Brock Wilbur explores the lesser-known horror games of the 20th century.
In the great scheme of Nintendo, only a few Nintendo titles snuck through for adults. Each generation, much like the Slayer of Buffy, a few random games are chosen to stand against the darkness. In this case, Nintendo refuses to abandon its “all ages” image, but alongside each console there are a few bizarre exceptions to that rule and they are almost always worthy of note.
Most of my generation will remember this divide as the Mortal Kombat moment: when Sega’s Genesis system allowed angry testosterone monsters to punch and stab and occasionally freeze each other in the pursuit of gibletted revenge, Nintendo replaced each instance of unwarranted cruelty with repurposed colors for sweat. Yeah, I agree with you, it isn’t the best replacement and also it isn’t a bad replacement either — because it is horrifically stupid. There are plenty of other strange exemptions. Goldeneye, one of the best shooters of all time, came out on a platform ostensibly for kids. Remasters of the Resident Evil games started here, the spacewitch Bayonetta who is naked except for a layer of magic hair she uses as a weapon also started at Nintendo and Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem showed up on the Gamecube out of nowhere and remains just about the tops of the horror survival genre.
One other adultish horror title came to the Gamecube and it followed in Eternal Darkness’ footsteps as a new IP unrelated to any Nintendo properties, intended for a mature audience and offering a chance to do something bigger, scarier and better on a game system mostly meant for games with “Mario” and/or “Sunshine” in the title. The game wound up in development limbo for two years after being shown off at E3 – while Nintendo and the original dev team fought over what kind of game they were making. The result is a game that has been both praised and pointed to as one of the worst games of all time.
That game is Geist.
Originally sold as a game called Fear (yes, that’s how general the concept of horror was in this game) the company N-Space pitched a sort of Invisible Protagonist shooter title. Nintendo loved it, but turned it into something more spirit based while also pushing to make the game more of an adventure puzzle game in first-person. That back and forth resulted in a lot of ideas being tossed into play far later in development than ever should have been approved. The result is a game that is more silly than scary (except when it is absolutely out-of-nowhere terrifying) and a style of gameplay that switches from military shooter to otherworldly joke puzzles on the goddamned fly.
It’s a clunky disaster that it is stupidly fun, but is also mostly fun because of this cool set of ideas it horribly mangles in its implementation. Geist is a better idea than an experience, but ignoring the good/bad dichotomy, it is absolutely a memorable Experience.
Firing up a Gamecube for the first time in years made this entire revisit worth it. The controller still feels weird and the box itself even sounds like there’s something broken as it tries to read the disc. Was this ever a good system, or even a good idea? Probably. I’ve had a beer and the idea of games coming in cubes is already funny to me. This’ll be a fun playthrough.
Geist opens with you, a scientist (sigh) slash anti-terrorist soldier-man (?) who is part of a military anti-terrorism unit that is ALSO undercover in a place of Bad Science Experiments but also your best friend is a cool black dude who runs this team. It feels like an improv team coming up with an action movie. You break into a secret underground lab base but also your friend is already here but also everyone is very scared of you? This is like Mission Impossible if the mission was indeed impossible because no one could get on the same fucking page as early as minute two. The Volk Corporation is working on something that “sounds like” Demon Virus. Knowing that an American company made this, let Nintendo do two years of rewrites, and then released is like knowing it was just Babelfished to death.
It’s worth noting here that the graphics of this game are rather spectacular and the animations are super not. This underground lab has so many hues and textures and breakable surfaces and such – it feels like the sort of game that must have been ahead of its time. And then you have to interact with one other human and it falls a-fucking-part. The members of your team address you with only one line “What’s going on, Raimi?” They say it back to back to back. This includes line by line introductions to the mechanics of the game. Cool Black Friend shouts “What’s going on, Raimi?” and then I learn how to operate my PDA. Why is a PDA part of the game? I don’t know and it barely comes into play again. In fact, the entire intro level of the game introduces game mechanics that don’t come back. If it was an intentional fake-out, it would be brilliant. It isn’t. It’s just dead threads.
