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The nightmare before The Nightmare Before
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On the eve of Castlevania's success with the format on the Game Boy Advance, TOSE decided to try its hand at a non-linear sidescroller on the platform. The resulting prequel to Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas is pure Halloween fun, making it a great alternative to the Castlevania games - though one with its own definite style and atmosphere.
Taking place before the events of the movie, Oogie Boogie has hijacked Halloween Town in order to turn it into Bug Town - and on the most special night of all: Halloween! Not only that, but he's inadvertently kidnapped Sally, Dr. Finklestein's rag doll creation and assistant. Jack Skellington has taken it upon himself to squash the bugs, rescue the girl, and save the town. During the course of the game, one also learns the origin of the Jack's title "The Pumpkin King".
Jack's controls are very basic: 'A' to jump and 'B' to attack. 'Start' opens the pause menu, where one can view collected pick-up items and concept art, while 'Select' opens the map of the current area. 'L' and 'R' rotate between the different weapons the scare skeleton collects in the game. Of said weapons, there are: the Frog Gun, a powerful close-range frog gas attack; Bat Boomerang, a less-powerful long-range attack which can hit switches at a distance; Pumpkin Bomb, a throwable which creates an explosion on impact and for which Jack can stock up to 99 bombs; and Pumpkin King, a transformation which turns Jack into a flaming, invincible form by which he can do flame attacks and fly horizontally and for which he can stock 9 such transformations at once. He'll get a few abilities as well: the Gum Shoes, which allows him to walk vertically up specific red walls; Stretchy Ghost, letting him stretch from the ground to high ceilings with the help of ghosts released by attacking a switch in the walls; and Acid Bath, which upon standing over a pool of acid turns Jack into liquid and enables him to slowly make his way through narrow passageways. He'll collect 20 pick-up items, the descriptions for which can be viewed in the pause menu, and 10 shrunken heads, which give him an extra five-point life bar. There's not that same feeling of progression ability-wise that one gets in other games in the style, because most of the abilities don't fundamentally change Jack; instead, they give a circumstantial move that's only applicable in certain situations. That said, his different offensive abilities come in handy in fighting enemies for different reasons each.
Jack uses these upgrades to further his adventures through the various maps, which include Halloween Town Square (the hub of the game), Jack's House, Dr. Finkelstein's Lab, Pumpkin Patch, Grave Yard, and Oogie's Lair. Most of the maps will take at least a couple visits at different points in the game to finish completely, though it certainly helps that one can see the entire map of whatever level Jack's in regardless of whether it's been fully explored.
The visuals, in representing the world of Tim Burton's 1993 masterpiece (the Halloween world at least, since Christmas Town makes no appearance), contrast with that of the Game Boy Advance Castlevanias. Whereas since Symphony of the Night the Castlevania series has featured an eloquence and class as the basic for its artistic direction, the world of The Pumpkin King has all the grit and grime that an older game of the aforementioned series might. The areas are dingy, the mood grim, and upon defeating bosses, their guts hit the screen. Though almost a stick figure, Jack's animation is stylish and fun to watch, especially his victory dance. It's a successfully unique Halloween-style game, and one appropriate to the source material. There are some renderings of the film's themes in the score, including 'What's This?' which serves as the Pumpkin King transformation theme, as well as a brief 'This is Halloween' take which has a decidedly victorious air to it as it's played after beating a boss. The original songs that accompany the different areas are quite suitable to the Halloween theme of the game and the movie it's based on.
Over the course of the main game, Jack will receive three mini-games which can be played at Easy, Normal, and Hard difficulties and single-player or with friends: in the first, Bone Breaker, the aim is to push 'Left' and 'Right' one after another in order to lower a block of wood onto a pile of bones and crush it; Whack Hammer, next, involves pushing 'A' or 'B' to whack rats and bats, respectively, that pass by, using the proper button given the animal and avoiding bombs altogether; and finally, Skullduggery, in which the player is to keep an eye on one of four presents, even as its order is switched around and swapped with the rest, and select the very same one at the end of mentioned movement. These don't make the game, but they're fun nonetheless and something to entertain more than one player at a time.
Though not Symphony of the Night, this Halloween-themed, Metroid-style platformer is worth the time taken to play it. The atmosphere is fitting, the difficulty fair, and the gameplay solid. Jack may be a bag of bones, but this game is full of heart - a maggot-infested, gypsy-cursed heart, but still heart.
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