Last time on this year's ghoulish gamut of gaming, I wrote about the Super Famicom action game Psycho Dream. It was certainly weird and occasionally creepy, but it was somewhat lacking in Halloween spirit - while it did have some season-appropriate giant bugs, butterfly dominatrices and dandy highwaymen exist somewhere outside the Halloween sphere, possibly inside a smaller sphere reserved for people who take their roleplaying games that little bit too seriously. Anyway, to redress this imbalance I present to you a quick look at a game so Halloween-y it's got Halloween right there in the title: the 1987 ZX Spectrum release Olli and Lissa II: Halloween!
An ominous if rather lemon-hued castle perches atop a forbidding mountain while a witch flies across the face of the moon... and the moon is the letter "O" in HALLOWEEN! I've hit the jackpot on this one, folks, even if the witch is leaving behind a Family Circus-style dotted line that make her look like she's a been supping a bit of her cauldron's foul brew before taking flight, if you get my meaning.
Olli and Lissa II: Halloween is, as the more perceptive amongst you may have deduced, the second game in the Olli and Lissa series of games written by a chap called Roger Danison between 1986 and 1989. They were released on various home computer formats, except for this one which was oddly a ZX Spectrum-only release.
All three of the Olli and Lissa games have a spooky theme - pictured above is the Commodore 64 version of the first game, Olli and Lissa: The Ghost of Shilmoore Castle, a basic platformer that revolves around grabbing ingredients to make a magic potion. You played as Olli, a strange lump of a creature with the feet of a circus clown, two eyes perched atop what passed as his body and not much else inbetween. He's got a bit of a Trap Door feel about him, as though he sprang from the failed pilot of a claymation kid's show. Now that you've learned all about Olli, forget him. Pretend he doesn't exist and that this game is just called Halloween, because Olli and Lissa barely appear at all and you certainly won't be playing as them.
Instead you're put in control of Arabella, the character on the left of the screen. The one with the pointy hat and equally pointy nose. The one riding a flying broomstick. No, she's not a witch, how dare you leap to such conclusions. Can't a young woman wear a tall hat and straddle a piece cleaning apparatus without being accused of consorting with the Dark Lord Satan? No, according to the cassette inlay, Arabella is actually a fairy.
A fairy who uses magic and who is clearly a witch. Even the cassette cover shows a very witchy-looking witch, so let's forget the whole "fairy" this and just call Arabella a witch. Like all witches, Arabella has been using her magic to cause chaos, although not on purpose. While trying to bake a cake for Olli and Lissa - something even I, someone who has the culinary subtlety of the Cookie Monster, could probably just about manage - she uses a magic spell which goes tits-up and causes the cake to explode, revealing in stark relief Arabella's crippling dependency on sorcery to complete even the most basic household tasks.
The magic cake explosion has scattered the precious artefacts of the castle through its many rooms, and Arabella's task (and the aim of the game) is to restore all the items to their original locations before Olli and Lissa return and starting asking awkward questions about why she couldn't have just bought a Sara Lee gateau like a normal person.
Yep, OL2: Halloween is one giant fetch quest spread across the forty-eight rooms of the castle. You simply collect an item, carry it through the house while avoiding the monsters that roam the halls and return it to its rightful place. The objects are all things you'd expect to find in any stately home, like grandfather clocks, suits of armour and the bandaged-wrapped corpses of Egyptian kings, preserved for thousands of years beneath the desert sands only to end up in the possession of two cutesy blob-creatures. Okay, so there's only one mummy and he seems fairly content with his lot.
The only question is whether this is a cartoony mummy with a cheerful face who's living his un-life to the full, or if someone's defaced a priceless archaeological relic by drawing a smiley face on it. I'd have to guess it's the latter because if he was sentient, I doubt he'd be smiling given that someone appears to have recently fed his legs through an industrial mangle.
Once you've grabbed an item you just have to find the place where it's supposed to reside, marked by a fuzzed-out version of the object, and drop it in place. In the GIF above you can see me returning the goldfish bowl to its usual place high up in the castle's ductwork. Whether the fish survived the explosion that flung their bowl across the castle is never revealed.
If that all sounds too simple and straightforward for a retro-gaming connoisseur such as yourself then you're in luck. Arabella's reliance on the dark powers of magic to perform a task as simple as carrying a candlestick from one room to another means that before you can collect an item, you first have to find a magic wand. The wands are scattered around the castle and there are plenty of them, which is a good job for Arabella because it seems like she'd asphyxiate if she didn't have some magic spell reminding her to breathe. So, the order of your tasks is find a wand, use the wand on the item to pick it up, find the place where the item belongs and return it, repeat until the castle is back to its pre-cake-explosion state. No, wait, Arabella's in so deep with this magic business that she can't even put the item down until she finds another wand.
