The Video Game Critic's
Halloween Review Special
Part 1 of 5Updated 2016/5/23
The Critic's "Fright Factor" ratings:Child's play "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy."
Creepy "I see dead people."
Unnerving "That cold ain't the weather. That's death approaching."
Intense "I know you're there Tina. Because I can smell your brains."
Terrifying "It’s Alive! It’s Alive!"
Unbearable "No tears please, it's a waste of good suffering."
Atari 2600 Games
Frankenstein's Monster (Data Age 1983) B-
Ghost Manor (Xonox 1983) C+
Halloween (Wizard 1983) B-
Haunted House (Atari 1981) B+
Blair Witch Project, The (Tim Snider 2000) NA
No, your eyes do not deceive you! Yes, a Blair Witch game has been created for the Atari 2600, although it's really just a hack of Atari's Haunted House (1981). I happen to be a huge fan of the movie, making this a neat game to own. The gameplay is exactly the same as Haunted House, but the graphics have been "updated" Blair Witch style. You are now pursued by moving handprints, the ghost of Rustin Parr, and even the Blair Witch herself! The scepter is now shaped like a totem, and instead of finding pieces of an urn, you must assemble parts of a camera. The font used to display the numbers at the bottom of the screen has also been modified to good effect. Tim Snider did a great job matching up a classic game with this scary film.
Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Wizard 1983) F
Wizard scored a hit with Halloween, but this video game adaptation is a complete debacle. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is as unpleasant as the movie it's based on. My wife and I saw the 1974 film on video a few years back, and it scared the living [expletive] out of us! Anyway, this is one of the first video games to let you control the "bad guy". You are Leatherface, a chainsaw-wielding masked psycho out to filet as many innocent people as possible before running out of gasoline. The screen scrolls sideways as you search for helpless victims and avoid obstacles including wheelchairs and cow skulls. The gameplay is a complete nightmare. Victims inexplicably disappear before you can touch them, and you're constantly getting hung up on the scenery. Even the graphics are lousy. Leatherface doesn't even resemble the movie character, and the running women look like Fisher Price toys. Their "screaming" is conveyed by ear-piercing tones, which will force all non-deaf gamers to immediately hit the mute button. When you do kill someone, they transform into an indiscernible blob. Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a novelty item with minimal play value. Its pathetic ending shows a person kicking Leatherface in the butt! Please tell me when it's over!
Skeleton+ (Atari Age/Eric Ball 2003) B+
Skeleton Plus (+) is a much needed update to a game that held much potential but was somewhat undercooked. I imagine programmer Eric Ball caught plenty of flack about the original Skeleton's lack of options and steep difficulty. However, I'm happy to report that he has addressed those issues sufficiently in this latest version. As in the original game, you move through a first-person maze, trying to zap wandering skeletons one at a time. The mazes are well rendered and can be navigated quickly and easily. The skeletons look terrific, and you can even follow them around (although they tend to turn on you). This "Plus" version displays the number of skeletons zapped on the bottom of the screen, along with your life points, which drain each time you're touched by a skeleton. Since some skeletons require multiple "zaps" to kill, there's a bit of a "cat and mouse" element. The game has four options: skeletons per level (five or ten), starting life meter (49 or 99), sound on/off, and skeleton speed. Unfortunately, two options are assigned to each difficulty switch, so there are only four combinations in total. I would have preferred if all 16 possible combinations were accessible via the select switch. A "touch of death" mode is also accessible via the black/white switch, in case you preferred the unforgiving gameplay of the original. I couldn't really recommend the first Skeleton game, but Skeleton+ is the real deal.
