There’s a fine line between horror and comedy, which is probably why there a lot more horror-comedy movies than there are horror-espionage thrillers. Perhaps it’s because so many scary things are, in concept, deeply goofy, or maybe that some things in this world are so terrible that the only possible response is laughter. Sometimes things shoot for horror but fall off that narrow tightrope and land on the comedy side. Konami’s 2004 extreme agoraphobia simulator Silent Hill 4: The Room, the fourth entry in what was (up until this point) probably the most terrifying of all videogame franchises, is supposed to be a horror game. Occasionally it accomplishes this, and in some ways it might be the most traditionally “spooky” of all the Silent Hill games. The first-person apartment sections are very effective, certainly – making me not want to go back and save my game because the kitchen sink is haunted, for instance. However, Silent Hill 4 is also very amusing to me. I genuinely find it really, really funny, and today’s article is about why that is.Before I begin, a couple of disclaimers: there’ll be a lot of spoilers for Silent Hill 4, so if you’re planning on playing it yourself just bear this in mind. Also, a sense of humour is a very personal thing, so if you don’t agree and think SH4 is properly terrifying please don’t think I’m judging you. Anyway, let’s get started.

Perpetually Underwhelmed

The protagonist of Silent Hill 4 is one Henry Townshend, and he’s not very interesting. Unlike the first three game in the series, and especially Silent Hill 2, the story of the game isn’t about him. He’s just some poor schlub who happened to move into an evil apartment. It doesn’t help that Henry doesn’t have much to say about the bizarre events unfolding around him, and when he does speak he delivers all his lines in the same sleepy drawl, the voice of a child that’s just been woken up after a long car trip. The best example of this comes near the beginning of the game, when Henry finds a woman who’s been brutally and repeatedly stabbed.

I know that doesn’t sound like a recipe for comedy, but Henry reacts by asking the woman drawing her agonising last breath “are you okay?” in the same tone you’d use to ask someone who’d just stubbed their toe if they were okay. What’s that, Henry? Is the person bleeding all over the place okay? Yes, I’m sure she’s just dandy. The only way this could be more amusing is if Henry said “I’ll go and get a towel” in an exasperated manner.

Extreme Hoarders

Reacting to weird happenings in a surprisingly uninterested manner is a common theme throughout Silent Hill 4, and another wonderful example is when Henry’s neighbour and the apartment building’s superintendent try to get into his room.

The superintendent muses that Henry’s room has a history of weird occurrences, and that there are a lot of strange things in the world. Then, as casually as one might mention the purchase of a new kitchen appliance, he says that the umbilical cord he keeps in a box in his room has started to smell terrible recently. Oh, has it? Well, if you will keep in in a regular old box then hang on, what the hell are you talking about?! That’s a super-weird thing to mention, old man, and it’s definitely something you should either keep to yourself or make more of a big deal of. It’s a line that comes so completely out of nowhere that I refuse to believe there’s anyone who didn’t give at least a chuckle when they first heard it. Of course, the superintendent is heavily implied to be the father of Silent Hill 2 protagonist James, so being bonkers must be a family trait.

The Amazing Rubber Man

At one point during the game, a man falls from a considerable height and lands on concrete. Don’t worry, though, he’s fine.

It looks like a painful landing, and it was. You know this because Richard, the character in question, says “Ouch! Dammit!” when he lands. So it hurts about as much as a paper cut, then? Because that’s what his dialogue suggests. I know Silent Hill is all about strange pocket universes where the normal rules of nature don’t apply, but come on.  Silent Hill 4’s habit of being understated to the point of absurdity strikes again, and it’s always good for a laugh.

What’s In A Name?

One of the weapons you can collect in Silent Hill 4 is the Pickaxe of Despair.

It’s a pickaxe. It has “Despair” written on the handle. That’s it.

The Shovel Shimmy

Speaking of weapons, here’s Henry’s running animation when he’s got the spade equipped:

I don’t have anything particularly deep or interesting to say about this, just that Henry’s jaunty, sashaying gait is a pleasure to watch. It’s half catwalk model and half kid who’s just got a new shovel and is running to try it out in the sandpit. It’s nice to see that the horrors of Silent Hill haven’t broken Henry’s carefree spirit just yet.

At Least They’re Not Mobility Scooters

Wheelchairs are a prominent recurring motif in the Silent Hill games, usually dotted around to serve as a grim reminder of illness and debilitation. Not so in Silent Hill 4: in this game, the wheelchairs are fed up of being, ah ha ha, pushed around. They’ve risen up, ready to strike back against those who would use them.

This, of course, completely eliminates any creepiness factor they once possessed, reducing them to laughable rattling irritations that engender as much terror as a shopping trolley with a wonky wheel. Did I mention that they’re haunted wheelchairs, so much so that they can hurt Henry simply by being near him? How spooky. Still, this ghostly energy doesn’t seem to be nearly as painful as when they crash into Henry’s shins, which probably would be quite painful. My favourite – that is, the goofiest – thing about them is that they do a little wheelie whenever they turn around. They’re haunted and radical.

A Very Unattractive Light Fitting?

