It's only March, but I'm missing Halloween already. I've got an itch that needs to be scratched, and while sitting in the dark wearing a rubber werewolf mask and re-reading old Hellraiser comics might attract the ladies it's not satisfying my cravings. For that I turn to the TurboGrafx-16 and Manley & Associates' 1991 foul-denizens-of-the-dark-em-up Night Creatures.
It's a title that the game most certainly delivers on, and as you play you'll encounter most of the famous horror monsters - your vampires, mummies and witches, although I'm afraid that Frankenstein fans out there will be disappointed. The only pitiable abomination stiched together from lifeless parts in this game is, well, the game itself. We'll get on to that later, though. For now, let's set the scene.
The unnamed hero of the game strides purposefully across the moors in the middle of the night. A massive great bat flies into the back of his head. That's the kind of thing that will happen if you wander around on the moors at night, but unfortunately for our anonymous protagonist, this was no ordinary bat.
An unusually helpful vampire appears and informs our hero that he has been taken by Hecate in the form of a bat. Wait a minute, "taken" makes it sound like the bat copulated with my head on its way past. No wonder he looks so unwell. The result of this unsavoury bat activity is that our hero is now doomed to become a creature of the night himself unless he can break Hecate's spell before dawn. He should also get down to the doctors and order a rabies test soon, but that will have to wait because there is no time to lose in the battle for his immortal soul!
Hey look, Night Creatures was apparently inspired by my love life.
No, of course not, that's the hero's girlfriend, casually remarking that she should keep her distance as though I was suffering from something no more serious than a common cold. She tells me that the wise woman of the village can help me and then trots away, leaving me in control of the main character with little clue as to what I'm supposed to be doing. He can jump and he can punch, so early impressions are that Night Creatures is a side-scrolling action game with some platforming and some fisticuffs. How complicated can it really be?
In a break from tradition I travelled left instead of right. This was mostly by accident: I'd assumed I wouldn't be able to go left and I was just making sure, but the screen changed and sudenly I was in a murky forest, surrounded by whatever these things are. Zombie dinosaurs? Zombie dinosaurs in tattered sleeveless gowns. I'm going with that. Whatever they are I crouched down and punched as many of them in the groin as I could. Our hero made a valiant attempt at setting a new groin-punching world record, but he was soon overwhelmed.
Does this mean I'm a Night Creature now, or am I just a regular skeleton? I think it's the latter. I mean, it's not just a regular skeleton, obviously - regular skeletons have lower jaws and don't keep their shape unless you wire the bones together - but I'm dead rather than undead. I had to use a continue, come what may. No lives in this one, if you run out of health then you have to use one of your three continues and once they're gone it's game over.
This time I went to the right, where I found a village absolutely swarming with bats and rats, all of them ready for a punch in the snout. The combat thus far is on the tedious end of the scale, with the speed of the enemies and the microscopic reach of your punches meaning it's very difficult to hit anything without taking damage yourself. Luckily these critters seem to drop health refills whenever they're killed, so if I find myself low on vitality I'm hoping I can just crouch at the entrance to the village and keep jabbing rats until I'm back to full health.
Between the hero's purposeful stride, the endless waves of hard to hit enemies and the general gloomy atmosphere of the game, Night Creatures is reminding me a lot of Konami's Haunted Castle, the blisteringly hard arcade version of Castlevania. It's not quite as difficult as Haunted Castle - not yet, at least - but by God I would welcome the use of a whip about now. Any weapon, really, because my stumpy arms are struggling to fend off these rats, never mind facing a vampire or something.
Well, that's good to know. This is the wise woman, cut from the same Eastern European fishwife / Cockney market trader cloth as many of her forebears. She pops up occasionally to give you snippets of vague and mostly useless information, although she does sometimes appear when you use a continue to tell you which weapons are effective against which enemies and that definitely is useful, especially if you don't have the instruction manual handy.
