Haunted House (Atari 2600)

Looks like I really urned this victory, eh? Wocka wocka wocka!

Happy Halloween, everyone! I started out this month with a horror gaming binge, so it’s only fitting I end it the same way. I’m going all the way back to the oldest horror game in my collection with this one: The venerable Haunted House for the Atari 2600. Designed by James Andreasen and published by Atari themselves in the tail end of 1981, Haunted House is considered one of the first entries in the so-called “survival horror” genre, although that term wouldn’t be coined until 1996, when it showed up in marketing material for Capcom’s Resident Evil. It’s definitely not the first horror-themed video game, though. The original home gaming console, Magnavox’s Odyssey, had a simple hide-and-seek type game for two players all the way back in 1972, also titled Haunted House. There was also Atari’s Shark Jaws arcade game from 1975. Atari hadn’t acquired the proper legal rights to adapt the Spielberg film, but it still did it best to play up the association by making the “Shark” in the logo as small as possible next to the eye-catching “Jaws.” Despite all this, it wouldn’t be at all unfair to say that Atari’s Haunted House was the earliest horror video game to actually reach a mass audience.

In Haunted House, you control an unnamed protagonist the manual refers to simply as “you.” This was a basic, but effective way of building immersion at a time when depicting detailed human characters in games was still a considerable technical challenge. The setting is the sleepy town of Spirit Bay and your goal is to explore the dilapidated mansion of deceased recluse Zachary Graves and collect three pieces of a “magic urn” hidden within before escaping through the front door. Complicating your efforts, the mansion is pitch black and filled with vicious bats and tarantulas, not to mention the ghost of Old Man Graves himself.

The gameplay is a simple variation on Warren Robinett’s groundbreaking Adventure from the previous year. Your character, represented only by a pair of disembodied eyes, navigates the mansion’s four floors and 24 distinct rooms from an overhead perspective, avoiding monsters (contact with any of them will cost you one of your nine lives) and picking up items needed to progress. In the interest of replay value, the items themselves are distributed randomly throughout the house at the start of each new game. In addition to the three pieces of the urn, there’s also a master key for opening locked doors and a magic scepter that will make you immune to enemy attacks, though the ghost can still harm you on the higher difficulties, scepter or no. As in Adventure, you can only carry one item at a time, so knowing when to swap them out is an important part of the strategy. One common technique is to locate the scepter first and then use it to scout out the locations of the other items in relative safety before dropping it and snatching up the urn pieces in one quick go on your way to the front door.

What differentiates Haunted House from Adventure is the former’s darkness mechanic. Items are invisible, as are the very walls and doors of the mansion itself when playing on all but the lowest difficulty level. If you want to see what you’re doing, you’ll need to light a match using the action button. This will illuminate a small area around your character and allow you to see items and bits of the mansion layout therein. You can do this any number of times, but the appearance of any monster brings with it a blast of icy wind which will instantly extinguish your match and force you to flee in the dark or lose a life. You also have the option of toggling lightning on or off via the console’s left difficulty switch. If enabled, these periodic lightning flashes will provide brief glimpses of your surroundings.

That’s about all there is to it. Haunted House is a very simple game by modern standards, and even by the standards of the later 1980s. There are nine total difficulty levels, with each one increasing the speed and tenacity of the monsters, the number of locked doors, and a few other variables, but it all still comes down to grabbing the three urn pieces and returning to the front door where you started out before you run out of lives.

It’s not exactly a graphical powerhouse, especially when you consider that 80% of the screen is completely black most of the time and music is limited to a single short victory fanfare patterned on the classic Twilight Zone opening theme that plays whenever you manage to escape the mansion in one piece. There are some nice touches which bear mentioning, though. I love how the pupils of your character’s eyes follow your directional inputs and how they gyrate wildly whenever you lose a life. The use of sound effects is also excellent by the system’s standards. Your character’s footsteps and the sound of rushing wind add to the atmosphere and the dull thud you hear whenever you run into a wall can actually help you get around obstacles when you’re running blind from a monster that’s extinguished your light.

Whatever Haunted House lacks in depth and audiovisual pizzazz it makes up for with a surprisingly solid horror gaming experience. There are a number of key elements in play here that would go on to be mainstays in survival horror titles all the way up to the present: Fumbling your way through dark areas, a focus on evading rather than confronting threats, managing a very limited inventory, and conserving a vital resource (your lives, in this case). On higher difficulties in particular, the Graves mansion becomes an ever-shifting maze of locked doors and extremely aggressive monsters. When you’ve already found two out of three urn pieces and are frantically rushing down its lightless halls in search of the final one with an angry ghost on your tail, this crude 36 year-old Atari game can still be legitimately nerve-wracking. If you’re looking for a quick burst of spooky fun on a chill autumn night but don’t want to commit to another multi-hour journey through Raccoon City or Silent Hill, grab your trusty matchbook and make tracks for Spirit Bay.

Silver Surfer (NES)

The bad news is that I feel like I just ran a marathon. The good news is that I feel like I just ran a marathon and finished first.

This is, of course, the infamous Silver Surfer, designed by Software Creations and published by Arcadia Systems in 1990. If you believe the Internet hype surrounding this title, it’s one of the most maddening, scrote shreddingly impossible games ever made and was probably birthed directly from the unwashed bunghole of Satan himself. If you’re a more reasonable sort and actually familiar with the genre, you’re more likely to see it as a pretty average 8-bit shooter bolstered somewhat by incredible music and a singularly strange sense of style.

It’s also only the third non-Japanese game I’ve reviewed, a natural consequence of my primary focus on the 1980s and 1990s, during which Nintendo and Sega lorded over the North American gaming market the majority of the time. This one comes to us out of the U.K., just like the two games from Rare I reviewed over the summer. I’m looking to cap off the month of October with my first review of a U.S.-developed title, though, so stay tuned for that.

Like several others I’ve played recently (Life Force, Axelay, Abadox), Silver Surfer is a hybrid horizontal and vertical scrolling shooter. In the opening cut scene, the Surfer is summoned by his boss, the arch-villain Galactus, and told that unspecified parties from “beyond” are going to destroy the entire universe and that only the “Cosmic Device” can stop them. Somehow. The Surfer’s mission is to recover the six pieces of the Device, each of which is currently in the hands of a different villain. Honestly, it’s all very vague. I’ve never been a comic book guy and I came away from this game knowing exactly as much about the Silver Surfer and his supporting cast as I did going in: Zero. Good thing I don’t play shooters for their stories!

Starting the game proper, you’re faced with a level selection screen, and can thus choose to play the initial set of five levels in any order you prefer before advancing to the sixth and final one, the Magik Domain. Each level is further subdivided into three distinct sections (two horizontal scrollers and one vertical), giving you a grand total of eighteen stages to complete. Be aware that once you pick one, you’re committed. There’s no going back to the level selection screen until you beat the boss, even if you die or use a continue.

Silver Surfer’s gameplay is based very closely on the well-known Gradius/R-Type model: Shoot down everything you can and try your best to avoid touching anything that isn’t a power-up, since the slightest contact with an enemy or a piece of the level architecture will cost you a life and send you back to the last checkpoint stripped of all your precious upgrades. Some degree of level memorization is required, since lives and continues are limited and you’ll have to restart from the beginning if you mess up too much. It’s a demanding, no-nonsense design philosophy to be sure, and while it’s not to everyone taste, it isn’t inherently unfair or unfun. It took me about eight hours of intense practice before I was able to clear Silver Surfer for the first time and I enjoyed myself quite a bit for most of it. There’s something very satisfying about the learning process that’s built into a game like this. Each stage starts out utterly bewildering and seemingly unwinnable, but as I study the patterns and apply what I’ve learned from each death, everything slowly falls into place and the next thing I know, I can routinely finish it with more lives in stock than I started with. Then I get to move on to the next stage and start the process all over. Again, I’m not saying that this type of game is for everyone. If you’re the type that doesn’t like having to pay close attention to every aspect of the game as they play or that gets angry or resentful when they lose, you shouldn’t feel bad about skipping any game like Silver Surfer.

