14/11/2018

TENNIS COMPUTER GAME COVERS

I think it’s about time for more home computer sports game covers, don’t you? Whaddya mean, “no”? It’s too late now, I’ve already gathered together a bunch of cover art from tennis games and I’m not going to let all that back-breaking effort go to waste. Previously I’ve checked out cover art from “sporting” genres such as snooker and chess, but tennis feels like an especially appropriate sport to look at because hey, Pong is essentially a tennis game, right? And Pong is such a milestone in the development of videogames that making dumb jokes about the cover art of the games it spawned is basically the same as doing important academic work. I'm a historian! Cool, I’ve convinced myself. Let’s get to it, then!

Tennis Cup, Amiga, Loriciel


Immediately I realised that the concept of this article might be fundamentally flawed, because there’s only so much I’m going to be able to say about images of people wearing all-white outfits and holding tennis racquets. I suppose I’ll just have to zero in on the finer details, like the way the guy on the left is holding his racquet in a way that suggests he’s preparing for an overhead chop. I could create an elaborate backstory to explain this, one where he grew up in an isolated mountain cabin until one day he was spotted by an ageing tennis coach who realised the young man’s firewood chopping technique could be converted into a phenomenally powerful backhand. Hire me to write your sports anime, please.
However, what really stands out to me is just how incredibly smooth and hairless everybody’s legs are, especially the chap in the centre. He must be at least twenty-five percent dolphin.

Konami’s Tennis, ZX Spectrum, Konami / Imagine


More smooth legs on display here, too. I thought it was swimmers who removed all their body hair?  Are all professional tennis players competing in these tournaments in the hope of winning enough money to pay off the crippling debts they owe to Veet? I’m not complaining really, this is a perfectly good piece of artwork from prolific computer game artist Bob Wakelin. It’s got movement, precision, a weirdly out-of-place desert chrome logo and the guy on the right’s foot is dissolving away into nothingness. What more could you ask for?

Konami’s Tennis, MSX, Konami


Over on the cover for the MSX version of the same game, we see some very unsporting behaviour as one player celebrates hitting her opponent in the head with the ball. There’s definitely something nasty about that character, as though they revel in the pain of others. Between her single tooth and the fact she’s literally sticking two fingers up at the player, she’s got the air of a petulant baby-person. The on-court tantrums of John McEnroe in the body of a weird pop-art baby with a serious case of Popeye Elbows, that’s what this cover is all about.

International Tennis, ZX Spectrum, Zeppelin Games


Full marks to the artist on this one for taking on the difficult task of making a tennis game look “international” by covering the player in a variety of national flags. Some of the flags might look a little strange – I’m not sure what’s going on with that starless, six-striped US flag beyond the artist understandably not wanting to draw all those stars – but it gets the point across. If that wasn’t enough, there’s a world map printed on the tennis ball. Yes, the only way this could have more succinctly conveyed the idea of international tennis is if it was a picture of the very continents themselves holding tennis racquets, which is what I would have done. Antarctica would have been the umpire.

Advantage Tennis, Amiga, Infogrames


Now here’s a cover I do genuinely like. Sure, it’s painfully nineties with a colour scheme that reminds me of buying packs of highlighter pens during the back to school shop and then never using them, but at least it’s not smooth-legged people in white clothes. The stark background and logo makes for a nice contrast with the colour and fluidity of the chalk drawings, and if you ever needed a theme for a music video to go with an eighties song about tennis, then here you go. Not that there are many eighties songs about tennis, of course. There’s Chris Rea’s “Tennis,” I suppose, but that’s not really about tennis. Nice bass riff, though. Where was I? Oh, right, tennis covers.

On-Court Tennis, Commodore 64, Activision


This chap seems confused that someone has written a bunch of cryptic information on the tennis ball he’s trying to hit. “What is this ‘flash load’?” he ponders as he prepares to slice the ball back over the net. Unfortunately for him he will never be a world-class tennis player, because this artwork clearly depicts him as having hair on his arms. With the extra drag this generates he won’t be fast enough to compete against his hairless rivals.

Match Point, Commodore 64, Psion


Here we see a tennis player whose nickname is undoubtedly “The Underbite.” Captured in this image is The Underbite’s sudden realisation that maybe he should have brought a full-sized racquet to this match instead of the Action Man accessory he’s currently using. Speaking of Action Man, this image looks like it was taken straight from the cover of a sixties or seventies “men’s magazine,” except instead of surviving a World War II ambush or hunting big game he’s getting some healthy exercise down at the local tennis club before heading back to job at the council.

Tournament Tennis, Commodore 64, Imagic


Have you ever wondered what a statue of a tennis player carved from glistening, meaty dog food would look like? No, me neither, but here we are. This is the terrible knowledge that we both now share. I wonder what the thinking behind this particular aesthetic choice was? An attempt to create the ur-tennis-player, perhaps, one that exhibits protean strength and finesse, one that belongs to no single race or creed? That could be the case. Equally the artist could have been eating a treacle sponge while doing the artwork and, having dropped a big dollop of their dessert onto the paper, they decided to work it into the art. Whoever this mysterious player is, they’re in a for a real surprise when they realise that’s not a tennis ball coming at them, and someone’s whipped a cue ball towards them instead.

International 3D Tennis, ZX Spectrum, Sensible Software


I showed this one in an earlier sports game covers article, but I can’t leave it out. I just really like the idea of a tennis game cover that captures the exact moment a player suffers a horrible ankle injury. Not in a mean way, I hasten to add. I just think it’s weird, is all. I also think this player looks like unthreatening pop-jazz musician Jamie Cullum. Perhaps the broken ankle is punishment for Cullum’s anodyne cover of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Lover, You Should Have Come Over.”

