Am I the Only One Who Remembers… Blinky’s Scary School

In the spirit (awful pun intended) of Hallowe’en, I thought I’d pen this missive about a game most people probably won’t remember: Blinky’s Scary School. A budget title for the C64 and other formats released by Zeppelin Games in 1990, Blinky was never destined for greatness, but perhaps deserves a little bit more recognition than it now has.

Blinky's Scary School
Blinky and the cauldron he will use to cause chaos and disruption throughout the realm. Well, the flick-screen castle at any rate.

The eponymous Blinky is a ghost undergoing his final exam at Scary School. The school’s curriculum seems to require a practical exam to finish the course, as Blinky is tasked with causing a fright to Hamish McTavish, current denizen of Drumtrochie Castle. Blinky has one night to accomplish his task, otherwise he’ll have to wait one hundred years for his next chance to resit the exam. Seems rather harsh to me, but presumably none of this is properly regulated by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

At first sight it’s easy to dismiss Blinky’s Scary School as a Dizzy wannabe, especially since the main character sprite looks so similar (even down to the red boots). In actuality, the style of the game is different. There is some light puzzle-solving and object collection, but this is more of a very, very light Metroidvania title, albeit minus any of the RPG elements. Blinky collects objects to create potions that grant him a handful of extra powers, such as being able to transform into a bubble and move underwater, allowing him to get to previously inaccessible areas. There’s a lot of platforming involved too, and many more nefarious beasties lurking around the castle than you’d find in your typical Dizzy title.

Graphically the game is neat, although nothing to write home about. The C64 version at least stands above the Dizzy games in that it makes better use of the hardware. It’s a flick-screen adventure, but movement between screens is nice and fluid. Blinky himself is remarkably expressive for a collection of 8-bit pixels, and the animation (where it exists) is neat. If anything, Blinky is too cute. How on Earth he’s meant to terrify anybody when he looks so adorable I’ve no idea. You’re more likely to want to pick him up and give him cuddles than you are scream at the top of your lungs and frenetically Google the nearest exorcist. He also doesn’t look anything in-game like he appears on the cover. The boxart shows what appears to be a picture of Casper the Friendly Ghost drawn by someone coming down from several days of heady drug use. Somewhere in the transition between the box and the game itself he appears to have lost all his limbs and discarded his red nose.

Blinky features many of the problems that early games (particularly budget releases) are known for. There are deaths caused by elements that can only be known about through trial and error, enemy sprites that are unavoidable due to their appearance at the edges of screens, jumps requiring pixel-precision, and more. Still, this is all par for the course given the era it comes from and everything is livable with.

Blinky's Scary School
In scenes of sheer horror, Blinky can use toilets to teleport throughout the castle. No explanation of how this works is forthcoming.

I always felt that Zeppelin wanted Blinky to become a mascot for the company and the presence of a sequel – Titanic Blink– seems to confirm that a little. Sadly I don’t think either title ever performed as well as the company hoped, either critically or financially. Reviews at the time were pretty average, I seem to recall. A shame, really, as with a little most investment of time and imagination it could have been a decent series. Still, if Bubsy the sodding Bobcat can come back from obscurity maybe it isn’t too late…

If you happen upon it via emulator or similar, Blinky’s Scary School is worth a play. It’s a diverting little game that won’t take you long to finish; I remember completing it as a kid, so it can’t be that difficult, and a ‘longplay’ of the game on YouTube sees someone polishing it off in about fifteen minutes. It won’t change your life, but it might just raise a smile.

[Pictures courtesy of MobyGames].

On… Dragon Quest Heroes

Even if you didn’t know a thing about the Dragon Quest series, and wouldn’t know a JRPG if it hit you in the face with an amnesiac spiky-haired protagonist, Dragon Quest Heroes gives away its Japanese origins with its unwieldy subtitle: The World Tree’s Woe and the Blight Below. It does make sense and has a bit of a poetic charm to it, but it may as well scream ‘I’m a Japanese video game!’ when you open the box.

Dragon Quest Heroes 1
The king spends half the game laughing at things that just aren’t funny.

