Game Overview by Mike Finkelstein
When discussing the various games that helped to define the Metroidvania formula, a few seminal titles of course come up. Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night are the two titles that gave the exploration adventure genre it's name, but there have been plenty of other titles that helped the refine and expand its scope. Some played with mechanics, others fiddled with a few key ideas, but finding a title that so perfectly fit the category that wasn't made by either Nintendo or Konami was hard. But Capcom nailed it, back in 1994, with the third entry in their Gargoyle's Quest sub-series for Ghosts 'n Goblins. And yet, many don't really discuss this title all that often at all.
It's not that the game wasn't good; it's actually really great. It just seems to have fallen through the cracks with a lot of gamers. Maybe it was because it didn't have either the Ghosts 'n Goblins title or Gargoyle's Quest moniker attached. Maybe it was because it played so differently from its two predecessors. Maybe gamers were so caught up with Super Metroid they didn't want to play something similar. Whatever the case may have been, this was a fantastic title that somehow, in the process, managed to spell the end of the Gargoyle's Quest games once and for all.
The title, released the same year as Super Metroid, wasn't just some clone of that title. It's a case of parallel development, with two companies working on similar titles resulted in two games playing in the same field at the same time. In the case of these two, Super Metroid walked away the clear winner, and I would say it's all down to refinement. If this game had come out a year earlier, or a couple of years later (with more refinement to the mechanics put in to tweak what was working and smooth the experience even more) I think this game would have been a winner with everyone. It wouldn't just sit on lists of "best games" from those in the know; it would be discussed by everyone, hallowed like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Chrono Trigger and, yes, Super Metroid. So what's different about this game that maybe held it back from greatness?
Playing Demon's Crest is a fantastic experience. It's a game that takes all that was great about the previous two Gargoyle's Quest games and ditches the junk. Where the second game got rid of the random encounters on the overworld, Demon's Crest gets rid of the overworld almost entirely. Instead of moving around on an RPG space, exploring and search and wandering, now you fly around a Mode 7 map, looking for obvious locations and flying into them. Some places you'll be able to explore immediately, others will be blocked to you until you gain new powers. As Firebrand, your first goal is to explore the locations and find a path through that will let you find and defeat the evil that is spreading across the land.
That evil comes from Phalanx, another creature of the Demon Realm. After Firebrand (in the opening cut scene) fought the demon dragon and earned all six of the Demon's Crests, Phalanx ambushed him and stole them away. With the Demon's Crests Phalanx could rule the world with unimaginable power. Fearing what could happen, Firebrand had to set out and find Phalanx, challenging the demon for each of the crests to snatch that power away. If not, all of the Demon Realm could be destroyed.
What this really boils down to is that you, as Firebrand, will explore various side-scrolling stages, fighting through enemies and clearing platforming challenges, all while working your way to various bosses. You can fly, attach onto ledges and walls, and spit fireballs. All of this should sound familiar to fans of the previous two Gargoyle games, as those were the mechanics for their side-scrolling stages as well. This game just takes those mechanics and refines them some to make the experience smoother.
For starters, you can now fly infinitely. There's no meter limiting your wing strength, so as long as you can get into the air you can fly along as much as you like. This alone makes the platforming so much easier to deal with as you can plan and adjust your flight path with far more ease this way. It also means that you aren't constantly searching for upgrades for your wings, limited in your quest on where to explore by how much relative wing power you have. It makes for a less linear adventure because your abilities are more generous.
And they you start collecting the crests and the game really opens up. There are four elemental crests you gain during the main part of the game (with a fifth locked away in secret for later). Earth takes away your wings but gives you a dash power that can break bricks. Air unlocks full flight, allowing you to freely move in all the cardinal directions. Water lets you actually go into the water and swim freely (something a demon normally shouldn't do). And Time improves your defense and strength, making you an impressively powerful fighter. There are also fireball upgrades to collect for Firebrand default "Fire" state, and artifacts that can grant additional subtle abilities as well. It's a lot of powers, and combinations thereof, to tinker with and explore.
