Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries (NES)

Where’s Christopher Bee when you need him?

What if your favorite games never had to end? This is the promise of ROM hacking. Taking a proven classic as a template, dedicated hobbyists of a technical bent are able to serve up an endless series of new challenges for the likes of Mario, Sonic, and Mega Man. At their very best, these hacks are barely recognizable as variants of the games they’re based on, showcasing not just new level layouts, but new storylines, settings, items, enemies, and even soundtracks. At their worst, they’re some bored 12 year-old’s take on Super KKK Boner Bros. Don’t worry, though. I’ll be focusing on a competent effort this time.

In keeping with the spirit of the season, let’s examine Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries, a 2007 hack of the original NES Castlevania by Optomon (Chris Lincoln) and Dr. Mario. Ever since I had the opportunity to try out an early version of an even more advanced Optomon Castlevania hack (The Holy Relics) at last year’s Portland Retro Gaming Expo, I knew that I wanted to discuss his work at some point. Chorus of Mysteries is one of the best known and most ambitious of the many fan-made takes on the series’ inaugural release. For better or worse, almost everything about the base game has been tweaked in some significant way and the end result feels more like a true lost sequel than a level pack.

The hero of Chorus of Mysteries is not Simon Belmont, but Armund Danasty, a long-lost descendant of Grant Danasty, the acrobatic rogue who aided Trevor Belmont in his 1476 battle against Dracula. Chorus is set in 1800, three years after the events of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Armund, an orphan and a sailor by trade, has journeyed to the castle of Count Olrox, a vampire and associate of Dracula that Armund believes may hold clues to his own past. It should be noted that despite being a Danasty, there’s no Spiderman style wall climbing action to be found here. Armund still moves and controls exactly like Simon Belmont and his weapon (a barbed rope) handles exactly like Simon’s whip.

By the time the quick introductory cut scene of Armund arriving at the castle gate concludes, it’s clear that the art and music have received a complete overhaul. Before then, actually, as there’s also a new tune that plays over the normally silent title screen. The revamped (I had to drag that one out at least once) presentation is probably the hack’s most divisive element. The original Castlevania is not the darkest game out there, and I’m not referring to its creepy subject matter, but rather its color palette, which relies heavily on bright oranges, blues, and reds. Chorus uses a lot more stark black in its backgrounds and also elevates greens, purples, and grays to much more prominent roles. On one hand, seeing vivid purple and green elements highlighted against a pure black background occasionally lends the game a sort of “neon Castlevania” look that’s interesting in its own way. Just as often, however, the environments are simply a touch drab. For what it is, I enjoy the new art, particularly the detailed sprites.

The music is a tougher sell. Including an original soundtrack in a ROM hack at all represents a major effort of a kind I would never want to discourage as a general thing. This one, though? Apart from the fifth stage theme, which is a well-made 8-bit cover of “Dance of Pales” from Symphony of the Night, it just isn’t ear pleasing in the least. The unifying idea seems to have been to go all-in on a dainty, refined chamber music style, not unlike the one Michiru Yamane chose for “Dance of Pales” itself. Although not a terrible idea on paper, the original songs are shrill, far loop too frequently, and lack the driving percussion that underlies most great Castlevania music. If proper drum sounds are utilized anywhere in this soundtrack, I missed it. Even if I liked these tracks, they still wouldn’t be very appropriate for whipping monster ass to.

The good news is that the addictive gameplay is obviously the primary reason anyone seeks out Castlevania ROM hacks and it’s here that Chorus of Mysteries excels without qualification. The first of its six stages is patterned closely on the original game’s, but after you dispatch that familiar giant bat boss and move on to stage two, all bets are off. Be on the lookout for new level themes and layouts, new enemies to contend with, and even a new sub-weapon in the form of the laurel herb from Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. The laurel replaces the stopwatch and is considerably more useful. It retains its original function, conferring roughly ten seconds of complete invincibility to Armund on demand in exchange for a hefty eight hearts per activation. If you can manage to hold onto the laurel and a decent supply of hearts long enough to reach a stage boss, the ensuing “battle” is a joke.

