the manual, if only it wasn’t so elusively missing in action. Until it surfaces all we have to go on is this: He-Man looky-likey and girlfriend stand in a forest awkwardly gazing at one another for no discernible reason when the clawed hand of a colossal monster reaches through a gate and snatches her from under your nose. You casually stroll through in a nonchalant, slow-motion pursuit, presumably to investigate, though maybe just to pick daisies. Who knows? She may be in danger, or this could be how she normally gets to the hairdresser’s for her weekly Wednesday morning pamper session. Your guess is as good as mine.
That’s it. Not entirely dissimilar to the prologue of Capcom’s knight in shining armour coin-op favourite (for which you can substitute the hand for a winged demon)… or 101 other threadbare-plotted arcade games. In lieu of any useful instructions we may as well assume our objective is to track down the perpetrator, sniffing out his trail across five thematically distinct stages, each culminating with a leviathan battle of monstrous proportions. Yes, we’re well and truly rooted in the era of ‘big bosses are cool’ territory, and fair enough, they were, and still are today. Nice to know some things never change.
Our ghoulish déjà vu daydream begins in the forest armed with an unlimited supply of rocks as our only defense against a clone army populated with man-eating Venus fly traps and ‘oh, that old chestnut’ zombies resurrected from beneath the earth, funnily enough swiped straight out of Capcomland. Keeping us on our toes, levitating platforms glide back and forth over watery graves daring us to try our luck.
Plugging away against the clock we descend down a Beastly well into the depths of a hostile, subterranean dungeon where we’re affronted by giant arachnids of Shadow of the Beast fame, and prancing, purple-panted Slimer-ish creatures that could also pass for the Incredible Hulk if you squint a bit and use your imagination. A purple and green palette seems to be a recurring theme, planting in mind the suggestion that what we’re dealing with is some kind of regal, slimy alien invasion. See what happens when you’re left to fill in the blanks for yourself?; I’ve turned into David Icke!
As with many of the sprites in Ghost Battle the Slimer-Hulks are minimally and comically animated; their entire floaty bodies bob and twist in time to the arcade soundtrack without so much as engaging a limb, or twitching a facial feature. It’s a bit like watching a dimly lit kindergarten play where all the characters are fashioned from cardboard cutouts shambled around the stage by kids wearing black camouflage to maintain the fragile illusion of sentience.
It can take an eternity to dispense with enemies accoutered with only your puny rocks, and the situation doesn’t improve much when they’re upgraded to throwing daggers and battle axes, or the limited supply of bombs you can find scattered about the environment. This coupled with your lethargic protagonist, and a dearth of credits or level codes makes for an acutely tedious, tricky and frustrating experience, even if there are three difficulty levels from which to choose.
Disembodied free-roaming eyeballs – again on loan from Shadow of the Beast – rotate overhead in fixed formation, while spikes thrust out of the floor to skewer you like a shish kebab. Leaping over them your arms flail upwards as though reaching for the sky as you begin your descent from the apex of a high-velocity rollercoaster. Akin to the game from which it takes its inspiration, survival is dependent on precision timing and lashings of patience. Something that isn’t remotely facilitated by the awkward, stilted gait of our unnamed chum.
Aside from wrestling with his blundering locomotion, you may find yourself falling off ledges to your doom simply from rolling on the floor laughing. He’s all out of proportion for a start; his arms are so long and muscley, and legs so short and weedy, you’d be forgiven for mistaking our hero of the hour for a chimp. And what on earth is going on with that climbing animation? Ascending a ladder we flamboyantly thrash out our arms and wind them back in again like a performing arts instructor overemphasising the maneuver to accommodate a slow learner. Hand him a twirling baton and he’d be in his element I’m sure!
End of level bosses take the traditional form of oversized fantasy creatures as found in the G ‘n’ G series, the first being a humongous vulture that half-heartedly hurls fireballs in your general direction whilst fluttering about a bit in slow-motion. Kick its feathery behind into the middle of next week and you’re rewarded with a key, which can be used to open a door further down the line strangely enough. Likewise, later bosses leave behind ‘metal tools’ or spanners that are used in conjunction with machinery or grids to grant access to the next area.
Level 2 commences inside a vibrantly decorated castle constructed from a peculiar blend of medieval and modern architecture in which the floor is comprised of M&M’s and we’re set upon by an Ed Gein impersonator wielding his customary chainsaw, bedecked in a blood-splattered apron. Well, even psychopaths need to keep their clothes fresh and free from wear and tear don’t they. They’re no different to you and me really.
Continuing the fetching purple and green aesthetic (traditionally the hue of scientific geniuses in comic book lore), the guardian here is the grim reaper who hovers not especially menacingly with few frames of animation aside from a periodic horizontal sprite flip to give the impression he’s twisting his head around.