Jahangir Khan World Championship Squash, ZX Spectrum, Krisalis Software


I figured I’d chuck in a few covers from adaptations of other racquet sports, because why not? What is squash if not a game of tennis played against a wall? I’m sorry, any squash players who might be reading this, I’m sure you hear that kind of unfair dismissal of your chosen sport all the time.
So, here we’ve got to blokes playing squash, which is fair enough for the cover of a squash game. Leg-hair status: just as bald as tennis. The guy on the left’s leg is so smooth that it’s producing a blinding glare with which he can dazzle and disorient his opponent, which I’m sure isn’t technically against the rules of squash but is certainly rather poor sportsmanship
I say “that guy,” but of course he’s the eponymous Jahangir Khan, a man who was certainly a squash champion. How much of a champion? Well, according to his Wikipedia page, Khan won five hundred and fifty-five squash matches. In a row. A five-and-a-half-year unbeaten streak. At that point you have to wonder whether all the other squash professionals’ hearts were really in it any more. “A tournament’s coming up, huh? Oh, Jahangir Khan has entered. You know what, I think I’ll save the air fare.” Khan eventually lost his streak in 1987. After that he went on another nine-month unbeaten run. He was good at squash, is what I’m saying, and he must have been a real easy pick for the star of this computer squash game. Khan is also the uncle of Natasha Khan, better known as the musician Bat for Lashes. I don’t know why this article has ended up containing so much music trivia. Maybe I’ve got a subconscious desire to write about music or something, so let’s give it a try – I’ve been listening to Alice Cooper’s albums that he doesn’t remember making recently, the ones from the deepest points of his struggle with alcohol and drugs, and there’s some fun, weird stuff in there. Check out the track “Skeletons in the Closet,” for example. Okay, hopefully that’s gotten the musical stuff out of my system for now.

Jonah Barrington’s Squash, ZX Spectrum, New Generation Software


Here’s another cover that you might have seen before if you follow me on Twitter, and it might be my favourite of the bunch. It must have taken a huge amount of effort to get a professional athlete to look this uncomfortable. What on earth was the direction behind this piece? “That’s great Jonah, we’ve got some good action shots, but what if you pretended to be trapped in a giant, invisible baby bouncer? I feel that could really work as a concept.”

Superstar Ping-Pong, Commodore 64, SilverTime


Ping Pong also gets a seat at this table, of course. Not an especially interesting cover on its own, the real charm of Superstar Ping-Pong comes from that advertising blurb. “The potential of a ping-pong game has at last been realised” is such an overblown statement that it’s impossible not to love, as though there were millions of die-hard table tennis fans out there thinking “soon the computers will be able to recreate the game we love with perfect fidelity, and when that day comes we can at last fold up our ping-pong tables and put them away in the garage forevermore. No longer will we suffer the tyranny of not having enough space to play table tennis! This glorious day is soon at hand, my brothers and sisters!”

Table Tennis Simulation, Atari ST, Starbyte


You might be thinking that’s it’s not going to be an accurate simulation of table tennis if you’re playing as a tortoise, and you’d be right. Have you seen how fast top-level ping-pongers go at it? No, I think this cover is actually a clever piece of expectation management. By showing you tortoises right out of the gate, the game is subtly conditioning you to not be surprised when the actual game runs really slowly. Crafty, very crafty.

Ping Pong, Commodore 64, Konami / Imagine


A much better cover here, as you might expect from a company like Konami. There’s almost a martial arts flavour to it, I reckon. Mind you, that might be because I’ve been playing Fist of the North Star: Lost Paradise recently so when I see people leaving ghostly after-images of themselves when they move, that’s what I’m reminded of. Still, I feel like if you changed the background and airbrushed out the paddles you’d have a perfectly acceptable cover for Yie Ar Kung Fu.

Tiebreaker, Commodore 64, Kingsoft


The more you look at this cover, the more bizarre it gets. Just how long is that net? Why has the player gently knocked the ball straight to his opponent instead of trying to score a point by blasting it into the vast unoccupied space provided by this huge circular court? Are the insurers of this event not worried that one of the players might injure themselves by colliding with the six-foot tall trophy that’s right in the play area? The plaque on the trophy implies that the current holders are Kingsoft themselves, so we’re left to assume that they’ve created their own bizarro version of tennis in an attempt to spice things up.

Serve and Volley, Commodore 64, Accolade


I feel like the artist on this one ran out of energy just before they got to the racquet. Everything else is perfectly fine, but the racquet seems to have been painted on in Tipp-Ex. Unless… that’s the ghost of a tennis racquet?

Passing Shot, Commodore 64, Sega / Image Works


Definitely the most boring cover I’ll show you today is this re-release art for Passing Shot. It’s... a tennis ball. This is a tennis game on the Commodore 64, and that’s more than enough to give you a very strong idea of how it’s going to play. However, there is that title logo, and if on first glance you read it as Passing Shot and not Passing, erm, something else, you’re a better person than I.

Real Tennis, MSX, Takara


To finish the article, let’s quickly look at a selection of fascinating faces, starting with this one where a young man has suddenly arrived at the realisation that he’d rather be doing anything else with his life than playing tennis. “Aww geez, he’s hit the ball back towards me again,” his expression seems to say, “how long will this nightmare continue? I could be at home watching YouTube videos of motorsport accidents!”

Grand Slam, Amiga, Infinity Software


Look at this doe-eyed youth, fresh of face and lean of limb, a slight smile on his lips. That’s how you know he’s not a real sportsperson, they don’t tend to smile while they’re actually playing their sports. You wouldn’t either if you went through the same training regimen as a pro athlete.

