16/10/2014

CASTLEWEEN / SPIRITS & SPELLS (GAME BOY ADVANCE)

All these Halloween games I've written about over the years, but never one that features the most basic of all Halloween activities - trick or treating. That's going to change with today's game, Magic Pockets' 2003 Game Boy Advance platformer Castleween, which is all about trick or treating... for the first twenty seconds, then it goes off in a completely different direction that doesn't involve trying to avoid the cursed houses that hand out fruit or, god forbid, toothbrushes. See, those people think they're being clever but you still get a treat from them - the treat of throwing eggs at the house of people who think promoting dental hygiene on Halloween is a noble thing to do, the poor benighted fools. Where was I? Right, videogames, that was it.


So, this is Castleween, unless you're playing the American version, which is called Spirits and Spells. Or the Japanese release, which is Mahou no Pumpkin (Pumkpin's Magic). I'm not sure the game needed three different titles, and all three make sense to some degree, but I think I'll be sticking with Castleween because it reminds me of three things I love: Halloween, Castlevania and the band Ween. Sadly only one of those things makes an appearance in Castleween, but it is the most seasonally appropriate of the three, as we shall see from the intro.


Our heroes are two young trick-or-treaters called Alicia and Greg, dressed in the time-honoured costumes of a witch and a devil respectively. Alicia, Greg and their friends are making their way through a forest in search of a fabled house filled with "thousands and thousands of sweets," because in these modern times kids are too distracted by their tablet computers and loom bands and brutal gang initiations to heed the lessons of fairy tales. If they had taken the time to read Hansel and Gretel they might have thought twice about entering the deep dark woods to find a candy-themed house.


They find the house, and quelle surprise, it's home to a terrifying, child-endangering evil. The Bogeyman is here, and he's whipping out the kid's souls, a process that turns them to stone because all the kids in this village are actually garden gnomes that wished super hard to be real children, I guess? Greg and Alicia are spared this grisly fate - The Bogeyman having presumably reached his quota for the day before they arrived - and so these two plucky young scamps set out to find The Bogeyman and free the souls of their friends.


The game starts out in a graveyard, so not only were these kids wandering around a spooky forest on Halloween, it was a spooky forest right next to a cemetery? I blame the parents for either not instilling their children with a sense of self-preservation or for not letting them watch enough horror films.
There's nothing much to say about the gameplay at this stage, because Castleween is run-n-jump platformer of the type that you'll have played many times before. Get from one end of the stage to the other, avoiding the enemies and obstacles like these briar patches and collecting goodies in the form of trick-or-treat candy and magic "sparks".


Here, Alicia is confronted by some ghosts with terrible posture. As she looks out of the screen at the player, her eyes seem to say "get a load of these idiots, their backs are going to be so painful that they'll wish they could die all over again." Well, luckily for them they can die again, because Alicia can dispatch monsters by whacking them with her hat. I assume her hat has razor blades sewn into the brim a la Oddjob.


After a while, you'll come across Greg waiting patiently atop a blasphemous altar of dark magic, which seems like a smart move to me. It's the monster equivalent of entering a church for sanctuary, and because of its protective aura Greg has remained unharmed, allowing me to switch characters.
The ability to swap between Alicia and Greg at certain points is one of Castleween's more interesting features, and both kids have different skills: Alicia floats when she jumps and can fall safely from any height, and her special move is more useful, while Greg's pitchfork attacks have a little more range and he can double-jump but will lose a life if he falls too far. Each kid also has another, less obvious skill, but we'll get to that later. For now, you can assume that to progress in the game it's wise to switch characters whenever the opportunity arises.


I mentioned special attacks, and here's Greg's: like all good demons, it revolves around hellfire, and pressing the R button will cause flames to shoot out to the left and right... as long as you have some sparks. Sparks are the key to success in Castleween, for two reasons. One is that they allow you to use your special power - with no sparks you can't use it at all, but once you have ten you can burn your enemies to a crisp, with the attack becoming more powerful as you hold more sparks (that aren't consumed when you attack, by the way.) The other reason to collect sparks is that they act as a health bar in the same way as Sonic the Hedgehog's rings. If you take a hit and you don't have any sparks, you lose a life: get hit with sparks in your possession and you'll lose all your sparks but you'll still be alive. Unfortunately, unlike in Sonic your sparks don't scatter around the screen, ready to be re-collected for a limited time - one you're hit, all those sparks you have so assiduously collected are gone forever. I think this single gameplay quirk is Castleween's most frustrating feature, especially when coupled with the difficult later stages where enemies are hard to see coming.


