Ghouls (Commodore 64) review
"Buggy games are not just something of the last few years, where PC games sometimes seem like they were released weeks, possibly months before they were actually ready to be sold, and this is hurriedly fixed in downloadable patches. In the days of the Commodore 64, this happened as well, minus the patches. Sometimes, a game would inexplicably appear in the stores when it is clearly so bugged or its design is so flawed that it wouldn't have survived even the sketchiest of beta tests. Ghouls is one..."
Buggy games are not just something of the last few years, where PC games sometimes seem like they were released weeks, possibly months before they were actually ready to be sold, and this is hurriedly fixed in downloadable patches. In the days of the Commodore 64, this happened as well, minus the patches. Sometimes, a game would inexplicably appear in the stores when it is clearly so bugged or its design is so flawed that it wouldn't have survived even the sketchiest of beta tests. Ghouls is one such game, an action/platform title where you have to guide your character through a haunted house. The idea is nice and there has been some real work in the graphics and the design of the levels, but there appears to have been no testing at all. The game's potential is completely wiped out by horrible controls, game-breaking random factors, and the greatest insult of all, a level that cannot be completed due to a design error.
Upon loading Ghouls, we are treated to a short but effective background story. Ghouls stole your power jewels and hid them in a haunted house, and you're going after them to get your jewels back. Every level starts you out at the bottom of the screen with a chest full of these jewels at the top, and your task is to get up there before time runs out. On the way there, you'll have to deal with holes to jump over, deadly spikes to avoid, moving platforms to run along with, a flying ghost chasing you wherever you go, and several other hazards. All fun enough, and each level requires quick reflexes and a sharp eye - you'll have to figure out very quickly what's expected of you to get past each trap, because the clock is ticking, and you get less than a minute to complete each level.
Graphically, Ghouls actually looks fairly polished. Your character is a strange, long legged, yellow creature that defies description. The flying ghost (I assume these are the ghouls that the game's title refers to) is red with large yellow eyes and an evil smile that appears on his face if you die, which is a nice touch. Later levels feature a big, scary spider that jumps up and down - not the hardest obstacle to avoid, but certainly the best graphic. Some time has obviously gone into the graphics - possibly all the time, because it certainly didn't go into gameplay. Sound is at about the same level - only a short intro tune when you run the game, but the ingame sound effects are fairly varied and add an interesting touch. In total there probably aren't more than 8 or so different effects, but they are there, and none of them is too demanding on the ears (or the nerves). Considering how many Commodore games seem convinced that headache-inducing, annoying beeps are the only way to go, Ghouls' sound effects are certainly above average.
But although graphics and sound are quite acceptable and at times pleasing, Ghouls' potential ends there. Gameplay is where the game completely fails us, through three major design flaws that render the game next to useless. These problems lie in the controls, random factors, and level design.
Your character is controlled simply by pushing the stick left or right to run, and the fire button to jump in the direction you are running in (or straight up, but that jump serves absolutely no purpose). The problem here is that your character runs uncontrollably fast. Push the stick lightly and you're at the other end of the screen before you can blink. Needless to say, this makes precision positioning to jump over a hole or spikes next to impossible. Your jumps are very short, which means that in order to get past these obstacles, you'll need to be in *exactly* the right spot when you jump. Only extremely quick reactions, and a dose of luck, will see you through. New players will probably lose all their lives on the first level time after time before they manage to clear even the first spike, not to mention the hole that has to be jumped over immediately after that. If you play things carefully, running in short bursts in an attempt to get some more control over your character, you'll run out of time to complete the level very quickly, or the flying ghost will catch up with you. There is really nothing else to do except grit your teeth, run through at top speed, and hope that you'll be lucky enough to make it. Practice helps, but not much.
This control problem is bearable - it makes the game needlessly hard, but they can't all be easy. A larger and less forgivable problem is that the flying ghost starts in a random position whenever a level begins, and can very easily spawn in a position where he's impossible to avoid. He moves slowly over the screen, trying to get on a vertical line with you first and then going up or down to catch you, and if he appears straight in the path you need to run along, it is impossible to avoid him. Your pathetic little jumps do not reach far enough to jump over him, and it's not possible to lure him away in any way. There *is* one jewel about halfway each level that will cause the ghost to become harmless for a few seconds if you pick it up, but often the ghost will appear somewhere where you are sure to run into him long before you can reach that jewel. If this happens, you have no choice but to let him kill you and hope that on your next life, he'll spawn in a more fortunate spot. With only three lives available to you, that isn't exactly a good deal. I've frequently lost all my lives in the first level to this, and there's not a thing you can do about it.
If this wasn't enough, the game delivers the final blow on the fourth level. Due to a programming error, one of the floors appears in the wrong place (you can easily see that the positioning is not right since it runs partially offscreen), and this creates an unavoidable obstacle right at the beginning. So if you somehow get through the first three levels with the few lives available to you (or with a cheat code giving you more), your merry journey ends at the fourth level, where you cannot get anywhere from your starting position.
It's annoying enough if you're just playing the game on an emulator now (or copied it back in the Commodore days, when nobody had ever heard of copyrights and just exchanged tapes and disks), but it's completely unbelievable when you realize that this game was, in fact, sold in stores at one time. The glaring bugs in the design can lead me to no other conclusion than that the game is unplayable, and apparently wasn't tested at all before release.
Ghouls is not a game you'll want to play for entertainment. It is, however, an interesting example of what happens if you don't test your products before attempting to sell them. And perhaps it is of some comfort to the owners of buggy PC products, just to show how much worse it can be.
If Ghouls had been properly tested, the problems that combine to make the game such a nightmare could have been fixed. I can't say the game would have been a magnificent title in that case, but it could have been fun. As it is, you won't want anything to do with this. The Commodore 64 offers plenty of action titles that do work the way they are supposed to, and you're better off spending your time on one of those than on this abomination.
Community review by sashanan (April 28, 2009)
Sashanan doesn't drink coffee; he takes tea, my dear. And sometimes writes reviews. His roots lie with the Commodore 64 he grew up with, and his gaming remains fragmented among the very old, the somewhat old, and rarely the new.
If you enjoyed this Ghouls review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!