Saturday, 2 November 2013

Retro Spirit Games Halloween Special 2013

Be afraid.. be very afraid

So, Halloween is upon us again once more and, if you listen very carefully, you can almost hear the sound of game journos rushing to compile a list of games to play on this spooky celebration. If you close your eyes and use your imagination, you can easily predict what these lists will include - is this a special kind of black magic being practiced on this ghoulish holiday, or the predictable nature of these lists that materialise in October / November of every single year? 

Yes, we all know about the zombie slaying, wise-cracking co-op mayhem of Left 4 Dead and Umbrella Corporation's virus spreading activities in Resident Evil. We have experienced the hideous and unnerving exploits in the hellish town of Silent Hill and every indie gamer and their dog have played Slender, Amnesia and Limbo. There is no shortage of websites publishing similar Halloween articles for retro games either, featuring all the usual suspects - the Castlevania series, Ghouls N Ghosts, Splatterhouse and many more - so it is extremely difficult to bring anything new to the table.

For this feature (yes, I understand the hypocrisy) I want to step away from true horror (especially those of the survival variety) games, and focus on the titles I have recently been enjoying and, to me personally, better represent the spirit of Halloween - a quirky and vaguely silly holiday consisting of too many sweets and poorly made costumes, witches on broomsticks, skulls with candles in them, toffee apples and fireworks. Not soul-destroying despair and isolation, missing children, being chased by triangular headed abominations, or killing deformed mutants with power tools. Let's keep it light, people!

So, without further ado, and in no particular order, I bring you the ten games that I have been enjoying this Halloween! Bwoo-Ha-Ha-Ha etc.

Monster Bash (PC, 1993)

A cutesy horror platformer starring a boy in pyjamas may not sound like the ingredients for an exciting action game, but the 90's were full of strange ideas (usually resulting in a 2D platformer of some kind). Monster Bash sees you in control of a young lad, named Johnny Dash, on a mission to retrieve his kidnapped hound, Tex, from the monsters that lurk under his bed. What awaits you are 28 horror themed levels that feature the usual Halloween suspects, ghoul, ghosts, skeletons, witches and more. This Halloween vibe works extremely well and you will soon find yourself totally committed to exploring the reasonably large levels, looking for all the sweets and treasures. Johnny's weapon, a slingshot that fires rocks, is the hook here. The projectiles can be fired at angles, and can be bounced off walls to hit switches or unlock imprisoned pets from their cages. You even end up on a broomstick at one point, for a spot of Shmup-lite action, adding variety to proceedings. This is classic 90's Apogee platforming at its best and is especially worthy of your time this Halloween.

Zombies Ate My Neighbors (SNES / MD, 1993)

Yes, I know that this one appears on every single retro Halloween games list, but it is a bloody good game, which embraces the true spirit of Halloween more than most other titles, featuring mummies, werewolves, vampires, zombies, and er.. giant babies. Essentially a modernised comedy-horror take on the classic Gauntlet formula, Zombies lets you choose between a hero or heroine and then tasks you with blasting enemies and finding keys to unlock doors, while trying to rescue the titular neighbors - a peculiar bunch of oddballs that include overweight tourists, 1950's explorers, BBQ chefs and cheerleaders. The weapons, much like the rest of the game, are a little on the silly side, including amusing tools of destruction like water pistols, exploding soda cans, fire extinguishers and flame throwers. It has a zany B-movie presentation style and wacky sense of humour that never fails to raise a smile. It certainly won't scare you, but it will damn well entertain you, and get you in the mood for watching some classic 80's horror flicks. Plus it has a 2-player co-op mode, so you can play it with your partner or buddy. A sequel, entitled Ghoul Patrol, was released on the Super Nintendo and is also worth playing, but it is not as fun, nor as charming as its predecessor.