For now, though, it's proving quite an enjoyable little romp once you realise that it's safest to treat every element of the screen as a potential threat to your life until you can prove otherwise. Trees? Probably going to try to slap you? Paving slabs? Will launch geysers of flame when stepped upon. In the screenshot above, Greg is standing next to a witch who is definitely trying to kill him because, y'know, witches and kids, but unfortunately for her she's standing on a slope and her infernal pact with Satan didn't cover shooting her spells diagonally downwards. Or protecting her knees from a vicious pitchfork assault, for that matter.


I'm really enjoying the environments so far, I can say that much, with backgrounds packed full of cartoonish Halloween charm. They were clearly created by people who have watched Nightmare Before Christmas a fair few times, but I like that sort of thing. I'm less enamoured with the sprites, though - created as 3D models and then digitised for the GBA, they've got some charm to them but they're often fuzzy and ill-defined, especially in movement. "Hand-drawn" sprites would have almost certainly been a drastic improvement, but I can't blame the developers for taking this option because sprite work is a time-consuming process and they had a shortcut available: Castleween was also released as a 3D platformer for the Gamecube and Playstation 2, and I would be surprised if the polygon models from the console editions weren't digitised for use in this Game Boy Advance version.


Greg leaps boldly into a swarm of demons, but don't fear for the young tyke because these demons recognise Greg as one of their mephitic brood thanks to his choice of Halloween costume. That's each character's other power - the power to be ignored by monsters that broadly match their outfit. Greg can scamper past devils unmolested, while Alicia remains untroubled by witches and she can also hitch a ride on certain spiders that try to capture Greg as a food source for their thousands of scurrying young, their countless tiny legs scrabbling for purchase on Greg's flesh as they seek the weakest areas of his body through which they might nourish themselves on his very life essence. Hey, the game's not scary so I'm just trying to inject a bit of season-appropriate terror.
The ability to sneak past certain enemies becomes much more useful later in the game, when you have more opportunities to choose which kid to play as, and getting it right can mean the difference between an unimpeded stroll to the goal or fighting your way through a bunch of glorified ghost train decorations. It's a fun little touch that I enjoyed very much, to the point where I think I would have preferred Castleween to have placed more emphasis on disguises.
And while I've got a screenshot of Greg jumping up, I should mention his sound effects. Greg makes a noise every time you jump, as platforming characters often do, but it's not the usual "sproing" type sound or even a grunt of effort - Greg instead makes a disgusting gagging noise, the sound you might make after inhaling the heady aroma of a dead dog that's been lying in the sun for a couple of weeks, every time he jumps. I take back what I said about losing all your sparks being the worst part of Castleween, I'm awarding that particular honour to Greg sounding like he's about to blow chunks every time he lifts his bloody legs up.


After passing through several graveyard and castle themed stages - Castleween takes a strange approach to stage layouts, with the levels being of wildly varying lengths but mostly being clumped into three distinct "themes" - Alicia is faced with a boss, and that boss is... The Bogeyman? Already? No, it's not the end of the game, and a scene just before this fight reveals that The Bogeyman is merely a pawn in the plans of a Mad Scientist who wants the children's souls for some diabolical scheme. Child soul harvesting? I think that's going a bit far even for a Mad Scientist. Even Dr. Frankenstein restricted himself to using parts that were already dead.
The Bogeyman may look cool - evil jack 'o lanterns perched on top of capes usually do - but he's not up to much in a combat situation. He walks back and forth until you jump up and smash him in the face with your hat, which causes him to rethink his battle plan and to instead stand at the end of the screen and roll easily-hopped pumpkins at you. Repeat this a few times and kids everywhere can stop hiding under their duvets, because The Bogeyman is defeated.


"Okay, you win," says The Bogeyman. "Your friends are in this creepy house over here. You should follow me into what is 100% guaranteed not not be a trap. If you can't trust me, the sum total of all childhood nightmares given flesh, who can you trust?"