Amongst the small moments of mirth that make up Silent Hill 4, you shouldn’t overlook the fact that even for a Silent Hill game the plot is utterly bananas. Walter Sullivan, the game’s antagonist, is a case in point: he is spurred to action by the belief that his literal birth mother is a one-bedroom flat. I know Walter was raised by an evil cult in the middle of the woods and their biology classes are unlikely to pass an Ofsted inspection, but that shows a shocking lack of education. Everyone knows that apartments lay clutches of ten to thirteen eggs at a time.
Anyway, the upshot of this bizarre storyline is that someone needs to explain it, a task that falls to Joseph, previous tenant of Henry’s haunted home. How does Joseph give this vital information?

By appearing as a ghostly head and shoulders that pops out of the ceiling, upside down and monologuing. When Eileen sees this, she says “it’s him?” Him who? Mr. Upside-Down Bald Exposition Ghost Man? That’s the only reaction that either of the two main characters can muster, even when Joseph starts repeating “kill… kill… kill...” over and over. You know, it’s hard to warm to characters who respond to these kinds of events with absolutely no interest or emotion. You just can’t empathise with them. If a ghost stuck its head out of my living room wall and started telling me to kill people, at the very least I’d have to have a sit down and a strong cup of tea.

Googly Eyes

Ah yes, Eileen. Silent Hill 4’s second main character and a ruddy great anchor that drains the fun right out of the second half of the game. About halfway through the game Walter attempts to kill her but fails, and from then on Henry has to escort her through the dangerous environments, protecting her and (most infuriatingly) waiting for her to catch up to you after you’ve run somewhere. It’s one long escort mission, and if you do play through SH4 then by the end you’ll have said “come on, Eileen!” more times than Kevin Rowland.  Just before you pick her up, though, you visit a spooky corridor in a spooky hospital that’s lined with small rooms filled with what I can only describe as “spooky junk.” Here’s what’s in one of those rooms.

Yep, it’s Eileen’s giant head. All it does is sit there, staring at Henry and making weird sex noises. Now, I know there are people out there who found this scene quite frightening, and I’m not going to diminish that because a sense of fear is as subjective as a sense of humour. Unless you’re some kind of super-nerd who’s only scared because a girl’s looking at you, in that case I might make a little bit of fun. I can find no terror in Eileen’s giant head, however, only laughter. It’s a case of it being “here is a scary thing!” rather than the carefully-constructed horror of earlier SH games, but mostly it’s those eyes that make it funny, jiggling around like Mr. Blobby being throttled. If you walk right up to the head, you can make it go cross-eyed. If you are scared of Eileen’s giant head, I suggest you do walk up to it. It’ll definitely relieve some of the tension.

Voice-Over by Barney Gumble

The hospital is also where Henry has his first encounter with the Patient enemies. That’s patient as in someone receiving medical care, they’re not happy to wait for you to come to them. No, they’ll head straight for Henry and try to bash his head in with a metal pipe, and I’m fairly certain it’s not supposed to be an ironic nickname. The Patients are mostly uninteresting monsters that lack any deep symbolism – I mean, I’m sure Henry is scared of having his skull cracked open, but so is everyone else – but they do have one quirk, a quirk which might well be the most famous thing about SH4.

When you hit a Patient, they burp. Their “pain” sound effect is one hundred percent, unequivocally that of a human belch. Of all the possible noise they could have used, the developers of Silent Hill 4 saw fit to have these creatures sound like me after slamming down a can of Coke. What a bizarre, baffling design choice. It gets better, though. The Patients burp every time they get hit, and at one point you can knock them down a staircase, their excess gas singing forth ever time they hit a step. You can see – and more importantly hear - the effect in action in this video, which I suggest you watch because it puts forth the strongest case for my argument that Silent Hill 4 is actually hilarious.

Haunted Shoes

Lastly, here’s the opposite of the burping Patients: something that probably only amuses me, but by heck it doesn’t half tickle me. The thing in question is Henry’s shoes.

That’s right, Henry, your shoes. You can examine Henry’s shoes at various points in the game, and the description will change as you progress.

Here, for instance, Henry can’t remember when and where he bought his shoes. I’d venture “at a shoe shop” and “in the past,” but I guess he wants to be more specific than that.

Yes, Henry, they’re your shoes. Even if you didn’t purchase them yourself, that means they belong to the apartment’s previous occupant, and as you’re locked inside by an otherworldly serial killer and the previous tenant is a ghost and therefore has little need for comfortable loafers, I think you’re safe to lay claim to them.

Oh no, the shoes are from Silent Hill! They’re cursed! They’re the physical manifestation of Henry’s fear of fallen arches! Is that what’s going on here? Is Silent Hill 4 trying to make Henry’s shoes seem scary? You know, I think it is. Well, it doesn’t bloody work. They’re shoes! At one point in the game game, Henry’s shoes can become possessed, but all they do is shuffle into the kitchen leaving behind bloody footprints, which is far more adorable than it is terrifying. Man, spooky shoes. What will they think of next? Oh right, Silent Hill: Homecoming, Shattered Memories, Book of Memories and pachinko machines. Put in that context, Silent Hill 4 is a masterpiece.

There you go, then. Silent Hill 4 makes me laugh more than pretty much any game purposely designed to be funny. I’m assuming all this humour is unintentional, at least: the product of poor voice acting direction and exuberant weirdness, and not a stealth comedy. Ironically, Silent Hill 4 is one of the few games in the series not to have a joke ending, but in a game about fighting burping monsters while a man tries to kill people to wake up his mum-apartment, where the hell else could you go with it?



