Top Ten Halloween-Themed Stages in Retro Games (Festival of Dread Special)
Welcome back to The Splintering‘s Festival of Dread, our month-long celebration of all things that go bump in the night!
Today, we’re going to highlight some of the best Halloween and horror-themed stages in retro games. It’s important to note that this list will not include stages from games that are fully horror inspired like Castlevania or Ghouls N’ Ghosts, but rather will focus on stages from games that aren’t exclusively horror themed. You’ll get the idea.
Without further ado, let’s get to the list!
10. Pumpkin Hill – Sonic Adventure 2 (Dreamcast)
For a game series built around uniquely themed “zones”, it’s a bit surprising that it took so long for Sonic to get a proper Halloween-themed stage (No, Mystic Cave Zone doesn’t count!). Sonic Adventure 2 was also the final Sonic title published for a dedicated SEGA console. In Pumpkin Hill, you play as Knuckles in search of three lost shards of the shattered Master Emerald. The stage is jam-packed with multiple Halloween icons, including gravestones, ghosts, scarecrows, and of course, jack-o-lanterns. With all of that Halloween fun packed into a single stage, one might wonder why Pumpkin Hill isn’t higher on the list. Well, it’s because the Knuckles (and Rouge the Bat) stages in Sonic Adventure 2 suck, that’s why.
9. Transylvania – DuckTales (NES)
Capcom’s original DuckTales game is a celebrated platformer by many retro gamers. Many will probably point to The Moon as the game’s standout stage, but the final stage, Transylvania, is also very much worthy of attention. Ending with a final battle facing off against Count Dracula Duck, the stage is clearly inspired by the Castlevania series. You’ll encounter ghosts, skeletons, mummies, possessed suits of armor, all against a backdrop of a medieval castle, complete with tattered curtains, coffins, and magic mirrors. It also received a well-done upgrade in Way Forward’s DuckTales Remastered, which added additional areas and haunting portraits in the background. In any case, it’s a great capstone stage for an exceptional platformer.
8. Graveyard – Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker (Genesis)
As if a game starring Michael Jackson wasn’t terrifying enough, Moonwalker for the SEGA Genesis also features an iconic trek through a treacherous graveyard. The stage filled with undead enemies who attack the King of Pop amid a backdrop of numerous tombstones. Despite being a very early Genesis title, the foreground also has a nice mist effect using transparencies, showing just how Genesis does what Nintendon’t! But why do we list only the SEGA Genesis version of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker and not the arcade original? Because the graveyard level kinda sucks in the arcade version, that’s why. Unfortunately, the song Thriller was cut from the stage very late in development due to rights issues, which would have made the Graveyard stage even more of a Halloween classic. Can you track down one of the rarer original releases that still has a Thriller snippet in it?
7. Ghost Houses – Super Mario World (Super NES)
For many, Super Mario World is the pinnacle of the Mario franchise. The Super Nintendo pack-in title established many of the series’ most enduring elements, including Yoshi, save files, and ghost houses! Sure, the ghosts themselves were introduced in Super Mario Bros. 3, but they’re most iconic moment came in Super Mario World‘s ghost houses. These stages were maze-like labyrinths that required the player for find a number of hidden paths, and often included a secret exit which opened entirely new paths on the main world map. The ghost houses have since made appearances in many later Mario titles, perhaps most notably the ghost house tracks in the Super Mario Kart series.
6. The Mad Doctor – Mickey Mania (Genesis, Super NES, SEGA CD)
There were plenty of great Mickey Mouse games in the early 90s, and Mickey Mania is among the best. Each stage was designed around a classic Mickey Mouse cartoon, which included not one, but two great stages that are horror themed: The Mad Doctor (stage 2) and Lonesome Ghosts (stage 4). It’s really tough to pick just one, but if pressed, I’d have to say that The Mad Doctor edges out Lonesome Ghosts as the better Halloween-ish stage, as it has a larger variety of enemies and a more interesting backdrop set in a castle. Mickey battles bats, skeletons (both human and spider), and of course, the Mad Doctor himself. There’s even a pitch black sequence where Mickey must navigate a series of platforms in total darkness. There really are tons of good ideas in Mickey Mania, and retro platformer enthusiasts should definitely give it a shot if they’ve never played it.
