Ghouls on the Commodore 64

I’ve always been a sucker for a platform game. From memory, the first one I experienced was the Popeye arcade game. My uncle used to rent arcade machines to local pubs, cafes, chip shops etc, and would often have two or three in his workshop at any time, and I remember playing Popeye there. Needless to say, I loved to visit his place!

Review by Richard Tappenden aka @Retrotap

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As a C64 owner, I had an abundance of platform games to play - some of my favourites were games like C.J. Elephant Antics, Chuckie Egg, Manic Miner and New Zealand Story. There’s some great modern games for the system too, with Graham Axten’s The Bear Essentials, Juan Martinez’ Rescuing Orc and Dr Wuro’s Shadow Switcher just to name a few. I’ve not yet played Knight of Bytes Sam’s Journey, but every review I’ve read and video of seen suggests it’s absolutely fantastic.

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However, I can’t think about platform games without remembering Micro Power’s Ghouls. I distinctly recall buying the game - it was part of a bundle of 10 games (across 5 tapes with a game each side), and on sale for a cheap price in the brand new Comet store that had just opened. We’d gone in because Dad wanted to buy a new stereo system, but I had a bit of pocket money burning a hole in my pocket, saw this pack and persuaded Dad that it was too good a deal to pass up. I reckon this was sometime in 1988.

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I can’t remember all the other games, but I know it also included Felix in the Factory (also by Micro Power) and an athletics game called European Games. The one I was excited about though, was Ghouls. The artwork, with a Pacman-esque character running down the corridor of a spooky house towards a shiny diamond, chased by a scary ghost and huge spider, really caught my imagination and I could not wait to get home to play it. 

The inlay reads; “Many have tried to rescue the power jewels from the creepy mansion on the top of the hill. None have lived to tell the tale. Now it’s up to you to try and wrest the treasure from the mansion’s deadly inhabitants.”

Title Screen

The game, which was originally released in 1984, is a single screen platformer. Your character (very much like Pacman having spawned legs), moves from the bottom left up to the treasure located at the top right, collecting coins and avoiding the obstacles and meanies. There’s a ghost, who moves towards the player, floating through the platforms, and if he touches you, you lose one of your 3 lives. Touch any of the spikes placed around the platforms, succumb to the spider, or fall too far off a platform and you’ll lose a life. There’s also a “power jewel” that makes the pursuing ghost disappear if you collect it - but I think he still chases you and if he reappears he still kills you - his final location is revealed to you when you complete the stage.

Instructions

There are 4 screens in total, each with spooky names; Spectre's Lair, Horrid Hall, The Spider's Parlour and Death Tower. After you complete all four screens, you are awarded an extra life and the game loops back through the stages, increasing the difficulty by adding another ghost to the screen. For example, after completing the first four screens, the next time you play Spectre’s Lair, it has two ghosts and a spider!

Spectres Lair


I’ve only ever made it as far as Horrid Hall without cheating.
Playing it again recently, you can see some nice features - there’s an animated intro before each level, and when you die, there’s a really nice screen wipe effect that looks great.

There’s not much in the way of music, and the sound effects are adequate. The graphics won’t win any art awards, but are perfectly acceptable given how early in the system this game was written - the player’s character is quite distinctive, and the ghouls are clear and easy to see. There’s a nice touch where the otherwise glum looking ghosts smile with glee when you lose a life

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On the downside, the character moves very fast, and it requires lots of pixel perfect jumps - which in combination make it very tricky. The ghost that chases you around the screen spawns at a random point too, meaning that sometimes it can be placed in a position that makes the level incredibly difficult. It’d be much fairer if the ghost spawned in a consistent, predictable place. Once there are multiple ghosts on the screen, their positioning could make it almost impossible to complete the screen without losing a life.

I’ve watched a few long plays, and skilled players make the game look very easy - flying through the levels with ease and completing all 4 stages within a few minutes. Needless to say, I’ve never achieved that and find the game quite challenging. I played it through with infinite lives, timer off, allowing long falls and collisions with the ghosts turned off, and it was still tough. I managed to loop through all the levels 4 times, but getting the jumps right is difficult enough on it’s own. I think if you practise enough, you could probably get the hang on that, but then you have to deal with the ghosts too...

It’s fair to say that my memory of the game was better than the reality. However, it is still quite an enjoyable (if a little frustrating) platform game - I just think it could have done with a bit more balancing to make it fairer on the player.

Review by Richard Tappenden aka @Retrotap

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