Just beyond the village is another forest, a forest where all the trees in the background have the disgusted expression you might wear if someone wiped their nose on your shoulder. The wise woman was true to her word, and I did indeed find a new weapon. It's an axe. It attacks in an arc. It is not noticeably more powerful than my fists and it's hitbox operates in a dimension of unfathomable mystery, but it gives me a little extra range so I guess I'll be using it.
In the woods, your axe will be chopping away at evil walking trees (quite menacing, a little Lovecraftian) and werewolves (not menacing at all, tiny heads like some breed of terrier, awful posture). There are also owls that are the same as the bats from earlier, only owl-shaped. Night Creatures' difficulty curve swings upwards suddenly, because unlike in the village none of the enemies here seem to drop health and they're constantly pouring onto the screen from both sides, werewolves jumping around you, owls crashing into your face like it was a set of French doors on a rural house, your tiny axe struggling to make any contact at all. Taking it slow and steady is the only way to progress; it's just a shame doing it that way is boring as heck.
Deep in the woods, I did battle with Night Creatures' first boss. It's an evil walking tree, but of a larger, pointier species than the other evil walking trees in the area. I have an axe, the boss is a tree, this is all working out fairly nicely, especially now I've realised I can hold the fire button down to attack repeatedly. A few seconds of hacking away at the boss's roots later and I'm one step closer to removing my curse.
Having "the power of the wolf" means I can turn into a wolf, not that I have an heightened sense of smell or that I'm suddenly real good at howling. Being in wolf form drains your health and I have precious little of that to begin with, so I don't think I'll be getting much use out of it.
Erm, thanks? When I returned to the village a shopkeeper ran over to me, told me I was foul and gave me a free oil lamp. Being a night creature has its perks, it seems. It's a shame this village doesn't have a shopping district, I'd like to see how far I could get in a jewellery shop.
Back to that first wooded area, which it turns out is actually a graveyard. I found a club somewhere along the way, and it works like the axe only with clonking instead of chopping. Here I am trying to clonk a black phantom with my club. It didn't work, because certain enemies can only be hurt by specific weapons and ectoplasm is apparently immune to the battering force of a crudely repurposed tree branch. There are some hints in the manual as to what weapons work against what foes but there's still a large amount of trial-and-error at work here... unless you're following a guide. I'm using a guide, because otherwise I'd have no idea what the hell I'm supposed to be doing. It seems that my next task is to enter some of the graveyard's crypts and search for items.
Don't get me wrong, I love Castlevania, but I'm not sure including so much of it in Night Creatures was a smart move on the developer's part. Diagonal staircases, fluttering bats and these flying skulls that are just Medusa Heads in a different Halloween costume mean that you can't help but compare this game to Konami's famous vampire-whipping franchise, and it's not a comparison that Night Creatures comes out of well. Where Castlevania is a fantastic mixture of atmosphere, challenge and pixel-perfect controls and enemy patterns, Night Creatures is slow, frustrating and burdened with some woeful collision detection and terrible screen scrolling - when you're moving horizontally the screen barely moves until you're right at the edge of it, and when you stop it keeps scrolling for a moment so it can catch up. You end up tip-toeing forwards, trying not to attract the attention of too many enemies at once, the screen jerking forwards all the while in a manner that's as smooth as shave you'd get from a garden spade.
I turned into the wolf, because that's a skeleton I'm fighting and I presumed they'd be weak against canines, what with the whole dogs / bones thing. I did manage to kill the skeleton after disinterestedly gnawing at its pelvis for a while, but the wolf's real worth was proven a few screen further on when my beastly form allowed me to jump over a pit that my human legs were not equipped to handle. I found a gun over there. It's only got six bullets, but I suddenly feel a lot more optimistic about my chances of survival.
With a gun in my possession, as well as a cross, some garlic and a sword, I stumbled across another boss. A super cool boss, because you know how much I love pumpkin folk, and something else I love is moments in otherwise frustratingly hard videogame that are remarkably easy. Here I could attempt to fight the pumpkin king mano-a-mano, jumping over the gourds he rolls at me and trying to land a blow with my new sword... or I could throw that oil lamp the old man gave me to kill the boss instantly. I knew about this strategy because it's in the instruction manual. Yes, really, the manual straight-up tells you to throw the oil lamp at him, and it's a good job I read that first because it's the only way to defeat this boss. I have to imagine the reason the manual simply tells you what to do is that otherwise trying to figure it out would be a proper pain in the arse.
