The Video Game Critic's
Halloween Review Special
Part 1 of 5Updated 2017/10/21
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-
This obscure game is one of the more compelling third-party titles for the 2600. It boasts a refreshing horror motif and its gameplay is surprisingly sophisticated. You control a small but colorful fellow attempting to "wall up" the imposing Frankenstein monster at the top of the screen. If the creature becomes fully charged, he'll break loose and that's always bad news. The big green guy likes to toss girls in ponds, complain about fire, and just generally freak everybody out. Putting the clamps on this psycho will require six trips to the lower dungeon to retrieve bricks. Frankenstein's gameplay borrows heavily from Pitfall (Activision, 1982) as you traverse multiple platforms fraught with peril. There are pits, spiders, ghosts and even an "acid pool" that looks suspiciously like water. (Hint: You can drop through a pit and onto a log if your timing is right.) When you hop across the floating logs it feels a heck of a lot like Pitfall, and the scoring system is also similar as you're docked points for touching spiders. Upon returning with a brick you're transported to a second screen where you have to fight through a swarm of bats. With each successive trip more obstacles are placed in your path and you're also racing against the clock. Flashing lightning and crashing thunder periodically alert you that the monster is gaining strength. The controls are responsive but unforgiving. If you walk to the edge of a pit, you will slide into it. You can only jump a fixed distance, and it takes a while to learn where to properly position yourself. Even so, the game succeeds on the strength of its challenge, variety, and kick-ass ending. When the monster inevitably breaks loose, he stomps toward the screen with the help of some admittedly rough scaling effects. Eventually the display turns completely green - because the monster is mooning the screen! Disrespectful! Frankenstein's gameplay isn't terribly original, but its unique theme and entertaining quirks make this one worth tracking down.
Ghost Manor (Xonox 1983) C+
This game isn't particularly scary or fun, and frankly it doesn't make a lot of sense. But Ghost Manor does have one thing going for it, and that's five unique stages. That's pretty monumental for a 2600 game. The idea is to save your friend from Dracula's castle, and you have the option of playing as a cute blonde chick in a blue dress or a dorky guy in a red cap. I have no idea what she sees in him. Anyway the action begins with a graveyard rising from the ground as scary music plays and a red castle looms in the distance. Your first task is to chase a rainbow-colored ghost around the graveyard. Very few video games employ gay ghosts, and I applaud Xonox for keeping such an open mind. On the advanced difficulty the ghost is replaced by a bisexual skeleton. After the pointless graveyard stage you move to the castle exterior which looks pretty awesome. Bats flutter around the towers, bugs crawl on the walls, and an axe-wielding mummy named "Choppy" guards the entrance. This stage plays like a mini-shooter and it's the highlight of the game. After killing all the creatures you enter the castle. The next two mazelike screens feature scattered coffins and moving walls that are deadly to touch. Examining the coffins will reveal a pair of crosses needed for the final showdown. It's easy to get caught up on the walls of the maze, especially in advanced stages which are pitch dark! Ascending the final staircase puts you in a room with Dracula slowly approaching from the left. Without the instructions you'd be at a complete loss what to do next. It turns out you need to position yourself directly beneath him and press the button to force him into a tower at the top right corner. If successful, your friend is released, you watch a quick ending (which looks suspiciously like the intro), and the game is over. There are four skill levels. Ghost Manor is very difficult at first, and with only one life any slip-up brings the action to an abrupt conclusion. Once you get the patterns down however, you can get through the screens quickly. Ghost Manor looks great and offers plenty of variety, but once you beat it you won't be dying to play it again.
Halloween (Wizard 1983) B-
Wizard was dead-on with this clever video game adaptation of the classic slasher film. You play the role of the babysitter (Jamie Lee Curtis) in a two-story house several screens wide. Points are scored by escorting children to "safe rooms" at either end of the house. The rooms are colorful but devoid of detail except for an occasional window or doorway. When you find a child you can lead it to safety, but the child "lock-on" controls are erratic. The knife-waving Michael Myers looks intimidating in his jumpsuit, but I don't recall Jamie Lee Curtis wearing that poufy red skirt. As in the movie, Michael is slow but relentless. You never know when he's going to suddenly appear in a doorway or at the edge of the screen. Better yet, his appearances are punctuated by an excellent rendition of the spooky Halloween theme song. If he grabs hold of a victim, you're treated to gratuitous gore bordering on hilarious. A lot of people lose their heads, and the spurting, pixelated blood is over-the-top. Halloween's gameplay is a little slow but there are some subtle nuances. Michael's movements are predictable, and with good timing you can lead children right past him. Occasionally you'll find a knife which allows you to briefly turn the tables on him. The lights on the top floor occasionally black out, adding additional suspense as you "feel" your way around in the pitch dark. Jack-o-lanterns track your "lives" on the top of the screen - a nice touch. My biggest gripe is that Michael appears too often which minimizes the suspense factor. Halloween isn't the best game in the world, but fans of the film and game collectors should be fascinated by it.
