I held out for about five months, but in the end I couldn't wait any longer. I just had to write about a spooky videogame, Halloween season be damned. All the games I've covered since last October have been resolutely non-macabre - Street Fighter EX Plus Alpha doesn't count because was merely horrifically bad - so today's game will hopefully scratch my sinister itch. It's Eighting / Raizing and Namco's 1999 arcade lightgun shooter Ghoul Panic!
Known as Oh! Bakyuuun in Japan, I presume the title Ghoul Panic was only chosen because Ghost Panic was already taken. There are no corpse-eating, graveyard-dwelling ghouls in this game, but there are most certainly ghosts. Lots and lots of ghosts. Enough ghosts to cause a panic? I'd say so, because while the ghosts themselves aren't very menacing there are so many of them that you can't help but wonder about the horrific event that took place to cause their restless spirits to all linger in one place.
Our heroes are Kevin and Lisa, who have been turned into cat people. Cons: rejected by society as a freak of nature, spaying and neutering. Pros: you can film yourself doing adorable things and upload the footage to Youtube for fame and profit.
The cat-kids grab their guns and head off to the haunted house, secure in their conviction that if there's one thing that can reverse a curse, it's a hail of hot lead. To achieve their goal, a trio of shadowy figures must be defeated. They're not shadowy enough, clearly. I can tell they're a vampire with his tongue sticking out, a witch carrying a toilet plunger and a Frankenstein wearing a ball gag despite them being silhouetted.
Here are the rules of the haunted house: don't shoot your fellow cats, bomb ghosts or ghosts of the wrong colour. Don't shoot what you're not supposed to shoot. Most importantly of all, don't by the boss's attack. Wait, what? Never mind, it's too late now. I've already hit start and been whisked to the difficulty selection screen.
I think I'll take a quick run through Practice mode. It's been a while since I shot a ghost, I need to find out whether busting still makes me feel good. As you can see, there are also Medium and Advanced modes which offer the full Ghoul Panic experience, unlike the Practise mode which ends after you defeat the first boss. Anyway, I can't start with the Advanced mode. It's difficult, you see. It says so right there.
Look at that ghost. Just look at that adorable little bastard. I don't want to shoot him! You've really messed up here, developers of Ghoul Panic. I don't want to line his lungs with lead, I want to fill his heart with song.
In case you haven't noticed (or have never played them before) Ghoul Panic is very much just Namco's Point Blank series of target shooters given a ghostly twist - a spiritual successor of sorts that replaces Point Blank's mascots Dr. Dan and Dr. Don with a pair of colourful anime cats. As with the Point Blank series, Ghoul Panic doesn't feature the long stages of most lightgun games but is instead a series of very short mini-stages of varying types and complexity. Some of them, like this first stage, are as simple as shooting as many ghosts as possible within the time limit, while others feature gimmicks such as shooting two ghosts of matching colours or getting as high a score as possible with limited ammunition.
The actual shooting action, at least for the moment, is very straightforward. Point your gun at the ghosts and pull the trigger, if you can bring yourself to take these marshmallowy sweethearts out. The way I got through it was by looking at it this way: what am I going to do, kill them?
As you'd imagine, the first stage of Practise mode, this is a very gentle introduction. You've got plenty of time, unlimited ammunition (and no need to reload) and the ghosts are all out in the open, swanning around as though they own the place. Which I suppose they do. They're tenants, at the very least.
Stage one complete and Lisa jumps for joy in all her polygonal glory. The whole game is made of polygonal models that look very PS1-ish, which is no surprise when you consider that Ghoul Panic is running on Namco's System 12 arcade board, an enhancement of the earlier System 11 board which was itself basically a Playstation in an arcade cabinet.
Once you've cleared the intro stage, Ghoul Panic settles into a regular pattern of offering four stages that you can tackle in any order. Once you've tried - although not necessarily beaten - all four, the boss appears. Beat the boss and there's another four stages, and so on until you clear the game. My options here appear to be ghosts holding cats hostage, the ghosts of farts knocking books off a shelf, the ghosts' tasteless recreation of the attack on Pearl Harbour and Some Ghosts Hanging Around In A Room. I'll get to them all, but let's start at the top-left.
In this stage, a trick floor rotates and you must shoot the ghosts that are hitching a ride on the spinning beams. I'll be honest, this is definitely one of Ghoul Panic's less interesting events. The preview screen promised the added complication of cats you shouldn't shoot, but they're reserved for higher difficulties and so you're left to wait for the ghost to slowly rotate into place before picking them off. Next!
