Saturday, October 31, 2009

A Closer Look at Halloween

A Closer Look: Special Halloween Edition Trick or Treat!

Halloween.  No holiday begs for video games to be themed around it more that this one, and for good reason.  Halloween is all about monsters and skeletons and aliens and all kinds of other scary things that you can vanquish with blasters, swords, fire, or just run the hell away from in any number of video games throughout the ages.  When autumn rolls around and Halloween is getting big in the window, it’s always fun to make a run through some of the very best Halloween-type games in my collection.  Often played are classics like Haunted House and Frankenstein’s Monster for the Atari 2600, or Friday the 13th and the Addam’s Family for the NES, and you can never go wrong, any time of year, when pulling out any Castlevania game and giving ol’ Drac a run for his money.  But Closer Look isn’t about my favorite games or whimsical trips down memory lane (don’t hold me to this, chances are good somewhere down the line it will be about both…).  No, Closer Look is about shedding some light on the darker corners of the gaming universe and that means it is time to reach deeper into our hollow plastic pumpkin and pull out a couple of Tricks and Treats in the classic gaming world and double check them just to make sure that creepy guy who lives on Valentine Street didn’t stuff them full of razor blades.  So without further ado, I give you A Closer Look’s Halloween Special: Tricks and Treats for the NES!

First, the Trick.

We’ll get this nasty surprise out of the way and that will make the Treat all the sweeter!  Reach in to that plastic pumpkin and pull out THIS:  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!  A Robert Louis Stevenson classic all about the dual nature of man and the constant internal struggle between the ego and the id.  A fascinating tale that would most certainly make a fascinating video game, right?  Yeah, and eating that unwrapped popcorn ball is a good idea as well…

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for the NES is set up with promise.  It follows the premise of the story to the letter.  You are Dr. Jekyll and all you want to do is get to the church on time so that you can marry your beloved Miss Millicent.  To do this he has to travel across London (which is remarkably big in 1886!) all the while avoiding becoming upset lest he should trigger his transformation into his darker alter ego: Mr. Hyde!  The trip should be simple.  What could go wrong?  Walk across London, no problem…well, unless you are the extremely sensitive Dr. Jekyll that is.  Apparently anything and everything will set this guy off.  Now I can see becoming upset whilst being pummeled by barrels, pooped on by birds, or exploded by bombs.  These things are annoying and potentially injurious.  But the good Doctor is also set off by barking dogs, walking into spider webs, and the occasional agitated passer-by. As a matter of fact, there is very little in this game that doesn’t royally frustrate Dr. Jekyll.  How is this guy getting married?  I’m thinking two months into married life and Jekyll is going to be Mr. Hyde all the time.

It is clear that aggravation is impossible to avoid, thus you are inevitably going to spend some time as Mr. Hyde.  When this change takes place, you will be transported to a dark, twisted version of London filled with all kinds of bizarre monsters.  Fortunately, Mr. Hyde doesn’t really care about being upset by such things and actually gets his kicks off blasting them into oblivion with his Psycho-Wave (a little detail RLS failed to clue us in on back in 1886).  Vaporizing these phantoms seems to have a calming effect on Mr. Hyde and will eventually result in a return to his more docile Dr. Jekyll state.

The object of the game is to reach the church as Jekyll before Hyde catches up to him.  As you travel toward the church as Jekyll, each transformation into Hyde will progress him along a course toward Jekyll.  Should Hyde reach Jekyll, Divine Intervention will cause lightning to strike Hyde and Miss Millicent will be stranded at the altar as her betrothed becomes a crispy critter.  It is your job to guide Jekyll through London avoiding the myriad of annoyances that plague you.  When you do become Hyde, you’ll have to blast away at the monsters as quickly as possible to trigger the transformation back to Jekyll as time marches you closer to that fateful bolt.

This really is set up as a would-be classic.  The gameplay is unique, the concept successfully implements the plot elements of the time-honored story, there is a variety of things to do in the game, and there is an arcade feel that makes replay seem likely.  Yep, and that popcorn ball is all covered in caramel and glistens in the porch light.  But let’s not forget about that guy on Valentine St.  Sure, the game is set up to be a winner, but that is where the winning ends.  The game is bad.  At its best it is an exercise in frustration.  After about ten minutes chances are good you’ll be the one turning into Mr. Hyde.

The problems are most evident in the Jekyll levels.  The good doctor moves like he’s made of wood.  I’m not expecting Flo Jo here, but for a man looking to make it to his pending nuptials and aware that he is prone to fearsome transformation as a result of mild agitation you would think he would be looking to make better time.  But, no, Jekyll subscribes to the travel doctrine of the tortoise.  That alone wouldn’t be overly frustrating were it not coupled with the doctor’s complete lack of tolerance for aggravation. The game boasts a large Jekyll/Hyde meter that indicates Jekyll’s calmness level, but major instances, like being caught in one of the mad bomber’s blasts, will drain that meter in one shot and it’ll be off to Hyde-land. Even that wouldn’t be a game killer, but the coup de grace is the sheer number of irritants in London and Jekyll’s complete impotence to deal with them.  A good 90% of the characters you encounter are out to piss you off and you have almost no way to avoid being the victim of their animosity.  Jekyll’s defensive options are limited to jumping (best for angry dogs and cats) and ducking (the sling shot kid).  You can also duck into some buildings, but your stay will be limited and timing is essential.  Jekyll’s offensive capabilities are none.  Apparently, the good doctor is a complete pacifist.  The manual states that you can use his cane to poke at people, but all that does is make them even more contentious with him, so there is no effective use for that feature.  All of this adds up to numerous trips to Hyde’s dark London and less and less progress toward the church.