Haunted House (Atari 1981) B+
Haunted House doesn't look like much, and if you only play the default variation you might think it's pretty lame. If you try variation 9 however you'll discover a harrowing adventure with plenty of action, suspense, and even strategy. Your goal is to escape from a four-story mansion after finding three pieces of an urn. You control a pair of square eyes but can only see objects in the area illuminated around you (via a lit match). This limited visibility effect was previously employed in Adventure (Atari, 1980). Roaming through the house are three spiders (blue, orange, red), a bat, and a ghost. The creatures are well animated and I love how the spiders' legs twitch. These creatures are deadly to the touch, but thankfully you get nine lives. Each floor contains six square rooms, but locked doors make it a challenge to find your way around. Holding the skeleton key lets you move freely from room to room, but you can't hold it and the urn pieces at the same time. A scepter makes the bat and spiders oblivious to your presence, but it won't protect you from the ghost. Evading the monsters by running is possible, but they have a way of ganging up on you. Since the bat steals your items, it's often good strategy to let a spider bite you instead. Haunted House isn't spectacular in any way, but its elements combine to create a compelling dynamic. It's pretty intense as you try to find your way back to the entrance with the completed urn in hand and one life remaining. You never know what's waiting behind the next door. Complementing the action are crisp sound effects including footsteps, thunder, howling winds, and slamming doors. Your final score (if you escape) is a combination of remaining lives and matches used. Trying to convey any degree of terror on the 2600 is not an easy task, but Atari did a very respectable job with Haunted House.
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.
Odyssey 2 Games
Amityville (Rafael Alexandre 2016) A-
This is one of the most original Odyssey 2 games I've ever played. Combining live action with RPG elements, Amityville is half Dungeons and Dragons and half Haunted House (Atari 2600, 1982). As you step through a dark mansion the interior scrolls downward as a flashlight illuminates the area directly ahead. My friend Chris complained about some flicker in the background but I didn't really notice. The footstep sound effects are fantastic and there's even voice module support ("Danger! Attack!"). Just like in a real haunted house, you only get fleeting glimpses of the dangers that lie ahead. A horizontal strip across the center gives you a narrow peek, and intermittent lightning flashes illuminate the screen. Your goal is to find chests which contain diamonds and magic items. You'll also encounter spiders, bats, skeletons, and ghosts. The battles are surprisingly fun. You repeatedly "roll a dice" to reduce the monster's hit points as he slowly encroaches upon you. I wish you didn't have to wait five seconds between attacks, but I like the suspense. Magic items add a strategic element. The frog eye pushes a creature back a step, and the snake tongue can kill it with one blow. The vulture feature will award you with 150 points for sacrificing a turn. You can only hold one item at a time, and it can be hard to remember which one you're carrying. I love the attention to detail (666 score in manual screenshot) and not-so-subtle horror elements (upside-down cross on title screen). Amityville seems slow at first but I became obsessed with this ingenious little action-strategy homebrew. Still trying to reach 666!
Dracula (Imagic 1983) C
This remarkably sophisticated side-scroller captures so many elements of the Dracula legend. The action takes place on a quiet London street lined with townhouses and a graveyard. Each night you rise from your coffin to feast on helpless townsfolk before returning by sunrise. You can find people wandering the streets or you can scare them out of their houses by knocking on the door. The manual states that Dracula is momentarily stunned when they dash out, but we know that's just a convenient excuse to give them a head start. Chasing down these people requires some effort! You need to be lined up perfectly and they won't stand still! It doesn't help that a constable (cop) is constantly tossing wooden stakes in your direction. Dracula looks great but when biting a victim his head looks a lot like Kermit the Frog. You can kill people for 50 points or transform them into constable-killing zombies. Since the zombie is controlled via the second controller, you really need a friend to help you perform this move. Once you've sucked a certain number of folks dry a panting white wolf chases you around. You can transform into a bat to avoid him, but that makes you vulnerable to a purple vulture. If that bird carries you off the screen it's game over! There's a lot going on in this game but the devil is in the details. Thunder doesn't crash until a few seconds after lightning strikes. Eyes peek from windows, but the people won't venture out if they've seen you kill somebody. A bright moon rises each night and the sky progressly brightens as dawn approaches. Dracula is off-the-charts when it comes to novelty value, but the repetitive action is tiresome and the controls are hell on your wrist. Still, that shouldn't prevent you from pulling this game out every 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.