Jonah Barrington’s Squash, Commodore 64, New Generation Software


Finally for today, this alternate cover for Jonah Barrington’s Squash reveals the true emotion that squash brings to the surface – pure, undiluted terror. These men are clearly very frightened of what’s going on around them, the icy claw of horror scratching at their hearts as the walls of the squash court seem to press in on them. I can only assume that the winner of this match has to face Jahangir Khan next.

06/11/2018

ALLEY CAT (ATARI 800)

Well, the Halloween season is over and as always it’s a bit of struggle to muster up the enthusiasm to return to writing about games that don’t include spooks or spectres or logo artwork that looks as though it was dipped in rancid cottage cheese. This time I figured I’d ease myself back in gently and bridge the gap by playing a game that stars a black cat. That’s at least mildly spooky, right? Hopefully today’s game will act as the Halloween equivalent of a nicotine patch, then – it’s Bill Williams and Synapse Software’s 1983 Atari 800 get-your-end-away-em-up Alley Cat!


Already the game’s trying to make a liar out of me, because that’s quite clearly a ginger cat. Don’t worry, it’s only orange because otherwise it wouldn’t show up on this background, it’ll be a black cat once the gameplay starts. The cat’s name is Freddy, and he’s on a mission – a mission of love, as he attempts to hook up with another cat called Felicia and get down to the kind of activities befitting of the name “alley cat.” Maybe that’s why there’s an otherwise incongruous martini glass up there, to convey that I’ll be taking Felicia for a night on the town? I have no idea otherwise.


Alley Cat begins, as you might expect, in an alley. Freddy perches on a rubbish bin near the bottom of the screen, which is the best place to be while I figure out what’s going on because if you hang around at street level for too long a dog runs onto the screens and murders Freddy in a cartoon-fight-dust-cloud situation. And what is going on? Well, Freddy needs to jump into one of these windows when they open, because that’s where the gameplay is.


To reach the higher windows, Freddy can cling onto the clothes on the washing line and clamber up that way and hey, if you’re feeling adventurous you can also try to catch some of the mice that scurry around for extra points. Unsurprisingly, the residents of this building don’t take kindly to the night-time antics of a horny, dog-fighting, clothes-shredding alley cat, so they try to shut Freddy up by throwing objects at him; objects such as rolling pins, shoes and, erm, rotary telephones? Throwing a telephone seems a bit much. Even I’m not old enough to remember how much a rotary telephone would have cost back in the day, but it can’t have been that cheap. Also, they’d be quite hard to throw accurately, what with the receiver dangling off and everything. On the plus side, if you landed a clean hit you’d probably get a satisfying “ding!” sound for your efforts.


With grace, agility and a hefty dose of luck, I managed to guide Freddy through a window. The inside of the room may be sparse, but that’s definitely a fish bowl on the table and I’ve watched enough cartoons to know that, as a cat, it’s my mission to eat that fish. Jumping up to the table is easy enough, but Freddy isn’t alone. He’s constantly being chased around the screen by a furious broom. This Fantasia reject relentlessly harasses Freddy, smacking him around the screen, away from the fish bowl or, if you’re especially unlucky, straight back out of the window. The broom can’t kill Freddy, but it’s perfectly capable of swatting you into something that is fatal. The only thing that will distract the broom from it’s cat-battering mission is dirt. If you run around on the floor Freddy will leave mucky footprints, and the broom will stop chasing you in order to sweep them up. You can use this to your advantage, but honestly I had more luck when I ignored the broom entirely.


Touching the bowl is something of a mixed blessing for Freddy. On the one hand, there’s way more than one fish for him to eat. However, the fish bowl works on Tardis principles and is much bigger on the inside. Oh, and it’s full of electric eels. That’s what the wobbly blue lines are supposed to be, so don’t swim into them because Freddy will lose a life if you do. To clear the stage, you have to “eat” all the fish by swimming into them while avoiding the eels and not drowning. I had trouble with that last part, because for some reason it didn’t occur to me to swim to the surface to get more air. My eyes were too big for Freddy’s stomach – well, Freddy’s lungs, anyway.
Freddy can freely swim in any direction but he does have a lot of momentum, so taking your time and waiting for the eels to wiggle into more favourable positions seems like the best way to go.


If you manage to catch all the fish and avoid a grisly end via electrocution or drowning, you’re awarded a score on this cat-o-meter. Here I’ve managed to score a respectable 36 cat-heads out of 48. Your score is determined by how quickly you finish each event and going for a high-score is what Alley Cat is all about, but slow and steady wins the race, you know? Also, I’m playing as a cat. Rushing around and doing things as fast as possible seems very out of character.


Once I’d cleared an event, a special kind of window opened up, a window with the feline object of our affections sitting in it. Felicia was no doubt awed by Freddy’s ability to eat a dozen goldfish in about thirty seconds, so she’s giving him the chance to prove his love by… climbing up a series of platforms made of hearts? Reach the top level and Felicia will, ahem, reward you, but that’s easier said than done when the Cupids at the top of the screen are destroying the platforms by shooting them with their arrows. What kind of evil nega-Cupids are these that would stand between a plucky cat and his true love? But wait, some of the Cupids repair the platforms with their, erm, arrows? This whole situation is a theological nightmare.
Not only do you have to deal with the predations of minor Roman gods, but each level of platforms is also patrolled by one of Felicia’s overprotective brothers. They’ll knock Freddy down to the level below if he touches hem, and I don’t know if it’s by design or I’m just unlucky but there always seemed to be another brother right below me so I’d get knocked all the way back down to the bottom. After getting bumped back down to the bottom multiple times and eventually falling off the screen entirely, I decided it was time to try some of the other events, and maybe look for a different cat to seduce while I’m at it.


