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Review: Ghoul Grind: Night of the Necromancer

The world of indie Dreamcast games has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. A period of cheap and cheerful, mostly puzzle-orientated titles in the mid-00s was followed by a lengthy period of time where, alongside the last officially pressed GD-ROM releases authorised by Sega, we were treated to several shoot-'em-ups from a variety of indie developers. That period was so lengthy, in fact, that we still see some social media influencers parroting the tired opinion that "the DC only receives indie shooters," instantly earning them the wrath of the collective Junkyard crew. 

By the mid-2010s, the array of titles finding a physical release was a much more diverse selection: racing, platforming, adventures, RPGs, twin stick shooters, 3D shooters and many other genres found their way to the Dreamcast, and still do! 

We're currently staring at the quite ludicrous prospect of nearly 30 upcoming releases for this incredible machine that just refuses to die. As well as a broader selection, the quality has also seen a marked improvement as well – arguably reaching a recent peak with the releases of Xeno Crisis, Xenocider and Intrepid Izzy - three impeccable independent releases that have pushed the boundaries of quality; not only with their gameplay, but in the presentation department as well. Whilst not every game will reach the lofty heights of that trio, the days of any old game being released and instantly receiving praise just because it's 'on the Dreamcast' are long gone. 

Indeed, while I and the rest of the Junkyard crew are overjoyed that so many talented developers are bringing new games to the Dreamcast, we are now in an era - bizarrely - where we can be more objective about new titles than ever before.

Ghoul Grind: Night of the Necromancer may not be a candidate to sit alongside the Izzys or Xenos at the very top level of what's available, but that doesn't mean it's a bad game. Developer Woog Worx's main goal was to Kickstart a brand new NES physical release, with a Dreamcast port as a stretch goal. Ghoul Grind is a 2D, 8-bit, auto scrolling platformer with a distinctly Halloween theme. Due to it being a port of an NES game, on a technical level, it certainly doesn't push the Dreamcast in any way whatsoever. A successful Kickstarter campaign, which didn't seem to elicit much attention from the DC community (if you had listened to us, you would have backed it, so don't complain now!), was completed back in April 2021, and by the end of that year, the game was already in backer's hands - the sort of quick turnaround story that we can always get behind at the 'Yard!

The plot (played out through a short introduction sequence and in the game's lovely full colour manual - more about that later) sees Nox and Veronica - boyfriend and girlfriend - tasked with saving the townsfolk of Saint Crypton from their best friend Vladimir; who is raising the dead, bringing ghouls, ghosts and goblins out onto the streets, forests and crypts of the town. As someone who lives quite happily year round with the oranges and blacks of Halloween decorations decorating my house, the aesthetic on offer really hits a sweet spot. 

The game oozes a charmingly nostalgic All Hallows Eve atmosphere, with a suitably ghoulish 8-bit soundtrack (which may not be to the masterful level of some indie offerings, but considering the limitations of the original hardware, is rather good) and a colour palette full of oranges and browns to give it an autumnal look, as well as eerie blues, blood reds and the blackest blacks, really making the most of those hardware limits again. Woog Worx really do deserve credit for their character design and spooky atmosphere. Ghoul Grind sits in a perfect cross-section of 8-bit, Tim Burton and horror aesthetic.  

Gameplay is pretty straightforward: your characters auto run through the levels, with your control being limited to one button to jump, and one button to fire your weapon. You can change between the two characters on the fly throughout - and need to do so to get past certain sections - but there is little in the way of complexity here. The levels have all manner of suitably Halloween-themed enemies (with some great accompanying artwork in the manual), and are chock full of tricky jumps and platforming elements to challenge the player. 

Chances are, on your first attempt at each stage, you will die a fair few times before you know exactly when to time the action required. When you do die, it's straight back to the beginning where you attempt to traverse the level again, your knowledge of what you've already seen aiding your progress. There are 18 levels in total, as well as six boss encounters, which change up the obstacles you come across, but the gameplay remains broadly the same throughout. 

