2 Following classic gaming

Streamer and speedrunner Aquas recently achieved two world records in one of the most infamously punishing retro games: Ghouls’n Ghosts. The Ghouls series known for it’s difficulty and punishing elements and finishing the game is an achievement in itself. However there is a a community of people who go beyond completion and strive to get the fastest time. I wanted to sit down with Aquas and talk a bit about his fascination with Ghouls, Ghosts, and speedrunning.

AnnK: How long have you been speedrunning?

Aquas: Since 2015. I started with Ghouls’n Ghosts in MAME with some help from PJDiCesare in learning an initial speedrun route. I was pretty reluctant to start, but then I started doing it and got hooked.

AnnK: Why do you speedrun Ghouls Games? What’s the appeal of grinding out runs in this very hard series of games?

Aquas: The big reason is that I just like the games a lot. Speedrunning them was a way for me to enjoy them on another level. The series is known for having some heavy random elements when it comes to enemy placement. The speed at which they move, how fast they react, how fast their projectiles move, and so forth. This provides a unique experience with every run that expects a level of improv or reaction, or knowledge happening in the game. I’d say this is a cornerstone of the series and why it’s difficult, and it also harkens to arcade gaming in general. These elements provide a challenge that is fresh and addicting, making the player think “Oh what if I had just done this, I would have survived”. Despite the games having this view of being cheap and unfair, it turns out a lot of the time the player could have avoided it with a certain wit about the situation. It takes some time to get there I think, so I think the initial learning curve can be a hurdle for players. Especially players who aren’t conditioned to the arcade mentality of being prepared to fail to get better. 

But in the speedrun of Ghouls’n Ghosts, for example, that element of randomness does affect your overall time, even if you execute flawlessly. This can be frustrating to overcome; like when you’re on a greatly executed run but the game slows you down without giving you any chance to avoid it. Or, which is worse, when you’re on a great run with the game treating you kindly at the same time, then making a mistake that costs the run. When it all comes together, it’s rewarding, and it feels unbelievable… but at the highest level, it’s an uphill climb for 9/10 speedrun attempts. Due to the reaction and execution needed in sections that matter, I do still improve as time goes on and find ways to be more consistent at certain sections. It’s always nice to feel like you’re improving even if you’re not getting results on every run.

I think all of the games in the main series have these qualities of randomness to more or less extent. That’s why I’m happy to play them all repeatedly. It’s because you continue to soak in the knowledge of a lot of different situations. Compared to a game that remains stagnant with the same thing happening every time, it just comes down to memorizing what you have to do and executing it. Some people prefer that, and that can be nice, but I like to be surprised at what the GnG games can do.

AnnK : What are some things in-game that make this series of games a challenge?

Aquas: I think I answered this already a bit above, but it’s worth mentioning the Red Arremer enemy. This enemy in every game is programmed exceptionally well so that it can trick you or avoid brainless attacks. You always have to wait for him to make an action then react to what he does afterwards. In the original Ghosts’n Goblins arcade, this enemy was brutal. And I still think he’s smart compared to his other versions. The Red Arremer in Super Ghouls’n Ghosts is very fast, he’s tough too.

One big thing that is a pretty universal complaint is getting a weapon that’s harder to use than the dagger. The games are generally balanced around the dagger so that when you have it, you’re pretty capable. Still, when you don’t, it can be a struggle to stay alive, especially when you don’t have experience with that weapon. A lot of the alternative weapons have their pros and cons however and they can be fun to use even purposefully. The Axe is probably the worst weapon in Ghouls’n Ghosts. Only 1 can be on-screen (except for a special circumstance where the Axe hits an object at the edge of the screen, then you can throw 2 in a row.) That’s its biggest weakness and its giant hitbox can be a burden when it collides with something non-destructible. But its magic destroys projectiles – so if you struggle with the projectile shooting enemies, you can use the Axe with gold armour.

Another tough element is the committal jumps. You get 2 in Super and Ultimate GnG, but you still have to commit to the last jump there. This requires planning ahead a little bit when you’re jumping around. Think Castlevania jumps – you can’t change how you move after jumping besides facing left and right.

And of course, everyone complains about going through the game twice to get the true ending. I just see it as a way of the game, helping you build consistency. But after struggling to get through once – most gamers just give up and call it done.

AnnK: Why do you like particularly hard games? What is the best thing about playing them?

Aquas: The challenge is fun to overcome. I think it’s pretty simple to understand that. When you’ve learned it all and put it together, it feels rewarding. Like learning how to play a song all the way through on an instrument. It’s fun to figure out how the game works, that’s part of it for sure. I think the difficulty helps to enjoy a game to an extent as you become engrossed in its challenge and systems.

AnnK: Have you gotten and lost the record in several games of this series? Can you list them?

Aquas: In Ghouls’n Ghosts: I took the record in 2015 from Pika` ‘s 15:47 on PS2 with a 15:24. Afterwards, Zed_Ahmad would beat this time on MAME with a 15:18, and then dosboxfalco would beat that and hold the current record with a 15:06.

