Ghastly ectoplasmic phantoms! Blood-curdling spirits of death! The unquiet souls of those who refuse to leave this realm! Those would all be great things to have in a Halloweeen videogame, but today I'm writing about Realtime Associates' 2000 Playstation game Casper: Friends Around the World so instead you get to enjoy the adventures of a winsome lump of marshmallow fluff. Sorry about that.
The Casper in question is Casper the Friendly Ghost, the cartoon character created when someone decided that what kids really wanted to read about were the adventures of a dead child. Okay, maybe that's not fair - some iterations of the Casper franchise state that he's just "a ghost," which are simply another magical creature like goblins or elves. I'm most familiar with Casper through the eponymous 1995 live action / CG movie, because my younger brother really liked it and so it was never out of our VCR. My main memories of it are Bill Pullman Bill Pullman-ing to the max and Casper having a slightly creepy fixation on Christina Ricci, to the point of whispering "can I keep you?" to her while she sleeps as though she were a stray dog. Actually, that's a lie: my main memory of the film is Dan Akroyd's cameo as Ray Stantz, in which he flees terrified from Casper's house despite claiming for all those years that he ain't afraid of no ghost. I felt betrayed, you know? Anyway, Casper. He's a ghost, he's friendly, that's about the extent of his character.
He's so friendly that he's invited a bunch of human, non-dead children for a party at his mansion. What do their parents think of this? We'll never know, because they're nowhere to be seen. I guess they decided that Casper's trio of dickish ghost uncles - Stretch, Stinky and Fatso - were good enough chaperones. How much trouble can a bunch of unsupervised preteens running around a haunted, dilapidated mansion really get into?
One ghost who is most definitely not friendly is Kibosh, the villain of the piece. Peering into his crystal ball - apparently he's the ghost of a fairground clairvoyant - Kibosh is so disgusted to see Casper associating with the "fleshies" that he uses his magical power to make the kids disappear. At first he seems like a straightforward undead bigot who is opposed to the mixing of the living and the dead, but a more simple explanation is that he just wanted children's party to end. I've been to a children's party. I can sympathise.
Then there's a map, for some reason. If your child abduction spell has the side effect of leaving a map showing where you've taken the kids at the crime scene, then you need to work on your act.
So, map in hand, Casper travels the world looking for his lost friends. That's why that game's called Casper: Friends Around the World and not Casper: Friends on My Front Lawn.
The first stop is Hollywood - the glitz, the glamour, the poorly-constructed street lights! Oh, what a dream to be here in Tinseltown, plodding slowly from left to right and jumping to collect the occasional crystal. Casper: FATW is a platformer, I suppose. There's jumping involved. There are enemies to either avoid or to dispatch by throwing your "ghostly spheres" at them. I want to make a testicle joke about Casper's ghostly spheres, but I can't improve on the phrase "ghostly spheres." As well as walking left and right, you can also move into the background at certain pre-determined points.
That's what Casper is doing here. He's walking away from the camera, his face hasn't fallen off. Although, if he's semi-transparent shouldn't I be able to see the backs of his eyes? Also, why is he paying attention to the velvet rope? You're a ghost, just float through it. Embrace the benefits of having popped your clogs before you sprouted your adult teeth. Being friendly doesn't necessarily mean being a complete walkover, Casper.
As you can probably tell, Casper: FATW is a kid-friendly platformy adventure with a minuscule amount of attempted educational merit dusted on top like sprinkles at the world's least generous ice-cream parlour. As ever, "kid-friendly" means "designed for idiots," at least in the early stages, but I suppose it's jolly enough. Okay, competent enough. Well, there's a lot of delay between pressing jump and having Casper do anything, but that will be fine as long as there isn't any platforming in this platform game. Taking all that into consideration, I can confidently state that this is a videogame.
