There's a scene in Grabbed by the Ghoulies that is so silly, I defy anyone to play it and not smile. It's an undead disco, with skeletons and zombies all camply bopping away to a fantastic electric guitar rendition of the opening theme, blaring out from a DJ booth that's being operated by a gleefully scratch-happy mummy. But there's a problem – disturb any of the dancers and they all attack you. Party's over: the only way to progress from the room is to kill every last one of them.
So, when I first played through the game in 2004, that's exactly how it went down. I ended up not only killing all the skeletons and beating the zombies to death with their own arms (they fall off sometimes – a common problem sadly associated with post-life dancing), but I even killed the mummy and smashed up his decks. The music stopped and I was left alone in the empty, silent ballroom, suddenly feeling a tremendous sense of guilt. Sure, the door was open and I could continue, but at what cost? Zombies don't deserve to die just because they fart a lot. There must be all kinds of gaseous emissions from their decomposing guts. They deserve a break.
Time passed and I forgot about it. Then Rare Replay came along. I was very excited to hear that Grabbed by the Ghoulies was not only on it, but in HD too. The crisp reflections in the polished floors look good enough to be a modern-day download title, and the cel-shaded style of the characters' lighting goes a long way to making up for their comparatively low polygon counts. Of course I was going to play through it again.
After a decade away from the game, my two biggest suspicions were confirmed. Firstly, it is indeed an extremely good video game. Secondly, it still has the most stupid name of all the things that have ever had names. In case you're unaware of the British vernacular, 'grabbed by the goolies' is a playground phrase I had not otherwise heard since 1987. Nobody in the world should want to name their game around the act of being roughly manhandled by your private parts.
Not that the name alone is the reason the game is so chastised. This was the first output from Rare after the team left its Nintendo exclusivity in favour of Microsoft. So even though Grabbed by the Ghoulies was originally intended to be a Gamecube game (and still feels like one), it instead single-handedly represented a heinous abandonment of many people's childhoods. And being a new game with new characters on a new platform, I think it was too easy for everyone to hate.
But they were missing out. Oh boy, they were missing out. What starts off as a somewhat awkward third-person brawler develops into a game of supreme tactical weapon and space management. Since you attack by tilting the right stick, usually via melee attacks but occasionally with projectiles, it's actually a lot more like a twin-stick shooter than most people realise. If the camera were overhead, you would see the protagonist, Cooper, moving around the room to kite in dangerous enemies and manipulate the situation ready to unleash a large attack like a pool table sweep.
The game is also made all the better for its linear structure. Originally intended to be a free-roaming, Resident Evil-style mansion environment, Rare instead elected to turn the manor into a linear sequence of rooms, each with its own rules. Some turn your health to 5/100, forcing you to either find more or fight flawlessly, while others require you to kill a certain type of ghoulie within a time limit.
Brilliantly, sometimes it pays to break the rules. Failing a task doesn't mean Game Over – instead it just mean the Grim Reaper appears. He will kill you instantly if he touches you, but that also applies to anything else he touches. Even the biggest, baddest Ghoulies can be seen off with careful positioning of yourself and the enemies. As long as you manage to keep yourself from his icy touch (which results in the scariest chest-clutching death scene you'll ever see in a 3+ game), Death himself is a weapon you can use to your advantage.
If this all sounds like a jarring mismatch of child-friendly cartoony fun and grown-up gaming, you're absolutely right. Some enemies are distinctly cute, yet the script is laden with double entendres that will have the grown-ups sniggering away quietly. But I don't mind that. Most games were child-friendly in the '90s and yet adults could enjoy them too – this just widens the trench in the middle. Most importantly, it works as a video game regardless of demographic, seriously rewarding skill and quick thinking.
The whole Ghoulie universe is just so likable. Basically, it's like playing a particularly daft episode of Scooby Doo, so I don't see how anyone could dislike it. I love the noise the imps make when you kick them. I love the way the Grim Reaper plays electric guitar using his scythe after he kills you. I love the character of Fiddlesworth, the outwardly friendly groundskeeper who's almost certainly on a list of 'offenders' somewhere. And I especially love the things he says. Trample my turnips!
Best of all, it's almost as though Rare knows what's going through my head, even that guilt at the ballroom massacre. And so, starting my third playthrough (yes, I do love it that much), I reach that moment yet again. And I'm so, so careful this time. I stand and watch that last skeleton by the gate. Every once in a while he does a side step, which – just for a moment – leaves the exit gate clear. I watch him several times, learning the tell that means he's about to do it. And you know what? I slip by. I actually slip by.
The mummy attacks me, but this time I don't retaliate. I grab the Rare tome (there's one in every room), and exit the ballroom with the party intact. An achievement pops up: 'Don't Want Any Trouble' for getting through the ballroom without starting a fight. My chest puffs out with pride. For a game so many people hate on, it doesn't half know how to make you feel good. Pet my piglet.