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.
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.