Jeepers Creepers (Atari Age 2016) C
I wish I had picked this up in October because Jeepers Creepers has so many fun Halloween elements. Its vibrant title screen depicts a Frankenstein monster, a ghost, and a skeleton climbing out of a grave. The intro music has a moody, organ-like quality. The game itself may surprise you. This a rapid-fire shooter - not something you'd expect to see on the Colecovision. You control a guy out to save his girlfriend from a haunted castle, moving side-to-side blasting waves of oncoming creeps. In the first stage you strafe shambling skeletons in a graveyard and in the second you blast ghosts emerging from coffins. The ghosts tend to disappear as they move down the screen but fortunately you can still destroy them in their invisible state. The third stage pits you against waves of green Frankenstein monsters. I love the game's sense of foreshadowing as the castle gradually looms larger and larger in the distance. When a creature reaches the bottom of the screen it briefly turns into a skull before draining a point of your life. You begin with 50 points so you can afford to let a lot of them pass. Especially in arcade mode it feels like a war of attrition as you're turning back hundreds of creeps. Shooting down a passing bat recovers some life and that becomes a big deal later in the game. Upon losing your final life the game concludes with a shriek and diabolical laugh. I love it! Jeepers Creepers has a lot of nifty details but its gameplay is taxing. Each button throws with a hand so you naturally want to hold in both for maximum firepower. The problem is, after a few minutes your wrist will hurt like hell. My friend Scott said his hand ached so bad he had to call in sick to work the next day! He swore up and down next time he was bringing a vice grip. Okay, so it's not as fun as it looks, but for a little Halloween hijinks Jeepers Creepers is probably worth the pain.
Commodore 64 Games
Friday the 13th (Domark Ltd. 1985) D
It's accepted as fact by the scientific community that just about any video game based on a movie will be awful. Friday the 13th doesn't do much to buck the trend, but while playing it before Halloween with beer in hand, I didn't hate it. You begin in a church, playing the role of a camp counselor. You're presented with a quick bio that has absolutely no bearing on the gameplay. The idea is to locate and kill Jason before he can murder your ten fellow campers. This requires picking up weapons and assaulting the very teens you're trying to save! Why? Because Jason is a doppelganger who looks exactly like one of the teens. The only way to "unmask" him is to smack people with deadly weapons to see if they briefly change into Jason. It's like The Thing has invaded Camp Crystal Lake! Speaking of which, the developer thought to incorporate haystacks, a cemetery, and creepy wooded areas, but couldn't be bothered to include a lake. And Jason doesn't even wear a hockey mask! When you finally find him, you hit him with a weapon as he bashes on you with a bo staff (you heard me) until somebody dies. Kill him and you proceed to the next round, this time playing as a different camper. Aside from the fact that male characters seem to have an easier time dispatching Jason, the gameplay is the same. Rinse and repeat until you just can't take the music anymore. Speaking of which, my relationship with the soundtrack is love/hate. It starts out nicely with Toccata and Fugue, but other selections simply do not belong in a scary game. You'll hear great renditions of "The Teddy Bears Picnic" and "Old MacDonald" that tend to undermine the sense of sheer horror. Still, the shrieks of fellow campers being bo-staffed to death offscreen will send shivers down your spine. The occasional pop-up graphic of a machete buried in a man's head is also a pleasant surprise. Friday the 13th may be a one-trick pony, but during the Halloween season it's worth playing for at least 30 minutes.