Killing Pumpkinhead gives me the power of the owl, meaning I can fly up to this otherwise inaccessible crypt. I think this section was designed solely to ensure you don't have any health left when you reach the boss inside the crypt, because your life-force is drained whenever you're in animal form, there are bats harassing you for the whole trip and your owl doesn't "fly" so much as it jerks diagonally left and right as though it were being hauled upwards by someone trying to use a fishing line while having an epileptic seizure. If you could fly straight upwards it wouldn't be a problem. You can't fly straight upwards, of course.
I can't fault Night Creatures on its boss designs so far, because after the pumpkin man you're faced with a battle against a floating head orbited by internal organs. Well, I suppose they're external organs now. This is the kind of enemy design I can get behind, charmingly grotesque and a touch more imaginitive than the rest of the usual horror game enemies. She doesn't do anything interesting, though, just rolling her vile Ferris wheel of offal towards you to sap your health, and what do you know, that gun I found comes in mighty handy when there are organs that need perforating.
Now I'm in a cave beneath the forest, and because I defeated that last boss - the manual calls the Headless Lady but she'll always be The Organ Grinder to me - I was given a new animal form. It's the orange icon at the bottom-right of the screen, between the owl and the wolf. See if you can guess what animal it's supposed to be. While you're pondering that, I'm going to fight the next boss.
It's a witch, complete with portable cauldron, a must-have accessory for any modern witch on the go. Look at her, she's so pleased with her portable cauldron that she's not even paying any attention to me, the man with the sword.
If you grew up watching cartoons in the eighties, this boss might look familiar to you. That's because she's Shadow Weaver from She-Ra.
I recognised her straight away, but then I loved She-Ra when I was a kid. Not quite as much as I loved He-Man, but that's only because I preferred Skeletor to Hordak.
Anyway, the boss fight. Thanks to the manual, praise be to the glorious and helpful manual, I knew that to win I just had to throw some holy water at her. I picked some holy water up somewhere along the way. I don't remember when or how, but there it was, sitting in my inventory. Maybe that shopkeeper snuck up to me while I wasn't looking, called me an accursed wretch under his breath and slipped the holy water into my pocket. Wherever it came from, I threw it into her cauldron and she died. Killing her gave me the power to transform into a bear, a power that I never had cause to use.
Night Creatures is drawing to a close as I enter the last full area: the catacombs. Enemies wander about, I try to hit them or avoid them as best I can, I take a few wrong turns and have to retrace my steps after hitting a dead end. This dead end has a vampire in it, so it's an undead end. No, I'm not sorry.
Night Creatures has felt like it lacked originality since I started playing it, and when I think about it there are two things it reminds me of. Firstly, it has the feel of one of Psygnosis' Amiga action-adventure games, like Shadow of the Beast - nice to look at, but the gameplay is clunky and you don't always know what you're supposed to be doing. More than that, it's as though Castlevania and the NES version of Dragon's Lair got drunk together and had an ill-judged romantic encounter that led to the birth of this, a game packed with mandatory memorisation, terrible collision detection and too many enemies in what was surely an attempt to pad out a surprisingly small game world.
Oh, and that other animal you can transform into? Congratulations if you said badger, because that's what it is. A badger. Yup. I know it seems slightly underwhelming when you can also change into a wolf, a bear or a bird of prey, but none of those can fit under this tiny gap, so who's laughing now? I'll tell you who: the badger. After this he's going to crawl under the nearest sofa, see what loose change and discarded food he can find.
I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear that there's a boss fight at the bottom of the catacombs, although you might be ever so slightly surprised that Cerberus is green and petrified of swords. Seriously, he won't come near you if you're swinging a weapon. That sounds great in theory, but it can lead to the fight taking on a bit of a Benny Hill vibe as you chase the fearsome triple-headed guardian of Hell around the room trying to stab it. The best strategy is to wait for him to charge at you and only attack when he's right next to you, throwing yourself upon the mercy of Night Creatures' hit detection.
