You’ve never even heard of my two favorite NES horror games
It’s amazing to me how people aren’t completely exhausted from Halloween by the time it finally gets here. With those Spirit Halloween stores opening in August and the drugstores stocking skeleton toys next to the back-to-school supplies, we’re spending almost a quarter of a year on one day. And if you stop and think about it, it all happens because people like stories about monsters that eat people. How does that even make sense? Maybe it’s because most monsters are imaginary, which in turn fires up the imagination. Ah the imagination – impervious to exhaustion, it’s a funny thing. That might explain why I get so much out of these two games.
Two caveats before I start, 1) I never actually played these games when I was a kid – I only found out about them a few years ago, and 2) the reason you’ve never even heard of them is because they aren’t very good. And yet in each case I was taken first by what they were trying to do, and then by the intriguing stories behind their making. In short, what captivates me is not so much what’s there but the alluring behind-the-scenes details about what almost was there.
Exhibit A is one of the later games that came out for the NES, Ghoul School. The amount of love that went into this game can be seen just from the box alone, with a cover that nails the look of an 80s direct-to-video horror movie VHS cover, and a writeup on the back of the box which is so long and detailed that the screenshots are practically a secondary element. The manual that came with the game then packs in even *more* story, illustrated by phenomenal comic artist Mike Dringenberg. And indeed, this is one of those games where if you never read the manual, you were going to miss a lot. Normally I don’t like having too much story to a game (letting my imagination fill in the details usually winds up more fun) but here I can’t help being impressed. This wasn’t some mindless project chugged out by business executives for a quick buck. Somebody had thought a lot about this game before making it, and you can tell there was real heart put into it.
You play as 90s punk highschooler Spike. The story describes how after monsters took over his school and kidnapped his secret crush, cheerleader Samantha Pompom, a bunch of the football players charged in to rescue her and never returned, and then professional paranormal exterminators got called in but likewise disappeared (the weird tools they left behind become your upgraded weapons). The writeup then adds “but don’t let that discourage you.” Implied in all of this is that even though the people who tried were tough, Spike is a different kind of ‘tough’, the kind that you got growing up on the streets in the 90s. The kind of tough that knew how to get things done with just an A and B button.
And boy are there things to get done. The game takes place in a fully realized high school building with 200 rooms that include, in addition to standard classrooms you can visit for powerups, a gym, locker rooms, a cafeteria, principal’s office, science lab, and even an auto shop (for the vo-tech crowd I guess). The game looks pretty good and creates an eerie atmosphere that fits nicely with those characteristically NES-ish black backgrounds. Unfortunately, the enemy difficulty and clunky controls turned a lot of people off, and although the top info bar shows you a number for each room you enter, the game has no map, which turns the school into a really tough maze. The other problem the game ran into was that it was produced by a small company with a small advertising budget during the end of the NES’s popularity, while bigger consoles were taking off, pretty much dooming it to obscurity from the start. Maybe it’s me, but it seems like projects made with this much love almost *always* seem to wind up in obscurity.
I later read an interview with Scott Marshall, who came up with the concept (and who also did the programming and even the catchy music), and indeed he had tantalizing stories of what the game was originally supposed to be before things like NES memory limits, miscommunications and deadlines at developer Imagineering got in the way. Read that interview for tales of the creative and unusual, and sigh wistfully at what could have been.
A lot of that ambition and creativity still got through, though: when the main designers found out they were using outer space eyeball monsters instead of the ghosts of past students and teachers, they ran with it and made the weight-lifting eyeball monster, cafeteria chef eyeball monster, and so on. Good attitude. Other little details struck me throughout, like stopping haunted basketballs from moving by breaking the scoreboard timer, dodging monsters by hiding in the lockers, the bodies of what are apparently the previous would-be rescuers laying around, and the scene you’d encounter at the very first screen of the game if, instead of walking to the right as it set you up to do, you walked a little to the left. They pulled a Metroid with that, where the path to the final boss turns out to have been about a screen away from your starting position at the beginning of the game. I kind of like those.
At the end of the game you fight the last boss as the captured cheerleader looks on, and boy what a touch to have her cheer you each time you hit the monster.
Here’s an interesting detail: you would think the haunted skull which according to the story caused all the bad stuff to happen would be the final boss, but it’s just another slightly more powerful enemy you run into midway through the game, blocking a key weapon. It reminds me of the C64 ThunderCats game where Mumm-Ra, the archvillian of the series, only shows up as a kind of random mid-boss halfway through one of the levels for some reason. It’s a weird but interesting effect.