And so Alicia and Greg plummet into the haunted house, The Bogeyman's cries of "suckerrrssss!" (presumably) ringing in their ears. Time to escape from this haunted house, then.


Possessed suits of armour? Check. They're day-one, ground-floor elements of any respectable haunted house. You gotta have the suits of armour that might remain still or might attack you as you wander past. Of course, Castleween confounded my expectations by having every suit of armour try to murder me, which rather lessened their impact. Their psychological impact, I mean. They still take all your sparks if they hit you.


Also in the haunted house: this adorable picture of the Mad Scientist, The Bogeyman and an unidentified Frankenstein-type monster. They look like they're having the time of their lives, their beaming smiles born from the pleasure of genuine friendship as they all crammed into the photobooth together so that their trip to the seaside would be forever commemorated in this photo that they had blown up and framed. They say that the key to happiness is to do what you love with the people you love, so it's a shame that the Mad Scientist loves ripping the eternal souls of children from their bodies and the people he loves are either made from corpses or are the physical avatar of terror. He could have been in inspiration to us all if only he loved fly fishing with his wife or something.


As the haunted house continues, there's not much new to Castleween's gameplay, either in terms of what this game has already offered up or when compared to other platformers before or since. The "disguise" element of the two characters is an interesting if underused addition, but otherwise it the same collection of pit-hopping antics you've seen a million times before - jumping across moving platforms, bouncing up high off springy platforms, trying not to land on platforms covering in grasping spectral hands. You know, the usual. As to whether it's any good... well, it's not bad. As I was playing I wasn't cursing my decision to give it a go or anything, and although it's mostly solid it does have flaws. One particular thing that bugged me - and I admit this is a personal peeve with platformers - is that you often have to jump straight up onto platforms that you shouldn't be able to reach, only for the game to declare "eh, close enough" and pop you up onto the platform because your feet got near the upper edge. Other than that, there are a few problems common to the less polished examples of the genre that appear in Castleween - sometimes it's difficult to tell where the edges of platforms are, and there's the occasional bit of input lag, most noticeably on Greg's double jump - but nothing game-breaking.


The game does become quite difficult quite quickly. Part of that is down to the small screen area making it easy for enemies to lurk just out of view, punishing you if you try to play with pace. The real kicker is the spark situation, however, and because taking a hit means you can't use your special attack Castleween evokes almost Gradius-like levels of despair after losing your powers. This is especially true with Alicia. Her special power is being able to throw her hat, which she can aim up and down, and losing that power during a section like the enemies-floating-around-moving-platforms scenario pictured above can turn Castleween into a more frustrating experience than it could have been or even should have been, and a compromise of either being able to immediately able to regain some lost sparks or always having a limited special attack that's simply powered up by sparks would have made it much easier for me to recommend this game.


Maybe I'm just being too gentle on a game that's pummelling the still-warm places in my heart with its cutesy Halloween atmosphere, but despite all the flaws I just mentioned I still think it's a fun little game that I would have played a bunch if I'd owned it as a kid. It's got plenty of hidden item stashes tucked away for you to search for, areas in which exploration is rewarded, and on the whole the core gameplay is definitely solid, if lacking some fine-tuning.


Suddenly, a vampire descends to attack our heroes! Honestly, there's a vampire. He's behind the text. Look, you'll just have to trust me on this, alright?


See, here he is now! What do you mean, he doesn't look much like a vampire? In fact, you'd say he looks more like a deep-sea fish struggling to escape from inside another, larger deep-sea fish? Okay, yeah, that's fair enough. He's hardly up there with Count Dracula or Barlow from Salem's Lot in terms of vampire menace. Hell, I think Count Duckula has him beaten on that front. At least if you encountered Count Duckula there's a chance some horrible fate would befall you, even if it was just due to Nanny's incompetence. This vampire's aura of terror is further diminished by the fact he makes a squeaking noise like a rusty bicycle every time he flaps his wings.
As for the actual fight, the vampire flies around spitting fireballs down at you for a while before gliding into hat-battering range. This is possibly the most difficult part of the game, because for some reason or other I had an absolute nightmare of a time getting Alicia to jump at the correct height. Still, I got there in the end. I wasn't going to let this thing beat me, I have my pride.


