Trick Or Treat: Essential Halloween Games

If you’re like me, Halloween is all about stocking up on candy, putting on a playlist of early Simpsons and South Park Halloween episodes, It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!, and any number of awesome and awesomely bad horror flicks, busting out your beverage of choice, and rocking out on a game like Zombies Ate My Neighbors or Parasite Eve. Slaying monsters, exploring creepy places, or even being the monster is fun any time of year, and these games somehow become even better when there’s an aura of festivity around them. These are a few -but certainly not all- of my personal favorite Halloween games, in no order:

Castlevania (NES)Castlevania
(NES, Commodore 64, Amiga, DOS)

This one’s a no-brainer. As far as classic video games are concerned, Castlevania is essentially synonymous with Halloween. Any of the series’ many games will do (except maybe Castlevania 64, but if that’s what you’re into, who am I to judge?), but for sheer no-nonsense old-school wholesale ass-whooping of just about every creepy crawler in all of classic horrordom, there is no substitute for the original.

(Side note: is anyone else a fan of Simon’s Quest?)

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Ghosts 'N' Goblins (NES)Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins
(Arcade, NES, Commodore 64, Amiga, Atari ST, DOS, PC88, Spectrum, Amstrad CPC) 

Whether it’s the arcade original or one of the various home computer and console ports, no Halloween classic gaming session is complete without some form of Ghosts ‘N’ Goblins or, alternately, its sequel, Ghouls ‘N’ Ghosts. Sneak a piece of your favorite candy from the Trick Or Treat stash if you can get past the first level. You’ll have earned it.

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Resident Evil (PSX)Resident Evil
(PlayStation, Saturn, PC, GameCube)
A spooky, mysterious mansion riddled with booby traps and monsters, a story that plays out like a murder mystery, precious few resources with which to survive, and some of the greatest bad voice acting of all time: these are the ingredients for a basically perfect Halloween game. That, and zombie-blasting of Dawn Of The Dead proportions. The GameCube remake ratchets up the suspense a bit by requiring you to burn the bodies of the zombies you put down, lest they come back to “life”…and you really don’t want that.

(See also: Alone In The Dark, Silent Hill, Clock Tower.)

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Haunted House (Atari 2600)Haunted House
(Atari 2600)

The graphical limitations of the good old Atari Video Computer System (that’s “2600” to you!) ended up doing Haunted House a lot of credit. You control a pair of freaked-out eyeballs exploring a pitch-dark haunted house (!) in a mission to collect keys, a scepter of invincibility, and three pieces of a magic urn while avoiding tarantulas, bats, and ghosts. Only when the urn is assembled can you leave the haunted house. Imagine Adventure a la Wes Craven.

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Death Race (Arcade)Death Race
(Arcade)

Chances are that unless you’re a big-time collector of arcade machines, you’ll have to play this controversial 1976 arcade racer via emulation (*shudder*), which puts you behind the wheel of a race car tasked with mowing down distinctly humanoid-looking zombies. Its subject matter was pretty intense in the Pong-dominated world of 1976, and it’s still fun today.

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Dracula (Intellivision)Dracula
(Intellivision)

This Intellivision exclusive differs somewhat from most other “creature feature” games. Instead of hunting and slaying Dracula, as the title and decades of horror-genre naming conventions may imply, you actually play as Dracula as he goes around flushing people out of their houses and murdering them in the street before returning to his tomb before sunrise. The pesky Constable can slow you down by chucking stakes at you (ouch!), but you can transform victims into zombies to take care of him for you.

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Halloween (Atari 2600)Halloween
(Atari 2600)

It’s all in the name. This one is probably the goriest game there is for the Atari 2600, although that’s a bit like saying “this plastic toy brick is the blockiest Lego.” Based on the classic horror film of the same name, you control a Sally Brown lookalike Jamie Lee Curtis as she tries to rescue the child she’s babysitting from the long blade of Michael Myers, ad infinitum, until Mikey has decapitated her for the third time. Bonus “oh no he di’in’t!” points: Myers can also stab the kid into a blood-spurting pile of smashed pixels.

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The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Atari 2600)The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
(Atari 2600)
I went over this one in greater detail in an earlier review, but it fits the bill here. As established in that review, there are certainly better games -including its “brother,” Halloween– but Texas Chainsaw Massacre is ripe for a quick Halloween playthrough or two, even if only for the novelty value. Besides, what’s Halloween without a little novelty?

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Chiller (Arcade)Chiller
(Arcade, NES)

This 1986 arcade title could well be the only game in the Torture-Shooter genre, and it legitimately contends for “Most Violent Video Game Of All Time.” The whole point of the game is to activate torture devices to mutilate and dismember helpless loincloth-clad victims, as well as to shoot off as much of their skin and/or body parts as possible, in addition to other spooky targets like spiders, bats, rats, and other projectiles. The over-the-top gruesomeness and haunted locales -including torture dungeons and haunted graveyards- make this game worth checking out come All Hallow’s Eve…but maybe wait until the kids are asleep.

