"GHOSTS are EVERYWHERE!" So says the blurb on the inlay card of this new release from Weird Science Software - and it's your job to stop them. They've been in exile for twenty years, but now the ghosts are back to haunt some old castles because... well, that's what ghosts do, don't they? Tackling the apparitions head-on, you visit each of the locations to capture them with your magic lamp, one by one. Only when these imprisoned phantoms are dragged via the lamp into a wooden box can you finally bring death to the undead. Once you've fully exorcised a castle, you move onto the next location. But beware: each new castle you visit is more heavily populated by ghosts than the one before, and you only have a limited amount of time to clear them all...
There are two versions of the game: the free download version, which is reviewed here, and a special edition that uses a 256K ROM extension, giving more levels and speech. It also enables you to use the G-Tech interface for analogue joystick control. WSS rightly believe that this offers potential for new and different experiences in Spectrum gaming. Hopefully other developers will take up the challenge and consider programming for it - we shall see.
Ghost Castles certainly gives a good first impression. Upon the game loading, you are greeted by a fairly disturbing sampled scream that could well convince you that your Spectrum is possessed. The ominous flickering options screen alternating with a high score table dripping with blood maintains the general air of spookiness. You are given a wide range of joystick/keyboard options as well as a choice of one or two player mode. Up to this point, you would be forgiven for thinking that you were about to play a horror-themed arcade adventure, perhaps styled after Ultimate's legendary Atic Atac or maybe CRL's fine Spectrum version of The Rocky Horror Show. And you would be wrong, because Ghosts Castles is basically an extremely simplistic single screen affair that plays like one of those freeware mouse-controlled Java games.
Imagine looking at the desktop screen on your PC, and you see some files that you want to dispose of in your Recycle Bin. The only trouble is, the files are moving randomly around the screen, so you have to chase them with your mouse arrow, catch them and drag them over to the Recycle Bin icon. If you substitute files for ghosts, a joystick for a mouse and the Recycle Bin for a wooden chest graphic, you have the basic gameplay mechanic of Ghost Castles. It couldn't be easier to understand, and the magic lamp that you control only needs to touch the ghost to capture it - there is no need for the fire button in this game. The main portion of the screen has the play area, and to the left or right you have icons showing the amount of ghosts captured on this stage, a score counter and an energy wave at the bottom of the screen which in effect is a time limit. The single shaded ghosts move slowly but smoothly enough around the screen. The lamp graphic is very small, looking more like a target in a first person shooter rather than an actual physical object, and I don't understand why they didn't make it larger.
The background locations have little direct influence on the game, but at least the splashes of colour they have do not cause any camouflaging effects with the ghost sprites. However, these digitised pictures of castle walls don't appeal too much to me, especially when compared to the warmer, more varied locations in Elite's brilliant Spectrum conversion of Bomb Jack. Sound is punctual and effective; a loud squak upon completing a stage, a satisfying thud when a ghost is pushed into the chest, and the odd buzz here and there all made via the beeper - the free version is a 48K Spectrum game, so the AY chip is not used and there is no music.
The first few stages are too easy, and it will only take a couple of goes to get to stage five. In an apparent attempt to rack up the difficulty, WSS make a crucial error at this point in the design of the game: they decide to make stage five the same as stage four, but upside down. Not only is the screen inverted, the controls are reversed, so up means down and left means right. We can ignore the fact that in terms of the game storyline, this makes no sense whatsoever. What we can't ignore is how crude a method of suddenly increasing the difficulty this turns out to be. It's effective but dumb, as was my method of getting round it - I simply turned my joystick upside-down as well! Which means that not only is this stage unnecessary, it's ineffective too.
No one can doubt that the WSS team are skilled programmers. They know how to present an idea, but the idea itself just isn't strong enough. The truth is that Ghost Castles never really catches fire, and the reason for that is quite simply the game isn't all that fun to play. It amounts to little more than dragging a small icon over a ghost sprite, moving it down to the old chest and... repeat until fade. There is no real strategy or rhythm and it all ends up feeling a bit dull. The co-operative two player mode adds some interest if you can find another player (the computer mode is a bit pointless), but it will only temporarily hide the lack of genuine playability. In short, Ghost Castles is a reasonable attempt at a different sort of arcade game, but is ultimately lacking that indefinable 'oomph' that would truly scare off the competition.