Title: Haunted Halloween ’86: The Curse of Possum Hollow
Developer: Retrotainment Games
Publisher: Retrotainment Games
Release Date: March 28, 2017
Platforms: Switch (Reviewed), Xbox One, Steam, NES
Video games and horror flicks just feel like the perfect match. During the seventies and eighties, when video games were emerging as a staple of entertainment, horror movies too were going through a renaissance. As players were being introduced to Pong at the arcades and at home, films like The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were gripping the nation as horror masterpieces; when Atari was dominating the video game landscape, John Carpenter’s Halloween and George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead were among the most popular movies in Hollywood; Ridley Scott’s Alien undeniably has as much influence with video games as the literary marvel The Lord of the Rings or the role-playing behemoth Dungeons and Dragons.
For this reason, those growing up in the 1970s and 80s link the pixels of video games with the chilling scares that horror generates, and it can be argued that these were the defining decades for both of these still strong mediums.
Retrotainment Games seeks to tap into that piece of the brain that harbors these nostalgic memories with Haunted Halloween ’86: The Curse of Possum Hollow, and they largely succeed in resurrecting a tough as nails, comedic yet frightening journey that feels ripped straight from the eighties… in a good way.
Haunted Halloween ’86 is the 2017 sequel to Haunted Halloween ’85. Both games are homebrew titles made utilizing the Nintendo Entertainment System hardware combined with the experience and techniques of modern video game design. In essence, with each game, the developers have attempted to craft the best possible video game using the technology of the NES.
For Retrotainment Games, this is their specialty. The team has released not only the Haunted Halloween games but also the adventure title Full Quiet. Just this past year, they again reached deep into the well of eighty’s culture to create the title Garbage Pail Kids: Mad Mike and the Quest for Stale Gum, using characters for the once popular Cabbage Patch Kids parody of novelty trading cards. The developer is also known to partner with manufacturer iam8bit to produce physical editions of the games on cartridges that can played on actual NES and Famicom consoles. In short, if you want a modern game made with 30+ year technology, these are the guys you want doing it.
In Haunted Halloween ’86, you follow 11 year-old friends Donny and Tami as they set out for a wonderful night of trick-or-treating. Just as they are about begin filling their bags full of candy, they enter an abandoned home on a dare, and subsequently fall into a nightmarish world full of ghoulish fiends. Together with your help, Donny and Tami must battle the freakish hordes of the night, and save their sleepy town of Possum Hollow before sunrise.
Right off the bat, I have to talk about the graphics, which are impressive even today. Animations are both charming and expressive. The closest comparison undoubtedly is the cult classic River City Ransom, with characters conveying a wide range of appropriate reactions to giving or taking a beating. These work superbly in breathing life into these caricatures pieced together by blocky pixels.
Backgrounds here are incredibly detailed, making for some of the most remarkable visuals on the Nintendo Entertainment System; you even have parallax scrolling for the outdoor areas, in which the background moves slower than the foreground, and while this isn’t unheard of on the NES, it’s a difficult feat to pull off for sure.
Sometimes though there are just too many details in the environment, causing it to be difficult to tell what is an enemy, an item, a platform, and what isn’t. The cave level in particular suffers from the attempt to go overboard with the graphics. Instead of flat surfaces as seen in most all platform games, the cave is portrayed in a similar way as you’d see in an adventure game. This causes the platforms to be uneven, leading to numerous stumbles as you fall off tiny ledges, or get stuck by a random jut in the path. Most of my deaths in this stage came not from the enemies, but from miss-timing my jumps, or failing to jump all-together, due to the irregular platforms. In short, although it all looks pretty, for game play’s sake I believe functionality should triumph over aesthetics.
Speaking of the game play, Haunted Halloween ’86 offers some classic beat ‘em up action across seven levels consisting of around five stages each, with a boss found at the end of every level. Players can freely switch between Donny and Tami at any point as they dish out the pain on fearsome monsters. Both characters have their own life meters—which is represented visually by turning green due to “zombie infection”—though they share lives. Fortunately, health pickups and extra lives are aplenty, making it only a moderate task to reach each level’s boss. There are three difficulty settings with minor differences between them: on Easy and Normal, each character can sustain 4 hits before they die; on Normal and Hard, special moves are unlocked as you progress in the game; and on Hard, you can only sustain 2 hits per character, and you have fewer starting lives. Upon death, you’ll return to the start of the stage you were on until you run out of lives. In typical NES fashion, there is a password system–which thankfully is made up of only 5 characters—that will take you back to the beginning of one of the seven levels; this, in essence, gives you infinite continue in which to rescue Possum Hollow from the undead.
