16/10/2018

GHOUL PATROL (SNES)

And now, the videogame equivalent of returning to a place where you spent many happy childhood holidays only to find it a little run-down, with some of the fondly-remembered attractions shuttered and replaced by chain restaurants, the bitter-sweet tang of nostalgia tightening in your throat. It’s LucasArts’ 1994 SNES game Ghoul Patrol!


I’m not sure what they were going for with that title. Is it supposed to rhyme? Surely not, then it’d be Ghoul Patrool. Is it a monstrous spin on School Patrol and we’re going to be playing as an undead lollipop lady? No, it’s not that either. But it does contain the world “ghoul” and there are flaming skulls on the title screen so at least we know it’s suitable for the Halloween Spooktacular.


The first thing to do after hitting start is to select your character. You’ve got a choice of monster-slaying teens: the crossbow-wielding and sensibly-dressed Julie, or Zeke, a hunchback carrying a piece of scaffolding. These plucky young heroes might look familiar to you, and that’s because Zeke and Julie were also the stars of the wonderful 16-bit run-n-gun classic and supremely Halloween-y game Zombies Ate My Neighbors. That’s right, Ghoul Patrol is a sequel to Zombies Ate My Neighbors, just without the Zombies Ate My Neighbors name. I bloody love ZAMN, so hopefully Ghoul Patrol will scratch the same itch.


One thing that Ghoul Patrol has that Zombies Ate My Neighbors didn’t is a story. Okay, so ZAMN obviously did have a story, but it was conveyed simply and effectively by the game being called “Zombies Ate My Neighbors.” What I mean is that Ghoul Patrol has something resembling a plot, beginning with Zeke and Julie checking out an exhibition about ghosts and demons at their local library. My local library just has books, and DVDs for rent that are too scratched to watch nine times out of ten. I’m kinda jealous.


The exhibit contains a floating magical grimoire inscribed with an incantation for summoning demons. In a real Ash-from-The-Evil-Dead moment, Zeke reads the incantation out loud and hey, that’s how you end up on a ghoul patrol. Having already suffered through one neighbour-eating adventure, Zeke and Julie know that ghosts, vampires, werewolves and maniacal, murderous children’s dolls are all real things that exist, so you’d think they’d be a bit more careful around the evil monster-summoning tomes. That said, they did repel the previous monster invasion by using water pistols and throwing cutlery, so perhaps they figure they’ve got it covered.


The demon king lays out his plan to conquer all of the “time dimensions,” so it looks like Ghoul Patrol is going to see our heroes travelling to the past. It was nice of the demon king to tell us this, wasn’t it? Mind you, he’s been locked in that chest for hundreds of years so he’s probably just desperate for any kind of conversation.


There are no time shenanigans at the very beginning of the game, and the first stage takes place in the very library in which the kids meddled with dark cosmic forces. Right from the off it’s clear that Ghoul Patrol is very much the same kind of game as its predecessor – a top-down shooter where your goal is to escape each stage by rescuing all the survivors. There’s a survivor over on the right, the old man in the rocking chair. You start with ten survivors, and once you’ve saved them all the exit door opens up and you can move on. The twist is that that the survivors can also be killed by the monsters that roam each level, and if all the survivors are killed it’s game over. Oh, and the number of dead survivors carries over between stages so if, for instance, you saved seven out of the ten survivors but three of them died, you’d start the next stage with only seven available survivors. This isn’t much of a problem early on, when the monsters are still warming up and aren’t quite ready to begin feasting upon the flesh of the living, so we can take a moment to get used to controlling our chosen monster fighter.


One area where Ghoul Patrol does differ from Zombies Ate My Neighbors is the range of movement options at your disposal. In ZAMN all you could really do was walk and swim, and the swimming was basically walking but underwater. In Ghoul Patrol, however, you can walk and even run by holding down the attack button a la Super Mario, you can jump and you’ve got a slide move that comes in handy for avoiding attacks. The fact that you can jump is a bit worrying, because ZAMN was perfectly fine without it and my fear is that Ghoul Patrol will start introducing jumping puzzles later in the game, but for now it’s mostly used to hopping onto desks to collect items.


