"Hey, you in the bedsheet! Drop the pumpkin carving tool and put your tentacles up! You have the right to remain spooky, because you’ve just been arrested by Officer Jackson Oliver Lantern of… the Halloween Police!” Then a song that sounds like a cross between the themes from The Munsters and Hawaii Five-O plays, and you’ve got the intro to probably the best non-existent television show ever. I suppose I’ll just have to settle for this Commodore 64 game called Halloween Police, then.
You don’t get much razzmatazz from the title screen, but you do get some pertinent information. It’s called Halloween Police – one of the greatest videogame titles I’ve ever encountered – and it was created in 1994 by one Ryan Chenery. If that all seems a bit basic then, well, this is a pretty basic game.
So basic that there’s no story to read or options to fiddle with. Once you hit start you’re dropped straight into the action, and that action is of the top-down shooter variety. You play as the humanoid shape on the right of the screen, the one in the blue jeans and black tank-top. Presumably he’s a member of the Halloween Police, although their law enforcement remit is rather ill-defined. You spend most the game shooting at ghosts, and you’d think ghosts would get a free pass at Halloween. What, are the ghosts getting too spooky? You should be out there arresting real Halloween criminals, like people who hand out apples and toothbrushes to trick or treaters or whichever psychopath thought “sexy Minion costume” was something the world needed.
Whatever his motivations, your character has a rapid-fire laser gun that can be aimed in the eight cardinal directions, and you can move in those directions, too. The basic aim is to reach the “top” of the stage by moving forwards in a similar vein to Capcom’s Commando, and that’s about it. There are no power-ups here, no special moves and no sections where you suddenly have to play a rhythm action minigame to a SID chip recreation of the Monster Mash (more’s the pity). I know that sounds like it’d make for a boring game, but it’d be unfair to judge Halloween Police by the same criteria as full retail releases because it isn’t a retail game. In fact, I’m fairly certain it was made using Sensible Software’s game-building program Shoot-Em-Up Construction Kit, or SEUCK for short. SEUCK is exactly the kind of program it sounds like, providing the tools needed to create your very own shoot-em-up by editing sprites, setting enemy behaviours and giving your newly-crafted masterpieces incredible titles like “Halloween Police.” So, Halloween Police might not be the most feature-rich game out there, but bear in mind it was build by one person using a Commodore 64 game-making tool.
This is a shoot-em-up, then, but what do you shoot at? I already mentioned the ghosts, and they do make up a large percentage of your targets, but there are plenty of other seasonally-appropriate fiends to blast away at. For instance, these Grim Reapers wander left and right across the screen, occasionally firing sickle-shaped projectiles downwards, which are easy enough to avoid if you approach the reapers diagonally. You can shoot Death Itself right in the hooded skull if you want to, but once you’ve run past them they stop being a threat. Plus they’re adorable, slouching around the stage like someone who’s wrapped themselves in a blanket so they can go and get a midnight snack, and that made me feel bad about shooting them. On the other hand, if you do shoot them their robes disappear and they become simple skeletons, giving you two Halloween monsters for the price of one and that is value that’s hard to argue with.
As for the omnipresent ghosts, they attack by shouting “BOO” at you. As in, there are projectiles shaped like the word “boo” and they’ll kill you if they touch you – oh yeah, Halloween Police has one-hit kills, by the way. There are two ways to explain these projectiles: either the ghosts can manifest their terrifying wails in a physical form, possibly through ectoplasmic projection, and have those physical forms clobber our hero into submission, or the “BOO” graphics are merely a visual aid to illustrate that the ghosts are making our hero jump with sufficient fright that he suffers a heart attack and drops dead from sheer terror. I think I prefer the first explanation. It has a pleasing frisson of surreality about it.
After a few minutes of running and indeed gunning, the screen stops scrolling and we’re introduced to Halloween Police’s other gameplay style: the one where you stand still and shoot at monsters that pour into the screen. I think it’s based on a timer, and you simply have to survive. While I was shooting at the monsters – there’s not much else to do, honestly – I didn’t seem to hit many of them and eventually the area ended anyway, so yeah, I’m gonna say it’s on a timer. The toughest part of this was dealing with these purple ghosts, because they shoot across the screen so fast you’d swear Peter Venkman was chasing them with a fully-charged proton wand. In fact, I didn’t realise they were ghosts until I went back and checked the screenshots, because in-game they’re travelling so fast that they show up as purple blurs. Also, take note of that yellow truck way off in the distance.