The main point I’m driving at with all this is that despite its scary reputation, Silver Surfer really isn’t any tougher to complete than the games that inspired it. If you can manage a Gradius or an R-Type, you’re more than capable of handling anything that Silver Surfer can throw at you.

This isn’t to say that the game is perfect. One thing that holds Silver Surfer back a bit is the meager selection of power-ups at your disposal. The Surfer’s standard shot is a silver ball that travels forward in a straight line. You can rapid-fire these by tapping the A button. Picking up “F” icons will make the shots more powerful, which is vital for success, but the attack itself never changes in function or appearance. Forget about all the crazy lasers, homing missiles, and plasma waves that you can acquire in other games. It’s just you and your balls. Um. Moving on….

You can also acquire option orbs that will fly alongside the Surfer and mirror each of his shots. These are by far the most important items in the game, as they multiply your damage output and can be manually repositioned with the B button to fire ahead of you, behind you, below you, and more. Once you get hold of one, do your damnedest not to die and lose it. Oddly, the Surfer can utilize two orbs at once in the overhead view stages but is limited to just a single orb in the side view ones.

Next, there are bombs (represented by a “B” icon) and these will allow you to instantly destroy all non-boss enemies on the screen with a press of the select button. These can and will save your bacon, so try not to forget about them or get so obsessed with conserving them that you lose a life when you could have hit the panic button instead.

Lastly, there’s a red “S” power-up that will boost the Surfer’s movement speed and a silver “S” that grants an extra life.

These power-ups definitely get the job done, but they’re not very flashy or fun in and of themselves. I really would have preferred more attack and defense options.

Another issue is the Surfer himself. He’s a very large character by shooter standards, easily twice the size of a typical on-screen avatar, and he moves abnormally slow as well. This makes level memorization all the more important, as you’ll usually need to know exactly where an enemy or other hazard will appear if you want to have any chance of being able to avoid it or get into position to shoot it down. The aforementioned speed boost item also appears all too rarely. Treasure it while it lasts.

These gripes are fairly minor in the grand scheme of things, but one common complaint about the game absolutely rings true: You’re going to be jamming on that fire button. A lot. Silver Surfer commits the cardinal shooter sin of expecting you to be blazing away with your weapon constantly while not giving you any kind of automatic fire option. One tap equals one bullet. I must have some kind of superhuman thumb power to have survived eight hours of this game over two days unscathed. If you’re prone to hand cramps, carpal tunnel syndrome, or similar, do yourself a favor and try a turbo controller. It may be cheating, but it’s better than the alternative if pain would be an issue for you.

The other thing that the Internet absolutely gets right about Silver Surfer is the copious praise heaped on its magnificent soundtrack. We have the legendary Follin brothers, Tim and Geoff, to thank for fifteen of the most mindblowing minutes of music to ever be crammed into a tiny 8-bit cartridge. It’s pure prog rock sorcery and reminds a bit of the band Dream Theater’s output, which is a very good thing. The arrangements are incredibly intricate and far, far ahead of what almost anyone else was attempting on the hardware. The sound is so rich and full that it’s difficult at times to believe that these tunes are actually coming out of an unmodified NES. The songs are not just great by ancient video game console standards, they’re simply great and worth seeking out even if you never play the game.

One element of the game that’s not often commented on is the borderline psychedelic visual style of many of the stages. Possessor’s level has you flying through outer space past what appear to be lime green busts of H.P. Lovecraft perched on Doric pedestals while cannons fire an endless stream of deadly exploding heads up at you. The Magik Domain sees you battling flying top hats, a giant lobster, and the single strangest enemy I’ve ever seen in a video game: An undead elephant head suspended by hooks driven through strips of its flayed flesh. The elephant head drips deadly snot onto a mirror. In space. That’s just…mental, man. I am in awe. Whatever dismembered Hellraiser elephant’s backstory is, I bet it’s a hell of a lot more interesting than the Surfer’s. Maybe I should start reading comics after all.

Can I recommend Silver Surfer? For general audiences, probably not. It just doesn’t provide enough instant gratification to make it seem worthwhile to anyone lukewarm on the genre. For old school shooter enthusiasts? Absolutely. While it’s not full-featured or refined enough to rank as an all-time classic, it’s still an exhilarating, satisfying challenge bundled with some of the oddest visuals around and music that’s guaranteed to rock your face off. You can do better on the system, but you can also do a whole lot worse. As usual, the lesson here is to think for yourself. Don’t base your opinions on hearsay or YouTube videos or even reviews like this one. If a game looks interesting, pop it in and take it for a spin! You never know what “bad” games you might end up having a great time with.

Unless you’re that poor space elephant. He wasn’t having a great time at all.

Vice: Project Doom (NES)

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With cool, dry wit like that, I could be an action hero!

I just got back last night from the 2017 Portland Retro Gaming Expo. It was a grand time, as always. It’s just a pity it only comes along once a year. I even got to meet Q*Bert creator Warren Davis! I left the convention center with 21 new games in tow, including many I’ve wanted to try out for years. The current plan is to complete and review them all before PRGE 2018 rolls around. I’m off to a good start already, because I managed to complete Vice: Project Doom during the train ride back to Seattle.

Vice: Project Doom (Gun-Dec in Japan) was developed by Aicom and published by Sammy in 1991. It’s a side-scrolling science fiction action-platformer with some minor overhead driving and gallery shooting elements.

You control Detective Quinn Hart. He’s a square-jawed, hardboiled, tough-as-nails action movie cop through and through and he’s got the pithy one-liners to prove it. He even looks like Mel Gibson on the NES box cover and Bruce Willis on the Japanese one. In the actual game? Steven Seagal during his skinny years, slick black ponytail and all. Way to cover all your bases there, guys. Quinn’s task is to investigate and shut down a shadowy conspiracy by aliens posing as humans and using a front corporation to…get rich selling drugs. That’s right: It’s Steven Seagal versus alien drug dealers. There are also some side characters in the form of other cops helping Hart with his investigation, one of which is identified in the manual as his love interest Christy. You’ll have to take the manual’s word for it, though, since the game itself isn’t exactly long on romance. The plot unfolds in the form of cinematic cut scenes sandwiched between the levels and these do a serviceable enough job depicting the various twists and turns in the story, even if some of them might raise more questions than they answer. Why do these aliens want our earthling cash so badly, anyway?

At its core, Vice: Project Doom is an action-platformer that owes a lot to Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden and Sunsoft’s Batman. You wouldn’t know that from the opening level, though, which throws you a curve ball right out of the gate by starting you off with some overhead view driving action. It looks a bit like Spy Hunter, but plays more like a fast-paced vertical shooter in the vein of Zanac or The Guardian Legend. It’s not nearly as substantial or satisfying as those Compile classics, though. After blowing away a simple boss and watching the subsequent cut scene, Hart will leave his red Ferrari behind and set out on foot.

These side-scrolling levels are where the game hits its stride in more ways than one. Hart proves to be quite the nimble fellow. He can jump high, run at a decent clip, and even run while crouching, which is a great ability I wish more games like this had. Being able to continue advancing forward while ducking under enemy fire really helps to minimize stop-and-go and keep the pace up.

