This Capcom adventure could have easily been a forgettable spinoff of Ghosts n' Goblins, but Gargoyle's Quest on the Game Boy goes beyond the gimmick of playing as a monster. Despite showing its age, Gargoyle's Quest is a worthwhile handheld experience, even during the eighth generation of home consoles.
You control Firebrand, a villain from Ghosts n' Goblins. You can spit fire, jump, hover, and clamp onto walls (where you can spit more fire). Hovering and clamping onto walls are the mechanics that set Gargoyle's Quest apart from other adventures like The Battle of Olympus and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. It takes a little time getting used to Firebrand's mechanics, but thankfully they are dynamic and understandable. For example, after jumping you can press the jump button again to hover, press the button again to stop hovering, and press it yet again to hover at a lower height, provided that you have enough stamina. Your stamina bar for hovering refills once you hit the ground or clamp onto a wall.
Like any adventure game, you get stronger and gain more abilities as you delve deeper into the game's story. At first you spit relatively weak fire, but eventually you can spit more powerful fire that breaks through certain blocks. Another type of fire creates temporary areas on spikes that you can clamp onto without taking damage. All of the upgrades are noticeable and useful.
The travel in Gargoyle's Quest is a strange mixture of action and role-playing. Like Zelda II, Gargoyle's Quest is a side-scroller that features top-down traveling in an overworld as you move between locations. Unlike Zelda II, Gargoyle's Quest has random enemy encounters that you can't avoid. After a random encounter, you must defeat all enemies on the screen to get back to your traveling, almost like a side-scrolling Final Fantasy that doesn't allow evasion. This system is both interesting and tedious, as the "stages" for random combat will often repeat.
For an adventure, the story is very straightforward. Pathfinding shouldn't be an issue. Although the townsfolk ... er, townsmonsters, might have something useful or interesting to say, the text speed is set to William Shatner. So that. Everything you read. Comes across. Like this. Passwords also rear their outmoded heads, but at least the passwords aren't idiotically long (as they are in River City Ransom).
A significant part of Gargoyle's Quest is its tone and atmosphere. While the game is darker than your average platformer, it also has lighthearted dialogue as well as moments of triumph that even good guys could relate to. The limited graphics do a decent job of building the game's tone, but it's the music that sells the atmosphere. This game has an impressive soundtrack for a Game Boy game, rivaling standouts like Link's Awakening.
You probably don't want to play Gargoyle's Quest if you don't want a little challenge. It's nowhere near the hardest game I've beaten, but the funky lives and resurrection system can be a turnoff. The game is also obtuse at times. For example, a weaker fire attack is inexplicably required to damage certain enemies later in the game. And I suppose this should go without saying, but the final dungeon really is a bastard.
Gargoyle's Quest certainly has its quirks, but it also strikes me as more accessible than side-scrolling adventures like Zelda II and Castlevania II. The ingenuity of this Game Boy title should be an inspiration to modern developers. At the very least, one must wonder when Capcom will pimp Firebrand again.