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

Quintessentially ’80s video games

Ah, the 1980s.

It was an exciting time of terrible fashion, cocaine, angular automotive design, Middle Eastern crises, AIDS, and music excellent and awful in equal measure. Arnold Schwarzenegger had not yet ascended to governorship of California. Mike Tyson had not yet descended into full-fledged lunacy. People thought you looked cool and tough when you wore a red bandana and a cutoff jean jacket instead of just thinking you might have mental problems. Maggie Thatcher was the man, the A-Team had the plan, and the San Francisco ’49ers dominated like few other football teams in NFL history.

Few other time periods in the history of the world are so synonymous with the products they birthed than the 1980s. Rubik’s Cubes. Cabbage Patch dolls. The DeLorean. Leg warmers. Members Only jackets. Transformers. Walkmans. VCRs. Boom Boxes. New Coke. Old Coke. And then there were the video games. And few of those video games exemplify the glorious yuppyism and Russophobia of the Reagan years more than these:

Tax Avoiders (Atari 2600)
Run around a platform-laden screen collecting “$” while trying to avoid “red tape.” Then, in the second screen, run around and climb up and down ladders to avoid the IRS agent; the longer you can keep out of his clutches, the more points money you earn. Then repeat the cycle until the tax year is up. Only in the ’80s could a game like this ever have seemed like a good idea.

Tax Avoiders (Atari 2600)

Tax Avoiders: Income screen. Yup.

Interestingly, the game mechanics of Tax Avoiders -and even the character you control- are identical to those of 20th Century Fox’s Atari adaptation of the movie Porky’s (speaking of ’80s wonders…), which was released around the same time; it is inconclusive who ripped off who.

Communist Mutants From Space (Atari 2600 + Supercharger)
This game’s story reads like the plot of an exceptionally bad ’50s sci-fi propaganda movie: “The evil ruler of the planet Rooskie has launched a diabolical attack. A cunning Mother Creature, filled with irradiated vodka, transforms helpless slaves captured on peaceful planets into bloodthirsty COMMUNIST MUTANTS!” Irradiated vodka? WTF? Anyway, playing the game reveals that none of the title’s nor instruction manual’s references to communism actually have anything at all to do with, well, anything. Simply calling this “Mutants From Space” wouldn’t have made the slightest difference, although it wouldn’t be the campy curiosity it is today.

Communist Mutants From Space (Atari 2600)

Is this what Lenin had in mind?

Despite the cheese factor of the title and premise, Communist Mutants From Space is actually a surprisingly good take on Galaxian. Additionally, it earns extra ’80s Points for being not only an Atari 2600 game, but an Atari 2600 game on cassette; a device called The Supercharger plugged into the Atari and allowed advanced games such as this, which couldn’t be done at the time on cartridge, to be loaded from cassette tape.

The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt! (Odyssey 2)
First off, this one has a board and pieces. Secondly, it’s a stock market simulation game. It’s exactly as much fun as it sounds like.

The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt! is one of the Odyssey 2’s three Master Strategy Series titles. These games are interesting in that, in an effort to create large and relatively expansive games while circumventing the Odyssey’s hardware limitations (which were painfully obvious even by 1982), they included game boards, playing pieces, special keyboard overlays, and other means of physical game interaction. They were, in a sense, hybrids of video games and board games, a concept never really seen before (the original Odyssey notwithstanding) or since. But while two of these three games, Conquest of The World! and Quest For The Rings!, respectively offered complex military strategy scenarios and Tolkienian adventure, The Great Wall Street Fortune Hunt! offered a rudimentary and austere stock market simulation that was difficult for Odyssey 2 owners bother with when they could play UFO!, K.C.’s Krazy Chase!, or Pick-Axe Pete! instead.

Just what you always wanted in a video game: a stock market ticker tape.

And yes, all Odyssey 2 games have exclamation marks in their names (except for the very, very few titles released by Imagic and Parker Bros).

Take The Money and Run! (Odyssey 2)
Have you ever had one of those nightmares where something is relentlessly chasing you, and no matter where you go, you can never escape? That’s basically what Take The Money and Run! is.

When a game takes place on a planet called “Keynesium,” it’s like it is warning you to stay away. Take The Money and Run! puts two players -and only two players (if you want to play alone, you have to watch the other guy just stand there)- into Keynesium’s “electronic labyrinth of more than a trillion different mazes!” as they do battle with the forces of…uh…economics. These economic forces -Inflation, Taxes, Income, Investment, Expenses, Reward, and Thief (just like you learned in Econ 101)- are represented by little robots, one to each player. The robots chase the players when a decrease to cash is in effect, such as Taxes, Expenses, Inflation, and Thief; when an increase to cash is in effect, the players go on the offensive. The longer a player goes without being caught by the (-) robot, or the sooner he catches the (+) robot, the better the score, which is naturally measured in dollars. It’s actually pretty similar to Tax Avoiders (or should I say, Tax Avoiders is like Take The Money and Run!, which came out earlier). But that’s basically it. It’s tag. With money. And relentless little econobots that haunt your dreams.

Beware the pink robots that chase you throughout Keynesium’s trillions of mazes!

What was the deal with games like this? Were we so obsessed with money in the ’80s that we actually needed video games about money?

Campaign ’84 (Colecovision)
Somebody, somewhere, thought this game needed to exist. Damn if I know why.

Campaign '84 (Colecovision)

Apparently Campaign ’84 even tried to ban itself.

(c) 2012 Jeffery Koss