Deep below VGJunk Towers, in a mouldering crypt littered with time-softened bones, scurrying vermin and empty biscuit packets, the heavy stone lid of a foetid tomb slowly slides open. From within, the hoarse voice of some ancient creature issues forth, speaking these portentous words: “Bloody hell, is it October already?” Yes, my friends, yes it is, and you know what that means – it’s time for the ninth annual VGJunk Halloween Spooktacular! An entire month featuring games of horror, grotesquerie, spirits, spectres and slime, and frankly we could all use some of the fun kind of horror to distract us from, you know, this garbage world and everything in it. I’m excited, and I’m going to make a real effort to get maximum enjoyment from this, my favourite time of year, starting with a Commodore 64 action game. A risky way to begin a season of fun, I admit, but let’s hope for a pleasant surprise with Cascade Game’s 1988 bad-dreams-em-up Frightmare!
When it comes to Halloween-themed games, you really cannot go wrong with a title like Frightmare, can you? It’s absolutely the kind of punning, unselfconsciously cheesy title that the season is made for, so even if the game itself turns out to be bad at least it’s added to the word “frightmare” to the Cryptkeeper-like assortment of compound words I’ve got in the ol’ memory banks.
The loading screen’s pretty killer, too. An ectoplasmic logo, demonic eyes staring out of the gloom in a manner that I’m certain I’ve seen on the cover of a horror VHS and a poor lost soul trapped in the window of a cathedral. I think that’s supposed to be the player character, or at least a representation of the character’s anguish at being trapped in a frightful nightmare. Because it’s called Frightmare, you see. Okay, okay, let’s get started with the game.
There’s nothing in the way of options, so it’s right into the action and if you have a morbid terror of white picket fences then Frightmare is going to send you into catatonic shock. Not really, those white things are bullets that you can collect. The “you” in question is the white humanoid figure at the bottom of the screen, with the pin-prick eyes and the wasp-like waist.
In testing out the controls, I managed to jump up to the top of this tree in hopes of avoiding the various monsters. This taught me that our hero is a nimble sort, fleet of foot and quite good at jumping. You move left and right with the joystick and press up to jump, with the fire button being reserved for using the various items you’ll pick up on your travels. That includes using the bullets you’ve collected, but there’s one small issue on that front: I haven’t found a gun yet. I suppose I’d better get to exploring, then.
Oh, the gun’s on the second screen. That’s handy. Unfortunately it’s surrounded by more ghosts than your average ruined abbey or fire-damaged Victorian orphanage, and even after only two screens it’s clear that Frightmare is one of those games. You know, the kind where monsters swarm all over the sodding screen, respawning in endless waves and using their lack of corporeal bodies to fly right through the scenery and into your face. It’s a good job the main character is quite easy to handle, then, and to be fair not all the monsters roam freely through the air. The hooded ghosts, for example, appear only on that one platform and move from right to left, and part of a successful run at Frightmare comes from learning which enemies are more like stage hazards and which will dash towards you like an affectionate puppy. The puppy being a baby Cerberus, in this case.
How did a bullet that big come out of a barrel so narrow? It is all down to the twisted logic and shifting laws of the dreamscape, dear traveller – always a classic cop-out for these kinds of situations. I’d love to tell you that now I’m armed I feel more powerful and better equipped to tackle this nightmare, but that would be a lie. For starters, not all enemies can be harmed by the gun, so while these flying monster bonces go down in one shot there are plenty of other creatures that’ll ignore your bullets entirely. Plus you’ve got limited ammo, both in terms of what you can carry at once and also because bullets don’t respawn, meaning there’s a fixed amount of ammunition for the entire game. This means the gun works more as a last-gasp defensive option rather than an offensive mainstay, which I quite like: it fits the idea of Frightmare being a desperate struggle to survive, rather than having you control the murderous hybrid of the Doom Guy and Morph.
Also adding to this feeling is the player character’s spider-monkey-like platforming tendencies. If something in this game looks even a little horizontal, you can stand on it. Individual tree branches, the tops of columns, the middle of columns provided they have a decorative lintel, brickwork, heads impaled on pikes – they all act as platforms, so when you’re moving around each screen there’s a sense that you’re scurrying around, clambering from perch to perch. However, there is a problem with this: you can’t fall down “through” platforms like you can in many other platformers, so you have to move left and right to find a place to drop down and it’s not always clear where those gaps are, as we shall see.