It’s Halloween season, and what could be more bone-chilling than a Famicom game developed by TOSE? How about one that’s mixed up with the terrifying power of Jaleco to release extremely mediocre games? Ohh, spooky! So, here we go – it’s TOSE and Jaleco’s 1987 Famicom game Youkai Club!

Here’s the title screen, rendered in English thanks to the fine work of some fan-translators. Not that there’s much text in this one to translate, it’s very much focussed on the platforming and the monster-slaying and vast reams of prose are not Youkai Club’s style.
Youkai, of course, refers to the panoply of Japanese ghosts, spirits and monsters that are known under that umbrella. There’s also a youkai that is an umbrella, although sadly that particular creature doesn’t pop up in this game. Nowadays youkai are probably most familiar to people via the runaway success of Yo-kai Watch, but there aren’t any cuddly cat friends in this game. What it does have is the Grim Reaper, floating around the title screen like someone trying to remember where they left their car keys. The Grim Reaper isn’t a youkai, which is a good sign in my book. I like a good mix of monsters. A monster mash, if you will.

Youkai Club is a game concerned only with rip-roaring high-stakes action – I assume that was the intention, at least, even if it doesn’t exactly pan out that way – and so it doesn’t bother with anything so banal as an intro. Instead, when you hit start you’re only shown a screen telling you what level you’re about to enter. I wonder why it’s called Face Mansion?

Oh, right, all the faces. Not the wallpaper choice I would have made, but perhaps I’m too parochial in my interior design tastes. The face part of the name is accurate, but the mansion part is way off, because this is just a big, blocky tower with the odd small room sticking off the side.
As you can probably guess, Youkai Club is an action-adventure game, full of platforming and throwing projectiles at monsters. You play as Akira, a hot-blooded young man wearing a red tracksuit, and his special power is the ability to throw three knives at a time about six feet in front of him. It doesn’t sound all that impressive, but it seems to be doing a good job of eliminating these bats and snakes. You will notice that bats and snakes are not youkai. Three screens in, and I’ve already been lied to. I bet they’re not even in a club, either.

Ah hah, that’s more like it – this room is haunted by a floating female ghost. I think she might be a yuki-onna, but Japan has such a wide and varied buffet of creepy ghost women that it’s difficult to narrow it down. She might be a ghost, but for some reason she’s still vulnerable to the cold steel of Akira’s knives, so she’s hardly the most menacing foe I’ve ever faced.
When you kill pretty much any enemy in Youkai Club, they’ll drop an item, almost always a small red pellet. These pellets add to your experience meter. That’s what I’m told they do, anyway, because I collected a lot of them during the game and never once did I see my experience bar move after grabbing one. Oh yes, Youkai Club has an experience system, because finding a Japanese Famicom game that doesn’t have “RPG elements” attached to it is a surprisingly difficult proposition. Later on, I’ll find something that actually get the experience bar moving, but for now I’m stuck picking up the pittance offered by the red pellets. One problem is that a lot of the enemies in this game can float through the scenery, what with being ghosts and all, and you’ll often end up killing them while they’re in the walls and thus you can’t grab the items they leave behind.

There’s not much else to the rest of the first stage, just Akira bouncing his way up the tower and stabbing the various monsters he finds. This small goblin is trying to get his stabbing in first, but he’d have to run right up to me and frankly I’d already decided to ignore him. Goodbye, stabby goblin. You can go and tell your goblin friends that you have emerged triumphant in a great battle, if you like.

Waiting at the top of the tower is this blasphemous wizard, and to perpetuate a tired old joke, that’d make a great name for a metal band. Anyway, the man with the cross on his chest is your typical first boss, not doing much besides waddling around at the bottom of the screen, cursing his lack of peripheral vision and flinging the odd fireball in Akira’s general direction. Fortunately the wizard has installed some shelves but hasn’t got around to filling them with his evil knick-knacks, so Akira has somewhere to stand where the boss has trouble hitting him.

Stage two is the monster forest, packed with flying oni / tengu things and what appear to be sponge fingers sticking out of the ground. Hopefully there’ll be a twist at the end of the stage that reveals Akira’s been fighting his way through a giant trifle this whole time.

The first miniboss in this stage is a ghostly woman who pops out of a well, so it looks like we’ve got a prequel to Ring on our hands. Obviously Sadako Senior here can’t sit Akira down and force him to watch a cursed videotape, so instead she throws lots of… things at him. What are those things, anyway? Pebbles? Severed human ears? Let’s go with ears, because it’s the spookiest option. Of course, that doesn’t explain why the ears hurt when they hit you. If ears were painful to the touch, the sides of your head would always be sore.
As for actually beating this boss, I found the best way was to jump up right next to her on the well and attack as fast as possible. She’ll run out of health before you do. This turns out to be the best way to beat most of the bosses in the game: find the spot that lets you take the least damage and stand there chucking knives.

These rock monsters are pretty adorable, bumbling around in a manner the brings to mind marshmallows rather than time-worn boulders of granite. I’d say the enemy designs are the best thing about Youkai Club, with a wide variety of small, simple but charmingly drawn creatures. Certainly, they’re a good enough reason for Youkai Club to appear in this year’s Halloween Spooktacular, even if the stages themselves aren’t all that sinister for the most part.

