More Than You Bargained For
“You got more than what you bargained for.” For as often as that’s made to sound like a bad thing, the cheapskate in me wants to rejoice.
Like that proverbial box of Crunch Berries that turned out to be Oops! All Berries!, a factory mishap can sometimes end up favorably. Everything’s coming up Milhouse.
But what happens when unexpected abundance is a banner feature?
That’s what Xonox was counting on with their central gimmick: double-ended cartridges that had two sets of contacts, two sets of chips, etc. They’re as monstrous as you would expect, but at least XONOX reads the same rightside up and upside down (is that some kind of rotational palindrome?).
The logic was sound: at the height of the console boom in the early 1980’s, there would be a class of thrifty parents who would gravitate towards the promise of more game for less buck. But more game isn’t necessarily better game.
Various combinations were available, mixing and matching between Artillery Duel, Spike’s Peak, Robin Hood, Sir Lancelot, Chuck Norris Superkicks (I shit you not)… and, most relevantly, Ghost Manor.
None of these games are very good. Only three of them are acknowledged by Wikipedia. In fact, given that most of them came out in 1983, Xonox’s double-ended cartridges could be considered emblematic of the excesses that led to the Great Crash that almost killed consoles for good. People just couldn’t be sure they were spending their money on something worthwhile, no matter how much it may have looked like they were getting a good deal. Confidence plummeted.
Ghost Manor almost didn’t make the cut for this blog. It doesn’t match many of the criteria set out in the charter. But without it, we would jump forward about seven years and a console generation, so I wanted to clamor for as many early examples of spooky games as possible to fill the gap.
Let’s count the ways that was a bad decision.
I’ll get this out of the way now: Ghost Manor is practically a synonym of Haunted House. It’s shameless. I know that incompetence is the more likely explanation than stupidity in most cases, but this similarity really awakens the cynic in me.
Ghost Manor lacks even the pretense of a plot that Haunted House has. Here goes: “You have to rescue your friend who has been kidnapped by Dracula.” I apologize for anyone who nodded off during that meandering summary, but that’s the short of it. Everything beyond that is pure conjecture, which I will engage in gleefully.
Notably, there is only one ghost in the game, and he is far away from his eponymous manor. One must assume that the ghost has been ousted from his proper resting place by the Draculas, scorpions, and moving walls that now inhabit that place. The Ghost, consigned to the graveyard (the default location for a ghost), isn’t even an enemy!
No, the first round (of five) has you playing Tag with the rainbow-colored apparition, in exchange for spears. I imagine the protagonist, a little girl, being confused at the prospect of receiving primitive weaponry as reward for catching a ghost.
“I didn’t know that ghosts existed 20 minutes ago”, she says. “Where is Billy? He was kidnapped by a dracula, which I didn’t even know existed 25 minutes ago”.
The ghost then patiently explains that Dracula was the name of a specific vampire, so calling all vampires “Draculas” makes about as much sense as calling all dogs “Lassies”. But, because of the spectral veil that separates his world from ours, all Sally hears is the specific frequency of sorrow.
With no cue that the ghost is friendly aside from its varicolored appearance, your instinct will be to avoid ghost. Only after a chance collision that doesn’t result in death will you realize that you’re supposed to touch it. Okay then.
Saddled with roughly 25 spears, Sally is then sent forth toward the manor. “Careful, the front door sticks. You really gotta put some shoulder into it” the ghost says. Sally only hears something that sounds like the rusty wheel of a bicycle spinning lazily after its rider collides with the bumper of a car going 45.
Why Pick a Genre?
Lest you think this was all babytown frolics, Ghost Manor quickly, and without fanfare, changes the perspective and the genre.
Instead of playing tag with a ghost, you’re now playing Space Invaders with dime store ghoulies. Front and center we’ve got a mummy, then some scorpions, then a floating skull, then some bats, and finally some dudes. WHICH ONE IS THE REAL MONSTER? Read all the way to the end to find out.
This is notable since it’s the first appearance of a signature survival horror trope: limited ammunition. See, the number of shots you have at your disposal here is determined by how well you did in your game of tag against the ghost. Thus, it’s entirely possible to land yourself up shit creek if you’re a terrible shot. This is no great loss, since you’re only a minute into a 4 minute round, but still.
Contrast this with Haunted House, which gave you limited health but didn’t restrict your matches to the customary 20.