You go from looking in a microscope at some kind of haunted blood cells to suddenly engaging in a gigantic firefight with your team of military dudes versus another team of military dudes. Right off the bat, the movement and firing of your pistol feels clunky to a degree that a game made after Goldeneye should not. You just . . . don’t move right? It feels like Resident Evil tank-controls but instead it’s a normal layout, just done bad for no reason. Also, and especially in this first round of battle, everyone else has automatic machine gun death-devices and you have this stupid pistol. Again, if level one was designed to remind you that you aren’t a military guy and have no business dabbling in this weird, this choice would seem supremely well handled. It really isn’t that. Meanwhile, your support team has the kind of AI that forces them to stand directly in front of your gun when you fire, because yet again, this squad mechanic is not a thing that returns in the game.
What does stick out even in the earliest gameplay is this weird sense of horror comedy in the timing and execution of things. One guy tries to shoot you and gets crushed by a gigantic pipe. Another dude opens a door and is perforated with bullets. When you and your team try to cross a bridge over an open pit to Hell, the guy in front of you trips on his shoelace and the music stops. He says “I’m fine,” and then a gigantic piercing tentacle beast pulls his body apart while biting his head off. Again, no idea that it was this sort game? Where did the angry insect god come from and why is he impossible to kill? You’re just left with your head spinning here. You and your team reach an extraction point, which is when a ghost possesses one of your friends and he shoots everyone including you.
Yeah. This is one of those games where you’re already dead. Geist is basically Sunset Boulevard if instead of being ready for a close-up, Norma Desmond literally tore the soul from a man’s body.
That’s what happens here. You’re placed in a machine over a Hellpit and it pulls your soul out but leaves your body . . . not dead, I guess? Maybe you can get back to that? In the meantime, we meet a bad military man and an evil scientist man in a wheelchair and oh boy do they have plans for you. Those plans include something called Project Z, because we’re still letting an improv troupe do the plot here, and previously all the Real Military Dudes they’ve ghost-sucked have wound up going insane instead of being Cool-Ass Ghost Soldiers – which is why they want to try this on you.
First, you absolutely just spent 100% of this game in military shootouts where you were doing the military shooting. You are not a civilian and this plan is dumb. Second, what do Insane Ghosts do? Do they die? Do they just not follow commands? Do they possess other ghosts in a mobius strip of plot holes? Finally, how do you control a ghost? This feels like an Incredible Hulk origin film where they accidentally give the serum to, like, ISIS and then spend the film wondering why ISIS Hulk isn’t doing what they asked for – but with ghosts.
This is a mess.
You have a botched extraction from a subterranean lab and then a botched murder and then a pretty good soul extraction that feeds you into a machine designed to train you on how to be a ghost. This is when shit really goes off the rails, inside this ghost holodeck school for ghosts. The pleasant lady robot voiced narrator introduces you to a hypnotic, technicolor dream world where you float around dissolving plants and then inhabiting the body of a rabbit that you can make hop around. I’m not making this up. I wish I was. There is absolutely no consistent tone in this game. Less than five minutes ago, I watched a Cthulhu Bug decapitate my friend and now I’m digging up Mr. McGregor’s garden because I’m super dead but not done with school.
Your ghost machine falls apart into a weird wire frame world, which is one of my favorite in-game error sequences I’ve seen. Can the whole game be this? No, because the machine was just broken by a Victorian Era Child Ghost who can only address me in audio form by Hauntedly Singing “Raimi…” and the ghost is named Gigi and I want to hatefuck whoever made this game. This is truly a disaster of mythical proportions and I am losing my mind.
Gigi teaches you how to be a ghost, which involves learning to float and possess things. You can only ghost-about for so long before your life force slips away and you become Actual Dead, so you jump into living things or inanimate objects. Gigi takes you to a weird closet somewhere in Evil Lab and shows you how to suck yourself through holes in the wall and then you possess the following items: a mop bucket, an antique shooting gallery arcade machine and a power generator. I am, once again in disbelief, knowing that a Nintendo title about poltergeisting an old mop bucket did not become the AAA sales blockbuster Geist was meant to be.
If you remember my love of Haunting: Starring Polterguy then you’ll know what comes with the possession of inanimate objects in this game. See, in order to get into a human or a dog or a rat or whatever else you might body-steal in this game, you first have to scare them to the point their aura turns red. I’m so excited. A first person Haunting game? This is exactly what I want. I want to be a ghost who uses weird real-world stuff in weird ways to scare people until they pee. I am back in. I use a spooky mop bucket to scare a soldier and then I jump into his brain and now I have guns and can do things. This is pretty okay.
