Blogtober 2020 – Are You Afraid of the Dark?

The 90’s had an impressive variety of kids tv shows. Nickelodeon was home to many of them and was perhaps the channel I spent the most time viewing as a kid, followed by Cartoon Network and Fox. I have many, many memories of sitting watching Nickelodeon shows as a kid, one of the shows I remember watching was Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Are You Afraid of the Dark? was a sci-fi/horror anthology series that first premiered on Nickelodeon on Oct. 31, 1990 and ran through 1996 in its original run. The series was brought back again in 1999 for two seasons and was revived, most recently, this past October for a three-part mini-series. The show acted somewhat as a children’s Twilight Zone, airing alongside other spooky, young adult programming like the Goosebumps tv series, which I also watched. Are You Afraid of the Dark? takes place in the woods where a group of friends, calling themselves The Midnight Society meet every Saturday night to exchange ghost stories; each episode featuring a different member of the group telling the story. The beginning of each episode would give a bit of a hint as to what the storyteller’s tale would contain, including interpersonal drama between friends or family members or something like being afraid of clowns.

The show’s inspiration from The Twilight Zone was pretty evident throughout the show, with each story being led with the line “Submitted for the approval of the Midnight Society, I give you ‘The Tale of…” in clear reference to Rod Serling’s unmistakable introduction to each episode. In contrast to The Twilight Zone, the show typically had a happy ending – the kid would typically escape from the monster or haunted area all while learning a lesson. There were a few exceptions to this, but the show was directed at 8-15 year olds and any unsettling or twist endings were kept to a minimum. The stories told within the episodes were often based on stories like Sleepy Hollow, Phantom of the Opera, or the Monkey’s Paw(Simpsons did it!).

As one would expect from a Nickelodeon show produced in the 90’s it contained episodes with Melissa Joan Hart, Will Friedle, Tia & Tamera Mowery and many others as guest stars. The show itself was the effort of a Canadian production studio – Cinar(now known as Cookie Jar Group) and includes a list of up-and-coming young Canadian actors such as Hayden Christensen, Neve Campbell, and Ryan Gosling in guest starring roles.

Are You Afraid of the Dark? spent most of its time as part of Nickelodeon’s Saturday night programming block(SNICK) with daytime reruns of the episodes in the summertime. I still remember watching episodes like ‘The Tale of the Midnight Madness’ or ‘The Tale of the Prom Queen’, but there was a particular episode that scared me more than any other as a kid – The Tale of the Dead Man’s Float. I can almost feel all those childhood nightmares just mentioning it…

The Tale of the Dead Man’s Float begins in the 1950’s with a kid named Joe swimming in the school swimming pool. Suddenly, Joe is grabbed by something from the bottom of the pool and ultimately drowns. The story then switches to 1994 where science geek Zeke, seeking to impress Clorice, a member of the school swim team by showing her his discovery – a closed off section of their school that houses an abandoned swimming pool. They bring this discovery to the attention of the school board with a request to re-open the pool area, we then see the janitor glance at the pool and see what appears to be the shape of a body floating underneath the tarp covering the pool(ominous).

Jump forward a few weeks and we see Zeke suggesting to tutor Clorice with her Science assignment as she needs a passing grade to keep her place on the swim team. In return, she offers to give swimming lessons to Zeke. While Clorice attempts to instruct Zeke while in the pool, he confesses to having a fear of swimming as the result of a near-accident years earlier…establishing a personal obstacle for which he may need to overcome? Only moments later, both Zeke and Clorice are pulled underwater by something or someone before fortunately being aided by the school janitor, who then divulges the reason the pool was closed down and hidden away. The janitor, who happened to be the lifeguard on duty the day that Joe was drowned in the pool decades earlier, states an old cemetery once stood where the school was built. He then concludes the presence in the pool must be the spirit of a body not properly removed prior to construction as its slumber had been disturbed, though no one has ever seen anything. The encounter with the spirit had been preceded by a strong smell similar to rotten eggs, which leads Zeke to believe it is composed partially of an acid and suggests dumping Methyl Orange into the pool to cause a chemical reaction turning anything in the pool red(Science!). Mere seconds after pouring the compound into the pool, we finally get to see the terrifying crimson ghoul as it emerges from the water…

This scared the hell out of me as a kid…wait, why does it have a beard?

