Ghoul School (1992) Platform:NES Developer:Imagineering Publisher:Electro Brain Players: 1 ESRB Rating: Not invented.
No, I'm not talking about a game based on the Scooby Doo special or the B-horror movie with the same name, I'm talking about Ghoul School for the Nintendo Entertainment System. I remember first encountering this game when I was about nine. It magically appeared in a pile of NES games my Mom picked up from a Phar-mor store that was going out of business(now currently a Gordman's) earlier in the afternoon. My newly acquired copy of Ghoul School was filthy. Not just any kind of filth, second hand rental store, mysterious brown stuff pasted on the cover, black goop in the contacts filthy. Speaking as a collector, I've since learned not to be disgusted by the scum found on most NES games and now I just end up in a state of traveling pants wonder about the previous life my game had before it came into my possession. No, there is no greater pleasure in being an NES collector than restoring damaged games and giving them a nice light gray sheen. I busted out my Weiman's stove top cleaner and rubbing alcohol and went to work on the contacts. It had one of those black security stickers with the bit of metal in them between the contacts and the plastic, always a pain.
As with most NES games acquired second hand, I was lucky to get a black sleeve protector, let alone some instructions, Ghoul School being no exception. So, I had to make up my own story and context for the game at the time and it didn't give me much to work with. Now that I have the internet and access to a scan of the original instruction manual, I'm able to paraphrase the plot. In the game you play as Spike O'Hara or Mohawk Guy as my younger self referred to him, on a quest to save Samantha Pom Pom who was abducted and taken to Cool School which is now packed with a variety of Ghoulish monsters, rendering it a Ghoul School. This is all the result of Spike finding some skull in the woods after school, making the punk rock choice of bragging about it to his schoolmates and his anatomy teacher Dr.Femur (no relation to Vice Principal Bone from Doug, I think.) Dr.Femur keeps the skull, which ends up being haunted, thus turning all of the teachers and students into Ghouls to take over Cool School, now Ghoul School. So instead of taking the sissy way out and calling the police, paranormal investigators, or military, Spike shows up to his High School in his knee hole sporting jeans (probably a pair of Levi pipes), his fashionable vest and white T-shirt combo, and a Baseball Bat. This is where the game begins and this is where I fell in love.
At its heart, Ghoul School is a side scrolling platformer, but it's so much more than a typical Mario clone. I could say it's like a mixture of Monster Party meets Metroid. (Never thought you'd hear that combo, huh?) Spike can move left and right along the screen, he is never locked to a side of the screen, opening up the entire school to explore. The top part of the screen displays your points, health bar, enemy health, room number (over 200 rooms), weapon, and what section of the school you're in (like Gym, for example). Spike starts off with 5 lives, which are only regulated to the overall score. If Spike loses all of his lives, the score resets, but he still has all of the items he acquired and starts back at the entrance. The game has unlimited continues and since it doesn't have a password system, level code, or save feature in place, you're stuck beating the game in one sitting.
In the game, there's a ton of areas to explore, most of which are clones of the area before it or lonely halls with classrooms. In each classroom, you can break open a T.V. set and get an apple to recover your health, so they are in place for necessity. The hallways all look the same, but have walls painted a different color to resemble what area of the school you're in. This game is in definite need of a map, no denying, but it's fairly easy to find your way around. Each area has a unique item to get which usually require you to defeat one of the many boss enemies.
As mentioned before, Spike starts off with only a Baseball Bat at his disposal. The weapon required you to inch close to an enemy in order to chip away at their health. It's kinda annoying at first, but this section of the game quickly passes when Spike enters the locker room area and finds his next weapon... An ordinary towel. Spike rolls up the towel and swats it at the enemies, giving it a nice *Snap!*. It's satisfying to say the least. The Bat and Towel aren't the only weapons Spike acquires throughout the game, he gets a bizarre arrange of odd weapons to dispose his foes and destroy obstacles. Death's Sickle, a gun that shoots stomach acid titled the "Digestaray", and even a Sandwich are weapons Spike can use. Like Metroid, Spike will need certain weapons before he can progress through a level. For instance, in order to get to an elevator, Spike must first destroy a floating Spinal Column. None of his typical weapons will work on it, only one. An electrified syringe called the Spinal Zap! Not only does it make short work of the floating Spine, but almost all the enemies fall prey to this deadly weapon.