Blood (PC, 1997)

Blood is simply one of the greatest first person shooters on the PC. There, I said it. Gory, hilarious and brutally over-the-top. Blood puts you in the murderous boots of Caleb - a wise-cracking lunatic after revenge. The rest of the plot eludes my memory, but it's completely irrelevant as this is a pure action shooter in much the same vein as Doom. Using an enhanced version of the Build Engine (as seen in Duke Nukem 3d), Blood is set in a selection of nightmarish environments filled with undead minions, cult fanatics, gargoyles and other hideous beasts. The real stars of the show, however, are the weapons at your disposal - dual shotguns, dynamite, a Tommy Gun, a pitchfork, a voodoo doll and, my favourite, a flare gun. This fantastic weapon - also available in dual-wield mode - fires a flare into the chest of an enemy, only igniting after a short while, turning the poor sap into a thrashing, screaming ball of fire. Blood is not only fantastic fun and extremely efficient as fulfilling any psychotic tendencies you may harbour, but it also wins bonus points for featuring quotes from Army of Darkness - one of the greatest movies of all time! There was also an official addon pack released, entitled the Plasma Pack, which featured a new episode, new enemies to murderise, and some new secondary-fire modes for existing weapons. It's essential for when you have finished the vanilla game and want more blood letting. Blood can be purchased, as the 'One Whole Unit of Blood' pack on Good Old Games, now, and it will run on modern systems, so there really is no excuse not to get this.

Deathsmiles (Arcade, 2007 - Xbox 360, 2009)

An excellent and suitably manic 'bullet hell' shoot-em-up from Cave, Deathsmiles allows to to choose from a selection of inappropriately attired young witches, before flying through multiple stages of Halloween themed environments, blasting waves of monsters while avoiding a bazillion projectiles. With five playable characters - each with two separate endings - and a world map with selectable routes through the game, Deathsmiles contains more variety than your usual shoot-em-up. Both the visuals and music are wonderfully gothic and fantastical, and really immerse you in the beautiful game world. As with all Cave shmups, it is easy to pick up and play, but extremely difficult to master, with a complex score system that really separates the hardcore from the casual gamers. The absolute best way of experience this glorious and quirky Shmup is on the XBox 360, with a deluxe version available for us Western gamers that includes not only the arcade original, but an enhanced 360 mode, as well as Deathsmiles 1.1 which adds new and baffling score mechanics. Deathsmiles is my favourite horizontal shooter of all time, and the one that got me hooked on the games of Cave, as well as the entire genre of Bullet Hell Shmups. It will burn out your retinas and make your hands sweat like nothing else out there, but all the while you will be grinning from ear to ear. Just don't tell anyone if you find the young, lingerie-clad, witches sexy as reading the manual reveals them to be horrendously young, and may require you to join a certain register.

Castlevania : Symphony of the Night (PS1, 1997)

There is really not much more I can say about this sublime title that I haven't said already in my full review from last year (which you can read here). Not only the greatest Castlevania game (and I will hear no arguments to the contrary), but one of the best games ever made. It managed to take the aging Castlevania template and ditch the linear sidescrolling stages in favour of the, now extremely well know, Metroidvania style large world map. It is testament to its greatness that no other Castlevania game after this seminal Playstation iteration has been able to best it. Symphony of the Night has gorgeous 2D graphics, with a varied selection of weird and wonderful enemies to destroy, as well as some of the most memorable (and huge) bosses you will encounter in a game. Exploring the castle is an absolute joy - you will explore underground ice caves, the insides of a giant clock tower, dungeons, colosseums, a library and gardens of Dracula's enormous home. The protagonist, Alucard - son of the dark lord himself - is a great anti-hero too, with his vampire blood granting him the ability (once obtained) to transform into a wolf, a bat, and even a cloud of noxious gas (somebody crack open a window!). The aforementioned Metroidvania elements require you to obtain these, and other abilities, such as double jumping and walking on water, to reach new areas you may have already stumbled across but were unable to traverse. The RPG elements, involving the finding and equipping of defensive and offensive items in order to boost your stats only add to the depth and challenge. I could go on about this game all day, but I will draw this to a close. It may not be a Halloween game as such, but the glorious gothic setting, the assortment of enemies clearly inspired by horror staples such as mummies, ghouls, Frankenstein's monster, living armour, man-eating plants and even witches on broomsticks (complete with feline accomplice) make it the perfect game to play at this time of year - not that anyone should ever require an excuse to play through this game in its entirety, whether for the first, or tenth time.