Hart’s default attack utilizes a “laser whip” that functions as the standard sword type weapon. It lacks range, but is fast, requires no ammunition, and can even hit things above and behind you on the backswing. You’ll likely find yourself using the whip the majority of the time. Pressing select will also let you cycle through two additional weapons: A magnum revolver and hand grenades. These extend your attack range, though they have limited shots and don’t strike quite as fast as the whip. In practice, I found myself using the whip the majority of the time and saving the highly damaging grenades for tricky boss fights. The magnum proved to be surprisingly wimpy, doing no more damage than the whip and only reaching about halfway across the screen. Dirty Harry Callahan would not approve.

The stages themselves closely resemble ones from a Ninja Gaiden game, right down to the frequently gruesome backgrounds and the bizarre menagerie of enemies who occasionally detract a bit from the dark, serious tone that the rest of the game is aiming for. I mean, the first stage alone has you facing Chinese hopping vampires and pumpkin-headed ghosts that toss boomerangs. Stages are visually appealing and nicely varied, even if you’ve probably seen their like many times before. They’re also fairly challenging at times, although never overwhelmingly so. Detective Hart can absorb a lot of punishment and defeated foes will frequently drop health replenishing food and drink. Most of your deaths will likely be the result of falling (or being knocked) into bottomless pits. You have unlimited continues at your disposal, however, so even the trickiest section will yield to some trial and error before too long. Really, the best and most exciting option is to keep moving forward and powering through each stage whipping down everything in your path. There’s little need for caution or subtlety, but it’s plenty fun.

You’ll need to be a little more strategic with the bosses. As you might expect, they can do a lot more damage than the standard enemies and their health meters are just as long as Hart’s. Thankfully, each one (except for the final boss) only has a couple attacks at their disposal, so they shouldn’t be able to slap you around for too long before you pick up on their patterns. In terms of design, they’re pretty cool. The opening level’s mutant rat man who throws giant steel girders (which you can leap onto and run across) makes a strong first impression and the remainder are also quite memorable and fun to take down.

Just when you think you have Vice all figured out, it switches gears yet again and briefly becomes a first person auto-scrolling gallery style shooter reminiscent of the Taito arcade classic Operation Wolf. Enemies rush onto the screen from both sides and Hart must blast them with bullets and grenades before they can shoot or stab him. There’s no light gun support here, but your cursor handles reasonably well with the NES controller’s standard directional pad. Like the two driving levels, these two shooting stages are very short and very easy.

Aside from a few forgivable flaws, Vice: Project Doom is a very high quality action game. While the superb graphics showcase some sweet parallax scrolling effects and make great use of the NES color palette, the soundtrack is strictly mediocre. None of the tunes stand out in any way and they can even verge into droning territory at times. The story is also a bit of a mess, with stilted dialogue and an ending twist that makes less sense the more you think about it. Finally, the driving and shooting levels, while competently programmed and quite playable, aren’t nearly as fleshed-out, challenging, or stimulating as the side scrolling main game. In fact, it helps if you just think of them as short mini-games or bonus rounds which act as palate cleansers between the real stages rather than as fully-fledged extra gameplay modes.

Even without these half-baked segments, Vice still packs in a full game’s worth of tight, fast-paced action platforming and pulls it off with a deliciously doofy ’90s cyberpunk cop flourish. It’s too bad it had the misfortune of being an 8-bit game released around the same time as the 16-bit Super Nintendo, and by a second string publisher to boot. It may not have set the gaming world on fire, but it’s never too late to say no to drugs by smacking the hell out of some no good space aliens with a laser whip. You have the right to remain exploded, punk.

Labyrinth: Maou no Meikyuu (Famicom)

Why anyone would want this brat back always confused me.

I figured that after playing through Clock Tower, I may as well take on the other weird old Japanese game in my collection where you play as Jennifer Connelly. This is 1987’s Labyrinth: Maou no Meikyuu (“Maze of the Goblin King”) from Tokuma Shoten. As you’ve probably guessed, it’s based on Jim Henson’s cult classic children’s fantasy film Labyrinth from the previous year.

Labyrinth is the story of a teenage girl named Sarah Williams who makes the perfectly understandable mistake of wishing that her little brother Toby would disappear. Her wish is unexpectedly granted by Jareth the Goblin King, memorably portrayed by the late David Bowie and his rampaging crotch bulge. Jareth tells Sarah that she has thirteen hours to reach the center of his enchanted maze before Toby transforms into a goblin forever. For me, this movie has it all: Catchy musical numbers, the campy, vampy Bowie at his best, and magnificent production design based on the fantasy art of Brian Froud brought to life through stunning puppetry from Henson and company at the height of their powers. Unfortunately, critics and audiences at the time of Labyrinth’s release disagreed, and the film only made back half of its budget during its initial theatrical run. At least in the U.S.

An obscure act being “big in Japan” is a cliché in the music world. Tom Waits even did a whole song about it. Well, it turns out that it applies to movies, too, because Labyrinth attracted a rather large following across the Pacific. I’m glad it did, because this Famicom release is not only a fantastic game, it’s one of the best film-to-game adaptations of its era.

The gameplay in Labyrinth is difficult to pigeonhole. The closest direct inspiration is probably Atari’s arcade classic Gauntlet. Players guide Sarah through thirteen overhead view maze levels searching for pieces of the key needed to free Toby from his cell in the Goblin King’s castle, all while enduring attacks by an endless stream of respawning monsters. While getting hit by enemies will lower Sarah’s health, it will also slowly deplete on its own. This is because the thirteen hour time limit that Sarah has to rescue Toby also functions as her health and every hit sustained drains away precious seconds from the timer. There are certain items scattered throughout the labyrinth that can restore a bit of lost time, but if the clock runs down, it’s an instant game over. There are no extra lives and no continues. At least Sarah can throw rocks to defend herself from the goblin hordes. The enemies reappear as fast as you can defeat them, though, and the clock is always ticking, so it’s usually a better idea to just keep moving and avoid unnecessary battles as much as possible as you navigate the mazes.

These are some serious mazes, too. You have areas that wrap around on themselves, ones that scramble your directional controls around so that even basic movement becomes a challenge, teleporters, shifting scenery, one-way stairs, false exits that send you all the way back to the start of the level, and more. Labyrinth isn’t quite the hardcore headscratcher that something like Adventures of Lolo or Legacy of the Wizard is, but you’ll still need to bring some significant brain power to bear if you hope to make it to the end. This mixture of puzzling level layouts and non-stop frantic action, all under a strict time limit with no second chances, really makes for an intense, memorable gaming experience.

Thankfully, Sarah isn’t alone on her quest. The Wiseman provides encouragement and warps you between the game’s various stages. He’ll also dispense permanent upgrades to Sarah’s offense and defense in exchange for the special coins hidden around the labyrinth. The adorable Worm appears in most stages and sells useful items. Finally, there are Sarah’s three stalwart companions, Hoggle, Ludo, and Sir Didymus. Picking up hearts and music boxes will allow Sarah to call one of the trio to aid her in fending off the game’s many enemies for a time.

As much as I love the core gameplay, the most remarkable thing about Labyrinth to me is what a great job it does representing its cinematic source material. Old school gamers are no strangers to licensed games that happily ignore just about every detail of the property they’re supposedly based on. If the games in question turn out good enough, like Sunsoft’s 8-bit Batman releases, this doesn’t have to be a fatal flaw. It always represents a bit of a missed opportunity, though. Labyrinth gets this right. Every major character from the film serves an important role in the gameplay. The Wiseman and Worm provide advice and useful items, Hoggle, Ludo, and Didymus help out in combat, and even Jareth himself will appear periodically to rapidly drain your all-important timer. This attention to detail even extends to little things like how the hot-blooded Sir Didymus will rush ahead of Sarah, eager to confront the enemy, while the slower and more cautious Hoggle will trail behind her. The various stages are based on locations from the movie, as well. You’ll visit the Oubliette, the Hedge Maze, the Bog of Eternal Stench, The Enchanted Forest, and more. Even the ballroom where Sarah and Jareth share a dance is represented here. The music follows suit, with almost every track being an excellent chiptune rendition of a song from the movie. Even if you don’t already know these melodies, you’ll still probably agree that the soundtrack is great by the system’s standards. This is still a Famicom game and various technical and practical limitations prevent it from faithfully re-creating every single scene from the film, but I can’t think of another contemporary licensed title that does a better job of capturing what made its inspiration worth adapting in the first place.

