The Premise: A teen by the name of Cooper Chance sets out to rescue his girlfriend Amber from the sinister Ghoulhaven hall, fighting the mansion’s macabre occupants room-by-room in an attempt to reach the dastardly Baron von Ghoul and win back his lady.
Is It Any Good?: Grabbed by the Ghoulies ‘enjoyed’ the position of marking a pivotal point in the history of Rare Ltd. It was the first product of their controversial defection to Microsoft following a hugely successful seven-year partnership with Nintendo, which yielded such classics as GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark and Donkey Kong Country. In many ways it is also Rare’s first real critical and commercial failure, marking the point where the magic that defined their output of the previous two decades maybe not disappeared, but became noticeably diluted.
In 2003, however, Rare were still superstars in the development world, enough so that Microsoft were prepared to shell out $375 million to buy them. This may have given Rare access to resources far beyond what they’d previously enjoyed, but also raised the stakes for both parties. Microsoft, obviously keen to recoup some of that $375 million, hyped the game heavily and expectations were high for something special. What everyone got was something different.
In essence, Grabbed by the Ghoulies is a twin-stick arcade arena game in the tradition of Robotron 2084 and Smash TV. Whereas those games were all about shooting, however, Ghoulies favours melee, with the right stick being used to aim kicks and punches rather than bullets. It’s an odd system that takes a while to get used to, and doesn’t really mesh with the third-person camera perspective (As opposed to its forebears’ far more practical top-down view). Once grasped, however, it gives you the ability to fend off foes from multiple directions with surprising smoothness.
And that’s pretty much the game in a nutshell. Walk into room. Defeat enemies. Walk into next room. Wash, rinse, repeat. While Rare try and mix things up by setting various challenges vital to clearing rooms – such as focusing attacks on certain types of enemies, or only using specific weapons – it’s an arcade game through and through, and as such is best enjoyed in small doses. The game is a lot of fun, with a humorous tone and some great music (A nice touch: each type of Ghoulie has its own theme tune), but lacks the tightness of control that marks a true arcade classic. The knockdown animation in particular causes a lot of frustration, as the AI’s aggressiveness is not dialled down while it plays. This means that getting knocked down routinely results in a dogpile occurring, with enemies allowed to get in several ‘cheap shots’ while Cooper is out of your control. Some of the challenges are also shoddily designed and, at their worst, basically impossible to complete. An example of this occurs on the garbage yard level, where you’re tasked with defeating the Ghoulies using only fists and only with weapons at the same time. The result is that your first attack of any kind immediately fails the challenge, summoning the Reaper (The game’s penalty mechanic, whose lethal touch you have to dodge for the duration of a countdown).
These issues are annoying but not gamebreaking, and would be more damning if it wasn’t for the game’s light tone and gleefully chaotic combat. In fact, the game turned out to be quite prescient in some ways, incorporating weaponizable scenic objects before Dead Rising wowed everyone with the same idea, and predicting the ‘classic arcade gameplay with modern elements’ craze that would define the rise of the digital marketplace.
And therein lies the rub. If Ghoulies had been released two or three years later as an XBLA title on the 360, chances are it would’ve caught the wave caused by Geometry Wars and Castle Crashers and been a huge hit. Instead, it was a major disc release at a time when games were growing exponentially in complexity and length, and the burgeoning retro revival was confined to half-hearted compilations and a handful of old games on the embryonic and widely-ignored original XBLA. Too big for digital distribution and too simple and brief to satisfy critics and gamers, especially after all the hype generated by the Microsoft acquisition, Grabbed by the Ghoulies fell between the cracks, drowned out by the fanfare for the imminent Xbox 360.
Although it was eventually made available on XBLA, its inclusion in the overpriced and lazily-handled Xbox Originals line meant that it never got the revival other games of the time have seen – though to be fair, the game never really garnered the fanbase to clamour for it either. These days it stands as an amiable but deeply flawed game that is more notorious for its timing and as a symbol of the wilting of its creators’ salad days than for its inherent qualities.
Bonus Points: The title is a pun on ‘goolies’, a UK term for testicles. Sure it’s a crappy pun, but in these times when major games are demographized into vanilla sludge there’s something endearingly subversive about a developer giving their Microsoft-backed game a title only 10% at best of their audience won’t need explained to them. Appropriately, the name first came up as a possible subtitle for a prospective Conker’s Bad Fur Day sequel.
Developed by the team who made who made the Banjo-Kazooie games, Ghoulies is stuffed with references to that series. The goldfish Roysten makes an appearance, and Banjo-Kazooie and Killer Instinct game cases appear as environmental objects. In one level, there’s also a noticeboard with a note that reads, ‘Collect Ice Key. Collect 4 Eggs. Open secret level’, a Stop n’ Swop reference. The team’s later Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts n’Bolts would continue the trend with several self-deprecating references to Ghoulies as a poor seller.
MOAR LIKE THIS PLZ: Banjo-Kazooie, Castle Crashers, Smash TV, Dead Rising, MediEvil