Haunting starring Polterguy (Mega Drive, 1993)

An odd game for Sega's 16-bit Mega Drive, but one that I am glad EA took a risk on as it is heaps of fun. Essentially a haunt-em-up, you play as deceased skater kid, Polterguy (I am assuming this was not his name before he was killed), who must scare the living bejeebus out of a horrible family who he holds responsible for his untimely demise. Cue a strange isometric top-down viewpoint in which you navigate the many rooms of the house, on the hunt for the four members of the Sardini family - who are simply going about their daily routine. You are invisible to the family and cannot interact with them directly, but you can possess a huge array of inanimate objects throughout the house which are triggered when a family member comes close. The animations of these ghoulish scares is the highlight of the game, with some imaginative and twisted traps that cause the victim to scream, lose their hair or clothes, and hightail it towards the nearest exit. Possessing items uses up your plasma meter - essentially your life bar - full depletion of which sends you to the underworld, where you must avoid evil monsters and collect up more plasma before returning to the house. Haunted is extremely good fun and still holds up well today, both as a curiosity and as an enjoyable gaming experience. Other games have tried to replicate the formula (namely, Ghost Master) but they were more akin to the Sims games than this simplistic, yet enjoyable, action game. An HD reboot of Haunting would be ace!

Vampire Savior / Darkstalkers 3 (Arc / Various, 1997, 1998, 2005, 2013) 

Imagine if Capcom made a one on one fighter that was extremely similar to their excellent Street Fighter Alpha series, but instead of Ryu, Chun-Li and co, they made up the games roster with characters inspired by classic horror flicks and B-movies. Well, that game is Darkstalkers (known as Vampire in Japan), a fantastic beat-em-up with all the polish, fluid controls and expertly tweaked gameplay of Capcom's most famous fighting franchise, only with a vampire, a werewolf, a mummy, a sasquatch, a succubus, Frankenstein's monster and er.. a practically naked cat girl (obviously). As with Street Fighter Alpha, the games get progressively better as the series progresses, with balancing issues fixed, graphics improved, and an increasing character roster. The absolute pinnacle of the series is the fantastic third game, Darkstalkers 3, or Vampire Savior : Lord Of Vampire (to give it its Japanese title). With beautiful cartoon backgrounds and sprites - including some spectacular, and often hilarious, special moves - fluid animations, suitable gothic music and, most importantly, intuitive and extremely satisfying combat, it's an absolute blast to play. Not only is it hugely entertaining and gloriously silly, but it also ranks as one of the best 2D fighters of all time. An absolutely cracking version exists for the Sega Saturn (Japan only), which comes with additional characters (the Arcade CPS 2 system couldn't handle the entire roster of fighters that Capcom wanted) and makes great use of a 4Meg expansion cartridge. It is also available on the Vampire : Darkstalkers Collection on Playstation 2, as well as appearing in HD form in Darkstalkers Resurrection, a downloadable title for the Xbox 360 and PS3. 

Grabbed by the Ghoulies (Xbox, 2003)

Rare's first game after being acquired by Microsoft Studios, after years of loyal service to Nintendo, Grabbed By The Ghoulies sees Rare doing what they do best - family friendly, platform adventure games with a wonderfully British sense of humour. The story centres around the standard, and cliched, gaming staple of rescuing a kidnapped girlfriend, who has been taken by some mad despot holed up in a creepy mansion. All this matters not one iota, however, as this is all about the simple beat-em-up action which involves punching, kicking, and elbow dropping a selection of kooky monsters such as imps, skeletons, spiders, zombies and possessed furniture. Gameplay is pretty simplistic, comprising of nothing more demanding than entering a new room in the expansive mansion, pummeling the undead atrocities, and then moving on via the newly unlocked door. Sure, gameplay is extremely repetitive, but it is also jolly good fun, with the simple control scheme - left stick moves, while right stick causes your character to fight in the direction held - making it great for quick, pick-up-and-play, sessions. Variety is added by the ability to pick up most objects in the house and use them as weapons - beating a skeleton to death with a pool cue never gets old - and you are also given a water pistol to soak down the undead in some sections. What really makes the game worth playing, though, are the wonderful cartoon visuals, theatrical 'horror' music, and the borderline-cutesy enemies you encounter. It is a game oozing with charm, and one that leaves you with a big smile on your face, regardless of your age. The comic book style cutscenes, and nonsensical gibberish that is used for voice-acting also adds to the absurdity of the whole experience. It's an ideal game for Halloween and can be enjoyed by gamers of all ages, so comes highly recommended. It can be downloaded from the Xbox Live service, but the original disc is 360 compatible and can be picked up for next to nothing on Ebay.