Donny and Tami both control virtually the same, though I did feel that Tami’s somersault kick was much more reliable than Donny’s jump kick. You begin Normal and Hard difficulties with simply a three hit combo, an uppercut/spinning kick attack that hits a little higher than standard, a crouching attack, and a jump attack. You can also pick up items such as boxes (and decapitated heads, should you feel the need), to throw at unsuspected ghoulies, or simply spike into the ground like a football.
You then have a few special abilities which you’ll learn across your journey, or have from the start on Easy difficulty. First is a sliding kick, which can hurt multiple foes in a row, and is perfect for both attacking and dodging blows. Next is an actual dodge maneuver where you spin out of the way and behind your aggressor. Following that is the ground pound, which can make quick work of baddies that are directly below you. Lastly, you have a double jump, which can make platforming and aerial combat pretty forgiving, not to mention it both looks cool and feels so satisfying to perform.
Not everything is as polished as I would like, however. Movement controls are a little odd, feeling equal parts stiff and slipper all at once. It’s particularly easy to slide into enemies or off thin platforms when jumping or running. Conversely, characters move with some weight behind them, which takes some getting used to; I never quite got used to it, and I always felt like these kids should be just a tad more agile.
Combat can largely be easy, which some may find disappointing. NES games are notorious for their difficulty, and while there are some challenging sections, enemies are mostly too simple in their nature. Zombies for example just come at you, waiting for you to bash their faces in, while skeletons will toss three bones your way before coming at you to have their faces bashed in, too. Bats can be a bit annoying (when can’t they be, right?) by swooping down when they are overhead, but are simple to dodge and vanquish. Some may look complicated at first glance, like this erratic moving ghost creature, but he really just moves in a circle three times before coming right after you… just to have his spectral face bashed in like all the others.
A lot of the difficulty really came from design issues, like iffy hit detection or delayed controls, or the aforementioned slippery nature of movement. The hit box for a lot of enemies for instance feels like it’s just on the outside of their bodies because if you merely touch a single pixel while attacking, it seems you’re destined to take damage yourself.
Boss battles exploit these issues to their fullest, and are the least enjoyable aspect of this game by far. All bosses attack in a set pattern, which you must memorize and abuse the openings they allow. Some bosses have a very obvious opening, such as the giant crow, but are made infuriatingly difficult due to inconsistent hit boxes. Others seem to just come at you with reckless abandon, like the security guard boss, and you’re almost guaranteed to take damage when you launch your attack. Every. Single. Time. These feel more like exercises in futility than actually using my skill to overcome the challenge, almost like I’m rolling some invisible dice to determine if I get hit too or not. None of that’s fun, and I quickly came to dread confronting these bosses not because they are hard, but because there’s zero consistency.
8-Bit Music & Sound
On a more positive note, the sound design is great, with an interesting balance of ghoulish level themes that feel inspired by spooky films like Beetlejuice, and industrial heavy boss themes more akin to tense encounters found in Silent Hill. Sound effects also elevate the experience, with jumps sounding extra “boingy,” and punches having the desired “crunch” behind them.
Those that enjoy the 8-bit era’s notorious difficulty and often uneven game design will find the most to like about Haunted Halloween ’86. Levels give a decent amount of challenge, though inconsistent hit boxes and controls really mar the experience. Boss battles nearly ruined the game for me, as they feel completely unfair, and suck most of the enjoyment right out of the room. Fortunately, the game is rescued with fantastic visuals and enjoyable sound, which anyone with eyes and ears can appreciate. Haunted Halloween ’86 is worth a shot for any retro enthusiast, just be prepared to have your nightmares owned by these dreadful boss fights.
Josh Cornett is a lifelong gamer who enjoys games across all platforms and genres. He has gone by the alias of “Block” ever since college, when he was nicknamed “Blockbuster” for his extensive video game and movie collection. Currently, he reviews a wide variety of games on his Youtube channel, and talks about all things gaming related on his Twitter and Facebook pages.
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