In this challenge we can see a bird cage perched precariously on a table. Once again, old Warner Brothers cartoons have prepared me for this, much as they taught me about the concept of hunting seasons and where not to buy my comically oversized bird-killing tools from. Part one of this mission involves avoiding the broom long enough to reach the bird cage and nudge it off the table so it pops open and the bird flies out.


Of course, this now means that I have to actually catch the bird. There is is, perched on the curtain rail, every one of its twelve pixels taunting me as it flits about the room and I realise there’s one big problem with Alley Cat -  I find it really difficult to control. Freddy moves quickly and likes to slide around a lot, but it’s his jumping that I had the most trouble with. He can jump fairly high from a standing start but with very little horizontal movement – to make a longer leap, you need to get a run up, which makes sense to a degree but I often found myself doing a short hop even when I thought I’d built up enough speed to make a mighty leap. Even worse, once you have done a long jump you lose all your momentum as soon as you land and have to build up speed again, which is the opposite of the way almost every other platformer I’ve ever played works. I’m sure I’d learn to get used to it if I played Alley Cat for a long enough time, but coming at it as a complete beginner meant jumping around often felt finicky and laborious.
I caught the bird eventually. It would have been a faster process had I not spent a minute or so staring at that portrait on the wall. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s supposed to be professional footballer Jonjo Shelvey. Either that or someone drew a crude face on a large spoon and dressed it in a shirt.


This screen is very simple, and has the most cat-like objective of them all: climb up the bookcase and knock down the vases of flowers at the top. That’s, like, Cat 101. The only danger is the threat from the deadly dangling spiders. You might have seen a cat deal with a spider before and subsequently wonder why the spiders are a threat, but the manual claims that this apartment belongs to someone called Nick Cromancer so those probably aren’t your friendly neighbourhood house spiders. A fun little challenge, this one, and as I say it’s the most cat-like amongst them, especially as you watch Freddy scrabbling for purchase on the bookshelf.


This enormous cheese raises some questions. How did it fit through the apartment’s door? Where does the owner of this apartment sleep? Have they carved another, smaller apartment out of the cheese? Will we ever see the truly gargantuan fondue pot that’s presumably stored in the bedroom? All questions without answers, I’m afraid. All I know is that Freddy has to catch all the mice that are scurrying around on the cheese so really, I’m doing the insane owner of the mega-cheese a real favour here. It sucks for the mice, though. It’s like arriving in Heaven to find the Devil has followed close behind.
More jumping is required to grab the mice, although those holes in the cheese aren’t just for show; pressing the fire button near one causes Freddy to scurry through the cheese tunnels and exit from a different hole. You can use this to sneak up on the mice, although it all felt a bit random while I was playing – I did better when I chose a cheese-hole on a whim and leapt around like I was on the proverbial hot tin roof than I did when I tried to plan my movements.


The final type of room sees Freddy trying to catch one of the projectile telephones so he can call the RSPCA and report the owner of this flat for keeping so many dogs in this cramped room. Not really, it’s time to show off Freddy’s large, resolutely un-neutered balls by sneaking into this room and drinking all the bowls of milk from under the noses of the sleeping dogs. The full bowls take longer to drink and the more time you stand in place, the more likely that a dog will wake up and tear you to shreds, so you have to be take care not to push your luck. This is the hardest event of the bunch, in my opinion, mostly because it’s hard to tell when the dogs are about to wake up. Oh, and there’s a flying carton of milk that constantly tops up the bowls you haven’t eliminated. You’d think Freddy would ignore the bowls and just stand until the infinite milk dispenser if he wants a drink, but I suppose at this point it’s a matter of pride. He is trying to impress a lady cat, after all.


Okay, time for another crack at reaching Felicia, except this time I’ve got a secret weapon, and that weapon is generosity. For every event you clear, you begin this stage with a gift-wrapped present at the bottom of the screen. You can only carry one at a time, but once you place it down any of Felicia’s brothers that touch it will be momentarily transfixed by Freddy’s display of magnanimity, allowing you to get past them far more easily. And that’s how I got past the cats, ascended the tower of love and thwarted the machinations of Cupid. I can’t blame Cupid, really. Those platforms are heart-shaped, and when he sees a heart he shoots an arrow into it. It’s kind of his whole deal.


Your reward is a smooch from Felicia, followed by a brief scene of them flying through the night sky in a pair of heart-shaped bubbles while fireworks explode in the background. I imagine the game’s creators felt that footage of a train going into a tunnel would be a bit too crass.


So ends Alley Cat – for me, at least. Once you’ve reached Felicia, you gain an extra life (up to a total of nine, naturally) and the game restarts at a higher difficulty level so you can shoot for the high score. I… won’t be doing that. It’s not that I dislike Alley Cat, I just didn’t find it all that much fun to play thanks to the fussy controls, especially when jumping, and trying to get into the windows to start one of the challenges is more frustrating than it needs to be. I’m sure most of my issues with the controls would be smoothed out with more practise, but I don’t fancy spending more time with Alley Cat even given the positives of the game – the animations are tiny but still smooth and full of character, with Freddy’s movements especially capturing a very cat-like essence. Plus it’s just weird, which I like. Giant cheeses? Multi-dimensional fish bowls? Someone who calls themselves Nick Cromancer and is presumably sitting somewhere smugly thinking that the Papal Inquisitor Squad will never find him now? I can’t argue with that. You had your moments, Alley Cat, so let’s leave it at that. Okay, this time I really am going to take a break.