As promised by the ghosts and demons exhibit, here’s a ghost and a demon. The ghost is surely of the same genealogical line as Slimer from Ghostbusters, while the demon is a traditional pitchfork-poking imp with the ability to launch a trail of hellfire along the ground. The other enemies in this stage include flying books and possessed photocopiers, so it’s not exactly the most coherent theme. I’m okay with that, though, and so far the monsters have looked pretty neat. I’m especially fond of the formation-flying hordes of oversized eyeballs that form into spinning circles. I admire both their precision flying skills and the courage they must possess to attack someone armed with a crossbow. It’s difficult to think of a more terrifying weapon for an eyeball to face. Boudoir photography of Nigel Farage, possibly.


Save everybody in the library and it’s on to the city streets for the next stage, where there are indeed zombies and the people they’re trying to eat are presumably someone’s neighbours. That “save me!” text bubble isn’t emanating from the zombie, by the way. No, their decomposing bodies don’t still contain a fragment of their pre-death personalities, a sliver of humanity that is fully aware of the monster they’ve become. That’s pro-zombie propaganda. The text is coming from a nearby survivor that needs rescuing, and the speech bubbles appear from the direction they’re located in so you can track them down. ZAMN had a little radar instead. It was much more useful.


Other foes on this stage include green, bin-dwelling monsters that clearly deserve the epithet “The Grouch” more than certain other Muppets. Oh, and cars. You can get hit by a car. They’re not evil cars or anything. No Christines here, I’m afraid.
You can’t shoot the cars, but obviously the other monsters need to be slain and so we come to Ghoul Patrol’s selection of weapons. In short, they’re rubbish. Just super disappointing. You’ve always got a crossbow that has infinite ammo and fires a weak, fairly short range projectile. You can also find a  gun that fires slightly more powerful pellets in a straight line, a laser that shoots moderately powerful projectiles in a straight line, a homing blaster with projectiles that never seem to head towards the thing you want to kill and a mortar that fires projectiles in an upwards arc and is therefore completely useless against monsters that are close to you.


This selection represents such a downgrade from Zombies Ate My Neighbors’ arsenal that I had a genuine “wait, really?” reaction. ZAMN had a wide range of weapons that were both comical and charming and had plenty of utility, from crucifixes that surrounded you with a monster-slaying aura or bazookas that could knock down walls to stacks of plates and weed-whackers. They helped sell the game as two kids fighting off monsters in their neighbourhood with whatever they could find, a feeling that is completely absent from Ghoul Patrol’s characterless, generic weapons. The sequel also removes the concept of certain monsters being weak to specific weapons; for example, ZAMN’s silver cutlery killed werewolves in one hit, and just like in the movies the blobs were vulnerable to the cold of the popsicles. There’s none of that in Ghoul Patrol as far as I could tell, and as a result there’s little reason to pick one weapon over another – don’t use the crossbow unless you have to, and otherwise just use whatever weapon you have the most ammo for.


Ghoul Patrol also excises some of ZAMN’s special items, like the screen-clearing Pandora’s Box and the inflatable decoy clowns. I know, we’re all disappointed that we won’t be seeing a chainsaw maniac attack a blow-up clown, but on the plus side the potion that temporarily transforms your character into an invincible monster did make the transition. In ZAMN you became a hulking purple creature but in Ghoul Patrol the potions transform you into Death itself. That is quite an upgrade, and it’s nice to finally see something in Ghoul Patrol that I can confidently say improves upon ZAMN. As the Grim Reaper you can fly around, taking out monsters with your scythe and generally enjoying feeling powerful for a change, although conceptually it makes little sense – surely Death would hold no dominion over undead creatures like ghosts and zombies? Can’t argue with Death taking out a flying eyeball, mind.


The next two stages play out very similarly, and they take place in a hotel and an apartment building respectively so they look quite similar too. The main purpose of these stages, especially the hotel, seems to be to cause you to waste as many keys as possible because half the rooms have multiple, redundant, locked doors. It took me a while to realise that to make progress you have to climb out of an exterior window and make your way around the ledge on the outside of the building, which ended up being more nerve-wracking than any number of monsters because you can’t defeat gravity with a crossbow.