Dracula (Imagic 1983) C+
Here's an interesting title you can only get for the Intellivision. With its rich graphics, excellent sound effects, and sophisticated gameplay, Dracula is a favorite among collectors. The scene is set on a road lined with townhouses and a graveyard. Each night, Dracula ascends from his coffin to feast on helpless townsfolk. Playing the role of the vampire himself (who can also transform into a bat), you must subdue a certain number of victims and return to your grave before sunrise. You can find people wandering around the streets, or scare them out of their houses by knocking on doors (which doesn't make much sense when you think about it). When attacking your victims you can either apply a "regular" bite or transform your victim into a zombie, which in turn can then be controlled using the second controller! Your adversaries include wooden-stake-throwing police, a white wolf, and a vulture. There's a lot going on, but it's the little details that really make this game special. There's crashing thunder, flashing lightning, eyes peeking from windows, a rising moon, and a sky that changes color. As cool as it all sounds however, the game's weakness becomes apparent after repeated plays: repetitive gameplay. For all the options you have available, the game is all about chasing people around, and it does get old. Still, Dracula is a neat little cartridge to pull out in October.
Scooby Doo's Maze Chase (Mattel 1983) D-
Note: Requires ECS module
This plodding maze game is a disappointment, especially considering it requires the Intellivision ECS (computer and keyboard) attachment. You control a nicely animated Scooby Doo who must snatch three ghosts wandering around a maze while avoiding a single skull. There are ten mazes to choose from, and you can even create your own. The maze options are nice, but what the game really needs is a skill select, because Maze Chase is incredibly easy and tediously slow. Scooby is only slightly faster than the ghosts, so snagging all three isn't as hard as it is time-consuming! That skull isn't terribly hard to avoid, and once he starts closing in you can drop a bone in his path to stop him in his tracks. Between stages a submarine sandwich meanders around the maze for a few seconds, and touching it nets you an extra bone. The maze is trimmed with some interesting graphics like a tree, gravestone, and clock. Thunder claps and an ominous organ can be heard throughout the game, and these are so good you'll wish Mattel had saved them for a better game! Sadly, they are just window dressing for an ultra-lame, mega-generic maze title with minimal entertainment value.
Commodore 64 Games
Friday the 13th (Domark Ltd. 1985) D
Castles of Doctor Creep, The (Broderbund 1984) A+
Cauldron (Broderbund 1985) C-
Atari 5200 Games
Haunted House II 3D (Mean Hamster 2002) D+
Uninvited (Icom 1991) C-
Shadowgate (Icom 1989) C-
Monster Party (Bandai 1989) C+
Frankenstein: The Monster Returns (Bandai 1990) C-
Castlevania (Konami 1987) B
It's interesting to go back and play the original Castlevania - the game that started it all. I was particularly impressed with the soundtrack, which manages to be both melodic and haunting - a tall order for the NES. You assume the role of a vampire hunter attempting to slay Dracula in his castle. Initially armed with only a whip, you'll find special weapons which are unleashed by pushing up on the directional pad while pressing the attack button. These include knives, axes, holy water, crosses, and a magical watch that temporarily freezes foes in their tracks. Establishing the formula that will continue for all of eternity, you'll slash torches to reveal hearts, leap between ledges, and battle legions of evil creatures from skeletons to zombies to jumping fish-men. Castlevania's simple, arcade-style gameplay is compelling but slightly tainted by its preponderance of cheap hits. Being touched by a little bat can send you plunging into the nearest abyss, and many traps spell instant death. Castlevania's graphics are better than you might expect, with meticulously detailed walls that look properly aged. On the downside, some of the creatures are not well defined, and smaller creatures can be hard to discern. But despite its rough edges, Castlevania is a fun game that stands the test of time.
Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (Konami 1988) C-
Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse (Konami 1990) A
When it comes to NES side-scrolling action, it doesn't get much better than Castlevania III. After a brief misstep with Simon's Quest, the series gets back on track with this action-packed gothic adventure. As vampire hunter Trevor Belmont, you'll journey through a village, swamp, forest, clock tower, and ghost ship before finally arriving at Dracula's huge castle. The graphics are remarkable, from the vine-laced ruins in the foreground to the soaring mountain peaks in the distance. Unlike most NES titles, the characters here actually look somewhat realistic. An amazing variety of creatures include floating medusa heads and pesky little hunchbacks. The controls are responsive enough, but navigating stairs takes a little finesse. The difficulty is fair, and a password feature allows you to save your game. Unlike Castlevania II, no separate status screen is required since all the vital information is displayed across the top of the screen. Perhaps Castlevania III's most innovative feature is the ability to play as boss characters you defeat along the way - an ingenious concept. The stages are separated by branching paths, adding even more replay value to an already extraordinary game. The first-rate musical score brilliantly captures the flavor of the game. Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse is a "must-have" NES game if there ever was one.