Short, balding and with facial features like a scrunched-up tissue, and yet the Mad Scientist is still somehow more threatening than the vampire. I think it's down to his refusal to wear safety goggles when mixing what are no doubt extremely dangerous chemicals. He's a maverick, a man on the edge. There's no telling where the depths of his depravity may end.


The final set of stages take place in the Mad Scientist's laboratory, although "laboratory" might be pushing it a bit - this is more of a Mad Steel Foundry, packed with molten metal and pipes that leak hissing jets of steam. Maybe this is the core of the Mad Scientist's sinister plan: after "accidentally" dropping his nephew into a crucible, the Mad Scientist discovers that children's souls are the missing ingredient in a super-strong and much cheaper alloy that will allow him to corner the market in metallurgy.


It seems appropriate that I'd run into this enemy down here. I think this is literally Satan himself, a goat-legged force of evil who appears by drawing a flaming portal in the floor. He's got so many demons at his command that Greg is just another face in the crowd to him, which is helpful. Again, terrible posture on Satan. No wonder all these bad guys are so, well, evil, they must have been driven to it by the pain of having a spine shaped like a map of the Monaco grand prix. The Father of Lies should invest in an ergonomic replacement for the throne of Hell.


I'm not too pleased with Castleween's decision to ditch its previous Halloween aesthetic for a somewhat generic "heavy industry" setting, but that doesn't mean I can't enjoy the section where our heroes are chased by a killer robot. That's the robot on the left of the screen. Yes, I know it doesn't look like something you have any need to be scared of unless you suffer from a phobia of smashed-up bicycles, but it looks a lot better in motion, and I like the way it's "head" is just a nub. I think it might be a tin can. A tin can with a child's soul stuffed inside. Say what you will about the Mad Scientist, but he uses every bit of the soul and nothing goes to waste.


Here is the Mad Scientist's version of a Frankenstein, "Frankenstein" in this situation being a generic descriptor for an animated golem of stitched-together human flesh in the same way that you  might say "hoover the carpet" when you own a non-Hoover brand vacuum cleaner. Dr. Frankenstein's lawyers will be on the case, no doubt. Anyway, this is presumably the same Frankenstein from the portrait in the haunted house, although he seems a lot less jolly here. He's also very flesh-coloured, which is sorta unnerving for reasons I can't adequately explain. This monster's rosy complexion implies that the Mad Scientist has finally cracked the whole dead-tissue-restored-to-life thing, but I'm so used to seeing green Frankensteins that this guy just doesn't seem right to me.


Now this is proper mad science. The Mad Scientist has a PhD in Unholy Tampering With God's Natural Order, and this demon foetus was his final dissertation / his means of showing them who's mad, showing them all! 


The final stage is the Soul Reservoirs, and here's Alicia freeing a bunch of souls from the glass jars in which they were trapped. There are a few souls hidden on each stage, plus a ton of them on this stage. The game keeps a running total of all the souls you've found. I did not find all the souls. Whether this means some of those kids are doomed to an eternity of statuehood was not discussed.
Looking for souls is the main impetus for exploration and a reason to try out each area as each kid - often souls are hidden in such a way that you need to reach a switching point, change characters and then go back through the area you just cleared to find out whether, say, Greg's double jump can net you some goodies. It helps give the game something extra beyond the usual linear level progression, at any rate, although it would perhaps be more enjoyable if there was more of a difference between Alicia and Greg.


That's the Mad Scientist saying "this is the end of the line for you!", not Greg. I would definitely have preferred it if Greg had burst into the Mad Scientist's lab and said "this is the end of the line for you!" while thwacking his pitchfork into his hand, but c'est la vie.


It's the final encounter with the Mad Scientist, and it's not much fun. Boss battles are not Castleween's strong suit, and they all follow the same pattern - boss throws a few projectiles and then comes over so you can hit them in the head, repeat until the boss is dead. In the Mad Scientist's case the projectiles are difficult-to-doge bombs dropped from his hover-chair, and he has the fiendish trick of activating an electric shield to zap you if you're too eager to hit him, but these are only minor deviations from the theme. At least he's much easier than the vampire, purely because I didn't have to jump to hit him.