In the very first room I infiltrate, the military folks going about their Evil Science Work love talking to me about everything that has ever gone wrong in their Evil Science Lab. Everyone thinks it is business as usual that some invisible force has definitely escaped into their base. I think to myself that later in the game, the difficulty will ramp up when they have some kind of Ghost Detection Checkpoint and in that very same room, this early in the game, there is a Ghost Detection Checkpoint. My dudes, at least let me have some Ghost Fun before this gets out of control. It turns out that checkpoint looks scary with a whole laser grid system, but it’s actually just a dog that barks at possessed folks and then everyone shoots you. I possess this dog – and that didn’t go as planned. I get shot to death, but now I just grab another dude’s body and infinite gun ammo. I don’t have to scare guys when we’re in combat which I think is a giant flaw, and then I remember human beings in giant gun fights are probably at least somewhat stressed, so of everything Geist fucks up I’ll give this a pass.
There are cutscenes involving the dogs in this game that make you say, “WHAT A GOOD BOY” to the cute pupper doggo on screen just before you fill it with machine gun bullets. I fucking hate this choice. Pupper doggos did not chose to live in an underground ghost lab – no one would.
Unfortunately, the next fours don’t bring anything new of worth talking about to the table here, which is such a disappointment. You mostly jump between soldiers and animals, solving puzzles with only one solution and lamenting the possibilities of what this could have been if Geist picked a lane. Most of the Haunted Object stuff you pull off has to come in one specific order. There’s no openness to who you might possess next or even in what order you can scare them. Haunting gave you a big open world to scare around in and that was two generations ago. The stakes never have weight when you can just die and jump into another enemy, and every boss battle is an unrelentingly long bullet-sponge for shooting their weak point while dodging projectiles. It gets un-fun and it gets un-fun fast.
As for the story, you wind up escaping and being recaptured by the Volk Company three times throughout the game. The only good twist is that an evil insane ghost winds up taking over your body and killing your best friend. Again. Also, the little girl is the old evil wheelchair man’s sister who died as a child and he brought her back as a ghost but also a demon took him over and is using capitalism to bring down the world. These are all bullshit ideas, but kinda expected. What isn’t – and what winds up being the biggest letdown of all – is the interdimensional monster brigade. Basically, the ghost-making oven that stripped you from your body malfunctions a couple different times and unspeakable creatures from the ghost world flood into the lab. They can’t be seen by the scientists/janitors/shooty-men, so they kill a lot of the other humans. Almost all of this is off-screen or doesn’t matter. It’s like they set out to steal from Half-Life but then forgot to? This game brings so many concepts to the table and does nothing with any of them. The ghost baby basically disappears, whole big characters in a game with very few characters are just forgotten about and what the fuck happened to absorbing plants in order to keep existing on the ethereal plane?
This is survival horror where the survival doesn’t matter and the horror is a lack of identity.
One of the bosses in this game is just a dick named Cord. I want this to count against the game too, except the joy of killing a man named Cord by possessing his own stupid grenade is what I will remember most from my time here. Also, at one point, I became a ladder and I fell on a guy. SimLadder. That’s what this is. I am increasingly upset.
The game ends with something happening at the Paris Accords but honestly what are we supposed to take from any of this? I do love taking pot-shots at bad storytelling, but when you can see the patchwork where one team was taken off the project and another team put in a different game, it is barely fun. It’s insulting. Perhaps the best way to end this is to take this shit out of a piece of gameplay that perfectly reflects 2003: the multiplayer mode.
Throughout the game, you can find collectibles that can either be picked up only in ghost form or only in human form. This isn’t too difficult because people you un-possess never walk away – you can always just take them over again. That’s . . . fine. But the collectibles unlock new parts of multiplayer. Guys . . . why? There’s a bunch of different modes which you and up to four local buddies who LOVE GEIST can tackle together. In one, you try to possess your friends and make them walk into big stupid deathtraps like spikes and shit. This was a box to check-off that Nintendo super-shipped a product with a multiplayer component, for an IP that is so based in the solo experience that it barely knows what it wants to be.
Geist is truly The Camel of adult Nintendo titles, and now you never have to play it. You’re welcome.