There’s a word in the Welsh language, Hiraeth, that can mean nostalgia or homesickness, but it also conveys a deeper longing for a bygone time or era, a bittersweet aching of the heart toward something you remember fondly but know you can never get back. For me, that word covers the autumns of my youth, and although falls in Pennsylvania could be brief, they were nothing short of magical. Drizzly overcast days that carried over into one another would be full of the anticipation and excitement of yearly traditions: costume selection & dress-up day at school, lunches with those prepackaged spooky-themed snacks, now-classic Halloween films debuting in theaters, that earthy smell of the falling leaves, the ambiance of suburbia and planning where to trick-or-treat, and selecting the perfect pumpkins from huge patches (that are now endless acres of townhomes, traffic congestion and Starbucks). No real adult responsibilities and not a care in the world. God, I miss it.
So, sappy intro aside, ElectroBrain released Ghoul School in early 1992. It was developed by Imagineering, Inc. (Bart vs. Space Mutants, Battle Tank, A Boy and His Blob) and seemed to capture that spooky autumn charm and mixed it with a public school setting,… and it also pretty much fell into the oblivion of most gamers’ NES collections, assuming it was purchased at all, as many gamers at that time were redirecting their funds toward 16-bit consoles and libraries of games to support them.
In regards to plot, the story takes place during the week of Halloween 1991 and the instruction manual really sets the mood well with a detailed introduction full of great imagery drawn by artist Mike Dringenberg.
You play as Spike O’Hara, a senior at Cool High School who brings a large glowing skull to class that he found in a nearby cemetery (nothing seemed a little off to him?). Like a beacon, the skull then begins drawing legions of evil to invade and also kidnap the head cheerleader Samantha PomPom (Spike’s crush). As a little nod to Ghostbusters, “The Spirit Ridders” ghost extermination team is called upon; they, as well as countless jocks, venture in to save the day but none return. So now, with the Spirit Ridders missing, Samantha PomPom’s days numbered, and the school being overrun with ghosts, monsters, mutants, evil plants, aliens, monkeys (?!), and everyone’s favorite token annoying horror game villain, bats, Spike finally ventures in to clean house and rescue Samantha.
At the start, there’s the benefit of open exploration and, if you’re feeling generous, you could label Ghoul School as an early entry in the survival horror genre. There’s a lot to chew on with roughly 200 rooms and sadly, there’s no battery backup to save, but you do start with 5 lives. Aside from apples for health, additional items must be found throughout the school to progress. Spike can also collect the weapons left over from the Spirit Ridders crew as well as additional weapons like towels and …sandwiches, which are actually pretty powerful. Toss out that flamethrower and grab a mighty BLT!
There’s a quirky little mechanic where Spike can quickly duck into any locker in the hallways for safety, though hiding in this game is not as useful as in, say Clock Tower or Neverending Nightmares, as the monsters in Ghoul School know damn well where you are and will simply wait you out.
A few glitches in the game involving the lockers offer warping and invincibility which help if you don’t have qualms about beating it legit. And speaking of little quirks, the game really wants to you know that you’ve scored points; defeat a unique villain or find an important item and listen as the counter loudly tallies up your score. Points! – and if this were 1982, that might matter.
There’s some cryptic stuff to figure out that is remindful of typical old school NES trial and error; certain villains are only susceptible to certain weapons, smashing the main office clock/bell to get a zombie student to leave a particular hallway, possessed basketballs “dispossess” when you destroy the scoreboard in the gym, etc. Speaking of the gym, the game takes a dark turn there when you find the rotting corpse of one of the previous “heroes.”
Towards the end of the game, you get to fight the new principal of the school, who turns out to be none other than the Grim Reaper and, hilariously enough, once you slay this evil spirit, its “spirit” begins to ascend into the ether….
The story is pretty cut and dry – fight baddies, collect things to progress, defeat the main boss and save the princess. In the end, Spike gets burned when Samantha brushes him off, which is sort of understandable as this whole mess was pretty much his fault to begin with, yet we’re still expected to root for him as the sole protagonist…
So, would I recommend this title? Well, that all depends; for this time of year it could make a great playthrough as it’s camp as hell – which is wonderful, and the graphics and music are decent, plus it has a fun vibe, but it hasn’t aged particularly well in regards to playability. The controls are “Castlevania 3” stiff which is a pain when dealing with fast enemies and it’s murder on stairs as Spike climbs slowly and gets knocked back when hit with just a fraction of a second of invulnerability after impact. The hit detection on a few of the weapons is rough, too. As far as gameplay is concerned, it can feel a bit like Deadly Towers or Dr.Chaos in that little direction is offered at first on where to go and what to do and it’s easy to get lost or frustrated in a maze of halls and rooms, though once you get your bearings, it can become an acquired taste.
A modern remake would rock with the dark humor and fun all mixed with trying to get out of the school – Silent Hill meets Monster Party, maybe? So, yeah, Ghoul School is a bit vanilla but can be one of those fun obscure titles to break out this time of year for a happy Halloween.
Michael A. Jones firstname.lastname@example.org www.nerdsintheburbs.com
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