Today, we’ve got ghosts in the machine. Not the album by The Police, of course – I mean cartoon ghosts, and the machine in question is the Commodore 64. Seriously, calm down, Sting is definitely not going to jump out and brandish his lute at you. Instead, we’ve got Fanda and Artworx Software’s 1984 haunt-em-up Ghost Chaser!

Let’s make this clear from the start: there will be no chasing of ghosts in this game. The ghosts come to you, determined to inflict the murderous rage that keeps them bound to this mortal realm on our hapless protagonist. You’re not a ghost chaser, you’re a ghost avoider. And also a complete idiot, because the game begins with your character breaking into a haunted mansion. Unless our hero has some mysterious reason for entering...

You see that man there, the one wearing the sleeveless brown overalls (and worryingly, no shoes)? The one with the monk’s tonsure and the lumbering gait of a blasphemous union between man and sasquatch? That’s you, that is. The character you play as, I mean. According to the game’s manual his name is Harry, and he’s here at the mysterious Fairport Manor because… I’m not sure, actually. The manual calls him a Ghost Chaser but, as mentioned, when he does chase ghosts he ends up being killed by them. I thought he might be filming some sort of ghost-hunting television show, but there’s no camera crew to be seen and people that look like recent escapees from a horror movie mental asylum aren’t usually given presenting roles. Except on ITV, maybe.

Your introduction to Ghost Chaser’s gameplay sees you engaging in a bit of breaking and entering. You take Harry and guide him up to the partially-unboarded window at the top-left of the house, by having him jump up the steps and climb the trellis on the right side. It’s quite a clever little section, honestly: it gives you a chance to get used to the controls before you’re attacked by a ceaseless cavalcade of spooks. With this being a C64 platformer, those controls are very simple: you move with the joystick, with up being jump and holding diagonally upwards making you jump, you know, diagonally. Climbable surfaces can be traversed by moving the joystick in the desired direction. Oh, and Harry can duck. See? He’s already a more potent action hero than Mega Man. So yes, Ghost Chaser has very simple controls, but it’s the fact you get a chance to figure out how far Harry will jump, and that he’s committed to the full distance of said jump once he leaps, that makes this first screen so useful.

Once you’re in the manor itself, the game proper begins. It’s a platforming, running-and-climbing exploreathon, with the main goal being to find the keys scattered throughout the rooms. Grabbing the keys opens new doors for more exploring, so I hope you’re ready to spend a lot of time jumping over ghosts, especially the grey lumps at the bottom of the screen. I don’t know what they’re the ghosts of, exactly. They have a unique look that’s somewhere between a mouse and a boxing glove, and they don’t really seem all that ghost-like, do they? Maybe the unfinished business that keeps them tethered to the mortal realm is something really dull like a half-completed DIY project or overdue library books, and they can’t summon the effort to fully materialise in our world. Then there are the “proper” ghosts, like the one at the top-left, resplendent in their freshly-laundered white sheets. While they don’t do anything differently than the grey ghosts – both types just drift horizontally across screen – the white ghosts are much more dangerous because they’re too big to jump over. If Harry is touched by a ghost (or one of the other hazards) he’s momentarily paralysed with terror, complete with a fun “shivering” animation. Get spooked to many times and you’ll die, so I’d better avoid this ghost by running back to the right.

Oh right, that square on the ground is a trap door and guess what? Harry dies if he falls too far. I should expand on that: while saying that gravity will kill Harry is technically accurate, it doesn’t cover the fact that falling too far causes all the flesh to slough from his bones, leaving only a skeleton behind and that feels like something that should be mentioned.
Falling deaths, then. Got it. They’re not quite as extreme as in Drac’s Night Out because you can fall for small distance without dying, but they’re definitely something to bear in mind.