Luigi's Mansion (Gamecube, 2001)

A launch title for Nintendo's cuboid console, as well as the first solo outing for Mario's green dungaree-clad brother (unless you want to include the bloody awful 'educational' title, Mario is Missing, which I don't). The plot involves Luigi winning a competition, for which he must travel to a creepy mansion to receive his prize. Upon reaching the sinister looking abode he discovers that Mario arrived first, but has now gone missing (again). Luigi then meets a doctor named E. Gadd, who gives him a special vacuum, called the Poltergust 3000, capable to sucking up the spectral inhabitants of the mansion. The visuals are still pretty impressive, with some wonderful lighting effects that really bring the spooky mansion to life, and give the impression of being in a ghostly cartoon. Using a combination of his flashlight (to stun them first) and the newly acquired Poltergust, Luigi must venture from room to room, battling and capturing the many ghosts that call the place home. In a scene straight out a certain Ghost-tastic 1980's movie, once a ghost becomes caught in your vacuum's flow, you must wrestle with the analogue stick to keep them under control, watching their health deplete until they can be safely inhaled. Much of the environment will react to the vacuum too, with tablecloths and curtains getting gobbled up, and lamps, chairs and cupboards being shaken - often resulting in treasure being spilled from them. Our hapless hero needs to find keys to open doors to new areas, and can keep track of his whereabouts and mission objectives via his portable Gameboy Horror, an amusing spin on Nintendo's colour 8-bit handheld. As the older brother, you would expect Luigi to be the wiser, braver sibling, but no, he is an absolute pussy, constantly shrieking, trembling and generally behaving like a baby - one button even, uselessly, calls out for Mario. Scaredy cat protagonist aside, Luigi's Mansion is seriously good fun to play, with a great sense of humour, atmospheric and spot-on spooky visuals, quirky music and sound effects, some imaginative boss encounters, and satisfying ghost catching mechanics. It may not take you very long to finish, but it is sweet while it lasts. A sequel was recently released for Nintendo's 3DS, but I am unable to try it as I don't possess the console (the 3D doesn't agree with my eyes).

Costume Quest (Xbox 360, PS3, PC, 2010)

This simply had to make the list as it is essential your childhood Halloween experiences in game form. An action adventure game with RPG-lite elements, Costume Quest is an underrated gem from Double Fine Productions. The story revolves around two siblings who get dressed up in costume for a night of trick or treating in their neighbourhood, only to discover that a monster has materialised and is stealing all the local children. Therefore they must rustle up support from the remaining kids in order to build up enough strength to take on the kidnapping beastie. You must navigate the local area, collecting candies and performing short quests (via trick or treating at people's doors) in order to win over some of the less enthusiastic kids. Your costume, as one would think judging by the title, plays a big part in proceedings, with the battle sequences transforming your team into huge versions of the costume they are wearing - cue battles involving giant robots, knights and space men. These combat encounters are turn-based, much like the older Final Fantasy games (and maybe new ones - I haven't played any since the PS1), where you select the person, followed by the type of attack or defensive manoeuvre to use. I avoided Costume Quest for a couple of years, as to me, it looked squarely aimed at younger gamers - and in some ways, I suppose it is - but it is such a charming game that will resonate with anyone who went out into the cold night air as a child, in a crudely made costume, optimistically carrying a large bag to fill with the treats you would receive. The graphics capture the spirit of a child's view of Halloween perfectly, and the gameplay soon becomes utterly absorbing, with the battle sequences being both amusing and as engaging as any other of the Japanese RPGs it clearly takes as inspiration. The story, while pretty generic, and lacking any twists or surprises, still manages to entertain thanks to the quirky dialogue and the warmth and friendliness of everything. Costume quest is short and pretty easy, but is doesn't matter as it never feels like a arduous chore to beat, but a heartwarming and nostalgic experience that makes you feel like a kid all over again. Don't overlook this title, grab it this Halloween and immerse yourself in the true spirit of this spooktactular holiday. 

Well, that's it folks. I hope I was able to bring some new games to your attention, as well as inspiring you to dig out these spooky treats this Halloween. Now, put down that controller, get dressed up in your best costume, and head out into the night air for some trick or treating / the pub (delete as appropriate). 

Happy Halloween!