Then there’s a boss. Considering this is a horror-themed game I’m surprised that said boss is a big police robot. I was expecting a large ghost or a huge demon or, if the developers were feeling especially cheeky, a skyscraper-scaling off-brand marshmallow monster. But no, we get a robot cop. It’s got a badge and a siren on its head, and it likes to stomp around a lot. This is where your slide move comes in handy, because it’s good for getting out of the way when the robot tries to jump on you. The boss fights are also the best place to use up all your mortar ammunition, because they’re so big that you don’t have to worry about your shots arcing over them. However, my top tip is to use a Grim Reaper potion and lay into the boss with your scythe. Standing inside the boss’s sprite and pressing the attack button until it explodes might sound boring, but honestly it’s no less interesting that sliding back and forth and getting a few shots in where you can and it’s a hell of a lot faster.


With Officer Tincan taken care of – and we can safely assume he was one day away from retirement anyway – the “time dimension” part of the game kicks in and our heroes are transported to a time and place that the game’s manual calls Ancient China. It’s packed with lots of famously Chinese things, like samurai warriors, geisha and trees with pink blossoms. Hmm. The stages in Ancient China are a little more open than the urban levels and consequently play better, giving you more room to avoid the skeleton samurai and the floating monks. You really want to avoid the skeleton samurai in particular, because if they get close enough to attack then they’ll “stick” to you until you destroy them. This is a common tactic of the game’s more powerful enemies, and it’s very easy to be overwhelmed by a swarm of monsters. It’d be nice if your attacks pushed enemies back a bit, but c’est la vie.


The Chinese levels are quite good fun on the whole, and I’ve done a lot of complaining about Ghoul Patrol so far but it is a decent little game for the most part. Roaming around the levels and fighting hideous creatures? It’s fine. Maybe slightly better than fine, especially because you can transform into a Grim Reaper. However, one thing that absolutely will not stand is that the game includes these big gongs and you can’t interact with them. Why would you do that? If I become the physical embodiment of the inescapable end and I hit a gong with my scythe I expect a “bong” sound at the very least.


Some nice graphics, though. I especially like these little scenes painted on the walls of the buildings, and there’s a lot of detail in all of the game’s backgrounds, so there’s plenty of opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing.


The boss here is a sword-wielding demon warrior with an interesting look, and that look is “action figure from a poorly-received toy line that a kid threw away because its legs fell off.” Naturally you don’t want to be standing in front of this thing for too long, because that’s a big sword and frankly I had trouble figuring out exactly where its hitbox was. Oh, and it can throw shurikens around, too. Fortunately I’ve been saving up Grim Reaper potions. The other option would be to fight it properly, which I wouldn’t recommend because this (and every other) boss in the game has far, far too much health, turning the fight into a gruelling slog even if you do figure out an optimal non-potion strategy. Even if the bosses had their health pools reduced by seventy-five percent that’d still be too much goddamn health.


Yo ho ho, it’s a pirate-themed world next. I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m not totally on-board with pirates as part of the Halloween season, but there are also zombies clawing out of their graves in search of tender human flesh, so it all balances out. Watch out for those graves, by the way.  Whoever dug them must have had a very large shovel and a five-gallon drum of Red Bull, because they’re actually bottomless pits that’ll kill you if you fall down them.


Naturally there are some thematically appropriate new enemies here on Undead Pirate Island, most notably these, erm, undead pirates. They’re this game’s equivalent of ZAMN’s chainsaw maniacs, I suppose, in that they take a bunch of hits to knock down and then they might get back up again anyway – except you don’t have anything as interesting as the bazooka or the fire extinguisher to deal with them. Maybe I won’t deal with them. I ain’t Jim Hawkins over here, I don’t need this hassle. I’ll just hop into the water and swim to my destination!


Ah. This could have gone better. Now, Halloween sharks? That I can get behind. I know sharks are unfairly vilified and their mass slaughter is a real ecological issue, but slap a witch’s hat on them or fill their mouths with a sack of plastic vampire fangs and we could be looking at the breakout star of this year’s Halloween season.


