Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Five Horrible Horror Games on the NES...


...That You Need To Play This Halloween


You know, some of the best NES games out there seem to share a commonality: to a certain degree, they’re all horror-themed. Even games like Zelda and Mario, to some extent, had horror-elements, like the ghost houses in the third Super Mario game and those creepy, skeleton filled dungeons in the first Zelda. And of course, there are also the 8-bit classics that are a little bit more horror-centric, through and through.

“Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins,” “Monster Party,” “Maniac Mansion,” and of course, the “Castlevania” trilogy are not only among the best titles to be found on the Nintendo Entertainment System, but some of the best damn horror-themed games you will ever encounter. Granted, the games may not pack the same punch they did back in the late 1980s, but for those seeking sheer creep-out, button-pounding excitement in 8-bit doses, the titles STILL hold up remarkably well almost three decades down the turnpike.

As we all know by now, there were some horror-themed games on the NES that, well, weren’t all that remarkable - generally, the deluge of “licensed” titles based on franchises like “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Beetlejuice.” And then, there are some horror-themed NES games that, despite not being classics in ANY regard, remain mildly enjoyable today, despite all of their technical and structural shortcomings. The same way we gorge ourselves on enjoyably bad movies like “Troll 2” and “Ernest Scared Stupid” every year, I feel that every gamer worth his or her salt ought to likewise trot these five games out come the Samhain season. They may not be the best the console has to offer, but if you’re looking for some Halloween hokum, I really don’t know ANYONE could pass up this hidden “gems” of bad game design.

Ghoul School (1992)


What Makes It Horrific? It’s a side-scrolling action game in which you play a generic high-school punk that has to navigate a huge schoolhouse filled with monsters of all sorts, battling hordes and hordes of the undead in order to rescue the head cheerleader.

What Makes It Horrible? The game was released WAY late into the NES’ life cycle, and the graphics and audio are pretty darn underwhelming. The REAL backbreaker, however, is the game design, which fluctuates from frustrating to practically unplayable. You see, the enemies have this tendency to rush after you, and a single hit sends you flying backwards. This happens CONSTANTLY, since you have a limited time to attack, and even worse, it always seems to happen RIGHT at the top of staircases, resulting in your character getting knocked entirely off the screen.

What Makes It Worth Playing This Halloween? Trial-and-error games of the like are quickly vanishing off the face of the earth, and as long as you have patience and a lot of time to kill, you might actually end up enjoying the game, which is almost entirely anchored around exploration. Think of the game as a combination of “Metroid,” “River City Ransom” and “Castlevania,” only if all three of those games were incredibly shitty. That, and it’s not like there are that many games out there that are cemented around watching a poser smack eyeball monsters with yardsticks, you know…

Monster in My Pocket (1992)


What Makes It Horrific? It’s a platform-action hybrid based on the short-lived mini-action figure trend, in which you take control of either a Dracula doppelganger or Frankenstein’s Monster and fight Lilliputian ghouls and ghosts in a scaled-down environment reminiscent of Capcom’s “Rescue Rangers” games and the SNES title “Harley’s Humongous Adventure.”

What Makes It Horrible? As solid as the game is, it can’t compensate for two major design missteps. One, the game is really, really short, and totally beatable in about an hour or two. Without question, there is NOT a whole lot of replay value to be found here. The second flaw comes in the form of some of the most annoying enemies you’ll ever encounter in an 8-bit title, these cheap-ass bastards that are almost impossible to avoid running into. There’s a fine line between “challenging” and “frustrating,” and this Konami title definitely toes more of the latter than the former.

What Makes It Worth Playing This Halloween? This game, for all of its misgivings, is like a bite-sized candy bar. Yeah, it’s not really what you want, but if it’s in front of you, you just KNOW you’re going to enjoy it, anyway. The graphics and music are really good, and the controls, for the most part, are very intuitive. The level design is really awesome, and the gameplay, for the most part, is pretty satisfying. Especially noteworthy are the game’s bosses, which include, among others, an ungodly cat-porcupine monster that shoots knifes at you and ice-breathing yeti that hides out in a refrigerator.