The bookcase stage is a speed-shooting challenge, with a fast trigger finger required to blast enough books to meet your quota. Simple enough, although it does raise the issue that these books - which the mission screen specifically refers to as "book ghosts" - appear to have ghosts inside them. Okay, so maybe they're ghosts that took the form of books or wrapped themselves in a protective cocoon of binding and paper, and my gun has knocked them loose. I can understand that. But then it gets even weirder, because these ghosts have halos and are floating towards heaven, as though getting shot has somehow absolved them of all their sins and allowed them to join the celestial choir. Someone at Namco needs to have a good long think about the religious world-view they're espousing in this, a goofy arcade game about shooting ghosts.
This stage is both much more sedate and much less doctrinally challenging. A few ghost planes fly by, and you've got a limited amount of bullets to bring them down with. Don't worry, they're not the most acrobatic fliers in the world, you shouldn't have trouble operating as an anti-aircraft emplacement.
The fourth stage really is just "ghosts in a room." The room goes dark sometimes, but only between waves of ghosts so it's hardly a hindrance. Shoot the ghosts while admiring the Ecco the Dolphin fanart they've got hanging over the bed to progress. Okay, that's not totally accurate. You don't have to admire the dolphin picture to progress. Maybe your family were killed by dolphins. Ghoul Panic isn't cruel enough to punish you if this is the case.
"Face Off With The Boss," it says, and while we'd all like to sit around watching a classic Nicolas Cage / John Travolta movie in the company of Big Boss' mentor, the reality is sadly nothing more than a fight against Frankie, Ghoul Panic's first boss.
Frankie is a baby Frankenstein on a pogo stick. That's right, a mad scientist sewed a bunch of dead babies together and holy hell this is messed up. Frankie was even brought to life in a crib, because his creator obviously spent a lot of time pondering what he could do that would really set him apart from all the others who have blasphemously tampered in God's domain.
Anyway, Frankie bounces around as people on pogo sticks tend to do, only without falling over and hurting himself in a You've Been Framed-worthy moment of comedy. Instead it's up to you to supply the hurt by shooting Frankie as quickly as possibly.
After a while, he transforms into a regular, giant-sized Frankenstein, which made me feel a little better about Frankie's whole "stitched together from children" thing... although now I can't help but noticed that his weak spot is his bandaged navel, as though it's still sore from having his umbilical cord recently snipped.
Large Frankie loses the pogo stick but gains the ability to throw stone blocks at the player, although the blocks are easily destroyed and don't really up Frankie's combat effectiveness any. Keep plugging away at his midriff and he'll be defeated in no time.
Once Frankie is dealt with, Practise mode is over and you can enter your initials in the high-score table. That's one good thing about running VGJunk: I finally have a satisfying set of initials to use in these situation. I don't have a middle name so using my real initials leaves an unwelcome gap, and there are some games that won't let you use ASS or SEX so it's nice to finally have a decent back-up plan if and when my immaturity is denied.
To show you the rest of Ghoul Panic I'll have to move on to the harder difficulties, although I won't be showing off every single minigame there is. It would take forever, for starters, and because the games you get are random I'll never even know if I've captured them all. Instead, here are a few of the more memorable moments from my time spent playing Ghoul Panic.
Here's one of the stages that tests your visual acuity, asking you to shoot the ghost that matches the colour of the one at the top of the screen. I feel the brown ghost really drew the short straw with this one, condemned to an eternity of people making jokes like "are you okay? because you look like shit!" at his expense.
Here is the bomb ghost, one of the things you are not supposed to shoot. That's easy enough in this stage, where one ghost appears at a time and travels between two of the doors in this Escher-inspired room, but later on the bomb ghost will start getting in the way and generally being a pain in the arse.
In each set of four stages, there's one stage that will reward you with a Holy Stone (Meow,) fresh from the Land Without Punctuation, if you clear it. A mysterious artefact, the holy stones possess a secret power that will come into effect later on. For now, simply insert the holy stone into your convenient holy stone carrying case and continue with your adventure.
Determined to get more use out of the pivoting floor in the attic - look, they paid to have it installed so they might as make the most of it, all right? - the ghosts set up a balancing game. Shoot the ghosts in roughly even numbers on the left and right side, otherwise the board becomes weighed down unevenly, swings too far and the lantern ghosts slide and fall off the screen before you can add their deaths to your tally. To their credit, the ghosts are so unflinchingly cheerful that no matter what happens they keep on smiling, happy to be showing off their stacking skills.