In the final stage of this world you board a pirate ship, which is less interesting than it sounds although admittedly it’s rare to see a pirate ship with rugs on the floors. I hope they’ve put something under those rugs to stop them slipping, getting around on a pirate ship must be hard enough when the seas are rough and you’ve got a stick for a leg.
You can see the stage exit in the screenshot above, and it’s time for Ghoul Patrol to once again be compared negatively to its predecessor. In ZAMN, once you rescue all the survivors the exit appears right next to you. In Ghoul Patrol, the exit door appears… somewhere. You have to track it down in the same way you do with the survivors, and if your last rescue was at the opposite side of the map to where the exit appears then you’ve got a pointless, health and ammo-draining trek across the stage to find it. Let’s just add this fact to the increasingly long list of baffling changes from the original game, shall we?


Yet more undead pirates with the boss, a large undead pirate. Does he shoot at you with his gun and slash at you with his hook? Yes. Should you use the same strategy as the previous boss battles? Also yes. Does he look suspiciously like LeChuck from the cover art of Monkey Island 2? Wow, three yeses in a row.


A medieval world of castles and magical knights is next. Finally, my crossbow makes sense! Nice of the game to place a knight that needs rescuing up on that parapet, a place that I can’t possibly reach before that demon knight kills him. That’s helpful. I suppose the saving grace is that every dead survivor makes the following stage quicker to complete.


I want these stages to be quicker to complete. The more I play of Ghoul Patrol, the more its idiosyncrasies frustrate and annoy me. Take the doorways in this castle, for example. They’re not bloody big enough! Sure, you can fit through them, but you have to line yourself up far more precisely than you’d expect or you won’t pass though, slowing down the gameplay and leaving you vulnerable to being nibbled to death by hovering skulls because Zeke is acting like a dog with a big stick in its mouth trying to get through a hole in a fence. If the doorways were slightly larger it wouldn’t be an issue, and it’s not like the challenge of the game should hinge upon it being hard to get through doors.


Even simple movement is grating on my nerves at this point, with your character feeling sluggish and slow to respond. I think they’re supposed to have momentum, but it doesn’t quite feel right. I suspect those potions contain the essence of the Grim Reaper and half a litre of vodka. That’d go some way to explaining it. I did wonder whether it was an unconscious bias and maybe ZAMN handled in the same way but nope, I went and checked and ZAMN’s controls are pin-sharp. What is going on with you, Ghoul Patrol? I had such high hopes for you, but you’re turning out to be a real disappointment. Oh Christ, now I know how my parents feel.


Another day, another boss without legs. I assume they’re all legless so you can see your character when they’re hovering above you, but it does lend them all the appearance of pieces from an extremely ugly chess set. This undead knight has brought a shield with him so, like, don’t shoot him in the shield. That’s what he wants.
If I’m starting to get a bit weary of Ghoul Patrol’s regular gameplay, then I am one hundred percent done with the boss battles. They’re all boring, over-long iterations on the same theme, testing not the player’s skill but their ability to collect magic potions. Get back to scaring people away from an old amusement park, you Scooby-Doo reject.


The final world – and by world I mean one stage and the final boss – is set in Hell. The manual calls  it by the rather inelegant name “Ghosts and Demon World” but yeah, it’s Hell. Tortured prisoners, spike pits, jumping sections where the punishingly ugly background makes it difficult to see where you’re jumping to; yep, looks like Hell to me.


There’s an H. R. Giger-inspired look to the backgrounds, because of course there is. Giger is surely up there with Henry Ford when it comes to influencing what people think Hell would look like. This isn’t a complaint, because this stage is more interesting to look at than the pirate ship or the castle, and I’d have liked to see more of it even if it does represent a departure from the colourful, kitschy style that helped make ZAMN so much fun. That’s Ghoul Patrol’s problem, really – it can’t seem to decide whether it wants to break away from its predecessor or not. I think it would have been a more interesting game had it done its own thing – at the very least, it would have minimised unflattering comparisons to ZAMN.


Holy crap, a boss with legs! All the better to stomp you with, and the Demon Lord does like to stomp. Like all self-respecting demons, the big bad can breath fire and has a face that could proudly grace any eighties heavy metal album cover, although it must have a hard time buying hats. Can you tell I’m struggling for anything interesting to say about this? Nice, uh, loincloth, I guess. Thank you for sparing us the sight of the lil’ demon. Don’t you have a Warhammer 40,000 battle to get back to? I’m just going to turn into the Grim Reaper and perform a scythe-based hamstringectomy, then we can all get back to our regular lives. Sound good? Good.


