NOTE: Pardon the lateness! Things have been a bit stressful on my end, but the show must go on!
Like many children in the 1990s, there weren’t too many book series that really garnered my attention. One of the many exceptions was a certain youth-oriented horror series by R.L. Stine, who was already famous for the “Fear Street” series (aimed towards Teenagers). Of course, I’m referring to the Goosebumps books. They were fun, creepy, and usually pretty campy. At times ,the scariest parts about the stories were the at-times graphic cover images. Despite how silly many view the books nowadays, one couldn’t help but admire the incredible following the books had in the 1990s through the early 2000s. While there have been attempts at recapturing that bit of lightning in a bottle with series like “Goosebumps Horrorland”, the massive explosion of popularity will match up to such a huge phenomenon. Considering the series was pretty much everywhere, countless bits of merchandise popped up all over. This included shirts, toys, a television adaptation, and even a laughable stage adaptation (that was thankfully short lived.) While some parts of the popularity boom sucked (including waves of imitators), others were truly memorable for many reasons!
However, I’m not here to talk about those things so much as one of the video games adapted as a sequel of sorts to “One Day at Horrorland”, the story of the Morris family trying to survive a demented amusement park ran by deranged monsters. Needless to say, the family escapes from wicked rides and a diabolic game show before one of the monsters offers them tickets for another visit! The game picks up afterwards where those tickets have magically showed up again. Against better judgement, Lizzy Morris (from the original story) decides to study them, only for their dark magick to take its toll and abduct the whole family (and Cole, a neighborhood friend) back to Horrorland! Grab a ticket and join me on this thrill ride!
Escape from Horrorland is a 1996 point-and-click adventure game for the Windows 95. However, if you’re good enough with tech, you can retrofit it to work on newer systems. This game utilized full motion video technology, which was by then infamous for being more than a stylized gimmick; typically wrought with bad acting, grainy visuals, and little interactivity. However, Horrorland blends this technology with live-action props, models, CGI, and other stuff to create some truly awesome visuals. The FMV setting transitions are wonderfully animated (for their time) and provide a sense of movement and life to the game. While the FMV bits with the characters are corny, they blend in fairly well with the model set pieces and animated backgrounds. Not to mention, even though the visuals look pretty dated bu modern standards, this take on Horrorland drips with eerie atmosphere.
Unlike the darkly humorous park featured in both the novel and television adaptation this game is based on, the world of the PC game is a grim and gothic looking one. Dark shadows and muted colors create a stark palette really animates the ramshackle buildings, foreboding structures, and dreary environments. As I’ve mentioned in my look into Bloodborne, I’m a true sucker for that kind of visual world building. The various environments each carry their unique sense of dread, through the visuals alone. Werewolf village looks like an old world town quite similar to country lands found in An American Werewolf in London and The Wolfman. Meanwhile, Vampire village (OF DOOM) has sprawling gothic architecture that stand tall with intimidating menace.
Beyond the creepy landscapes, the game itself had plenty of “nightmare fuel” dripping from it. Or, at least it did in the eyes of countless children playing this back in ’96 (and later I suppose.) One of the scenes that truly got me as a kid was the return to Werewolf village. Not only did you have to deal with the town on fire (and your friends possibly being killed in said fire), but the werewolf from before will ambush you if you try to leave. On top of that, there’s a loud rap-tap-tapping in the butcher shop’s freezer door. While you get a moment to catch breath when you find out Lizzy was locked there (and you just happened to be there to let her out), the werewolf returns for another ambush. This results in being chased by it through the woods. Another moment to haunt kids everywhere is the boss battle with the Mummy. Likely due to the limited technology, the mummy looks uncanny and really twitchy. Considering he’s beating up on you while you desperately try to scare him away with fire, the scene can be quite nerve wracking for a small kid. Even after you defeat him, he gets you one final time with a jump scare to boot. Man, what an asshole. But what’s worse than that is the Underworld that’s below Horrorland itself! It’s accessed through sliding down the massive holes that are supposed to be trashcans. At the bottom, you’re in a Windows Maze Screensaver populated by nightmarish beasties this side of hell. You’re completely defenseless against these bastards as you’re likely to wet your 7 year old trousers trying to escape these guys. Now, a clever mind could try to trap the monsters, but most kids will probably freak out at the mid-90s equivalent of Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Now, if you think that’s all the game has to offer, there’s plenty where that came from.