For instance, check out this grotty ghoul. I have no idea if it’s supposed to be anything specific – it looks a bit like a Zora from Zelda that fell into a basket of mousetraps – but it’s so endearingly ugly that I almost felt bad about sticking knives in it.

Sadly not every monster can be a hit, and the boss of the monster forest is this angular leonine vampire thing that stands in the middle of the room and gets various monsters to do his dark bidding, the lazy sod. You have to shoot him in the eyes to damage him, but as you can see his eyes aren’t always there so you’ve got to spend most of the fight avoiding the flaming dogs and such. It’s not much fun, truth be told, but happily I’d managed to get Akira’s experience bar up far enough that his knives have been replaced by small projectiles I can only describe as “energy croissants.” That sped things along a little.

The next stage begins with a more platforming-focussed area, with narrow pits and jets of flame waiting to knock you down said pits. In true Jaleco tradition, Akira’s controls and jumping physics are resolutely “decent enough.” Your jumps are a little floaty, especially at the top of your arc, and sometime Akira interacts with the scenery in a slightly strange manner. It’s especially noticeable when you’re jumping through a narrow corridor, because Akira’s head will “stick” to the ceiling and you slide along for a while in defiance of gravity. It’s not terrible, though, and it’s at least consistent. The bigger issue is that Akira slides so far backwards when he takes damage, and unlike Castlevania (the game Youkai Club most resembles in many ways) there’s no way to mitigate the knockback. I’d estimate a good eighty percent of the deaths I suffered in this game were caused by a floating skull or some other nasty thing bumping me off a one-block-wide pillar.

I should make it clear that the stages in Youkai Club aren’t linear, but there’s not much exploring to be done because the stages are mostly one big, “main” area with smaller rooms to explore at various intervals. As the game progresses, the entrances to these smaller rooms become less and less obvious, but the stages never really get confusing or anything. There are a few strange moments where you can’t progress until you’ve been into one of the side rooms, but there’s no visible obstruction: you just can’t scroll the screen until you’ve stood in the right place. All in all, it’s an unusual way to gate progress but thankfully it doesn’t lead to much frustration.

The final section of this stage is a jaunt across the clouds. You jump between the clouds, and sometimes an orange cloud appears. Beware of the orange clouds, because they’re made of that really dense water vapour that can push Akira off the platforms. There’s also the tengu to watch out for. That white thing up there, the thing that looks like a diagram of a uterus turned on its side, is actually a gust of wind that the tengu has wafted at me by swinging his fan. Given what I said earlier about falling off narrow platforms, it should come as no surprise that these tengu gradually got bumped up from “annoying” to “hated nemesis” during the course of the game.

The boss of this stage is the Japanese Shinto god of wind Fuujin, complete with his big sack of wind. Feel free to insert your own Donald Trump / Nigel Farage / politician of choice joke here. A bag seems like terrible receptacle for wind, doesn’t it? It’s going to be difficult to keep airtight, you need a jar with a screw-on lid or something. By the way, I was looking up Fuujin and it’s theorised that he was originally, before a long period of cultural assimilation thanks to ancient travellers on the Silk Road, the Greek god Boreas. I’m telling you this because it’s far more interesting than anything that happens in this fight.
With Fuujin defeated, Youkai Club prepares to take Akira to Bone Town.

Because everything’s made out of bones, you see. Why, what did you think I meant?

Oh, neat, a classic western-style witch has appeared to increase the Halloween mood. You know, I’ve come to appreciate witches – both the cute variants but more specifically the traditional hag-like kind – as Halloween monsters a lot more in recent years. I put it down to spending so much time with old people. Anyway, the witches are a good example of what I mean about Youkai Club’s monster sprites being particularly enjoyable. If you look closely at the witch’s face you can see it’s just a white shape with a single diagonal line of black pixels, but that’s all it needs to create the hooked nose and pointed chin of a real cauldron-stirring, newt-de-eyeballing witch.

It’s the Grim Reaper from the title screen, having become so fed up of waiting for the other monsters (or gravity) to finish Akira off that he’s come to the mortal realm to do the job himself. It’s a shame for him that he’s not very good at it, then. You know the standard battle against Death from most Castlevania games? Imagine that, but slower and without all the small projectile sickles flying around the screen, and you’ve got a good idea of what this fight is like. Stand on one of the platforms, tap the fire button, hope you’ve got enough health. The best thing about the fight is that the Reaper always moves towards Akira with his back facing towards his target, so it looks like he’s moonwalking everywhere.

Next up is Dharma Castle, and I’ve got to be honest, it’s a boring stage. There’s nothing new to it and it’s mostly made of haphazardly-arranged blocks in various shades of grey, the colour of excitement. So, instead I’ll take a moment to talk about Youkai Club’s power-ups. There are two kinds: ones that you use as soon as you grab them, and some that you store away as inventory items to use when you need them. The regular power-ups cover the usual run of effects: health refills, temporary invincibility (complete with a hideously ugly palette-shifting effect), a speed-up, books that give your experience bar a big boost, that kind of thing. Then there are the four inventory items. You’ve got a flashlight that stuns all enemies on screen for a while, a bomb that deals damage to all enemies on screen and is best saved for boss battles, a pair of stylin’ sunglasses that let you see and kill a certain type of semi-invisible monster, and the hand. As soon as I picked a hand up I tried it out, naturally. It didn’t seem to do anything, but it did disappear out of my inventory. Oh well, I’m sure it’s not important, he foreshadowed.