Castles of Doctor Creep, The (Broderbund 1984) A+
Castles of Doctor Creep delivers some of the best "spooky" fun to be found in the entire (and extensive) Commodore library! You must make your way through any one of 13 different castles without losing all your lives. Why you need to do this is never explained in the manual, but you know what? Some games are best left to your imagination. As you move from room to room traps, obstacles, puzzles, and locked doors attempt to thwart your progress. Some doors open with the push of a button, but others are color-coded and can only be opened with a key. Moving between rooms can be as simple as climbing a ladder or pole, or as complicated as using moving sidewalks while avoiding Frankenstein monsters and temporarily disabling force fields. The scoring is limited to the time it takes to reach each castle exit, and some of the more difficult castles can take over an hour to navigate! Luckily you can save your game at any time - although by saving and reloading you will forfeit your shot at having your time recorded. The top ten fastest times are saved for each castle. Castles of Doctor Creep can be played by a single player, but you're really doing yourself a disservice if you don't try the two-player mode. Having a second player can be a tremendous boon when attempting to shut down lightning machines, turn off force fields, or take control of ray guns. Two-player games are particularly fiendish because while it's crucial to work as a team, the fastest time is ultimately what determines who won and lost so it's extremely tempting to leave your partner out to dry when you're near the exit and he's low on lives. While ultimately a puzzle game, the atmosphere, sound, and graphics are reminiscent of a good adventure. Twitch reflexes and joystick skill are crucial for surviving difficult spots. I have to admit I've only been able to get through the first few castles so I can only imagine what kind of time investment it would require to get through some of the more difficult ones. Considering how much fun I've had playing with my youngest son - who absolutely LOVES all things scary and Halloween-y, I can't imagine playing without having him by my side to tempt mummies, trip trapdoors, or work matter transporters. This is a fairly difficult game to find anymore and I paid over $125 for a complete boxed copy of it. But you know what? It was worth EVERY PENNY!
Cauldron (Broderbund 1985) C-
Cauldron is sort of a hybrid side-scrolling shooter/platform jumper where you're a witch (literally called a hag in the game - I guess those were less politically-correct times). Your goal is to retrieve her golden broom from her mortal enemy, the Pumpking. You start the game above ground, walking out of your cottage to find six ingredients needed to reclaim your golden broom. The broom is hidden in one of four underground lairs, each of which contains some subset of the ingredients you need to make your potion. Appropriately, the ingredients are: Juice of Toad, Eye of Newt, Wing of Bat, Hemlock Root, Piece of Bone, and Molten Lava. Party at the witches cottage! Each lair is accessed through a colored door, and you must scour the surface world to find the matching keys before you can open the doors. To search for the keys, you fly on your broom through an opening in the trees and move left or right while watching the ground for keys. Make sure you take off and land only where a clearing exists, because touching anything else is instant death and the collision detection is very unforgiving. As you fly, you'll pass a forest, a graveyard, a volcanic mountain range, and open ocean. Depending on the area, you'll contend with flying bats, ghosts, floating pumpkins, flying lava, sharks, and sea gulls (really? seagulls? How scary is that?). The fire button shoots a magic bolt at these creatures, but I found it more effective to simply dodge them as you go. When you're hit, magic points are deducted, and hitting zero sends you tumbling to your death. Once you match a key to a door, you can land and enter a lair. Each lair is a platform-jumping puzzle, and you have to time and space your jumps so that you don't fall to your death. For some reason the witch can no longer use her broom to fly around these chambers, and gravity seems to have quadrupled in strength. Moving from one section of the lair to another is difficult due to some abruptly-shifting scrolling. It led me to die more times than I care to remember, as I couldn't see where I was going until it was too late. Even when you know where you're headed, the unforgiving collision detection and physics make getting around without dying a tall order. I was able to collect about half the ingredients but could never gather enough to challenge the Pumpking. While many people appear to have found the music in the game a highlight, I found it rather repetitive and annoying, like a 3rd-grade cousin with his first flute. Graphically the game looks very nice, with lots of color and smooth scrolling. I really like the Halloween theme, and I almost felt guilty playing this "out of season". The controls left a little to be desired, as when flying above the surface inertia carries you forward (much like Defender). It really becomes an issue when you're attempting to stop straight over a key so you can dip down and grab it. I think I might have given this game a C+ were it not for the difficulty, which I found almost on par with Ghosts and Goblins (at least underground). There is no two-player option, and the game doesn't record your high scores. I spent about an hour playing Cauldron for this review, and while I can't say I didn't enjoy it I also doubt I'll be booting it back up for another go anytime soon.
