Demon’s Crest is a little-known gem for the SNES. It’s the third game in a trilogy starring Firebrand, AKA Red Arremer, a tenacious enemy that first appeared in the Ghosts ‘n Goblins series. Firebrand is probably most familiar to anyone who played Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts growing up–he’s the flying bastard that swoops down to kill you at the end of Stage 1. He proved such a popular adversary that he got his own series of video games: Gargoyles Quest for the Gameboy, Gargoyle’s Quest II for the NES, and Demon’s Crest, his final adventure. The games follow Firebrand in his quest to smack down every other punk demon who stands in his way so he can become the undisputed King of Hell.
Firebrand is one of my favorite main characters in all of gaming. He follows what I call the Wario Rule: selfish characters are always more fun to play than altruistic ones. When Demon’s Crest starts, Firebrand has been exiled and imprisoned for being way too boss. Before the events of the game, Firebrand obtained all six Crests, but was left weak after the battle for the Crest of Heaven. Some scrub named Phalanx snuck up and sucker punched Firebrand, ganked his magical Crests, and installed himself as new head honcho of the Demon Realm. Seems like a real bastard move, right? But a little ways into the game, you meet an NPC who actually loves Phalanx because the new ruler’s not nearly as merciless and terrifying as Firebrand himself had been when he was in charge. If you look at it this way, Firebrand is actually the villain, the evilest and most relentless of demonkind. And he doesn’t just want to rule the Demon Realm: he’s after the Human Realm as well. The main character is a megalomaniacal archdemon, and it’s not often you get to play as one of those.
The game has phenomenal art design. It borrows a little bit of its gothic horror tone from Ghosts ‘n Goblins and Castlevania, but the art design of Demon’s Crest is something special. You feel this ever-night world of crumbling castles, haunted forests, infested graveyards, and towers standing amid swirling clouds as if you lived there. The sparse, ambient music helps set a sombre, macabre atmosphere in a dark world nearly destroyed by the internal struggles of demonkind.
What really sets Demon’s Crest apart from other games of the time is the way it’s structured. The basic gameplay isn’t especially complex: you can shoot fireballs, cling to walls, and hover. Firebrand isn’t some one-trick demonlord, though, and he acquires a vast arsenal of upgrades on his journey. The Demon Realm is built in a non-linear fashion, with power-ups and other trinkets scattered all throughout the branching levels. It feels sort of like Metroid, with each stage having multiple paths and unique bosses waiting at the end of each. The toughest of these yield Crests when defeated, which allow Firebrand to morph into new and more terrifying forms, each with their own specialty: an earth form to smash large objects, a water form to move freely through the seas, and an air form to ride the winds. These in turn open up even more new routes to explore in previous stages.
Exploring the six main stages in search of upgrades is a ton of fun. None of the levels are particularly long, and the game is generous with checkpoints, so while the difficulty can be unforgiving at times, it never feels like you unfairly lose progress. Being able to swap forms and abilities on the fly creates a lot of variety, so retreading your footsteps doesn’t feel tedious.
Firebrand also gains the ability to equip multiple spells and potions as the game progresses, but he has to purchase them before entering a stage. All of these equipment choices create a lot of potential for strategy. You can tackle the stages in almost any order, but you probably won’t get far until you ferret out the next big upgrade. Planning an optimal route through the game, which is only about ten hours or so to begin with, adds a lot of replay value.
The bosses are especially grotesque. Most of them are challenging, but can be trivialized by returning with more upgrades and items. I really like this way of handling things. Each boss encounter is appropriately foreboding, both in difficulty and in how awful and deadly they look. This game excels at demoralizing you this way, but each upgrade, be it a health increase or an extra slot for a spell, feels like a huge leap forward. Very tough, yet very rewarding.
The game has multiple endings, each of which involves Phalanx getting his much-deserved comeuppance for trifling with the baddest demon alive, but the ‘true’ ending is the best. After obtaining all of his lost Crests and defeating a truly sadistic post-game superboss, Firebrand attains the form of the Ultimate Gargoyle. Neither the Demon Realm nor the Human Realm poses a threat to him any longer. So what does the mighty red demon decide to do? He throws the Crests away, because sublime power has become boring, and winning using the Crests feels cheap. Firebrand only needs his wings and his flames to be the most hellacious creature this side of midnight. He sets off to find an enemy worthy of his power, and the credits roll. This is a nice bit of dark philosophy that fits perfectly with the game’s sinister and melancholy tone.
Demon’s Crest is a fun, satisfying, and well-polished experience. It actually came out in the US, which is surprising giving how violent and disturbing the game can get, and Nintendo’s censorship policies at the time, but it slipped through the cracks of history. It’s truly a lost classic, and one of Capcom’s finest efforts during the 16-bit era. I prefer Demon’s Crest to almost every action platformer on the SNES, including Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts and Super Castlevania IV. Where those games are straightforward action platformers, Demon’s Crest is a nuanced, challenging experience that makes you actually think a little bit about morality, which for a side scrolling game about demons murdering each other is no mean feat. I highly recommend that everyone go out and find a way to play this lost classic. Firebrand will never let you down.