The stage is guarded by this walking daruma doll. His main method of attack is sending smaller daruma dolls to roll along the floor after you. He generates these mini-minions by grabbing his midriff and pulling it apart to reveal a gaping orifice from which his children are nightmarishly disgorged. This makes the daruma the creepiest boss in the game by far. The Grim Reaper can’t compete with the self-generated flesh portal, can he? Aside from that, though, I think it’s fair to say that the developers had run out of ideas, motivation or both with this battle. “A square box will do for this boss chamber, I think. Don’t want to get the player too excited, not after daruma has birthed all over the arena floor.”

The final stage is the Labyrinth, (or at least that’s what this fan translation calls it,) but it’s not much of a maze. A few of the entrances to other areas aren’t marked at all and you’ll likely only trigger them by stumbling blindly into their vicinity while trying to fend off a mummy, but I never managed to get lost and my sense of direction is shocking. Also, mummies! If you can call that ugly, motionless boss a vampire, we’re only a werewolf away from getting all the big Halloween monsters on board. Oh, and a Frankenstein, I suppose.

Youkai Club has been doing a good job of gradually ramping up the difficulty as the player progresses, and unsurprisingly this is where it starts getting really tough. There are far more enemies about, for one thing. The problem is that Youkai Club suffers from a milder version of Gradius syndrome – when you die, you lose a chunk from your experience bar. This can cause your attacks to revert to a weaker state, which means it’s harder to get through the stage, so you die more, rinse and repeat. If your attacks get too weak, you’ll have trouble getting through the stages before the time runs out. Your experience bar also acts as your lives: once it’s completely drained, it’s game over and there are no continues. It’s not that harsh, but it’s something to be aware of. No, the real frustration comes later in the stage.

Here is a block, living up to its name by blocking Akira’s progress. You need to move the block, and the only way to do that is to use the “hand” power-up when you’re nearby. There are two of these blocks in the final stage, and there are two hand power-ups in the game. In the entire game. If you happened to miss either of the hands then you can’t move the blocks and you are, as far as I can tell, thoroughly screwed. Go back, start the game over again, pay more attention. There are codes that let you start on later stages – weirdly they take the form of push-button cheat codes rather than passwords – but they only go up to stage three, so you’ll always have to play through at least two-thirds of the game. To make matters worse, the first time I played through this stage I reached the second block, used the hand… and nothing happened. Okay, that’s not quite true. The hand did disappear from my inventory, but the block sure as hell didn’t move.  What a god-awful thing to include in your videogame, and one that has the potential to ruin what is otherwise a perfectly mediocre game.

Your “reward” for getting beyond the blocks is a battle with a clown. A good choice for an honorary youkai, and it’s nice to fight a videogame clown that’s not a scary clown. Just a regular, normal clown seething with the bloodlust endemic to his kind. His attacks are all clown-based, too, which is fun: he walks on top of a big ball, he throws juggling pins and he’s got a fiery hoop. All in all, an enjoyable fight and the chance to hurl fireballs at a clown. What more could you ask for?

Even the evil of a clown isn’t enough to claim the position of Youkai Club’s final boss, an honour which goes to this large pink blob. Presumably it’s some kind of elder creature from a distant star-scape, but mostly it's just there. Rather than doing the fighting itself, the boss summons a load of other bosses from the game to do his dirty work. I mean, it’s nice to see the Grim Reaper again but it doesn’t exactly make for an interesting fight. You might notice that this is basically the same as the fight against the vampire thing, a boss that you have to fight twice during the game, so this glob of chewed bubble gum makes it three interations of the same battle.

This is new, though: the boss creates a clone of Akira that you must defeat. Having played as Akira for the whole game, I was fairly confident that this wouldn’t be a difficult battle. Turns out it was even easier than I anticipated, because clone-Akira only has the un-upgraded knives to attack with.
Once you’ve dispatched all his minions, the boss opens his sleepy eyes and lazily tosses a few fireballs around, which gives Akira the chance to throw his fireballs into the boss’ now-vulnerable ocular region. This damages the boss, because apparently he’s got asbestos eyelids. If he’d just gone back to sleep I’d have been stuck, but as it is I can finish the job and bring Youkai Club to a close.

It’s a good job I wasn’t expecting a lavish ending sequence. Nobody likes to be disappointed.
For the most part, Youkai Club falls snugly into the usual furrow occupied by games that have Jaleco’s name attached to them – an overall feeling of mediocrity, with one inclusion that’s bafflingly awful. There’s nothing wrong at all with the core gameplay: it’s a little loose and floaty, but perfectly acceptable and certainly no worse than a lot of other low-effort 8-bit platformers. The stages are mostly bland, with some peaks and troughs in visual quality but nothing too extreme in either direction, and the soundtrack is above average but only slightly. The monster sprites are easily the stand-out part of the game, for me anyway. All in all, Youkai Club is okay, the complete bullshit of the missable hand power-ups not withstanding, but it’s never going to tear you away from playing a Castlevania game.

