Ghost Manor – Atari 2600
Platform: Atari 2600
Release Date (NA): 1983
Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10
Reviewed by Space Invader
We live in an era in which countless horror video games, and indeed spinoffs of those video games, exist and thrive. One of the greatest disappointments of recent times was the stalled entry in the Silent Hill franchise for the PS4.
In the old days, though, programmers were understandably wary about trying to convey any sense of fear on the technology available, well into the 16-bit era. 8-bit horror games are a steal. Therefore, even if Ghost Manor wasn’t a good game, the fact that it’s horror-themed would give it a pass in my book, and indeed the book of anyone who gives a something-or-other about the old Atari VCS.
Because it’s horror themed, dammit. And we love horror. Ah, but is it good? There are two ways to find out. One, read on. Two, plug in your 2600, attaching the coaxial cable to the antenna input on your television. The antenna input. You know, where the antenna connects — OK, an antenna is an archaic aluminum device that —
You know what? Just read on.
So many options, so little time
The first thing you might notice about Ghost Manor is that it has a title screen, which is itself rare enough for 1983. A boy and a girl are seen holding hands in a graveyard. In the distance a house — yes, a Ghost Manor — is visible. An amazing, ominous theme plays in the background. The screen wipes and your main character is deposited into the graveyard.
You’ve played some Atari in your day, and you know how this goes. One screen per game. No new levels. Just one thing over and over. This is a game about being in a graveyard.
To surmise in such a way, dear reader, would be a gross miscalculation, for Ghost Manor indeed features five unique levels — each of which, in all fairness, takes place on a single screen. These five levels may be altered by switching the positions of the difficulty switches. Different combinations of these switches affect everything from which characters you encounter to the enemy speed to whether or not you’re not foraging around, in some stages, in pitch black darkness. The possibilities are many.
Interestingly, this game allows you to choose whether you’re the boy rescuing the girl, or the girl rescuing the boy, depending on the placement of the console’s color/black & white switch. I suppose Xenox decided that no one still had a black and white television in 1983. Pretty P.C., in any case.
The moment the game starts, an hourglass seen at the top of the screen begins depleting. In the first stage, you run around the graveyard chasing either a ghost or a skeleton, depending on the difficulty switches. Every time you make contact, you gain one spear, to be used in the next stage. The ghost will not hurt you, but time is of the essence, so hurry the hell up and get your spears.
In the second stage, you find yourself outside the manor, in something of a shooting gallery. Ghost and ghouls of various shapes and sizes flutter around, guarding the manor (notably, a few floating skulls and the silhouette of some nefarious villain seen in an upstairs window). You must shoot all the ghosts to enter, but the baddie you really have to worry about is the axe wielding mummy at the bottom, who cannot be killed until you’ve nabbed all the other baddies. Even for a reanimated mummy, this guy’s not in a good mood. He follows you around and, if you’re too slow, chops you up.
The flying ghosts, bats and other assorted baddies can’t directly harm you, but again, time is of the essence, and some of them are quite tricky to shoot. Miss too many times and you run out of spears, making you easy prey for either the peeved mummy, or the sands of the hourglass.
The third stage of Ghost Manor takes place within the manor, in a room littered with coffins guarded by walls, and on large moving wall that will kill you quite dead. There is a staircase in the middle, and you want to take that, but first, you want to root around in coffins to get the crosses to ward off Dracula. This makes you a sitting duck for the moving wall, and this can be an intense endeavor on the more difficult settings, in which visibility is limited to flashes of lightening in the otherwise pitch black stage.
The fourth stage is further upstairs, and a similar room, with yet more coffins and a staircase to the tower (or back down to the previous room, but why?), where waits either your boyfriend or girlfriend, depending on the character you chose, guarded by Dracula. You must banish him to the tower on the right by blasting him with crosses.
Looks like Halloween
The graphics in Ghost Manor are outstanding. I’ve written elsewhere that, back in the 2600 days, if you character’s shirt was a different color than his pants, it was a big deal. By that rubric, the protagonists in Ghost Manor are a huge deal. Rendered in multiple colors and sporting hair or a hat depending on gender, your protagonist oozes style and knows it.
The opening scene, the graveyard with the manor out in the distance, is a thing of 8-bit beauty, and I have no idea how the programmers at Xonox managed to render the high-resolution castle given the hardware’s tendency to render rather blocky backdrops. The second level offers a close-up of the outer castle wall we had seen in the distance, and that looks great, from the pillars on either end to the windows through which we can see a mysterious silhouette running back and forth.
The rest of the scenes get the job done, but they really aren’t much to see by comparison. For good reason, I suppose. These levels are designed to be played in pitch black, with the occasional bolt of lightening revealing your surroundings. In fact, the bulk of the tension in Ghost Manor lies in clamoring around in the darkness for coffins and hoping the wall doesn’t smash you before you get out. So grow a pair and switch those difficulty switches to ‘A’.
Plenty of ghostly bang for your buck
Ghost Manor has a lot going for it. It doesn’t have the atmosphere and strategic less-is-more approach that made Haunted House so brilliant, but it definitely gets the job done if you want a dash of horror for your old Atari 2600.
Even if you get through the game once, you can go back and do it all again, either playing for score or tinkering with the difficulty switches to get different versions of the game. There’s no way you’ll get through every variation of this game. In fact, if you make it to the end of the hardest incarnation (both difficulty switches set to ‘A’), I will buy you a baby koala*.
If you’re cool enough to have a 2600 lying around, plug Ghost Manor in before tricks or treats. It’s worth it.
*Limitations may apply. Definition of “koala” subject to change without notice.
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