Play Critically was provided with a review code for this videogame.
Halloween Forever is a retro platformer where I guide a spooky host of player characters through a monster-infested land that looks like it was decorated by an 8-bit offshoot of the Spirit Halloween store. There isn’t much of a story. Its focus is on classic platforming mechanics and discovering hidden objects that unlock expanded endings and new player characters. It’s a pure throwback experience, embracing—and maybe even sharpening—the jagged edges of archaic design that contemporary retro platformers often smooth over.
Trial and error rules Halloween Forever’s level design. Blind drops into pits filled with enemies or deadly spikes are common. So are crushing blocks or exploding skeletons suspended just off the top of the screen, crashing downward when the player character passes underneath them. They can’t be anticipated, they can only be learned about through repeated death and knowing how to better navigate the level on my next visit. With only three lives to start and limited opportunities to earn more, I get plenty of chances to retry a level with foreknowledge of its hidden deathtraps. This difficulty is offset by brevity; Halloween Forever has a mere five levels, and once I learn all their layouts I zip through all of them in about a half-hour.
Each level is signposted by two bosses. The Forgotten Cemetery is guarded by a Chainsaw Maniac, a hulk in a hockey mask who ricochets between the walls for several seconds every time I land a blow. In the Bloody Mansion, I face a two-headed dragon who claws ravenously through narrow tunnels, forcing me to jump up and down between shafts to avoid its rampage. In the Spooky Church I fight a frog king who clings to the ceiling, out of sight, for most of the fight, covering the ground with his tiny offspring before dropping down with a spread of fireballs. Like the levels, each boss is built around trial and error. I have to see their attack, and most likely get hit by it, before I can learn to avoid it. I have to make mistakes before I can succeed. I have to walk before I can run.
All of this is to say that Halloween Forever is a difficult platformer rife with punishing moments I cannot foresee. But it’s not without options to tune my experience. For no penalty, I may activate Friendly Continues, which gives more generous checkpoints in each level. There is also a 99 Lives option which disables achievements but makes it much easier to experiment and learn each level’s layout. For an alternative challenge, I can activate 1HP Mode, whose function I think is self explanatory.
Most of Halloween Forever’s longevity is found through its player characters. Every time I start a new game, I select which one I want to use. Each has a special way of attacking and moving, changing the tactics I must use to navigate the world and defeat the enemies within. A boss or level that is trivial with one character might be much harder with another because of the way their attack projectile moves or how they jump.
I begin with Pumpkin Man and Santa Pumpkin unlocked. Pumpkin Man is a scarecrow with a pumpkin for a head who attacks by vomiting up candy. The candy arcs forward for a short distance before plummeting straight downward, giving Pumpkin Man a serious advantage when holding the high ground but limited range and difficulty fighting in enclosed spaces. Santa Pumpkin is the same as Pumpkin Man, but dressed as Santa Claus and vomiting up presents instead of candy.
I can expand the player character roster by discovering golden coffins hidden throughout the game world. These coffins appear along different paths in each level and I can only find one in each game, encouraging multiple playthroughs and taking a variety of routes to each level’s boss. Unlockable characters include the Butternut Bro, another scarecrow with a pointed head who spits explosive butternuts, Harmonia, a scarlet-haired ragdoll with a machine gun, and Ms. Succubus, who spits fireballs in a straight line and can fly. Few characters behave in quite the same way, complicating familiar levels and adding surprising longevity and variety to a short platformer.
Ms. Succubus’ ability to fly is most significant as it allows access to Halloween Forever’s best-hidden secrets. Burning pages hidden in each level hint towards another story happening behind the scenes, though the only reward for finding them all seems to be my own satisfaction. There are also six runes hidden throughout the world, accessible to every player character, that change the ending when found—again, satisfaction (and achievements, if the platform supports them) seem to be the only reason to seek them out. It’s nice to have a little extra substance to the simple world but a more profound result from seeking these collectables would be appreciated.
Halloween Forever is an uncomplicated platformer, and that’s either going to be a strength or a weakness for different players. 8-bit veterans will feel at home right away, but those used to the niceties of modern retro platformers—infinite lives, detailed plotlines, jumps with clear destinations—may find themselves frustrated. This isn’t to say that it’s without depth. I find myself engaged unlocking new characters and challenged by their unique mechanics changing effective strategies. I think the best way to approach Halloween Forever is in the title: It’s a solid choice for the Halloween season, easily filling a spooky October night but not overwhelming my entire weekend.