This also leads to one of the mechanics I didn't quite like, though: there's a lot of menuing in the game. Something Super Metroid gets so right is that, with just the flick of a shoulder button, you can easily change your weapons on the fly, allowing Samus to shoot off blasts and missiles and super missiles with easy, all without breaking the flow of the game. By comparison, you'll spend a lot of time flicking back and forth into the menu to find the powers you want to use, and this does pull you out of the game some. If the shoulder buttons, or select, or something could have been used to let you switch between crests on the fly that would have allowed for smooth game flow without the constant moving through menus. I would have preferred that, for sure.
And I will admit that as lovely as it is to have a non-linear experience, the game feels maybe a little too non-linear. The only way to know where to go and what to do is to explore every level until you find a path you can or can't take. It's a little annoying to go into a zone only to realize part way in that you can't clear it because you don't have the right seal yet to grant the right power. Sometimes this happens early and you aren't out much time, but when it comes late and you have to back track out, that can be really annoying indeed. And if you're going for one hundred percent of everything, you'll be forced to go into some stages two, three, four times to find everything as all your powers unlock. It's a lot of forced exploration and remembering that could have been smoothed out some.
The lack of a force, linear overworld is nice, but I think the Mode 7 map needed a bit of tweaking as well. None of the zones tell you their name as you float over them, and there's no symbol to say, "hey, you cleared this already." If you compare this to Actraiser, which came out four years early and gave you all the information you needed on its Mode 7 map, this feels like a bit of an oversight. A little more info to make exploration easier would have been a big boon for the game.
With that said, I don't feel like these small flaws are deal breakers. That's because the overall experience is really smooth. Capcom put a lot of effort into making this the most playable game in the series with the most variety of what you could do. All of that is wrapped in a game with lovely graphics and great music. It get enough right that even its flaws and flubs feel tiny when taking into account the whole package. This is a game that really could have been a winner... but seemingly wasn't.
Again, that's not to say the game didn't do well, but it's not preserved on a pedestal among gamers the same way other SNES titles have been. It feels like an also ran, a relic of a bygone era that was under loved upon release. Those that played it know it's a gem, and the critics loved it, but it's not a game that is often featured in collections, and talked about breathlessly. It was a big swing from Capcom that became a respectable double instead of a home run. And then Capcom wandered off and did other stuff in the series for a while, such as the Maximo titles and other sequels to the main Ghosts 'n Goblins games. But Firebrand was left alone, never to have more adventures again.
That's a pity as this is a fun game that really is playable. It's fun, it's easy enough to get into, and despite being part of the Ghosts 'm Goblins series it's not frustratingly difficult. It's the perfect blend of all the elements to make for a solid experience. It's not perfect but it's pretty close. For anyone going through the whole of the Metroidvania genre, this is a must play by any measure. Give Demon's Crest some love, it deserves it.
Similarities to Castlevania Games
Considering when this game came out, Capcom really did manage to tap into the headwinds of the genre. While still playing like a Gargoyle's Quest game, this third entry manages to infuse all the hallmarks of the Metroidvania genre, short of having one massive, interconnected, side-scrolling map. The game is still broken up into stages, like other entries in its own series, but other than this, this is Metroidvania through and through.
You can see how some of the ideas from this game could have influences what Koji Igarashi and his team developed in Symphony of the Night two years later. This game has a ton of secrets buried in out of the way areas, items to find by breaking walls and health power-ups to collect that boosted your demon subtly. Then it had the transformations that let Firebrand explore his world in different ways. And it implemented a larger menu with swappable items and powers. Two years later Alucard would go on a very similar adventure, finding similar kinds of items and powers, all in his quest to clear the land of darkness.
Plus, both have lovely Gothic artwork and kick-ass rocking soundtracks. While I chalk most of this up to parallel development ideas, once again you can't discount the though that IGA saw Demon's Crest and thought, "yeah, some of that might just work for our game." It's almost like Demon's Crest is a half step between Super Metroid and Symphony, a midway that shows how the ideas could evolve through the genre.