Ghoul School (NES) – Twentieth Century Gamer

I had the pleasure of attending the 2023 Portland Retro Gaming Expo earlier this month. There, I sat in on a panel that included veteran Atari, PC, NES, and SNES game designer/programmer/producer Garry Kitchen. It got me thinking that I should cover some of his work one of these days. Well, it just so happens that he was on the team that created Ghoul School, the sole NES title I’m aware of that’s actually set on Halloween night. Serendipity!

Developed by Imagineering and published exclusively in North America by Electro Brain back in 1992, Ghoul School is a side-view action-adventure that sees you controlling spikey-haired teenager Spike O’Hara, a moniker that really tells you all you need to know about the sense of humor on display throughout. Spike, a senior at Cool School, was taking a shortcut through the local cemetery on his way to class one Halloween Eve when he stumbled onto a human skull emitting what the manual terms “psychedelic glow.” Respecting neither the sanctity of the dead nor his own health, he promptly scooped it up and brought it along to show his anatomy teacher. That Halloween night, a mysterious storm rolls, his cheerleader crush Samantha Pompom gets abducted, and Spike has to muster all his courage (and/or hormone-fueled recklessness) to save her from the host of monsters inhabiting the rechristened Ghoul School.

For a story about high schoolers, it sure reads like something for the kiddie set. As turns out, lead designer Scott Marshall originally intended Ghoul School to be at least a tad edgier, with gruesomer undead enemies and a “gangrene meter” in place of Spike’s health bar to represent his creeping zombification. Time crunch and a lack of communication behind the scenes resulted in this tamer Saturday morning cartoon take on horror instead. Still befitting the season, I suppose. They can’t all be bloodbaths. Marshall also intended Spike to be black, however, and that particular forced change is obviously far less defensible. If only gaming history was all fun and games, eh?

Anyway, I’ve buried the lede enough: Ghoul School is far from a famous entry in the NES library, and those who do know it tend to treat it as a laughingstock. Graphics that would perhaps have been passable circa 1986 have a borderline outsider art crudity to them this far into the hardware’s life cycle. The music is droning and loops quite quickly. Worst of all, the action is stiff and tedious. Spike moves and attacks similarly to Link in Zelda II. If Link couldn’t crouch, stab above or below him, or modify his jump arc in mid-air, that is. Given Spike’s inability to duck, the halls of Ghoul School are naturally packed with obnoxious, fast-moving enemies too short to hit. Why wouldn’t they be? Any sort of combat is a rote chore if you’re lucky, a chain of cheap hits ping-ponging you into oblivion if you’re not.

The level design is no great shakes, either. The school itself is essentially a network of numbered hallways that look exactly alike. These hallways are dotted with doors, the majority of which lead to classrooms that are empty except for a monster or two guarding a health-replenishing apple. In other words, around 85% of the doors you’ll come across contain nothing essential and can be skipped. Your goal is, in essence, to find the rare door that leads not to a generic classroom, but to a specific named location such as the library, gym, or cafeteria. All of the key items are located in these special rooms. The rest are padding. Ugly, janky padding. You aren’t even permitted breaks from the pain, as there’s no battery save or password feature.

Sad to say, my opinion on Ghoul School is mostly in line with the popular consensus. It’s a notably clumsy attempt at an exploratory platformer that’s only spared the indignity of being the system’s worst by virtue of the fact that Dr. Chaos exists. Despite it all, though, I did find it oddly fascinating. The fantasy of battling your way through a typical American high school on Halloween, fending off zombies and walking eyeballs with “weapons” like a wet towel and rancid cafeteria sandwich is novel and certainly evokes that spooky-silly Halloween spirit. It’s surprisingly straightforward in terms of progression requirements as well. The lone bit that seemed unfairly cryptic to me was determining the method for reaching the roof via the elevator (keep holding up at the fourth floor). Litany of technical and design sins aside, Ghoul School’s heart is in the right place…guarding the door to the last boss.

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