In Ghouls’n Ghosts on MegaDrive, I took the record from ChuCat who had a 16:45, with a 16:29. I would go on to improve my time to 15:45. Then Zed_Ahmad took the record back with a 15:43. Then much later, Poppenheim would discover the Stage 3 wall clip where you don’t open more than 1 chest on the first checkpoint. That allows you to jump through the wall at the end of the auto scroller. I then used this ~12 second time save to improve the record to 15:40. Then I would bring the time down to the current record which is 15:20.

I also have the record for SuperGrafx version which has been only received competition from Axl_SR. My record in that is 16:05. And I also have the records for the Sega Saturn version and PS2 version which are slightly different than Arcade. The PS2 record is 15:24, and my Saturn record is 17:00.

I have the record for Gokumakaimura Kai, the updated version of Ultimate Ghosts’n Goblins on the PSP. My old record of 42:12 (In-Game Time) was contested and taken back by Yamanaru with a 38:52 IGT (In-Game Time), and then I would take it back again with a 38:45 (IGT) and that record holds.

AnnK: You recently got the WR on both the Mega Drive and the Super Graphix Ghouls. Why did you make the switch to the Super Graphix?

Aquas: I was satisfied with my 15:20 run for the MegaDrive. It had good luck with satisfactory execution, and I didn’t foresee myself beating that time without grinding a lot more. I wanted to get back to SuperGrafx because of the access I found to it with the MiSTer FPGA.

AnnK: How are you able to play these games?

Aquas: I do prefer to do my runs on original hardware – and I set my MegaDrive 15:20 record with the original console. But MiSTer FPGA is the next step up from emulation. It’s hardware emulation versus software emulation, which negates input lag and the FPGA reprograms itself to become the original console. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than a PC emulator. I did beat the old MegaDrive record on the MiSTer at first which actually shook up the MiSTer community a bit. Because they are curious about how the system will be acknowledged in the speedrunning community when it comes to if it’s considered an emulator or not. It’s a bit of a grey area. I noticed no difference between original hardware MegaDrive versus FPGA on the MiSTer and that is the green light for me to take my runs seriously on this platform.

I couldn’t take my run of the SuperGrafx version of Ghouls’n Ghosts seriously because there was no great way to play it without flaws. Official emulation was available through the Wii Japanese Virtual Console and the Japanese PSN on PS3 – but both versions had issues. The Wii with poor sound emulation and the PS3 with noticeable input lag. The MiSTer FPGA has neither of these things and while I have extremely limited experience with the original hardware (I played SuperGrafx Ghouls’n Ghosts at MAGfest 2015), I do trust the FPGA with the SuperGrafx as it is a pretty solid core on the system. So now I am currently trying to bring my SuperGrafx time to a goal of Sub 16 minutes. I currently have a 16:05, but I’m just not completely satisfied… but it may have to do if my patience runs out.

AnnK: Even though you have the WR, you keep chasing it. What is the best thing about chasing after your own times in a Speedrun? Is it all about personal goal setting or something else?

Aquas: For me, it’s about meeting my own expectations of what I believe I’m capable of with the knowledge I’ve acquired. Usually without tearing my hair out too much at the cruelty of the games in this series in particular. A clean run is what a lot of speedrunners strive for I think. They want that picture-perfect run without mistakes. Even if they are tiny mistakes and especially if they don’t look good. I can relate to that but I think you have to be realistic too and know what you want out of your time spent. When a record of mine is beaten, and I was previously satisfied with my time, it’s not a huge motivation for me to retaliate. But when it comes to new strategies being shown and new knowledge used I do want to retaliate personally, to improve my own run. Being #1 is not my top priority. It’s more like being #1 from my own perspective and ambition that leaves me satisfied. I’ve become motivated in the past to reach #1, for example, in Gimmick! and Ghouls’n Ghosts to some extent but you always have to realize that someone is better than you in some way. That’s not the point though. The point is that people are different and we can help each other to strive to be our best. I do believe understanding, and willpower are 90% of what allows a speedrunner to achieve their height. But there will be that factor of raw skill that differentiates some players from others. That skill can manifest being excellent at execution or excellent at learning in general. I think it’s wise not to push yourself too hard when it comes to speedruns and be realistic to your own skillset. Sometimes it’s fun to think “I want to be the best”, but that expense can be a heavy toll, especially on a highly competitive game. Treading that water can be difficult for me. More importantly, if the game is still enjoyable and you’re benefiting in some way from playing it in your mind, then it’s still good to play the game. I try to play by that philosophy. I like to spread my time out enjoying other games. A lot of speedrunners and top competitive gamers will limit their experiences by dedicating themselves to their game or genre – that is tough to compete against. These are just choices we make in life, I figure. I decided I really like GnG games. I do want people to love them as much as I do.

