At last, the day itself is here: Halloween has arrived! If you did all your Halloween partying over the weekend then I hope you had a good time, and as for today, well, may your pumpkin-carving knives always be sharp and I hope that all the trick-or-treaters at your door are adorable kids in cool costumes and not fourteen-year-old candy chancers wearing old clothes and claiming to be zombies. As for me, like most actual Halloween nights I shall soon be tucked up in bed with a couple of horror moves and too much sugar, but before I go I’ve got one last article for the 2017 VGJunk Halloween Spooktacular. It’s both the happy continuation of and the bittersweet conclusion to a series that has become something of a VGJunk tradition over the past couple of years. I present to you Casual Arts’ 2012 PC do-you-see-what-I-see-em-up Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse!

For example, this pirate is cursed to forever hear people shouting “hey, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides sucked!” wherever he goes.
As I say, this game is part of a series that’s become something of a Halloween tradition for me. Back in 2014 I wrote about Halloween: Trick or Treat, Casual Arts’ first foray into the world of Halloween-themed hidden object adventures. It was a game that was a much more enjoyable surprise than I thought it would be and when I say it’s game I really love I’m saying that with complete honesty. During last year’s Spooktacular, I covered Halloween Trick or Treat 2, which I enjoyed just as much as the first one because it’s practically the exact same game. To round off the trilogy here’s Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse, released between the other two games and, as you can see, possessing an “undead pirate” theme as well as the series' overarching theme of “small American town goes absolutely insane for Halloween, possibly as cover for a dark and murderous ritual in service to the elder gods.”

Oh no, here comes one of the elder things now! It’s a colossal pumpkin that appears in the sky over the town every October and demands that the inhabitants sacrifice one member of each household and also that they sell a certain number of plastic vampire fangs and small packs of ineffectual face paint!

The Gods of Halloween have spoken! If their demands are not met then all shall perish, but if you please them they will depart from this realm for another year, leaving a bounty of fun-sized chocolate bars and cheap plastic toys with electronic sound-boxes that make that spooky “wheee-oooo” noise in their wake!
As much as I wish that was the actual plot of Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse, what’s really happening here is the game’s opening cutscene. Scratch that, “cutscene” is not a satisfactory word for a grainy video of random Halloween tat flying out of the moonlit sky. It is much more powerful than any mere cutscene.

And then we’re at the mall, being introduced to the characters of H:TPC and the game’s basic outline. As with the other two games, our heroes are a young sister and brother who get along in a way that young sisters and brothers only get along in fiction. They get along well, I mean. The sister’s name is Emma, and is it just me or does she look a bit like Natalie Portman? Now, I’m not saying that the creators of this game Googled pictures of Natalie Portman and used them as a basis for Emma’s face but, no, wait, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Anyway, Emma and her brother Mike are here at the mall to check out the Halloween decorations, and also to “find some things.”

As it happens, “finding things” is ninety percent of the gameplay in Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse. If you’ve read about the other games in the series, or you’ve got any experience with the “hidden object” genre, then you’ll already know what this is about but just in case you haven’t here’s a quick rundown. H:TPC is essentially a Where’s Wally book, except instead of looking for a bespectacled man in a striped jumper, you’re using and abusing your eyes to look through these densely-packed Halloween landscapes in search of the items listed at the bottom of the screen. Once you’ve spotted an item on the list you click on it to “collect” it. Find all the items and you’ll move on to the next scene. You’ve got a hint button that reveals the location of one item, and the button recharges after a while so you can never get completely stuck. There’s also a small vampire toy hidden in each screen, which you can collect for extra points: in the mall scene, it’s hidden behind the “turn back” sign at the bottom-right. And… that’s about it, really. Find the items and enjoy the Halloween ambiance. For some deep Halloween: Trick or Treat trivia, the witch in this scene was also in the first game, except there she was an actual, child-eating witch and not the October equivalent of a shopping centre Santa Claus. How the mighty have fallen.

Once you’ve found all the items in the first scene, you’re introduced to Mike. Hang on, the kids in Halloween: Trick or Treat 2 were also called Mike and Emma. Are they the same kids, and they happen to have an exciting Halloween adventure every year? I suppose it’s possible, although they don’t look like the same characters. Halloween: Trick or Treat 2’s characters appeared as slightly uncanny-valley-ish CG portraits, with Mike in particular having unnervingly small and uniform teeth. In The Pirate’s Curse, however, Mike still has a teeth situation going on but he looks a lot more like a normal child. In fact, he looks like he has his own YouTube channel with twenty-seven subscribers and a lots of Minecraft videos.

To reach the costume store, you must first complete… a puzzle! Can it still be called a puzzle if it requires no brainpower whatsoever? From what I remember of the later entries in the Silent Hill series the answer is “yes,” so here’s a puzzle. Click each of the bats in turn until you creature a slime trail leading to the fancy dress shop. It’s incredibly basic but I don’t care, just look at it. Neon goo trails, flocks of bats, the Funny Bones sign being illuminated in a colour scheme that screams “glow-in-the-dark” - it’s all just too perfect. Am I shallow enough that I can enjoy any old crap if it’s given a thick enough coat of the Halloween aesthetic? I think we both know the answer to that.