I could maybe let Arabella get away with needing one wand to pick the item up - some of them are pretty heavy, after all, and even someone as studly and buff as myself might require some help carrying a suit of armour - but needing another wand to put them down seems a bit much. Instead of the sinful art of witchcraft, couldn't you use, I dunno, gravity? This item is a broom, for pity's sake. I don't know, Arabella, it's almost like your insistence on a bountiful wand harvest is a calculated ploy to pad out the playtime of this simplistic computer game.
There are a few more twists, or whatever the diminutive of a twist is called because they're hardly game-changers, to the gameplay. Locked doors and the keys that open them, beside sounding like the title of a self-help book for locksmiths, are self-explanatory. Then there are the potions. Collecting a bottle of potion is almost mandatory, because they give you a health bar and allow you to take multiple hits rather than dying at the slightest collision like you do before you collected whatever fantastical elixir is in those bottles. Olli and Lissa 2 is even fairly generous with the potions, much more generous than I expected from a ZX Spectrum game, with the only drawback being that you can't pick up a fresh potion until the old one has been completely drained. This means you'll probably end up deliberately taking damage in order to finish off your current potion, which goes against everything I learned from videogames but which is at least tempered by the fact it's very easy to purposefully run out of potion but then accidentally die before you can pick up the next batch. I'm going to pretend it's risk-and-reward gameplay, because then it feels less like cheating.
That's about all there is to Olli and Lissa II: Halloween. For a budget Spectrum game (original release price £2.99, which was low even in 1987) it does what it does with an admirable amount of solidity and a lack of the extreme difficulty I've come to associate with the computer games of the eighties. Arabella is easy and responsive to control - there's no jumping here, because as she's riding a broomstick she can fly in whatever direction she likes, and aside from a few places where you need pixel-perfect positioning to squeeze her through a gap she handles more than adequately. The gameplay boils down to two essential elements: learning the layout of the castle and memorizing which doors and fireplaces will take you to which area, and doing things quickly. The enemies take a couple of seconds to materialize when you enter a room, so if you're fast enough you can often make it through the area before the enemies even get a chance to phase in from whatever hellish otherworld they usually inhabit.
It's the game's charm, that loose and undefinable sense of character, that's my favourite thing about it. The graphics are great given the limitations of the platform, and the Spectrum style of bright colours on a black background works really well for a Halloween-themed game. The enemies are nice, too - I mean, just look at this ghost!
Whatever it may have been in life, death has rendered this spirit both spooky and adorable. Also strangely short, as though it wanted to give form to its spectral essence, but it couldn't find a sheet so it had to settle for a handkerchief. God bless you for trying, tiny ghost. Or maybe not "god bless you," I don't know what happens if God blesses a ghost. They probably explode or something.
Then there's this boggle-eyed frog thing, a handful of pixels so unthreatening they make a basket of puppies look like Pennywise the clown. How in the hell this thing manages to kill Arabella if it touches her I have no idea. My current leading theory is that it's some species of highly toxic tree frog.
Wait a minute, what's that? No, not the bowler hat with legs, the thing on the right-hand side. Is that... is that a pumpkin?
Yessss! Finally, a proper jack o' lantern has appeared in a game during the VGJunk Halloween season. Okay, so it's not really orange or glowy enough to start building a little shrine around or anything, but I think this two-tone red-and-magenta look is an acceptable alternative. I've definitely warmed to Olli and Lissa now that I know that a carved pumpkin is something they consider an important decorative element of their home.
Speaking of Olli and Lissa, here they are as they appear when you manage to restore every item in the castle to its rightful place. I still have no idea what they're supposed to be, the closest match in my brainbanks being the living M&Ms from the commercials. "See you in Olli and Lissa 3," they declare, and given that OL2: Halloween was rather more enjoyable than I was expecting there's a distinct possibility that they're right.
I'm not saying that Olli and Lissa 2 is so good you should drop everything you're doing in order to play it right this minute, but it's a sweet little game that's enjoyable while it lasts, and if you're the kind of person who likes mapping out the confusing and maze-like layouts of retro videogames (I know you're out there) then this game could be one hell of a treat for you. As I finished playing it, I realised that this is the non-evil version of gore-filled Spectrum trauma simulator Soft and Cuddly: a float-about collectathon with a horror theme, but where Soft and Cuddly is pretty terrible and possibly the product of a diseased mind, Olli and Lissa 2: Halloween is cheerful, jolly and just about good enough for me to recommend that you give it a go.
I know you're all desperate to discover where it falls on the Halloween-O-Meter, so I'll get right to it and give it a whopping nine out of ten.
I fear I may come to see this as overly generous later, but for now I'm happy to give a game that a) contains a giant pumpkin and b) has "Halloween" in its name a high score. I must be getting soft in my old age.