For today’s Halloween-themed offering, we’ve got a Commodore 64 platformer / collect-em-up that takes place in a dark and twisted universe – a world where, when you die, you’re not allowed to embrace the sweet respite of the grave but instead you’d better get down to Undead Tesco and buy some pens and ring binders because you have to go back to school. Truly a chilling concept, and it’s one we’re going to explore with Zeppelin Games’ 1990 potion-em-up Blinky’s Scary School!
Here’s Blinky now. He’s the ghost, not the frog. Is “Blinky” the name he was assigned when he died and became a ghost? I hope so, I wouldn’t like to think that “Blinky” was his name while he was alive unless he was a Mr. Magoo type and he died during a comical accident in which his poor eyesight made him mistake a chainsaw for an electric toothbrush. However he met his end, Blinky’s a ghost now, and he might look familiar to you because I mentioned the Amiga version of this title screen when I was looking at spooky Amiga opening screens. You know, I think I prefer the Commodore 64 iteration, despite it being lower resolution: the colours feel a bit nicer, the castle has a flock of bats shooting out of it and that frog looks less like it has a comically large pair of breasts here, which is what I saw on the Amiga version.
Also note that Blinky’s red nose and oversized shoes mean he’s almost certainly the ghost of a clown. That means there’s something out there powerful enough to banish a clown to the afterlife. I pray we never meet it.
Oh, those are eyes. For a moment I thought they were a top-down view of a pair of slippers. Anyway, while it might look scary I don’t think that building in the background is supposed to be the scary school itself. Blinky has to pass a haunting test, but it’s more of a workplace placement situation and he’s off to the ancient castle of the McTavish family, because Blinky’s Scary School has a slightly more involved plot than I was expecting. Apparently the current inhabitant of the castle is one Hamish McTavish – because if you are coming up with a Scottish name, then why not get as stereotypical as possible – and at some point his ancestor created a ghost-expelling machine. Blinky’s ghost exam is to get into the castle, find Hamish’s bedroom and scare the sleeping Scotsman. Unfortunately Blinky exudes all the heart-stopping menace of a damp sponge, so maybe I’ll find something in the castle that’ll help.
The game begins, and we get confirmation that Blinky’s Scary School definitely deserves a place on the Halloween Spooktacular. A status bar containing no less than five skulls, a bubbling cauldron and Blinky himself, who looks a lot more ghost-like than he did on the title screen, with a smug expression that suggests he thinks he’s got this haunting test all sewn up. Don’t get cocky, Blinky. I’m the one who’ll be controlling you, after all.
Blinky’s Scary School is a flip-screen-scrolling platformer at its core, so I spent a little while shuffling Blinky around the first couple of screens and trying to get used to his jumps. All his movements are controlled using the joystick, and I don’t know whether it’s down to the joystick I was using or the game’s programming but jumping diagonally – you know, the jump you’ll be using the most during the game – felt frustratingly difficult to pull off at first. I really had to concentrate on moving the joystick diagonally, that was the problem. It felt like the game wanted a very specific input, otherwise you just ended up jumping straight up or walking sideways. It made for a rocky start, but I did eventually get a handle on it (with the occasional annoying misstep) and my mood never sank too low because I saw that framed picture on the wall and my brain decided it was Lucy Lawless. I don’t know why my brain decided that, but I’m not about to convince it otherwise.
On the next screen along, I found a bit of guidance in the form of a mysterious scroll. If you look at the screenshot with the cauldron in it, you can see that there’s a high ledge on the left that Blinky can’t reach. That’s where we need to go, and to get there we must concoct a potion by following this recipe and collecting various items scattered around the game world. Grab the right ingredients, drop ‘em in the cauldron and Blinky can float up to the ledge and progress. So, what do we need? A bottle of Blinky’s favourite fizzy pop. I wonder what brand he likes? Mountain Boo? Fanta-sm? Spookozade? Because he’s a ghost, you see. You also require a fish, some perfume (presumably to counteract the fish smell) and self-raising flour, because this game likes puns as much as I do. One thing I wasn’t sure about was the way the perfume is referred to as a birthday “grift.” Is that a typo, or is it implying Aunt Edna is a con artist specialising in fragrances?
There’s also the hint that “travelling is quick by loo,” and we’ll get to that.
Off we go on our scavenger hunt, jumping over pits and avoiding monsters while we collect items, of which we can only carry three at a time. On the Commodore 64. While playing as a round-ish white creature with big red feet. Wait a minute, this is a Dizzy game! I thought something felt familiar, and yes, BSS does play a lot like one of Codemasters’ much-loved games starring Dizzy, the tumbling, frolicking egg-thing. This is a shame, because I’ve never really enjoyed any of the Dizzy games. They’re okay, I suppose, but they always felt a bit too difficult, too loose, too meandering for me to really enjoy, plus I never liked not being able to carry every item I find. That last one’s a personal thing, though. Hopefully I’ll enjoy BSS more than the Dizzy games. It does have these thoroughly adorable, wide-eyed spiders on its side, so it’s off to a good start.
