31/10/2017

HALLOWEEN: THE PIRATE'S CURSE (PC)

At last, the day itself is here: Halloween has arrived! If you did all your Halloween partying over the weekend then I hope you had a good time, and as for today, well, may your pumpkin-carving knives always be sharp and I hope that all the trick-or-treaters at your door are adorable kids in cool costumes and not fourteen-year-old candy chancers wearing old clothes and claiming to be zombies. As for me, like most actual Halloween nights I shall soon be tucked up in bed with a couple of horror moves and too much sugar, but before I go I’ve got one last article for the 2017 VGJunk Halloween Spooktacular. It’s both the happy continuation of and the bittersweet conclusion to a series that has become something of a VGJunk tradition over the past couple of years. I present to you Casual Arts’ 2012 PC do-you-see-what-I-see-em-up Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse!


For example, this pirate is cursed to forever hear people shouting “hey, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides sucked!” wherever he goes.
As I say, this game is part of a series that’s become something of a Halloween tradition for me. Back in 2014 I wrote about Halloween: Trick or Treat, Casual Arts’ first foray into the world of Halloween-themed hidden object adventures. It was a game that was a much more enjoyable surprise than I thought it would be and when I say it’s game I really love I’m saying that with complete honesty. During last year’s Spooktacular, I covered Halloween Trick or Treat 2, which I enjoyed just as much as the first one because it’s practically the exact same game. To round off the trilogy here’s Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse, released between the other two games and, as you can see, possessing an “undead pirate” theme as well as the series' overarching theme of “small American town goes absolutely insane for Halloween, possibly as cover for a dark and murderous ritual in service to the elder gods.”


Oh no, here comes one of the elder things now! It’s a colossal pumpkin that appears in the sky over the town every October and demands that the inhabitants sacrifice one member of each household and also that they sell a certain number of plastic vampire fangs and small packs of ineffectual face paint!


The Gods of Halloween have spoken! If their demands are not met then all shall perish, but if you please them they will depart from this realm for another year, leaving a bounty of fun-sized chocolate bars and cheap plastic toys with electronic sound-boxes that make that spooky “wheee-oooo” noise in their wake!
As much as I wish that was the actual plot of Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse, what’s really happening here is the game’s opening cutscene. Scratch that, “cutscene” is not a satisfactory word for a grainy video of random Halloween tat flying out of the moonlit sky. It is much more powerful than any mere cutscene.


And then we’re at the mall, being introduced to the characters of H:TPC and the game’s basic outline. As with the other two games, our heroes are a young sister and brother who get along in a way that young sisters and brothers only get along in fiction. They get along well, I mean. The sister’s name is Emma, and is it just me or does she look a bit like Natalie Portman? Now, I’m not saying that the creators of this game Googled pictures of Natalie Portman and used them as a basis for Emma’s face but, no, wait, that’s exactly what I’m saying. Anyway, Emma and her brother Mike are here at the mall to check out the Halloween decorations, and also to “find some things.”


As it happens, “finding things” is ninety percent of the gameplay in Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse. If you’ve read about the other games in the series, or you’ve got any experience with the “hidden object” genre, then you’ll already know what this is about but just in case you haven’t here’s a quick rundown. H:TPC is essentially a Where’s Wally book, except instead of looking for a bespectacled man in a striped jumper, you’re using and abusing your eyes to look through these densely-packed Halloween landscapes in search of the items listed at the bottom of the screen. Once you’ve spotted an item on the list you click on it to “collect” it. Find all the items and you’ll move on to the next scene. You’ve got a hint button that reveals the location of one item, and the button recharges after a while so you can never get completely stuck. There’s also a small vampire toy hidden in each screen, which you can collect for extra points: in the mall scene, it’s hidden behind the “turn back” sign at the bottom-right. And… that’s about it, really. Find the items and enjoy the Halloween ambiance. For some deep Halloween: Trick or Treat trivia, the witch in this scene was also in the first game, except there she was an actual, child-eating witch and not the October equivalent of a shopping centre Santa Claus. How the mighty have fallen.