With a handle on the controls, I started getting into the exploration proper. Task number one was figuring out what all the various collectable items do. Some are straightforward pick-ups, like the rings that give you an extra life or the score-increasing chalices. The rest are inventory items with a variety of effects. For example, the cross pictured above can be activated at any time by pressing the fire button. What does it do? It clears the screen of certain types of enemies. Which enemies? Who knows, have fun finding out. You can carry three inventory items at a time and you cycle between them by pressing down on the joystick. This explains why you can’t fall through platforms, and there were plenty of times when I tried to use my gun only to realise I must have accidentally nudged down at some point without noticing, because I was now highlighting a completely different item or even an empty space. I’d say the inventory system works okay. I am unwilling to go any higher than that.
After some exploring and plenty of restarts - because this game is ruthless when it comes to killing the player at the drop of a hat - I found myself in a twisted bio-mechanical cavern with an H.R. Giger-inspired visual style and a squadron of aerial skulls that seem to be mostly minding their own business. What business a huge flying skull might have is a mystery that may never be solved, although I suspect they’re trying to find a way to brush their teeth without arms. Dental hygiene is very important when teeth are all you have.
The world of Frightmare is split into four “zones” that each have their own visual style. We started out in a graveyard area and now we’re in the “we were going to make a game based on Aliens but we changed our minds” portion. I’m claiming the H.R. Giger connection, but honestly this area is reminding me more of ZX Spectrum nightmare generator Soft and Cuddly more than anything else. Frightmare did get a release on the ZX Spectrum, and even a DOS version, but there doesn’t seem to be much between them and the C64 version looks the best, so that’s why I picked it.
And Frightmare does look good. It doesn’t have the most technically impressive sprite work, of course, but it makes up for it in the weirdness of the visual design and the appealingly unpleasant enemies. Your foes are a good mix of familiar monsters and slightly stranger apparitions, ranging from gloopy mud-men and disembodied hands to crowds of praying supplicants and fiery faces that fade in and out of the background. They’re definitely the kind of freaks that you’d want to airbrush on the side of a carnival ghost train, which makes them perfect for the Halloween season.
Now we enter the third zone, the execution grounds. It’s all gallows and guillotines – mental note, write that down as the title for a potential Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts rip-off – where pitchfork-wielding devils patrol the wooden boards and skulls pile up like empty beer cans after a raging house party. We’re covering a lot of Halloween themes in this one, huh? Maybe the last zone will a cabin in the forest, or the underground farm where they grow each year's crop of new clowns.
I mentioned that it can sometimes be difficult to see where the platforms begin and end, and here’s an extreme example. You can walk atop some of these skulls but not others, leading to lots of wiggling left and right to find the spot where you can drop down. Don’t get me wrong, I still think this is a cool screen – I would not run the Spooktacular every year if a videogame room composed entirely of blood-red skulls didn’t do it for me – but it could stand to be a little easier to navigate.
The final background theme is the mad science lab. Yeah, I’ll take it. Brains in jars, labyrinthine pipework, half-grown mutants sticking out of what look like hyper-advanced toilets. Normal scientists need not apply. Highly skilled plumbers should apply, this place desperately needs them.
You might have noticed – you know, assuming you have eyes – that there’s an ever-changing two-word phrase at the top of the screen. “Fearful Vision,” it says, and buddy you ain’t kidding: I’ve played enough Castlevania games to be fearful whenever I see a hovering Medusa head. This might seem like an important part of Frightmare’s mystery, but it’s just your score. I know, I was a little disappointed too. Every time you gain points by killing monsters or collecting chalices the words fill up and eventually change. There are a bunch of combinations of “word meaning scary” and “word meaning dream,” starting with “Bad Dream” and going through such variations as “Cruel Trance,” “Horrible Vision” and “Evil Illusion,” with the highest score resulting in a title of “Nefarious Frightmare.” So, if you are struggling to find a name for your new fantasy-prog-metal band then just play a bit of Frightmare, you’ll have potential names coming out of your ears in no time.
By now I’ve played a decent chunk of Frightmare and I am having fun with it, although admittedly it feels like I’m enjoying it despite the gameplay. It’s ridiculously difficult, that’s the main issue. I’m used to Commodore 64 games being cruel to the point of sadism, but Frightmare pushes that bar ever upwards with endless swarms of fast-moving enemies that kill you at the slightest contact and often can’t be fought.