Straight after Cerberus you face another boss: a giant turkey with the head of a woman. It's a Harpy, I guess? She's just as terrified of swords as Cerberus was, but as she can fly she's much better at avoiding your blade. The same tactics apply, however. Wait for her to flap nearby, stab at her, pray you make contact before she does.
Once the Harpy's dead, another boss ambles up to try their luck. It's Medusa herself, and in a really swell twist on the game's usual combat she can kill you in one hit with her eye-lasers. You don't turn to stone or anything, you just die. It's not difficult to avoid the eye beams by jumping straight upwards, but still, a little warning that this attack works differently from every other attack in the game would have been nice. Even the previously infallible manual only says she can "kill you in seconds," neglecting to mention that the number of seconds in question is one.
I picked up a crossbow from an earlier crypt, and this area is where it comes in useful so I hope you didn't waste any of its limited number of arrows. Two bolts will finish off Medusa, and then you can move on to...
...another boss fight! I'm not skipping anything here, it really is just boss fight after boss fight down here. This time it's the shittiest hydra ever to appear in a videogame. It looks like a ham joint with snakes glued to it, and if you crouch down and fire a few crossbow bolts it will die before it can even reach you. The bats in the village were more of a threat than this thing. Hell, turning into a badger was more likely to kill me.
"What do you mean you're not putting any more areas in the game?" cries the enemy designer for Night Creatures. "I've got, like, five extra bosses ready to go here! We're not leaving them out. No, not even the bloody awful hydra. Just put them all in one corridor. I don't care how boring it is, I've made the sprites for a dominatrix with a whip made of snakes and by God I'm going to use them."
I feel like the developers have gone a little off-piste with this boss. Did they run out of horror monsters to use? According the manual this is a Fury, but she doesn't look very Greek or Roman to me. I don't think the Erinyes had access to fishnet stockings, for one thing. One crossbow bolt is all it takes to defeat her. If you make all your bolts count, you have exactly enough to kill this and the previous two bosses, which sure is convenient.
Oh look, it's my girlfriend. Just how dense do you think I am, Night Creatures? You know that's really Hecate in disguise, I know it's really Hecate in disguise, so how can we move this along?
There we go, that's much better. Once again the manual steers me down the true path by telling me that Hecate can only be defeated when I'm a wolf, which allows me to see her true form and to gnaw on her dress, which it seems is the key to defeating her. All I did was stand still and chew her until she was vanquished. Anticlimatic? Yes, a little, but after dying countless times to the unavoidable and difficult-to-counter monsters I'm glad of the respite. So, as the demonic statue in the background approves my actions by giving a Fonzie-style double thumbs up, Hecate's malevolent hold over my soul is lifted thanks to my powerful canine jaws and Night Creatures is over.
Yes, yes I have. I'm glad we decided to meet in the exact spot where that bat bit me and started all this trouble, my love. Could we maybe, I dunno, go inside now, please? Somewhere with indoor plumbing and no giant rats, preferably.
The game ends with a twist: your girlfriend is still possessed by Hecate, the possession being depicted in the slapdash manner of Hecate's head being placed directly over your girlfriend's. I feel that's fairly appropriate for a game that tried something a little different than your usual run-n-stab adventure game, but which didn't seem to try particularly hard.
There are some things I like about Night Creatures - it's just a shame that the gameplay isn't one of them. The graphics are nice, with some good background art and interesting bosses, and having an open, explorable world is neat, even if it's not utilised very well. For example, there's this swamp area.
Why didn't I mention the swamp before? Because there's precisely zero reason to ever go there, and the enemies can only be harmed by wooden weapons so good luck getting anywhere if you didn't pick up the club. In all, Night Creatures managed to charm me just a little, but I couldn't describe it as a good game. Like the Frankensteins that don't appear in it, it's a cumbersome patchwork of ill-fitting parts that will thwart your attempts to gain mastery over it. Stick with those Psygnosis game I mentioned earlier - at least they have better music.