Hey, this isn't platforming. This is Arkanoid, and Casper himself has become the paddle. The first goal of each stage is to find the next part of the map: touching it transports you to this Breakout clone, where you have to free the piece of paper from whatever vaguely stage-appropriate items are surrounding it and then catch it before it falls off the screen. There's no preamble to this, either - Casper just walks into the room, sees his uncles and thinks "well, time for me to transform into a paddle and knock a glowing orb back and forth for a while." Sometimes Casper's uncles throw other items into the mix, either damaging ones like bowling balls that you have to avoid or health-restoring sweets. Stretch, Stinky and Fatso have a lot of complex issues regarding their feelings towards their nephew, but if playing this overly-familiar block-breaking game helps them work things out then I'm all for it. I got the map page, too, so now we can get on with the other half of each stage - finding one of Casper's friends.
Here, Casper uses his ghostly powers to turn into the tattered remains of a carrier bag. This allows him to ride a steam vent up into the air, followed by some brisk springy platform action. Casper can also turn into this parachute form to float down to the ground more slowly after a jump, and he can "levitate" - a gravity-defying manoeuvre in which his legs disappear but he can float horizontally without falling into holes. Transforming like this drains Casper's ghost energy or whatever you want to call it, the yellow bar under his health, and if it runs out he reverts to his usual state of leg-having macrocephaly. There are also a few power-ups that give Casper temporary attributes like wheels and buffness, but we'll see those later.
I found that kid I was looking for. Hooray? I was hoping my journey would have been punctuated by tourists shouting "A G-G-G-GHOST!!" and doing spit-takes, but L.A. was home to nothing but a couple of other ghosts and some jack 'o lantern faces that explode when you walk past them. At least little Timmy (probably not this character's actual name) seemed pleased to see me. On to the next country, then - the country of, erm, South America!
Videogame South America is always jungles and lost temples, and Casper: FATW is no exception. You start in the jungle and then head through a lost temple. That's about it, really. Sometimes these Aztec ghosts try to stop you. Casper, being the friendly ghost that he is, has to destroy them with his ghostly spheres before he can move on. He makes no attempt to talk to these other ghosts, to use rational dialogue or persuasion to make his way past them - he sees them, literally says "these guys don't look friendly," and then throws projectiles at them until they go away. Good work living up to your only character trait there, Casper. Real neighbourly of you.
Because this is a videogame, there's a section in the temple where you have to jump from platform to platform without falling into the lava. I say jump, Casper's horizontal ghost float is much more useful because you can just hover straight across the gaps.
Then Casper gets near one of those spikes on the ceiling and he says "I'd better watch out for those spikes!" Why? What are they going to do, kill you? I think that ship has already sailed, pal.
The next stage is in London. I'm looking forward to the genuinely informative and restrained manner in which Casper will describe the country of my birth.
Ha ha, of course not, Casper starts the level by shouting "right-oh, guv'nor!" in a "Dick van Dyke from Mary Poppins" accent. It's disgraceful, really, and now the game's stages are set in Europe Casper can start doing "comedy" voices without worrying too much about political correctness. You can get away with doing an over-the-top French or Russian accent, but doing the same thing with a Chinese voice would be getting into some uncomfortably territory. And where are the ludicrous, wildly inaccurate depictions of American manners and customs, huh? Oh, right, they're in Japanese games mostly. Personally, I'd be happy if Casper didn't say anything at all, but unfortunately he never shuts up. He's a literal poltergeist, constantly prattling on about the sights in each stage or telling the player what they should be doing next.
Because British people are snooty, the enemies in London have turned their noses up at Casper. Turned those noses up so far that they can sniff the back of their own head, they've achieved a 90-degree shift in nasal angle. This ghost should be working as a sales assistant in a luxury jewellers, not walking back and forth outside some Hogwarts-ified version of St. Paul's. Forget about him, though, and check out that pumpkin face on the right of the screen. See that? They're all over every level, and they're basically proximity mines. Walk near one and after a second or two they explode, damaging Casper and momentarily filling your screen with pixellated pumpkin features. I'm okay with that - the second bit, at least - and once I figured out that you can activate them from a safe distance with your ghostly spheres they stopping being anything like a threat.