AnnK: Tell me a bit about the GnG speedrun community. I see that you sometimes race each other and recently you did a race at GDQ. Could you tell me a bit about what went down at GDQ and a bit about that run?

Aquas: The most popular games to speedrun in the series are Ghosts’n Goblins (NES) and Super Ghouls’n Ghosts. It really just comes down to the popularity of these games. These two happen to be my least favourite games in the series. The NES version feels poorly made, and Super Ghouls’n Ghosts is a little too slow-paced for my taste. The community is helpful with each other, and we’ve participated and organized several GnG oriented speed events which have been fun.

As for GDQ. Dosboxfalco and I wanted to submit Ghouls’n Ghosts to GDQ, but they don’t accept runs in MAME. This left us with limited options for submitting a race because, besides myself, most runners don’t play on hardware. This left us with the MegaDrive version for a race. GDQ hadn’t seen the MegaDrive version yet, only the PS2 emulated port of the Arcade on Capcom Classics Collection from 2015 when I first ran the game. So GDQ accepted the MegaDrive race that we saw at this AGDQ 2020 between myself and dosboxfalco.

dosboxfalco actually doesn’t like the MegaDrive version a lot, so I felt like he felt reluctant to spend a lot of time on it to get prepared for this race. He went in pretty much acknowledging he’d lose the race – of course I had hoped for better, but I can’t tell people what to do. We still had a fun race, and for that, I’m still grateful. The problem was that we had to play on hardware with different controllers than we were used to. The 3 button controller for the genesis has a very bulky and somewhat unreliable d-pad. dosboxfalco decided this controller was going to be okay for him. I tried it and was unsatisfied and changed to the 6-button controller. I found the d-pad on this controller to a lot better and the smaller size more comfortable.

As for the run itself. It’s a very faithful port of the arcade game aside from graphics and sound. I warmed up to this version more as I was getting prepared for the race. The stage 1 boss is noticeably easier, but Arthurs hitbox is wider than usual, so you can get hit a little more easily.

During the race, my monitor was cutting out for seconds at a time on 3 separate occasions which actually caused me to make mistakes. That was kind of shocking during the race, but I just pushed through it, pausing when the screen went black. I also died on the stage 1 boss going for a pretty consistent safe strat that uses the lance magic lightning on the boss for a quick kill. That triggered viewers to think “oh this race is over”. But as the first loop went on, dosboxfalco died in stage 5 and just like that I was caught up and finished the first loop slightly ahead of him. I maintained my pace the rest of the run with some small mistakes while dosboxfalco struggled a bit more with some more costly deaths. dosboxfalco was actually satisfied with the time he ended with which was just below 20 minutes. He doesn’t consider himself very consistent like I do. So at least I can say we were both satisfied with the results. For the race, I played slightly more conservative but did take some risks to catch up in the first loop that I could have regretted had they got me in trouble.

AnnK: In your opinion, which Ghouls in the best Ghouls?

Aquas: Ghouls’n Ghosts / Daimakaimura. Arcade and SuperGrafx are my favourites to play. This is my favourite game, actually. Yep, I actually picked one. Because of its elegance and simplicity of game design which unfolds itself into a myriad of gameplay situations. The art and music hold up very well, and the gameplay just feels right.

AnnK: What are your goals with the series of games for 2020 and beyond?

Aquas: I’m currently trying to achieve sub 16 in SuperGrafx Daimakaimura. I’m 5 seconds off now. I know I can do it with some persistence, but I’ve actually been choking some good runs away frequently. I hope I don’t lose my patience and can achieve this.

So the arcade core for Ghouls’n Ghosts is in the works for the MiSTer FPGA which is massive news for this game. It will become the best way to play the game outside of owning the original PCB, which is a huge hassle. When this is working correctly in the MiSTer, I plan on taking jabs at the record again, which will be to beat 15:06 by dosboxfalco. I’m pretty excited about this. I can’t wait to see the FPGA do its magic with this game and to really dig into a version of the game that’s as close as we’ll get to 99% reproduction of the original hardware. Big shoutouts to Jotego for his hard work and diligence. He converted the CPS1 technology which Ghouls’n Ghosts runs off of to FPGA as well as his conversions of other Capcom arcade classics that I’m fond of. MiSTer has been a great way to play some of my favourites like Commando, Gun. Smoke, Black Tiger… I love the old Capcom arcade games, not just GnG games

At some point, I’d also like to improve my record in Gokumakaimura Kai (Ultimate GnG). I have a strat that saves a substantial amount of time near the beginning of the first loop that’s quite difficult to pull off and also very flashy. It involves manipulating the wind cycle in Stage 2 and wildly jumping over and flying over some enemy formations to the checkpoint platform of the stage. I don’t have that in my current record. I’d like to at least pull this off in loop 1 – then have a solid loop 2 to improve my time another 15 seconds at least.

If you enjoyed this article, go read my interview with LordBBH with: LordBBH hits 300 Games Played on Mame Roulette

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