When I think of iconic spooky games, there are classics that cover all sorts of genres, from the side-scrolling of Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins and Castlevania to the 3D action of Resident Evil and the shooting galleries of House of the Dead – not to mention the titles being released by smaller indie developers. Nightmare in the Dark, meanwhile, offers spooky single-screen platforming action, and it’s a nice way to get in the mood this Halloween. It’s an arcade and Neo-Geo game and seemingly the only videogame published by Eleven/Gavaking (at least based on my limited searching skills), but thanks to modern emulators it can still be enjoyed today. Considering the barriers to entry at the time (amusement arcades were on the way out in the 2000s, and getting hold of a Neo-Geo was out of the question), one can hardly be blamed for missing out on Nightmare in the Dark first time around… however, I came across it during a search for suitably spooky games a year or two ago, and it holds up pretty well today. I tracked down some promo art whilst writing this and the blurb doesn’t give much away – in short, a mysterious wizard is tasked with encapsulating and eliminating ghouls – but the game itself offers a spooky and entertaining take on the single-screen platformer genre popularised by classics such as Bubble Bobble and Snow Bros.
Getting started with Nightmare in the Dark
Gameplay in Nightmare in the Dark is simple – you move left and right, jump between platforms, and can use your attack to throw fire at enemies. When an enemy is hit it will momentarily stop moving as it burns. The player can then continue attacking and the enemy will turn into a fireball, which can be picked up and hurled across the stage. Fireballs bounce off the sides of a stage, roll down gaps in platforms and eliminate most foes stood in their path, so it’s in your best interests to avoid enemies as you climb to the top of a stage, attack the enemies on the highest plaforms, and send them rolling down the stage to take out multiple enemies for a satisfying combo. Of course, there are also the usual platformer staples such as power-ups, bonus collectibles and bosses, but the core gameplay has a nice loop of risk and reward; you want to keep multiple enemies alive until you reach the top, but doing so requires confidence in your platforming. In a way, the rolling fireball isn’t unlike the water bubble in Bubble Bobble (which sends a wave of water down the screen and carries enemies with it) and is equally satisfying to use.
The atmosphere of Nightmare in the Dark
As well as being fun to play, Nightmare in the Dark has some nice presentational flourishes – the attract mode sets the scene with establishing text crawling up the screen and a moody graveyard backdrop, the music is both thematically appropriate and quite catchy in places, and the enemies have some excellent animations, especially when you’re up against one of the bosses. Whilst various 8-bit spooky games struggled to create a rich atmosphere, this Neo-Geo title adds some welcome ambience to a simple but rewarding gameplay formula (although I can’t deny that certain 8-bit games – such as Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts for C64 and early Castlevanias – still boast some charming presentational touches.)
Nightmare in the Dark never really caught on enough to receive any modern updates, and in 2000 I was too busy going through a PC gaming phase to really find out about the arcade release. However, if you’re planning to play some spooky games in late October, this game is a nice palate cleanser that can be enjoyed between the Silent Hills and Outlasts of the modern gaming world. Now, who do we contact to get this re-released on digital storefronts?