When you finally rescue her and you both stand together in the final scene watching the school return to normal, Spike tries to kind of put his arm around her as per standard storybook ending, and she uncomfortably adjusts her position one step further away to the side. Partly a gag, it’s also the kind of ending that really hits that feel of ‘learning life the awkward way’ so common in high school. That said, you’d have to imagine they can’t just go their separate ways either, especially if you read into that interview where Marshall said he imagined ongoing stories where leftover monsters continued trying to conquer the school. Perhaps Samantha is the descendant of a past monster hunter (“Jebediah Pompom”?), doomed to remain a monster magnet with Spike destined to be her unlikely protector.
Alternatively, also in that interview was the idea for the ‘damsel in distress’ to have been the school principal instead. Imagine the story behind the motivation for saving her: Spike, the outsider punk kid, having lived his whole life being avoided by everyone, meets this principal who sees something in him and for the first time ever treats him like a human being. A bunch of monsters take over the school, capture the principal because of the evils perpetrated by the school’s original principal, whatever. Everybody flees except Spike. “She’s the only person who wanted to give me a chance, who really, actually, cared about me.” He grabs a baseball bat as the other students run for their lives. “This could be the doorway to Hell for all I care, I’m going in.” Have you ever seen a relationship like that in a videogame before?
Sorry.. sorry, this is what happens when you drip-feed me these little details that suggest bigger stories and demand fleshing out, I can’t stop my brain. I can distract it though, so next up is a second obscure NES monster game, Dr. Chaos.
That playthrough series goes on for a while but the first video conveys most of the game pretty well. I have to say, I definitely agree with the part about this being the best title screen I’ve ever seen:
It sets up the whole premise in an Alfred Hitchcock “Rear Window” style. If you didn’t have the manual to tell you the story, this would be like you’re passing by a house and see some crazy things happening to somebody inside, and since you happen to have a knife and a gun on you, you go in to investigate.
But really, if you didn’t have a manual, that’s only the beginning of how weird things would get. If you were a kid and got this game without knowing anything about it, imagine going through the house, killing some bats and mice, exploring rooms, maybe even finding that one random monster, but ultimately not getting anywhere. You give up for the day but you’re a kid, you’re easily amused so you occasionally come back to it. Okay it’s just a haunted house game, fine. Months go by and it finally happens that you activate one of the portals and transport yourself from the haunted house game you were so familiar with into a wild space-jungle action game with monsters everywhere and level bosses. That would be today like playing a Call of Duty game for months while occasionally catching fleeting glimpses of strange figures in the distance. Then one day you find yourself in some out of the way corner, like under a bridge, and a door activates, pulls you in, and suddenly you’re in the Dark World, fighting off extra-dimensional space goblins trying to secretly invade the earth under the cover of causing an international war that you thought was the main plot of the game. You try to tell your friends afterward but they don’t believe you. Imagine that, a ‘real’ game within a decoy game making you question what’s even real.
Aghh, I’m doing it again. Don’t you hate when that happens, when you watch or play something meh that you’re sure could’ve been wow if only they had done X? Even aside from the sub-game, Dr. Chaos had such a unique idea at the time, an alternate dimension of monsters that was starting to leak through via this one peculiar house, and your quest to undo the mad science that had caused it all before it’s too late. The idea seemed so grand and yet turned out so underdeveloped, it had to have come from somewhere. It wasn’t until later that I read an article picking up on the suspiciously coincidental similarities this game has to a 1980’s horror/comedy film called House.
Ah, now it made sense. In that movie, the main character is a writer dealing with trauma from the Vietnam war. He moves into a house where various monsters begin to emerge, and near the end he discovers a portal in a medicine cabinet that leads to the jungles of his flashbacks. The game backgrounds, including the shed out back, match the movie scenery. The monsters in the game? Dead-ringers for the monsters in the movie. The plot of the movie when the monsters kidnap the hero’s son is similar to the game’s hero looking for his brother. And the release date of the game? About a year after the movie. Thoughts abound that this game was originally planned to be a licensed NES adaptation like the other big horror series of the 80s, Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street (got to love those gory R-rated childrens’ franchises).
I had never seen House, but it was apparently popular enough for a few sequels, which included what I remember Roger Ebert listing as one of the silliest movie titles of all time, “House 2: The Second Story,” with Jonathan Stark, Arye Gross and ..Bill Maher? That particular movie is interesting, not because it’s good (it holds the legendary status as one of the few to have scored 0% on Rotten Tomatoes), but because it’s so beloved by so many. Supposedly a horror flick, writer Ethan Wiley returns from the first movie to come up with a thrilling adventure story that barely even warranted its PG-13. It was actually really fun:
Imagine that, horror movies that are fun and make you feel good. That’s such a worthwhile concept that I’m throwing in a bonus pick from a third NES horror game that was bad but turned me on to something better, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, also from Imagineering. Now here’s a series that’s been through a little of everything. It all started as a low budget 1970s spoofy love letter to classic monster movies, with the early beginnings of ‘Airplane!’ style comedy (billed as a horror-comedy-musical), and writer/director John De Bello’s iconic theme song. Overall though the movie itself is meh and it seemed like that would be all there was to it, but years later it got an unexpected revival because, of all things, some clips of it that were used in a Muppet Babies episode which sparked the interest of some executives somewhere who thought it had potential.
