Seven Perfect Halloween Arcade Games

Arcade games are unappreciated Halloween decorations. True, they’re harder to arrange than plastic severed zombie feet or cheap, potentially toxic spider webbing, but I maintain that they’re worth the trouble. Whether you run MAME on a laptop or actually have a basement full of original cabinets, nothing sets apart a Halloween gathering or mood table like some appropriate old arcade games.

Why old arcade games? A few reasons. They’re easy to grasp, they’re often visually striking, and they display generous game footage when no one’s playing. That’s the beauty of it: even if they go untouched, these games look great just running in the background, as fitting as Addams Family episodes or every Sleepaway Camp movie.

I picked seven lesser-known examples of Halloween-friendly arcade games. Ghosts ‘N Goblins, Ghouls ‘N Ghosts, and Splatterhouse are the first-round choices of just about everyone, so I don’t need to extoll them here. I also left out anything that requires a light gun or other proprietary hardware to truly appreciate. House of the Dead isn’t the same without big plastic Wicked City revolvers, Crypt Killer loses something without a massive shotgun to pump, and a full Golly! Ghost array is probably beyond the price range of the average Halloween shindig. I went after games easy to appreciate in any form.

Released: 1987
Aka: Devil World

It’s tempting to stick Gauntlet in your arcade lineup and be done with it. After all, Gauntlet is a reliably entertaining race through top-viewed dungeons. Yet there’s a more seasonal alternative available: Dark Adventure, Konami’s unabashed 1989 knock-off of the Gauntlet ideal. Three players control two archeologists and an unlucky reporter in a realm of mazes full of skeletons and minotaurs and…well, evil rats. Yet mundane rodents are forgivable when the first stage has giant mud swordgolems chasing you.

While you’re at it, throw in the Japanese version of the game, Devil World. No mere language swap, it differs a great deal: only two players can join, but the characters get projectile weapons instead of melee attacks, power-ups are more complex, and the expanded arsenal includes a rocket launcher that beautifully demolishes everything. You won’t find that in off-the-shelf Gauntlet.

Released: 1994-1997
Aka: Vampire, Vampire Hunter, Vampire Savior
Also On: PlayStation, Saturn, Dreamcast, PS3, Xbox 360

I’ll have you know that this list was not an convoluted excuse to push the Darkstalkers games. Yet I will admit that I cheated here. Underrated as it is, Darkstalkers is still popular enough to see recent reissues, and Capcom can’t make a Marvel crossover fighting game without including succubus antiheroine Morrigan at the very least. Even so, Darkstalkers escapes a lot of people when it comes to Halloween-appropriate games, and that is a bitter shame.

In fact, I will count the Darkstalkers line as the best thing to play on Halloween. It’s a great series of fighting games stocked with wonderfully animated monsters, from a karate werewolf to a mercenary Red Riding Hood to a vampire lord who transforms every character on the roster into a biteable young maiden. And that barely scratches the surface.

I recommend either Night Warriors or Darkstalkers 3, both of which are impressive and approachable even for casual players who haven’t touched a fighting game since trying Mortal Kombat at a deli in 1993. Some of the more risque Darkstalkers characters might not sit well at an all-ages party, but just remember that Felicia, the technically naked catgirl, is intended as a “cute” character. She’s not supposed to be sexy. It says so right in some official artbook that I can’t locate at the moment.

Released: 1989
Aka: Horror Story

Toaplan’s conventional spaceship shooters overshadow some of their decent side-scrolling arcade outings, and Demon’s World is among them. Its heroes dress like dollar-store Ghostbusters and carry a plentiful supply of rockets, lasers, and other seemingly overpowered weapons. The stages are full of ghosts, Frankenstein abominations, Jason clones, and more, but my favorite might be this dapper, barrel-riding mummy from the first stage.

The casual appeal of Demon’s World is diminished by cheap hits; it’s a half-hour arcade outing from the 1980s, when no game could afford to let players walk all over it. Even so, it’s good fun for players who’ll either credit-feed or memorize their way to the admittedly disappointing final boss. It looks neat, but its pupal trappings promise a horrific final form that never emerges. You’re a big tease, Toaplan.