Here’s the costume shop itself, ready for another round of item-finding action. I wonder what outfits the kids will pick? There are some good choices, but I’m partial to the “robed alien that feels like a dig at Scientology” ensemble. Make sure you don’t accidentally step on the puppy that’s sleeping in the shop’s doorway in your haste to grab a costume, kids!
Is there anything else to say about the hidden object portions of the game? Erm, not much, I’ll be honest. I could point out that all the scenes are slightly animated, in this case with things like the store’s sign flapping back and forth and the costumes’ eyes lighting up. It’s a good level of movement, if you ask me: it keep the eye engaged without ever becoming too distracting. There are also some items that aren’t immediately visible, hidden behind something else that you have to click on first. “Mail” is an example in this scene: to find it, you have to click on the mailbox, which opens up to reveal the letter you need. As with Halloween Trick or Treat 2, which had a similar system, the items are mostly hiding in places that make sense but even when they’re not you’ve always got the hint button.

Oh, and there are these “hotspots,” too. Hover your cursor over these areas and you get a roulette kinda thing. Click when a pumpkin is highlighted for extra and completely meaningless points, hit a skull to lose a few meaningless points. Either way you’ll be getting a fun Halloween sound effect so it’s a win-win situation.

The kids have chosen their costumes. Emma has gone for a low-effort devil ensemble: disappointing, but Halloween-appropriate, I suppose. Mike is going as a clown, because Mike hates me and he wants to take something I really enjoy – a Halloween-themed hidden object game – and ruin it by getting greasepaint all over it. Screw you, Mike. At least he’s just a clown, which is always more effectively creepy than a “monster” clown. The robed aliens stands behind them, silently judging Mike’s costume choice.
As you can see, the costume choices were revealed to me via a jigsaw minigame. Not much you can say about a jigsaw minigame, really. Put the pieces where they need to go. That’s why Mike doesn’t have a face yet, I hadn’t finished the jigsaw. Actually, a clown costume that just has a smooth white orb where the face should be could be pretty creepy. You get a minigame after each hidden object scene, and this is the level most of them operate at. I think I described them as being like the activities you’d get with a fast food restaurant’s kid’s meal in one of the previous Trick or Treat articles, and that’s a description that definitely also applies to H:TPC.

Now resplendent in their spooky garb, the kids can get to trick or treating in this busy street scene. Hmm, those are some impressive “undead pirate” costumes, I wonder if that will be important later? Probably not as important as the fact that the pirate in the middle’s haul implies that one of these households is giving out full-sized doughnuts. That’s what you call a score, in trick or treat parlance.
This scene also serves as a good indication of H:TPC’s approach to hiding the hidden objects. I’ve played some games in the genre where the item placement is complete bullshit, with objects having their colour changed or made semi-transparent, but thankfully this game doesn’t do that. Looking at the car in the screenshot above is a good example, especially that comb on the front. The comb is clearly still just a normal comb, but it’s the texture of it that keeps it hidden, blending in with the car’s radiator without having to be made see-through or anything so irritating.

The very best thing about this scene is this family at the back. Dad as a clown and mum (or other dad) as Jason Voorhees? That’s a good mix of Halloween archetypes right there, but it gets better because I’m going to pretend that the parents are enormous nerds and that’s why they’ve also dressed one of the kids as Jason, but specifically the purple Jason from the Friday the 13th NES game.  Come to think of it, a costume that’s part Jason, part clown might work pretty well. Someone glue a red nose to a hockey mask and let me know how it pans out.

Well, it’s nice that H:TPC gets its least interesting scene out of the way early on, with this messy garage that is nowhere near the (admittedly extremely high) standard for Halloween-ness set by the rest of the game. No, spelling out “spooky” with the fridge magnets just isn’t cutting it, I’m afraid. It does have a raccoon, though, which is not a surprise to me. Since I first played Halloween: Trick or Treat, I’ve gobbled up a lot of horror-themed hidden object games and I’ve enjoyed most of them even if they don’t give me quite as much pleasure as the H:ToT series. One things many of them have in common, however, is raccoons. They crop up with far more frequency than you might expect, unless the general consensus amongst the world’s population is that raccoons are somehow scary and I just didn’t get the memo.

After a little more trick or treating, Emma and Mike head to the funfair, because what could be safer than two unsupervised children heading to a creepy funfair in the middle of the night… on Halloween?! I’m sure they’ll be fine, or at least they’ll only be subjected to the ordinary horrors of a poorly-maintained carnival. The terror of boiled-burger-inspired food poisoning! Nerve-shredding horror as you argue with a carny about a rigged coconut shy! The unending guilt these kids will feel when they accidentally crush that cat that’s been allowed to wander around the dodgems! No, seriously, someone move that cat, it’s going to get hurt. Don’t worry about the duck, ducks can look after themselves.
I think the best thing about this scene might be the kid in the ticket booth, though. He’s so keen to impress that he wore his most blinging gold chain to work. That’s the true horror of Halloween right there. No, not the ticket guy, I mean a white man who’s rapidly approaching middle age using the world “blinging” in 2017.

Next stop – Dracula’s Castle. God knows why this place wasn’t the first stop. Dodgems are fine and all but how could you possibly enjoy them knowing that this majestic edifice is right next door? It’s a masterpiece, it really is. The way the facade is peeling away from the castle is great, the beret-wearing skull that’s guarding the drawbridge and is giving me flashbacks to Soft and Cuddly (one of VGJunk’s most traumatic childhood horrors) is great, and the fact that Dracula is standing atop his castle parapets, waving a cutlass and spying on the approaching customers with his telescope? Extremely great. I’m genuinely tempted to print this screenshot out and have it framed.

