In 1996, Dreamworks released a computer game called Goosebumps: Escape from Horrorland, a fun point-and-click adventure that revolved around story elements and puzzle solving. Perhaps you can excuse us then for hoping that Goosebumps HorrorLand would be something similar, or anything more intriguing than the collection of carnival-style minigames that it so easily could be. Unfortunately this is just that, and the mini-games included, with but a few precious exceptions, run the gamut from bad to mediocre.
It all begins one sunny day when a green goblin-like monster called a Horror drops off an invitation to the grand opening of HorrorLand at your doorstep. Being the cool-headed adolescent you are, you think nothing of the flier or its tantalising slogan, "Where nightmares come to life", and tear the ticket to pieces. Magically, it reconstitutes itself before your eyes! Immediately there's a knock at your door; it's your hapless friend with a ticket of his own. He's ecstatic about the spooky theme park, and that's all the convincing you need before you're asking your mom to drive you there.
Everything about this screams Goosebumps. The main conceit of the park is that every ride is the real deal, every monster a real monster and every danger an actual threat, though your character will get a lot more scared than you ever will. All the supposed frights don't translate well from their conception to their delivery; for example, you constantly complain that the bumper cars have no seatbelts while you never once seem at risk of ejection. But HorrorLand is as much about tingling your spine as it is your funny-bone; it's absolutely chock full of cheesy puns. This evokes the franchise's characteristic sense of humour quite well: there's a Rot Corn stand, key slime pie, a restaurant called "Griddle of the Sphinx," and rides like the Roller Ghoaster, The Dreadmill and Sudden Death, which according to a sign is "Closed due to unacceptable levels of death." And, just like the books, there's even a cynical twist at the end – if you're determined enough to make it all the way there.
You're rewarded in bronze, silver or gold "frights" for how well you do in each game, and as your count rises you'll have access to more rides and locations as you meet their "fright restrictions." While generally a non-issue, this becomes especially trying as you enter the last section of the park's five themed areas, the Egyptian-flavoured Terror Tombs; to do this you'll have to go back and test your patience at some of the more irritatingly bad games and gain some frustrating frights. Making this worse is the park's announcer, who will constantly remind you that the area is now open followed by a long, tongue-in-cheek message that will get on your last nerve by the thirtieth or fiftieth time that you hear it.
You move from one activity to the next in an overworld that mostly serves as a medium for the previously described puns, which, while amusing, wear thin after extended play. Once in a while a story element will crop up, but these usually amount to nothing. You view your character from a third person perspective and without any control over the camera, which can be quite annoying as it's near impossible to take in your surroundings. Traversing the loopy pathways of the park can become pretty tedious, especially as there's no map to access easily; you'll have to find them posted throughout the park or pay attention to guideposts instead.
Though the majority of the thirty mini-games just aren't any good and many are near-duplicates, there are a few of quality. Our favourite was the Bogtopus, reminiscent of a Zelda boss battle. It's a spinning octopus covered in eyeballs and surrounded by platforms on which appear protective pirates who hurl slime, obscuring your vision and raising your health bar-esque Scream-O-Meter. You remain stationary as you launch purple orbs at the beast's eyes, teeth and uvula as well as its swashbuckling protectors. You repeat this process three times, the room spinning faster with each round and the pirates appearing more frequently, and hitting them becomes more of a challenge as the increasingly strong wind from the rotating ride drags your shots to the left. This is by far the most impressive mechanic in the game.
There's a number of other relatively entertaining excursions such as a few shooting range games, some literally on-rails light gun shooter-esque roller coasters and the genuinely creepy Flash Fright, in which vampires slowly stalk towards you as you aim your flashlight at them until they cease to be, shaking it to recharge when its batteries go dead. But the same problems surface over and over again, even in most of these morsels of quality: looking around with the analogue stick takes too long in the near-constantly moving light gun coasters, shaking your Nunchuk grows physically tiresome and the controls always feel just a tad bit unresponsive and unnatural.
Despite these oases, the vast majority of the park is very mediocre. The especially irritating mini-golf games Putt Cemetery and Pharaoh's Fairways utilise an unintuitive control scheme that's worth mention as one of the most frustrating mechanics we've ever seen, and if you've got a Remote handy, it might be a fun exercise to attempt. It feels more like holding the pendulum of a grandfather clock than a golf club: place the controller direction-pad down, hold the A button and swing it in a U-shape, making sure that the buttons face you the entire time. Once you master this, the club will still mysteriously float over the ball without hitting it half the time, not to mention all the instances when you'll accidentally pause the game by pressing the minus button (what kind of a game pauses with the minus button?). There's also the patience-trying Buzzwire and Snakes on a Chain, which demand far more precision than they can detect as you run a thin loop along a long, curvy wire, somewhat like threading a string through the head of a needle, without touching the loop itself. To top things off, you have to hold A the entire time, a near-impossible task as you twist your Remote along the track. Add to this the constant robotic shoutings of "YOU DROPPED THE LOOP. PICK IT UP A-GAIN" during Buzzwire and you've got one heck of a headache.
Everything that lies in between these extremes is simply unremarkable. Among them are Remote-swinging strength tests, a couple of dull, awkward first-person bumper car games and a kart racing stage that couples an extremely boring track with the floatiest handling in history. Every one of the lot is plagued by a combination of control issues, camera problems and, more often than not, a whole lot of waggle. Besides the main adventure, you can access the mini-games by themselves in Arcade Mode alone or with a friend, though none are captivating enough to promote any desire to play them without the incentive of earning frights.
The game's presentation is a mixed bag, and while it's never very impressive, at least it stays true to the voice of the book series. The second area of the park, Vampire Village, was by far our favourite with its spooky atmosphere and delightful array of ambient sound effects like creaking, hooting and howling that follow you everywhere you go. Most of the sections have their own accompanying sounds, though they're quite sparse in a number of areas and the last of them seemed devoid of any at all. The music is always suitably ethereal while matching each area in tone. Graphically, besides the thematic charms, there's nothing impressive here, and with its generic, often blurry textures it largely resembles a substandard GameCube title.
Despite a few fun excursions, the scariest thing about HorrorLand is its overwhelming mediocrity. It's a carnival-themed mini-game collection dressed up in a Halloween costume, and while its rare story elements and sense of humour amusingly echo the tone of the book series, its frequent control and camera issues add up to an experience that makes the taunts of the resident Horrors that "you'll never leave" all the more frightening.