The Demon Lord is once again sealed away in the chest / grimoire – the game isn’t really clear on which – and Ghoul Patrol has come to an end. Zeke is hungry, or so says the caption. Read that text again and tell me you’re not imagining Zeke saying it in the voice of someone awkwardly reading off a teleprompter. And, erm, that’s it. If you too want to be transported to a world of excitement and adventure, visit your local library! For books, I mean, not demon portals.


Okay, so Ghoul Patrol is a slightly-above-average SNES run-n-gunner. I am opposed to the very concept of numerical review scores and I don’t really consider VGJunk articles to be reviews anyway, but Ghoul Patrol is a six out of ten. The controls are a bit awkward, the weapons are dull and the stages are often annoyingly laid out, but when you get into the groove on one of the better stages it’s a perfectly acceptable monster-splattering adventure. The problem with Ghoul Patrol is that there’s no need to play it, because it is inferior to Zombies Ate My Neighbors in every way. I suppose you could argue that the graphics are more technically accomplished and finely detailed and therefore “better,” but personally I prefer the cleaner look and more characterful sprites of ZAMN. The gameplay is definitely worse, though. Slower, less interesting, more heavily focussed on key collecting, terrible boss battles: it just doesn’t reach the same heights as ZAMN. The soundtrack isn’t nearly as good either, but that one’s more understandable because personally I think ZAMN has one of the best and most overlooked soundtracks on the SNES. The biggest issue for me, however, is that Ghoul Patrol just doesn’t have that same sense of fun that pervades ZAMN, that wacky B-movie atmosphere is watered down for a series of fairly generic city / medieval / pirate worlds, like a 16-bit version of The Crystal Maze. Maybe I’m being too harsh on it, though. It does let you play as Death, after all. Now we just need a spin-off game where you can become Dracula’s close friend and confidante.


When I covered Zombies Ate My Neighbors it scored a full ten out of ten on the Halloween-O-Meter, because it’s a game where you fight pretty much every famous Halloween monster except witches. The same cannot be said for Ghoul Patrol, but it does have zombies, ghosts and floating skulls, so scoring it anything less than an eight would probably be unfair. It could so easily have been a ten, though. A pumpkin here and there, maybe a boss that was a Frankenstein with no legs. Ah, what could have been.

10 comments:

  1. Lord, I remember being so eager for this game because I loved ZAMN, then getting it, and playing it... and then not playing it because of pretty much every reason you listed. Yeesh. I mean I have some issues with ZAMN (it being a one-sitting deal that doesn't save your arsenal if you use a password is a MAJOR strike against it), but maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan...

    There WAS a "spiritual sequel" to ZAMN that was way more ZAMN-like, "Herc's Adventures", for the PS1, but I don't have much memory of it. Be interesting to see you tackle that one sometime.

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    1. I rmember Herc's Adventure being quite good - it certainly seems to pop up on lists of underrated PS1 games a lot.

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  2. The resemblance to LeChuck just highlights what a missed opportunity it is that a LucasArts game with an undead pirate level doesn't have an explicit Monkey Island reference even as an easter egg.

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    1. I know, right?! Especially after the Day of the Tentacle stuff in ZAMN.

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  3. I actually prefer Ghoul Patrol to Zombies as it actually has a plot and more than one boss. Funny thing is it was never meant to be a sequel to Zombies but was changed later in development. It was actually meant to have more levels in it but was rushed out to meet the Christmas release.

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    1. Each to their own. Having more varied level might have gone a good way to improving it.

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  4. You know, it is a damn shame Japan had to be subjected to this far inferior sequel than it's much more impressive sequel. Tsk, tsk.

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  5. Ghoul Patrol ... not one of the worst games I've ever played, but perhaps one of the most disappointing. Zombies Ate My neighbors without the sense of humor just misses the entire point.

    It Zombies is the 24 hour Halloween movie marathon hosted by Elvira, then Ghoul patrol is the "marathon" of three Syfy original movies.

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    Replies
    1. That's a very good way of describing it.

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