The inside of Dracula’s castle is just as great as the outside. There seems to be some kind of Dracula family, even. Mrs. Dracula at the top left, Drac himself at the top right and Kid Dracula on the staircase. Kid Dracula wanted to be a dentist, but his dad railroaded him into joining the family business and he’s bitter about it, that’s the backstory I’ve come up with. Also note that there’s an electric guitar next to Dracula. According to the other games in the H:ToT series, rockin’ out is as much a part of Dracula’s character as drinking the blood of virgins.
While we’re here, a quick discussion of H:TPC’s graphics. I absolutely love them, obviously. They’re kitschy, they’re tacky, and that’s exactly what Halloween should be like, as far as I’m concerned. It’s the one holiday where the DIY aesthetic shines the brightest with the home-made costumes and decorations, and the H:ToT games slot into that mood just right because they feel like they’ve been constructed by someone clipping pictures out of mail-order catalogues and supermarket ads and making them into a digital collage. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how these games are made, and in the H:ToT2 article I managed to find the source of some of the items and was informed where at least one more object came from in the comments. Sourcing Halloween items by running endless internet searches like “Halloween costume stock photos” and “witch figurine -sexy -anime” would be my ultimate dream job. Maybe one day I’ll go back through these games and see how many of the objects I can find the sources for. Not for an article, but just for fun. For example, you see the lady next to the “ye dungeon” sign on the left? That’s “alternative” model Masuimi Max. Don’t Google Masuimi Max at work, your boss won’t appreciate it. Unless you work at a latex fetish dungeon, in which case it’s probably fine.

I have to mention the castle’s dungeon, because it’s home to Death itself, but a goddamn kitten, the Grim Rea-purr, and I don’t think I could live with myself if didn’t bring that to your attention. It’s wearing a little bow tie! I hope this is conveying just why I love these dumbass games so much. Of course, the idea of a kitten being the manifestation of death is sweet and all, and mankind would probably see death as less of a taboo if the ultimate end was accompanied by kitties, but if you actually look at the cat reaper and try to figure out what shape it is underneath those robes then it suddenly becomes a lot more sinister. Is it a human-shaped skeleton with a kitten’s head? A were-cat of some kind? My prevailing theory is that it’s basically a sack full of many individual cats, and they take turns acting as the face.

I had to build a Dracula doll while I was in the dungeon. I mean, I don’t think the kids were forced to build it, but they were in a Halloween dungeon with a build-your-own vampire kit and I can’t blame them for not being able to resist. Mike channels Shaggy (from Scooby-Doo, not the singer) once the Dracula is complete, and it’s interesting to see someone wearing that outfit being scared of a doll.

All this spooking has given the kids an appetite, so they stop off at Dale’s Diner. He’s got candy floss, he’s got funnel cakes, he’s got… is that a chinchilla down there? Okay, not particularly spooky, but whatever. Dale’s also flying Confederate flags from his diner, and while I don’t want to get into the political ramifications of that it does remind me that the H:ToT games are made by a British company. The Pirate’s Curse isn’t nearly as full-on with the Americana as Trick or Treat 2 was – that game featured “support our troops” stickers and honest-to-god banjo music – but it still feels very, very American. I suppose Halloween is a very American thing, whatever its traditional roots may be, and without wanting people to think I’m denigrating that great nation I reckon those plastic trash bags with jack o’lantern faces on them that you fill with leaves are possibly America’s greatest cultural achievement.
Back to the diner, and the best thing about this scene is definitely the two people on the right who seem to be having the worst first date ever. I’m no expert on body language, but she’s definitely not into it. Maybe it’s because the guy has brought his teddy bear with him. “This is Mr. Snuggles,” he explains. “My mom said I should bring him because he helps keep me calm. Say hello to Mr. Snuggles. I said say hello.”

After a few more scenes, our young charges decide to call on their friend Tom. They poke around his room while he’s getting changed, eventually settling into the thrilling activity of rearranging the mixed-up books on his bookshelves. Yeah, the minigames really aren’t that exciting, I admit it. However, now we’ve got the books in the right order we can see they read “The Pirate’s Curse.” So, after well over half the game has passed, we’re finally getting to the pirate’s curse portion of The Pirate’s Curse. I was beginning to wonder whether the developers had just forgotten about it.

Here’s Tom in his pirate costume, and by “costume” I mean the actual clothes of a real pirate. I can’t fault your commitment to authenticity, Tom, although I pray that the beard is fake. He also mentions “some pirate stories about a haunted fairground,” and it’s only now that I realise this is a really weird set-up. Pirates? Sure. Undead ghost pirates? Yeah, I can get on board with that. Ghost pirates who also run a haunted funfair? No, you’ve lost me.

On the way back to town, the kids happen across a gypsy fortune teller. Emma comments that it looks more like a pirate dressed as a gypsy fortune teller but Mike tells her that she’s being silly, even after the pirate-gypsy tells the kids that they should definitely take a shortcut through the city sewers. If this devolves into a slasher movie, I think we can safely assume that Emma is going to be the only survivor.

Another cutscene? Why, The Pirate’s Curse, you’re really spoiling us with these piratical apparitions that shroud the town in a dense cloud of green fog and hang on, isn’t this the plot of John Carpenter’s The Fog? Damn, maybe The Pirate’s Curse really is going to turn into a slasher movie.

Yes indeed, it really does seem like the big twist in this game’s plot is that ghostly pirates turn up and establish a haunted carnival. Tired of roaming the seven seas and buckling their swashes, these salty sea-dogs have decided that a more efficient way to relieve people of their doubloons is via hook-a-duck - hook-a-duck being a pirate’s favourite carnival game, of course.
The new piratical management means that the carnival is now a spooky carnival, and it is to the developers’ eternal credit that they drew completely new scenes instead of simply giving the previous scenes a lick of spooky paint. There are also a lot more golden objects to find in each scene now, and eventually your eyes will become trained to spot all that glitters like some kind of deranged magpie.

It’s back. Oh, thank heavens, it’s back. The H:ToT games might be a VGJunk tradition, but they also have a tradition of their own, and that’s one of the characters describing something as “spooky dooky.” It happens in all three games and it’s made me laugh every time I’ve seen it. The day that “spooky dooky” replaces “creepy” in common parlance will be the day that mankind ascends to a higher plane.
Also, you know what’s happened since you were here earlier, Mike. There were pirates, and a curse, remember? When you fiddled about with that bookshelf? Oh, I get it, Mike’s realised that this is all his fault and he’s trying to cover his tracks.

You want ghostly carousels ridden by wooden pirate mannequins and staffed by rotting swamp-hags? Then Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse definitely has you covered. It’s all just so much fun to look at and I’ll tell you what, the artist on this game really understood the colour palette that makes for an effective Halloween scene. Lots of vibrant greens and burning sunset oranges, these things are very important in setting the correct mood. Things like that frog near the bottom-left that has amassed a small pile of human fingers? They’re just a bonus. Where did you get all those fingers, Mr. Frog? And what do you need them for? Maybe there’s a corpse nearby wearing a t-shirt that reads “I Am a Hand Model and I Hate Frogs” and I can laud H:TPC as a masterpiece of environmental storytelling.

As the kids explore the haunted fun fair, it becomes clear that the Pirate’s Curse isn’t really all that much of a curse. The pirates aren’t looting and pillaging, they’re not attempting to murder the children or even harm them in any way, they’re just… running a fun fair. Unless they’re going for a “the pirates are holding a carnival… without the correct safety permits!” kind of terror, then I feel like we’re unfairly harassing a group of legitimate entrepreneurs who just happen to be, in some cases, missing a lot of their skin.

Eventually the kids find a mysterious (and broken) compass, reasoning that if they fix it, it’ll help them in some way. This minigame is dangerously close to being a sliding block puzzle, because you have to click on the “rings” of the compass so they rotate, spinning them until they all line up correctly. I haven’t mentioned many of the minigames in H:TPC, have I? That’s probably because the game leans very heavily on a few specific types. You’ve got very simple jigsaws, a bunch of “find the matching pairs” challenges and a few where you have to spin or rotate the puzzle pieces to make a picture. They mostly look great, with the same intense Halloween flavour as the hidden object scenes, but there’s only so much I can say about jigsaw puzzles even when they are pictures of haunted helter-skelters.

The mysterious compass leads the kids through an equally mysterious yet very well signposted underground cave. Nice of the ghost pirates to put up warning signs, I thought. Also, more raccoons. Is America infested with raccoons, and the government is just about managing to keep this fact secret from the wider world?

I want to live in a town that is so insanely hyped-up for Halloween that even the bait shops start hanging out the orange-and-black bunting and selling pumpkins. No, wait a minute, check out the sign on the door, they’re giving away free pumpkins. That’s how they get you hooked. Once the urge to carve jack o’lanterns has wormed its way inside you, then they start charging and when you can’t afford the next pumpkin you have to resort to carving turnips like a medieval Irish peasant.
The kids aren’t here for the free pumpkins, mind you. They’re visiting Fred, the store’s owner, and he’s got information for them: gather up a load of gold and take it to the pirate captain, and the buccaneers will all leave. Note that the pirates never asked for the gold, and it sure does feel like I’m going to bribe all these pirates, who just wanted to run a fun fair, so that they leave town.

Okay, so the pirates are making that guy walk the plank, and that’s not very nice. It must violate some workplace health and safety laws, at the very least.

Having reached the pirate ship and collected a fortune in gold and jewels, the kids make a run for the Mexican border to start a new life as very wealthy people. No, of course not, they neatly package all the valuables into a chest, as is the traditional pirate way. For whatever reason, I actually really enjoyed this jigsaw minigame. I have no idea what the hell is wrong with me, but piecing together the golden trinkets was oddly soothing and oh god, am I about to develop some kind of dragon fursona? Is this setting off some kind of hoarding response? Quick, pirate captain, please take all this gold away from me.

“Arr, so be it, me and me crew of scurvy carnival workers shall leave this ungrateful town. A curse upon ye landlubbers who don’t appreciate a well-designed Halloween fun fair, yaarr.”

With the gold in hand, the pirate captain is beamed back up to the Starship Enterprise, where this entire game is revealed to be a holodeck malfunction. Actually, was there ever a pirate-themed holodeck episode? I bet there was, I can just see Worf wearing an eyepatch and saying “Captain, I do not understand how to splice this... mainbrace.”
And so the curse upon these Halloween-obsessed town is lifted, and Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse is… still going on?