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Satan's Hollow (Arcade)Satan’s Hollow
(Arcade, Atari 400/800, Commodore 64)
First of all, no, this game does not advocate devil worship. What it does advocate, though, is classic arcade shooting goodness in the vein of Galaga or Galaxian. Old Scratch appears every couple of stages to barf columns of fire down on you, but that’s as Satanic as Satan’s Hollow gets. Even so, it’s a great game.

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Splatterhouse (Arcade)Splatterhouse
(Arcade, TurboGrafx-16, FM Towns Marty)
This one certainly lives up to its name. As the Jason Voorhees doppelgänger Rick, you punch, kick, hack, slash, and shoot your way through nightmarish stages full of slimy undead monsters, dismembered corpses, occult references, and various other abominations in a quest to rescue your girlfriend, Jennifer. Rescuing the princess has never been this horrortastic.

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Ghost Manor (Atari 2600)Ghost Manor
(Atari 2600)
There’s a lot more here than first meets the eye. What first appears as a fairly junky looking and pointless avoid-the-ghost-in-the-graveyard game actually turns out to be a pretty cool (though still junky looking, aside from the nicely detailed house in the background) multi-screen game which begins by catching the ghost in the graveyard. Turns out, he gives you spears that you need in the second screen to take out all the flying creatures -while avoiding the axe-wielding mummy- and get into the Manor. Then you avoid the moving walls while searching the coffins (?) for crosses, which you use to defeat Dracula and rescue your friend. It pays to read the manual, kids.

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Cauldron (Commodore 64)Cauldron
(Commodore 64, Spectrum, Amstrad CPC)
It feels like there aren’t too many games in which you play as a witch. Well, Cauldron is one of them, as you fly around on your broom collecting keys to underground caves containing the ingredients you need to create the potion to destroy the evil pumpkin, your arch-nemesis. It’s a pretty good and pretty forgotten game that’s worth resurrecting this time of year.

Note that instead of lives, you have hags. Well played.

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House Of The Dead 2 (Dreamcast)House Of The Dead 2
(Arcade, Dreamcast, PC)
You could probably lump the whole series in here, but my favorite has always been the second installment. Hilariously bad voice acting -if not quite as funny as Resident Evil’s– and fast-pasted Sega-style light gun action make House Of The Dead 2 a zombie-slayer to beat. Add a second light gun and you’ve got a party.

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Frankenstein's Monster (Atari 2600)Frankenstein’s Monster
(Atari 2600)
This relatively unknown Atari VCS title has all the makings of a classic Halloween game: spiders, ghosts, creepy-crawleys, and of course, Frankenstein’s Monster. It’s a multi-screen affair that can actually get a little intense as you race against time to build a wall around the dormant Monster before he comes to life. It’s almost worth it to lose on purpose just to see the “game over” sequence.

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Midnight Mutants (Atari 7800)Midnight Mutants
(Atari 7800)
It’s got Grampa Munster. What more is there to say? Actually, plenty. The game even bills itself as “the ultimate Halloween nightmare.” You roam around a haunted monster-ridden town, collecting items and weapons, opening up new areas, exploring Grampa’s mansion, and fighting a host of Halloween monsters and bosses. If you need help, Grampa gives you advice throughout the game about all of those things, rather like Splinter in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s a pity the 7800 didn’t have more games like this.

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(c) 2013 Jeffery Koss

A closer look at: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

Title: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
Platform: Atari Video Computer System
Publisher: Wizard Video
Year: 1983

Another example of grossly misleading early ’80s box art.

This is an interesting one. Not so much for the game itself, but rather for its background and its place in video game history.

In the early 1980s, the home video distribution rights to the classic horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were owned by an independent distributor called Wizard Video. And at that time, video games were a hot business to be in; virtually everybody and their mothers were churning out video games, especially for the Atari 2600. Wizard decided that some video games based on its movies would be a lucrative product line. The company created and released just two games based on its properties –The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween- while the home console game market was imploding under their feet. Both games amounted to little more than cash grabs from yet another company that had no business making video games (see also: Ralston-Purina, Quaker Oats, Johnson & Johnson).

(Fun Fact: Wizard Video was owned by B-movie legend Charles Band, who produced such cult classics as Subspecies, Puppet Master, and Gingerdead Man. With Wizard Video Games he intended to make video games for adults, including a game adaptation of Deep Throat which never came to fruition.)

The Texas Chainsaw Title Screen.