Once you’ve found all the items in the first scene, you’re introduced to Mike. Hang on, the kids in Halloween: Trick or Treat 2 were also called Mike and Emma. Are they the same kids, and they happen to have an exciting Halloween adventure every year? I suppose it’s possible, although they don’t look like the same characters. Halloween: Trick or Treat 2’s characters appeared as slightly uncanny-valley-ish CG portraits, with Mike in particular having unnervingly small and uniform teeth. In The Pirate’s Curse, however, Mike still has a teeth situation going on but he looks a lot more like a normal child. In fact, he looks like he has his own YouTube channel with twenty-seven subscribers and a lots of Minecraft videos.


To reach the costume store, you must first complete… a puzzle! Can it still be called a puzzle if it requires no brainpower whatsoever? From what I remember of the later entries in the Silent Hill series the answer is “yes,” so here’s a puzzle. Click each of the bats in turn until you creature a slime trail leading to the fancy dress shop. It’s incredibly basic but I don’t care, just look at it. Neon goo trails, flocks of bats, the Funny Bones sign being illuminated in a colour scheme that screams “glow-in-the-dark” - it’s all just too perfect. Am I shallow enough that I can enjoy any old crap if it’s given a thick enough coat of the Halloween aesthetic? I think we both know the answer to that.


Here’s the costume shop itself, ready for another round of item-finding action. I wonder what outfits the kids will pick? There are some good choices, but I’m partial to the “robed alien that feels like a dig at Scientology” ensemble. Make sure you don’t accidentally step on the puppy that’s sleeping in the shop’s doorway in your haste to grab a costume, kids!
Is there anything else to say about the hidden object portions of the game? Erm, not much, I’ll be honest. I could point out that all the scenes are slightly animated, in this case with things like the store’s sign flapping back and forth and the costumes’ eyes lighting up. It’s a good level of movement, if you ask me: it keep the eye engaged without ever becoming too distracting. There are also some items that aren’t immediately visible, hidden behind something else that you have to click on first. “Mail” is an example in this scene: to find it, you have to click on the mailbox, which opens up to reveal the letter you need. As with Halloween Trick or Treat 2, which had a similar system, the items are mostly hiding in places that make sense but even when they’re not you’ve always got the hint button.


Oh, and there are these “hotspots,” too. Hover your cursor over these areas and you get a roulette kinda thing. Click when a pumpkin is highlighted for extra and completely meaningless points, hit a skull to lose a few meaningless points. Either way you’ll be getting a fun Halloween sound effect so it’s a win-win situation.


The kids have chosen their costumes. Emma has gone for a low-effort devil ensemble: disappointing, but Halloween-appropriate, I suppose. Mike is going as a clown, because Mike hates me and he wants to take something I really enjoy – a Halloween-themed hidden object game – and ruin it by getting greasepaint all over it. Screw you, Mike. At least he’s just a clown, which is always more effectively creepy than a “monster” clown. The robed aliens stands behind them, silently judging Mike’s costume choice.
As you can see, the costume choices were revealed to me via a jigsaw minigame. Not much you can say about a jigsaw minigame, really. Put the pieces where they need to go. That’s why Mike doesn’t have a face yet, I hadn’t finished the jigsaw. Actually, a clown costume that just has a smooth white orb where the face should be could be pretty creepy. You get a minigame after each hidden object scene, and this is the level most of them operate at. I think I described them as being like the activities you’d get with a fast food restaurant’s kid’s meal in one of the previous Trick or Treat articles, and that’s a description that definitely also applies to H:TPC.


Now resplendent in their spooky garb, the kids can get to trick or treating in this busy street scene. Hmm, those are some impressive “undead pirate” costumes, I wonder if that will be important later? Probably not as important as the fact that the pirate in the middle’s haul implies that one of these households is giving out full-sized doughnuts. That’s what you call a score, in trick or treat parlance.
This scene also serves as a good indication of H:TPC’s approach to hiding the hidden objects. I’ve played some games in the genre where the item placement is complete bullshit, with objects having their colour changed or made semi-transparent, but thankfully this game doesn’t do that. Looking at the car in the screenshot above is a good example, especially that comb on the front. The comb is clearly still just a normal comb, but it’s the texture of it that keeps it hidden, blending in with the car’s radiator without having to be made see-through or anything so irritating.