Friday the 13th (LJN 1988) D
Ghosts 'N Goblins (Capcom 1986) B-
Ghosts and Gobliins is practically an institution on the NES. It launched a popular series that continues to this day, although many would argue that the franchise peaked with Ghouls 'N Ghosts (Genesis, 1989). You play as a comical knight who can fire projectiles forward and backward. It's a shame you can't fire upward, because many stages feature multi-tiered platforms with enemies above and below. Zombies, skeletons, crows, and demons pour out of the woodwork as you forge through graveyards, burning villages, mountains, castles, and caverns. This is side-scrolling mayhem at its purest and the action moves at a frantic pace as the soundtrack plays a heroic refrain. If you check out the background of the first stage, you'll notice a preview of what's to come with a majestic castle nestled in the mountains. Ghosts and Goblins is best known for its difficulty. Diamonds aren't this hard! Despite its short stages and unlimited continues, you'll struggle to make progress. Part of the blame can be placed on the controls, which are rigid and unforgiving. It's very easy to get stuck in a crouch position or become caught up on the edge of a gravestone. Taking a hit knocks you back, sometimes sending you into a pit! The checkpoints could be better placed, as sometimes you'll need to restart large stretches after dying. It's tough, but Ghosts and Goblins has a distinctive arcade style and whimsical medieval/horror theme that never gets old.
Maniac Mansion (Jaleco 1986) D+
Ghoul School (Electro Brain 1989) F
As much as I wanted to like this game, my conscience prevents me from grading it higher than an F. Ghoul School looks great on paper but doesn't play well at all. You control a punk kid trapped in a school crawling with all sorts of creepy monsters. A few of these tend to be quite imaginative and detailed, like the red creature with the huge eye. A toe-tapping tune plays as you wander the halls and classrooms, collecting the items needed to defeat various monstrosities. Unfortunately, the school is a confusing maze consisting of hallways, stairs, and doors that all look exactly alike. The room numbers aren't even consecutive or logical! As a result, you end up wandering aimlessly until you stumble upon a key item (like spring shoes) or weapon (bat, towel, gun). The combat aspect is awful. The pathetic weapons have such an incredibly short range that you'll be limited to repetitive "hit and run" attack patterns. Adding insult to injury, the controls are less than responsive and you're constantly being tossed around. I like the concept behind Ghoul School, but the execution is a mess.
Nightmare on Elm St (LJN 1989) C+
It's not great, but I will give this game credit for capturing a bit of the surreal atmosphere of the Nightmare on Elm Street films. It's difficult to believe this was done by LJN, who produced the dreadful Friday the 13th game a year earlier. Nightmare of Elm Street puts you in the role of a kid on a dark street lined with large, foreboding houses. As you walk down the sidewalk, you're accosted by a slew of annoying pests including snakes, dogs, bats, etc. I know what you're thinking, but bear with me - it gets better. When you finally enter a house, you're challenged to collect a set of bones while being pursued by all sorts of grisley creatures much like those in the films. The one exception is the ninja, who seems to be in the wrong game (sorry dude, this isn't Double Dragon!). Your kid can jump and punch, and pressing select initiates special attacks. Nightmare on Elm Street has one very effective gimmick. Periodically your surroundings magically transform from the real world to a dream world, with entirely different creatures and new challenges. It's a cool concept that reminded me of Soul Reaver (Playstation 1999). Upon clearing each house, you are confronted with a Freddie "boss" in one of his many freaky forms. Nightmare on Elm Street's graphics are very good, and the soundtrack is faithful to the movie. Its gameplay is standard platform fare, but the horror angle makes it more interesting than most.