The only upside, Hyde’s adventure is actually fun.  There are plenty of monsters to blast with your PSYCHO-WAVE, you can also punch them, but the wave is primo.  The level design is the reverse of what you travel as Jekyll, so you’ll know if you are getting close to a date with destiny. The impetus is on blasting as many baddies as you can as fast as you can so that you can return to the tranquility of regular London.  You’ll want to be hasty since dark London is auto-scrolling constantly pushing you toward eternity.  Just be careful not to take too many hits as Hyde.  Death as Hyde is the same as death as Jekyll, and while Hyde is tougher, he can be felled if overwhelmed.  Overall, though, your time as Hyde is way more fun than anything you’ll do as Jekyll.  However, since you’ll be coming here often, chances are good that lightning bolt is in your future, no matter how good you get as Hyde…

Irritating gameplay aside, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde features solid graphics, with interesting detail and colorful backgrounds (as well as the largest bird poop in video game history!).  The music gets redundant fast, but only because of the lack of variety and the amount of time you’ll spend replaying levels.  The game does feature endless continues so you can beat your head against the wall as long as you like.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a true Halloween trick.  It looks good, it is built on a solid premise, the gameplay successfully implements that premise in an innovative and interesting way, and it has enough variety and challenge to make replay seem likely.  However, it fails to execute on the most fundamental level and fails to be fun.  If you think Dr. Jekyll spends a lot of time in an irritated state during this game, that will be nothing compared to the out-right rage that will take control of your mind.  I kid you not, this is the one and only game in my collection that has actually been yanked out of the console and sent flying across the room into, and nearly breaking, a window.  The game succeeded in turning me into Mr. Hyde, but it failed to deliver in any other way.  In case you are wondering, no, I have never successfully completed the journey to the chapel and the good doctor remains a bachelor in my world. (ed. note, this has recently changed, I finally got the good doctor to the church and never have to ever, ever again) If you are lured in by this game, don’t blame me, you have been warned.  Stay off of Valentine Street.

And with that horrible experience behind us, we can put our metal detectors away and unwrap that ever-shrinking Snickers Fun Size bar and have ourselves a little treat: Frankenstein: The Monster Returns! (also NES) Unlike the game described in the above section, Frankenstein goes above and beyond what it needs to be and ends up being quite a nice little game.

Intended as a sequel to the timeless Mary Shelley tale, Frankenstein: The Monster Returns tells a story years after the monster was put to death (although it departs from the original a bit to do this).  As the title indicates, the Monster has indeed returned from the dead and has taken his revenge upon a small village by abducting the Elder’s daughter, and consequently your love interest (what are the chances?), Emily.  To prevent a second (third?) trip to the grave, the Monster has also enlisted the aid of a bevy of classic horror creatures to ransack the town and stymie any would-be heroes.  This means bad news for you, since you are, in fact, a would-be hero!  And it is up to you to defeat the Monster’s hordes and rescue fair Emily.

Frankenstein: The Monster Returns is a side-scrolling adventure game featuring a number of levels, scores of monsters to defeat and lots of items and power-ups to find and collect.  The game follows the standard formula with each level consummating in a boss fight.  The story is integrated into the gameplay much in the way such is accomplished in Faxanadu.  People you meet and talk to will give you items and tips as well as develop the storyline, but these inclusions are fairly unobtrusive and skippable if you are playing through.
While not particularly long, the levels are diverse and feature lots of areas to explore and items to find.
The main appeal of this game is the simplicity of the design juxtaposed with the surprising amount of depth that can be discovered with dedicated playing.  The fact that it is littered with monsters to vanquish doesn’t hurt.  The power-ups are generously spaced and, of the levels I have played, there are few “stuck points” where you just beat your head against the wall unable to progress.  There are all kinds of secret passages and buildings to explore and the levels are long enough without being tedious and repetitive.  The game isn’t a cakewalk, by any means, but there is enough here to keep players challenged and still motivated to try again to put the demented Monster to rest, should they falter in their attempt.  Best of all, the game is fun.  There is something undeniably appealing about taking a sword and slashing your way through a collection of hideous monsters.  This may be what is likewise so compelling about games like Castlevania.  I would wager that, while not as iconic or classic as Castlevania, Frankenstein: The Monster Returns, is just about as good.
Graphically, the game is solid, if a bit muddy.  They aren’t going to win any awards, but they aren’t going to inhibit your ability to play the game, either.  The cut scenes are interesting for a game of this ilk and do a nice job of advancing the plot.  The main drawback is that the game is relatively rare and therefore in fewer collections.  If a copy can be found, it is well worth getting a hold of.    To be honest, I haven’t gotten nearly as far on this game as I would like.  There is a sea monster that keeps kicking my butt when I fall in the lake.  The good news, there is a password feature that allows you to start over at the beginning of any level, so one day I will get past that bastard and on to the Monster himself!

Thus, Frankenstein: The Monster Returns is a true Halloween treat, one you might have missed while pouring through your more popular, holiday appropriate NES titles.  Sure, you’re going to play Castlevania and Friday the 13th this year; you’re supposed to.  But while you’re thumbing through Monster Party and Maniac Mansion, don’t forget to give Frankenstein: The Monster Returns some serious love.  Oh and be smart, don’t ruin a perfectly good holiday by thinking Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde can end in anything other than unmitigated rage on your part.  Avoid, trust me.  And if you have the time, you may also want to take a look at Uninvited, or Shadowgate by Kemco-Seika.  But those are stories for another Halloween….

Have a great Halloween and join me back here in two weeks when I’ll get topical and take a Closer Look at
Wii Fit and Wii Fit Plus for the Nintendo Wii.  Does it work?  Is it fun?  Answers to these questions and more, in two weeks!

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