The very best thing about this scene is this family at the back. Dad as a clown and mum (or other dad) as Jason Voorhees? That’s a good mix of Halloween archetypes right there, but it gets better because I’m going to pretend that the parents are enormous nerds and that’s why they’ve also dressed one of the kids as Jason, but specifically the purple Jason from the Friday the 13th NES game.  Come to think of it, a costume that’s part Jason, part clown might work pretty well. Someone glue a red nose to a hockey mask and let me know how it pans out.


Well, it’s nice that H:TPC gets its least interesting scene out of the way early on, with this messy garage that is nowhere near the (admittedly extremely high) standard for Halloween-ness set by the rest of the game. No, spelling out “spooky” with the fridge magnets just isn’t cutting it, I’m afraid. It does have a raccoon, though, which is not a surprise to me. Since I first played Halloween: Trick or Treat, I’ve gobbled up a lot of horror-themed hidden object games and I’ve enjoyed most of them even if they don’t give me quite as much pleasure as the H:ToT series. One things many of them have in common, however, is raccoons. They crop up with far more frequency than you might expect, unless the general consensus amongst the world’s population is that raccoons are somehow scary and I just didn’t get the memo.


After a little more trick or treating, Emma and Mike head to the funfair, because what could be safer than two unsupervised children heading to a creepy funfair in the middle of the night… on Halloween?! I’m sure they’ll be fine, or at least they’ll only be subjected to the ordinary horrors of a poorly-maintained carnival. The terror of boiled-burger-inspired food poisoning! Nerve-shredding horror as you argue with a carny about a rigged coconut shy! The unending guilt these kids will feel when they accidentally crush that cat that’s been allowed to wander around the dodgems! No, seriously, someone move that cat, it’s going to get hurt. Don’t worry about the duck, ducks can look after themselves.
I think the best thing about this scene might be the kid in the ticket booth, though. He’s so keen to impress that he wore his most blinging gold chain to work. That’s the true horror of Halloween right there. No, not the ticket guy, I mean a white man who’s rapidly approaching middle age using the world “blinging” in 2017.


Next stop – Dracula’s Castle. God knows why this place wasn’t the first stop. Dodgems are fine and all but how could you possibly enjoy them knowing that this majestic edifice is right next door? It’s a masterpiece, it really is. The way the facade is peeling away from the castle is great, the beret-wearing skull that’s guarding the drawbridge and is giving me flashbacks to Soft and Cuddly (one of VGJunk’s most traumatic childhood horrors) is great, and the fact that Dracula is standing atop his castle parapets, waving a cutlass and spying on the approaching customers with his telescope? Extremely great. I’m genuinely tempted to print this screenshot out and have it framed.


The inside of Dracula’s castle is just as great as the outside. There seems to be some kind of Dracula family, even. Mrs. Dracula at the top left, Drac himself at the top right and Kid Dracula on the staircase. Kid Dracula wanted to be a dentist, but his dad railroaded him into joining the family business and he’s bitter about it, that’s the backstory I’ve come up with. Also note that there’s an electric guitar next to Dracula. According to the other games in the H:ToT series, rockin’ out is as much a part of Dracula’s character as drinking the blood of virgins.
While we’re here, a quick discussion of H:TPC’s graphics. I absolutely love them, obviously. They’re kitschy, they’re tacky, and that’s exactly what Halloween should be like, as far as I’m concerned. It’s the one holiday where the DIY aesthetic shines the brightest with the home-made costumes and decorations, and the H:ToT games slot into that mood just right because they feel like they’ve been constructed by someone clipping pictures out of mail-order catalogues and supermarket ads and making them into a digital collage. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how these games are made, and in the H:ToT2 article I managed to find the source of some of the items and was informed where at least one more object came from in the comments. Sourcing Halloween items by running endless internet searches like “Halloween costume stock photos” and “witch figurine -sexy -anime” would be my ultimate dream job. Maybe one day I’ll go back through these games and see how many of the objects I can find the sources for. Not for an article, but just for fun. For example, you see the lady next to the “ye dungeon” sign on the left? That’s “alternative” model Masuimi Max. Don’t Google Masuimi Max at work, your boss won’t appreciate it. Unless you work at a latex fetish dungeon, in which case it’s probably fine.


