Every year, as Halloween approaches, gamers are left looking for that next terrifying game to truly capture the spirit of the occasion. In the case of HAUNTED: Halloween ’86, a beat em’ up platformer developed by Retrotainment, most people will be a little apprehensive and tentative at the idea of playing it. Not because it has a ton of jump scares or is full of gore, but due to the NES format and old school 8-bit graphics that often turn the modern day crowd away. Should the retro vibe of this NES game ported to Xbox One really put you off getting involved in the spooky and kooky, but not all that scary, experience of HAUNTED: Halloween ’86?
It depends on whether you’re ready to embrace what is an absolute throwback to a bygone era.
HAUNTED: Halloween ’86 is the follow-up to Retrotainment’s previous title, HAUNTED: Halloween ’85, and once again it places schoolboy Donny Johnstown in the role as main protagonist. Having already fought the ghoulish and beast-like enemies haunting his hometown of Possum Hollow, he’s back to pulverise even more baddies. This time though, his buddy Tami Dunmore is ready to get stuck into the antics too and they’re ready for whatever garish creatures the night of Halloween has in store for them. It all kicks off once they enter a creepy old house as part of a dare and, from then on, it’s kill or be killed.
The narrative is rather threadbare, but the opening, slightly time-consuming text-based dialogue at least sets the scene as it features some childishly appropriate ‘banter’ between the main characters and their pals. Surviving the madness that Possum Hollow is cursed with on Halloween is the priority here, with everything else taking a back seat. There’s nothing in the ‘story’ that won’t be easily forgotten.
And it’s the lack of a good tale that puts a lot of pressure on the gameplay aspect, which sees you traversing various levels from left to right and tackling all monsters who dare to stand in your way. Whether controlling Donny or Tami at the start isn’t particularly important as the only difference between them other than aesthetically is that one prefers punching and the other enjoys kicking butt. Throughout HAUNTED: Halloween ’86, it allows the switching of characters on the fly and that’s a really useful feature for staying alive due to each of them has a separate amount of health. In a strange move, there’s no health bar as such and instead when a character comes into contact with something damaging they go a little bit green each time. Too many hits, you’ll turn completely green and a life will be gone.
Platforming is an important part of navigating the different areas within, including environments like mines, caves, an old mill and even the town itself. There is almost a 2.5D feel to this side of proceedings as it does enable the ability to jump onto ledges and such in the background. Plenty of skill is required to time jumps to clear deadly gaps and occasionally reach candy corn to reclaim health, but the whole mechanic is made even tougher given one of the biggest annoyances of the whole experience – it won’t allow the usage of the analog stick to move. The D-Pad is the only option, which, for someone who’s been playing Xbox One since launch, is utterly counter-intuitive. How many times will you have a lapse in concentration and die by trying to use the stick? I’d say too many.
Combat on the other hand is far better than expected because there aren’t just the standard and super attacks, but through unlocks you can choose to add more powers to your arsenal. These include a charged attack, a super cool dash manoeuvre that will take down the baddies and even a shockwave like move. Personally, the double jump and dodging options were always my first choices; they can be real life savers. Anyway, the animations for all the moves are very cool, however I do have a minor complaint about the hit boxes as some of the attacks don’t seem to have any affect, allowing the creatures to leech away your life.
The enemies and hazards to avoid are really well designed, with neat looking sprites for skeletons, rabid piranhas, floating heads and evil pumpkins. Kicking the heads off of certain monsters and then throwing said head at another enemy is great fun. In terms of hazards, spikes are the most obvious non-moving threats, but toxic slime, the water and other dangers lurk within the levels. The bosses are tough as hell until you work out their weaknesses, which is kind of the beauty of these classic games, because you learn by failure.
Seeing as the levels within each chapter are short and sweet, it’s easy to remember what’s coming up and strategise the best way to stay alive. You won’t want to lose all your lives though because then it’s back to the beginning, unless you’ve made it through a whole chapter. Upon chapter completion, it’ll provide a code to input to return to that point, if needed, at a later date, so be sure to have a pen and paper at hand. Proper old school that is.
Audibly, the sounds are akin to those that you’d hear regularly on consoles in the ’80s, with subtle differences between each chapter and boss sections to accompany the goings on. The 8-bit visuals are amongst the best I’ve seen for a NES game, especially as the environments bring about a variety of colours; every location looks different from the next. There is one issue though, and it’s that some parts of an area that are meant to be interacted with aren’t distinguishable at all. So it’s pot luck if you realise that a specific point needs hitting.
HAUNTED: Halloween ’86 has been made with a lot of love by a team of NES enthusiasts and the gameplay ensures it feels rewarding to progress through. The sheer variety of enemies, locations and even moves that Donny/Tami can pull off is impressive considering the limitations of the format. Unfortunately, not having the option to use the analog stick is super annoying, the story doesn’t bring enough to the table to be memorable and the hit mechanics seem a little awry.
If you wish to experience a truly retro beat em’ up platformer, and earn a load of easy Gamerscore along the way, there’s enough of an enjoyable game here to warrant a purchase.