After that, it’s back to the running and gunning for a little while, this time while being harassed by zombies. I think the zombies are wearing backwards baseball caps. Well, Halloween Police was made in 1994.
The gameplay, as mentioned, is very basic. What is there contains enough fun to keep you interested for the short time it takes to finish the game, although it does have some strange quirks. The hitboxes on your projectiles aren’t as consistent as they could be, and consequently it can sometimes be difficult to tell whether you’re actually dealing any damage. The one-hit kills can make for some frustrating Game Overs, especially on your first few attempts. Weirder still is Officer Jack O. Lantern’s movement speed, because he move significantly more slowly when he’s travelling upwards or downwards than he does along a diagonal, and the differences in how fast you’re gonna be moving when you change direction definitely take some getting used to.
Oh look, I reached that truck. I love it when retro games do that thing where you can see your objective in the distance, and Halloween Police delivers on that front. Sure, now I have to stand in the tiny area on the back of the truck, fighting ghosts while it drives me to my destination and I rue the fact that I don’t have some kind of Halloween Police car, but it’s a nice touch nonetheless.
The truck dropped me off at a haunted mansion. Makes sense to me, you’ve got to have a haunted mansion in a Halloween game. The mansion is home to some “exciting” new features, like blue chequerboard floors that I find quite hard to look at without my eyes unfocussing, deadly attacks from flying roast chickens and those suits of armour at the bottom. They rhythmically move their spears back and forth, and you have to dash through when it’s safe. I say spears, now that I can peruse the screenshots at my leisure I think they’re holding marshmallows on sticks. I know the layout of the room makes it look like you should just be able to avoid the trap entirely and walk around the knights, but there are invisible walls that force you to walk straight up the middle of the screen.
Now I’m locked in a room full of ghosts. That’s the general flow of Halloween Police: walk and shoot for a while, then try to survive on a fixed screen full of creatures that failed their Scooby Doo auditions. That’s fine by me, these little pixel spooks are thoroughly adorable, even the one directly above our hero that looks like a used handkerchief holding a candle.
In the woods behind the house we find… the pumpkin patch! That’s right, there are honest-to-god jack o’lanterns out here. Some of them chase you around, some of them just get in your way, but they’re bona fide pumpkins and that’s a surprisingly rare thing to see here on the VGJunk Halloween Spooktacular. The problem is that while there are plenty of spooky games that are suitable for inclusion during the October festivities, there aren’t that many games that are specifically Halloween themed. Halloween Police most definitely is Halloween-themed, though. If the name didn’t tip you off, being attacked by bouncing gourds seals the deal.
Sometimes, when you shoot the pumpkins the outer rind is destroyed but the glowing face remains. I have no idea whether this was intentional or if it’s a bug because it doesn’t happen all the time, but it looks really cool. If it is a bug I’d have no hesitation in upgrading it to “feature.”
These rope bridges look safe, he lied. I’m sure they’re more than enough to support the weight of one man, his sleeveless vest and his enormous ghost-slaying plasma rifle and oh no, the bridge has collapsed. The Halloween Building Inspector has been remiss in their duties, and our hero falls, falls, falls… be where is he falling to?
Upon landing I was immediately set upon by demons who attack by firing smaller demons at you, so I’m going to say I fell all the way to Hell. This is unfortunate, because the Halloween Police have no jurisdiction in the sulphurous bowels of Hades itself. Demons are the Hell Police, I suppose. Now, I could stand and face these problems, but just like in real life I’m going to ignore my demons and run away from them. This is a surprisingly useful tactic for getting through Halloween Police. Just, you know, leg it. For the most part, the monsters in this game aren’t that fast and once you’ve managed to dodge their projectiles that’s the hard part out of the way. Especially earlier in the game, this is the best way to make progress without losing all your lives.