Here's one of those power-ups that I mentioned earlier: Casper has sprouted phantasmic wheels, allowing him to dash across this crumbling bridge. No, he can't just float across. Why not? Because the game said so, alright? Casper can only float for an arbitrary length of time, and in this universe ghosts are immediately disintegrated by any body of water more than an inch deep. Hey, there's nothing in the Bible that says a priest can't bless all the water in a city, which is obviously what's happened here. Casper now runs the risk of being exorcised every time he steps in a puddle, which is going to happen a lot now that he's in Britain and he can't hover for more than a few seconds at a time.
Paris is next, and Casper visits the Louvre. He says he's going to see the Moan-a Lisa. No, bad Casper. I'd swat you with a rolled-up newspaper if I could: only I should be making terrible ghost puns. Maybe you should go and look at The Ghoul with the Pearl Earring or Picasso's Boo-ernica instead. No, really, you should - the Mona Lisa is being protected by the corpulent stereotype of a French painter. What was your unfinished business on this mortal plane, monsieur? Half a baguette left in the fridge that you never got to eat? I'm amazed this ghost doesn't have a string of onions around his chest, and surely the only reason he's not guzzling bottle after bottle of red wine is because this is a kid's game.
In the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, Casper decides to try out this "possession" lark he's heard so much about by ramming his head into an unsuspecting child. It doesn't work, and that highlights one of my biggest issues with Casper: FATW - it's no fun being a ghost. There's nothing especially spectral about Casper's moveset, aside maybe from his handful of transformation moves, but there's nothing very ghostly about being a parachute. Casper can barely float, he can't phase through solid matter, his every movement isn't accompanied by the sound of clanking chains and he can die, the one thing you'd imagine a ghost wouldn't have to worry about. You also have to press a button to duck. I don't think that's related to Casper's ghostliness, but in what is essentially a side-scrolling platformer it still feels weird to not press down to crouch. My point is, if you're going to make a game about being a ghost, give the player something spooky to do instead of retreading the same old tired platforming mechanics with the added pleasure of stiff controls and bland level design. Maybe don't base your game around a character whose soul defining trait is that he's nice, either. Not much room for dramatic conflict in that one.
This ghost? Not nice. It's Casper's uncle Fatso - he's the fat one, you see - and he's under Kibosh's hypnotic spell. This makes his eyeballs bulge out in a genuinely disconcerting manner, so let's stop looking at them and beat him in the boss fight that I'm sure is coming up next.
Fatso has a tray of pies, which presents him with something of a dilemma: does he eat all the pies like the greedy sonofabitch that he is, or does he throw some at Casper? If he wasn't hypnotised I'm sure he would have eaten them all himself, but because this is a fight he throws the pies at Casper, who dutifully dodges the delicious projectiles until Fatso stops for a breather. Then you can jump up and throw your spheres at him until the hypnotic spell is broken and Fatso changes from actively trying to kill Casper, back to his usual self of just being an utter bastard to Casper. Fatso also give Casper part of a special machine and tells him that there are two more parts to collect, so I look forward to fighting his other two uncles at some point in the near future.
Onward to Venice, city of romance, of canals, of somewhat frustrating platforming sections spent bouncing between shop awnings! In the background, you can see the book I need to collect to play the block-breaking game, but I'm here in the foreground, precariously balanced on a pole sticking out of the water. I was so preoccupied with not falling in the canal that I forgot about the book entirely, and when I reached the end of the stage the child I'd come to find said "hey, you'd better go find that book"... and then the game just let me play the page-getting minigame without having to go back and fetch the book. I like that, it was a nice of the game to say "don't want to bother playing half of the level? That's cool, we understand. You can just have the book." Not having to look for the book is going to speed up the process of getting through these stages.
Here's the Leaning Tower of Pisa. When I saw it, I was just about to say "why is the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Venice?" but Casper beat me to it, which made me feel a little like I'd been outsmarted by a 14-year-old videogame for kids. Then I made Casper get muscular by using a power-up and he un-leaned the Leaning Tower, causing an extra life to fall from the top. I don't like Muscular Casper, a powerful ghost child who could probably bench-press me. It's just weird.