That’s right, you get a couple more scenes just to prove that the town is back to normal. Well, as normal as a town whose economy is based entirely on fun fairs and gourd sales can be. The kids are all terribly relaxed about their adventure, a nightmarish thrill-ride that exposed their youthful minds to the incontrovertible fact that ghosts and the afterlife are real. “Everything worked out fine, and I think it’s time we all headed home,” says Mike. He’s had his dooky so thoroughly spooked that he’s traumatised, the poor dope.

Ha ha ha, yeah, Tom, you’d better not accidentally summon the spirits of the dead next year, the crowd laughs, “Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse was filmed before a live studio audience,” roll credits.

Now Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse is over, and heartbreakingly for me, so is the series as a whole. There are no more Halloween-themed hidden object games by Casual Arts for me to play. I suppose they might release more in the future. I certainly hope so, because just to reiterate I love these games. They’re just so perfectly me, you know? It might be a genre that’s looked down upon as one for bored grandmas, but I find the gameplay of hidden object games to be utterly relaxing even when they don’t look like this, and the trashy, tacky, spooky-dooky aesthetic of the H:ToT games just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Of the three games in the series, I'd say that The Pirate's Curse is actually the least good, but only by the narrowest of margins and only because I don't think the ghost pirates really add that much to the Halloween mood. Like, they're good and spooky but it'd be better and more Halloween-y if some of them were replaced by ghost Frankensteins.

Yes indeed, Happy Halloween to you all, and thank you for reading the 2017 VGJunk Halloween Spooktacular. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it, especially if you managed to make it through almost five thousand words about a low-budget PC hidden object game. If I had pumpkin-shaped medals to give out, you’d all get one. There’s just one thing left to do...

Turning to the Halloween-O-Meter for a final time this year, and there’s no way Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse wasn’t getting a ten out of ten. These games have become just as much a part of my overall concept of Halloween as listening to Alice Cooper’s “Man Behind the Mask” on repeat and scouring eBay for cheap plastic jack o’lanterns. Hell, next year I might change from the Halloween-O-Meter to “Spooky Dookies Out Of Ten.”



Hammerin’ Harry: the name of an unimaginative yet enthusiastic male porn star? Possibly, but that’s not what we’re looking at today. Obviously. Instead, it’s Tamtex and Irem’s 1993 Game Boy stop-hammer-time-em-up Hammerin’ Harry: Ghost Building Company!

So, is that a building company that’s staffed by ghosts or a company that builds ghosts?

Oh, I see, it’s the former. I shouldn’t be surprised, this is a cutesy Game Boy platformer. It’s unlikely to feature villains who build ghosts, because you know what we call someone who builds ghosts? That’s right, a serial killer.
If the title didn’t give it away, in this game you’ll be playing as a young man named Harry, and he’s got a hammer. He used to have a girlfriend, but she’s just been kidnapped by ghosts. It’s the standard videogame set up, except your abducted girlfriend isn’t a princess and you play as a humble carpenter rather than a mighty warrior or similar.

If there’s something strange with your home’s structural integrity, who you gonna call? Ghost builders! Like all building work, their prices are spookily scarifying! I really like the opening to each stage being both framed as an audience watching in a theatre and beginning with a structure that seems normal at first but then becomes possessed by ghosts. I’ve gotta say, Hammerin’ Harry: Ghost Building Company seems to be going all-out with the presentation and so far it looks really good – cartoony, chunky, with a good sense of fun to it and lots of ghosts. All things worth celebrating, so let’s hope the developers keep it up during the actual gameplay.

Things are off to a good start. The first stage begins with a hockey-masked maniac carrying a saw running towards me, and what else could be better for a game on the Halloween Spooktacular? Not much, if I’m honest. Fortunately these psychos don’t have the immortality of the Jason Voorhees that inspired them and Harry can deal with them by clobbering them with his mallet. Much of the game revolves around clobbering things with your mallet, in fact, so at least the title’s accurate. You can swing your hammer in a very obvious “normal attack” kind of way, and you can hold up on the d-pad to lift the hammer above your head and both poke airborne enemies with it and use it as a kind of wooden umbrella to protect yourself. You can even slam your hammer on the ground, and if you do this just as you land from a jump you’ll send a shockwave along the floor so Harry even has something of a ranged attack.

Much of the game revolves around using Harry’s hammer to bash your way through relatively standard platformer stages, often clonking ghosts or at least items that are possessed by ghosts, like these haunted nails that fly towards Harry’s face and can be swatted aside with your mallet. It’s got that familiar “Game Boy platformer” feel, specifically of the kind where the developer has attempted to compensate for the Game Boy’s technical limitations by using big, easy-to-see sprites and slowing the action down to limit the suffering caused by screen blur, and early impressions are that they’ve done a decent job.

After a little while you’ll face a skeleton construction worker. I had trouble capturing a decent screenshot of them, because they’re shy, bless. You can just about see him peeking in at the edge of the screen, if you can tear your eyes away from the enormous mace that Harry’s now carrying. That’s a power-up you can find, and boy is the mace useful. It can create shockwave attacks without having to jump, for starters, but mostly it’s useful because it’s sheer size means you can use it as a shield and hide behind it. You lose the mace if you take damage, so try not to let that happen.
As for the skeletons, they fight by backing out of Harry’s attack range until they’re far enough away and then firing a projectile at you. That forces them to stand still, so you can jump over the projectile and attack them. Enemies that use this exact same fighting style pop up with great frequency during HH:GBC, so get used to it.