31/10/2018

SPLATTERHOUSE 3 (MEGADRIVE / GENESIS)

The day is upon us at last. The pumpkins are carved, the horror movie marathon is queued up, the sweets that the trick-or-treaters didn’t claim are rapidly disappearing into my fat face. I'll be more Haribo than man by the end of the night. Happy Halloween, everybody! I hope you’re having a fun time if you’re a fan of the spooky season, and if you’re not then I hope your house remains un-egged. To close out the 2018 VGJunk Halloween Spooktacular, I’ve got one last glob of gruesome videogaming with a tale of unholy forces, exploding corpses and a guy named Rick who really needs to start wearing some goddamn shoes – it’s Now Production and Namco’s 1993 Megadrive terrifying-cleaning-bill-em-up Splatterhouse 3!


I’d imagine most people reading this already know the basics of the Splatterhouse saga, but here’s a quick recap anyway. In the original arcade game, Rick Taylor and his girlfriend Jennifer show some truly abysmal decision-making skills when they take shelter from a storm in a creepy mansion known as the Splatterhouse. “Getting a bit wet” would have been a much better outcome, but in they go, whereupon Rick is attacked by monsters and Jennifer is abducted. Rick is awakened by the Terror Mask, an ancient artefact that attaches to Rick’s face and transforms him into brutal monster-slaying madman with the body of two pro wrestlers sharing one set of skin and a mask which that makes him look like Jason Voorhees. Rick fights through the house, Jennifer becomes a monster and dies and the Terror Mask uses its evil power to summon a big monster because of course it does. It’s called the Terror Mask. It was never going to spearhead a new recycling initiative or open a cat shelter.


In Splatterhouse 2, the mask re-appears and tells Rick that if he goes back to the house, he can save Jennifer. Being the trusting sort that he is, Rick teams up with the mask once again and punches his way through yet another cavalcade of monsters that look like overgrown medical samples from an ear, nose and throat ward. It all works out in the end, though, and Rick and Jennifer are reunited and they go off to live happily until the developers decided there was money in a new Splatterhouse game.


There’s Rick now, peeking out from behind the Splatterhouse 3 logo during the intro. Don’t worry, we’ll be seeing plenty of him soon enough. So, Splatterhouse 3 has a story too, but I’m still a bit fuzzy about how it all fits together. The game itself takes a very cinematic approach to cutscenes, but for whatever reason there’s no in-game explanation for what’s happening. The manual has a bit more info – it tells us that years have passed, during which time Rick married Jennifer, they had a son named David and Rick got a job on Wall Street which makes sense because he’s used to dealing with vicious psychopaths, boom boom. Then there’s something about the Evil One, a malevolent force that rises from the abyss and attacks Rick’s mansion home. This allows the Terror Mask to wheedle its way back into Rick’s mind, and because Rick needs the mask’s power to punch all the monsters into chunky red paste they team up one more time. I think that’s how it goes, anyway. I suppose it’s not really important. I should probably, you know, play the game.


This iteration of the Terror Mask has received another new look, with a skull-like shape that’s definitely not a hockey mask and therefore safe from lawyers acting on behalf of the Friday the 13th franchise. Before the action start, the mask offers Rick a few tips, namely that he shouldn’t dawdle and that he can collect special “power stones” that’ll make Rick’s flesh expand with a surge of power. Based on that description I presume the “power stones” are fake Chinese Viagra.


And now the pummelling begins. Like previous games in the series, Splatterhouse 3 is a side-scrolling beat-em-up at heart, although the prequels were fixed to a single plane of action whereas Splatterhouse 3 allows you to move between the fore- and background in the manner of games like Final Fight. Combat also adopts the “classic” beat-em-up formula, with an attack button that can dish out a combo of punches upon repeated presses, grab attacks initiated by walking into monsters and then either headbutting them or slinging them across the room, plus a jump button for the always-welcome flying kicks. It’s a familiar toolset, so you should have no trouble getting through these early rooms filled with headless zombies. A headless zombie is kind of a genius concept, really – without a head, the zombie doesn’t have a weak point!


While Splatterhouse 3 does have stages – the first stage encompasses the mansion’s ground floor, for example – each stage is split into small rooms rather than being one continuous path from start to finish. Once you’ve cleared a room, you can bring up the map to see the pathways available to you. The X marks the stage’s boss, the white doors are one-way paths and the yellow doors are shortcuts. Rick’s position is, of course, marked by that adorable little Terror Mask icon. The optimal route to the boss might seem obvious, but because each room has its own combination of monstrous inhabitants it’s sometimes faster to take a slightly longer route to avoid especially demon-infested rooms. And you do need to be fast.


We’ve got to hurry and rescue Jennifer, who is currently hiding from the monsters. Splatterhouse 3 tells its story through these cinematic intermission screens that use digitised footage of real live actors. This means that someone had to dress as Rick, complete with a prop Terror Mask and I would love to see some behind-the-scenes footage of that process. Unfortunately none seems to exist, and who knows what happened to the Terror Mask prop? We can only hope that someone had the foresight to brick it up behind the walls of an old house so that future renovators get a real surprise.


Speaking of renovations, I hope that the Evil One’s influence has warped the very nature of the mansion because otherwise Rick and Jennifer are not raising their child in a pleasant environment. Plaster crumbles from the walls, rotten floorboards crack and splinter and rather than having a nice carpet in the lounge they went with “flagstones from a mouldering crypt” as a flooring choice. I understand that any time you buy a big old house it’s going to be something of a fixer-upper, but when your home looks like the set from an Evil Dead movie it’s time to get professional decorators in. And possibly an exorcist.


Like the other games in the series, S3 also has weapons you can pick up and use. They’re few and far between and there are no shotguns in this one, but who can argue with the brutal simplicity of hurling a breezeblock into a monster’s face? These zombies can’t, on account of them not having heads and also having a breezeblock where their heads should be. You can also find more traditional melee weapons like a piece of lumber and a machete, and those are more practical than the brick because you hold on to them rather than throwing them. The concrete bricks are especially difficult to use because if you drop a weapon on the floor, a ghostly head will fly onto the screen and steal it.  At least someone’s cleaning up around here.


