As we wrap up this year’s Halloween Holiday Special, it occurs to me that we’ve covered just about everything on the NES that could be considered a Halloween horror game. I must admit conflicting senses of accomplishment and disappointment that future years may not see an NES review lumped in. But that’s future years, yeah? We’ve got at least one more left that perfectly fits the bill.
Ghoul School takes place on Halloween night (yeah!) and casts you as rebellious teenager Spike O’Hara, whose hair, you see, is spiked. The night before, he discovered a strange-looking skull and took it to his professor for a look. Turns out the skull is a beacon for all the terrors of the night, who have arisen on All Hallow’s Eve, overtaken the school, and trapped the lovely cheerleader captain. Believing that being saved from ghouls is worth at least a handy, Spike busts in to Ghoul School to rescue the nubile damsel.
It’s straight side-scrolling from there, as Spike wanders the halls of his absurdly huge facility of higher learning. The namesake ghouls wander the halls in various forms, each with a unique attack or fighting style. Spike starts armed with a short-range baseball bat, which forces a lot of hit-and-run attacks. There’s some Metroidvania-style gameplay from here; you’ll need upgrades to access new rooms, and it’s simply suicidal to take on many of the ghouls without a weapon suited to that enemy type. Therefore, much of the game is exploration and avoidance – popping into classrooms, checking for upgrades, and coming back later if you find you’re ill-prepared for the opposition.
Upgrades come in the form of weapons and shoes. Spike’s bat soon gets replaced with a towel snap attack (eh, it’s sorta ranged…), an electric stun gun called the Spinal Zap, a deadly Sandwich, and the Digestaray, which presumably shoots acid. There’s no difference in the effects of each weapon (enemies simply fall off the screen when they die), but each has different firing arcs, and some do significantly more damage to certain enemies than others. The Sandwich devastates zombies, you have to get close with the Spinal Zap but it kills eye monsters in one hit, and the Digestaray is particularly well-suited to killing the Grim Reaper. Oh, did I mention that? You’ll be killing Death in this game.
Shoes come in Spring and Suction Cup variety, allowing you to jump higher or walk along the ceiling. Both types are needed to avoid certain areas (spike pits, enraged janitor ghouls) and access others (ledges, hallways with stacked boxes). You can switch weapons and shoes at any time by hitting Start to go to the inventory screen. Here, you simply scroll the arrow to whatever you want to equip, and off you go. The quickness and simplicity is especially appreciated considering how often you’ll be swapping gear (in response to the current situation).
There is no map system within the game (ARGH!) but every room and hallway is numbered, allowing you to draw your own. At the very least, you can reference where you’ve been. While there are unique areas (gym, cafeteria, music room, etc) many of the classrooms and hallways look identical, so numbering them all is a lifesaver. There’s no save system of any kind, so you’re going to have to find ways to save your progress on your own – either through notes or building some kind of walkthrough.
Which brings us to the first caveat: the game makes a terrible first impression. Spike is at his weakest in the beginning with the puny bat and no jumping ability to speak of. This makes sense to show some kind of progress, but it’s also naturally the time when you’ll be doing most of your exploring. Unlike Metroid, every enemy poses a threat at this stage, and getting knocked around by every monster on screen simply isn’t much fun. Especially when you have no idea where to go, and to find the first upgrade, you’re looking for the one useful room out of around a hundred.
Control issues magnify this. Spike has a bit of momentum to his movements, so he takes a beat to come to a stop. This makes hit-and-move attacks with the bat unnecessarily tricky, and often results in equally unnecessary damage taken. Likewise, you need to be moving to jump forward, which makes it tough to hop from desktop to desktop to avoid scuttling ground monsters. Even worse, you’re tossed around when hit, but have no period of invulnerability, so damage stacks while you’re left helpless.
As an example, there are little eye monsters that run along the ground and cannot be hit until you get the Digestaray (there is no crouch button). You’re meant to try and jump them, but they’re too fast and end up under your feet. They will now pinball you around, causing damage the whole time. The one thing that works in your favor is that most enemy attacks don’t cause too much damage, and you start with a generous allotment of five lives. Still, stacking damage is annoying, it’s frustrating, and it makes you think there won’t be much else to the rest of the game. Only advice I can give is stick with it through your first few upgrades.
Things are pretty strong on the audio side. There’s a pretty catchy tune when exploring the hallways, and a few “danger” versions when exploring rooms or facing tough enemies. There’s also a spooky version of the Winchester Chimes; done pretty well, considering the hardware. Effects are stock, with lots of scratches for jumps and attack swings, and some generic pickup riffs, but it all works.
Graphically, well, it looks like a school. Single colors without shading are the order of the day, but there still ends up being quite a bit of detail in the few unique rooms. The weight room has a large strength-training contraption, the auto shop has some decent car and tool renderings, and the nurse’s office has plenty of easily-recognizable hospital pieces. Spike himself looks a little lanky and goofy, but his spiked hair is clearly apparent, as are his ripped jeans (so rebellious!) Monsters are fairly imaginative, though not particularly scary. The giant eye beast gets reused quite a bit with different attack styles, but you’ll also see green mutants that toss their heads like boomerangs, zombies that soak up a lot of damage, and even specific one-off foes like the music teacher or the eye beasts wearing chef hats in the cafeteria.
I was initially put off by the control issues and getting swatted around by enemies. It seemed like I was playing a broken game, probably because I was expecting a standard platformer. Once I understood this was more of a Metroid-style adventure, things clicked. Most frustrations you hit in the beginning are alleviated once you get the right equipment. Exploration becomes easier, there’s the thrill of finding new rooms, and the whole game becomes more fun than frustrating. The major downside is that blind exploration is certainly the focus of the game. Once you’ve mapped out your path, it won’t take you long to see that school is out… for good.
Nice NES graphics and sound. Metroid-style upgrade and exploration system works and fits well. No map, but rooms are clearly numbered. Fun sense of humor, similar to Zombies ate my Neighbors.
Funky momentum to stops and jumps. You’re very weak in the beginning to make you clearly stronger by the end, so first impressions might unnecessarily disappoint.
One thought on “Ghoul School”
My old NES emulator wouldn’t run this game successfully, so without being able to test it first I took the plunge and got a copy of the cartridge last Xmas. I ended up playing it quite a bit for the next 3 days until I won it, and enjoyed it quite a bit. For a side-scroller there’s more than a few clever tricks in it, and the numbering is a handy aide to mapping.
Nevertheless, all your criticisms are fair, it’s not an undiscovered classic as much as a might-have-been. (For all the coolness of eventually gathering 3-4 different weapons which you’ll switch between in different situations, its amazing they never give you an anti-mini-enemy weapon better than the “downward arcing” ones which give you one chance and one chance only to shoot ’em).