Halfway through the stage you’ll enter the haunted building itself, where the maniacs are (disappointingly, I must confess) replaced by more traditional sheet-type ghosts. They’re still vulnerable to a thorough hammering, mind you, and that’s why he’s called Hammerin’ Harry. Except he’s not always called Harry, and this game is in fact part of a Japanese game series called Daiku no Gen-San. It’s a title that translates as something like Mr. Gen the Carpenter, and HH:GBC is the third game in the series after the arcade original and a NES game. Most of the games are action-focussed bash-em-ups, but they do include a quiz game, some pachinko spin-offs (of course) and even a short anime series. Knowing that he’s originally a Japanese character means some aspects of Harry’s design make more sense, like his hachimaki headband and his belly warmer. Those are called haramaki, and you’ll sometimes see them in games and anime being worn by the “gruff older man” type character. The Kingdom Hearts version of Cid Highwind wears one, for instance. Also (and this is my favourite bit of trivia for a while) according to the haramaki Wikipedia page a modern resurgence in the wearing of haramaki is attributed to Shigesato Itoi. Yes, the bloke responsible for designing the Mother / Earthbound games.

Hey look, a doughnut! These sweet, tasty treats restore a block of Harry’s health, although unusually you only start with three out of your five potential hit points, so you can “overcharge” your health. There are also hard hats to pick up that protect Harry from one hit’s worth of damage… and I think that’s about it for power-ups. Oh, there are extra lives here and there, too. Okay, now that’s all of them.

The game wastes no time in bringing back the construction skeletons. I told you they would, and while in later stages they’re at least given different sprites even if they fight identically, here it’s just Harry versus two skeletons. Well guess what, you bony bastards? I’ve got the mace, so I can use the shockwave to hit you from halfway across the screen. Try cautiously backing away from that.

Eventually you’ll reach the first boss, which is a large, sentient nail wearing a babygrow. The pointed tip of its nail-body sticks out menacingly between its legs, which is probably why the boss looks so shocked.
As you’d expect from the first boss of the game, it’s a fairly straightforward battle: you hit the boss, it takes damage and causes a rain of debris to fall from the ceiling which you can either avoid, or you can lift up your hammer and hide underneath. That’s about it, although the fight is saved from being too tedious by the boss nail flying across the room and sticking into the wall when you hit it. It’s a very fun touch, and so far HH:GBC has had a few of those even if the gameplay has been a bit obvious.

Then the head ghost pops back up just to zap Harry with a ghost laser. What a dick. Dick Dastardly, specifically - the ghost seemed like it was already long gone and if it’d just tried to put more distance between itself and Harry its evil (yet vague) plans would be better served than by returning to the scene of the crime and ecto-zapping our hero.

The what now?

Oh, right. The air fight. Of course. Yes, it’s a side-scrolling shooter section, and I have made my feelings about platformers shoehorning in side-scrolling shooter sections plain many times in the past. To reiterate: it very rarely feels like anything but lazy padding, with none of the excitement of a real shooter. This is definitely the case with HH:GBC’s shooter segments, which are slow, cumbersome and just not interesting. Not on a gameplay level, anyway: as seems to be a running theme with this game, they’re saved by the presentation. The chainsaw-wielding air-ghosts are cool, but best of all is that Harry is still suffering from the debilitating effects of the ghost laser and when you’re not touching the controls he flaps about in breeze like a damp hanky.

Even a boring shooter segment that only provides the bare minimum amount of gameplay required to be a shoot-em-up has to have boss battles, and this one is no different. I’ve got two options for how to describe this thing: it’s either a flying totem pole, or it’s the back end of an airship and these skeletal faces are the engines. I like the latter option, because then I can pretend that this airship is propelled through the air by the constant, agonised screaming of these mummified skulls and that would be terrifying.

Stage two is the Ghost Factory, and the name is a cruel trick: I was hoping for an endless array of spooks and spectres being built on an assembly line while “Powerhouse” plays in the background, but what I got was an underwater level. Yay, everyone loves those. Okay, so this one isn’t too bad. I think it’s because the usual problem with underwater levels is that they make your character move far more slowly, but Harry moves slowly anyway so it’s not that much of a change. You’re still moving slowly through the levels and hitting things with your hammer, it’s just that now you can hold the jump button to swim all the way to the top of the screen.

Turns out Harry’s plan was to sneak into the ghost factory by swimming through the sewers, and he’s almost made it into the main building when he’s attacked by what I think is a Frankenstein. It’s the flat-top that’s doing it, this thing is either a reanimated creature made from human parts or someone dropped a clothes iron onto its head during childhood. Whatever it is, it fights in exactly the same way as the skeletons from the first stage, except instead of throwing a stone projectile at Harry it vomits up an eyeball. Look, in the packed marketplace of horrible videogame monsters you need something that makes you stand out from the crowd and if that thing is “the ability to projectile vomit eyeballs” then godspeed to you, buddy.

Finally, it’s the “factory” part of the ghost factory! This is a videogame, so you know what that means – conveyor belts, and plenty of them, often positioned over bottomless pits. The main thing this section taught me is that any time I jump in a platformer I attack by instinct. Decades of videogaming mean my brain is now hard-wired to attempt jumping kicks / jumping fireballs / jumping hammer-blows, and I didn’t even realise I was doing it until I reached this stage in HH:GBC. That’s because swinging your hammer in mid-air causes Harry to lose some momentum, and if you attack while you’re jumping over a death-pit it’ll slow you down enough that you’ll fall and die rather than easily clearing the gap. That was a lesson it took a lot of unnecessary deaths for my brain to register, let me tell you.