Spike's weapons are not enough to get him through some of the obstacles in the games, he needs some Data-like kicks in order to get around. You start off with your regular old Bart Simpson blue sneakers in the game. You can only hop a short height, half a Mario. When Spike makes it into the Weight Room after defeating a roided out alien, he finds a pair of spring shoes.
Like weapons, Spike can change out his shoes in the sub menu. With the spring shoes, Spike can jump great heights, over pits, stacks of boxes, and even enemies. Spike also finds a pair of Suction Cup shoes in the Garage, allowing him to stick to the surface of walls and jump upside down in a hilarious fashion. If you time your jumps with the Spring Shoes just right, Spike can jump up near the ceiling, then quickly switch to the Suction Cup Shoes and stick to the wall. The Suction Cup Shoes make traversing the hallways a breeze.
The environment is the storyteller in this game. There are no text boxes furthering the plot or one liner dropping super guy, just Spike, the Monsters, and the School. What makes this game special to me, involves the simple idea of making levels out of an everyday location like a High School. Schools in general are usually developed with a variety of needs in mind. You have a Gym for Athletics, Music Classes, Library, and always an element of mystery to the School itself. When I was in School, I always wondered where some of the locked doors lead, what kind of cool stuff was inside the Teacher's lounge, had anyone ever died at School? That's what Ghoul School provides, a familiar environment that leaves your imagination to project itself upon. The Monsters in this game are charming, most of which are giant eyed aliens, but they are occasionally dressed with little chef hats or can be seen lifting weights at the gym. Spike fights his way through various parts of the human anatomy, a living 1/8th note, killer flowers, near indestructible Frankenstein's monsters, and even Death himself (which is inferred to be the Principal). This is what I call a "little details" game, little details like the Frankenstein's Monster portrait placed side by side against a George Washington portrait. Every area of the game has music that accompanies the area really well. The primary song of the game is really catchy, I find myself humming it every time I remember the game. The music room has the conductor (who looks like a Zombie Beethoven) playing scales, which is strangely fitting. The last area of the game has a really cool arpeggio, listen for it.
Sadly, Ghoul School never became the hit it was intended to be. I wouldn't even say it's a cult status, just somewhere below it.I was reading an interview over at bogleech.com with the creator of Ghoul School, Scott Marshall. Scott had intended for Ghoul School to be a franchise with it's own cartoon show, action figures, the works. He had so many ideas he wanted to implement in the game that would have raised the bar for gameplay on the NES. For instance, originally the lockers in the game were meant from hiding from hordes of monsters that would flood the screen when a school bell would ring. Another idea involved Spike flooding levels so he could then access other areas of the game. The original enemies were all meant to be the undead, as a result of the cursed skull bringing forth the zombies. As a cool change from your health bar, a "gangrene" meter was in place, as Spike was hurt, he would start to rot, apparently it didn't go over well in the development process. Spike's initial design was supposed to be that of a black teenager, Scott wanted to have the protagonist be a black person, as that wasn't common in games at the time (outside of McKids). Allegedly, some people during the development process didn't think kids would have liked to play as a black character, which is one of the most pathetic excuses I've ever heard of for not playing a game, but sadly not uncommon. (I encountered similar remarks when working retail during the launch of Grand Theft Auto:San Andreas.) Due to limitations in NES hardware and time, Scott's initial designs and ideas were modified to keep up with the time constraints. You can read the full interview with Scott Marshall over at bogleech
. It's a good read and interesting to think what could have been.
I think there's a lot to like about this game. The zany weapons/shoes, the catchy tunes, and the varied level design. You can easily beat this game in one setting, in about two hours time. If you like progression based puzzle games like Castlevania, Metroid, or are just a fan of old Monster movies and a late 80's definition of cool, then this game is for you.