Oh, so all the kids do get their souls back, which means it was pointless me searching for them. Also, these kids have rubbish Halloween costumes, aside from the ghost. The kid in the middle is supposed to be dressed as a skeleton (I think) but he didn't even bother with a skull mask. Lazy, just unacceptably lazy.


With their adventure over and their tired legs carrying back home to the loving embrace of their parents, I'm left to reflect on Castleween / Spirits and Spells / Mahou no Pumpkin and it's one of those occasions where I'm not sure how I feel about it. It's a respectable attempt at creating a traditional platformer with a few interesting element bolted on, but the problem is that's all it is, with nothing really to set it apart from the crowd. Everything about it is just "okay" but yet I still enjoyed it, although I'm not sure if that's purely down to the spooky setting. It definitely didn't hurt, I know that much. So, if you're in the mood for a traditional platformer, you love Halloween and you can overlook some slightly woolly edges and Greg's dry-heave jumping sound, then I suppose I can just about recommend Castleween.


Now we turn to the Halloween-O-Meter, and Castleween gets a predictably high score, only missing out on the full ten out of ten thanks to the steel mill stages not really being in the Halloween spirit. Does it have pumpkins? You bet your ass, and they serve the important function of bestowing extra lives when collected, so I feel I'm justified in awarding nine out of ten.

Bonus!


Three different releases means three different box arts, so I'm going to show them to you now. This is the US version, and it's not bad. It's a touch generic, and Alicia has a serious case of sausage fingers, but overall it's okay.


The European version sadly doesn't even reach those heady heights, with Alicia looking like a stock 3D model in a witch costume and Greg being some sort of plague doctor / devil hybrid, an concept that sounds better than it looks.


Happily the Japanese cover is far superior and is lovely all around, the cutesy characters feeling much more appropriate for the mood of the game. I love that Bogeyman, and because the logo features a pumpkin it is clearly the winner of this unofficial box art competition and also my heart.

14/10/2014

MONSTER BASH (ARCADE)

They had a bash. It was a monster bash! Was it a graveyard smash? You might find out if you continue reading about today's game: Sega's 1982 arcade super-zap-em-up Monster Bash!


Hang on, Frankenstein lives in a castle but Dracula only has a house? If there's one thing I associate with Draculas, it's the ownership of castles, castles that are generally filled with spikes and diagonal staircases and the floating disembodied heads of figures from Greek myth. Maybe Dracula's at his summer home or something. As for Chameleon Man, where else would you find one but the graveyard? Well, yes, I suppose a jungle does sound like a more likely location.


Aww, the monsters are shy, look. Dracula, Frankenstein, honey, it's okay, there's no need to be afraid. Hell, wait 'til you see the character I'll be playing is, that'll definitely alleviate some of your fears.
Chameleon Man has a touch more confidence. Perhaps too much confidence, he looks a little cocky to me, like he's got a gameplay gimmick up his sleeve that's going to put an end to my monster bashing ways. I'm on to you, Chameleon Man.


Upsetting feelings swirl around me as the hero of Monster Bash makes his entrance. I'm glad he told me he was the hero, because if you were just to look at him in his basic state you'd have a hard time guessing that he has what it takes to beat up monsters. Like a fusion of Teletubby and Troll Doll offered as a special McDonalds tie-in, our hero has all the monster-bashing potential of a unloved soft toy that'd been left in an oil-slicked gutter puddle. I... I just don't like him, alright? He's too vainglorious. "I am the HERO!"? You haven't even done anything yet, don't let's further sully the word "hero" by applying it to weird red-and-yellow monkey children who have done nothing more heroic than standing vaguely near a graveyard.


Holy crap, did you see what he did to Dracula? That vampire melted like a tub of Raspberry Ripple with a fat dog sitting on it. I take it back, kid. You are the hero. Just don't zap me, okay? I'm not as tough as a Dracula, even if I am immune to garlic and crosses and direct sunlight. Well, maybe not that last one. I don't get outside much.