Atari 5200 Games
Haunted House II 3D (Mean Hamster 2002) D+
This game really fills a void in the Atari 5200 library, considering there aren't many adventures for the system (much less scary ones). Haunted House II 3D is an expanded version of the original Atari 2600 game. The graphics are better and the house is larger, but the basic premise remains the same. You control a pair of square eyes, trying to collect all the treasures in the house and get the heck out of there. You can light a candle by pressing a button, which will reveal any hidden objects lying around. As you wander through the house, you will encounter spiders, bats, skeletons, and ghosts. Their movements are unpredictable, but they don't pursue you from room to room. Sometimes one will appear from out of nowhere -- which is not fair at all. A sword is available for protection, but you can't collect items while holding it. So what is the "3D" all about? Actually, it's a bit of a stretch. Unlike the original Haunted House, each screen is a separate room (there's no scrolling) with psuedo-3D walls and doors in the background. But it's just eye candy - the gameplay is still completely 2D. As a matter of fact, the "rendered" rooms are more confusing than anything else. Haunted House II is challenging, but it's not polished enough to merit an average grade. Graphical break-up, hit-and-miss collision detection, and inconsistent speed all hamper the action. One minute you're flying around the screen, then suddenly you've slowed to a crawl. Sound effects include footsteps and thunder, but these are sloppy. Haunted House II 3D does deliver in terms of challenge. There are two houses to complete, and just trying to finish the first one kept me playing for quite a while.
Uninvited (Icom 1991) C-
Uninvited is an early point-and-click adventure ported from the PC. The story begins with you regaining consciousness after a car crash in front of an old mansion, and your sister is missing from the passenger seat. This opening sequence, in which your car gradually goes up in flames, provides a painful crash course of the clunky, non-intuitive user interface. A first-person view is rendered on the upper left, above an abstract diagram which is supposed to indicate your exit options. On the right is a list of commands and items you can page through (note that the "leave" command means "drop" - not exit). I repeatedly died while frantically trying to escape the car, prompting the message "your laziness has cost you your life and possibly the life of your sister." [Expletive] you, stupid game! Eventually I got out and was able to navigate the mansion - with some difficulty. Unnecessary extra steps are the order of the day, so you can't enter a door unless you explicitly open it first. As you snoop around you'll find all kind of junk that solves problems in the most unlikely ways. It's tempting to grab everything in sight, but if you linger an evil presence envelopes you and saps your life and kills you. Thankfully there's a "quick save" option (pretty sweet) and endless continues that pick up right where you left off. I'm glad Uninvited is so forgiving because frankly it doesn't make much sense. Most items are just red herrings to waste time experimenting with, and some of the objects used to subdue ghosts seem more random than logical. The highlight of the game is the encounter with the Scarlet O'hara ghost, which my friend Scott mistook to be a "cross-dressing skeleton" (understandable). It looks awesome to disintegrate her with the "No Ghost" substance, but be sure to "open the bottle" first, or you will die (dammit!) Uninvited's graphics are clean and well defined but the house isn't particularly scary. The music is repetitive at times, but I like how it changes to signal danger. Uninvited is not the kind of game that translates well to the NES, but those who enjoy problem solving may find this appealing.
Shadowgate (Icom 1989) C-
This point-and-click adventure induced flashbacks of a game I reviewed last year called Uninvited (Icom, 1991). The clunky interface is exactly the same. Shadowgate is a medieval/horror game of mystery and intrigue. It requires you to issue one-word commands to interact with items, solve puzzles, and fight monsters. The first-person view of each room is small but nicely illustrated. You begin at a door on the edge of a forest, where you become almost immediately stuck. It seems like every combination of commands results in "you seem to be wasting your time". Yeah - no kidding! The FAQ revealed I had to do the most illogical thing imaginable (spoiler alert: "open" the skull above the door). As you venture deep inside there are dangers lurking everywhere. In addition to deadly traps you'll contend with monsters like cyclops, werewolves, and demons. Critical items must be obtained in the most roundabout manner, including a key being held by a skeleton standing over a shark-infested pool. The gameplay is largely trial and error, but as you collect dozens of items the possibilities increase exponentially. You are always one false move away from instant death. You'll perform the most innocuous action which sets off a chain of events that leaves you staring at the grim reaper. Shadowgate would be impossible if not for the unlimited continues and your ability to save at any time (pretty awesome for an NES title). The game doesn't always make sense but as you inch further along it's fun to see what lies around the next corner. The audio/visual style has a certain ambiance and the music is melodic. As a child my buddy Chris sunk endless hours into Shadowgate without making much progress. Well, 25 years later he got the last laugh. Shadowgate may be tough but it doesn't stand a chance against a gamer armed with an FAQ! With Brent at the controls and Chris directing, I watched them complete the game in about an hour and a half. It's amazing how cryptic some of the puzzles are. Open a bucket? Use a torch to light a carpet on fire?! Who would have thought of this stuff?! The funny thing is, they still had a good time, rating it a solid C. I'm not so generous, but Shadowgate has a certain Halloween charm that's hard to deny.
