August 3, 2015 6:30 AM | Joel Couture
Bad games based off of good movies are common, but how often do you get a good game based off of a bad movie? FreakZone Games has done some excellent work in MANOS: The Hands of Fate, creating a fun sidescroller that, while still challenging, feels far more approachable than most NES-inspired games. That was a nice touch, as you won't want to get stuck on some hard part when you have the entirety of MANOS' cinematic experience, as well as some references to other terrible horror movies, lovingly rendered in pixels for you to see.
Not every element of MANOS has been preserved intact. The many (many) long, uncomfortable silences of the film have been replaced with great sidescrolling action. Mike (our main character) can hop and shoot, blasting through his enemies with his revolver. If you're lucky, you may find a shotgun lying around, firing three shots in different directions with each pull of the trigger. You only get to keep the shotgun until you take a hit, though, so don't be clumsy with it. With these weapons, you'll need to cut a swath through the various creatures that stand in the way of you and imposing yourself on a home when you were specifically told to leave.
But who are those enemies? The Master didn't seem to have many henchmen in the movie besides creepy caretaker Torgo and a group of women in nighties, so FreakZone has filled in the gaps with the usual NES horror game rogue's gallery. Snakes, eyeballs, and bubbles mean to do you in, as well as disembodied hands and other things that would scare a five year-old at Hallowe'en. These foes (and some of the game's sound effects) are a fun little nod to NES titles like A Nightmare on Elm Street, but they also have their own behaviors and attacks that make the game interesting. Most still go down from a single shot from Mike's gun, though. There are more complex enemies that show up later, such as werewolves and zombies, but even these only take two shots to take out. It's the making-out couple you really need to worry about, as those smooching, liquor-throwing teens are immune to your shots, making them the toughest enemies in the game. Exactly what you'd expect from two kids with the fortitude to make out from morning until past nightfall.
Since most enemies go down in a shot or two, the game works to beat the player by whittling them down. Mike's movements are precise and easy-to-control, making him quite maneuverable, but the sheer number of enemies and their behaviors create challenge. Most enemies home in on Mike when he's near, using predictable but inconvenient movements to chip at your health. Eyeballs always move directly toward your position, floating through platforms to reach it. Later enemies leap constantly, forcing you to time your shots. At the beginning, when this is all happening over land, it can be easy to manage, but as the game moves on, it adds platforming or breakable ground to the mix, requiring you juggle your enemies with some hard jumps. It rarely reaches controller-snapping hard, but it does keep you on your toes as you play.
The game adds some interesting elements to its platforming. Limited lighting in some of the later stages added to the challenge, as it only let me see in a small circle around Mike. This made platforming harder as I had to move a lot closer to see anything, sometimes stumbling across enemies or a crumbling path with little time to react. Since enemies and jumps hadn't been that hard until that point, it was a welcome increase in challenge. Even if someone felt it was being a little too hard with this new, limited point-of-view, the game is quite generous with its checkpoints and free lives. It's not just going to hand you victory, but it is still the least difficult FreakZone game I've played (unless you want to try the higher difficulty levels, that is).
MANOS, in a way, is more interested in having you relive the moments of the movie than break your controller. These have been rendered in striking cutscenes that capture the strange atmosphere of the film, telling the story in vignettes between stages. Like Ninja Gaiden, but significantly dumber, they're surprisingly pretty given the material they have to work with. These help guide the tale for those who haven't subjected themselves to the movie, and the pixel art is wonderful. Scenes have been perfectly reproduced, capturing the right colors and angles as they replay the movie's more memorably terrible moments. It seems to be a lot of effort to capture the spirit of such an awful movie, but when FreakZone set about making this game, they meant to do it right.
Doing it right meant working with the jazzy softcore porn background music the movie used for most of its duration. FreakZone painstakingly went through the movie's bizarre, meandering soundtrack and gave it the chiptune treatment, creating tracks that felt at home in a horror platformer while staying true to the source material. It's amazing work considering I despise most of the movie's music, but found that the game's soundtrack really complemented the creepy atmosphere and silly action. The sound effects are also strong, loading every revolver shot with audio power while also adding a real corniness to enemy appearances. I never failed to crack up every time the skull came floating by, howling away as it weaved around.
The screaming skull draws inspiration from another horrible movie, The Screaming Skull. While the game is focused on MANOS, it takes time to really wallow in terrible cinema as a whole. Expect appearances from Vampire Girl and the Inspector Clay from Plan 9 From Outer Space as well as a showdown with the colossal bird from The Giant Claw. The game is an homage to bad cinema, and is crammed with hidden references that will make any MST3K fan squeal. It's a solid game, for sure, but anyone who's every laughed their way through some truly awful movies will likely find something special hidden within MANOS. It also creates a fun little extra aspect as you try to identify all of the references, adding a little depth as you play.
In all aspects, FreakZone Games has turned MANOS from vile garbage into solid gold, creating what is, above all, a playful game. It's not especially challenging, keeping the mood light, and draws on its source matter to create something that is fun and filled with hidden jokes. It feels like the kind of game that's best shared with your horror movie buddies, passing the controller around while you try to catch all the references to the movie and other gems of awful cinema (and crummy games!). It's inspiring to see someone make something so entertaining out of something that is technically awful, drawing on the unique joy gained from watching laughably bad movies to create a funny, entertaining game.
MANOS: The Hands of Fate is available for $5.99 on Steam. For more information on it and FreakZone Games, you can head to the developer's site, the game's site, or follow them on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.