Thus was produced Return of the Killer Tomatoes, with Anthony Starke and ..George Clooney?.. which turned out to indeed have had potential because it did so unexpectedly well that it spun off two more sequels plus a Fox Kids cartoon series, which in turn was so successful that it spun off the NES game plus a whole toy line. Here was another case of a horror movie sequel done as a fun adventure that, while considered not particularly good, is still beloved by a cult following (in this case, no doubt also due to the legendary John Astin as the mad scientist).
Man I’m on a roll now. Alright, last one since I’ve got you here. Years ago I saved an mp3 from a game soundtrack that was labeled only as iwaam.mp3. Back then I had been dying to know where it came from, and having recently found it again I thought wow if they ever re-remake the Killer Tomatoes this would fit the ‘love letter to monster movies’ theme perfectly. I mean listen to this-
Eventually I was able to find out those initials were short for the 2003 PC game “I Was An Atomic Mutant,” which was a low-budget game about low-budget B-movie monsters. A recipe for disaster if I ever heard one, and indeed it was fairly underwhelming, except for its amazing over-the-top presentation and soundtrack. Whoever made this game was truly in love with its source material, and I found it infectious. The cinema mode alone is a thing of beauty.
Like Ghoul School, I’m so taken by the concept that I can overlook the execution. And like Dr. Chaos, I’m struck with that feeling of ‘if only’, in this case “if only they embraced the low budget on a meta level.” Watch some of this game and humor me as I pitch my fantasy: instead of trying to make the low-poly monsters look realistic – an effort doomed to become dated – embrace the low budget of the subject matter (and the game software) and make it obvious that the reptile is some guy in a rubber suit, the floating brain is a puppet where you can see the wires and the 50-foot woman is just a regular looking 1950s actress walking around cheap miniature sets. Bring a wobbly flying saucer into the mix somehow. And for a final touch, hire Roger Corman to do an introductory voiceover.
The biggest criticism of the game was that the stages were sparse and just destroying everything got repetitive. But instead of spending limited resources on making the stages more interesting, make the premise more interesting: give each monster a story or challenge, like for each stage the giant woman is looking for her fleeing scientist boyfriend who’s responsible, the alien robot has to complete its mission to destroy all structures before it catches earth-flu, and the floating brain has to use its insano-ray to enslave all the humans in the level to fight for him against the attacking military. Need more help with ideas? Run a focus group with some kids at any playground sandbox. Maybe the final stage is your monster fighting all the others. Basically the game is “Destroy All Humans!” (which came out only two years later) but with a much lower budget. It’s super dumb. So why am I more captivated by it? Maybe it’s because I loved Rampage so much, but maybe it goes deeper than that..
It’s odd, there are so many bad games and movies out there that somehow develop cult followings, in spite of and sometimes even because of their low budget or general badness. You could call it the Jill Sandwich effect I guess but I don’t think it’s a recent development. The 1957 cult classic Plan 9 From Outer Space is, as the Rifftrax crew put it, the Citizen Kane of bad movies, and yet it’s become so enduringly popular that Tim Burton made a major award winning movie about the making of it. Why do so many people find such a dumb little thing so oddly endearing? It had such bad acting, such cheap sets, such a goofy story. My guess is projects like these get fans because people can pick up certain vibes, a real idea, real enthusiasm, real heart that was put into something, even if it wasn’t made with a matching level of technical skill. In Plan 9, most of the actors were pretty bad, but they put 100% into it; the story was goofy but Ed Wood took it very seriously. In short, the movie was awkward but it was trying hard. And to a lot of people, that strikes close to home. It’s not some sky-high multimillion dollar mega-corporate production, it’s something made on your level by a handful of people. Sometimes it seems the less sophisticated, technical, high-budget, high-payroll polish you add to a project, the more room you give for that kind of engaging human vibe to come through and make a connection. It’s like comfort food for your media center.
And so what better a time to break out that comfort food than Halloween, that good old familiar fun zone that rescues you from the impact of school starting back up and the days getting colder and darker, enough to swing you to homey Thanksgiving, which gets you to the party zone of Christmas, after which, alright! the days are getting lighter again and Spring is on its way!
..oh wait maybe that’s why people like Halloween so much.