Away you go, then, gallivanting though the halls of Fairport Manner, avoiding the ghost-blobs with the same sure-footed daintiness with which I avoid my responsibilities. Harry controls fairly well, especially when judged by the standards of home computer games from 1984. Yes, he sometimes has trouble dismounting from climbable surfaces and yes, his jumps often take a moment to register, but the rough edges of his handling are mitigated by a lack of pixel-perfect jump requirements and the absence of a time limit, so you can go at your own pace and wait for the spectral hordes to provide an opening that you can scamper through.

Which isn’t to say that Ghost Chaser is easy, because it definitely isn’t. Limited lives and the occasional unavoidable ghost make things tricky, but the real challenge comes from just how relentless the game is. When you enter a new room, you have about two seconds to get the lay of the land and plan a route to the key or the next door before the ghosts start appearing, phasing into our reality from whatever ghostly waiting room they were hanging around in and filling the screen with their wailing and clanking chains and general contempt for the living. As I said, you can be patient and wait for the right opportunity to move a lot of the time, but the problem is that you usually have to find a safe sport on the screen first, so you’ve got to be on your shoeless toes whenever you enter a new area. I found staircases were often a good hiding place, with the ghosts below walking under you and the ghosts above dodgeable by ducking.

Eventually I stumbled across this room, which is interesting for a number of reasons. One is that I found out Harry can shimmy across these rails like Nathan Drake in a Quasimodo costume. Another is that portrait above the fireplace, which reveals that Fairport Manor is the ancestral home of Ronald McDonald’s Scottish predecessors. Then there are the deadly red things that pop out of the fire. After much examination, I can only surmise that they are freshly-cooked and piping hot sausages, prowling the manor in search of human blood or possibly mustard.

The manor’s bathroom has a bath, a sink, roughly seven thousand shelves and no toilet. No wonder it’s abandoned. The bathroom features deadly dripping water, and if it lands on Harry he does the same shivering animation as when a ghost touches him. I don’t know whether that’s just because the water is cold and it’s dripping down the back of his neck or because it’s somehow spooky water, but it’s nice that the animation covers both possibilities

My “delicious sausages” theory is given further credence by the kitchen, where they fly out of the stove and bounce randomly around the room. Also, I shall be having strong words with whoever left the freezer door open. Hey, maybe that’s one of the grey ghosts’ unfinished business, it’s going to take them ages to defrost that thing now.

After some exploring, a couple of game overs due to forgetting about fall damage and much collecting of keys, I reached an impasse. I could not figure out where to go next. Turns out I’m just unobservant, and one of the keys makes the portrait above the fireplace swing open, revealing a hidden passage. That’s where you need to go next, and I’m telling you so that if you play Ghost Chaser then you won’t spend a fruitless twenty minutes swearing at passing ghosts like I did.

Aren’t all ghosts “phantom ghosts”? Or is that some kind of double ghost? How spooky.
This is roughly the halfway point of Ghost Chaser, and in lieu of a save game system or a password screen you’re given the secret code-word “fanda” and I can confirm that if you type it during gameplay you’ll be returned to this mid-point. It was nice of the game’s creator to include this, although perhaps a little unnecessary because Ghost Chaser is a very short game. You can easily finish it in less than ten minutes if you know where you’re going, although of course you’ll probably need a fair bit of practise at controlling Harry before you start rattling thought it that quickly.

The second half of the game follows the same room-traversing, key-grabbing pattern as the first, although now the backgrounds are in an “underground crypt” style rather than the previous “haunted house” aesthetic. Oh, and there are a lot more killer birds than killer ghosts now. I say birds, I’m not sure what they’re supposed to be exactly, and I will concede that they could just as easily be bats or archaeopteryx or paper aeroplanes. They’re green, and they can fly. Maybe they’re the goddamn Martian Manhunter.

Aside from an increased focus on hanging from wall-rails – Harry can even lift his legs up to avoid enemies below, which is a nice touch – the biggest surprise during this section was when I ventured into the middle of this screen. This put me in a deathtrap with no prior warning as two inescapable walls of flame moved in on Harry in a manner I would have to describe as “really quite rude.” Some hint that I was stepping into an unavoidable death zone might have been nice.