Monster Party (Bandai 1989) C+
During the intro to Monster Party a little boy spots a falling star. "The beauty of the star made his eyes moist so he didn't notice that the star fell and landed right in front of him." Prose like that is one reason I adore classic games. That is one big bucket of awful right there! On the surface Monster Party is an unremarkable side-scroller. The opening stage looks cheesy with its pastel-colored landscape and platforms stamped with smiley faces. Eventually you walk past a large tree and the stage suddenly turns much darker, with those smiley faces transforming into zombie heads. Now that's more like it! Your initial set of foes include eyeballs with tentacles, dogs with people faces, and punk Asian kids. You can attack by swinging a bat, but since it's short and foes absorb multiple hits, it's hard to avoid taking some damage. Your goal is to collect a key to unlock the door at the end of the stage. Along the way there are caves you enter to reveal items, bosses, but more often than not - empty rooms. What's the point of that? In one room you'll find a giant spider who says "Sorry, I'm dead". The key to beating bosses is to deflect their projectiles back at them with well-timed swings of your bat. It's a clever concept widely employed throughout the game. Another excellent feature is the power-up which transforms you into a green winged demon, allowing you to fly around and unleash rapid-fire missiles! You'll want to be in demon form when you face-off against the jack-o-lantern boss in stage one. Between stages you're presented with some of the worst passwords ever devised, mixing uppercase letters, lowercase letters, and even punctuation marks! Some of the seven stages are mazelike, but there are some memorable monster encounters including a green Minotaur that tosses tiny cows. Tuneful melodies play throughout the game which are sure to rekindle some fond memories. Monster Party doesn't look like much but it's an endearing title that will draw you in if you give it a chance.
Frankenstein: The Monster Returns (Bandai 1990) C-
No, you do not play as the Frankenstein monster in this game. Instead you assume the role of a noble warrior attempting to rescue a beautiful girl who was carried off by the creature. Ever notice how the damsel in distress is always an attractive babe? If she were ugly, would all the knights just say "too bad" and go back to drinking their mead? Wouldn't it be refreshing to see a hero risk life and limb to save a girl with a nice personality? How many butt-ugly video game maidens have gone unsaved? Won't you help? Speaking of ugly, Frankenstein shows his mug in the opening cut-scene but doesn't truly emerge again until the final boss battle. In his pursuit you'll travel through townships, forests, graveyards, castles, and hell dimensions. You'll battle lizards, trolls, floating eyeballs, and even jumping gravestones! Yes, that is stupid. You'll defend yourself with swords and small clubs which look more like chicken legs. The controls are a little stiff and I had a hard time explaining to my friends how to do the jump-kick. You'll spend a lot of time fighting bosses, mainly because they can absorb an endless number of hits. Some of these creatures are mythological in nature (demon horse, medusa), but you'll also face a floating head, a werewolf, and a vampire. At least the game has variety going for it. Bosses tend to say boss-like things, like "Only a fool would dare to challenge me! Prepare to meet your doom!" Unfortunately the dialogue is displayed letter-by-letter, and it's so slow you feel as if you're watching a daisy wheel printer. Get on with it, man!! The tone is somewhat dark and the music is in minor-key, but the game isn't particularly spooky. You get several continues and a password, and there's a nice high score screen. It's not bad, but Frankenstein: The Monster Returns feels more like a run-of-the-mill side-scroller than a horror epic.