The game's begun and here we are in Dracula's house. Dracula's five-story house, no less, which is quite grand and possibly pushing the definition of "house" slightly. Dracula's château, then. Some of the impact of the château's interior is lessened when you realise that the entire ground floor is nothing but fireplaces. You probably should have spread those around a bit, Drac. It's going to be freezing in the attic and unbearably hot near the front door.
So, Monster Bash is platformy-mazey-dodge-em-up type of game in which our slightly unconvincing hero is tasked with destroying Dracula. He can throw a small lightning bolt from his hands, which is useful for eliminating the lesser enemies on a stage - bats, in this case - but it won't have any effect on Drac himself.


In order to gain the mighty power of the Super Zap, on each stage our hero must follow a certain sequence of events. First, you've got to walk over a candle to light it.  This isn't a problem in Dracula's mansion, because he takes the same approach to candle ownership as hippyish women who read Anne Rice novels, and there are plenty of them kicking around. Just climb up to them - no jumping in this game, folks - and touch them to light them.


With the candle lit, the mysterious and apparently photoelectrically powered sword in the centre of the stage is activated. Touching this gives our hero the power of the Dracula-destroying Super Zap... but only one of them, and it's on a timer. This leads to the second half of each stage's gameplay, which involves avoiding all the lesser creatures - because if you shoot them, you lose your Super Zap - while chasing the "boss" around the screen, trying to tag him with your magical bolt. Is it any fun? Yeah, I thought so. It all moves along at a pleasingly zippy pace, with your hero rushing back and forth, trying to pin down Dracula as he moves between the glowing warp portals in his various fireplaces. Drac's even got a a synthesised laugh sound effect, something that will endear me greatly to any videogame that features one.


Eventually Dracula dithered for a few moments too long and I managed to catch up with him in the attic, where he felt the full force of my Super Zap and melted into the puddle of aristocratic Transylvanian goo promised by the intro. There's no way Dracula's coming back from that one, folks. No way in hell.


The second stage is Frankenstein's castle. No debates about building nomenclature here, this is definitely a castle. It's got parapets and everything.
Everything about Monster Bash is fairly adorable, with the possible exception of the hero, but those charms are especially apparent in this stage. This Frankenstein looks like a Muppet version of the famous monster, and those wolfmen are just delightful. There's a lot of character packed into a tiny amount of pixels there. I think it's the elongated snouts, you can just tell that the designer was having trouble conveying the notion of werewolfosity until they hit upon the idea of giving them extra-long, almost eel-like muzzles. It sounds like it wouldn't work, but it comes across beautifully.


Frankenstein's castle naturally has a different layout than Dracula's summer house or wherever that was supposed to be, and the main difference is that there's only one candle to light. The other twist is that you can fall down through the holes in the floor on the left and right edges of the screen. These come in extremely handy when you finally collect the Super Zap, because Frankenstein has the playful soul of a scampish child and he likes to hide from the player by using the magic doors to teleport from the top of the castle right down to the basement. You can use the doors too, but more often than not when I embraced their reality-warping powers I emerged straight into the waiting and not exactly tender arms of Frankenstein. There's a certain degree of patience involved in Monster Bash, especially after the Dracula stage, and waiting until you think Frank's going to a door and then falling through the "jump down zones", as the game calls them, is what I found to be the best way to win.


Thirdly, there's Chameleon Man's graveyard home, where the action becomes more maze-like than ever and there are new gimmicks aplenty. Just getting to the candle is a real task in itself, trapped as it is in a tomb at the centre of the screen. Chameleon Man's associated minor enemies are spiders, albeit spiders that look more like psychedelic rave crabs, and those spiders do not give you a moment's peace. You can zap them, but they respawn almost instantly and scurry through the graveyard with the demented energy that only something coloured like a radioactive lobster could possess.


Then there's Chameleon Man himself, pictured here trying to insert his tongue into our hero. While chameleons should rightly be most famous for their always-hilarious boggle eyes, they're better known for their colour-changing ability, which is pretty cool I guess but not as good as being able to watch the football and keep an eye out for the unmarked government helicopter that constantly monitor us at the same time. Chameleon Man may have gained the ability to walk upright but he didn't lose his colour-swapping powers, and as the stage goes on he will gradually change colour to match the background.