5. Gauntlet Legends (Arcade, PlayStation, Dreamcast, N64)
The Forsaken Province is the second area of Gauntlet Legends, the late 90s revival of Atari’s classic Gauntlet arcade game. All of the stages are packed with graveyards, zombies, leeches, and hordes of the undead. There are plenty of great stages within the Forsaken Province, but forced to choose just one, I’d have to go with the Poison Fields, with the Mausoleum as a close second. It’s the soundtrack that really sets the Poison Fields above the other stages, and for that reason, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Gauntlet Legends on a console with CD quality audio such as the PlayStation or SEGA Dreamcast. The Poison Fields tune would later be recycled by the game’s sequel, Gauntlet Dark Legacy, in a stage similarly called the Poisoned Fields. You should also check out this Angelo Cicero’s remix of the tune by while you’re at it, which is phenomenal.
4. World of Make Believe – Alex Kidd: the Lost Stars (Arcade, Master System)
The third stage of Alex Kidd: the Lost Stars is known as the World of Make Believe, and into this haunting forest filled with danger, SEGA’s once-upon-a-mascot Alex must venture (and Stella, if you’re playing the co-op arcade original). The Lost Stars is a bizarre game all the way up and down, and it doesn’t really take much from the character’s well-received first outing Alex Kidd in Miracle World. Specifically in the World of Make Believe stage, the Prince of Radaxian faces off against zombies, skull traps, floating eyes, spear-wielding devils, and his most horrifying rival ever – the naked mohawk kid who poops skulls at you. He’s an enemy so noteworthy, we gave him the top spot in 2019’s list of Most Remarkable Rear Ends. It all culminates in Alex rescuing the third “lost star” from its jack-o-lantern prison at the end of the stage, making the World of Make Believe quite possibly the most disturbing stage of this entire list.
3. Pumpkin Zone – Super Mario Land 2: the Six Golden Coins (Game Boy)
Those who know me well might be surprised to see me dual honors to the Mario series (it’s not among my favorites, to say the least), but you have to give it all of the credit that objectivity demands. Mario’s second Game Boy outing, Super Mario Land 2: the Six Golden Coins, is almost certainly his best. One of the six areas in the game is Pumpkin Zone, which is built inside a giant Jack-o-Lantern, and features a number of Halloween-themed stages such as a cemetery, a castle and a haunted Japanese shrine. Mario has to face off against ghosts, walking Jason masks, enchanted broomsticks, the spirits of fallen goombas, and the final boss fight against a witch and her three magical cauldrons. There’s a catchy, haunting theme song behind the stages too, which makes good use of the Game Boy’s limited sound chip. So why is Pumpkin Zone ranked higher than the ghost houses of Super Mario World? Because Super Mario Land 2 is a better game, that’s why. Come at me, Mario fanboys!
2. What the Heck? – Earthworm Jim (Genesis, Super NES, SEGA CD)
Created by Shiny Entertainment, Earthworm Jim is one of the more unique platforming games of the 1990s. Not only are all of the character designs uniquely inspired, but the stages are just as creative. Amid all of the game’s whimsy is a fairly dark stage titled “What the Heck?”, which sends our invertebrate hero straight to hell. The world is so brilliantly colored in tones of red and orange that you can almost feel the heat, while the soundtrack transitions from spooky rendition of Night on Bald Mountain to elevator music punctuated with the painful outcries of the damned. Hell would have elevator music, wouldn’t it? Of course there are plenty of lava traps and flying, dog-like demons to contend with, though the human population of
Hell Heck seems to be made up almost entirely by lawyers, which makes sense. I mean, nothing is more terrifying than lawyers. There’s also a fire-breathing snowman miniboss thrown in for good measure. All the while, the stage’s boss Evil the Cat (a stand-in for Satan) gyrates in the background, dancing gleefully while an underworld’s worth of lawyers get their due comeuppance. “What the Heck?” is a truly awesome stage and one of the high points in this already well-done action/platformer.
1. Shade Man Stage – Mega Man VII (Super NES)
There’s no Halloween like Robo-Halloween! While Mega Man (Rockman in Japan) has faced off against many a foe, very few have tapped into a Halloween theme so unabashedly as Shade Man. The multi-tiered stage is set in both a graveyard and robotic castles complete with graves, coffins, and even a creepy framed portrait of Dr. Wily. Throughout Shade Man’s stage, the Blue Bomber faces off against bats (naturally), zombie-robots, a giant jack-o-lantern mini-boss, even werewolf bots who transform from knight to wolf depending on whether the moon is covered by clouds. Of course, this all ends with a face-off against the robot master Shade Man, who is himself fashioned after a robot vampire. Perhaps the coolest thing about the stage, however, is that there is a secret alternative music track that you Hold B when selecting the stage to play it with a Mega Man-esque remix of the Ghouls N Ghosts main theme. Shade Man’s stage is on its own, but that last bit of fan service puts it over the top.
Thanks for reading! Did we miss one, or several? Let us know in the comments, and to read more of our Festival of Dread content, go here!