As time passes, we’re treated to what is one of my favourite little horror moments in videogaming, as Jennifer begins to smell of rot of the grave. It’s such a strange, sinister phrase that manages to convey a real sense of encroaching dread – imagine how terrifying it’d be if you suddenly realised you were decomposing because you began to smell like a rotting corpse. Yikes.


In an effort to reach Jennifer more quickly, I unleashed Rick’s ultimate technique – by collecting magic orbs you can fill your power bar and then use that power to transform Rick into a form that somehow manages to be even larger and more muscular than regular Rick. The Terror Mask also fuses with Rick’s flesh, which I’m sure would be very painful as well as causing the same problems with neck movement that you see in Tim Burton’s Batman movies.
While you’re monster Rick, your attacks do more damage and you take less damage, which I’m sure is what you’d expect to happen. Your moveset changes slightly, too, but for the most part it’s a straight power upgrade; although piling on an extra three hundred pounds of raw muscle unsurprisingly makes Rick move more slowly. It’s a power than can be useful in a pinch, but you’ve got to be careful where you use it because once you clear a room as Monster Rick you lose all your power and revert to normal. Save it for the boss battles, and speaking of which…


Here’s the first boss of the game, an almost child-like mass of rubbery flesh with a ravenous maw and suppurating wounds where its eyes should be. Yep, sounds like a Splatterhouse boss to me. The boss is angry because I interrupted its dinner; when you arrive in the boss room it’s happily chowing down on a pile of corpses. Whose corpses? I haven’t got a clue, but there are plenty of them. Perhaps Rick employed large staff of maids and butlers, or maybe the monster brought the corpses with it as a packed lunch. There’s a busy day of carnage ahead and all the cafeteria serves is cold goat entrails, so he asked his monster spouse to make up a lunchbox. There’s a little note inside that says “Give them “Hell” honey!! XXX.” That’s the story I’m sticking with.


Phase one of the fight sees the boss doing little besides annoyingly hopping around just out of arm’s reach and occasionally trying to crash into Rick, but after taking enough damage its head falls off. Normally this would be a good thing for Rick, but in this case it just means the monster can now extend a huge bloody arm from its guts and claw at you. I love that you can still see the monster’s tongue flapping around where its jaw used to be.
It’s still a fairly simple boss even once transformed into a reverse sock puppet, and eventually I emerged triumphant. However, you might notice that the timer at the top of the screen has run out.


I was too slow, and now Jennifer is dead. I’m probably projecting, but I think the live-action Terror Mask does a really good job of capturing a look of both cold resignation and quiet anger. The mask encourages Rick to use his rage against the monsters, but what if I did manage to clear the stage before the time ran out?


In that case, Jennifer is still alive when Rick reaches her – however, she’s been infected with a horrible creature called a boreworm that’s eating her from the inside and the only way to stop it is to kill the giant boreworm. That’s… better than being dead? I think?
What this means is that Splatterhouse 3 has multiple different story paths you can take, with each step determined by whether you clear the stage within the time limit or not. There are even four separate endings, depending on who lives and who dies. It’s a fun feature that provides for more potential replayability than a lot of other games of this type and vintage, and I’m excited to see more of these cutscenes but everything being tied to strict time limits does have its downsides.


Stage two encompasses the second floor of the mansion, and as Rick begins his mission to find the giant boreworm I can reveal to you Rick’s true power. You might think being able transform into Goth Incredible Hulk was his ultimate attack, but you’re much better served by using Rick’s spinning kick attack. Activated by hitting away, towards and attack, it causes Rick to spin around multiple times with his foot outstretched, clobbering any monsters that dares to enter even the vague vicinity. It feels like your traditional beat-em-up “desperation” attack, and indeed in the Japanese version of the game it’s activated by pressing jump and attack together, but it doesn’t drain your health and it’s more powerful than even a full combo string. If you want to get anywhere in S3, learning to reliably activate the spin-kick is absolutely mandatory.


Rick Taylor: husband, father, occasional possession victim, collector of antique Swiss clocks. He’s a multifaceted kinda guy, is Rick.  I just wish he’d put on some goddamn shoes. I’ve mentioned this before but for whatever reason I find Rick’s constant barefootedness to be deeply unsettling. If he’s not walking on cold stone floors or through rooms warped into pulsating masses of unidentifiable flesh, he’s ramming his feet down monsters’ throats. For god’s sake, man, invest in some study work boots or something. Hell, wrapping a carrier bag around each foot would be better than nothing.


The boss of the first stage reappears as a regular enemy. Normally I’d be a little annoyed that the recycling has begun already, but it’s such a fun monster design that I don’t really mind. Plus this version of the monster has much less health and now Rick has a giant cleaver, so the playing field is both more even and very messy. Monsters have special animations if you kill them with weapons such as being cleft mostly in twain by the cleaver, and honestly Splatterhouse 3 is packing in so many horrible details that I can’t help but love it.


At the end of the stage, in a room covered in the aforementioned pulsating flesh and decorative wall hearts, the giant boreworm waits. It begins the fight by throwing lots of tiny boreworms at you that I had real trouble avoiding. In the end I stopped trying to avoid them just so I could get closer to the boss. The boreworm likes to jump around a lot, occasionally spitting more worms, and it also has the rather annoying power to block your punches.