Here’s the boss of the ghost factory – or should that be foreman? - and it’s disappointingly non-ghostly. It’s a robot, that’s what it is. A robot with bombs. The bombs have timers on them, and you can knock them around the room with your hammer. Now, I’m sure that you, being the wise and perceptive person you are, have immediately realised that to beat this boss you need to hit their own bombs back at them. Indeed, that is how you beat this boss. However, I did not figure this out for an embarrassingly long time, and I just kept trying to smash the robot with my mallet. You know what they say about how every problem looks when all you have is a hammer.

Then there’s another flying section, after Harry is launched out of a cannon, circus-style. It’s the same as the other flying section even though you’re not in an aeroplane. Harry doesn’t need a plane when he can fire missiles out of his face. I feel like they cold have given Harry a more carpentry-inspired ranged attack, like rapid-firing nails or dual-wielded caulk guns, but missiles is what we’ve got and I suppose they’re good enough to take on this boss. I’ve got no idea what the boss is supposed to be, but those things sticking out of its back are missiles and when it attacks it reaches behind itself, grabs one and throws it at you, which is a good way of giving a bit of visual flair to what is a very bog-standard “avoid the easily-avoidable projectiles” shooter boss.

The cannon propels Harry all the way to the next stage – the Ghost Airship. It’s got airship, it’s got ghosts, what more could you want? The first portion of the level involves landing atop the airship and using your melee weapon to batter anything that gets in your way. I’ve played quite a lot of Battlefield 1 recently, so it’s nice that the zeppelin-surfing skills I learned in that game have transferred over to this one.

Then you get inside the airship and suddenly things get a lot more hectic. Without wanting to sound heartless or anything, there are plenty more fish in the sea, Harry. Maybe just find another girlfriend, one that hasn’t been kidnapped by ghosts? As the song goes, I’d do anything for love but I won’t do that, and in this case “that” means “swing along these dangling ropes which would be fine except once you’re on the ropes it triggers the advancing buzzsaws and the whole thing gets a bit too stressful for me.” It all feels rather reminiscent of the stages in Super Mario World that featured moving platforms and dangling electric blades, and I suppose if you’re going to take “inspiration” from another game it might as well be from the best. Obviously this isn’t nearly as good as the Super Mario World equivalent, mostly because the small screen size and large sprites compresses the action into annoyingly tight confines. It’s not terrible, and HH:GBC is competent enough throughout that the gameplay never really dips into absolute bullshit territory, but it’s not much fun either. Especially when the devil-babies turn up and start throwing bombs at you. That’s just not necessary, devil-baby.

By this point, it has become clear that HH:GBC is a mediocre action-platformer with dull shoot-em-up sections, but it’s trying to hide this fact by going all-out with the presentation – and when it gets the presentation right, it really shines and this boss battle is a great example of that. The “camera” zooms out at the beginning of the fight, so you get a tiny Harry sprite to control, the whole airship in view and a giant ghost to fight. The ghost attacks by dropping a torrential downpour of smaller and presumably more expendable ghosts on Harry’s head, and all you have to do is survive until you get a safe moment during which you can whack the airship, causing a chunk of it to fly up and hit the main ghost. Of course, that means you’ve got less airship to stand on with every hit you land on the boss, and of all the fights in HH:GBC I think this is the best. It’s a simple concept, but it’s challenging without being annoying and, as I say, the presentation is great.

Next up is the jungle stage. Is it a spooky jungle? I suppose so. Not as spooky as the haunted house at the beginning of the game, naturally, but it’s still got ghosts in it and anywhere can be spooky with enough ghosts. In this case, these ghosts fight in exactly the same way as the construction skeletons and the eye-vomiting Frankensteins, except they throw, I dunno, energy fists at you a la Ryu and Ken’s hadokens. On closer inspection, I’m not even sure they are ghosts. They’re wearing shoes, for starters. What kind of ghost wears shoes? Someone who died in a horrible velcro accident and this is their ironic punishment?

HH:GBC had been teetering on the edge of losing my attention for a while at this point, but this is the part of the game where I decided that, while I was definitely going to finish the game I was doing so under duress. Harry has to creep along this corridor, which is split into three narrow, horizontal pathways. The pathways are patrolled by these scuttlin’ skulls, which can’t be destroyed and can only be temporarily slowed by hammering them. If the skulls run into Harry they don’t just hurt him – they also push him back towards the left, and if you let them push you too far they’ll crush you against the left edge of the screen and cause you to immediately lose a life. At first they’re easy to avoid by simply switching which of the three paths you’re on, but eventually the skulls start covering all the paths and you have to slow one of them down to create a gap that you can use to switch paths. Sounds fair enough, and it would be if Harry’s hit detection didn’t suddenly start feeling way more vague than it did before. Perhaps it was only the added tension of it being a difficult section, but I’m sure that I was getting hit by the skull at distances that other enemies couldn’t hurt me from. Oh, and there are regular enemies patrolling these pathways, too, just in case you thought this section was too much fun.