Heroes is, like Hyrule Warriors before it (and the forthcoming – at the time of writing – Fire Emblem Warriors), a retooling of the Dynasty Warriors games. This is a series that is based around epic battles with hordes of enemies, overpowered attacks, multiple player characters and much mashing of the square button. If that sounds a bit reductive then, well, perhaps that’s because at its heart Dragon Quest Heroes is a very simple game. If you come into this expecting an RPG like The Witcher 3 then you’re going to be disappointed. Which would be a shame since, actually, DQH is pretty damned good.

Although it’s hard to say why.

It certainly isn’t the story. The plotline is serviceable enough, but is filled one-note characters and features a villain so pantomime-esque that he actually has a sinister curly moustache. You never feel any actual tension as it’s painfully obvious what’s going to happen throughout, and the story is obviously there to provide an excuse for the action. It’s fortunate, then, that the actual playing of the game is great fun. The gameplay loop centres around venturing forth into multiple levels and, basically, kicking the crap out of anything that moves. This turns out to be amazing fun.

Controls are straightforward and fluid, with some customisation to allow for a more strategic mode as opposed to the standard button-mashing layout. No matter which you opt for, there’s plenty of special moves to choose from over the multiple characters both available initially and unlockable as the game progresses. These range from standard versions of Dragon Quest staples such as Sizzle or Crack, to Final Fantasy limit break style attacks that see you do such things as transform into dragons, cast energy vortexes or summon sabrecats to attack your enemies.

Dragon Quest Heroes - 2
See? Here he goes again. I never managed to work out what he was laughing at.

The character roster consists of a selection of characters from mainline DQ titles along with some original characters. There are two main player characters, one male, one female. Whilst you can play as both throughout, you choose at the start your primary character and it’s from their perspective that you experience the game (though if you choose to play as Luceus rather than Aurora, you’ve basically stumped for the most annoying character). The main characters play pretty much the same bar some cosmetic differences, but there’s plenty of variety in the other characters. You have tanks such as Doric, ranged warriors such as Bianca, and magic wielders such as Nerys. The game doesn’t force you to play in a particular way so you can adjust your team of four to suit your play style (though arguably some characters are more overpowered than others).

The game looks lovely, too. The Akira Toriyama design motifs of the series are made to look beautiful on the PS4, with beautifully animated character models and special effects that, whilst they do get a bit tired after the hundredth viewing, never cease to impress. Aurally the game provides a treat for fans of the series, with various remixes of familiar tunes along with some decent original compositions. Voice-acting is pretty terrible, although I can’t help feeling that the DQ scripts are best read quietly in your own head anyway.

DQH isn’t without flaws, of course. Aside from the aforementioned storyline, the major problem is the pacing. The main plot funnels you along a pretty linear path and, whilst there are lots of sub-quests, these are all pretty inconsequential until just before the final battle when you get swamped with a heap of character-based side stories (some of which I couldn’t actually get to complete). This really is quite poor as, by that point, I was pretty much ready to finish the game, but felt that I should do the character stories. Sadly they don’t really add up to much or provide much in the way of insight into the characters, and as such they just feel like unnecessary padding.

The mission variety is slim as well, and there are just far too many ‘tower defence’ type quests where you have to stop hordes of enemies from attacking structures or NPCs with health-bars that are too small. These quickly become frustrating, especially when guarding a character who keeps deciding to throw themselves at enemies. Thankfully the game isn’t too difficult, particularly if you do a bit of side-content to keep your character level up, so you shouldn’t find yourself having to repeatedly fight the same battles again and again. Towards the end-game these ‘protect the idiot’ style missions really do become the gaming equivalent of someone scraping their nails across a blackboard, though, and you begin to loathe the prospect of playing another one.

I haven’t played a proper Dynasty Warriors game, but have seen enough of them and played the likes of Hyrule Warriors to know that Dragon Quest Heroes seems to remove a bit of the strategy from the formula. This is very much an action RPG, with that ‘action’ italicised, embolded, underlined and put inside <blink> tags. You do have to consider the placement of monster minions (friendly creatures you can summon to your side) and how you move around the battlefield, but by and large it’s all about the fighting.

And sometimes, that simplicity is a good thing.

Dragon Quest Heroes isn’t the kind of game that will change your life. It is, however, fun to play and an extremely diverting use of your time.