01/10/2014

GHOST HUNTERS (ZX SPECTRUM)



Get out your novelty songs about dancing monsters and bootleg costumes of famous movie characters, because it's that time again. Yes, that time - October is here, and that means this year's Annual VGJunk Halloween Spooktacular has arrived! For the whole of October, I'll be writing about gruesome and ghoulish games packed with hideous and horrifying creatures while apparently applying acres of alliteration. As always I'm terribly excited about this, because October is my most favourite time of the year and games starring Draculas and Frankensteins get me excited like bad movie scripts excite Nicholas Cage.
I'm going to start with the ZX Spectrum version of a 1987 game by the Oliver Twins and Codemasters: the haunted-house-em-up Ghost Hunters. I can't contain myself, I have to tell you right now that it has a pumpkin in it. What else does it have? Let's find out!


Well, it's got a spooky house perched upon a mountaintop, so we're already off to a good start. This is Nightmare Mansion, a dread fortress whose facade looks a little like the face of an angry garden gnome, pointy hat and all. Inside the Nightmare Mansion is your brother, Chuck Studbuckle. He's trapped by the various monsters that lurk within, and it's up to you to rescue him. This shouldn't be a problems, because according to the cassette inlay the player character's name is Hunk Studbuckle. That name's so manly it could have been part of that famous Mystery Science Theatre bit. Hunk Studbuckle cannot fail.


Here's the main menu screen, and there are a couple of features of note. One, those are severed human heads on those little shelves and not cabbages in the late stages of decomposition. Secondly, Ghost Hunters is a resolutely monochromatic game, with everything being depicted in one colour against a black background, but you at least get a choice of colour - either cyan or red. I went with the blue for the purposes of this article. Red is arguably more Halloween-appropriate, but the red-on-black look is a little headache-inducing. That might be a psychosomatic thing, because it makes Ghost Hunters look a Virtual Boy game, but the blue is definitely more soothing.
Then there's the music, which sounds like this:



It's the familiar "sneaky villain" riff, extended into it's own little tune and made to sound like it's being played on an uncooperative dial-up modem. I kinda like it, though. I feel like you could put a strong beat behind it and make a decent dance track. Fun fact: that piece of music, which I have always thought of as "spooky tiptoe music," is actually called the Mysterioso Pizzicata. I'm always learning new thing while writing these articles, but that's my favourite one for a while. I'm half-tempted to get a pet just so I can name it Mysterioso Pizzicata.


When you start the game, the words "GHOST HUNTERS" appear on screen because, I dunno, we wouldn't want you forgetting what game you're playing? But then - get this - the game actually says "Ghost Hunters!" out loud in a screechy robotic voice. Glorious synthesised speech! As soon as I heard it I knew I'd made the right decision in starting the Halloween season with this one.


Okay, the actual game, then. Ghost Hunters is a flip-screen platformer in the usual home computer style in which you control Hunk Studbuckle as he traverses the many rooms of the Nightmare Mansion. There's Hunk now, standing on that column in the middle of the room and showing the world that yes, he is so rugged and studly that he's going to attempt this mission bare-chested. What are the vampire and the zombie over there going to do, bite him? The guy's called Hunk Studbuckle, it'd be like biting an anvil.
The goal of the game is to free your brother Chuck, but to reach him you have to activate the various elevators and moving platforms of the Nightmare Mansion by collecting a variety of different items from the mansion's many rooms. Why does picking up daggers and trinket boxes power up the lifts? I have no idea, but if I had to guess I'd say it's something to do with ghosts.


Here, I have found a Blood Goblet. Presumably that's a goblet for drinking blood out of and not a goblet made from blood. A goblet made from blood would just be a big bucket-shaped scab, and I don't care how urgently my brother needs rescuing, I wouldn't touch anything matching that description.
Collecting the blood goblet causes the pillar in the center of the first screen to rise, which I thought was a nice touch because it hammers home that collecting items makes platforms move. This would otherwise be an easy concept to misunderstand, because the items you need and the specific platforms they activate are rarely located in the same room or even nearby. That's the main crux of Ghost Hunters' gameplay: find an item and then search the mansion to find the now-moving piece of scenery that'll allow you to access a previously unreachable area, an area which will contain another item, and so on.


