As with so many games, people and situations, Grabbed By The Ghoulies reminds us of an episode of The Simpsons. It's the one that starts off at "Bi-Mon Sci-Fi Con", with Mark Hammill knocking cardboard cutouts over with a plastic lightsabre and a Star Wars take on Guys and Dolls ("Luke be a Jedi toniiiiight!"). Anyway, the specific bit we're on about is when the camera pans to a totally abandoned booth with two guys sat behind a table waiting to sign autographs. These men are Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong. But nobody cares, much to the exasperation of a suited PR man who exclaims, "Folks! Folks! These men have actually been in outer space!", his voice rising an octave with each syllable, at which point a nearby huddle glances in his direction and makes a collective "meh" noise.
Yep, that's how people seem to react to Grabbed By The Ghoulies. "Who cares if it's from Rare?" they foolishly announce. "I'm more interested in Perfect Dark Zero, Kameo and Conker's Live and Uncut!" And they're not the only ones. Had it been possible to choose, we're pretty sure Microsoft would've picked a different game for Rare's Xbox debut. Although Grabbed By The Ghoulies is cute, different and obviously inspired by Luigi's Mansion and Eastern game design, you just can't see yourself banging on about it down the pub next week, let alone in three or four years time.
Effectively, all it is is this: Teenage sweethearts Cooper and Amber get lost wandering through the forest and happen upon a big old mansion called Ghoulhaven Hall, where they decide to spend the night. However before they can get inside and cuddle up on a Chesterfield next to the fire, Amber is grabbed by the resident ghosts (or "Ghoulies" as they're surprisingly known) and stolen away into the depths of the house. Once inside, Cooper sets out to rescue her with the help of a stout, endearingly cheesy English butler who points him in the right direction.
However to move between rooms, Cooper first has to conquer each room's challenge, as dreamt up by his otherworldly adversary the Baron, who sets goals like defeating all of a certain type of enemy, defeating a certain number of enemies, surviving for 60 seconds, or something like that, often stripping you of much of your vitality to toughen things up. Sometimes he even demands that you avoid killing a certain type or enemy or kill different types alternately.
Failure to live up to each room's specific ruleset will summon the Grim Reaper, who follows you around to the sound of a clanging bell and knocks you down dead with one brush of his bony finger, before playing air guitar on his scythe (which leaves him vulnerable, if you can figure out how to exploit that). But at least for the first couple of hours you won't have to worry too much about being knocked back to the start of a room, because it's more or less plain sailing - the only real challenge being to find a big blue hardback book with a Rare logo on it in every room. For every five of these "Rare tomes", you unlock one of 20 mini-games accessed via the main menu.
Fair enough then. It's a sort of 3D beat 'em up with a kleptomaniacal slant and a dusty, thoroughly interactive haunted house ala Luigi's Mansion. The surprising thing though is just how accessible and endearing it is. The story of Cooper and Amber might seem like something best kept for after-school cartoons, but there's something about the way it's told in storybook fashion via brief cut-scenes, animated cartoon strips and dialogue screens borrowed from silent movies, with quirky umms, aahs and grunts instead of spoken words slung over the top. It's at once adorably cute and chuckle-worthy - so much so that it feels like, gasp, a Nintendo game.
Then there's the way you play it, which is so simple even a six-year-old child could operate it ("Quick! Someone fetch me a six-year-old child!" [That'll show up in some interesting Google searches -Ed]). All you have to do is keep your thumbs on the sticks and your fingers on the triggers. Left analogue is movement, right analogue is combat (point and you'll poke, elbow, boot, wire fu or roundhouse), and the shoulder triggers rotate the camera. There's no 3D up or down element, which we got used to after a while (side note: is it just us, or do people tend to face the camera slightly downward in third person games?), and the only other regularly-used buttons are A, for picking up and B, for dropping weapons like broomsticks, chairs, picture frames, mirrors, books, bottles, bricks and other bits and pieces, which can be used Final Fight-style for several blows before they splinter and tumble to the ground.
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Furthermore, we owe our devotion to the task (we clocked up several hours in one sitting when all we were doing was "trying it out") in no small part to the game's glorious visuals. Rare has used a borderless style of cel-shading similar to Zelda's for the characters and enemies and mixed it with a more intricate, Luigi's Mansion-esque approach to the environment. Each room is hugely detailed, layered to the ceiling with shelves and furniture stuffed with pots, pans, dusty books, old Ultimate Play The Game posters [go on Rare, please do an Atic Atac sequel, go on - watery eyed Ed], Xbox game boxes, kids toys, musical instruments, dirty plates - whatever the setting, it's smothered in fine detail, and almost every chunk of it is good for one destructive smack, often revealing power-ups (for health, Doom-style Berserk mode, avoiding shocks and things like that), or hiding Ghoulies.