Simply put, Labyrinth is one hell of a game and there’s nothing else quite like it for the console. It challenges your reasoning and reflexes in equal measure and does it with style. I’d call it a certified lost classic. There is one potential stumbling block for some players, though. You see, this game is tough. Really tough. Even if you have a pretty good idea of what you’re doing and where to go, a full playthrough of Labyrinth will likely take you a good two hours or so. If you don’t already know the correct path through the game’s levels, you have virtually no chance to complete the game on your first run due to the strict time limit. It’s going to take multiple attempts before you get it all down. The enemies in this game are also utterly relentless and will attack you from all sides constantly. Even if you’re not moving around and scrolling the screen, they just keep pouring in at all times. Compounding this mess, Sarah has a lengthy stun period each time she’s hit. If she gets cornered by multiple strong enemies, they can easily lock her down in place and rapidly deplete your precious time. Did I mention you only get one life? Running out of time 90 minutes or more into a session can be pretty heartbreaking, so the best advice I can give is to figure out which enemies in each area are the most dangerous and take advantage of the game’s programming to get around them. Just walk away from the enemy until it’s off the screen and this will cause it to disappear and hopefully be replaced by a less dangerous foe. This doesn’t always work, especially against the faster enemies, but it’s usually better than the grisly alternative. Once you learn the levels and become proficient at evading the more powerful monsters, the game does get a lot more manageable. Just be patient and keep at it.

I played this one using the original Famicom cartridge, which did present some challenges. Learning which line in the shop menu corresponds to which item being one of them. It’s doable with a little experimentation, but there is a fan translation available online (and on reproduction cartridges) if you’d rather save yourself the slight hassle. As a bonus, you’ll get to enjoy the game’s dialogue, which I imagine would be very helpful in understanding the plot if you’ve never seen the film.

If you enjoy puzzles, mazes, high stakes action games in general, or just the classic movie it’s based on, you owe it to yourself to check out Labyrinth for the Famicom. It reminds me of the babe. What babe? The babe with the power. What power? Power of voodoo. Who do? You do. Do what? Remind me of the babe.

Street Fighter II: The World Warrior (Arcade)

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I still got it!

I happened to be out recently at Jupiter, one of the many local arcades the Seattle area is blessed with, and I couldn’t resist having a go at their original Street Fighter II machine. This is the very first iteration of the game from 1991, subtitled The World Warrior. Street Fighter II is obviously one of the best-known and most important games ever made, so I won’t really be attempting to review it in full. There’s just no need. This is more of a personal retrospective than anything else.

It’s tough to overemphasize what an instantly memorable title this was at the time. The fact that I still recall exactly where I was when I first laid eyes on a cabinet and how my first game went attests to that. I was at the Aladdin’s Castle arcade inside the Redlands Mall in Redlands, California. I picked Blanka (he looked too weird not to) and promptly had my yellow ass handed to me by Ken since I had no idea what I was doing. That first quarter may not have gotten me very far, but the game had its hooks in me and there would be many more to follow.

Street Fighter II undoubtedly looked and sounded bleeding edge for the time. More importantly, though, no arcade game before it had ever offered players such a varied experience. The eight playable fighters each had dozens of unique moves to learn and the interactions between them all needed to be studied as well. It wasn’t enough to just learn all the attacks for your character, you also had to know what every other character could do and how to shut them down with the tools at your disposal. As the first modern fighting game, the sheer depth was intoxicating. It made the popular beat-’em-up games of the time like Final Fight and Golden Axe look like baby toys. Of course, it’s easy in retrospect to say that these are different types of game entirely, but we didn’t have much else to compare World Warrior to at the time. Like most of my peers, I had never played the original (rather terrible) Street Fighter from 1987. Lucky us.

Then there was the elusive boss characters: Balrog, Vega, Sagat, and M. Bison. These four were shrouded in mystery since they weren’t selectable by players in the original build of the game and didn’t even show their faces at all until you’d won seven consecutive fights in single player mode. We speculated endlessly about non-existent ways to play as the bosses, what the M in M. Bison stood for (“Major” was the prevailing opinion due to his military uniform), and whether or not this “Sheng Long” that Ryu talked about was a secret fifth boss. The Internet has long since demystified gaming and generations after my own will never know what it’s like to navigate a maze of schoolyard rumor, myth, and bullshit surrounding a popular title. It’s a pity. Without easy access to every cold, hard fact, anything was possible. The mystique made the game seem like more than a game. It also sold a ton of magazines and strategy guides.

The first home release for the Super Nintendo was the largest game released for the console up to that time (16 megabits!) and the very definition of a system seller. Its status as a console exclusive for over a year made it the equivalent of a tactical nuclear strike in the ongoing “Nintendo versus Sega” debate. When the discussion inevitably progressed to “Yeah, well Genesis doesn’t even have Street Fighter,” it was check and mate. I played the SNES version to death and spent almost as much time futilely attempting to play as the boss characters by experimenting with Game Genie codes. Sadly, this was beyond the power of simple hex editing and I would have to wait a year for the home port of the Turbo revision to come out. When it did, I gladly snapped it up, too. These days, the idea of paying full retail price just to have four extra characters in a fighting game would be absurd, but we were all lining up for the privilege at the time. These weren’t just any four characters, these were the bosses. Hell, I’d have probably shelled out the $60 just for my main man Bison.

World Warrior is by far the slowest, glitchiest, and least full-featured of all Street Fighter II’s many, many updates and revisions. It also remains a captivating game to this very day. The art is still gorgeous, the music is still catchy, and character roster is still varied and appealing. It even has that classic deep and booming original fight announcer voice, before they replaced it with the obnoxious higher-pitched one in Super Street Fighter II. For anyone who remembers arcade gaming in the early ’90s, it’s ageless gaming comfort food. Money well spent, from that very first quarter to this most recent one.

Now go home and be a family man!

King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch (Famicom)

Next up: Ping pong in Hong Kong!

What do you get when you combine the worst King Kong film with the best Famicom developer? Konami’s King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch (“Megaton Punch of Fury”) from 1986. Based on the critically panned film King Kong Lives, this is an overhead view action game where the player guides Kong through nine interconnected levels in an effort to rescue his mate Lady Kong, who’s been kidnapped by the military.

Popular culture as a whole has seemingly agreed to just forget about the 1976 King Kong remake from Paramount, but it was a pretty big hit at the time. The producer, Dino De Laurentiis, later founded his own short-lived film studio and was clearly banking on lightning striking twice when he put out the much lower budget King Kong Lives (also known as King Kong 2) a decade later. Did it pay off? Roger Ebert probably said it best: “The problem with everyone in King Kong Lives is that they’re in a boring movie, and they know they’re in a boring movie, and they just can’t stir themselves to make an effort.”

While this is right on the nose for the most part, I can say the scene where the injured Kong gets an artificial heart implanted via crane was memorably strange. How exactly does one sterilize a crane? Kong’s also pursuing a lady gorilla this time around, having learned the important lesson that bestiality is not the solution to any of life’s problems. Some real positive character development for our hero there.

Ikari no Megaton Punch makes the best of a bad situation by smartly jettisoning all the tedious human characters from the movie and focusing on what audiences wanted in the first place: Non-stop giant ape mayhem. After a short cut scene where a distraught Kong breaks out of his prison and heads off to rescue his girl, it’s smashing time.