Ghost Hunters includes an in-game map, which is rather handy and I like that the shape of the mansion here matches up with the mansion show in that first loading screen, with the two towers on either side. However, there's also a bitter cruelty to this map screen. To pause the game and open the map, you press the P key. To close the map and continue the game, you press the space bar - pressing P again resets the entire game. If, like me and pretty much anyone who has played videogames in the last twenty years, you are used to pausing and unpausing games by pressing the same button, then I'm sure that if you decide to play Ghost Hunters you'll have as much fun as I did when you accidentally quit the goddamn game the first, ooh, fifteeen or twenty times you check the map.


While Hunk's flawless body might be immune to the attacks of the undead, his mind is rather more fragile. Fear is what will kill you in this game, rather than being eaten by zombies or whatever it is that the skeletons want to do to you - removing your skin for use as a raincoat, possibly. There are two categories of monsters in Ghost Hunters: one kind are permanent and serve mostly as obstacles to be jumped over, like the rat in the bottom-right of the screenshot above. Then there are what the game refers to as "demons," foul creatures that appear on the screen after phasing in from some hellish alternate reality. A prime example of a demon is the vampire at the top-left of the screenshot above. Yes, the vampire with the unibrow and the droopy cape that makes it seem that he'd be more likely to transform into a fuzzy moth than a bat. This mothlike vampire is so spooky that his mere presence on the screen causes Hunk's "terrometer" to rise. The terrometer's at the bottom of the screen: I'm still a little annoyed it's not spelled "terrormeter," but the ghostly face in the O softens the blow. Anyway, the terrometer: if there's a reading on the terrometer, Hunk gradually loses his Macho Energy.


Now, I'm sure you've been looking at that Macho Energy bar on the left since this article began, wondering whether filling the bar would mutate Hunk into a super-powered, musclebound form or possibly turn him into Macho Man Randy Savage, but I must sadly inform you that it's just a life bar. Run out of Macho Energy and Hunk becomes too scared to continue, with the assumption being that he suffers a heart attack thanks to the raw terror of Count Mothula and his fellow demons.


Thankfully Hunk brought some firepower to the Nightmare Mansion in the form of him "sub-compact anti-matter phantom splatterer," a weapon that is in no way inspired by the proton packs of the Ghostbusters. You might have noticed the crosshair floating around in the earlier screenshots: well, if you hold the fire button down you can move this crosshair and use your weapon to shoot the demons, temporarily sending them back where they came from. Transylvania, I assume.
It's very important to zap the demons as quickly as possible, because Hunk is a coward at heart and it doesn't take long for his fear to render him unable to continue his mission. It's a shame, then, that the shooting portion of Ghost Hunter is not that much fun and eventually bogs down the rest of the game. Because demons hurt you just by being on screen you don't have the luxury of ignoring them, but the crosshair is a little slow to move and has a lot of intertia, so getting it in the right place can be tedious. This is especially problematic because the crosshair doesn't reset to a central position but instead remains in the last place you fired it. If a demon appears at the opposite corner of the screen than your previous target, by the time you manage to drag the crosshair all the way across the screen you'll have lost a huge chunk of your Macho Energy, equivalent to ordering a penis pump online or being caught watching The Princess Diaries.


Here lies Hunk Studbuckle, killed by looking at a skeleton for too long. He died as he lived - shirtless and terrified.
There are some factors that mitigate against Ghost Hunters' decision to essentially have the player's health be draining at all times. The most obvious one is that Hunk can replenish his Macho Energy by drinking from the containers of bubbling, unidentified liquid scattered around the mansion. The instructions say that these are cauldrons, but they look much more like laboratory glassware and you know what? I'm fine with that. I'd much rather drink out of a lab beaker: science has given us an amazing pageant of wonderful things, but nothing good has ever come out of a cauldron. Okay, apart from Asterix's super-strength potion. Even more rewarding than the health refill is the fact that the synthesised "GHOST HUNTERS!" speech plays every time you pick up a potion. I don't care if they're served in a cauldron, a beaker or out of that scab goblet I mentioned earlier, I would drink any number of these potions just to hear that sound effect.