This is Moscow. Not much to say about Moscow. It's Christmas now and that, if you'll forgive my slip in Seinfeldism, makes me wonder what's the deal with these kids? The countries that you find them in are clearly their home countries - their, erm, enthusiastic accents make that clear - so why is Casper so set on taking them back to America, especially at Christmastime? And how did they get to a party at Casper's home in the first place? "Gee, Casper, I'd love to come to your party without my parents to be looked after by you and your horrible dead relatives, but you live five thousand miles away, you nutbar." Is Casper regularly fixating on certain children with little regard for their feelings his thing? Christina Ricci's character from the movie is nowhere to be seen, so instead he must have targeted ten children from around the world and brought them to his house. Is Casper's unfinished business that he's never made it through an entire children's party and he can't move on to the afterlife until he's won a game of pin the tail on the donkey? There are just so many questions raised by this game, and no attempt is made to answer any of them.
As for the Moscow stage itself, there's a section where you have to fire a cannonball and then race it to a set of doors. The cannonball opens the doors briefly so Casper can slip through. Any other ghost would be able to float through the doors, but not Casper. He's officially taken the number two slot on my mental list of shittiest ghosts, just behind John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars.
This stage is set in Japan, in case you couldn't tell. Casper's getting a good eyeful of that sumo wrestler's arse, and yet he retains his cheerful demeanour so I guess being a ghost also makes you blind. This sumo match isn't even for anything, either, it's just sort of... there. To add some Japaneseness, I suppose. Thankfully you can completely avoid it, and for what is undeniably a low-budget children's game with very few new ideas I can at least praise Casper: FATW for giving the player different routes to explore. As the game progresses the stages become more and more open, allowing you to take multiple paths to the goal and providing a tiny bit of exploration, usually with the goal of collecting crystals. While none of the paths are all that much fun, they've got much better gameplay than most games I've written about that were designed for the under-tens market thanks mostly to the simple fact that you have to pay attention to what you're doing in order to succeed, with obstacles that aren't quite as embarrassingly patronising as usual. If the controls were better, I could even imagine young children enjoying this game, which is something of a shock.
I did like Japan's minigame stage, because it features a tiny off-brand Godzilla. I'd like to call him "Goshzilla," just so I can link to one of my favourite Mystery Science Theatre 3000 bits.
I also tried to see what the Japanese at the sides of the screen says, if it even is Japanese. I think the top character might be "luck," as in "good luck trying to see what you're doing with all this crap floating around the screen!" If you knock the page loose but don't catch it before it falls to the bottom of the screen, you lose a whole life. I lost about five lives while I was playing this game, and four of them where thanks to not catching the page as it fell. The other one was me testing whether lava has the power to banish ghosts (it totally does).
China now, and Casper dodges dragons along the Great Wall, sometimes using bubbling cauldrons to propel himself into the air, sometimes getting hit by spear-carrying ghost warriors because the jump button is about as responsive as the handling on an ocean liner. Swings and roundabouts, innit? My biggest memory of the China stage is the music, which sounds like the soundtrack to a scene-setting montage from an erotic thriller set in Hong Kong. Honestly, the music in the game isn't bad at all - a little obvious in terms of how it's themed to the stage and unlikely to break into your top ten, top one hundred or even top thousand videogame soundtracks ever, but listenable. I might even try to rip the map screen music at some point, it's rather nice.
It's uncle Stinky, with his head appropriately shaped like a cartoon turd, ready to fight his nephew to the un-death!
In this fight, you have to neutralize Stinky's bad breath attacks with your projectiles before using your shots to nudge him off the side of the tower. I thought this was going to be much more simple than it was, because Casper can bounce on those dragon-platforms at the side of the screen and for some reason he gains the ability to throw his ghostly spheres with rapid-fire action if his feet aren't touching the ground. The problem was, I kept bouncing too high and then falling to my death trying to get back on to Stinky's level. Did I mention that the controls in this game are bad? Because they really are, and they ruin what was already an uninteresting experience. It's like sitting down to eat a reheated steak slice from a petrol station because you couldn't go to a picnic and then finding half a cockroach in the gravy.