While the game’s zoomed-out overhead perspective might remind NES vets of Jackal, King Kong 2 is a slower-paced and much less linear experience. The goal of each stage (“world”) is simple: Survive enemy attacks long enough to find the room containing the boss monster and defeat it. This will give you one of the eight keys needed to open the final door in world nine and rescue Lady Kong. The door to the boss room usually won’t be sitting out in plain sight, however, and that’s where the destructible scenery comes into play.

Every screen is cluttered with buildings, rocks, trees, and other objects Kong can destroy with his punches or by jumping on them. You’ll want to pulverize everything you can, even if you’ve already beaten the current world’s boss, since the many hidden rooms revealed this way are also where you find important power-ups and the doors leading to the other worlds. World two, for example, has doors leading to worlds one, three, four, and five. This complex and occasionally confusing network of warps between worlds means you can effectively explore them and gather the eight keys in any order you wish, although the higher numbered worlds do have more difficult enemies and are probably best saved until after you’ve collected some health and ammo upgrades.

Ammo? Well, before you get too excited over the idea of King Kong brandishing a machine gun, I should clarify that your projectile attack in this game is rocks. These fly in a grenade-like arc and explode upon hitting the ground. Kong can carry a maximum of twenty at the start of his journey and each upgrade you collect will increase this by ten. You switch between your standard punch attack and rocks by pressing select. My advice would be to save these for the bosses, since a torrent of rocks will take any of them out very quickly.

That’s pretty much all there is to say about the gameplay here. You smash everything in sight to find secret doors and occasionally fight a boss. It’s simple, but fairly satisfying. The sound effects help out a lot by lending a distinct sense of power to Kong’s punches and stomps. Seeing the screen shake and hearing a nice robust crunch as you level an office building really makes you feel that much more like an unstoppable beast. Not bad for a fairly early Famicom title.

Another mechanic that reflects the source material pretty well is how tough Kong is. You’re under constant attack by hoards of enemies on almost every screen, but Kong can soak up so much punishment that the tiny tanks, helicopters, and other foes feel so many gnats to him. As a giant movie monster simulator, Ikari no Megaton Punch is miles ahead of poor Godzilla’s sorry 8-bit outings.

You don’t just fight military vehicles in this game, though, and that’s where things get downright odd. Many of the enemies you’ll encounter have absolutely nothing to do with the King Kong mythos and are just there because video game adaptations in the 1980s could get away with anything as long we the end result was playable. World three looks like it was ripped straight out of The Guardian Legend, complete with alien blobs and fanged mouths pursuing you. Then there’s the vicious attack ducks from world eight and the flying scallop boss. Yes, this is a game where King Kong punches a scallop. I’m not about to hold any of this against Konami, though. The film was stupefyingly dull and I’ll take killer bivalves over a bored Linda Hamilton just staring at you for half the game any day.

Although you’re given limited lives and no continues with which to complete King Kong 2, I didn’t find the difficulty level to be particularly high overall. As mentioned, Kong has so much health that the common enemies will have a hard time bringing him down and the bosses aren’t too bad as long as you have enough rocks to pelt them with. In addition, collecting keys and certain power-ups will fully heal you and grinding health drops from the easier enemies when you start to get low is yet another survival option. The biggest threats to your progress by far are bottomless pits (which kill instantly) and getting lost when you forget which doors lead to which worlds. Thankfully, not every world has pits. Just be extra careful in the ones that do.

Ikari no Megaton Punch isn’t a spectacular game by any means. As a vintage Konami title, it’s competent enough to dump a couple hours into with no regrets, but it’s a bit too cryptic, unfocused, and repetitive to join the ranks of their many timeless classics. The movie’s fate as a box office bomb was also sealed well before the localization process would have wrapped on the game, likely explaining why it never left Japan.

If you’re on the lookout for solid English-friendly Famicom titles or you’re a Konami fanatic hunting for deep cuts to sample, King Kong 2 definitely beats a nosedive off a skyscraper. The movie? Eh. Flip a coin, maybe.

Abadox: The Deadly Inner War (NES)

Another day, another big explosion to fly away from.

This time, it’s courtesy of Abadox: The Deadly Inner War. It may not be a horror game, but at least it’s still really gross. This 1989 shooter comes to us from developer Natsume (before they struck gold with their Harvest Moon series of cutesy farming simulators) and publisher Milton Bradley.

Though mainly remembered today for its classic board games, defunct toy giant Milton Bradley played an interesting bit part in early video game history. Most notably, they released the Microvision in 1979. A full decade before the Game Boy, this black-and-white handheld system was the first of its class to play games on interchangeable cartridges. It did not sell well.

But I digress. Abadox has a bit of a mixed reputation among NES fans, mostly due to being seen as a blatant clone of Konami’s excellent Life Force. If you think I’m here now to defend it from these unjust charges, you’re way off. In fact, Abadox mirrors Life Force pretty shamelessly. Flying into a colossal planet-eating alien to save the galaxy? Check. Six stages that alternate between horizontal and vertical scrolling? Check. Climactic escape sequence after defeating the last boss where you have to weave between gaps in the walls at high speed? Check yet again. Even some of the background elements like the giant teeth jutting out of the walls in the first stage are lifted straight from Life Force.

While there isn’t a lot about Abadox that’s original, it does have its strengths. The core shooting mechanics are solid and the positively disgusting enemy designs and detailed sprites and backgrounds do a much better job actually conveying the premise of flying through the innards of a giant alien than Life Force’s ever did.

Here’s the setup: the year is 5012 and the planet of Abadox has just been attacked and devoured by an alien menace known as Parasitis. The Abadox space fleet mounts an attack on Parasitis, but is wiped out. The sole survivor is Second Lieutenant Nazal, who was late to the battle thanks to spaceship engine trouble. To save the galaxy and avenge his fallen comrades, Nazal must don his armored spacesuit and attempt to fly inside Parasitis and destroy it from the inside. Oh, and also Princess Maria of Abadox was on board a hospital ship swallowed by the alien, so you need to rescue her, too. Thank goodness! I was running pretty low on motivation with that saving the universe and avenging the loss of my entire home planet angle. Now that there’s a total space babe involved, sign me up!

The game opens on the surface of Parasitis and you even fly by the gore-soaked wreckage of your defeated space fleet on the background. On the way through this stage, you’ll pass by teeth and a creepy animated tongue with deadly drool dripping onto it before reaching level two: The throat. This is the first of the vertical scrolling stages, but unlike in almost every other overhead shooter ever made, Abadox starts you off at the top of the screen and has you proceeding downward. While it’s handled well and reinforces the “diving into the belly of the beast” scenario, this downward progression is unfortunately the only unique twist to the gameplay found here.

The rest of the action consists of bog standard 8-bit shooter stuff. You start out slow and almost defenseless, with a puny “pea shooter” gun. Certain enemies will drop power-ups when defeated. These include speed boosts, weapon upgrades, rotating satellites which surround you and block enemy attacks, and a shield that lets you survive contact with a bullet or two. One touch from an enemy or wall will blow you up, which strips away all your power-ups and sends you back to a checkpoint immediately after the last boss you defeated. Thankfully, each stage has a mid-boss halfway through that doubles as a checkpoint. Once you beat it, you won’t get sent back all the way to the start of the level upon death. You’ve probably seen all this before. It’s Gradius 101.

Unlike a lot of shooters for the system, Abadox does provide unlimited continues, so you’ll never have to start over from the beginning of the game when you die unless you choose to. This makes it a good choice for those who really hate forced restarts, although it does come at a price: Some of the stage layouts and enemy placement can be claustrophobic and chaotic to a downright fiendish degree. If you thought building your strength back up after being sent back to a checkpoint in Gradius was hard, Abadox takes it to a whole other level. The game does technically give you the power-ups necessary to squeak by in these cases, but much memorization and messy trial and error will be needed to figure out the ideal path.

