Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week, when the crypt goes creak, and the tombstones quake, spooks come out for a swinging wake. Happy haunts materialise, and begin to... play video poker?
So, here's an interesting little curiosity for you. Since pretty much the dawn of the PC, there's been a game called Last Half Of Darkness - an early horror adventure that, much like Last of the Summer Wine, has an interesting concept of 'Last'. The first one came out in 1989, and while there haven't been that many sequels, they kept coming until 2011 - Last Half of Darkness II and II, Last Half of Darkness: Shadows of the Servants, Last Half Of Darkness: Tomb of Zojir and Last Half Of Darkness: Seriously, Someone Turn The Lights On. In the middle of all that darkness though, another lesser known game was released - a freebie at the time. But can ghosts and ghouls gamble with the best of them?
"IT ALL STAAAAAAHTED LONG AGOOOOOOO!" gargles a monstrous voice, introducing a) the plot, of a casino run by seven sisters and that b) this casino game has a plot for some reason. It involves a lost necklace, a gargoyle appearing as if to say "Boo!", and then you find yourself standing in... hmm. Call me crazy, but I was expecting Haunted Casino to take place in, well, a casino. Not the entryway to a house that looks, ahem, quite suspiciously like the one from The 7th Guest , only without the promise of delicious graveyard cake anywhere to be found. Seriously. Who didn't want to try a piece of that?
Heading upstairs, up the floating staircase that I'm sure is deliberately doing that to look extra-spooky, ahem, a portrait of a lady who "looks as though she's hiding something" explains how to cheat. It's pretty easy. You right-click. And that tidbit filed away for later, head off to find some evil games. Like Craps. Prepare for the true terror... of the soul! Rattle them bones! Pretend they're an evil skeleton!
It's at this point that the basic problem here kicks in. No matter how evil the voiceover guy sounds, there's just nothing scary about being told to "PLAAAAAAGHCE BEEEGHTS!" in a voice that sounds like it's more in need of a throat sweet than redemption for sins committed. Nor does "PLAYER ROLLS A SEVEN" said in tones of blood and glass ever sound quite as spine-chilling as the game thinks.
Still, it's got some quirky charm, especially for the sheer randomness of the games. Roach racing for instance. It's hard to imagine the spirited forces of evil sitting down with some chalk to draw a path, then going "Oh, wait, better make sure we have enough change in case someone wins..." but that's what we've got, complete with a lovingly rendered 3D zoom in and out of it. And then there's the fact that they have what can only be described as Cleavage Poker. Technically, "Video" Poker, with a holographic table or something, but... let's just say, the dealer never has to worry about being short a pair.
The whole thing has this real dream-like quality. The Cheating mechanic for instance. In Cleavage Poker for instance, you can right-click on a card to reroll it, with the game not seeming to care. Throughout it though, the voiceover is desperate to be scary about everything, even when it's lines like "There's a BLACKJACK GAME going on over HEEEEREEE!", to which the only response is "Oh? Okay, maybe I'll check that out." It took me a while to work out what it reminded me of, when I remembered - it's so much like the voice of God or whoever from The Zoo Race . Not my personal idea of scary.
But you know what is? When it turns out that in fact the game does care if you cheat! Suddenly, there's an ear-splitting shriek as a skeleton monster appears and explodes, screaming about your cheaty-cheaty ways and taking away all of your hard-cheated money, followed by the standard voiceover guy growling "Youuur credit is no gooooooood heeeeeere...." as you rub your sore ears and simultaneously curse the invention of headphones and cheer the discovery of aspirin. Ow, ow, ow, ow. And also, aargh.
Exploring, there are also plot events. A girl who appears as a ghost to say "I'm sorry!" and then explode into shards. Random hauntings. All completely undercut by this being a game that also features lines like "Click here to enter another dark hall leading to CARRIBEAN STUD. I don't know. I just don't associate the Caribbean with ghosts and such. Zombie pirates, sure. But there don't seem to be any around at the moment. But then again, I don't think I've ever considered a bathtub as the perfect place to play poker in, so what would I know? Actually, I don't even know how to play poker. Never had to outside of adventure games. (It's the one where the little horsey guys move diagonally, right?)
There's a point to all the madness though, which is to break the curse - a curse explained as vaguely as possible by a ghost girl not so much fighting the veil that connects realities as some of the worst sound recording ever to declare: "I've been watching you. It would appear you're not frightened by the darkness that surrounds the casino." And I can't deny that. Because it's goofy as hell. "Life, the gamble for the living, will be engulfed by the dark world where death is a true (mumble mumble)."
No! Not (mumble mumble)! That's the worst kind!
It's really not clear how tongue in cheek this is all meant to be. It takes most of itself very seriously, but then, it is a game where you can play roulette and 'dark roulette', with the difference being that... ahem... "Beeeware, for the zeeeeros are deaaaadly!", with a game of Joker Poker which does the same for the Joker card. You can't simply play whatever you want to, unless you start an "Open House" game, but have to win various items to unlock the rooms like a candle to light a dark passage and a key to... to open a door. It's a key. You know what keys do. The basic goal seems to be to break the curse by breaking the house, but it's hard to imagine many people having endured the ear-screeching audio to get that far even if the horror aesthetic appealed. If Leisure Suit Larry's Casino wasn't able to do it with nude poker pools, a game that just wants to scare you chipless doesn't have a lot of chance.
But, then, it was a freebie at the time, and not a bad idea - to try and get around the innate problem with casino games, that no matter how much you win, you still lose, by wrapping it in a little story. Years later, Telltale would try something similar with its Poker Night At The Inventory games, and other experiments in games like Second Life have at least been diverting for a while. I don't know of any that adopt the 'be screamed at by an exploding skeleton pop-scare' approach, but then I'm still a little confused about why a house of eldritch horror has a video poker machine. A red hot poker in a fire, perhaps. Certainly, if you want to discourage cheaters, I can think of no better way to ensure they get the point.
Somehow I doubt we'll be seeing a horror themed casino open up in Vegas any time soon though.