The boss fight is much better, something I rarely find myself saying about autoscrolling sections during boss battles. Your target is the fish in the water below, and to defeat it you have to knock the spiky little creatures off the moving platforms and onto the fish’s face. That’s all well and good, but I mostly bring it up because the little spiky things were giving me intense memories of something from my childhood, but I couldn’t remember what. I’m not saying it kept me awake at night, but while I was being tortured into insomnia by all the usual mental terrors of adult life there were definitely a couple of nights that had the undercurrent of “and what the hell are those spiky things?!” Well, you’ll be happy to know that I realised they remind me of The Slinx from the Fuzzbuzz series of kid’s reading books. Now there’s a reference that’s only going to make sense to a tiny sliver of VGJunk’s readership. In fact, I think it might just be me.

Then, a volcano. It isn’t specifically referred to as a ghost volcano, but I have to assume that’s what it is because it has a face. All these other poltergeists and demonic entities are thinking too small when they’re possessing creepy dolls or little girls, they should get out there and take control of a volcano. What are the odds of the Catholic church finding two priests that are both a) well-versed in exorcism and b) fit enough to climb a volcano?
This might look like a boss fight, but it isn’t, not really. All the volcano does is fire loads of boulders into the air, and Harry is almost entirely safe if he hides under his hammer. What you do get from this scene is a lot of power-ups, more than enough for a full health bar and a hard hat, plus so many extra lives that I managed to max out the counter. Okay, now I’m worried about what’s waiting in the next stage.

The final level is the Ghost Building Battle, and most of it consists of a series of miniboss encounters with this chicken-legged, xenomorph-headed battle droid. In the first couple of phases its main attack seems to be firing popcorn at you, so, you know, not the deadliest threat Harry has ever faced.

That changes after a couple of battles, when the boss stops employing anything resembling a strategy and just chucks huge spiked balls at you. They don’t go away, either, bouncing and clanking around the screen while Harry desperately tries to dodge them for long enough to land a hit on the boss. Again, the small play area and big sprites make avoiding the spiked balls far less enjoyable than it could have been, although my suffering is tempered by the droid becoming more battle-damaged as the fights progress. There’s something charming about its ghoulish robo-face, you can practically hear it trying to come up with threats to shout at Harry without using the phrase “hammer my balls.”

In the interests of brevity – a foolish concern at this point, I grant you – I’ve skipped the few rooms inside the final building because they’re nothing but bland single-screen arena where you have to avoid something dangerous while occasionally swatting at a weak point hanging from the ceiling. There’s even another section spend dodging the spiked balls. It didn’t get any more enjoyable in the four minutes since I last avoided them.
That means we’re here at the final boss, and once again HH:GBC’s flaws are forgotten at the sight of a giant mechanical skull – complete with mad, swivelling eyes – that’s piloted by a ghost. I’m past caring that the gameplay isn’t much fun once the boggle-eyed mechanoskulls are wheeled out, you know? As for the actual fight, the boss throws bombs and small spiked balls at Harry. Avoid the bombs and hit the spiked balls so they fly back across the screen and hit the ghost pilot. Of course that’s easier said than done and getting the balls to fly at the correct height takes a bit of trial and error, but it could have been a lot worse.

With the evils scheme of the Ghost Builders brought to an end, Harry is reunited with his girlfriend. Rather than the usual mad dash to escape the crumbling enemy fortress, the pair of them just… calmly walk away, protected as they are by the impenetrable umbrella that one assumes is meant to represent the all-conquering power of love. It’s great, and Hammerin’ Harry’s sense of humour is much more appealing than its gameplay so maybe I should have just watched the anime adaptation.

Harry and his lady friend sail away into the sunset. On a missile. An enemy missile. Let’s hope it doesn’t have pre-programmed target coordinates, or at least let’s hope those coordinates are targeting Harry’s house as a last-ditch revenge attempt by the ghosts. That way it’ll drop him off at home! Also, try not to look at Harry’s unpleasant four-fingered hand. Oops, too late, you looked at it, didn’t you? I think Harry’s the secret fifth Ninja Turtle.

Deep in the bowels of the Ghost Building Company, the leftover fragments of the machinery are still active, and they’re re-resurrecting the spirits of the dead! What, you thought you’d killed all the ghosts? They’re ghosts, they’ll be fine. And I’m glad they’ll be fine, because they’re a precious bunch of spooks and their goofy charm is definitely HH:GBC’s biggest plus point – for me, anyway.
I’m having a difficult time explaining my feelings about this one, honestly. When I first finished playing through Hammerin’ Harry: Ghost Building Company, I was left with the overall impression that it was a fairly decent game enlivened by some really excellent presentation, but when I came back to it a while later to write about it, my feelings had soured somewhat. Now it all feels a bit generic and honestly kinda boring – overly-familiar platforming action, uninspired shooter sections, repetitive monster fights… but then I can imagine it’s a game that a lot of people would like. It mostly plays well and the slower place definitely helps it. Perhaps I’m just a bit burned out on the genre, but HH:GBC didn’t quite do it for me. Don’t let that put you off trying it, though, my taste in almost everything is not so great.

No pumpkins? Boo! But plenty of ghosts, so booOOoo! The good kind of boo! It loses something of the ghost theme in the later stages but there’s more than enough Halloween flavour for HH:GBC to earn its place on the spooktacular and I think a seven out of ten is fair. And hey, who cares if it’s not fair? This is my Halloween rating system, I can do what the hell I like with it.

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