Zeke and Clorice are then pursued by the pool monster throughout the pool house as the monster is….made of water and can travel through the locker room pipes(EVERYONE in the school would have been dead by this point, right? All of a sudden it can travel OUTSIDE the swimming pool?). They get the idea to replicate a science class experiment of Zeke’s from earlier when he explains adding Mangenite to water causes a chemical reaction(like a volcano, more Science!) and rush to the science lab to conduct such an experiment. The Mangenite is dumped into the pool, causing the hideous monster to screech and melt away, all before cutting away to a happy ending showing Zeke and Clorice relaxing on a raft in the pool…

Having watched this episode in recent years, it’s somewhat laughable the things that once seemed so scary, but now just look dated to the point of almost comical. The Tale of the Dead Man’s Float is typically considered among the scariest episodes of Are You Afraid of the Dark? and was the cause of nightmares as a kid, very much the same way the “Return of the Mummy” episode of Goosebumps caused so much terror as a 9-year old. I will still go back and watch a few episodes here and there of Are You Afraid of the Dark? and in many ways may be more entertaining as an adult that has learned to appreciate these campy, cheesy horror stories. The Halloween season seemed like a perfect time to mention that stupid pool monster that seemed so scary 25 years ago…

Anyone else remember Are You Afraid of the Dark? or this particular episode? Thanks for reading!

Note: I intended to have todays’s post about F.E.A.R ready to go, but playing through it has gone much slower than intended due to being only able to play in short sessions before the motion sickness sets in(much like Half-Life 2). I decided to switch around my planned Monday and Friday posts…

Blogtober 2020 – Castlevania: Bloodlines

There are some games that we immediately associate with a particular platform or console despite not being a first-party exclusive title like a Mario or Halo game. In the case of Castlevania, fans are most likely to associate the beloved Konami series with either of two console brands – Nintendo or Playstation. The first Castlevania game was released on the NES back in 1986 and followed by two sequels in 1987 and ’89. It was in 1991 that Super Castlevania IV made its 16-bit debut on the SNES. Castlevania made its arrival on the Playstation with Symphony of the Night in 1997 and along with going on to be considered one of the best entries in the series(having finally played it last October, I very much agree), it marked a gameplay shift towards collection of items and acquisition of upgrades through exploration in the vein of Super Metroid. Symphony of the Night is generally recognized as the game that put the “vania” in the Metroidvania subgenre. It’s understandable that one would typically associate Castlevania with either Nintendo consoles or the Sony Playstation as the former was there for the series’ birth and the Playstation was the landing place for an immortal classic that helped create an entire subgenre of games. Despite this, there were Castlevania games released on consoles not featuring Nintendo or Sony trademarks; Rondo of Blood was released on the PC Engine in Japan and there was also a Castlevania game released on the Sega Genesis…

Castlevania: Bloodlines was released on the Sega Genesis in 1994 and quite frequently gets overlooked as a series entry due to being the lone release on a Sega console. I recently played through the game for the first time and it’s a shame a solid game from a beloved franchise such as Castlevania seems to have gone mostly unnoticed. I owned a Sega Genesis growing up and didn’t even know a Castlevania game existed on the console until my later teen years as I was finally purchasing my own Super Nintendo at a FuncoLand. I had always been more aware of the Castlevania game on the console I DIDN’T own….

