No, it doesn't suck
In the gaming community, there are certain games that can earn you a level of respect depending on whether you've played them. Case in of (I very much like your taste), Beyond Good and Evil (when can we get together), ICO (take me now, take me hard).
Grabbed by the Ghoulies is not one of those games.
Mention it in jest and you'll be treated to witty digs on how Rare started sucking ever since they released Taboo, or how GoldenEye was only good because Nintendo said to put in a multiplayer mode, or other varieties of condemnation that seem to get more ridiculous with every passing year. Say you actually like it and you're met with stares of incredulity, face palms and various death threats (if you're lucky). Why has this game garnered such hate?
In Grabbed by the Ghoulies, the player takes the role of Cooper, who, after getting lost along some forest path with his girlfriend Amber, comes across the formidable Ghoul Haven Hall. Resident owner Baron Von Ghoul (a Howard Hughes type with a 'Tally Ho' British accent) makes no misgivings at kidnapping said girlfriend simply from Cooper commenting on the drab nature of the abode, leaving Cooper no choice than to run after his henchmen for a daring rescue.
Ghoulies is essentially what the 16-bit beat ‘em up would have become if that genre had successfully transitioned into 3D gaming. Upon arriving in the main hall the player is introduced to the basic game mechanics- a dual analogue setup allows Cooper to attack in any direction with ease, while most objects scattered throughout the mansion (tables, chairs, pool cues, coke bottles, and stuffed animals, among others) can be used to batter various nasties. A simple scenario to be sure, but the onset of various challenges, objectives and conditions help shake things up a bit.
Upon entering a typical room in Ghoul Haven, all exits suddenly lock and a series of icons will appear at the top of the screen, denoting various limitations or demands put upon the player- attack only using weapons; get rid of one type of Ghouly but leave another unharmed; don’t damage the house or its contents while clearing the room of its ne’er-do-wells. In combining these with various enemy placements and weapon availability, Rare manages to vary the gameplay from room to room. Of course, you don’t have to play by these rules- but beware if you stray from them, or the Grim Reaper appears to dole out instant death at a single touch (he even does a Bill and Ted style guitar solo with his scythe when he succeeds in catching you). If you’re quick on your feet (and a bit lucky), you can even use the Reaper as an unlikely ally to quickly clear a room of particularly nasty foes.
It’s a simple but effective system that can get pretty hectic at times. When you’re in the middle of a food fight with a bunch of Zombie Pirates, cakes and bottles flying through the air, you can’t help but crack a smile at the carnage unfurling on screen. The fact that none of the debris of battle disappears after use really makes a difference- in the aftermath of a hectic brawl the room truly looks trashed, Matrix lobby style.
Nevertheless, Ghoulies wouldn’t truly shine if it weren’t for the utter labour of love put into its presentation. This game is 110% Rare, from its art design to its script. There’s a copious amount of cameos for fans- Banjo portraits on the walls, Atic Atac and Sabrewulf posters in the mansion’s gaming room, a rather disturbing box labelled ‘Mr. Pants’ Chocolate Treats’- even a brilliant cocktease concerning Stop ‘n Swop on a blackboard. Advancements in the ridiculous plot are told through an utterly charming storybook form, complete with limited animation and comic books-isms. The rather demented characters you meet in the mansion are utterly hilarious, especially the theatrical Baron with his one-man miniature biplane. The voice work probably even tops Banjo-Kazooie, and I’m not exaggerating when I say everything has distinct sound bytes (Don’t know what sound a Haunted Door makes? You’ll crack up when you do.) And yet again, Rare manages to slip in some very crass double entendres that will make you wonder how they even got in a G rated game in the first place... if you can stop laughing, that is. My personal favourite would be Groundskeeper Fiddlesworth, who lives in Dunfiddlin Cottage and greets you by saying “I were busy adjustin’ me tackle in the Boathouse”. Oh, and he also has an unseen nephew named Little Willy.
Now, Ghoulies is hardly the deepest of games, nor the longest- it’s rather short and sweet. Nevertheless, I think its telling that I’d rather go through a romp of this again rather than the team’s previous game, the rather bloated Banjo-Tooie. And given how cheaply you can pick up a copy nowadays, it’s more than worth the price of admission, despite its length.
It’s a pity that Ghoulies was ultimately a victim of Microsoft’s buyout of Rare- originally slated for a GameCube release, thrust upon it was the moniker of first Xbox Rare title and rather unfair expectation, neither of which it was meant to live up to. Had it stayed on its original platform, I wouldn’t be surprised if it had developed a cult following by now- a fun aside title that tries something new and doesn’t use an existing franchise as a crutch.
So just like many of Microsoft’s other attempts to get the Xbox established as a family system (remember Blinx?), Ghoulies flopped in the Christmas season of 2003 and left any hopes for a franchise expansion dashed. At least the legend still lives on in more recent Rare games through various cameos- I desperately want to play that arcade version in Viva Piñata. Fingers crossed for the Baron in Nuts & Bolts.