Robodemons (1989)


What Makes It Horrific? It’s an unlicensed Color Dreams game based loosely on Dante’s Inferno, only instead of Dante, you’re in command of a jet-packed robo-master equipped with a never-ending supply of boomerangs. Throughout the game - which encompasses both side scrolling horizontal shooting stages as well as traditional action-platforming sequences - you’ll battle all sorts of mechanical demons and ghouls, in stages with names like “The Level of Bone” and “The Level of Condemned Souls.”

What Makes It Horrible? A lot of games can go a long way with minimal graphics, but “Robodemons” ain’t exactly a game that capitalizes on the “less is more” approach. Most of the stages look very, very sparse, and the sprites are very undefined. The difficulty level is also a major detriment, since it fluctuates from insultingly easy to knuckle-melting hard at the drop of a hat…and then there are the controls (especially during the flying-shooting stages). Eff them, man. Just eff them.

What Makes It Worth Playing This Halloween? While “Robodemons” sucks on a lot of levels, there’s no denying that it’s an addictive game, and one of the most challenging to be found on the NES. Yeah, a lot of the enemies are cheap as hell (kinda’ fitting, I guess, since most of the game takes place in Hades), but as long as you take your time and play it conservatively, you should have no difficulty at all finding a “groove” here. That, and the atmosphere here is just fantastic, with one of the spookiest soundtracks on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Trust me, that “death scream” your character emits upon expiring will make you shudder every single time.

Swamp Thing (1992)


What Makes It Horrific? It’s a platforming-action game in which you take control of the DC comic book character, traveling your way across the bayou and boss-fighting all sorts of hideous monsters, a majority of which are culled from the short-lived (but nostalgically awesome) cartoon series from way back when.

What Makes It Horrible? This game is, in a word retardomegasuperduperfreakinggiganti-DIFFICULT. Everything in the game, even floating soup cans in the water, causes bodily harm to your character, and since you are only allotted so many hits per stage, getting from level to level unscathed is a pretty demanding task. That, and the jumping mechanism is a little off, so you have to time EVERYTHING just right, or else it’s a guaranteed enemy hit. It’s playable, but it takes FOREVER to get down pat.

What Makes It Worth Playing This Halloween? A lot of people absolutely HATE this game, but I don’t think it’s anywhere near as bad as its reputed to be. Some of the sound effects are a little wonky (since a majority of them are yanked from “Bart vs. The Space Mutants,” of all things) and yeah, comic purists may loathe the fact that old Swampy is such a wuss, but overall, it’s a halfway decent action-jumping hybrid. If you’re looking for a challenging platformer with some pretty neat monster aesthetics, it’s not really a bad title to pick up at all.

Zombie Nation (1991)


What Makes It Horrific? It’s a side scrolling shooter in which you play a severed zombie head (which, oddly enough, looks sort of like a decapitated Dennis Franz) that pukes fire on SWAT teams and does battle with gigantic monsters in rainbow-hued caverns and atop the incinerated remnants of oil rigs. And oh yeah, there’s some shit about samurais in there, too.

What Makes It Horrible? It’s a unique game, to be sure, but it’s also an extremely difficult one (there are certain environmental hazards that are next to impossible to avoid, and they seem to sap your energy meter down to the very last pixel.) Length is another setback, as there are only a few levels to fly through, and while you do have the option of repeating them at higher difficulty settings, there’s really not much to do after you’ve completed the initial play through.

What Makes It Worth Playing This Halloween? It’s a high-speed, high-camp destruct-a-thon along the lines of “Rampage,” except - in my opinion - way more fun. Yeah, the game does have a pretty steep learning curve, and yeah, some of the levels do tend to get a little repetitive, but once you get the system down, it’s a really enjoyable little title. And hell, when else are you going to get an opportunity to vomit lava on battleship while commandeering the severed scalp of Carl from “Aqua Teen,” exactly?

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