17/10/2011

NIGHTMARE IN THE DARK

Nightmare in the Dark: a good description of my trip to the local cineplex to watch the Transformers movie, but also the name of a Hallowe'en-themed arcade game by SNK.

This is a game that really speaks to me, you know? Like the creators just get me or something. The Hallowe'en aspect is part of it, but I think it's also something to do with the plot.

Finally, a main character I can really empathise with. There's a reason VGJUNK isn't presented in video format, folks. I must admit, the first time I read this intro text I thought it said "he kept away from the Village People" and I immediately constructed an elaborate fantasy game in my head, a Metal Gear Solid-style stealth title in which you must help the Gravedigger traverse a late-seventies New York while avoiding the various members of the Village People. Is this spontaneous retreat into a nonexistent videogame a sign of underlying mental problems? Probably, but I can't shake the feeling that given their clearly-defined personas, the members of the Village People would make excellent videogame bosses. You see, th... oh, the nurse is here with my pills.

Oh, hello again. Where was I? Ah yes, Nightmare in the Dark. A humble gravedigger, shunned by the townsfolk because his face looks like a dog vomited onto a rubber Mickey Rourke mask, saves the world from the depredations of the many grave-robbing ghouls and demons that appear each night. That's the story, at least - in terms of gameplay, it's a clone of Snow Bros.

And when I say clone, I mean that it's rare to see a game so obviously and completely copied from another. The objective of NitD (and, of course, Snow Bros.) is to clear each single-screen stage of enemies. You do this by repeatedly hitting an enemy with your standard attack until they become a ball, which you can then pick up and throw. The enemy-balls roll around the screen, hopefully hitting some other enemies along the way and adding insult to injury by killing them too. Kill all the enemies on the screen and you'll move onto the next monster-packed area filled with hovering masonry.

The only real difference between NitD and its frosty ancestor is the theme. While Snow Bros is set in a cutesy and cheerful world where princesses get kidnapped and snowmen wear dungarees, (presumably to avoid exposing impressionable young minds to the sight of an intricately-carved ice-wang,) NitD is a horror-themed cavalcade of zombies, ghosts and haunted ostriches. Also, while the Snow Brothers use, well, snow to defeat their enemies, the Gravedigger takes the rather more full-on approach of setting fire to everything that so much as looks at him funny.

Combine his raging pyromania, his constant proximity to dead bodies and his exclusion from society and you've got a man who should be on every single government watch-list ever.
There's not that much else to say about the gameplay, really. You jump with one button, and the other button makes Gravedigger throw fire from his lantern to immolate his opponents. There are a few power-ups to collect - speed increases, the ability to throw your fire further and somehow make it hotter so that your foes burn even faster - but the mechanics never change and the only stages that veer away from the standard scheme of things are the occasional boss battles.

So, innovation isn't NitD's strong suit. The original Snow Bros was released in 1990, and it takes a fair chunk of inspiration from 1986's Bubble Bobble. Nightmare in the Dark was released in the space-year 2000, something that made me think it was a relatively recent game until I remembered 2000 was eleven years ago, so that makes it a direct clone of a ten-year-old game that itself was very similar to a game from 1986.

Luckily, NitD gets by on its not-inconsiderable spooky charms (mental note: trademark and produce "Spooky Charms" cereal). The graphics are what you'd expect from a 2D SNK game, full of character and very well-animated. The backgrounds are nice too, even if there are only about six of them in the whole game. The music's good, although it's sort of inappropriately jazzy, given the morbid subject matter. Like, if I'm playing as a gravedigger fighting zombies by burning them to death then it should be all church organs and clanging bells, man. I want that serious Gregorian shit.

By far my favourite thing about the game is the monsters. Most of Hallowe'en Royalty sent along a pixelly delegate: there are zombies, skeletons, ghosts and mummies, plus these little hopping dudes that might be hunchbacked Igor-type fellas but could equally be really angry leprechauns. One noble monster stands apart from the crowd, however; so proud, so regal, so utterly baffling that I can't help but love him. I am of course talking about the Ghost Skeleton Ostrich.