You can’t always run away, mind you. At the end of Hell is this weird section where you have to make your way through this brown stuff. It’s kinda like an invisible maze, in that you can walk through some of it but there’s an unseen pathway that gets opened up by wiggling your character around on the spot. In a “real,” more professional game, I’d be complaining about this section with a reasonable amount of frothing outrage. It’s just really dumb, that’s the thing. You have to go this way but there’s no explanation how to get out. Fortunately you aren’t attacked by monsters while you’re navigating the brown inviso-maze, but it’s still tedious. And hey, I’ve just realised that I think it’s supposed to represent you climbing out of Hell, and that’s pretty rad.
Back on the surface world, there are noticeably fewer pitchforks and lava pools, but at least we’ve got these treasure chests that attack by firing random ghost parts at you. A skeletal hand at the bottom, a pre-worn ghost sheet on the left and over on the right it’s a… is that a bloody skull with the trailing spinal column still attached? Am I being attacked by Sub-Zero’s Precious Memories Keepsake Box? The trick here – and it’s a trick that applies to many of Halloween Police’s more stationary monsters – is that the chests can’t attack diagonally but you can, so now you know where to shoot them from.
There’s not much else to say about the last few screen, and aside from a section where you run across a bridge while skeletal fish jump out at you, it’s a sprint through a now-familiar set of backgrounds and enemy types. I’m happy with that, though. Halloween Police might not be much of a game in terms of excitement or innovative gameplay, but obviously it gets a pass for being made by one person with a Commodore 64 game creation kit and apart from a life bar being hugely preferable to instant deaths, it’s about as good as I expected it to be – and it’s definitely got enough Halloween-osity to it to make me glad I played it.
And now, the final boss. If I’m the Halloween Police then I have to assume this is some kind of undead mafia kingpin and I’m about to bust him for tax evasion and vomiting up fireballs without a permit. On first glance I though those things behind the bars at the top were prisoners of the boss – the two vertical lines at the bottom are the legs and the lines at the side at the arms, you see. But then they began firing energy bolts at me and I realised they were skeleton hands. The boss was subsequently far less menacing, because now it looks like a kid that’s managed to get themself stuck in the railings at the park.
Remember what I said about firing diagonally? That’s this boss’s weakness. The boss can only fire straight downwards from its skull-head or diagonally from the hands, so it’s very easy to position yourself in such a way that the boss can’t actually hit you. After fighting through what was a pretty tough little game, it was nice to face a final encounter that struggled to fight back.
There were go. After shooting each of the boss’ three parts for a while, the game is over. At least I think it’s over. The gate’s open and I can still move my character around, but nothing else is happening. Maybe he’s radioed in for a helicopter to come and pick up or something, but it’s an even more anticlimactic ending than I expected from a C64 shooter. Oh well, time to go and make a cup of coffee and jot down a few notes for when I come to write this article up.
That’s literally what I did, and I’m glad I left the game running because when I came back fifteen minutes later I’d moved on to an actual ending screen. I’m inordinately amused that the ending message is just “GAME COMPLETED.” Not “you win!,” not even a “congratulations!” but only the clinical information that you’ve done your job sufficiently. It’s all in a day’s work for the Halloween Police. Now it’s back to the Halloween Precinct to fill in some spooooky paperwork! Oh, and you can “collect” the people on the final screen for a points bonus, so I guess this was a rescue mission after all.
Halloween Police isn’t a great game by any stretch of the imagination. It’s a very basic shooter with a couple of awkward sections, especially the rock-climbing (if that is what was going on there) part. However, I had a lot of fun playing it because I got to shoot a pumpkin right in its freshly-carved face. I’m a man of simple pleasures. I was going to complain that there isn’t more Halloween Police content out there, like the Halloween Police TV show I imagined at the beginning of the article. Then I realised there basically is a Halloween Police TV show, and it’s called Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Oh well, I’ll just have to watch that again for the thousandth time.
And so we turn to the Halloween-O-Meter, and I think I’m going to give Halloween Police a stonkin’ great nine out of ten for Halloween-osity. Anything less wouldn’t be right, because this is a game that not only features killer pumpkins but also has Halloween right there in the tile. I held off on a full ten out of ten purely because most of the backgrounds are dark graveyards: a very Halloween-y location to be sure, but it could have scored more highly had I been forced to fight through an evil carnival or a mad doctor’s laboratory.
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