With the world of Goosebumps, there’s always a delightful sense of dark and goofy humor involved. While it doesn’t contain the same level of silliness often associated with the books, there were plenty of really fun moments that remind the audience we shouldn’t always take RL’s books THAT seriously. After all, the aforementioned werewolf chase ends with a springing “boing” sound as a rope trap whisks the werewolf away like a cartoon character. It’s great timed comic relief with an otherwise nightmarish sequence. The transmogrifying experiment pays off the disturbing kidnapping note left by the game’s main villain. While a desperate situation, Luke the wisecracking younger brother chuckles at Lizzy as she’s turned into a wide variety of nasty monsters before returning to being human again. Also, the oafish “Stump” is a charming monster character who you occasionally bump into throughout the game. Of course, there’s more to him than being silly, but you’ll figure it out soon enough. And on the subject of unusual, the game cast Jeff Goldblum as dracula. It’s something that has to be seen in order for one to believe! (Please pardon the terrible quality of the video. I didn’t make it myself, I only found it.) Of course, there’s tons of charming jokes and gags, but I don’t want to spoil them all.
In terms of gameplay, it’s pretty simple point-and-click. Puzzles aren’t too hard, involving matching images, collecting items, and gaining hints through cards and talking stone faces. The excuse to have a currency in this game is Horrorland Tokens. While they were probably implemented with something else in mind, they act as both health force. You can also trade them in for clues (as mentioned above.) Beyond that, there’s isn’t too much to them. Like most adventure games of this type, most of the fun comes from scouring the area and looking for all kinds of interesting secrets. Among them is the ability to draw on the walls with a can of “paint.”
On top of some pretty enjoyable adventure gameplay, there was quite a bit of talent to back up this game. For one, Steven Spielberg himself expressed interest in teaming up with Stine to make the game a reality. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the FMV content isn’t horrible (compared to many other full motion games of that age.) On top of that, you have the likes of Isabella Rossellini (known for Blue Velvet), Adam Wylie (known for voice overs in Hey Arnold and Winx Club), Eric Lloyd (known for playing Charlie in the Santa Clause movies), and Jeff Goldblum (too many movies and the like to count!) I have a feeling Rossellini and Goldblum joined production as a favor to Spielberg after all of them worked on Jurassic park, but that’s just a hunch.
Despite a great world with tons of scares and equal amount of fun, the writing in the game gets a little bit whacky. And by whacky, I mean in both a good and a bad way. The plot is simple, help Lizzy free Luke and Clay. After that, help track down the Morris parents and stop Madison Storm, the maniac behind this twisted theme park! That said, the means of getting from beginning to end felt a little wonky sometimes. I kinda wish Stump had a few more appearances beyond plot purposes. Just throw him in for 1 or 2 silly moments besides being a plot device, but that’s no biggie for me. Also, the finale before the ending kinda bugs me. After our villain gives an elaborate speech (complete with a variety of monsters eating the scenery as well), one of the kids magically does the thing that the baddie told them they couldn’t do. There’s no real explanation why, besides lazy writing. Considering the game had a pretty decent plot before that, it’s kind of disappointing. I’m sure that even as kids, they could pick up how rushed that felt. Plus, the very same kid accidentally makes the park go ka-boom… It’s something I’m willing to slightly overlook, as the rest of the game remains just as fun for me as it did then. At the the branching endings are delightfully weird and make up for the plot convenience.
All in all, it’s a pretty short but charming classic gem from “back in the day.” It’s silly, surreal, and pretty creepy at times. And in a rare instance, it uses FMV in a way that adds to its oddball charm without feeling too tacked on or just being a barely interactive movie with buttons. If you can dig it up in a yard sale and can manage to get it to work, give this old game a try.
On a final note, why hasn’t the internet dug up “Count Goldblum” in his absolutely campy (and really disturbing) glory? Seriously, I think the web needs to be exposed to the absurdity of that cameo!