This isn't an especially interesting game, the goal of which is to score as many points as possible with just five bullets, but I'd like to draw your attention to my Robin Hood level of skill in placing my first shot bang in the centre of the target. It was, as I'm sure you've guessed, all downhill from there. The ghost's smile suggests he knew it would turn out this way.
The second boss is Vladie, a vampire matador who fires bats from his cape, which seems like a dumb move for a vampire because by the time the bats have finished with me I'm basically going to be leftovers. It wasn't until the second time I fought Vladie that I realised this is very similar to the Magician fight from House of the Dead, if the Magician was less committed to the whole "killing the player" thing.
Here we see the power of the holy stones: if you've picked one up before you enter the boss battle, the stone flashes and removes a chunk of the boss' health before the fight even begins. This doesn't necessarily make things easier, because the bosses aren't that difficult even with full health, but it means less time spent pulling the trigger and that can only be a good thing for your poor index finger.
After taking enough damage, Vladie transforms into a horrible little bat-creature. It's a smarter move than Frankie's transformation because he's a smaller target now, but the switch from vampire matador to "villain's sidekick in a knock-off Disney sequel" is definitely a downgrade. At least he keeps his monocle.
The aim of this game is to shoot the malicious icicle ghosts before they can land pointy-end down on the defenceless cat. This task would be much easier if the cat would stay bloody still, but instead it wanders around under the icicles. After a while I began to suspect that the cat actually wanted the worst brain freeze imaginable, and was rather making a mockery of my attempts to save it. I mean, I managed to save the cat but what good does that do in the long run if the cat doesn't want to save itself?
If I was reluctant to shoot the ghosts, these skeletons pushed me to the very brink of non-participation. They're just so gosh-darned charming, scooting across the screen in a cavalcade of wacky antics. Normally the phrase "cavalcade of wacky antics" would be enough to make my blood run cold, but because it's being performed by low-poly models of the long dead I'm okay with. They moonwalk, they do high-kicking Broadway routines, and some of the skeletons even dribble a football across the screen doing little tricks. How am I supposed to shoot Undead Ronaldinho, huh? My heart's not made of stone. As always with lightgun games, the basic point-and-shoot gameplay is mostly the same as its contemporaries. It's theme and setting that set game in the genre apart, and in this regard Ghoul Panic is doing a good job of making me glad I took the time to play it.
One ghost, one bullet, one chance. The tagline for a non-existent film that I desperately wish was real, but also a description of this minigame. The ghost is small and far away, which is normally how you'd want a ghost to be, but in this instance the hand-jitters from the dozen or so cups of coffee it takes to keep me going during an average day meant that picking off this spectre with one shot was by far the most difficult objective in the game.
Not much to say about the actual gameplay in this mission - shoot the flame ghosts before they can burn the ropes and condemn the cat to an agonising death - but I wanted to mention it because the artist has captured a look of real madness in the faces of these fiery spirits. Like, "wake up and find twenty-foot tall statue of the Chuckle Brothers carved from lard on your front lawn" kind of madness.
There's a mission where you have to avoid being kissed. I have been in training for this mission my entire life.
Probably the most complex challenge is this pseudo-dungeon crawler, a maze of square rooms that hide abducted cats and, yes, plenty of ghosts. You even get a map to guide you through the maze, and you can pick your direction of travel by shooting the corresponding door. It's a fun little diversion from the usual stages, with there even being an element of choice depending on what kind of ghost encounters you feel most comfortable with. The "battles" are either against a group of wandering ghosts or one big ghost that splits into several smaller ghosts as you shoot it, and because they're represented by different icons on the map you can pick your battles accordingly. Would this concept hold up if spun out into a fully-featured lightgun RPG? I'm not sure, but it's definitely something I'd like to try, so if you know of any such games then let me know.
Do not attempt to remove fleas from your cat by shooting them. It does not work. Or, erm, so I've heard.
Eventually you'll face Witchina, the instigator of the troubles at the haunted house. Given her outfit, I'm going to assume "Witchina" is a portmanteau of "witch" and "ballerina." To make Witchina give up, shoot the end of her magic wand / broomstick. I'd have thought shooting her in the face would have been more effective - it certainly worked on Vladie - but I guess Namco decided that'd be a bit much for what is a pretty cutesy game.