Armed with anything except the laurel, though, you’ll have a real struggle on your hands. The stages in Chorus of Mysteries are only moderately difficult by ROM hack standards. That is to say, just slightly more intense than the ones from the back half of the original Castlevania. The new bosses are where the true horror lies. These guys all tend to be more mobile, more aggressive, and more eager to lob annoying projectiles at you than the game’s original stage guardians. If that wasn’t scary enough, the famous trick of using the holy water to freeze a boss in place while dealing constant damage no longer works in Chorus of Mysteries! At least you get the honor of being annihilated by some really cool baddies. Most of them are actually fan favorites from later Castlevania games faithfully re-created in the original’s engine. Being able to square off against a familiar foe from Super Castlevania IV or Symphony of the Night on the NES really is a trip and the battles you have with them are as well-realized as they are brutal. My one real complaint is that the lengthiest and most challenging boss encounter is placed at the end of stage five. The final boss is no pushover, but you’ll have vanquished worse by the time you reach him.

Castlevania: Chorus of Mysteries does have a handful of noteworthy flaws that prevent it from being any sort of true improvement on its source material. There are those questionable tunes, a slightly anticlimactic boss order, and an odd hit detection glitch that can sometimes make it tough to attack things with the weakest version of Armund’s whip-rope. Despite these hiccups, the fascinating new elements judiciously woven into a proven action-platforming formula make it a treat that any fan of the first Castlevania should have the opportunity to savor. Like all great hacks, this one rarely receives the attention and respect it deserves. This is tragically inevitable for the most part. These are unofficial modern games for ancient consoles with nothing resembling proper promotion behind them, after all. They’re not part of anyone’s nostalgic memories and playing them at all requires futzing around with emulators, flash cartridges, or reproductions. Realistically, most gamers aren’t going to bother. For the few of you out there that are so inclined, my hope is that this review can draw some much-needed attention to a truly worthy title. Chorus is not just a superb ROM hack, it’s a quality NES action game by any measure.

Advertisements

Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead (PC Engine)

I don’t blame these two. Finally getting to shelve this dud would make anyone grin.

Last October saw me raving over Capcom’s mesmerizing Famicom RPG Sweet Home. A year on, I still believe that its forward-thinking blend of oppressive atmosphere and high-pressure mechanics make it the single the greatest game for the system to never leave Japan. It’s a masterpiece every bit as effective as the early Resident Evil games it inspired. When I found out recently that there was a newly-released fan translation of another pioneering Japan-exclusive survival horror RPG, one that predates Sweet Home by a full two years, I jumped at the opportunity to try it out. That…was a mistake.

You know, as popular as “angry reviewing” is online, it seems to be most difficult thing for me to practice. Spreading the word about a brilliant game like Sweet Home comes naturally. The energy is right there, built-in. Detailing all the ways Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead for the PC Engine is a unmitigated disaster, on the other hand, is almost as draining as actually playing it. I could be cutting my losses. Moving on with my life, you know? In the interest of the public good, however, I’m willing to step up. I deserve a medal, honestly. Somebody get on that.

War of the Dead was developed by Fun Project (sometimes called Fun Factory) for MSX computers and published by Victor Musical Industries in 1987. This PC Engine port from 1989 is infamous for its shoddy coding. A lack of integer overflow checks (a commonsense precaution that most professionally made software wouldn’t ship without) meant that accumulating more than 9999 experience points or 14 inventory items would instantly render the game unwinnable. The publisher was apparently made aware of these bugs before the game hit shelves, but lacked the time or resources to fix them. War of the Dead was instead sold with a bright pink sheet of paper detailing the issues and apologizing. Oof.

Hilariously, this sheet also contained an apology for the game’s fully functional backup system! Take one look at the password entry screen and you’ll understand why. Complaining about lengthy passwords in old console games is a cliché in classic gaming circles and I typically have zero sympathy. It’s just a couple dozen letters and numbers that require a minute or two at most to input at the start of a play session, so quit whining. Not here, though. Oh, no. War of the Dead takes the inconvenience to a whole new level with 54 character password strings drawn from a total of 128 distinct symbols. 128! Expect to spend closer to five minutes navigating the menu and keying all this junk in each time. Once you do finally finish, don’t you dare relax, assuming you’ll be only be doing it just once per session. I’ll come back to this, believe me.

