When Microsoft parted with $375 million to wrench Rare from Nintendo's clutches, it sent shockwaves across the industry, or at least had done several months previously, and spelled out the lengths that Redmond is prepared to go to capture market share in the console war.
Living on past glories?
But Rare's track record of the last five years has been patchy at best, with an irregular dribble of good, but hardly classic titles doing little to hold up its previously unmatched reputation. With this in mind, the price paid looked a little over the odds. Then again, what did we know? Surely Rare must have had a bundle of classic killer apps up its sleeve to justify that kind of expenditure?
First out of the blocks is the previously unannounced Grabbed by the Ghoulies, a title that debuted at E3, with not so much as a screenshot beforehand. The "humorous beat 'em up adventure" has been hastily ported from the GameCube (presumably as with all of the titles snapped up by Microsoft), and will hit the shelves sometime in October.
The E3 demo, therefore, was pretty much the finished game, albeit with some of the latter levels missing. You take charge of Cooper, a young chap who has to rescue his girlfriend from the haunted Ghoulhaven Hall mansion. On your way, you'll encounter 25 different ghoulies, bash them with over 100 types of weapons, and wander through 50 intricately designed rooms [did it used to be Luigi's Mansion 2? -Tom].
Pick up and play
The game has been designed to "appeal to everyone", and struck us as a refreshingly pick up and play affair, with an extremely straightforward control system. Left stick directs Cooper's movement, while the right stick controls his attacks, with A to pick up weapons or open doors. You can, if you wish, also rotate the camera left and right with the left and right triggers, and that's it.
The first level acts as more of a glorified tutorial, but is still good fun – if a little repetitive. The process of kicking the crap out of various ghouls, vampires, zombies, mummies, skeletons, and even haunted furniture is a laugh, but is rendered even more so by the fact you can keep kicking them repeatedly, even when they're dead – usually accompanied by amusing squawks and screams as they take yet more punishment. This harsh treatment is worth it, though, as it often tops up your health, rather bizarrely.
Dealing such punishment is made all the more entertaining by the amount of weapons you can use, including pool cues, chairs, burgers, a garlic-firing blunderbuss to take on vampires, and even a fire extinguisher to douse burning imps. Sadly they don't last long, but they're fun while you've got them.
Destruction plays a part too, with points earned for smashing whatever you can leave in bits, from 'Boring Old Crates' to Xbox games (well, there are plenty of duff ones we could name), and Rare has promised a host of unlockables for those who have the patience to smack everything to bits. Occasionally, something will jump out at you and scare you witless, prompting the player to quickly respond by hitting a sequence of buttons to restore calm before you faint, but generally it's a case of destroying everything by any means possible before they, erm, grab you.
Grabbed by the eye candy
The presentation is perhaps the star of the show, with a unique and stylish cartoon visual approach that distinguished it from most of the games on show. Each level is introduced via a comic book introduction, with each frame moving the story on like the old Grange Hill opening sequence that the old folks around here will fondly recall.
The ghost of the past also lurks in the early rooms of the mansion, with posters of Rare's ACG/Ultimate classics stuck on the walls. A tear of nostalgia had to be wiped away as we recalled the greatness of Atic Atac, Underwurdle, Cookie and company, and in fact, had things been slightly different, it would be quite easy to imagine Grabbed by the Ghoulies being Atic Atac, but maybe that's one for the future, eh? Rare's past also stains the decision to ditch voiceovers for the characters and instead use childish, but endearingly silly noises instead, giving it a distinctly Ninty feel.
We spent an hour or so in the game's company, and admired the quality of the project, but found the difficulty level suddenly leaped from intro level easiness to frustrating bloody mindedness far too quickly. If Rare really wants this to be a fun, accessible game to appeal to the masses, it needs to sort the learning curve out. While there are tons of different enemies, all with their own unique attack patterns to learn, it felt a bit too repetitive to hold our interest for sustained periods. If there were lots of moves to learn, and a more flexible control system there would be more chance of us being drawn into it, but we'd like to see the puzzle sections before we write it off too soon.
We weren't grabbed
As it stands, the continual onslaught of ghouls in a comedy beat 'em up isn't the kind of gaming experience that will inspire talk of Rare's glorious return to the fold. Grabbed by the Ghoulies strikes us a more of a curiously endearing side project that will gain a cult following, rather than a mass market smash.