I have to mention the castle’s dungeon, because it’s home to Death itself, but a goddamn kitten, the Grim Rea-purr, and I don’t think I could live with myself if didn’t bring that to your attention. It’s wearing a little bow tie! I hope this is conveying just why I love these dumbass games so much. Of course, the idea of a kitten being the manifestation of death is sweet and all, and mankind would probably see death as less of a taboo if the ultimate end was accompanied by kitties, but if you actually look at the cat reaper and try to figure out what shape it is underneath those robes then it suddenly becomes a lot more sinister. Is it a human-shaped skeleton with a kitten’s head? A were-cat of some kind? My prevailing theory is that it’s basically a sack full of many individual cats, and they take turns acting as the face.


I had to build a Dracula doll while I was in the dungeon. I mean, I don’t think the kids were forced to build it, but they were in a Halloween dungeon with a build-your-own vampire kit and I can’t blame them for not being able to resist. Mike channels Shaggy (from Scooby-Doo, not the singer) once the Dracula is complete, and it’s interesting to see someone wearing that outfit being scared of a doll.


All this spooking has given the kids an appetite, so they stop off at Dale’s Diner. He’s got candy floss, he’s got funnel cakes, he’s got… is that a chinchilla down there? Okay, not particularly spooky, but whatever. Dale’s also flying Confederate flags from his diner, and while I don’t want to get into the political ramifications of that it does remind me that the H:ToT games are made by a British company. The Pirate’s Curse isn’t nearly as full-on with the Americana as Trick or Treat 2 was – that game featured “support our troops” stickers and honest-to-god banjo music – but it still feels very, very American. I suppose Halloween is a very American thing, whatever its traditional roots may be, and without wanting people to think I’m denigrating that great nation I reckon those plastic trash bags with jack o’lantern faces on them that you fill with leaves are possibly America’s greatest cultural achievement.
Back to the diner, and the best thing about this scene is definitely the two people on the right who seem to be having the worst first date ever. I’m no expert on body language, but she’s definitely not into it. Maybe it’s because the guy has brought his teddy bear with him. “This is Mr. Snuggles,” he explains. “My mom said I should bring him because he helps keep me calm. Say hello to Mr. Snuggles. I said say hello.”


After a few more scenes, our young charges decide to call on their friend Tom. They poke around his room while he’s getting changed, eventually settling into the thrilling activity of rearranging the mixed-up books on his bookshelves. Yeah, the minigames really aren’t that exciting, I admit it. However, now we’ve got the books in the right order we can see they read “The Pirate’s Curse.” So, after well over half the game has passed, we’re finally getting to the pirate’s curse portion of The Pirate’s Curse. I was beginning to wonder whether the developers had just forgotten about it.


Here’s Tom in his pirate costume, and by “costume” I mean the actual clothes of a real pirate. I can’t fault your commitment to authenticity, Tom, although I pray that the beard is fake. He also mentions “some pirate stories about a haunted fairground,” and it’s only now that I realise this is a really weird set-up. Pirates? Sure. Undead ghost pirates? Yeah, I can get on board with that. Ghost pirates who also run a haunted funfair? No, you’ve lost me.


On the way back to town, the kids happen across a gypsy fortune teller. Emma comments that it looks more like a pirate dressed as a gypsy fortune teller but Mike tells her that she’s being silly, even after the pirate-gypsy tells the kids that they should definitely take a shortcut through the city sewers. If this devolves into a slasher movie, I think we can safely assume that Emma is going to be the only survivor.


Another cutscene? Why, The Pirate’s Curse, you’re really spoiling us with these piratical apparitions that shroud the town in a dense cloud of green fog and hang on, isn’t this the plot of John Carpenter’s The Fog? Damn, maybe The Pirate’s Curse really is going to turn into a slasher movie.