Fortunately, the excellent 2017 English language patch from Nebulous Translations actually fixes the game-breaking experience point and inventory overflow bugs, so I was able to play without those hanging over my head. They couldn’t fix the password system outright, although they did change the 128 characters on the menu from Japanese ones to a set of symbols more recognizable to Westerners, which is still a welcome touch. Credit where it’s due for going to the extra mile to make an irritating game just a little but more tolerable.

The central figure in War of the Dead is Lila, a member of the organization S-S.W.A.T. (Supernatural and Special Weapon Attack Team). She’s been dispatched to the remote town of Chaney’s Hills after it abruptly and inexplicably lost contact with the outside world and previous teams sent in to investigate failed to report back. Naturally, the entire town has been overrun with hideous monsters except for the church, where a handful of survivors have gathered under the care of the priest, Carpenter. Like almost every other character in the game, his name is a horror film reference. Specifically, to John Carpenter, director of classics like Halloween and The Thing. There’s also a Romero, Cronenberg, and more. Spotting all these little nods was one of the very few bright spots in the game for me, even if they are just glorified name drops. Armed with a pistol, a knife, and a mini-skirt (because video games), Lila’s mission is two-fold: To save as many other survivors as possible and halt the otherworldly invasion of Chaney’s Hills before it can spread to the rest of the world.

Exploration takes place from a Dragon Quest style overhead viewpoint, with a tiny Lila sprite ever so slowly trundling across a sprawling, mostly empty world map. Despite being described as a town, Chaney’s Hills seems to consist entirely of around a dozen structures, each separated the its nearest neighbor by miles upon miles of trackless wilderness. It’s as if the designers took a standard JRPG world map and then decided to describe each individual town on it as a single building inside one giant settlement with no regard for how bizarre and unintuitive the end result reads to players.

Your roaming is frequently interrupted by the random enemy encounters typical of the genre. These take the form of side-scrolling action interludes similar to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link’s. Lila gets plopped down in an enemy-filled arena roughly four screens wide. Her options are to stab the baddies to death (preferable for conserving bullets), shoot them, or flee the battle by exiting the arena on either side. Prior to combat, Lila can also use her psychic powers to strengthen her attack and defense for a short time. This is accomplished by selecting the “PS Rem” option from the equipment menu. While this is highly effective for boss encounters, it’s not exactly the flashiest special ability in an RPG. There are no visual or audio indicators that it’s active. Even the original Dragon Quest could be bothered to make the screen flash and play some sound effects when spells were cast. Don’t expect to gain any new, cooler psychic abilities as the game progresses, either. You just get the one.

The combat isn’t too deep or challenging overall, mostly due to the enemy roster having been cut down severely from the computer versions. This PC Engine release only includes around a dozen unique enemy sprites and even the bosses (with the exception of the final two) are simply recolored regular foes with improved stats. You’ll quickly pick up on how each monster moves and attacks, which makes killing or evading their palette-swapped variations child’s play and robs the mid-to-late game of virtually all suspense and challenge. The crowing irony is that one common enemy type cut out entirely was the zombie. That’s right: War of the Dead on PC Engine is missing the dead! How do you even go and do a thing like that? It’s, like, the one thing they needed to include. Well, that and working experience and inventory systems, I suppose.

While the challenge is indeed low for the majority of a given playthrough, it should still be noted that Lila’s attack, defense, and health are all as pathetic as you would expect early on. It’s therefore highly advisable to grind out at least three or four extra levels outside the church first thing, because you really, really don’t want to die in this game. Why? Three little words: No continue feature. Die, and you have no choice but to type in your most recent 54 character novel of a password just to get back into to the game. Every. Single. Time. I actually wish I had a picture of the face I made when I first realized this. I bet it could turn people to stone.