Ghost Skeleton Ostrich (or GSO to his friends) truly is an enigma. I want to ask why he's here, amongst the traditional ghost and common zombies, but then I look into his glowing red eyes and I'm simply glad that he is here. I have no idea what his backstory is, but I assume it contains phrases like "eldritch walking-bird" and "flightless hellspawn".
My theory is that the whole game was designed to accommodate GSO, because you can't come up with a creature as gleefully daft as an undead ostrich and not have him in a game. He couldn't be the main character, though. No, GSO's a rebel. So he becomes an enemy and my life is a little brighter for having encountered him.

If you hang around a stage too long and run out of time, an unkillable, relentless and oddly purple jack-o'-lantern will appear and start chasing you, no thoughts in his hollowed-out head other than the Gravedigger's death. Once his mission is accomplished, he disappears back to whatever gourd-filled hell dimension he came from. And that is the first pumpkin of VGJUNK's Hallowe'en season, folks. What a bastard.
Every five stages, a slight change of pace is provided by boss battles. They all follow the same pattern: the boss shows up, flails around like they're trying to impress an especially morbid talent show judge and then summons some standard monsters. The only way to hurt the bosses is to throw a flame-covered enemy at them, so they can't be all bad - after all, they're handing you ammunition. Maybe it's part of the Demon Code, like how Satan must keep his goatee neatly trimmed at all times. Anyway, here are the bosses:

A Frankenstein's Monster. He's a big unit, isn't he? Judging by the frequency of his appearances in videogames, he's one of the more popular Hallowe'en staples in Japan. Strengths: Erm, strength? Weaknesses: Angry mobs, difficulties finding appropriately sized clothing.

Giant Wheeled Duck-Billed Sword-Skull, and I think SNK peaked a little early by having this guy as the second boss - he's by far the most interesting and unique of the big monsters. He looks like a mastermind to me, not a lieutenant. Strengths: giant size, large personal fortune amassed whilst working as a spokesman for Stora-Knife Knife Block Co. Weaknesses: Uneven terrain, constantly laughed out of supervillain organisations.

A pair of long-armed gargoyles who start off as statues but are then brought to life through the sheer power of their hatred for gravediggers. See what I mean? Not nearly as interesting as Roller-Skull, are they? Strengths: Flight, ability to retrieve items from high shelves. Weaknesses: Easily shamed by showing them erotic fanart of characters from Disney's Gargoyles.

A suit of armour with a delicious skeleton-flavoured centre. Reminds me of the Undead Hero from Guardian Heroes, which makes me wish I was playing Guardian Heroes. A lot of games do that, to be fair. Strengths: Superbly-trained warrior, no vulnerable flesh. Weaknesses: Lack of a brain leads to poor military strategy.

And here's the final boss, a set of Disneyish floating wizard clothes who is presumably behind everything evil ever. He's not very exciting, but he can at least summon a larger, more impressive demon from time to time:

Strengths: Demon summoning, teleporting knives into people’s faces. Weaknesses: not readily apparent, but they must be pretty substantial if for all his magical powers he is defeated by a hunchbacked dirt-janitor equipped with nothing more powerful than a lantern.

With the magician defeated, the village is free to slip once more into sleepy tranquility. See, it's not just a game but a valuable lesson about not judging people by their appearance, even if they do look like the result of a union between a corpse and Gonzo from The Muppets.

It's short and terribly unimaginative, but Nightmare in the Dark turns out to be a fun, well-made little game. If you've ever played Snow Bros or Bubble Bobble and enjoyed them, then you'll enjoy this too. The graphics are probably the biggest plus point, with well-animated sprites that have a lot of charm: my favourite example would be that when the skeletons move onto a platform below, they don't hop down but instead just plummet straight down onto their bony faces and then reassemble themselves at the bottom. Another nice touch is that you can choose the colour of the Gravedigger's robes by holding various button combinations when you press start.

There's even a suitably Hallowe'en-y orange palette for him.
Aside from the somewhat sloppy jumping controls, the gameplay is solid and offers a good challenge without being too difficult. So, if you're looking a short burst of puzzle-platformer action and you've already played Bubble Bobble to death, or like me you have slightly unsettling obsession with anything horror-themed, then try Nightmare in the Dark out.

As for the Hallowe'en-O-Meter, I'm going to give NitD a whopping nine out of ten for its excellent meshing of the creepy with the cute. Oh, and for the first pumpkin of the season, even if it is purple. Can anything beat this mightily impressive score? Keep reading the VGJUNK Hallowe'en Month to find out!

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