Except... he doesn't, really. He turns black instead. I've looked into this as thoroughly as I can thinking that maybe it was an emulation error, but as far as I can tell he is indeed supposed to turn black and not, as the arcade flyer says, invisible. He is invincible while he's black, immune even to the powers of the Super Zap, but you can definitely still see him. My theory is that he was originally intended to match the background colour exactly and thus become invisible, but Sega realised that having an enemy that you can't even see on what is already a difficult stage to survive made Monster Bash take a sharp swerve from "challenging" to "slap-yourself-in-the-face frustrating" and so they compromised on turning him black.


In order to make the Chameleon Man vulnerable again, you have to walk our hero over one of the colour change spots on the floor - these change the colour of the background, unsurprisingly, and render the Chameleon Man "visible" and ready for the face-melting impact of the Super Zap. As an added twist, the coloured gates dotted around the stage also open and close depending on the colour of the background: step on the blue button and the blue gates disappear but the red and green ones stay closed, and so on. This is a much more engaging gameplay mechanic that Chameleon Man's polychromatic abilities, because it give this stage just a shade more strategic depth - using the gates to block off enemies that are coming to eat your souls (or whatever it is Chameleon Man wants to do with your soul) isn't the most reliable survival tactic in the world, but when it works it's good fun.


After defeating the vile menace of Chameleon Man, our hero celebrates by shaking his backside at the camera. Thanks, kid. I hope you feel good about yourself.  He probably does feel good about himself, you don't often shake your booty if you're not feeling great. A depressed stripper might, I suppose.


What do you mean, the monsters will catch me this time? They caught me last time, repeatedly. Monster Bash is a simple game with clear gameplay objectives, but it's also a game that will punish you for making a single wrong move and sometimes you won't even know that it was the wrong move until you've made it, especially on Chameleon Man's stage. However, you can continue if you lose all your lives, a feature I wasn't expecting to see in an arcade title from 1982.


Then it's back to Dracula's house to repeat the same three stages over and over again in an endless loop. I presume it's endless, anyway - I got to about round six or so without noticing much change and that was enough for me. If there is an ending, I'm sure someone will let me know, but I feel fairly confident in saying that our hero is condemned to an eternity of fighting two of horror's most iconic monsters and a lizard man.


It doesn't seem to get much more difficult as you progress, either - if anything, it becomes easier as you quickly familiarise yourself with the screen layouts and monster behaviour, which seems erratic at first but which definitely has some kind of pattern to it. For instance, almost every time I defeated Frankenstein I did so by catching him on the second floor at the left-hand side of the screen, where he seems to get caught in two minds about which way to run. Of course, in Frankenstein's case he may well actually have two minds. Chameleon Man's stage also becomes much easier once you realise that chasing after him is a wasted effort that will almost certainly end in spidery death: a much more consistent tactic is to stand still, wait for Chameleon Man to come to you and Super Zap him as he runs past.


Of the three stages, Chameleon Man's is at once the most interesting and the least fun to play. It's still enjoyable enough, and the gimmicks of the stage help to keep you engaged, but there are perhaps a few too many spiders for comfort and worst of all it's really easy to get stuck on the corners of the walls, even when you feel like you should have plenty of room to spare


On the whole, though, would I recommend you give Monster Bash a try? Yeah, I absolutely would, especially during this Halloween season. I've used the word "charm" already in this article, but that's definitely what it's got, from the basic but cute sprites to the voice samples of Dracula's laugh and Frankenstein's unhealthy-sounding grunt, and overall it's pleasant little title that's worth trying out even if you only play it for ten minutes. And to cap this article off, I just found out that the player character is called Lil' Red. In light of this new information, I have mentally constructed a story where Lil' Red is a devilish emissary of hell who has been sent out into the human world to bring these monsters back to the stygian depths in which they belong. I'm sure you'll agree it's a much more likely scenario than "weird teddy bear kid kills all the monsters".



As for the Halloween-O-Meter, I've decided to award Monster Bash a seven on my increasingly arbitrary scale of Halloween-ness. A pretty decent score that was influenced by the famous monsters on display and the lead character's willingness to run around in a graveyard, but points were deducted for music that's about as spooky as a nice warm bath and that old Halloween-O-Meter crippler, a total lack of pumpkins.

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