A solid seven out of ten on the Halloween-O-Meter for Youkai Club, almost entirely thanks to the selection of monsters and the vague suggestion that Akira might be wearing Michael Jackson’s leather suit from the Thriller video. It would have received a higher score had the backgrounds been spookier, but aside from the faces in the first stage they mostly look like an unfortunate acid flashback in a tile warehouse.



The Halloween season is an especially appropriate time to be poking into dark and forgotten corners, and with that in mind here’s a game that’s about obscure as they come: Leland Corporation’s 1991 arcade game Asylum! If you haven't heard of it, that’s probably because it was never actually released. Will that turn out to be a tragic loss to the arcades of the world, or are we lucky that Asylum never saw the light of day? Let’s take a look and find out!

Even if I hadn’t just told you that Asylum was developed in 1991, one look at this title screen is all it would take to let you know this game is thoroughly, one hundred percent nineties. The three playable characters even look like the stars of a failed Saturday morning cartoon from the era, a cartoon that was possibly a gritty reboot of the Troll Dolls. From left to right our heroes are Rip, Rak and Rol, and they are colourful characters both figuratively and literally. I’m going to assume Rak is the leader, because he’s standing in the middle and he’s dyed his hipster beard in a shade called “Riddler’s Delight.” Rol appears to have stuffed a bunch of cardboard boxes up his shirt to form the illusion of muscles, and Leland were kind enough to draw erect nipples on Rip, just to make sure you don’t forget she’s the sexy female character. I’ll be playing as Rip during this playthrough, because she’s the designated player one character and because she’s wearing the smallest, most useless belt.

Asylum has a weird set-up in the sense that, as far as I can tell, the heroes didn’t really have any intention of being in the game. There’s no mention of a heroic quest, no dreams of glory or vengeance. The three amigos are simply standing around near the titular asylum when a floating goat-skulled spirit appears and zaps them with magic that teleports them into the asylum. Why? For what reason are they subjected to the horrors that lurk with, aside from the obvious answer of “crimes against fashion”? I suspect we may never know.
By the way, the hovering spectre is the game’s antagonist, the macabre Mr. G. I’m choosing to believe he’s G from House of the Dead after one too many zombie outbreaks.

The game begins with your character (or multiple characters, because Asylum features simultaneous co-op) being chucked in a dumpster. Without wanting to spoil too much of the Asylum experience just yet, I would say that by the end of the game I’d decided that the dumpster was the best place for them.

Rip gets back on her feet and the action begins! The closest comparison I can think of here is Gauntlet, because Asylum is a top-down run-n-gun monster-slaying romp. Your character can move in eight directions and attack in those eight direction, by throwing knives in Rip’s case, and you’ve got to move through the levels, killing monsters until you reach the exit. Unlike Gauntlet, you can jump in Asylum, so I’m sure there’ll be some super-enjoyable platforming to do later. For now, though, it's all flat floors and disgusting ghouls. These ghouls attack by tearing their own arms off and throwing them. How do they keep attacking after they’ve thrown the first arm? I think we can rely on the wisdom of The Simpsons here and say that a wizard did it. In this case, it’s probably true. Mr. G is clearly some kind of wizard.

Unable to prevent himself from meddling, Mr. G pops out of the wall to tell Rip that this toilet is “way uncool.” I think I would probably have guessed that for myself, Mr. G, what with the puddle of piss and the complete lack of privacy. Except this toilet isn’t way uncool, it’s actually very useful because it restores your health when you use it. This is explained during the game’s attract mode which describes them as “magic toilets,” further evidence that a wizard really did do everything in this game and also giving me the name for my next Dark Souls character. Thankfully there’s no animation for Rip sitting down and relieving herself, which is surprising considering the lack of restraint the rest of the game shows when it comes to grossness.

A few screens later, just past the haunted boiler that spits flames at all those who approach it, waits the elevator that will take Rip to the next level. Conspicuous in its absence is any kind of end-of-stage boss, which did surprise me: Asylum seems the kind of game that would have revelled in the chance to come up with some extremely putrescent boss monsters, but there’s nothing stopping Rip from walking straight into the elevator. Well, there are all the regular enemies, I suppose, but you can mostly run past them in these early stages.

I don’t think this is going to be the usual “fight loads of enemies that drop into the elevator” situation. It’s a little intimate, if any enemies were crammed in then Asylum would be looking at an X rating.
You have to ride the elevator at the end of each stage, and it always works the same way: the lift goes up, but after a while the cable snaps and the elevator begins to plummet. While it’s falling, you can press left or right to nudge the elevator to the left or right of the shaft, the idea being that you can use this ability to avoid the bundles of dynamite that are attached at intervals to the side of the shaft.

However, I never managed to avoid the dynamite. Not once. I put this down to the shocking collision detection, which is so vague that it implies the dynamite has a motion sensor around it the fills up the entire bloody lift shaft. The thing is, it doesn’t seem to make any difference whether you avoid the explosives or not. You always move on to the next stage regardless. You might lose a life – you’d think you would lose a life, given that your character falls three hundred feet and lands on a pile of dynamite – but it’s hard to keep track of how many lives you’ve got, for reasons that will become clear later.