My favorite aspect of Castlevania: Bloodlines is its levels and environments. The game features six levels, the first taking place in the ruins of Castle Dracula with the following levels being scattered across Europe. I really loved making my way across the marble columns and statues of ancient Atlantis as you avoid being knocked into the sea by charging minotaurs and avoid the flying medusa heads(of course they’re still here) that attack you as you both ascend and descend the sinking ruins. Another highlight of the game was scaling the Leaning Tower of Pisa to fight the flying Gargoyle at the top. The Tower of Pisa level features a rotating background and platforms in a very similar manner to the pseudo-3D/Mode 7 backgrounds used in Super Castlevania. The final level within Castle Prosperina is particularly memorable as sections of the castle are distorted as you attempt to jump from platform to platform(while avoiding medusa heads, of course), but must account for an offset section of the screen requiring you to stay focused on your character’s feet in order to properly judge distances between platforms. Another section of the level finds the laws of gravity being broken as the section is inverted and you fight your way through the area upside-down, very much like the Inverted Castle in Symphony of the Night.

Bloodlines still features the trademark Castlevania difficulty(pre-Symphony of the Night at least) as knockback damage is a very real hazard throughout. As with most Castlevania games, I believe I lost more lives due to being knocked from a platform or ledge rather than the actual attacks from enemies.

Bloodlines deviates from previous Castlevania games in a few ways: first, you play as either – John Morris or Eric LeCarde, both of whom are members of the Belmont….bloodline(pun) despite not sharing the same surname. Morris and LeCarde embark on a quest to stop Elizabeth Bartley, the resurrected niece of Dracula who seeks to use the death and destruction of World War I to revive the Prince of Darkness. John wields the iconic Vampire Killer whip as his primary weapon(the first game to mention it by this name) and Eric is equipped with the Alucard Spear, choosing Eric makes portions of the game easier due to the spear’s reach very similar to the way players would select Donatello in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES game. It’s interesting that Konami seemingly chose to canonize the events depicted in Bram Stoker’s Dracula into the Castlevania timeline by making mention of John Morris as being the son of Quincey Morris, one of the men responsible for defeating Count Dracula in the classic novel. The second difference from Castlevania games up to that point was the fact the game takes place outside Castle Dracula and its vicinity. The levels are spread across different locations in Europe during World War I, such as the Palace at Versailles, a German munitions factory, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and even the sinking city of Atlantis.

Similar to how Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse featured branching paths that determined which characters would accompany you and which levels you would play, Bloodlines includes areas that are only accessible within a level by a particular character. For example, John can use the Vampire Killer to swing across gaps to the safety of another platform whereas Eric has the ability to perform a super jump which propels him vertically to the upper reaches of a level. There’s also a different ending for each character, with the final scene being dependent on which difficulty level the game was completed on. I had no idea until an hour or so into playing Bloodlines that Eric even had the super jump ability; I had spent the prior 10 minutes replaying levels thinking I had missed a doorway or jump somewhere as I was unable to swing across the same gap as I had done moments before with John.

Bloodlines is a very good Castlevania game that feels right at home on the Sega Genesis among other sidescrollers of the time. The music and sound effects are good and have the signature 90’s Sega “crunch” to them(Streets of Rage is a good example of this sound profile). The game visuals have a very nice color and tone, with some striking environments such as Atlantis and Versailles, though some of the enemy sprites seem a little underwhelming compared to similar 16-bit games of the era. My other critique of Bloodlines is the controls – suiting the demanding style of play needed to reach the final areas of the game, but still feel slightly more restrictive in comparison to Super Castlevania, to my taste at least. I especially felt this when trying to attack enemies diagonally with the Vampire Killer or Alucard’s Spear(those shoulder buttons on the SNES controller make the difference). I feel what sets Bloodlines apart from other Castlevania games is mostly its setting and story more than anything in the gameplay formula, which seems to suggest a “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach by Konami as they brought the series to a Sega console. There’s a lot of fun to be had in Bloodlines’ interesting levels and bosses, including yet another encounter with Death and a final battle with Dracula, who this time around has not two, but three forms. Despite a few minor criticisms, I still feel Bloodlines is a very good-to-great Castlevania game and absolutely worth checking out. If nothing else, it deserves far more attention than it ever seemed to receive during the Nintendo-Sega console wars of the 90’s.

We’re starting this year’s Blogtober the same way we finished last year’s – with a Castlevania title. Any thoughts on Castlevania: Bloodlines? Let me know. Next up: my thoughts on Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. Thanks for reading!