The other thing is the two-player mode, where one player controls Hunk's movements while the other player operates the gun. Now, it may astonish you to learn that I didn't have any friends handy to try out this two-player mode with, but on a conceptual level this has to be the far superior way to play Ghost Hunters. It'd certainly give you more of a chance in successfully completing what is a rather difficult computer game. I was going to say "a ghost of a chance," but this is only the first article of the Halloween season. I don't want to play my hand too early, you know?


To make good on my statement at the top of this article, here is evidence that Ghost Hunters contains a pumpkin. What do you mean, "where?" It's the blue pumpkin-shaped thing in the middle of the screen, next to the shield... oh. This is some kind of Rorsach test situation, isn't it? "Tell me what you see in this random clump of pixels. A pumpkin? Hmm, interesting, interesting..." Look, I'm 90% sure that thing is supposed to be a pumpkin, and I'm going to continue believing that until one of the game's programmers shows up and tells me otherwise.


Here are a few of the game's other monsters. Starting from the left we've got a shambling zombie in an oversized sweater, the ghost of that very sweater, a nonchalant skeleton, what is presumably a mummy standing in a sarcophagus and, my favourite of them all, an adorable little ghost who pops up out of his coffin with a look of spectral confusion all over his sheet. This ghost has no idea what's going on, does he? I think he's only opened his coffin because Hunk has woken him up with all his banging around. Go back to sleep, little ghost. You look dead tired. I'm sorry, but I can't myself - I've been possessed by the Halloween spirit oh no it keeps happening.


I found a goblet. Note that this is a different, completely seperate goblet to the blood goblet from the first screen. The blood goblet is for blood and blood only, whereas this goblet can be used for fine wines, the internal ichor of the god-beats from the furthest stars or even Dr. Pepper.


After spending some time in the Nightmare Mansion, I've got some feelings about this game but I'm not exactly sure what those feelings are. Starting at a basic technical level, Ghost Hunters is solidly built, with good controls and platforming that can get hard, especially towards the end, but which never never demands the pixel-perfect jumping of many other home computer platformers. It's quite nicely animated, too, and overall the game has the feel of treacle sliding down a drainpipe - smooth, but slow. The moving platforms in particular are rather sluggish, and there's a lot of waiting around for the lifts to reach the right position, which isn't situation to be in when you have to keep moving through the rooms as quickly as possible lest sharing the same wing of the mansion with a skeleton causes Hunk to void his bowels.


I like Ghost Hunters' concept more than the actual game, that's the problem. Everything that wants you dead can kill you just by standing around and your Macho Energy drains very quickly, so it's difficult to make much progress without dying. There's no time to stand still and get your bearings - hell, I was once waiting for a spider to move so I could walk under it when a vampire rose from the floor right beneath Hunk's feet, lifting him into the air and scaring our hero to death. The two-player mode and the sharing of the tasks that it entails does sound like the perfect compromise, but in single player I'd have to say that I really like the idea and the setting but actually negotiating the mansion is sadly just a bit irritating.


I also have to take issue with the name Ghost Hunters, because you do not hunt ghosts. Yes, there are ghosts and yes, sometimes you have to shoot them with your magic gun, but "hunt" implies that Hunk has entered the house with the express purpose of bustin' ghosts and that is very much not what is happening here. The player has to avoid the ghosts at all costs. That's not hunting, that's being sensible. Mind you, this works both ways, and the monsters and demons don't really get involved. They're around, popping up in various places and being so frightening that they can turn a man so un-macho that he dies, but they never directly attack the player or even chase after them. The conflict within the Nightmare Mansion is between Hunk and the monsters, two factions who want to have nothing to do with each other and try to stay out of each other's way, like housemates who have had a serious falling out over eating the other person's clearly labelled food out of the shared fridge. Well, if one of the housemates could kill the other with a glance, I mean.