Now we’re in the torture chambers now, and it’s this kind of environment that made me pick Asylum for a place in this year’s Halloween Spooktacular, and a victim of the rack whose torture has caused his legs to pop off like well-cooked chicken drumsticks is surely worth a point or two on the Halloween-O-Meter.
Rip’s managed to power up her attack, so now she can throw a spread of three knives. If there’s one thing Asylum isn’t short of it’s power-ups, which litter the stages like bad review scores on a modern Sonic game. Upgrades to weapon power, changing your attacks into fireballs, speed-ups, invincibility, rotating shields that protect you from projectiles, screen-clearing smart bombs, one called “Death Touch” that lets you destroy enemies by walking into them and point bonuses: Asylum has all these and more, the effect of which is that you’re fighting in your basic, un-upgraded state for a surprisingly small portion of the game.

One power-up that you only get to use once – and thank god for that – is this torch that does absolutely nothing to illuminate this dark area. Asylum’s got plenty of ideas, but it frequently struggles to nail those idea down in a form that isn’t infuriating.

Somewhere in the darkness, there’s a dragon. You can see the shape of it, mostly, and you can definitely see its fiery and instantly-fatal breath. What I couldn’t see was a way to get past it, and like any dragon worth its salt it responds to having knives lazily thrown at its face with disdain and, you know, the deadly fire breath. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to figure out that you’re supposed to jump onto the dragon and clamber across its back to get past it. Hah, take that, yon foul wyrm! It’s always nice to outwit a dragon, I thought to myself as I slide down the dragon’s back and off the tip of its tail. Then it slapped me with its tail on the way out, killing me instantly. There’s a lesson about hubris in there somewhere.

Oh look, there is some platforming. What joy. Okay, so it’s not too terrible in this case, because you’ve got a decent amount of control over Rip while she’s in mid-air and you’re jumping across a flat plane. Later on, things become much less enjoyable because you’re jumping between multiple height levels and the game’s perspective makes it difficult to tell exactly where you’re jumping.

In my haste to clear a path to the end-of-stage elevator, I managed to smash through a secret wall! I’m sure there’ll be lots of helpful goodies in the wall cavity.

Or some kind of giant lava slug and rain of deadly Rubik’s cubes, they might be in there too. Asylum has plenty of hidden areas and power-ups stashed away in hard-to-reach areas, but most of the time these areas are so lethal that they’re not worth the effort of traversing. I mean, sure, I’m glad I came into this room because two-headed lava slugs are always something I want to see, but from a gameplay perspective it’s all risk for too little reward.

The next stage rolls around, and as Rip considers jumping into her own grave and pulling the turf over her head for a very appealing and permanent nap, I’ve had a bit of time to contemplate Asylum’s gameplay and unfortunately it’s somewhat on the dismal side. It’s just not very well put together, with countless minor irritations and a few major ones to boot. Movement is sluggish, especially when you’re turning, and it sometimes take what feels like an ages just to spin around and face the enemies. The strange thing is, your movement speed isn’t consistent, so sometimes you’re wading through treacle but other times you’re merely tiptoeing across a sticky nightclub floor. Everything feels kind of doughy and loose, and on top of that the screen scrolling often forces you to be awkwardly close to the edge of the screen before it’ll pan across.

Asylum also wants you dead. It wants you dead all the time, without any warning, repeatedly. Almost every screen on the game has some kind of instant death trap, most of them completely without any kind of warning. Take this mud, for instance – it looks exactly the same as all the other mud in this stage but if you step on the wrong part of it you’re sucked into some quicksand and it’s goodbye to that particular life. That’s why I had so much trouble keeping track of how many lives I had and how many I’d used, especially when you sometimes respawn in a location that means you’re going to instantly die again – right in front of that fire-breathing dragon is a good example. Even for an arcade game, Asylum leans far too heavily on sudden, unavoidable death to create challenge. You could play the game repeatedly until you’ve learned where all the murder zones are, but Asylum isn’t fun enough for that to be likely so you end up with a game that actively discourages the player from exploring.

I got to the end of the stage and this happened. Some honest-to-goodness side-scrolling platforming, in a game that wasn’t doing a convincing job with the top-down platforming it tried earlier. It ends up being about as fun as it sounds, but I did manage to hop along the moving clouds until I reached the pinnacle of the tower.

Then I fell straight through the final cloud and this winged skull swooped down and grabbed me. I have no idea whether falling through the cloud was a scripted event or wonky programming, but the thought that Rip’s guardian angel takes the form of a screaming bonebox with bat wings sticking out of its temples is a heartwarming thought indeed.

The first chunk of the next stage takes place in these dull, featureless corridors, and marks the low point of Asylum. It brings home just how uninteresting the combat is on its own: if you’re fighting one enemy it’s ridiculously easy because your attacks are fast enough to pin the monster in place, but against two or more enemies it’s a pain in the arse trying to keep them under control thanks to the uncooperative movement controls. Thankfully the preponderance of power-ups – you can see a smart bomb in the screenshot above – and the fact you’re fighting things like flying eyeballs, severed hands and normal people who transform into werewolves if you leave them alone too long goes some way to papering over the cracks in the gameplay.

Previous area aside, something Asylum definitely has going for it is the sheer amount of detail included. The developers were clearly having a blast when they put this world together, and there are countless little flourishes in the graphics and level design to keep you engaged. Here, for instance, is a small waiting room where some people have obviously been waiting a very long time. There’s a scrolling message on the reception desk that tell people without appointments to “park it over there.” In the next stage there’s a restaurant area, complete with walk-in freezer stocked with body bags. When Mr. G pops out of the wall to harass you, which he does with some frequency, there’s a little note on his fold-out section of wall that says “Stand Clear..." except the last letters have been scrawled over so it says “Stand Close.” It’s little flourishes like that which kept me interested in Asylum even when the gameplay was taking the high-speed express to Frustrationberg.