Exploring the castle works just as I expected it to, with a maze-like (although mercifully small) layout packed with spike-pits and wandering critters. It’s compact enough that I can easily remember where I’m going and where I’ve been, while still being convoluted enough that I had to pay attention to where I was going lest I wander onto a new screen and directly into the path of a marauding snail.
Right off the bat (an enemy we’ll see later, quelle surprise,) the enemies make it clear that they’re going to be the most annoying thing about BSS. They don’t really do much besides wander back and forth so they’re at least predictable, but they’re also right in the bloody way all the time. They’re surprisingly fast, too – even the snails - and when you consider that their sprites are quite chunky you’ve got fast-moving, space-occupying monsters crammed into every narrow corridor and Blinky has no way to harm them. The saving grace is that Blinky does have a health bar, and quite a generous one at that, but on almost every screen there are enemies that are extremely difficult to fully avoid. BSS quickly becomes a test not of how quickly you can kill the enemies or how best to avoid them, but rather planning your route so you spend as little time in contact with the creatures as possible because you will be touching them. Trying to limit the amount of damage you take is all you can do, and as I’ve said before being unable to avoid taking damage is something that annoys me in videogames so it’s a good job BSS has cute critters roaming through a spooky castle to balance out the frustration of trying to jump past a dangling spider that’s moving as though it’s had all its blood replaced with espresso.
You might have realised that with only three inventory slots and four items needed for the potion, you’re going to have to make multiple trips to the cauldron. Well, fear not, there’s a time-saving trick I can share with you all. If you’ve got a bog roll in your possession, you can flush yourself down these toilets and be teleported back to the cauldron. It’s a method of transport that might wreak havoc with Blinky’s sense of self-esteem, and the hygiene issues that result from the plumbing dumping its contents into the cauldron room – which seems to be the closest thing this castle has to a kitchen – don’t bear thinking about, but it beats walking all the way back from the furthest reaches of the castle.
Having collected all the ingredients for the potion, which wasn’t difficult because it’s not a huge area to search and the items are mostly immediately recognisable as the items from the poem, Blinky gains the power of flight for the three or so seconds it takes to float up to this ledge. It’s a very nicely animated and extremely smooth little scene, and overall I’d say the graphics and especially the animations are BSS’ strongest suit. Blinky himself is particularly slick. In fact, the developers were so proud of his animation that they put another Blinky at the bottom-right of the status bar that mimics all of the main Blinky’s movements, and I can’t think of any other reason for this inclusion other than to show off how nice Blinky looks.
Now we’ve got a whole new section of the castle to explore. It looks a lot like the other part of the castle, but as the rest of the castle looked cool I don’t have a problem with that. The only problem I did have is that there are a few sections where you have to jump up to the screen above and it doesn’t work very well – it feels like you should be jumping diagonally between the platforms lining the pit, but if you do that you’ll fall back down. Instead, you have to get to the top-most platform on the screen and then jump straight up.
A little further in, you find another recipe. This one’ll turn Blinky into an air bubble so he can travel underwater, and once again it involves collecting a bunch of items and chucking them into a cauldron. Does no-one use cauldrons for making rich and hearty stews any more? Anyway, this time we need eye of newt – you can’t beat the classics, can you? - an air canister, some chewing gum and Aunt Edna’s scones, for ballast. Poor old aunt Edna’s getting a rough ride in this game, huh? Looking at these component it seems clear Blinky is going to make a bubblegum bubble, fill it with air and use the scones to weigh him down. So what’s the eye of newt for? Panache? Maybe it’s the witchcraft equivalent of MSG.
Exploring this part of the castle allows you to get outside and see the moonlit sky, which I personally think looks particularly nice. The purple glow of the clouds is definitely going to get BSS another point on the Halloween-O-Meter. It’s a small detail, sure, but the ways of the Halloween-O-Meter are fickle and unknowable.
I’m not so sure about these bats, mind you. Mostly because they don’t look much like bats, but also because it seems they’re about to fly into each other face-first but you don’t get to see a comedic scene of the two bats mumbling apologies to each other and awkwardly saying “you know what they say, blind as us, ha ha.”
While I was exploring, I also stumbled across this. That’ll be Hamish McTavish, then? He doesn’t look like he’s asleep. He looks like he’s about to launch into a Rick Wakeman-esque keyboard solo. Hamish’s sleeping cap is basically a wizard’s hat, too. He is asleep, though, and no amount of Blinky jumping around on the spot will wake him. Looks like I’ll have to find a special item for that, even though I’ve got an air canister in my inventory and you’d think a quick blast under the bedcovers from that would get Hamish moving.