Despite it all, I could still almost recommended War of the Dead if Lila’s journey was one peppered with eerie locales, intriguing puzzles, and unforgettable characters. It’s not, though. It’s really not. Building interiors are as drab and empty as the overworld, characters are one-dimensional, the plot is barely there, and gameplay objectives consist of minimalist fetch quests that require nothing in the way of problem solving. If you’re ever stuck, just go canvass the entire map talking to every NPC you’ve met so far until one of them finally tells you where to go next. The game is very anal about these event triggers, too, so don’t go thinking that you can just go off exploring and discover stuff out of order. That might be enjoyable. No, you need to talk to the right NPC at the right time (and usually multiple times) in order to activate the script that makes the thing you’re looking for next actually exist for you to find. Every aspect of the world and quest design in War of the Dead is predicated on shamelessly padding a profoundly empty, downright unfun experience well beyond the point of common decency.

So let it henceforth be known that the PC Engine port of Shiryō Sensen – War of the Dead is barely playable trash. Its unholy union of obnoxious design and incompetent execution give rise to the single worst experience I’ve had with the system yet, and that includes unlicensed pornfest Strip Fighter II. The slew of references to better horror media and a couple of okay music tracks are closest it comes to possessing actual redeeming features. That is to say, not very. We can point to a handful of ways that it may have exerted an influence on the first Resident Evil title nine years later: The zombies (at least in the superior computer versions), the remote mountain town setting, the idea of the hero as part of an elite paramilitary type unit (S-S.W.A.T., S.T.A.R.S.), the concept of conserving bullets through efficient use of a combat knife. But so what? Unlike other key influences on Capcom’s flagship horror series (Alone in the Dark, Sweet Home), the tedious, aggravating War of the Dead has nothing worthwhile to offer prospective players on its own. It’s best left a footnote in survival horror history. A dead one.

Castlevania: Dracula X (Super Nintendo)

I feel you, kid. Even in castle full of vampires, having to watch your sibling make out is the real horror.

October is finally here and let me tell you: After one of the most brutal, forest fire plagued summers in Northwest history, it is so welcome. It’s high time for some chill winds, falling leaves, and spooky media. Out with the old and in with the boo, baby! Over the course of the month, I’ll be showcasing a total of six horror-themed games for six different platforms. Some will be good and some bad. Some famous and some virtually unknown. Stir in a few misfits too weird to pigeonhole and it makes for a potent witch’s brew indeed. Enjoy.

First up on my dance card is 1995’s Castlevania: Dracula X for the Super Nintendo, also called Vampire’s Kiss in Europe. As fans of this long-running Konami series know, the Castlevania family tree can be considered to have split early on into two main branches. These would be the straightforward action-platformers patterned on the 1986 original and the action-RPG entries (dubbed Metroidvanias by fans) that got their start in 1987 with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Until very recently, I was mostly acquainted with the Metroidvania side of the franchise. This changed last year when I played through the first game, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, and Castlevania: Bloodlines over the span of ten days in a sort of Actionvania mini-marathon. I came away with a whole new appreciation for their distinctive blend of  weighty high stakes platforming and treacherous enemy placement. Sound judgement and expert timing are mandatory if you’re to have any chance of surviving the long night and putting Dracula down for the count. I can now say that these entries in the series may well collectively comprise my single favorite classic gaming experience.

Given that Dracula X is cast from this very same mold, I was naturally excited to dive in. At the same time, I was also somewhat leery, owing to its checkered “black sheep” reputation. Dracula X is very much a game doomed by circumstance to disappoint critics and fans alike at the time of its debut. Series obsessives that were following the news of overseas releases were expecting a more or less faithful port of the Japanese PC Engine CD-ROM title Akumajou Dracula X: Chi no Rondo (better known in the West as Rondo of Blood). The casual player base expected it to play like the previous Super Nintendo entry, Super Castlevania IV, with its eight-way whip attacks and more forgiving platforming mechanics. Few seem to have been primed to be satisfied with what Dracula X actually is at heart: A prettied up rendition of the simpler, tougher NES Castlevanias.