The games were controversial due to their unprecedented violence; they were the first games to feature graphical representations of blood and homicide. Moreover, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre earned the dubious distinction of being the first video game in which the object is outright murder. Most retailers wanted nothing to do with Wizard’s games, and those that did carry the games kept them behind the counter or in the back room, out of customers’ sight, making them available only by request. Predictably, they did not sell well, making them rarities today.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre puts you in control of Leatherface, the chainsaw-swinging maniac from the film, as he patrols his farm. Something seems lost in the translation from film to game, as he looks a little more like an entranced Coach Buzzcut from Beavis & Butthead than Leatherface (which in all honesty is probably more terrifying). Coach Buzzcut is equipped with a chainsaw, represented in the game as a long, nubby stump protruding from his torso.

Leatherface and his doppelgänger.

Randomly appearing on the screen (and chirping shrilly when they do) are teenage girls that bear a striking 8-bit resemblance to Loretta Lockhorn. Your mission is to kill Loretta Lockhorn as many times as possible within the limits of three tanks of gasoline.

The teenage girl might be a bit older than she said she was.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds, though. Randomly appearing to thwart your efforts are fences, cattle skulls, wheelchairs, and thickets (each is a reference to the film, but they seem a bit zany in the context of this game). And it is ridiculously easy to get snagged on these things; even the slightest collision of pixels will get you rigidly and maddeningly stuck. To get unstuck, you can either saw through the barrier or simply wait a second or two and Leatherface will get out of it on his own. The thickets must be sawed through, however; it seems Leatherface doesn’t know his way out of a pile of sticks and weeds.

When you’re a chainsaw murderer on the loose, these are the last things you want to see.

The obstacles (and the girls, for that matter) appear randomly no matter which direction you run in. There is no pattern or map. Like, at all; even obstacles you’ve already passed will disappear or rearrange. Going one way and turning around will reveal a completely new layout of obstacles. It’s a little disorienting, but when you’re a psychotic chainsaw killer, these things matter little.

Playing tip: instead of trying to meander through obstacles in search of chainsaw fodder, move back and forth rapidly to generate new obstacles. When a girl appears, you should have a clearer path to her. This can be especially helpful later in the game, when the increased speed makes fluid navigation of obstacles impossible.

Once you’ve gotten a bead on a prospective victim, you are free to run straight up to them and let loose, except that they have the annoying habit of teleporting behind you if you get too close. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and they’ll let you ‘saw them right away, but more often you’ll have to chase them back and forth a few times (the number of times varies depending on how much they want to piss you off), wasting precious fuel before you can finally do them in.

Another one bites the dust: although quaint today, it was this kind of brutality that made this game a pariah among retailers and consumers.

Playing tip: wait until your chainsaw is visibly overlapping the victim before revving up with the fire button.

When your chainsaw dries up, it’s the teenager’s turn to kick some ass. And that she does, in one of the silliest Game Over sequences I can recollect. How a helpless teenager can suddenly kick a hulking monster out of existence has baffled physicists for decades.

A little extra fuel is awarded every 5,000 points, and the game speed substantially increases every 10,000 points. The extra fuel usually isn’t enough to get you more than one or two more kills, though. And the increasing game speed, random and unmercifully sticky obstacles, backward-warping teenage girls, and limited, unreplenishable fuel all seem to conspire to create a maximum score ceiling of around 30,000 points, give or take a grand (I’m told the world record is 34,000; my best score is 28- or 29K). This is what prevents The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from being more than a novelty game; the real challenge of the game lies in wrestling with its flawed and arbitrary mechanics rather than honing any gameplay-related skill. It’s impossible to earn extra fuel at a rate that can keep you in the game much past 30,000 points (that’s 30 dead Loretta Lockhorns). The randomness of the obstacles and the teenagers would really have to work in your favor to get any further.

This cartridge looked awfully out of place in a pile of games including Ms. Pac-Man, Space Invaders, and Math Gran Prix.

As stated earlier, this game is very uncommon today (read: expensive) since few were ever sold. But I have to imagine that even if it had proper marketing and exposure, it probably wouldn’t have sold that well anyway due to its being exactly the kind of substandard game consumers had grown leery of. It isn’t completely without gameplay value -I pop it into one of my many Ataris once in a while myself- but it’s really the novelty factor that is its draw. It’s worth playing for the novelty value, but it probably won’t hold your attention very long. I recommend this cartridge to serious collectors only; for casual or curious gamers, I suggest emulation or a reproduction cartridge…or a different game.

It bears mentioning that there was also a different version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the prototype of which was recently discovered, dumped, and released. This version was completely different from the released version, but the premise is the same: for Leatherface to kill as many victims as he can. You can read more about it at Matt Reichert’s excellent AtariProtos.com.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss