Today, the philosophical implications of playing as a dead child sadly do little to distract from the gameplay in Casper for the Game Boy, created by Bonsai Entertainment and released in 1996.
That's Casper the Friendly Ghost, of course. I'm sure you all know who Casper is, even if you haven't consumed much media starring the ectoplasmic young lad. If you don't know who he is, Casper is a ghost who is friendly, in contrast to all the other ghosts who each have a personality roughly in line with every Post Office cashier I've ever had to deal with. This posits a universe where the way one becomes a ghost is not by having unfinished business or suffering a violent death but by simply being a proper dick, and Casper is a freakish anomaly that upsets this natural order. That's why all the other ghosts hate him.
Casper the Game Boy game is based loosely on the 1995 movie version of Casper, which I discussed during the article about Casper: Friends Around the World. It's the movie where Casper develops a faintly creepy stalkerish crush on Christina Ricci's character Kat, including a scene where he whispers "can I keep you?" at her as though she were a stray dog. Bill Pullman also falls into a sewer and dies, so it's got some comedy elements. I think the movie is where most British people's knowledge of Casper comes from - it's certainly where I know him from - so hopefully I'll understand what's going on in the game.
Is "ooz" something that really deserves to be protected? It couldn't even be bothered to spell "ooze" properly, and if it cares so little about itself then why should I care about ooz? What has ooz ever done for me?
This is the first minigame, and Casper is off to a bad start in the same way that grabbing your newborn's umbilical cord and using them like a yo-yo is a bad start to parenthood., in that it's much less fun than you'd think it would be. The ooz is at the bottom of the screen and must be protected from the ghosts that fall down from the top of the screen. I think they're supposed to be Casper's uncles, Fatso, Stinky and Stretch, but their sprites are so ill-defined that they could easily be the results of someone filling their nose with cottage cheese and sneezing at the screen. If the ghosts touch the ooz, the ooz is damaged, and if there's too much damage the game is over. So, how does Casper stop the ghosts? By shooting them. You move a crosshair around and shoot the ghosts, thus making a mockery of the "friendly" part of Casper's name. It's hard to imagine a friendly ghost taking control of some ectoplasmic anti-aircraft cannon, but that must be what's happening here.
How does it play? Like a giant sack of arseholes. For starters, it's so visually boring that playing it for too long will cause the kind of hallucinations you get in a sensory deprivation tank, and that makes it hard to shoot the ghosts. Another thing that makes it hard to shoot the ghosts is the collision detection, which is astonishingly bad considering "is crosshair over target y/n" is all it has to figure out - but eighty percent of your shots will pass through the ghosts as if they were, well, ghosts. Eventually I figured out you can increase the odds of landing a hit by aiming somewhere around the ghost's "head," but even that isn't consistent. Oh, and you can't move the crosshair while you're firing and the ghosts move quite fast so if you fire and miss then you might as well give up, because that particular ghost has bested you and your ooz will suffer for it.
Having managed to drag myself through this miserable minigame, an experience which reminded me that the English language is sorely lacking in words that mean both "super boring" and "gratingly unpleasant," Casper was rewarded with some points and some ooz. This screen also says mentions that Casper has seven lives, which seems like a cruel thing to say to a dead person.
I'm trying to think of a way to describe the second minigame without mentioning Lode Runner, but I can't because it's just Lode Runner. The aim is to grab enough vials of ooz (the collectible you can see in the corners of the level) to open the exit while avoiding the other ghosts. See the crumbly-looking sections of floor? If you stand on those and press A, Casper uses his magic wand to disintegrate that section of floor. The non-friendly ghosts then all into these holes and are temporarily stunned and did I mention that this is Lode Runner? A lobotomised, low-effort Lode Runner, but still. Most of the stage is spent waiting around for the ghosts to fall into the holes so you can move past, which doesn't exactly make for a thrilling gameplay experience. The boredom I can just about stand - I'd just been thoroughly prepared by the previous minigame, after all - but my bigger problem is this: Casper has to use ladders to move up and down, and the rough sections of floor slow him down, despite being a flying, intangible glob of friendliness. How the hell is he even climbing that ladder? He doesn't have any feet! If you're going to make a game about a ghost, yeah, maybe make some kind of effort to have it be ghost-related? That'd be nice.
If you touch a ghost you lose a life, which results in this scene where one of Casper's uncles literally kicks him out of the house. If you ignore the fact that the sprites look like absolutely nothing at all, this is easily my favourite part of the game and I purposefully lost lives on more than one occasion just to see Casper getting punted into the night like a drunk at closing time.
The next game finally clinches it: the thing that killed Casper was boredom. A ghost (shocking, I know) drops books from the top of the screen with agonising slowness, and Casper must help the books into the helpfully-labelled book return slot. How can he do this?
By transforming into a paddle / trampoline and bouncing the books across the other screen in a shallow rip-off of the old Game & Watch title Fire. However dull you think that sounds, don't forget that this all plays out at a pace most glaciers would find aggravatingly lethargic. Oh, and the collision detection is shit in this game, too, with books frequently passing through the edge of the Casper-paddle. The only other twist is that sometimes collectable bottles of ooz appear but you can only grab them when you're in non-paddle form. If the game wasn't slower than molasses wearing cast-iron socks this might have made for a more engaging experience as you tried to dash between the books and the ooz. I'm not saying it would have been good, but I'd happily take "marginally less awful" at this point.