Konami themselves surely bear some responsibility for the misunderstanding. Dracula X shares a basic storyline and many art assets with Rondo of Blood, making it nearly impossible for gamers in 1995 to draw a meaningful distinction between the two based on plot summaries and screenshots alone. Make no mistake, though, the differences are legion. Without the comparatively massive storage space afforded by the CD-ROM format, the voiced cut scenes and Red Book audio of Rondo were a technical impossibility. Dracula X’s nine stages are also completely different from the eleven included in Rondo and players are limited to controlling a single character, Richter Belmont, with Rondo’s Maria Renard being demoted to NPC status. While the core gameplay in both entries remains quite similar, Dracula X represents a clear downgrade in terms of overall scope when held up alongside its inspiration and to this day there’s no shortage of commentators eager to remind anyone within earshot of this fact.

With over a quarter century of hindsight at my disposal, however, I’d like to make a case for Dracula X as not merely a tragic mangling of Rondo, but a perfectly enjoyable and worthy Castlevania adventure unto itself. Granted, it’s also possible that I’m either a softhearted fool or a hardheaded contrarian. I’ll lay out my case and let you be the judge.

For starters, Dracula X’s plot is quintessential Castlevania: Dracula has risen from his grave! This time, it’s in 1792, a century after his previous defeat by the legendary vampire hunter Simon Belmont. Drac still seems to be holding a grudge, because he promptly orders an attack on the home town of Simon’s descendant Richter. The city is destroyed and Richter’s girlfriend Annette and her sister Maria are hauled off and imprisoned deep within the evil Count’s lair. Undaunted, Richter sets off for Demon Castle Dracula with only his holy whip the Vampire Killer in tow to rescue his loved ones and fulfill his destiny as a Belmont. Standard stuff, but it’s interesting to note that Maria has been recast as Annette’s sister in this entry rather than being described as a distant relative of Richter as she is in Rondo of Blood. Why, I have no clue. Surely, good guy Richter would be equally inclined to rescue her from Dracula in either case.

The march to Dracula’s throne room takes place over seven side-scrolling levels. This makes Dracula X slightly longer than the NES original or Bloodlines on the Sega Genesis, but significantly shorter than Dracula’s Curse, Super Castlevania IV, or Rondo of Blood. A bit of extra replay value is furnished in the form of two hidden alternate stages that Richter can progress through in lieu of their regular counterparts, provided you can find them. A minimum of three playthroughs are therefore required if you want to see every level in the game and all three endings. Three endings? That’s right. The one you receive depends on whether you manage to rescue one, both, or neither of the kidnapped girls. It’s still not as much content as in those beefier entries mentioned above, but neither is it notably lacking by series standards.

Richter controls almost exactly as he did in Rondo of Blood, with a no-frills horizontal whip attack and short, stiff jump arc reminiscent of his granddaddy Simon’s. He can also find and wield the same classic set of sub-weapons. Per usual, the dagger, axe, holy water, cross boomerang, and magic stopwatch all require you to expend some of the limited supply of hearts you collect by whipping the candles and lanterns dotting each stage. While not capable of the elaborate whip stunts seen in Super Castlevania IV, Richter does bring some new tricks to the party. He can perform a quick back flip dodge by double-tapping the jump button (just make sure you’re not facing away from a bottomless pit first…), jump onto and off of staircases, and utilize the mighty item crash. This last ability is particularly important, being a sort of “super move” with varying effects based on the sub-weapon Richter is currently carrying. It requires anywhere from 10-20 hearts per activation, but usually deals heavy enough damage to be worth the price. For this reason, it’s often in your best interest to save any many hearts as possible for the end stage boss fights. The item crash also doubles as an emergency evasion technique, as Richter is rendered invulnerable for a brief period at the start of one.

Where Dracula X really steps out of its predecessors’ shadows and starts making a name for itself is in its cunning level design and drop-dead stunning presentation. As mentioned above, every stage layout is unique to this release and each is significantly more challenging on average than its closest equivalent in Rondo of Blood. The platforming is trickier, requiring more pixel-perfect jumps, and it’s complicated by some of the most devious enemy placement in the entire series. Wherever it is you need to be at a given moment, there always seems to be one of Dracula’s ghoulish minions already occupying that exact portion of the screen, ready to knock you back into the nearest bottomless pit if the timing of your movements and attacks is so much as a split-second off. Like Dracula’s Curse, this one was clearly designed with Castlevania veterans in mind. If you’re a newcomer looking to ease into the series, Dracula X is far from your best bet. Try Super Castlevania IV instead. If you do happen to be a battle scarred veteran vampire killer like myself, however, this almost ROM hack-like level of difficulty may be just the sort of thing you thrive on and constitute a major selling point.