So, you should watch your shot. The shooting is nothing new for anyone who has seen a video game, you just need to lead your shots. Your character can throw those spears with a startling velocity, though, so the shot timing will take some getting used to for people who are accustomed to Galaga, the gold-standard of projectile speed.
The only wrinkle here is the dreaded Mummy. It looks like a skeleton, but the manual confirms that it’s a mummy. He’s taken a break from belching beetles at Brendan Fraser to accept a bodyguarding gig from his favorite dracula, Dracula, and he’s using the weapon that mummies are most well-known for, the meat cleaver.
A single slice of that cleaver will send our hero to the side of a milk carton, so it’s best avoided with tricky maneuvering. You can only take out the mummy after you’ve cleared out all of the other enemies, including history’s greatest monster. (WHICH IS IT? Read to the end to find out). This gains you admittance to the castle proper.
Like a panicked Robin Williams, Ghost Manor rapidly switches through its schticks hoping that one of them will find purchase. By this point it should be apparent that Xonox wasn’t content to just ship two games on one cartridge. Rather, they wanted to cram as many minigames into each of those two games as possible. Again, more than you bargained for… how can that be a bad thing?
Well, this tactic is never advisable. I remember participating in one of those exploitative school fund raisers when I was little, with my eye on a handheld device that featured “thousands” of games. After making my mom extort her friends and coworkers for hundreds of dollars, I received my thousand games wondermachine, which was a crappy little LCD dealie with two buttons and a shitload of Tetris variants. I tried looking up that particular model, but these things are everywhere. Truly shattering.
The last leg of our spear-encumbered little girl’s journey takes her inside the den of the draculas for a top-down exploration segment. The notable features of this maze-like manor are the coffins that are strewn about, and the one gigantic wall that moves back and forth across the map.
You’d think being crushed by the moving wall would be the only danger, but the manual is quick to point out that you should “BEWARE touching the stationary walls — they are electrified and can stun you.” I suppose writing that phrase in the manual is cheaper than fixing your game’s collision detection, but it’s the 80’s and, well, cocaine and Wall Street? I don’t know, I thought I would be fun to find an excuse for them.
This is where the time limit comes into play. You have four minutes to beat a round of Ghost Manor, which makes it tempting to rush up the stairs and put an end to all of this. Instead, you would be wise to rub all up on each of those coffins, hoping to get a cross. Not a crucifix. It’s not a crucifix unless it’s adorned with a bleeding savior. You see, crosses are like the opposite of vitamins for draculas, so you will want as many as possible for the final encounter.
That’s where everything falls apart for me. Carry as many crosses as you like, the way to use them offensively against this most strong of the draculas is entirely non-apparent. The single red button of the Atari joystick does nothing as your black-clad menace bears down on you while your imprisoned friend watches on. I banged my head against this for a good long while before ultimately giving up.
I’d love to be able to beat all of the games I write about for this project. However, the canonical ending of Ghost Manor, for me, will always be Sally and Timmy sinking into the loamy soil of the cemetery while an abrasive version of “Taps” plays in the background. Their spirits are bound to the graveyard, the default location for ghosts, as they hang out with their agitated friend, the displaced rainbow ghost.
We all float down here. Grab some spears.
More is Less
The best early video games thrive because of their simplicity, not in spite of it. Constraint begets focus, and focus generally begets proficiency. Show me an Atari game that changes genre as much as Ghost Manor, and I will show you a game that’s only notable because the Angry Video Game Nerd talked about it (or will talk about it).
You can trace a tenuous lineage from Haunted House to other horror games on the list. It withholds information from the player. It requires you to seek out items, assemble them, memorize their locations, and backtrack to them. It leaves you helpless.
Ghost Manor, on the other hand, is symptomatic of the philosophy that brought us Club House Games and any number of other shovelware titles that have plagued the Christmas stockings of hapless grandchildren over the past three decades.
Feel free to walk away from the bargaining table if Ghost Manor shows up. I hear they bring friends.
I’ve written a staggering number of words about a game that is entirely without substance. It’s a bummer, too. Mechanics take a while to explain, and I’d rather we spend our time together talking about why things are spooky and weird. Picking this game for the blog was something of a miscalculation. “A skull shows up once” isn’t reason enough to call something survival horror. But it’s a lesson we learned together, and hopefully future articles can be more substantial.
I can’t guarantee that the next article will be up in a week’s time. I’m aiming for Mondays, but I want to get a little bit of a buffer going since the games will shortly become very long. Also, next week is Thanksgiving.
The real monster was Man all along.