The final minigame of the four seems designed to remind me of all the shelves I've ever put up. Thanks for that, Casper. At first, I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing here, and all I could do was cycle through a variety of indecipherable sprites, but then I hit the select button.
Oh, I see, so I'm supposed to be setting up an elaborate Heath Robinson machine to... hang on, Kat? Was that supposed to be Christina Ricci?
Of the four colours available to you - a palette that includes black, I hasten to add - you went with white to depict Kat's hair. Good job, team. There's something incredibly depressing about this image, too, a certain dismal air that makes it hard to look at. I think it's her expression. I just cannot imagine what emotion would cause someone's face to look like that, besides the cold embrace of death.
I eventually got everything set up, no thanks to the in-game graphics. I mean, the game tried to tell me that's an egg-laying chicken when it is quite clearly a duck, and I never would have figured out what the "egg-cracker" was without being told - it looks like an "extreme '90s" version of one of those drinking birds. I got there in the end, though. Attach a rope to the chicken, pull the rope to startle it into laying an egg, the egg rolls down the ramps, gets opened by the egg opener and gracefully slides onto Kat's plate.
"Haahaa, I like egg, egg is nice food."
Once you've cleared the four games, Casper floats up some stairs and enters another room... where the same four games await, proving that Casper is trapped in some kind of purgatorial limbo and he's trying to drag us in with him.
There aren't any changes to the gameplay, either. The Lode Runner knock-off has an ever-so-slightly different layout, and the book-bouncing and shooting games are the same only you have to play them for longer before you're granted the mercy of the results screen.
At least the contraption-building game is a little different - this time you have to wake Casper up. I thought it'd be as simple as dropping the bowling ball onto his dumb, marshmallowy face - I would feel no remorse in doing this to someone who sleeps in a bed with their own name carved on their headboard, complete with trademark symbol. Your obsession with your personal brand has run amok, Casper! Sadly, just using the bowling ball doesn't work. I forget exactly what the correct set-up was, but looking at this screenshot it seems that a tiny chef's hat and a butterfly-catching net somehow combine to launch a rocket from atop a random collection of pixels. The rocket flies up, nudges the bowling ball, the ball rolls down the ramp and knocks the bucket of water on Casper's face. I still think my "bowling ball meets face" plan was better. It has brevity on its side, that's for damn sure.
Guess what happens when you've finished the minigames for a second time? If you said anything other than "you do them all a third time" then I'm envious of your hopeful, optimistic nature. Yes, you have to play them again, except now they're even longer. I'll spare you from having to see them again, instead using this time to tell you that the description of this item as an "ordinary nail" is making me suspicious that it's actually not ordinary at all.
Finally, something different is happening! Casper pushes Kat down a slope while ghosts try to fly into them, and you've got to avoid the obstacles by laboriously dragging the chair left or right. The ghosts are no threat at all and I think every one of them can be avoided by saying as far to the left of the screen as possible. The real danger comes from the rotating... things. You can just about make one out on the right of the above screenshot, it's the thing that looks like a bunch of squares with a broom attached to the end. They cover a huge portion of the screen as they travel, and if you're not in the right position when they appear then you've got almost no chance of avoiding them. At first this didn't seem to be a problem, and getting hit by them appeared to have no negative consequences. Then I noticed I lost a life every time they hit me, but the game didn't think this information was important enough to bother sharing with the player aside from having the life counter silently decrease.
Ah yes, the Lazuras Machine, a device capable of bringing the dead back to life. It's named, of course, after the biblical figure Lazuras, who was resurrected by Juses.
The graphics have finally achieved a high enough level of fidelity to confirm that Casper's uncles Stinky, Stretch and Fatso are present in the game. Their faces being part of the mechanism for controlling the Lazarus Machine goes without explanation, however. Surely it just needs a big lever that flips between "dead" and "not dead," right? Anyway, this is a simple memory game, where the ghost heads are activated in a certain order, which you must remember and replicate.
But I don't want to get ooz for Casper, he whined. I want Casper to go away.
In a desperate final attempt at padding, Casper makes you go through one more "Ooz Runner" before the game ends, making me wonder what I did wrong to deserve such punishment. It's not any different than the other Ooz Runner stages, either - it's all just standing around until the ghosts move into the right places, and playing it provides the same heady rush as waiting for a bus that's already ten minutes late.
Oh thank god, I made it to the end. It's difficult to tell, but the final scene shows Casper and Kat dancing while a choir sings behind them. I know it looks like Kat is trying to strangle Casper, but don't be silly. That's clearly not what's supposed to be happening. I mean, he's already dead. What you need is an exorcism, friend.
That's Casper, then, but there was nothing friendly about making me suffer through this. It's not just a bad game, it's multiple bad games, all lazily cobbled together from boring gameplay, wonky hit detection and graphics that are sometimes so bad that they hinder your ability to play the bloody game. It's all so incredibly dull, that's the thing. You could forgive a lack of quality to some extent if the game was even the slightest bit interesting, but everything included here had been done before and much, much better. The strange thing is, despite the gameplay being just as bad as Rugrats: Totally Angelica and both games being cynical licensed cash-ins, I don't hate Casper nearly as much as Totally Angelica. I'm not sure why that is, apart from the obvious explanation that Totally Angelica takes longer to play through. Casper doesn't have that faint whiff of sexism to it, either, and as bad as the graphics are at least they're not in the retina-searing colours of Rugrats. I suspect the real answer is that Casper is simply so tedious it's reduced my capacity to feel emotions, including hate. I might have to play God Hand for a while before the next article, so I can learn to love again.