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-
You'd expect the first Castlevania sequel to expand on the solid gameplay of the original, but Simon's Quest took an ill-advised new approach. In an apparent attempt to make the gameplay "richer", Konami incorporated all sorts of RPG elements, transforming an exciting action adventure into a tedious exercise in collecting hearts, talking to characters, and killing time. Your quest begins in a quaint town, one of many you'll visit to collect items and gather information. Pressing the select button reveals a status screen which displays weapons, items, and other vital information - including the time of day. This is worth noting because time plays a vital role in the game. You'll need to purchase and trade items in order to progress through the game, but you can only do business with townsfolk during the day. At night, the villages are crawling with ghouls you slay to earn hearts. The idea is to rack up hearts before sunrise, and then use them to purchase items during the day, but it rarely works out so neatly. You need a lot of hearts to buy critical items, and too often I found myself waiting impatiently for the sunset or sunrise. Simon's Quest lacks the arcade flavor of the first game, but its graphics and sound are very good. The monsters include the usual suspects like skeletons, swamp creatures, and werewolves, but there are also new surprises like web-slinging spiders and hands that reach out of graves. The soundtrack is high quality, but much like the gameplay, it is repetitive. Simon's Quest is far more expansive than the first, so a much-needed password feature is provided. The game has three different endings, but don't expect much from them. Castlevania II just isn't as fun as the original game, and its new RPG elements weigh it down.
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
I happen to be a fan of the Friday the 13th slasher movies, and although this game is surprisingly sophisticated, it lacks the tension that made the films effective. You control six camp counselors that you move individually around Camp Crystal Lake. When you're not rushing to the aid of children in danger, you're exploring cabins to gather notes, weapons, and other helpful items. The start button brings up a helpful map that makes it easy to navigate the campgrounds. In addition to cabin-lined trails around the lake, there are also cave and forest areas that hold secret items. The gameplay is pretty original, but a few ill-conceived elements put a damper on the fun. When wandering around, you're constantly attacked by zombies popping out of the ground. Not only are these irritating, but they destroy any sense of suspense by making you numb to being attacked. I will admit however that I jumped a mile the first time a zombie jumped out of the lake! I wasn't ready for that one. Another problem with Friday the 13th is the first-person perspective used to explore the cabin interiors. Instead of making you feel "in the game", it just makes you feel like a rat in a cage. Jason is large and menacing during his frequent appearances, and you'll need to mix dodges with attacks in order to turn him away. I like how the time of day changes as you play this game, and if you're good, a single game can extend over several days. Friday the 13th is tough, but as you learn specific strategies you'll discover hidden rooms and encounter new dangers like Jason's mother. When all the councelors are deceased, the message appears "You and your friends are dead. Game Over." I guess "Thank you for playing" would not have been appropriate in this case.
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+
This should have been called Mystery Mansion, because it basically boils down to a lot of little puzzles solved by manipulating lists of items. Part graphic adventure and part text, you use a cursor to build simple sentences like "use key on door" and "give cheese to Jeff". Maniac Mansion's storyline involves three kids trying to save their friend being held hostage by a mad doctor in a large mansion. Before starting, you can select three of six cartoonish characters to play as. These include the obligatory nerd, the gnarly surfer dude, the prostitute (nice dress), and the token black guy. You only control one character at a time, and each has a catchy theme song. The music is great for the NES, but it can still get on your nerves after a while. You can switch it off, but that causes the game to become uncomfortably silent. Maniac Mansion's graphics are pretty good, offering a wide array of well-furnished rooms - including an arcade. It's amusing to explore the house and solve puzzles, at least until you get stuck. Using the cursor is somewhat tedious, but the handy select button lets you easily cycle through the most common commands. The game maintains a whimsical tone, with simple dialogue sprinkled with juvenile humor. The most infamous aspect of the game is how it's possible to explode a hamster in the microwave. The main problem with Maniac Mansion is its complexity, which will turn off all but the most dedicated gamers. There are dozens of items to juggle, and figuring out how each is used requires a lot of trial and error. Some solutions tend to defy logic (give the plastic fruit to the tentacle??) The order in which you complete tasks is critical, and timing is sometimes a factor as well. Last time I checked, video games were supposed to be fun, not work! My cartridge contained a battery back-up that allowed me to skip ahead to the previous owner's spot to get a peek at the advanced stages. That's right - 17 years old and the battery is still working! I know a lot of gamers have fond memories of Maniac Mansion, but I don't think this adventure has aged particularly well.