I also managed to get myself stuck a few times, trapped in the bowels of the maze where all exits were just out of jumping range, or I’d accidentally grabbed all the items that grant you a super-jump and then wasted them when I suddenly had to dodge a monster. Those things don’t reappear, folks. Getting completely trapped is always extremely frustrating in any game, and it’s especially aggravating in a game like Frightmare where progress all-or-nothing. My advice is to make sure you always have a signpost item in your inventory, because using it will warp you to a different screen. This means that your inventory space is reduced by 33 percent, of course, but it beats twiddling your thumbs at the bottom of the dungeon with only screaming demon faces for company. I can go to the Job Centre for that kind of experience, I don’t need it from my Commodore 64 games.
There’s one question that I’ve neglected to answer, and that’s what we’re supposed to be doing. Travelling around screens that look like four competing dungeon-themed tourist attractions is fun and all, but there has to be a goal, and indeed there is. You have to advance the clock at the bottom-right of the screen to 8:12 in the morning, at which point our hero’s alarm clock goes off and he awakens from this frightmare. Look, they gave me the word “frightmare” and I’m bloody well going to use it, okay?
Each new screen you enter adds six minutes to the clock, so it should be a simple matter of getting as far as you can and visiting as many unique screens as possible until it’s time to get up. However, the clock starts at midnight and, as far as I can tell, the game contains 79 screens. If my maths is correct (and it might well not be) that means you can only get the time up to 7:54. Thus Frightmare is impossible to complete – and here I thought it was being crap at computer games that would prevent me from seeing the ending. Perhaps this was the point, and Frightmare’s never-ending challenge is intended to represent the helplessness you feel when trapped in a nightmare. Maybe the developers did it on purpose to generate a sense of intrigue around the game. Or it’s a bog-standard cock-up. That does feel like the most plausible answer.
With no final goal to aim for and most of the game world explored, I suppose it’s time to wrap Frightmare up. It’s a game of mixed virtues, so let’s start with the positives. It looks nice, as mentioned earlier, and I really like the monster designs. For the first game of this year’s Halloween Spooktacular it certainly packs in more than enough freaks and mutants to keep me happy. I particularly like the large yellow chaps pictured in the screenshot above, who walk around with their palms raised as though they’re on the verge of using a kung-fu palm strike or something. Y’see? Weird.
The basic mechanics of the game are solid, too, with your character controlling fairly well, occasional inventory issues aside, and the gameplay is fast and fluid with the occasional “puzzle-like” room thrown in to break up the regular arcade-style action.
However, Frightmare is badly hampered by the needlessly high difficulty level and the unrelenting waves of enemies, especially when looking back on it from a modern perspective. If it had half the amount of monsters at a time and your gun didn’t take up an inventory space I’d be a lot freer in my praise. Perhaps unsurprisingly my advice is to play Frightmare with a cheat for infinite lives or something, because in my opinion it works much better as a digital safari where the enjoyment comes from seeing what bizarre scenario will appear next, rather than “beating” the game. In that respect it reminds me, again, of Soft and Cuddly. That game will haunt me forever, it seems.
Frightmare gets my qualified approval, then. Obviously it’s a shame that there’s no ending, but what would that ending be? Some bloke sitting up in bed and saying “man, I’ve got to lay off the cheese suppers?” I don’t think we’re missing out on anything earth-shattering there.
That’s the first game of this year’s Halloween season covered, then, but there’s one more thing before I go – that’s right, it’s the return of the VGJunk Halloween-O-Meter! As always, this rating is not based on how good a game is but rather how Halloween-y it is. It’s a shifting, imprecise rating system based mostly on my personal whims and how many pumpkins are in the game, and I’m going to award Frightmare…
Eight out of ten seems about fair. It’s definitely spooky, and anything less than eight for a game containing so many brains in jars would be criminal, but it’s missing some of the vital Halloween ingredients that would push it right to the top of the scoreboard. The fact that it’s called “Frightmare” very nearly pushed it to a nine but I’ve got to leave myself some room to manoeuvre, you know?
- ▼ October (6)
- ► 2017 (91)
- ► 2016 (68)
- ► 2015 (70)
- ► 2014 (90)
- ► 2013 (89)
- ► 2012 (86)
- ► 2011 (98)