At least the end level bosses are all pretty easy once you do finally reach them. They tend to be stationary and fire only in fixed patterns which leave obvious safe spots in which you can park yourself as you blaze away at them. At least they look really icky and cool, just like the rest of the game. Ironically, the mid-bosses are much more fun and challenging to fight. They move around a lot more and their shots often track your position, forcing you to do the same.

Ultimately, Abadox is no classic. It brings all the typical space shooter stuff to the table and handles it adaquately, but the balancing could use some work. The unlimited lives thing seems more like a workaround than anything else, intended to cover for a lack of experience planning out stages and enemy patterns in a harmonious fashion. Even with limited credits, a well-balanced shooter is just more fun because you don’t need to get yourself blown up dozens of times before you figure out exactly how to limp to the next checkpoint. Abadox also suffers from some technical hiccups. There’s slowdown at times, which is to be expected, but the sprite flicker is more problematic. I was occasionally blown up for no apparent reason because the screen was so crowded with sprites that an enemy bullet glitched out and went invisible. That’s always a bummer.

The game’s real saving grace is its spectacularly grotesque pixel art. Strictly speaking, this might be the goriest game for the NES and it’s all very well drawn. The fact that all the blood and guts belong to killer aliens and not any human characters is probably the only thing that got it past Nintendo of America’s notoriously strict content guidelines. The music by Kiyohiro Sada of Contra fame is also praiseworthy, but only to the degree it’s present. Abadox’s soundtrack is extremely short for a 1989 release and three of the game’s six stages share the same background music.

If you’ve ever wanted to fly out of a space monster’s colon with a princess in tow…well, you’re one freaky individual. I guess you could try Abadox, though.

Clock Tower (Super Famicom)

The morning sun has vanquished the horrible night.

Three Japan-exclusive horror games in a row? Why not? ‘Tis the season, after all!

This is 1995’s Clock Tower from Human Entertainment, also known as Clock Tower: The First Fear when it was later re-released as an enhanced port for PlayStation, PC, and the Bandai WonderSwan of all things. Like many of Human’s other non-sports titles (Monster Party, Kabuki Quantum Fighter), Clock Tower is an odd duck. To my knowledge, it’s the only point-and-click adventure game developed for the Super Famicom. These sorts of games were typically confined to home computers with native mouse support and while you would occasionally see one ported over to a game console, most famously the NES version of Manic Mansion, creating one from scratch for a Nintendo system must have been a hard sell indeed. Weirdest of all in my book: This isn’t one of the several dozen games which support the Super Famicom mouse accessory that came out in 1992. Huh.

While this original Clock Tower title has never been officially released outside Japan in any of its various incarnations, all of its sequels have. Clock Tower 2 for the PlayStation was rather confusingly retitled simply Clock Tower outside of Japan, but make no mistake: These are two distinct games. Thankfully, I’m able to enjoy the Super Famicom original thanks to a fan translated reproduction cartridge.

In Clock Tower, you play as Jennifer Simpson, a young girl who has just been adopted from a Norwegian orphanage by wealthy recluse Simon Barrows, along with three of her fellow orphans, Anne, Laura, and Lotte. Soon after arriving at the Barrows mansion, Mary, the woman escorting them, leaves to go fetch the master of the house. Noticing that Mary is taking an unusually long time to return, Jennifer volunteers to go find her. Before she can travel far, however, Jennifer hears screams from behind her and rushes back to the foyer only to find it dark and empty, her three friends having seemingly vanished into thin air. Jennifer is now left all alone in the cavernous old house, mystified as to who or what is stalking her and her companions.

The first thing you’ll notice once you take control of Jennifer is that this is a true point-and-click game. You have no direct control over Jennifer’s movements and are limited to using an on-screen cursor to indicate where she should walk or run to and what objects she should interact with. You can also press the X button to cancel your last issued command and bring her to a standstill if you change your mind once she’s underway. You’ll have plenty of time to think it over while en route, too, because the second thing you’ll notice is how absurdly slow Jennifer moves. Despite being under mortal threat at all times, she shuffles down long hallways like she’s leisurely perusing the exhibits at an art gallery. If you need to take a quick bathroom break while playing, just have her climb a flight of stairs, which takes the better part of a full minute on its own. You can double tap the button to make her run, but this will rather perversely deplete her color-coded stress meter, basically this game’s version of health, even if she’s not running away from any specific danger.

You’ll want to keep her stress level at a minimum because it directly affects her ability to survive attacks by the mansion’s hostile residents. If Jennifer is under assault, her portrait in the lower left corner of the screen will flash, indicating “panic mode.” When this happens, mashing the action button as fast as possible can save her, provided her stress is not already in the red. Once the immediate threat has passed, you can lower the stress level by resting, which is triggered by standing still in a safe area for a period of time. Make sure to do this as needed, as there are no weapons or attacks available in Clock Tower. Other than panic mode, Jennifer’s only other form of defense is hiding from a pursuer. There are several hiding spots scattered throughout the mansion, but they’re not always guaranteed to work. If you successfully hide, your attacker will wander off and Jennifer will be free to do more exploring. If it doesn’t, it’s game over. Rather generously, though, there are unlimited continues in Clock Tower and they automatically put you back in the room where you died, so progress is never lost. I suppose this is one less thing to worry about, although it can bleed away a little of the game’s all-important tension if you stop to think about it too much.

Most of your play time is spent exploring the various rooms of the Barrows estate, collecting inventory items, and using them to solve puzzles, which will allow you to progress to new areas and advance the story. Actually, calling them “puzzles” might be a bit of a stretch in most cases. I know this is a difficult balance to strike for any game like this. Too much abstruseness and you end up with the sort of “moon logic” scenarios many adventure gamers utterly despise. Giving a granola bar to a rat to get a wallet, that sort of thing. I get that. I would argue Clock Tower swings the pendulum a bit too much in the opposite direction, though. Does a gap in the floor with a wooden plank standing right up against the wall alongside it really constitute a puzzle? Unfortunately, it’s par for the course here. There’s nothing in the way of thought demanded. If a door is locked, just keep looking around until you find the key in a box or sitting on a desk or what have you. Pesky insects in your way? Keep checking rooms until you happen on some bug spray. This is probably Clock Tower’s biggest missed opportunity for me. It has enough well-executed horror (pun very much intended) to still be worth your time, but some properly satisfying brainteasers would have made it much more of a total package as far as games in this genre go. Perhaps the designers were afraid of alienating a console audience who may not have had much exposure to similar titles?

Between the complaints about the gratuitously slow movement and shallow puzzles, it’s sounding like I’m a bit down on Clock Tower as a whole. Let’s correct for that a bit, because it really gets a lot of other things very right.

First and foremost, the sheer sense of atmosphere is practically unmatched on the system. It’s right up there with Super Metroid in its ability to pull you into its world with a one-two punch of sumptuous locations and brilliant sound design. Every room of the mansion is packed with eerie detail and has its own unique identity. Furthermore, all this detail is never allowed to get in the way of the gameplay due to the smart decision to have the cursor change shape from an arrow to a box whenever it passes over an object you can interact with. Important scenes and objects are also illustrated with close-up shots so intricately rendered they almost look like digitized photographs. Music is saved only for important locations and circumstances. Most of the time you’ll all alone with the sounds of creaking doors, distant screams, and Jennifer’s footsteps, which is great way to emphasize that looming threats can strike from anywhere at any time and to lend them even more impact when they finally do.