The closest Asylum gets to a boss fight is this little arena, where you’re thrust into combat against clones of the three playable characters. Your mission is to kill these clones, and just to make sure you don’t forget what you’re doing and sit down for a frank discussion of the geopolitical ramifications of global warming or something, someone has handily written “KILL THE CLONES” on the floor in blood. I assume it’s blood, at least. It could be ketchup, but given the grisly themes in the rest of the game I think blood is a safe bet.
As for the actual battle, there’s not much to it because the clones are just as crap at fighting as you are. The real struggle comes afterwards, when you have to jump out of the pit you’re in. You can only jump out on the left-hand side and not along the top edge, despite the ledges clearly being at the same height.

The rest of the stage has an office building feel to it, complete with a boss who throws darts at you as you pass and a coffee machine that has overflowed and created a relaxing water feature in the middle of the office. Not a water feature. A coffee feature, I mean. You move faster for a while once you’ve waded through the coffee, promoting the theory that Rip is actually some kind of plant who absorbs liquids and nutrients through her leg-roots.

I walked too close to this toilet and a fat bald man appeared – the ghost of a fat bald man, even, one who shuffled off this mortal coil in the same manner as Elvis. The apparition then proceeded to whip Rip on the backside with a towel, which strikes me as a shocking misuse of spectral powers. You could be off creating murderous videotapes or earning an honest crust as part of a carnival ghost train, but instead you’re wallowing in these petty juvenile pranks. What a waste of ectoplasm! That stuff doesn’t grow on trees, you know. Apart from ghost trees, obviously.

The next (and final) level begins in that dankest, most miserable of dungeons: the bowling alley. It’s good to see that Mr. G has made space for a bit of R&R in his towering edifice of pain and suffering, although as someone with noodly arms and an aversion to public places the bowling alley is indistinguishable from the rest of the asylum’s horrors.
If any of you do play Asylum and somehow manage to get from one end of the bowling alley to the other without taking damage, please let me know how you managed it because as far as I can tell this section is here for no other reason than to whittle away at your health without there being a bloody thing you can do about it.

Mr. G eats his dinner at a massive table shaped like the letter G. That was a custom order, one assumes. I don’t think Ikea sell a “Huge Letters” range of tables, probably because they know that I and many others would buy them in bulk to spell out messages for the ever-watching extraterrestrial spacecraft, urging them to bring a swift end to the misery of human existence.

After a while, I unceremoniously blundered into Mr. G’s command room / demonic summoning ritual. I must have arrived earlier than Mr. G was expecting, because he hasn’t even had time to finish assembling the robot Frankenstein in the corner. Maybe that thing could have put up more of a fight than Mr. G, who is even less effective as a boss than the three clones were. Just like every other single enemy in the game, once you get Mr. G in your metaphorical crosshairs, there’s nothing he can do as knife after knife pins him against the wall and slowly chips away at his health bar. An encounter embarrassing in its simplicity, you might think, and mostly you’d be dead right… except Mr. G keeps coming back to life when you kill him. This might have been a problem had I not noticed that the doors on the right of the room were open, so I simply ignored Mr. G and walked out of his secret lair.

I then proceeded to steal his extremely green rocket ship, which was nice. By this point I was more than ready to blast out of Asylum at supersonic speeds.

The asylum explodes, as things tend to do when you fly a rocket ship through them. Did our three heroes make it out alive? Who knows, or indeed cares.

The game ends on this unusual note: the chance to win an Asylum t-shirt! The catch is that you have to complete Asylum five times (in a row, presumably) to reveal Mr. G’s true name. I guess once you’d got the whole name you’d ring up Leland and tell them the answer to receive your free shirt. However, after one play-through I’m informed that the first two letters are GN and there are six letters in total, so Mr. G’s real name is almost certainly “Mr. Gnarly.” I’m not just pulling this out of my backside, am I? It has to be Mr. Gnarly, just look at how nineties the rest of the game is.
With Asylum over and no free t-shirt for my troubles, I’d say that it not being released is hardly a major blow for the world of videogames. It’s sluggish, stodgy and frustrating to play, a game that doesn’t seem to have much interest in whether the player’s having fun or not. The thing is, I reckon that with some changes – some small, some much more extensive – Asylum could be a pretty decent game. If it controlled as smoothly and played with as much gusto as, say, Nitro Ball, it’d probably be quite good fun. Certainly, there are plenty of amusing moments and fun details in Asylum, and an overall sense of glee in the disgusting and macabre, that it might have been worth trying to salvage. Sadly, that was not to be, and we’re left with the Asylum we have: unreleased, unloved and unable to stop me from wishing I was playing Smash T.V. instead.

As tradition dictates we head over to the Halloween-O-Meter, and seven feels like a reasonable score to me. It’s too heavily focussed on “gory” rather than “spooky” to ascended to the upper reaches, but six would be too low for a game that does remind me a lot of the trashy eighties / nineties horror B-movies that I spend every October (and every other month) watching.

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