Chiller (Exidy 1986) D
Atari 7800 Games
Midnight Mutants (Atari 1990) B
This highly original game lets you to roam freely around a haunted town full of hideous monsters. Your goal? To save Grandpa Munster! Along the way you'll find weapons like a knife, axe, cross, and gun. As you gather objects, new areas to explore open up, some containing large bosses to defeat. The graphics and sound are outstanding. Nicely detailed scenery includes a forest, pumpkin patch, mansion, and graveyard. An ominous refrain plays in the background. By pressing the right button you can communicate with Grandpa, who will offer directions and advice. Midnight Mutants offers a nice mix of exploration, strategy, and action. The manual contains a map and a guide which most people will need to get started. There are a few flaws. Control is a bit awkward because there's no diagonal movement. You can easily get lost in certain areas which "wrap around" on themselves. And since there's no way to save the game, you'll need to finish it in one sitting (although there are shortcuts). There's a lot to see and do in this one. It's one of the few old games that caters to the horror crowd.
Atari XEGS Games
Transylvania (Polarware 1985) D+
Released on several home computer platforms in the mid-1980s, Transylvania is an old-fashioned text adventure enhanced by artistically rendered illustrations. The keyboard is used to enter simple directions (N for North, S for South, etc) to navigate a wooded landscape with a castle, lake, and old house. Simple commands like "take", "drop", and "move" are used to interact with items. The game progresses in a linear fashion as you look for key items to open a door or initiate an event. Transylvania's graphics are pretty good. Having played my share of text-only games years ago, I will admit that there's something to be said for being able to see your environment. Most of the illustrations won't strike fear into your heart, but that dark werewolf with glowing eyes certainly looks creepy. Transylvania is interesting to play, but the game doesn't always make sense, and can be terribly unforgiving at times. For example, when you open a coffin to reveal a set of items, you need to grab the mice immediately before they run away, or it becomes impossible to finish the game! Stuff like that makes the game more frustrating than it should be (hint: use the FAQ). The inventory management system is awkward, and the storyline tends to go off on weird tangents, including an alien encounter. Transylvania definitely lacks polish and good design, but its hand-drawn visuals and old-school gameplay do have their charm.
Sega Master System Games
Ghouls 'N Ghosts (Sega 1990) B+
This is a good example of some of the excellent games released for the Master System near the end its lifecycle. At first glance, you could easily mistake this game for the Genesis version. The graphics are crisp and detailed, and the gameplay is just like the arcade (including the huge bosses). The renaissance music is outstanding. Only some slowdown and graphic breakup mar an otherwise superb game playing experience. As your knight makes his way through graveyards, villages, and caves, danger lurks at every turn. Ghouls 'n Ghost's most distinguishing feature is its difficulty, and this version is no different. It seems like every one of those chests contains that evil magician who turns you into a chicken or an old man. At times it's insanely difficult. There are unlimited continues, and you'll find yourself playing into the wee hours of the morning if you're really bent on beating this game.
Ghost House (Sega 1986) D-
All systems deserve to have one good, scary game, but Ghost House isn't scary OR good. It's just a generic platform game with stupid-looking, cartoon monsters. The ghosts look a lot like Kirby of Nintendo fame, which is not a good sign! Your job is to collect the five "family jewels" by defeating five Draculas. Five Draculas? That should set off some alarms right there. And guess how you defeat these five vampires? A wooden stake? Garlic? Holy water? Nah, you just punch them! C'mon, if you're going to make a game about vampires, you have to at least follow the rules! The game has no atmosphere at all and the music is as goofy as the graphics. Control isn't so hot either. Why do I keep falling through the floors?? Ghost House also features some annoying slow-down, and sometimes it will even freeze up for no reason.
Part 1: Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Intellivision, Commodore 64, NES, Atari 7800, Atari XE, Sega Master System
Part 2: Turbografx-16, Genesis, Neo Geo, SNES, Sega CD, Sega 32X, 3DO, Philips CD-i
Part 3: Saturn, Playstation, Nintendo 64, Dreamcast
Part 4: Playstation 2, GameCube, Xbox
Part 5: Xbox 360, Wii, Playstation 3, Wii U, Xbox One, Playstation 4