Released: 1993

Nothing brings revelers together quite like a classic arcade brawler in the tradition of Final Fight. Two of the genre’s best offerings, Capcom’s Alien vs. Predator and Irem’s Undercover Cops, are good for any list of gruesome arcade titles, but even more essential is Data East’s Night Slashers. It’s a battle through every possible Halloween staple: zombies supply most of the grunt forces, but the game’s three playable leads (including a hilariously gung-ho American cyborg) also face vampires, mummies, Voorheesian thugs, mutant cyborgs, skeletons, and an evil puppeteer and his creation. It’s as though Double Dragon ate an old video store’s entire horror section.

Night Slashers
sells itself mostly on its grisly sights, but some details perk up the familiar gameplay: the heroes can pound enemies into the ground, block when health runs low, and use impressive screen-clearing specials that deplete enough life to be costly and strategic. With two or three players along, it’s a great ride from its opening van crash to the villain’s cheap last stand. The only caveat: grab the Japanese version, which preserves all of the bloody effects and the “Go…TO HELL!!!” arrow that spurs you through each stage.

Released: 1982

Arcade selections from the late 1980s and 1990s may prompt complaints from older guests, who’ll tell you that that games were better back when they were single-screen shooting affairs like Galaga and Space Invaders. For them, you can roll out Satan’s Hollow.

Beneath the vintage-1982 gothic wasteland, Satan’s Hollow is straightforward: dodge bullets and zap dragon-gargoyles until a tiny Mephistopheles floats into the picture and spews fire. It’s game relatively obscure even in its day, as all ports to home consoles got canceled. Was it the unwholesome theme or just the fact that Galaga-esque shooters were common as quarter-munching dirt? No matter. Satan’s Hollow should entertain those who find games made after 1985 too violent and sexy and interesting.

Released: 1987
Aka: Yokai Dochuki
Also On: PC Engine

Shadowland gets a Halloween angle by accident. It lacks traditional Western werewolves or vampires, but it has every sort of hellish creature that Japanese legends devised. It follows Tarosuke, a kid resembling a more sensibly coiffed Gegege no Kitaro hero, on a stygian trek through the eerie gray cliffsides and lava pits of the underworld. He has unimpressive spiritual bullets at his disposal, but Shadow Land hides a lot for an arcade side scroller. Stages branch out and lead to healing springs, gambling mini-games, and a mermaid dance revue that might turn Tarosuke elderly–a condition curable only by buying angel poop from a shopkeeper. There’s a good conversation starter for the party.

ShadowLand might not look enticing at a glance, as the designers labored under the idea that players had to see a map and a huge lifebar at all times, leaving only half the screen for actual gameplay. Stick it out, however, and you’ll find all sorts of unconventional weirdness, plus various endings that penalize you for picking up money and killing enemies. And there’s another conversation starter.

Released: 1987
Aka: Pyross
Also On: Genesis, FDS

Bear with me. I know that Wardner is not a great game, that it lacks a distinct Halloween atmosphere, and that I remember it only because of its long tenure in one of my defining childhood arcades. Yet I submit that Wardner has a valuable role in any roundup of scary arcade games, simply because it’s harmless and middling. It’s ideal for small children or those of dispositions too gentle to stomach exploding zombies or completely non-sexualized catgirls.

Wardner finds a tubby hero trudging through forests and factories to the castle where his ladyfriend sits imprisoned, and it’s a basic side-scroller with Mario-esque rules that any kid can follow. It’s not an easy game by any measure, as one hit dooms the hero at first, but it’s paced slower and with less threatening foes than Ghosts ‘N Goblins. The gloomy woods, dank buildings, and monstrous hazards are all cartoonish in tone no matter their pitfalls. Wardner simply can’t offend anyone except for the hosts of those anti-Halloween cable shows about finding the devil’s face on a fun-size Snickers.

I have no doubt that, even with my restrictions in place, I missed a few arcade games ideal for the season. Add your own! Do you prefer to show off the bizarre Ninja Kids, the even more bizarre Pu-Li-Ru-La, or the guaranteed room-clearing spectacle of BloodStorm in your Halloween decor? As long as it creeps you out, it belongs.

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