Saturday, October 31, 2009

Oddities: Halloween

It's Halloween!  A perfect time to take a look at Wizard Video's 1983 Atari 2600 game, based on the classic John Carpenter movie that spawned a long line of sequels and remakes.

The game casts the player as heroic babysitter Laurie Strode, played by Jamie Lee Curtis in the movie.  Her goal is to keep herself and the children in her care alive, under constant assault by The Shape, a.k.a. Michael Myers, on the original "night he came home."

The screenshot below lays out the basic elements of play.  There are two floors to the house; some rooms have doors that allow Laurie to move to a room on the other floor.  The children run screaming along the lower section of each floor, and Laurie can capture and escort them to safety at either end of the house by pressing the fire button.  The Shape attacks by simply making contact with Laurie or a child, killing his victim instantly with his constantly swinging butcher knife, as shown here:

The Shape's appearances are accompanied by a decent (by 2600 standards) two-part-harmony rendition of the classic Carpenter-composed Halloween theme; the console's beepy sine-wave audio sounds perfectly appropriate here, as he springs suddenly from the side of the screen or through an inconveniently-placed doorway.

Laurie can occasionally maneuver around Myers by moving up or down at the last second, countering his trajectory and running past him, but her best shot at defense is to pick up the knives that appear randomly throughout the house.  Each is good for one attack that will briefly send The Shape running offscreen.  Of course, much of the time a knife is visible, but not accessible from the current room.  The house map is not random, so once the player is familiar with the layout, Laurie has a shot at retrieving it in time, if she stays calm and doesn't lose her head:

Points are earned for warding off The Shape with a good stab; more points are earned for escorting the children to safety.  But like most games of this era, there's no victory condition or genuine ending.  Laurie can rescue the kids (who promptly return to the danger zone) and avoid The Shape for quite a while, racking up a high score -- but eventually, her three lives are exhausted, and the indestructible Michael Myers lives on.

Halloween is a pretty good game by the standards of its time -- the sprites are multi-colored, large and flicker-free, no mean feat on the Atari 2600, and the gameplay gets pretty intense, encouraging the player to go for those near-misses every time The Shape appears.  This and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were Wizard's only video game releases, but both are unique and worth taking a look at.  Halloween wasn't nearly as controversial as Chainsaw, however, since despite the spurting blood, the player still gets to be the hero.

Happy Halloween!

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