Still, it can’t block grabs, and after enough headbutts the top half of the boreworm explodes into a writhing mass of maggots. After this transformation, the boreworm spends most of the battle propelling itself along the floor like some demented living mop. The best part of this fight is that the boreworm is constantly giggling to itself. I’ve always thought that the Splatterhouse games were more style than substance, but as I fight a laughing, maggot-faced worm monster in a room made of meat I must confess that said style is fantastic.


Mission accomplished; Jennifer remains undigested and we leave her here to recuperate while we complete the rest of the game. If you don’t make it in time the boreworm eats Jennifer’s brain and she becomes a “mindless beast,” so we’re definitely on track for the good ending now.
With Jennifer rescued, Rick turns his attention to his son, David, who is also hiding somewhere in the house. David’s survival is tied to, you guessed it, a time limit, so we’d better get a shift on.


Pictured above: Rick getting clonked in the jaw by a haunted lamp. A bit of poltergeist activity makes a nice change of pace, although after all the grotesque beasts we’ve already faced it’s hard to be scared of a book. It must be Michael Owen’s autobiography or something.


Spooky furniture aside, the combat is much the same as before. Rick controls quite well, and while his movements can feel a bit heavy with a fair amount of inertia when you’re trying to change directions, it doesn’t hamper the action much and even gives Rick a satisfying sense of solidity. Hit detection is good and quite generous, especially when trying to gather multiple monsters together so you can hit them all at once, and each attack has it’s uses – flying kick knock enemies down quickly, throws can buy you some breathing space, that sort of thing. However, there is one major issue with the combat: the spinning kick is too good. In almost every situation it is vastly superior to your normal moves, because it hits all around you, does tons of damage and you’re invincible while performing it. This is only true of the American version of the game, by the way, because the spinning kick is far weaker in the Japanese version and is mostly used for crowd control. But this is the US version, so having Rick constantly pirouetting things to death like a ballerina with anger management issues is really the only way to go.


Don’t worry, David, daddy’s coming! He’s very dizzy, but he’s on his way!


This stage’s boss fight is great, and if you ever wanted to see a masked maniac stick the nut on a huge teddy bear then you have serious issues but hey, Splatterhouse 3 has you covered. Perhaps unsurprisingly the teddy bear isn’t much of a threat at first, what with it being a cuddly toy and all. A cuddly toy inhabited by an evil spirit, sure, but it doesn’t attack much and even if it did hit you it seems unlikely to cause much damage.


Eventually the inevitable happens and the bear erupts into a twisted blob of bloody flesh and razor sharp claws. It uses those claws to taunt you with a “bring it on” gesture and boy, the bosses in this game really do have a lot of character. The boss’ bravado is misplaced, however, because all it really does is charge at Rick so you can stand there and let it run right into your spinning kicks. It might block the first one or two but Rick will keep on spinnin’ and land a hit eventually. Then the teddy bear monster explodes, because that’s what monsters do.


But alas, even though I beat the time limit David is nowhere to be seen, and the monster in his bedroom was merely a distraction. The good news is that David is still alive. The bad news is that the monsters have taken him because the Evil One needs a psychic child to serve as a sacrifice that will release the Demon Stone and whaddya know, David is psychic, apparently. I guess some of the Terror Mask’s power found its way into Rick’s, erm, gametes. There’s a difficult conversation with Jennifer waiting for Rick once all this is over.


The game says stage four takes place in the mansion’s basement, but that is quite obviously an open sewer. That can’t up to building codes, can it? Did Rick build this mansion himself, using the Terror Mask’s fearsome power to dig an uncovered drainage channel? Frankly I’m impressed that a game set entirely within a house still managed to contain a sewer level.


Rick also has a very well-appointed wine cellar, which does mean he’ll be able to drink to forget afterwards. No wonder he can afford all this wine, what with not paying building inspectors or buying shoes.


The excellent monster designs continue with these sack-wearing ghouls that hover ominously until they decide to attack with the big monster arm they’re hiding under their cloaks. You can’t go wrong with the “one eyehole in a sack” monster design, and between that and their lumpy red flesh I can’t help but wonder whether they’re related to the original Splatterhouse’s chainsaw-handed Biggy Man boss. Once you’ve hit them enough their cloaks fall off to reveal the very Deadite-like heads beneath, although getting to that point can be a struggle because these monsters can become immune to your attacks on a whim, an especially annoying trait when you’re trying to kill them as quickly as possible. I think it’s fair to say I have mixed feelings about these cool-looking bastards.


The stage’s boss starts out as an embryo that knows how to punch. Thinking to myself “I’m not going to lose a fist-fight to a foetus,” I sent Rick wading in there. Then the boss electrocuted me. Okay, fine, you win this round.


Of course, it didn’t take long for the boss to transform – or hatch, in this case – so now there’s another malformed hellspawn for you to repeatedly spin-kick back to the underworld. Definitely less endearing than the other bosses, this one, perhaps a touch nondescript, and like the teddy bear boss it’s more than willing to run right into your foot repeatedly, so keep spinning like you’re trying to drill your way to China using nothing but your disturbingly bare feet.


Phew, David’s okay, and remarkably unfazed by seeing his father transformed into a hulking brute wearing a skull mask. I suppose he already knew what was going on. Because he’s psychic, you see.
With David and Jennifer both saved, the family-rescuing aspect of the game comes to a close and we’re assured of the good ending… assuming we can vanquish the horrors that still remain.


Even though David was rescued, the ritual got far enough along to free the.. Demon Stone? Evil One? I’m having a hard time keeping track of what’s going on at this point. We don’t appear to be in Rick’s house any more, either. H.R. Giger’s house, maybe, but not Rick’s. Oh well, so long as there are monsters to punch the path to victory will be fairly straightforward, and despite being late in the game this stage is something of a relief because there are no time limits to worry about.