Yes indeed, it really does seem like the big twist in this game’s plot is that ghostly pirates turn up and establish a haunted carnival. Tired of roaming the seven seas and buckling their swashes, these salty sea-dogs have decided that a more efficient way to relieve people of their doubloons is via hook-a-duck - hook-a-duck being a pirate’s favourite carnival game, of course.
The new piratical management means that the carnival is now a spooky carnival, and it is to the developers’ eternal credit that they drew completely new scenes instead of simply giving the previous scenes a lick of spooky paint. There are also a lot more golden objects to find in each scene now, and eventually your eyes will become trained to spot all that glitters like some kind of deranged magpie.


It’s back. Oh, thank heavens, it’s back. The H:ToT games might be a VGJunk tradition, but they also have a tradition of their own, and that’s one of the characters describing something as “spooky dooky.” It happens in all three games and it’s made me laugh every time I’ve seen it. The day that “spooky dooky” replaces “creepy” in common parlance will be the day that mankind ascends to a higher plane.
Also, you know what’s happened since you were here earlier, Mike. There were pirates, and a curse, remember? When you fiddled about with that bookshelf? Oh, I get it, Mike’s realised that this is all his fault and he’s trying to cover his tracks.


You want ghostly carousels ridden by wooden pirate mannequins and staffed by rotting swamp-hags? Then Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse definitely has you covered. It’s all just so much fun to look at and I’ll tell you what, the artist on this game really understood the colour palette that makes for an effective Halloween scene. Lots of vibrant greens and burning sunset oranges, these things are very important in setting the correct mood. Things like that frog near the bottom-left that has amassed a small pile of human fingers? They’re just a bonus. Where did you get all those fingers, Mr. Frog? And what do you need them for? Maybe there’s a corpse nearby wearing a t-shirt that reads “I Am a Hand Model and I Hate Frogs” and I can laud H:TPC as a masterpiece of environmental storytelling.


As the kids explore the haunted fun fair, it becomes clear that the Pirate’s Curse isn’t really all that much of a curse. The pirates aren’t looting and pillaging, they’re not attempting to murder the children or even harm them in any way, they’re just… running a fun fair. Unless they’re going for a “the pirates are holding a carnival… without the correct safety permits!” kind of terror, then I feel like we’re unfairly harassing a group of legitimate entrepreneurs who just happen to be, in some cases, missing a lot of their skin.


Eventually the kids find a mysterious (and broken) compass, reasoning that if they fix it, it’ll help them in some way. This minigame is dangerously close to being a sliding block puzzle, because you have to click on the “rings” of the compass so they rotate, spinning them until they all line up correctly. I haven’t mentioned many of the minigames in H:TPC, have I? That’s probably because the game leans very heavily on a few specific types. You’ve got very simple jigsaws, a bunch of “find the matching pairs” challenges and a few where you have to spin or rotate the puzzle pieces to make a picture. They mostly look great, with the same intense Halloween flavour as the hidden object scenes, but there’s only so much I can say about jigsaw puzzles even when they are pictures of haunted helter-skelters.


The mysterious compass leads the kids through an equally mysterious yet very well signposted underground cave. Nice of the ghost pirates to put up warning signs, I thought. Also, more raccoons. Is America infested with raccoons, and the government is just about managing to keep this fact secret from the wider world?


I want to live in a town that is so insanely hyped-up for Halloween that even the bait shops start hanging out the orange-and-black bunting and selling pumpkins. No, wait a minute, check out the sign on the door, they’re giving away free pumpkins. That’s how they get you hooked. Once the urge to carve jack o’lanterns has wormed its way inside you, then they start charging and when you can’t afford the next pumpkin you have to resort to carving turnips like a medieval Irish peasant.
The kids aren’t here for the free pumpkins, mind you. They’re visiting Fred, the store’s owner, and he’s got information for them: gather up a load of gold and take it to the pirate captain, and the buccaneers will all leave. Note that the pirates never asked for the gold, and it sure does feel like I’m going to bribe all these pirates, who just wanted to run a fun fair, so that they leave town.


Okay, so the pirates are making that guy walk the plank, and that’s not very nice. It must violate some workplace health and safety laws, at the very least.