It'd be fair to say that this can lead to some challenging moments, but the instant restarts lower the sense of frustration. There is the occasional instance of a button press seemingly missed, although I didn't notice this too often. For the most part, this is as smooth as an NES port to the Dreamcast would be expected to be. Smooth can also be used to describe the packaging of the game. We have come to expect good quality packaging in recent years, what with the rise of JoshProd and Wave Game Studios, and Ghoul Grind lives up to that. 

A full colour manual contains loads of excellent illustrations, and the overall package is professional looking. Originally, you could only obtain the Dreamcast version of the game when backing a level with a physical NES cart as well, and whilst we're not the NES Junkyard, I have to say that the high quality of packaging crosses over to that release as well. For those who weren't interested in getting the NES cart too, standalone purchase option for the Dreamcast release are now available.

There isn't much more to say about the game, really. It's a decidedly simple premise, well executed, with a great gothic Halloween-loving atmospheric style (and an awesome name to boot - although it sounds more like the sort of blackened Death Metal band and album title that I'd happily lap up). Just remember that it's not something which was made with the Dreamcast in mind (although, kudos to Woog Worx for replacing the NES controllers featured in the background of the training levels, with Dreamcast controllers); or a game that will thrill those that want indie games to push the envelope of what we've come to expect on the console.


You can purchase your own copy of the game at the Woog Worx store here. You can download a demo or buy a PC version of the game at their itch.io page here. The Woog Worx main website can be found here.

Have you purchased Ghoul Grind: Night of the Necromancer for Dreamcast? If so, please do let us know your thoughts on it in the comments.

10 comments:

DCGX said...

I somehow missed this entirely last year, but I bit and ordered one. There's only 15 DC copies left as of my posting this.

Tom Charnock said...

Great review Mike, I had no idea about this one!

Unknown said...

Great in depth review as always! Might pick this one up!

JPG said...

Backed it, received my copy a few weeks back & even made a short video.

Agree with your review totally. It has a lovely aesthetic and definitely has that old school “one more go” factor. The packaging is also top notch.

However the buttons don’t always seem to register the inputs which can be frustrating when it happens after you clear a tricky bit but the lack of a lives counter helps reduce frustration somewhat. Definitely a fun palette cleanser game in short doses.

Tom Charnock said...

@JPG - fell free to share your video URL here in the comments

Anthony817 said...

They really went through the trouble of porting it and updating the tutorial section with actual Dreamcast controllers and button presses so that gets high praises from me than simply packing the game into an emulator. So good on them! I like 8 bit style indie games like Shovel Knight so this looks to be right up my alley!

BTW, a bit off topic but have you guys been keeping up with the news that Tomb Raider 1 has been fully ported to the Dreamcast now and is built on OpenLara a great open sourced engine reimplimentation that adds a lot of features to the game? Tomb Raider 2 and 3 will eventually come in the future as well! Just search OpenLara Dreamcast into YouTube or Google and you can see how it looks.

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks Anthony817 - I'm aware of the OpenLara work ongoing on Dreamcast (mainly through the thread on DC-Talk and the work of you, Ian Michael, megavolt et al). We will undoubtedly cover it once there's a version that can easily be played on a Dreamcast with a CDI/ISO or whatever, which probably isn't that far away!

Anthony817 said...

Cheers!

DCGX said...

I had some time to play this on Saturday. Overall, it's a neat little, NES platformer. I'd prefer if it wasn't an auto-runner. They could've mapped the character switch to the Select button on the NES and X or Y on the Dreamcast, and allowed for free movement.

I did notice a few jumps not always jumping. Maybe the character needs to be firming on the ground first, but as stated above, the infinite lives and respawning not far from the spot of death balances out the NES "difficulty" nicely.

Dubcity said...

Purchased a digital copy. I completely missed this one. Thanks for the heads up guys.