As with the other bosses, Witchina flies around fairly sedately, sometimes pausing to throw a projectile or summon a ghost. I don't know if I was just shooting them too fast, he said in the least impressive boast ever, but the ghosts never seemed to do anything. The balls of lightning, sure, they'll drain your health if you don't get rid of them quickly enough, but the ghosts seemed to be little more than spectators. As such, it's not difficult to chip away at Witchina's broom and secure victory, especially if you managed to collect the holy stone.
Witchina's plans lay in tatters, her march towards world conquest brought to a halt by one pink cat with a gun. That's definitely a sign her plan wasn't very good to begin with. I'm not sure how having a house full of ghosts is step one on a course that leads to dominion over mankind anyway. Maybe she was building an army of ghost soldiers, but as this entire game has been an exhibition of how ghosts can be killed by bullets it's probably a good job we stopped her now and saved her from future embarrassment.
Much more interesting is that Witchina cries about how you've defeated her "brother and father," presumably referring to Frankie and Vladie. Then Witchina calls for her mother.
Ah. I really hope that Vladie and Mama Mia (the name that the game provides for her) adopted their children, because otherwise the vampire and this gargantuan dragon-monster engaged in coitus at some point and that's not really something anyone should be thinking about. You can't help thinking about it now, though, can you? About how it would look like a mosquito trying to suck blood from an elephant's arse? Yeah.
Mama Mia is a fun mixture of the charming and the grotesque, with her ability to swim through lava and launch horrible leeches from her back at odds with the patterns on her scales making it look as though she's wearing a dress and a pearl necklace. She's got a wider range of attacks than the other bosses, although the only one that you really need to watch out for is her flamethrower breath, which you can knock her out of by shooting her in the face. See, I knew that would come in handy again sooner or later.
With Mama Mia dead, the kidnapped cats stream out of the mansion, except for the ones that have icicles stabbed through their skulls or fell into the house's furnace or mysteriously died after being infested by fleas that left bite-marks the size of bullet holes.
And there go all the ghosts. Goodbye, ghosts. You weren't such a bad lot, really. Mischievous, yes, and with a worrying tendency towards animal cruelty, but you were in the thrall of a family of horror movie monsters so I'll cut you some slack. I wish you luck on your voyage towards your heavenly reward. Let's just hope God is more of a dog person.
It turns out that all the cats, not just our heroes, were transformed people, and now the curse is lifted they can regain their human forms. I like that there's one unsupervised baby at the front, crawling to freedom at about twenty miles per hour. Won't somebody think of the children? Especially when that child is going to need a prodigious amount of therapy to get over being turned into a cat and harassed by ghosts.
That's what you normally look like, is it, Kevin? Yikes. I think you maybe should have stayed as a cat.
Ghoul Panic draws to a close as Witchina offers some parting words and one final polygonal panty shot - thanks for that, Namco - before flying off into the night sky.
Well, that was fun. It's difficult to be really specific about the quality of Ghoul Panic, because I'm obviously playing it via emulation and not on a genuine arcade cabinet, and unlike with lightgun games such as Alien 3: The Gun or Terminator 2 I've never played it out in the wild, as it were. Still, assuming the guns work correctly then I can get enough of an idea to say that Ghoul Panic is worth half an hour of anyone's time. The missions are varied enough to stay interesting while offering about as many different types of challenge as is possible without breaking away entirely from the "point and shoot" core of the lightgun experience. It's the setting, the aesthetic of cartoon spookfulness, that's the big draw for me. The various ghosts and monsters are all utterly endearing, and as the low-poly PS1 era look seems to be back in fashion as a visual trend then this is a good place to get your fill of that particular style.
It's not perfect, of course, and there are some things I would tweak. The more interesting games only seem to show up on the higher difficulties, but the rewards for playing through the Advanced course are... well, there aren't any, really. The bosses have a few new attacks and are a different colour, but that's about it. I was really expecting there to be some change to the ending but no, it's still just cats and ghosts flying out of a mansion. The boss battles themselves could do with being a bit more interesting, too, and they feel very much like generic lightgun game boss fights when contrasted against the more inventive minigames. These are minor quibbles, though, and Ghoul Panic is an enjoyable blaster that should help to satiate my Halloween urges for a couple of months. I hope it does, anyway. I don't want to wake up one morning wearing a werewolf costume and surrounded by smashed pumpkins and VHS copies of Evil Dead II. Not for a third time.