Beneath his levitating body you’ll notice an appended, floating ‘hits’ bar to indicate his state of health, much like your own ‘life’ bar that can be replenished by consuming hunks of meat ala Gauntlet, only not built into the GUI. It’s literally a bar of life that you might buy in an off licence alongside a Snickers or Twix. OK, so maybe I’m the only one who found the need to label it a tad eccentric. Moving swiftly on…
With Mr Reaper nought but a pile of bones, we can seize his death gift (another key), make like a TMNT and head down to the sewer to eventually tango with a fire breathing stegosaurus. Returning to the map screen between this level and the next we’re instructed to “Try to find out what it’s all about”. Wouldn’t that be nice? Can you give us a clue Thalion?
While we wait for divine intervention we move onto the Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins style ice cavern level where we’re introduced to the bear necessities of mortality by grizzlies with detachable heads, which continue on a set course even after their host bodies have been destroyed. Accompanying them are pogoing chaps accessorised with all-the-rage green helmets, reminiscent of the Man in the Iron Mask, only that one was more of a penitence grey.
Thalion really hit the jackpot when Jochen Hippel agreed to compose the music for Ghost Battle; this (and the luscious graphics) are where it truly excels. A number of contrasting styles swathe the action depending on the tone and tempo required. Sometimes we’ll hear little other than the ambient spectral howl of icy gusts of wind, elsewhere we’re intimidated by the uneasy cadence of a track evoking Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, a haunting harmony that will forever be associated with The Exorcist. During the downtime we’re treated to more meditative, melancholy numbers that invoke a sense of enigmatic wonderment coupled with an underlying apprehension of foreshadowing. Between the polemic extremes, pure, erratic, arcade pandemonium – acoustically at least – delivers an invigorating switch of pace.
Next on the boss bill is a floaty, horned skull with bulging ejector eyes that propel green plasma pulses, followed by a mongrelised elephant-overgrown-vine-plant mash-up, embellished with fiendish Beast-noggins for buds.
Back in the forest witches on broomsticks coerce you into passing through a Green Beret rip-off segment where walking dead zombie commandos lie in wait, and continue to toddle onwards despite having their torsos obliterated; a perfect time to activate those zig-zaggy magic shield protective barriers, or pull off improbable jumps using your temporary booster.
The penultimate boss baddie is a fist-slamming, springy numpty of a troll resembling Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins’ ‘unicorn’ guardian somewhat.
For the final level we visit another castle, fight wizards, G ‘n’ G knights, and even bump into Spielberg’s E.T. who is disturbingly preoccupied with throwing telephones at you, rather than using one to actually “phone home”.
A meet and greet session with the purveyor of heartache himself reveals the mega Don to be an Arremer-esque, garish game-show-gunk-green flying succubus who has your incarcerated girlfriend suspended from the ceiling on a chain. Ouch! That can’t be too comfortable. Even Jabba the Hut treated Princess Leia better than that.
Defeating said hellion triggers the release of the key to your betrothed’s handcuffs from the chain secured to his wrist. Automatically deployed as you approach, she’s disentangled and drops to the ground, somehow disappearing mid-fall.
With the crowning sortie vanquished we can celebrate by spending the rest of eternity together, forever and ever, amen, which we choose to kick-start with a leisurely spot of R ‘n’ R reclining on a log as we take in the scenic forest views. We never did get to find out “what it was all about” did we? Oh well, at least we weren’t expected to double-complete the game to see the real, genuine finale sequence, or suffer any more dubiously translated German dialogue.
“Boring, boring, boring, boring, boring. Everything that’s wrong with full-price Amiga software in one handy package. (Except the sound). There isn’t a person alive who couldn’t find a better use for £25 than this.”
38% – Amiga Power (August 1991)
“The downers do drag Ghost Battle down and spoil the surprise of discovering such excellent timing puzzles. It is a frustratingly enjoyable experience. The frustration eventually outweighs the enjoyment, but that takes a while. It is not the best platform romp ever designed, but the evil puzzles, good pics and excitable soundtracks are far better than the box lets on.”
69% – Amiga Format (August 1991)
“If you’ve got the patience of a saint and an unreasonable urge to own every platform game ever released, then by all means go out and buy it. But for anyone else, I get the feeling that after laying out £20 for this, ghosts won’t be the only thing you’ll be having nightmares about.”
52% – ACE (August 1991)
Ghost Battle hardly went down in gaming history as an essential purchase being a cheap derivative pasticcio of far more solid forerunners. Whilst no parallax scrolling is evident – fairly standard by this juncture – Ghost Battle does feature some beautifully drawn, vivid backdrops with delicate artistic touches that breathe new life – at least aesthetically – into a stale genre. As long as you don’t watch it running, or play it, Ghost Battle is certainly one of the Amiga’s more visually opulent titles, immaculately complimented by Jochen’s timeless soundtrack.
Had the controls not been so cumbersomely sludgey, and the animation so primitive, Ghost Battle may have been a worthy clone that would allow you to look beyond its copycat mentality. Yet as fate would have it, what remains is another pretty – albeit clunky – dull platformer… Lionheart junior if you will.
“Congraturation” if you have made it this far, I have clearly “caplured” your imagination. I only wish I could declare, “This story is happy end”. Nonetheless, I do hope as a “wise and courageous knight” you “feel strongth welling in your body” and will carry the “mazic power” of this unique experience in your heart as a shining beacon to illuminate your future endeavours.