The lighting too is simply superb. As if the soundtrack (inspired by Luigi, obviously, but we also caught touches of Silence of the Lambs and things like that) wasn't already pumping atmosphere into the room like an AC unit, the flickering fires illuminate the workshop and Cooper's mummy-sizzling torch throbs in the darkness of the basement beautifully. There are real-time shadows everywhere of course, but then that's what happens when you shift development focus to hardware that isn't going deaf, dumb and blind in its old age.
And it's worth giving the Ghoulies themselves a bit of space, too. They may be dead, but every one of them is alive with personality, from the quirky skeletons who put up their dukes and dance towards you like a boxer to the kung fu imps who prance around in little red karate outfits to the sound of clinky Hong Kong action movie music, leaping Trinity-like into the air to launch their flying kick attacks.
Our favourites though are the one-legged, hooked pirates and their thick, piratey "Yeargh!" accents. The combat is such that after a few repeated blows, enemies will become dizzy and even get knocked down, from whence Cooper can boot them around a bit to whittle down their hit points, and the pirates just make the best "ouch" noise of any of them. We would have picked the Grim Reaper as our favourite for his jangly guitar impression and imposing presence, but he's such a pain in the arse (moving ever so slightly faster than you and negating virtually any chance you had of continuing a task to unlock the next door) that we'd rather just insult him. He's a cock.
So, then, the bottom line is that you should be more excited about Grabbed By The Ghoulies than you actually are. It's silly, slapstick fun aimed at everyone from your little kids to your parents, and it has that inherent Japanese-ness borne out of a long subservient relationship with one of that country's best games developers. Right?
But... gah. It also has that same "almost-ness" about it as Star Fox Adventures and other latter day Rare productions. Although it mimics the style and setting of Luigi's Mansion rather well, Nintendo's pint-sized adventure was great because every new room was a diverse new puzzle, stretching the boundaries of Luigi's abilities in the context of the game but never quite abandoning them. In GBTG, every new room is a heavily contrived challenge, based around seemingly random parameters over which the player has no control. Difficulty is increased by cutting down your health, throwing in more monsters and negative power-ups (which sap health, slow you down and so on), and making it harder to avoid a visit from the Reaper, whereas Luigi upped the ante by forcing you to think laterally. The closest GBTG has come to that so far is a hunchback enemy who only takes damage when smacked in the face, and yet spins round defensively whenever you go near him, or the mummys who only die when set on fire.
The best example of this complaint is surely the henhouse, where vampire chickens lurk en masse. Creeping in to steal a giant egg, you have to traipse through a maze of haystacks and farming implements, and, with no jump function to help you, it isn't long after all hell breaks loose and the vamps come flying that you're dead, because you were too busy navigating the knee-high maze to concentrate on where your enemies were coming from. To add insult to injury, you're then forced to spend a few minutes racing back through the maze to try again.
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That's not to say there haven't been standout moments. Few games could match the undead disco in the ballroom, where at least 20 skeletons and zombies are dancing away. You can take them all on (and die trying) of course, but you can also slip through without laying a finger on them. Then there are the occasional projectile weapons, like fire extinguishers, fizzy drink launchers and even more obscure alternatives (better leave something to mention in the review, right?). And we love the "fright" bits where Cooper is caught unawares by a leering spectre and the player has to hit a button sequence quickly to calm him down - particularly the early one where the player is taken on-rails through a trophy room stuffed with ghastly faces...
It's just that for all the positive things about it so far, and reasons we'd be keen to recommend it when it's finished and on store shelves, GBTG is at this point, for want of a less clichéd expression, "a mixed bag". And although the difficulty ramps up after a couple of hours (to stop you zipping through the remaining three chapters quite as quickly as the first two), there are 20 mini-games to unlock and play, and there seem to be plenty of damsels tied up around the mansion to rescue somewhere down the line (perhaps on a second play through with the Baron's master key at hand), we're not sure how long we'll last with the finished game. And the one we're playing now has a few camera and slowdown issues to boot.
Then again, the point of the piece has been to try and build up some interest in Ghoulies, and going out on a sad note would be extremely stupid. With that in mind, we'd like to make it clear that we're leaving you now to go and play it. Because even with a pile of Christmas-rush titles sat on our mantelpieces, including games we're more than likely to offer a hallowed 9/10, Rare's occasionally spellbinding, mostly imaginative take on the haunted house idea is by far the most attractive option we can think of right now. Even if we'd rather pay £40 for it than $375 million.