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
Whoa - this is the most bizarre NES game I've ever seen. Chiller is a gruesome, unlicensed light gun game created by twisted minds for twisted minds. The first thing you notice is its oddly-shaped cartridge that does not easily fit into the console. Once you get that working, you'll struggle with the controls. Configuring the game to work with the NES light gun is not easy. You'll need to plug the gun into the right port, but it's hard to tell if it's working because it's so unresponsive. You have to keep it within a few inches of the screen for your shots to register, and even then the accuracy is just not there. But as bad as the gun control is, it's actually a step up from the control pad, which uses a tiny, hard-to-aim crosshair. Chiller's control is deplorable, but I was fascinated by its graphics and sound. This game brings to life so many classic horror images. The first stage depicts a graveyard scene at night with a church in the background. Arms reach out of graves and toss skulls back and forth. Heads and limbs can be seen on the ground, and a mysterious woman pushes a baby carriage in the distance. Your job is to hit a certain number of targets in a fixed period of time. Actually, many targets are revealed by red dots that appear with when the screen flashes as you fire the gun. The second screen depicts the hallway of a haunted house with various creeps and apparitions. You'll see an arm fall from the ceiling and be retrieved by a hungry dog below. Then things get really twisted. The third stage shows some men strapped down, and you must shoot each part of their bodies until nothing remains. Is this sick or what? Fortunately, the cheesy NES graphics aren't realistic enough to be disturbing. In this final stage, a man is chained to the wall, another is in a guillotine, and a semi-naked woman is trapped in an iron maiden. Chiller is over-the-top by any standard. It provides some novelty value for adults, but it's definitely not for kids.
Monster in my Pocket (Konami 1992) C
Monster in my Pocket is not a euphemism; it's a line of toys released by Matchbox in 1990. This video game tie-in came with a free exclusive monster, which as you can imagine really jacks up the value of a complete copy. Monster in my Pocket is well-programmed but generic platformer. You can control either a vampire or the Frankenstein monster, but both feel exactly the same. Does the concept of controlling a tiny monster in household environments sound appealing? If you're eight years old, maybe. You'll hop along furniture and scamper across kitchen counters while vanquishing a wide variety of creatures. I counted 39 different adversaries in the manual for crying out loud! There are zombies, witches, skeletons, ogres, minotaur, and just about anything else you can think of. There's even a God-damned Kraken for Pete's sake! The creatures tend to be rendered in few colors and subject to break-up, making them hard to discern at times. The controls are really good. The double-jump works like a charm and when you punch you unleash a visual burst of energy. Sometimes you'll find a large key, but all you can do is hurl it at oncoming creeps. The gameplay is ordinary and predictable. The stages are plain and the worst has to be the obligatory sewer level (required by law). It sucks how you sometimes jump off a table and fall into a mob of monsters milling around below. The two-player simultaneous mode is fun in theory, but in practice it's hard to keep both characters on the screen. Monster in my Pocket is technically sound but I'm afraid you'll forget about this one the minute you shut it off.
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
Maxwell Manor (Avalon Hill 1985) D
I wanted to like Maxwell Manor so bad. The box cover depicts a bold hero holding a cross in one hand and a gun in the other. He's like Bruce Campbell from Evil Dead! The game opens with an elaborate title screen, dripping with blood, and some appropriately spooky music. You begin on a dark road and the surrounding brush is rendered with grainy textures. You'll discover items lying around like a gun, shield, and candle. Cycling through items is clumsy, but I appreciate how the programmer designed the game so all actions are performed with a single joystick. Head northward to reach the manor. If the gate is locked, head around back to find a secret backdoor. Once inside the gate you'll find yourself navigating garden mazes crawling with deadly insects. The problem is, the maze openings are roughly the same height as you, so it's really easy to get caught on the edge of them. There's nothing more frustrating getting killed because your head was stuck on a wall. It's even possible to get stuck on items you're trying to pick up! Sometimes when you arrive in a new area a bug will crawl out of a wall and kill you before you even get a chance to move. Once inside the manor the game becomes more interesting but no less frustrating. Each room is unique but most seem to incorporate some sort of Indiana Jones-style spear trap. You never really get a chance to enjoy the scenery and many times I keeled over for no apparent reason. I actually believe there are invisible spots on the floor that are deadly if you step on them! Some rooms assume a side-view perspective instead of overhead, but the jumping controls are the worst. The instructions actually state "we've made jumping a little tricky". Gee - thanks a lot for that! For the determined gamer there seem to be endless surprises and secrets to uncover at Maxwell Manor. Playing the game is a pretty quiet experience, with only the occasional beep or screech. At its best, Maxwell Manor is like an expanded version of Haunted House (Atari 2600, 1982). Not only is there a lot to discover but the game randomizes its layout. Unfortunately its "let the player figure stuff out" mentality can leave you in a lurch, wondering if it's really worth the effort. During October, it probably is.
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, Odyssey 2, Colecovision, 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