Having reached the pirate ship and collected a fortune in gold and jewels, the kids make a run for the Mexican border to start a new life as very wealthy people. No, of course not, they neatly package all the valuables into a chest, as is the traditional pirate way. For whatever reason, I actually really enjoyed this jigsaw minigame. I have no idea what the hell is wrong with me, but piecing together the golden trinkets was oddly soothing and oh god, am I about to develop some kind of dragon fursona? Is this setting off some kind of hoarding response? Quick, pirate captain, please take all this gold away from me.


“Arr, so be it, me and me crew of scurvy carnival workers shall leave this ungrateful town. A curse upon ye landlubbers who don’t appreciate a well-designed Halloween fun fair, yaarr.”


With the gold in hand, the pirate captain is beamed back up to the Starship Enterprise, where this entire game is revealed to be a holodeck malfunction. Actually, was there ever a pirate-themed holodeck episode? I bet there was, I can just see Worf wearing an eyepatch and saying “Captain, I do not understand how to splice this... mainbrace.”
And so the curse upon these Halloween-obsessed town is lifted, and Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse is… still going on?


That’s right, you get a couple more scenes just to prove that the town is back to normal. Well, as normal as a town whose economy is based entirely on fun fairs and gourd sales can be. The kids are all terribly relaxed about their adventure, a nightmarish thrill-ride that exposed their youthful minds to the incontrovertible fact that ghosts and the afterlife are real. “Everything worked out fine, and I think it’s time we all headed home,” says Mike. He’s had his dooky so thoroughly spooked that he’s traumatised, the poor dope.


Ha ha ha, yeah, Tom, you’d better not accidentally summon the spirits of the dead next year, the crowd laughs, “Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse was filmed before a live studio audience,” roll credits.


Now Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse is over, and heartbreakingly for me, so is the series as a whole. There are no more Halloween-themed hidden object games by Casual Arts for me to play. I suppose they might release more in the future. I certainly hope so, because just to reiterate I love these games. They’re just so perfectly me, you know? It might be a genre that’s looked down upon as one for bored grandmas, but I find the gameplay of hidden object games to be utterly relaxing even when they don’t look like this, and the trashy, tacky, spooky-dooky aesthetic of the H:ToT games just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Of the three games in the series, I'd say that The Pirate's Curse is actually the least good, but only by the narrowest of margins and only because I don't think the ghost pirates really add that much to the Halloween mood. Like, they're good and spooky but it'd be better and more Halloween-y if some of them were replaced by ghost Frankensteins.


Yes indeed, Happy Halloween to you all, and thank you for reading the 2017 VGJunk Halloween Spooktacular. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it, especially if you managed to make it through almost five thousand words about a low-budget PC hidden object game. If I had pumpkin-shaped medals to give out, you’d all get one. There’s just one thing left to do...


Turning to the Halloween-O-Meter for a final time this year, and there’s no way Halloween: The Pirate’s Curse wasn’t getting a ten out of ten. These games have become just as much a part of my overall concept of Halloween as listening to Alice Cooper’s “Man Behind the Mask” on repeat and scouring eBay for cheap plastic jack o’lanterns. Hell, next year I might change from the Halloween-O-Meter to “Spooky Dookies Out Of Ten.”

5 comments:

  1. Is America infested with raccoons? In all seriousness, absolutely! I once had one pop out of a trash can as I tried to throw something away. Maybe it is a government cover-up, because I'm genuinely surprised you weren't aware. But then, as an American, I did not expect all the scavenging foxes when I visited London. I guess a nation's vermin don't get much publicity.

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  2. I laughed far longer and harder at the finger-collecting frog than I probably should have and am still breaking out into manic giggling fits just thinking about it. I have no idea why this should be the case, but tears have starting running down my cheeks due to all the laughter. Something may be wrong with me.

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  3. You said you wrote about Halloween: Trick or Treat, in 2014, but the blog post is dated 2015. BTW have you thought about covering any of Casual Arts Christmas games?

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  4. I hope you had a very happy Halloween, VGJ! I look forward to the spooktacular every year.

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  5. i get the most joy out of reading entries about rather obscure hidden object games. Thank you and hope you had an amazing halloween!!

    by the way, HOG creators really use actors images from google for their games. Dare I say all the time...

    ReplyDelete

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