What do you think I've been trying to do? I'm not sure if this is Ghost Hunters' idea of friendly advice or if I'm supposed to be reading it in a sarcastic tone, but the game repeatedly offers up these little snippets of advice as you play. Some of them are more useful than others.


Thanks, that's extremely helpful. I'll bear that in mind. Any other pearls of wisdom you'd like to share with me?


Okay, I think this one is the demons trying to use reverse psychology on poor Hunk. "Whatever you do, Hunk, don't turn the gun on yourself! We demons rely on your fear to survive, and if you're too busy shooting yourself to be scared then we'll cease to exist you big dumb idiot."


After much platforming, most of it enjoyable and surprisingly forgiving of my many errors, I finally spotted my captive brother in a room at the top of the mansion. I was going to make a crack about them being identical twins, but the Ghost Hunters instructions do actually describe them as twins so that rather takes the wind out of my sails on that one. Unfortunately Chuck is trapped between these two suits of armour, so we can't make our escape just yet. I know the perspective makes it look as though Chuck should just be able to step around the armour, but this is a haunted house and the rules of physical space do not apply here. That also explains why I couldn't walk past some candles mounted on the wall earlier. The only other explanation would be that the owner of this house uses candles that are wide enough to block entire corridors, and that's just silly.


That shoe over there is the last item Hunk needs to collect to complete the game. Why a shoe? Your guess is a good as mine. Actually, my guess was that the shoes were like the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz and they were going to take us home, so your guess is, in fact, way better than mine.


That's a much more useful message, Ghost Hunters. Of course, it doesn't go the extra mile and tell you where the exit is, but I took the gamble that I could get out the same way I got in and so I headed back to the first screen.


Oh good, I'm glad my hunch was correct and I didn't have to spend ages looking for the exit. If you're wondering what happened to Chuck, you see him make a run for it the moment you collect the final shoe. Hopefully this means he knew where the exit is and he got out safely, although I'm a little hurt he didn't hang around to thank me after I risked life and sanity alike to free him from his demonic captors.


Hold on, who's Buster? Was my brother's name Buster all along? Buster Studbuckle sounds better than Chuck Studbuckle, I suppose. I've even seen Hunk be called Brad in some magazine reviews of Ghost Hunters, but there's no way I'm accepting Brad as an alternate name for a hero who fought demons without a shirt on.
With Ghost Hunters completed, I can look back on a game that I enjoyed, but only because I really wanted to enjoy it thanks to the interesting premise, the haunted house setting and that digitised speech. A great game in concept but one which is somewhat lacking in execution, although it's far from a total disaster - the high difficulty level and slow movements will probably put off those of you more comfortable with modern games, but neat little touches and good design abound. It's particularly impressive that the house feels much bigger than it actually is thanks to there being several unconnected paths through each room - each room is multiple rooms, if you see what I mean. If you do decide to try Ghost Hunters I hope you enjoy the game, and if you don't enjoy the game then I hope you at least enjoy the robot voice croaking "GHOST HUNTERS" at you. I know I did.
But wait! It's the Halloween season, and that means it's time for the return of the VGJunk Halloween-O-Meter (patent pending)! As ever, the Halloween-O-Meter registers my rating of not how good a game is but how Halloween-y it is - how much it fits in with the spooky season and, in large part, whether it features any jack-o-lanterns. So, how does Ghost Hunters score?


Eight out of ten - a very solid start to this year's Halloween campaign, a score bumped up by the appearance of vampires, ghosts and, of course, that blue thing that I am still claiming is definitely 100% a pumpkin. Will anything be able to top Ghost Hunters' score? You'll just have to follow the VGJunk Halloween season to find out!

5 comments:

  1. Your eulogy for Hunk got a great laugh out of me. Glad I'll finally get to follow one of your spooktaculars live!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha ha, thanks, hopefully it'll be a fun ride!

      Delete
    2. "Here lies Hunk Studbuckle, killed by looking at a skeleton for too long."
      That's the way I wanna go.

      Delete
  2. Interesting classic game! Also, great Asterix reference. ;)

    ReplyDelete

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