Then there’s your nemesis, the infamous “scissorman.” This deformed maniac has the uncanny ability to appear when and where you least expect him, eager to put an agonizing end to Jennifer’s exploration of the mansion courtesy of his giant pair of shears. He isn’t the only fiend you’re up against, but he’s easily the most persistent and memorable of them all. Evading this pint-sized unstoppable freak is half the fun of Clock Tower. Most of the remaining half is trying, usually in vain, to anticipate his next appearance. It really does feel like an interactive slasher movie.

Clock Tower also has a decent amount of replayability. This is welcome indeed, as it’s a very short experience. The first trip through will likely take you an hour or two, but once you know how the game is structured, you can get that down to a half hour easily on subsequent sessions. The game employs a few tricks to keep these replays interesting. Key items and even some rooms within the mansion will switch places randomly, the exact item you need to locate in order to open the way to the final part of the mansion can vary, and even some plot elements and story scenes might only appear on some playthroughs. There are also nine different endings to discover and the game will keep track of which ones you’ve already seen. It won’t tell you exactly which actions you’ll need to take and which events you’ll need to witness in order to achieve each ending, however, so experimentation is encouraged. These endings are short, but fairly varied. Depending on what actions you take, Jennifer could meet an untimely end, wind up a sole survivor, or successfully save some of her friends.

Viewed strictly as a game, Clock Tower is extremely limited. As an interactive horror experience, it’s not to be missed. The game’s director, Hifume Kono, makes no secret of the fact that his goal was to make a game based on his favorite scary movies, particularly those of Italian auteur Dario Argento. The plot and characters of Clock Tower borrow extensively from Argento’s 1985 film Phenomena, right down to the name and look of the lead character. Even the music in Clock Tower seems to have been inspired by the scores prog rock band Goblin contributed to several Argento films. Kono has also stated that the scissorman was inspired by the famous hedge clipper massacre scene in the 1981 slasher flick The Burning. This makes two references to The Burning in two consecutive game reviews for me. How weird is that?

If you have any love for slasher movies, adventure games, or gorgeous 16-bit pixel art, you need to make time for Clock Tower.

Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti (Famicom)

Aww! Impending doom has never been so adorable!

I wanted to keep the October spook train rolling, but needed a bit of a palate cleanser after the complex, innovative, and seriously intense Sweet Home. Splatterhouse to the rescue!

Namco introduced the original Splatterhouse to Japanese arcades right around Halloween time in 1988. A side-scrolling beat-’em-up with light platforming elements, its primary claim to fame was being one of the first truly gory releases by a major publisher. In the game, college student Rick, aided by a possessed “terror mask” that grants him superhuman strength (and bears a more than coincidental resemblance to the one worn by cinema’s most famous homicidal ice hockey enthusiast), must rescue his missing girlfriend Jennifer from the army of bloodthirsty ghouls inhabiting a creepy old mansion. He accomplishes this by walking to the right and…splattering things. In a house. Who says there’s no such thing as truth in advertising?

The first Splatterhouse was an incredibly basic game, even for the time. More or less Irem’s Kung-Fu Master by way of a Cannibal Corpse album cover, it was the figuratively eye-popping 16-bit graphics and literally eye-popping carnage that put it over the top and made it a fondly-remembered hit.

A console game was inevitable. The only problem? A faithful recreation of the arcade smash was all but impossible on the most popular home system of the time, Nintendo’s aging 8-bit Famicom. The solution? Cuteness. Tons and tons of cuteness. Rather than attempting to copy the arcade Splatterhouse’s gruesome and gritty look, Namco instead embraced what the Famicom did best: Bright colors and squat “super deformed” characters. The result was 1989’s Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti. It was not just the only original Splatterhouse game ever produced for a Nintendo system, but also the first in the series to come out for any home console, predating the better-known arcade port for the PC Engine/TurboGrafx-16 by some eight months.

In the Japanese language, “wanpaku” is a word indicating naughtiness, particularly of a childlike and innocent nature. Think Dennis the Menace or Bart Simpson and you’ve got the gist of it. The name couldn’t be more appropriate, as the game exudes a charming irreverence that perfectly complements its wacky art style.

As the game begins, we see a short establishing scene of Jennifer mourning at Rick’s graveside. How he ended up dead despite surviving the first game is a bit puzzling at first, but it all makes sense by the end. Next thing you know, a bolt of lightning strikes Rick’s grave and he pops out good as new, terror mask and all! Jennifer rejoices, but only briefly as a second bolt hits the adjacent grave and resurrects the Pumpkin King, who is (unfortunately) not Jack Skellington, but rather a giant flying jack-o-lantern. The Pumpkin King grabs Jennifer and flies off, leaving Rick to grab his trusty axe and give chase through seven levels of side-scrolling mayhem.

Like its predecessor, Wanpaku Graffiti is a very simple game. One button makes Rick jump and the other swings his cleaver. There’s also a shotgun weapon with limited ammunition that appears as an occasional pick-up and candy and hamburgers which restore health, but that’s all. All you need to worry about is running to the right, whacking any enemies in your path, and jumping over pits, spikes, and other hazards.

One new element here is the experience system. The game keeps track of the enemies you kill, and hitting a certain threshold (displayed in the upper left of the screen) will extend Rick’s health meter by one bar. It’s a nice addition that encourages aggressive play by rewarding you for engaging with the enemies instead of just sprinting past them.

Speaking of sprinting, in most Splatterhouse games, Rick is a very slow, lumbering character. The first thing series veterans will notice is how zippy he is by comparison here. The little dude can really move! He doesn’t even need to stop running to swing his weapon. Since almost every enemy who isn’t a boss can be defeated in one hit, this means you can slice through a whole line of foes while dashing forward at full speed if your timing is right. This feels really awesome and nimble Rick is one of the best aspects of Wanpaku Graffiti’s gameplay. The only downside? He can be a bit slippery and tough to stop on a dime once he gets going, so you will need to slow down on occasion for some of the more platforming-heavy sections.

The levels are based on classic horror locales, starting with the graveyard where our story opens and moving on to a demonic church, a lakeside camp, a haunted mansion, and more. They’re filled with jokey references to famous horror movies, and these are another of the game’s strongest aspects. There are parodies of a lot of the iconic things you might expect, like Alien, The Exorcist, and The Fly, but there’s also a couple which are less obvious. Take the Diamond Lake level, for example. It’s clearly a reference to Crystal Lake from the Friday the 13th series, but our hero already looks like Jason Voorhees, so who are they going to get to fight him? Imagine my delight when the end level boss turned out to be Cropsey, the killer from the 1981 cult classic summer camp slasher The Burning! That is some next level horror nerdery right there. Just about made my night.

Wanpaku Graffiti is a quick and relatively painless experience. You only get five lives before it’s game over, but you’re given a four digit password at the end of each stage, so being forced backwards is never an issue. Levels are short and easy, making it a title the average player can blow through in an hour or two without much fuss. There are a couple brief hidden levels you can access via secret doors and beating both will unlock a special extended ending, but these don’t add much to the overall length. Personally, I think this was a great call. Like Monster Party for the NES, Wanpaku Graffiti is more about basking in the off-kilter humor and getting to see what crazy thing the designers have in store for you next than it is mastering finicky mechanics and memorizing challenging level layouts. Getting stuck for hours on a tough bit only to finally make it through might be satisfying in some action titles, but here it would only kill the momentum and give the jokes time to wear out their welcome.

Wanpaku Graffiti might not be the best platformer for the Famicom, or even its best horror-themed one, but I do think it’s the most…Halloweeny. The breezy gameplay and spooky-cute art and music perfectly nail the intoxicating mixture of morbid imagery and unapologetic silliness that makes this my favorite time of year. It’s the gaming equivalent of Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s Monster Mash or Linus van Pelt waiting up all night for the Great Pumpkin. The enemies even disgorge candy like piñatas when you bash them. It’s also a great choice for anyone looking to get into Japanese imports, since almost all the game’s text is already in English. It’s short, simple, and the controls are a tad loose, but I can just about guarantee you’ll be too busy eagerly anticipating the game’s next trick or treat to mind one bit.