Next, consider the superlative graphics. For my money, Dracula X is easily the best looking of all the 16-bit Castlevania titles. Most of the character sprites are lifted directly from Rondo, but the new backgrounds are another story. They’re rendered using a bright watercolor style that’s oddly well-suited to making the Gothic horror subject matter really pop. The result of this unlikely combination is a lush, painterly game world that represented a high point for the series at the time.

The soundtrack is also no slouch. The compositions themselves are essentially the same ones from Rondo re-imagined for the Super Nintendo sound chip. The transition from CD-ROM to low-fi chiptunes certainly seems like a losing proposition. Fortunately, this is the freakin’ Super Nintendo we’re talking about here and the majority of the tracks actually come across better than their PC-Engine counterparts! Any hardcore Rondo partisans still reading at this point are probably gnashing their teeth over that, but you guys just listen to that insanely funky bass line in the Dracula X version of “Opposing Bloodlines” and then tell me it’s not the sickest thing. Go ahead, try it. I dare you.

Please don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not saying that this is secretly the best game in the series. I’m not even saying that it’s better than Rondo of Blood (although I do personally prefer it for the added challenge). What I am saying is that the humble Dracula X is no botched port or black mark on the saga, but a damn fine 16-bit action-platformer by any reasonable standard. Although it’s relatively short and far from newbie friendly, it should please any established fan of the tough-as-coffin-nails old school incarnation of Castlevania. Prices for original cartridges are topping $160 as of this writing, however, so do take care lest this creature of the night suck your wallet dry.

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 that 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 materials 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 that the manual refers to simply as “you.” This was a simple, 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 that 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 that 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.

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 that 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 with the directional pad and are limited to using an on-screen cursor to direct her what to walk or run toward and what objects to 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 that 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 that many adventure gamers utterly despise. Giving a granola bar to a rat to get a wallet, that sort of stuff. I get that. I would argue that 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 thinking 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 that 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 that 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 that you can interact with. Important scenes and objects are also illustrated with close-up shots so intricately rendered that 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 Jennifer. Even the music in Clock Tower seems to have been inspired by the scores that the 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. That 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 that restore health, but that’s all. All you need to worry about is running to the right, whacking any enemies that get in your way, 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 sort of character to control. The first thing series veterans will notice is how zippy he is here by comparison. The little dude can really move! He doesn’t even need to stop running to swing his weapon. Since almost every enemy that isn’t a boss can be defeated in one hit, this means that 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 is that 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 that 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 nerd shit 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 that the average player can blow through in an hour or two without much fuss. There are a couple brief hidden levels that 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 will 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 that Sweet Home was a primary inspiration for Capcom’s Resident Evil series? Great! Now that I’ve mentioned the thing that 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 rpublished by Capcom and intended to be a tie-in with the horror film of the same name that hit theaters in Japan that same year. Movie director Kiyoshi Kurosawa even collaborated with his game director counterpart Tokuro Fujiwara (Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Commando) and granted him access to the set during shooting. The film version is pretty alright. It’s a campy, effects-laden roller coaster of a haunted house flick that owes a lot to Poltergeist. 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 that’s 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 that 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 that 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 from the first screen of the game onward.

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 that you’ll spend most of the game controlling two parties that 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. Each character has a special ability tied to an item that only they can carry which doesn’t take up a regular item 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 frescos, 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 time where you can potentially 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 that 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 that 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. Without the dynamic action beats of something like Castlevania to support, it’s 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 that 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 the 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 strongest titles overall. It even holds up a lot better than the early Resident Evil games in my book.

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 that every RPG or horror fan should experience in their lifetime. Or after it….