Considering how viciously difficult the earlier games in the series were, Splatterhouse 3 is surprisingly fair on the straightforward “kill the monsters and don’t die” side of things. You’ve got a decently-sized health bar, the spinning kick is very powerful and having an extra plane of movement means that attacks are a lot easier to avoid that they were in the single-plane prequels. Most of the game’s challenge does come from beating the time limits, and it can be really tough to save everyone, requiring multiple playthroughs to learn the fastest, safest routes. It’s an unusual balancing act and I’m not normally a fan of games with meaningful time limits, but in S3’s case it adds enough to the game that I’m glad of its inclusion.


Now that I’ve said the game wasn’t as difficult as I expected, it’s time for some hubristic punishment in the form of this stage’s boss. It’s the Evil One, and you might recognise him from Splatterhouse 2, where a giant version chased Rick during the latter potion of the game. The Evil One is smaller here but no less deadly, and the real challenge is getting close enough to it to land any hits. Not only will the boss fly away as soon as you get near, but it can also fire exploding orbs at you that knock off a big chunk of your health. I’m sure there’s a specific pattern to its movements and grabs seemed to be the most effective attacks, so manipulating it into grabbing range is probably the way to go, but I found this fight extremely hard. It’s not even very interesting visually. I didn’t like fighting buff, naked bald guys when they were the villain of Street Fighter IV and I don’t like it now


After many, many deaths and the application of a cheat code for infinite lives (hey, I want this article out on Halloween) Rick finally emerges victorious. Things are looking up for our hero – the Evil One is defeated, his wife and son are safe and the Terror Mask didn’t try to betray him this time!


Oh. I ask you, if you can’t trust ancient evil artefacts called the Terror Mask, who can you trust? Defeating the Evil One has left a power vacuum that the Terror Mask is more than happy to slide into, but Rick’s not about to let that happen. Not while I’ve still got that infinite lives cheat active.


And thus you find yourself fighting the Terror Mask’s physical form, or at least the top half. After the nightmare I had with the previous boss I’m pleased to say that the Terror Mask’s first form isn’t too hard to deal with. The trick is to try to stay close, because otherwise it’ll keep shooting pillars of fire at you. Get in close, try to land a hit just as it starts attacking and don’t get too greedy and the first stage shouldn’t be too much of a problem.


The second phase kicks things up a notch. The mask consolidates itself into a mask and one very large meatball. A deadly meatball that once again tries to beat Rick through manoeuvrability rather than sheer power, teleporting away when you get close and launching a barrage of bone skewers at you. When you do land an attack, the mask responds by summoning another, ghostly mask that chases you around the screen for a while. When I say “a while” I actually mean “bloody ages,” to the point that you really shouldn’t damage the boss when it’s in the centre of the screen because then you won’t have enough space to run away from the ghost-mask.


Fighting the Terror Mask raises some questions: namely, how is Rick still wearing the mask? And why does the mask still resurrect Rick when he dies? There are no fewer than four Terror Masks in the screenshot above. That’s too many Terror Masks. Perhaps it’s intended to highlight the arrogance of the Terror Mask, destroyed by a weapon that it created. Or maybe the developers thought “who cares, it’s a game about not-Jason Voorhees beating monsters to death.” Either way, with enough perseverance the Terror Mask will, in essence, punch itself to death.


Hoisted by your own veiny, bulging petard, huh? That’s the end of the Terror Mask, his plan to take over the world by manipulating someone who’s good at killing evil demigods having backfired spectacularly.


Rick returns to his family, or at least he does in the good ending. The others are variations depending on who survives. If no-one survives, you get a scene with Rick reflecting on the loss of his family and his crushing loneliness… immediately followed by a message reading “Congratulations!” I’ve got to say, that feels like a bit of a kick in the teeth.


You know, I think Splatterhouse 3 might be my favourite Splatterhouse game – my favourite to actually play, anyway. The graphics, music and overall atmosphere of Splatterhouse 2 are very difficult to top, but the difficulty does kinda wear me down whenever I play it. I’m bad at games and I’m really bad at difficult games, so Splatterhouse 3’s less brutal gameplay definitely holds my attention better. And it’s not like Splatterhouse 3 is without atmosphere, because it looks great. Perhaps style over substance, as I said earlier, but god damn what a great style. Excellent enemy designs, copious amounts of cartoonish gore, unpleasantly slimy environments where no barefoot man should dare to tread – it is absolutely a VGJunk kinda game.
A couple of boss battles aside it plays nicely too, especially if you don’t care what ending you get so you can take your time. There’s little truly special about the core gameplay, but it handles well even if the spinning kick does become a bit of a crutch, and Rick’s monster form is a nice touch. The monster form’s version of the spinning kick makes Rick shoot disgusting tendrils of flesh out of his torso, so yes, I can definitely recommend Splatterhouse 3.


For the final Halloween-O-Meter score of the season, there’s no way I could give Splatterhouse 3 anything but top marks. It’s basically a slasher film that you’re in control of, everything explodes in gouts of blood like a terrible accident at the black pudding factory and there’s a demoniacally-possessed teddy bear. The Halloween-O-Meter might be a fickle thing, but Splatterhouse 3 offers a good calibration point for a ten out of ten even if it doesn’t have any pumpkins in it.

Well, that’s the end of this year’s Halloween Spooktacular. I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed putting it together – well, apart from when I was playing Vampire Killer, that was not fun. Seeing people say that they were excited to see the Spooktacular return definitely gave me the strength to keep ploughing on through, so thanks for that. VGJunk will return soon enough, but I  might take a short break. Thanks for reading, and until then remember this – it’s always Halloween if you’re willing gorge on fun-sized Mars bars and listen to Dokken’s Dream Warriors on a loop.

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