Grabbed by the Ghoulies: A Rare Disappointment

| |

By TE Tomaino on October 22nd, 2020


In Urban Dictionary, the word “ghoulies” is defined as: “Another name for testicals. Primarily used when a male is hit in the groin.” (Notice the spelling of the word “testicles”).

In Grabbed by the Ghoulies, however, the player controls Cooper Chance, as he runs through Baron Von Ghoul’s mansion filled with all things “ghoulish” in order to rescue, then later “restore” his manic pixie, Ramona Flowers girlfriend Amber, and escape. This beat ’em up, 3D puzzle-adventurer was developed by Banjo-Kazooie and UK masterminds, Rare for the original Xbox console. The game was initially developed for Nintendo’s Gamecube, but during its development, Microsoft requisitioned the beloved 3rd party developer and Rare became part of Xbox Game Studios. The result is less of a pun and more like a punt to the nuts as the title suggests.

I understand that video games hold a level of warm nostalgia that further heightens our love of them. I understand that all well and beautiful, as nostalgia drives innovation and our understanding of history. Childhood is mostly viewed culturally as a halo of innocence and brevity, like the items and people we were most attached to become brandished in our reflections. I also understand this because nostalgia is something I am fascinated with but at the same time, rose-tinted glasses worldview leads to living in the past and possessing something like an unfounded and confusing appreciation for someone say like, General Douglas MacArthur.

What I’m trying to say is that our memories and the objects associated with them are subjective to an individual experience; how you remember them. And since I have no nostalgic ties to Grabbed by the Ghoulies, I really have a lot of problems.

Rare’s Past Ghoulies

Grabbed by the Ghoulies follows many of Rare’s tried and true formulas. It operates like a “collect-a-thon”, where the player is set on a fixed track and sent off to collect items throughout a world or level, beating up baddies in their path. Many games during the mid-90s worked as “collect-a-thons” to show-off camera capabilities and further emulate a sense of a truly 3D world. Super Mario 64 was a premier example of this type of game, and, as a release title for the Nintendo 64 console, followed a structure that future console releases would strive to copy. Rare was already established as a “household” name, developing successful titles such as Battletoads (1991) and 1997’s “Granddaddy of all FPS”, 007. In 1998, with the release of Banjo-Kazooie, Rare would top their own record and perfect the precedent Super Mario 64 set for adventure games of the era. Honestly, I was more obsessed with Diddy Kong Racing (1997), but that’s a review for another time.

The REckoning

Grabbed by the Ghoulies was released as the developer’s admitted attempt to make the mechanics accessible to everyone, using only the left joystick to move Cooper and the right to kick and punch a slew of skeletons, ghoulies, mummies, vampires, wizards, more ghoulies, bigger ghoulies, your monsterized girlfriend Amber, and more. This makes for some pretty easy controls, as the player is not constantly trying to remember combinations to pull off certain moves, or mashing the buttons inconsistently cause they’re on auto-pilot. However, it is nearly impossible to land a hit. The detection is frustrating at best, Xbox-destroy inducing the next, and honestly influences the enjoyment of the game. Controls are stiff, as Cooper moves like a tank with his stupid frosted-tipped hair and surely a shell-necklace around his neck. I found myself often hitting walls and non-destroyable boxes, and getting stuck in corners with shoddy camera mechanics.

At one point during my playthrough, I placed Cooper directly underneath a mummy. The mummy continued to drag its leg in circles around Cooper, unable to attack. Another thing, Baron Von Ghoul’s stupid face appears on the top right corner of your screen as soon as you enter a different room, and takes away your life as a challenge. Hearing his cackle as your health goes down from fifty hearts to twenty is infuriating, especially when a player is kicking in the air opposite of the enemy because Cooper will not turn in the direction pressed.

The story doesn’t matter. The player doesn’t care about Cooper and Cooper seems to be reluctant to even be controlled. I personally loathed the Butler, Crivens, that is constantly interrupting to give instructions, even though there are only two buttons in the game. Crivens also makes this like, terrible butler, old man noise that I can’t describe, but is an unnecessary waste of a sound bit. The narrative is split like panels of a comic book and it’s cringe to sit through and experience, resulting in skipped cut-scenes and loss of any semblance in the story as the player makes their way through the antagonist’s mansion and surrounding property.

The Ressurection

The background and character designs, however, are light-hearted and fun and certainly are choice for a game geared at all things children’s Halloween. Many of the characters you meet, such as the chef and the groundskeeper, remind me of characters in a Wallace and Gromit short, but how their almost cel-shaded designs work with the sets of uneven lines and knick-knacks in the background design is charming and absolutely specific to this game only. The element of surprise when the player must quickly mash the buttons in order as they appear on the screen whenever Cooper is frightened is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. This game element even gets harder to complete as the game continues, as the puzzles and challenges in each stage also progressively test the player’s patience and dedication.

It’s obvious a lot of love went into Grabbed by the Ghoulies, from developer interviews to the nods of other Rare games sprinkled throughout. It is also interesting to note, despite its previously mentioned influences, this title really attempts to recreate Zombie’s Ate My Neighbors or Splatterhouse with its elements of beat ’em up mixed with a horror-lore, for a new millennium of gamers. Rare had successfully done this with past titles, so naturally would consider this game to be just as revolutionary.

However, Grabbed by the Ghoulies is one of Rare’s more revolting games, an aged-nostalgic blunder akin to schoolyard sack taps.

Grabbed by the Ghoulies is quirky in both design and attempt at recreating gameplay for a new generation of consoles. However, this is not enough to warranted being grabbed by the nuts, I mean, ghoulies, as the game suggests, as it is borderline unplayable in both controls and detection.

TE is a nostalgia-fueled writer, editor, educator, and gamer from Asbury Park, New Jersey. Follow her on ig @thatkissthatkid or @retroanimetropes.


Horror for Hard Times: Why PS1 Nostalgia is Here to Stay

Creating Something Crazy in Devil May Cry