You know what is nice? This graveyard room, complete with skeletons that burst from their open graves like they're being launched by a compressed air cannon. Fairport Manor is literally built on an ancient burial ground, huh? That explains all the ghosts and deadly meat products. Also, I’d just like to say how much I love skeleton sprites. A skeleton is quite a difficult thing to draw when you’ve got a limited number of pixels and the only colour you can use is bone white, and capturing the pointy, many-small-parts nature of a skeleton is a challenge that I’m always interested in seeing how a game approaches. In this case, the answer is by not really bothering with the skull. Actually, I can’t help but notice that those skeletons are a lot smaller than Harry. I do hope this isn’t a children’s graveyard, Ghost Chaser. That wouldn’t be very nice at all.

Just in case you were wondering whether we were still underneath the manor, here’s the boiler room. As it’s nearly the end of October and I’m exploring a spooky boiler room I feel like I should really be getting ready for Freddy. Sadly, there are no knife-fingered bastard sons of a hundred maniacs down here. Just leaky pipes and what looks like a scattering of satsumas. The orbs on the platforms, I mean. They’re the one part of Ghost Chaser I didn’t really get. According to the manual they’re “ectoplasm globs,” you can carry five of them at a time and you can throw them at the ghosts to make them disappear. The thing is, I never got it to work properly. The manual implies you can throw the glob in any direction, but I could only get Harry to throw it directly downwards which obviously limits the attack’s usefulness. It’s not a game-breaking problem or anything and most of the time it’s best to avoid the ghosts anyway, but part of me can’t help but be disappointed I didn’t get to throw ectoplasm at more ghosts. It’s the equivalent of defeating a human opponent by throwing a severed leg at them, right?

As I neared the end of Ghost Chasers, I realised that what it reminded me of the most was fellow Commodore 64 climb-n-hop-em-up Bruce Lee. Obviously there are some difference – you can’t get rid of ghosts with a flying kick to the face in this one, for starters, and Bruce controls much more smoothly than Harry – but they’re definitely quite similar and I enjoyed them both.

With no final boss or anything like that, once you pass through Ghost Chaser’s final door you’re taken straight to the weirdo ending sequence, which I kinda love. Harry dances atop the ghost cage that was… already down here, I guess? That’s handy, normally you have to get all kinds of permits from the Environmental Protection Agency to build one of those. It’s especially charming that the bars are clearly too far apart to stop the ghost getting out, and also it’s a ghost, to whom steel bars would presumably pose little obstacle. But Harry’s not dancing because he’s trapped the ghosts, oh no: he’s excited because there are a bunch of treasure chests in the mansion’s basement, and suddenly his mission in the manor becomes clear. Maybe now he can afford to buy himself some shoes.

When it comes to early Commodore 64 platformers, you generally know what you’re getting and the real question is how awkward it’s going to be to play and how brutal the difficulty level will be, and I’m happy to say that Ghost Chaser does pretty well on both those fronts. Each screen is a challenge and sudden deaths will occur when you fall off platforms and gravity exerts its lethal grip, but the game’s short length (and the addition of the secret code-word) means it never gets too frustrating. While the controls aren’t as slick or polished as they could have been, they’re good enough to get the job done, so it’s okay on that front too. All in all, Ghost Chaser was a fun little romp and a nice, short fix of Halloween flavour in a season when I haven’t had time to play through Bloodborne again.

I’m going to give Ghost Chaser an eight out of ten (there’s been a few of those this year, huh?) on the Halloween-O-Meter. You might think it strange that it gets the same rating as Drac’s Night Out when that game had Frankensteins and pumpkin ghosts, but Ghost Chaser has something of that ineffable Halloween mood to it. Maybe it was the short-but-sweet intro theme or the possessed hotdogs. Maybe it was the horrifying concept of a giant mansion with no toilets. Whatever it was, it made me think of thin plastic masks and the smell of pumpkin innards, so an eight out of ten feels fair enough.

1 comment:

  1. try playing Ghost Chaser from Super Famicom, it's a pretty good beat'em up


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