This stage is set in India. Casper finds himself once more staring at a huge pair of buttocks. For this to happen once is misfortune; for it to happen twice makes you wonder why Casper came to India in the first place. He actually says "I hope I see an elephant!" at the start of the stage, so, ah ha, here you go, kid. It kinda sucks to be Casper - he's dead, for starters, someone kidnapped all his friends because they were having too much fun, he lives with an abusive family and when all he wanted was to see an elephant he gets the ironic genie punishment of staring up an elephant's backside. He must have been a real dick when he was alive.
Now we're in Egypt. You know how videogame Egypt works. Pyramids, pharaohs, sand. The game reaches it's lowest ebb here with some even-more-frustrating-that-usual platforming, but other than that there's nothing here that you haven't seen previously. There is a camel, but it acts just like every other springy platform in the game except that it's alive and presumably feels pain. Unless Casper doesn't weigh anything because he's a ghost, in which case the camel just feels a terrible soul-sapping chill when Casper touches it.
At the top of the pyramid is a boss fight again Stretch, Casper's final uncle who is even less interesting that Fatso and Stinky. At least they had girth and odour as defining features, Stretch is just A Ghost. As for the battle, it's another one where you have to push the boss back, this time towards a sarcophagus, but to hamper your efforts Stretch is constantly throwing pumpkin bombs and bouncing rocks at Casper. It's not fun, there's no precision or flow to it, and the whole thing is a monumental pain in the arse made even more insufferable by Stretch's tendency to teleport behind you, leaving Casper to stand still in a safe spot doing nothing while Stretch attacks a target that isn't there.
To de-hypnotise a ghost, shove them into a pharaoh's coffin. I will have to remember that. Or knock them off the Great Wall of China, but be serious, which are you most likely to have to hand: the Great Wall of China or a pharaoh's coffin? Exactly.
Now that Casper's collected all three parts of the machine - a machine created by the game's villain that no one knows the purpose of, I should remind you - he can gather all the children around it and turn it on. I'm sure this will all work out for the best.
See? It all worked out for the best. Except for all those children who have just been ripped from their homes at Christmastime and forced onto a ghost's playground. It all worked out for Casper, then. He's having a great time, and now that Casper: Friends Around the World is over he can play with these kids for ever and ever and ever. I'll see you all nex... oh, hang on, there's more.
It turns out that if you collect every crystal on every stage you're given access to a secret level - the lost city of Atlantis. I probably should have realised something was amiss when I finished the game without ever encountering the main villain. It starts at about 18 minutes in on the video above, and having watched it I don't feel I'm missing out on anything by being unable to summon up the patience to go through the game again and collect 100 percent of the items, although the ghost of Poseidon looks pretty cool. The hidden stage gives you a chance to fight Kibosh and a slightly different ending, which reveals the shocking twist at the heart of Casper: Friends Around the World - it was the power of friendship that saved the day! And here I thought it was the power of staring at large backsides. Then Casper turns to the camera and says "you too can be a friendly ghost," a phrase that's difficult to take as anything other than Casper threatening to kill me so that our undying spirits can spend an eternity together.
As far as these "made for youngsters" games go, Casper: Friends Around the World is one of the best I've played, a statement akin to saying "today's kick in the testicles was much better than the baseball bat in the groin I usually get!" It's basic, it's slow, it's got horrible gloopy controls and it does absolutely nothing with the whole "being a ghost" premise, but it's also not insultingly easy, the music's not bad and there are multiple paths and even some replay value if you want to get to that secret level. I'm definitely not saying you should play it, but if you get kidnapped by some insane Saw-style maniac killer who forces you to chose between this and, say, Diva Starz: Mall Mania, I would take Casper every single time. Unless it's Muscular Casper. Stay away from me, Muscular Casper.
For a game that so prominently features ghosts, Casper: FATW is rather lacking in Halloweenosity thanks to a desire to educate (and possibly bore) rather than to scare, but I couldn't possibly give a game in which you play as a ghost any less than a 6, and it gets an extra point for featuring pumpkins not only as obstacles but also mid-stage checkpoint markers. A generous total of seven out of ten, then, but I'll have probably changed my mind about it by next week and I'll be wracked by guilt until next Halloween.