Sweet Home (Famicom)

Comments? Well, if you insist.

First off: Did you know Sweet Home was a primary inspiration for Capcom’s Resident Evil series? Great! Now that I’ve mentioned the thing most reviews devote about half of their word count to, I can actually talk about Sweet Home!

Sweet Home is a 1989 horror RPG for the Nintendo Famicom developed and published by Capcom and intended to tie-in with the horror film of the same name. Movie director Kiyoshi Kurosawa even collaborated with his game director counterpart Tokuro Fujiwara (Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Commando), granting him access to the set during shooting. The film is alright. It’s a campy, effects-laden roller coaster of a haunted house flick. Worth checking out if you’re into that sort of thing, but since Sweet Home is a lot more successful, interesting, and important as a game, I’d recommend you play it before you watch it. Neither the game nor the movie were ever officially released outside of Japan. I played Sweet Home on a reproduction cartridge using the fan translation originally released online in 2000.

Thirty years ago, the famous fresco painter Ichirō Mamiya mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind a number of lost frescoes in his secluded mansion. Now, a team of five filmmakers have journeyed to the crumbling mansion to document and preserve Mamiya’s lost works. Before they even have a chance to get started, the house shakes and the door they just entered through is blocked by falling rubble. The spectral figure of a mysterious woman then appears and threatens death on all trespassers. These five ordinary people must band together if they’re to have any hope of uncovering the truth about the house’s bloody past and finding their way out alive. Starting out, that’s all you get. Sweet Home is not a game front-loaded with tons of backstory and character development. Watching the game’s intro only takes slightly longer than reading my summary of it above. After being given a chance to re-name the game’s five playable characters if you wish, you’ll be off exploring within a minute or two.

Once you are off and running, you’ll certainly notice the similarity to other old school JRPGs like Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy. The overhead view, the menus, the character statistics and inventory screens, the random turn-based battles, it’s all what you’d expect. At least at first. Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll quickly realize Sweet Home is much more than Dragon Quest with gorier monsters to fight. Numerous smart gameplay tweaks elevate it above most of its contemporaries and instill it with an unrelenting sense of urgency and dread. Sweet Home is not only better than almost every other console RPG of its time, it’s better than most horror games released to this day.

How do you make an 8-bit RPG scary? For starters, make sure the player never feels safe. Sweet Home accomplishes this by not including any “safe” rooms in the mansion, analogous to the towns and inns of most RPGs. Instead, your party is subject to enemy attack at all times, starting from the very first screen of the game.

Like any good horror movie, you also do your best to separate the party members. While you start the game with five characters, only up to three can travel together at the same time. This means you’ll spend most of the game controlling two parties you can switch between at will: One consisting of three characters and the other, more vulnerable one consisting of two. You can also have characters travel solo if you like, but this is not advised for obvious reasons.

Next, limit the ability to heal injured characters. Healing here comes courtesy of health tonics scattered throughout the mansion. You’ll need to find them before you can use them, they’re single use only, and they exist in finite numbers. They also take up inventory space, and each character can only carry two items plus a weapon. That’s ten items total, assuming a full party, so you’ll need to make some hard decisions about what to carry and what to leave behind, all without knowing exactly which items you’ll need to cope with upcoming hazards and puzzles. This makes inventory management yet another source of tension and uncertainty.

Finally, if you should lose one of your characters to a monster attack or death trap, they’re gone for good. There are no resurrection spells or items to be found here. Dead is dead in Sweet Home, at least for your unfortunate party members. They take with them not just their combat damage output, but also two of your precious items slots. Three really, because you’ll then need to carry around an item with you to replicate the fallen character’s special skill. See, each character has a special ability tied to a unique item only they can carry which doesn’t take up a regular slot: Kazuo’s lighter burns away ropes blocking your path, Akiko’s first aid kit cures poison and curses, Emi’s key opens locked doors, Taro’s camera reveals hidden messages on the mansion’s frescoes, and Asuka’s vacuum can clear paths of debris and clean dirt off of some frescoes to reveal more clues. You’ll need to use these abilities constantly, so do your best to keep everybody in one piece.

Thankfully, the game isn’t completely unforgiving, since you can save your progress anytime and anywhere. This was a standard feature in computer games at the time, but virtually unknown in a console game and it works wonders here. You can avoid a ton of heartache if you save early and save often. Each time you solve a puzzle, find an important item, or make it through a tough series of encounters in good shape, don’t forget to save!

Combat is basic for the most part. It’s also very quick, since you’ll always be battling against a single foe at a time. Characters can fight, run, use items, and pray. Praying is this game’s version of magic and you can spend your character’s prayer points to deal extra damage if you wish, although I didn’t find it all that necessary in most fights. The coolest option is the ability to call characters from outside the current battle to come join in the fight. Selecting this will transition you out of the battle screen and put you in control of the characters being called. You then have a short window of time to dash through the mansion and join up with the original group to team up against the monster. This is the only way you can ever control all five characters at once. Not only does getting everyone involved in a battle allow you to kill your opponent faster, it also insures everyone gets a share of the resulting experience points and is the best time to use those all-important healing tonics. Next to saving frequently, proper use of the call command is the single most important thing to come to grips with if you want to survive Sweet Home.

All these high-pressure mechanics still wouldn’t amount to much if Sweet Home didn’t also come bundled with a suitably ghoulish presentation to support them, and it’s the combination of the tense gameplay and the creepy sound and visuals that really makes the game pop. While the standard overhead view of the mansion isn’t exactly a visual marvel, your surroundings do look appropriately dilapidated and dangerous. The rest of the game’s graphics are significantly better and the various enemies you’ll encounter are probably the highlight. They’re extremely detailed and grotesque, with many lurid deformities and mutilations which would never have passed muster with Nintendo of America’s censors. The music by ’80s Capcom mainstay Junko Tamiya is simply brilliant. Brooding, eerie, or pulse-pounding as the situation demands, it’s always perfectly suited to whatever terrible thing is transpiring on screen. It’s always fascinating to hear a well-executed stab at a true horror soundtrack using the Famicom/NES sound chip.

Sweet Home’s crowning glory has to be its plot. It’s remarkably tragic and twisted for a Famicom game and it’s left to the player to piece it together organically by hunting down diary entries, the corpses of the house’s past victims, hidden message in paintings, and the like. This is a common way of delivering story in a horror game these days, but to see it handled so well this early on marks Sweet Home as years ahead of its time.

That sums up Sweet Home in general, really. Long before Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil, it was a total horror experience which somehow achieved everything it set out to brilliantly despite an overall lack of precedent. With so many trails to blaze at once, any one of them could have easily been a dead end. In those primordial days of survival horror gaming, it almost beggers belief that the puzzles, level design, combat mechanics, inventory management, visuals, audio, and storytelling all turned out this excellent. So much so, in fact, that I have no real gripes with the game worth mentioning. It still stands tall today as a slick, compelling work, not just a crude antediluvian prototype of interest only to gaming historians.

While it’s tough to compare Sweet Home directly to a more traditional Famicom/NES RPG from around this time, such as the superb Dragon Quest IV, you can make a case that its high stakes mechanics and lack of grinding make it the single most fun RPG for the system to revisit today. Without a doubt, it’s the best pure horror release for the console and one of its most interesting titles overall. It even holds up a lot better than the early Resident Evil games, in my opinion.

The grim and gory Sweet Home never had the slightest chance of being officially localized for the family-friendly NES, but it’s a true classic every RPG or horror fan should experience in their lifetime. Or after it….