Locating most of the ingredients was easy enough, but I did have trouble finding the eye of newt. Specifically, my trouble was that I kept walking right past it. Why? Because I thought it was a yo-yo, that’s why. Take a look at it in the screenshot above and tell me it doesn’t look like a yo-yo, I dare you. In my defence, there are “red herring” items scattered through the castle like a cassette tape, so the idea of there being a yo-yo laying around isn’t much of a stretch. Also, I assumed the eye of newt would be in a jar or some other container, not the single colossal eye of some gigantic mega-newt.
With the second potion brewed, Blinky can travel underwater. It’s just a couple of screens spent moving your ghost-bubble through the castle’s sewers (as if being flushed down the bog wasn’t bad enough) while avoiding all these angry fish, but it’s a nice change of pace. I was going to say “avoiding these piranhas,” but I don’t think they are piranhas. They look more like sunfish, if you ask me. More games should include sunfish as evil underwater predators. Maybe it’s just me, but they look way creepier than piranhas and sharks, as though an alien consciousness tried to create a sea creature but the only reference material they had were a nursery class’ drawings of fish.
More outdoor escapades await once you’re out of the water, and sadly this is where Blinky’s Scary School runs out of steam. This area is just a flat run of screens with no exploration to be had, and worst of all is this jump. It’s the only jump in the game that has to be cleared with pixel-perfect accuracy, and I do mean perfect. The first time I reached it I ran out of lives and had to come back with cheats enabled. A big part of the problem is that Blinky’s “base” is so wide that it’s difficult to tell which parts of his feet / sheet are able to support his weight or will prove fatal if they touch the spikes. I’ve mentioned this before – the article about Banishing Racer springs to mind – but when the star of your platformer is wider than they are tall it can be difficult to tell where their point of contact with the floor is. For most of Blinky’s Scary School it wasn’t a problem, which only makes this incredibly frustrating section even more annoying.
Eventually I made it across, only to reach a dead end. Oh god, I’m going to have to jump over that pit again, aren’t I? If only the McTavish family hadn’t embraced indoor plumbing, the might have been an outhouse I could have flushed myself down. Never mind, at least I’ve found the item I need to complete the game: an alarm clock. That’ll wake Hamish up, and Blinky will have passed his haunting test. After all, there’s nothing scarier than having to wake up in the morning.
And so I dashed back through the castle, over the Pit of Bullshit, through the sunfish-infested sewers and around the cobwebbed halls of McTavish Castle. I arrived at the bedchamber, my mind filled with images of Blinky’s graduation ceremony, of how he’d look painfully cute wearing a little mortarboard and then less cute when he gets his first letter from the student loan people. All I had to do was leap up and place the alarm clock on the shelf above the bed…
...at which point the game told me to go screw myself. Game over, you fail, Blinky is condemned to an eternity of ceaseless suffering in the foulest depths of Hell. Once more, I have managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Turns out that I ran out of time – I was supposed to wake Hamish up before the break of dawn, because waking him up a few minutes early with an alarm clock is sufficiently scary but apparently letting him wake up on his own and seeing a ghost at the end of his bed isn’t.
I’m definitely not going through all that again just to bring you BSS’ “good” ending, because I already know it’s not worth the effort. Instead of this message, placing the alarm clock in time gives you the same black screen with the message “Congratulations Blinky. You have completed your training, and are now a fully fledged ghost. Happy haunting...” See? Not worth trying to jump over that bloody pit again just for that, I’m sure you’ll agree.
“Happy haunting,” the ending says, but is that what I got from Blinky’s Scary School? You know, I think I did. A few issues aside - the pit and the unavoidable monsters, mostly – it’s a pleasant enough romp that does little new with the formula but wraps it all up in an irresistible (to me, anyway) spooky coating, with some really nice graphics and poetic potion recipes that are definitely charming in their wretchedness, something the game itself acknowledges. I certainly enjoyed it more than most Dizzy games, and I think that’s because Blinky’s Scary School is a lot smaller. I felt like I could get more of a grip on it than I could with the Dizzy games or any number of other sprawling home computer collectathons with limited inventory space, so yeah, I had a fun time with Blinky’s Scary School. Plus, you can travel around by flushing yourself down the toilet and I’m dumb enough to find this entertaining.
As for the Halloween-O-Meter, I think Blinky’s Scary School deserves a commendable eight out of ten. You’re playing as a ghost, for starters, and while it doesn’t contain the werewolves, Draculas and Frankensteins it’d take to reach a nine or a ten there’s plenty of Halloween-y ambience in the spooky castle and scuttling spiders. Also, I believe I mentioned this but sunfish are creepy as hell.
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