Goosebumps was an incredible thing for ‘90s kids. Now, 25 years later, the children’s horror anthology is still growing. While the original series ended in 1997, the Goosebumps franchise has expanded into a hammy TV show, merchandise, more books, and two theatrical films. While there have been a handful of Goosebumps games, none of them approach the delightfully obscure 1996 Goosebumps: Escape from Horrorland.
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The premise is about what you’d expect from Goosebumps. The Morris family (the same from One Day at Horrorland) have settled back into their normal routine. On a dark and stormy night, a glowing ticket flutters down from the sky. One of the Morris kids touches the ticket and suddenly you, Lizzy, Luke, and Clay are teleported to Horrorland’s Werewolf Village. A massive full moon hangs just above the ramshackle shops.
If it wasn’t clear already, this is a full motion video (FMV) game. The actors are real, a few locations are miniatures, and the monsters are full-size animatronic puppets. The werewolf especially looks like it stumbled off the Universal backlot. However, most interactable objects are CGI and look dated when placed alongside physical miniature sets.
The CGI elements are literally rough around the edges and can look like clipart in the modern era. Similarly, rendered interiors are primitive and have weird, pixelated shadows. Still, all these elements come together to create a memorable, fully immersive world. You believe Horrorland is a real place.
Technologically and thematically, Escape from Horrland was way ahead of its time. The camera is panoramic. Every map is a full 360 degrees. Characters keep talking and moving even if you’re not looking at them. A lot of the transitions are in full motion, rather than teleporting you to the next location. One of the puzzles uses stereo sound to guide you through a haunted forest, but it doesn’t work without headphones.
What about the other puzzles? They’re the meat of any adventure game. Escape from Horrorland is easy—it is for kids after all. Some of them are multi-layered, but the parts are all in one place. For example, you need an Egyptian artifact. Two laser-eyed guardians are blocking your path. Thankfully, there’s a museum display for Vampire sunglasses in the same room, but you need something to prop it open. Luckily, there’s a working guillotine display and a janitorial mop.
Puzzles are easy, but they’re interesting. It’s never pixel hunting for random objects; puzzle rooms are cleverly themed to match the hammy tone of a Goosebumps book. The museum puzzle makes logical sense, helps to expand the lore and believability of Horrorland, and its thematically appropriate for a world full of classic movie monsters.
Ultimately, the optional content and worldbuilding are more interesting than the puzzles. The information terminals especially do a good job of enhancing the theme park atmosphere and fleshing out the backstory while injecting some much-needed humor. Mentions of souvenirs like mummy's hand backscratchers, wine glasses that really whine, and rat-hair macaroons make you want to visit Horrorland during normal business hours.
Likewise, by solving an optional puzzle involving a giant carnivorous plant you can snoop around the werewolf’s house. It's not essential to the story, but it does feature some good gags and a code to unlock a Battlezone minigame in the final hub. Point and click adventure games aren't really known for optional content, so it's really refreshing to have the theme park element and minigames incorporated into the exploration. It makes Escape from Horrorland stand out, even all these years later.
Also notable is the fast travel system. Every trash can leads to an underground maze in the style of a 3D dungeon-crawler. Used properly, this will allow you to bypass one of the puzzles. However, the dungeons are perhaps overly-intense for the intended audience as the maps are both confusing and infested with hungry shoggoths. The echo of distorted hog squeals and that distinctive Nightmare on Elm Street-style waterphone make the underground especially unpleasant. You can finish the game without ever setting foot in the dungeon, but it's still some exciting side-content for those seeking a little more out of their Horrorland experience.
What about the main content? The story is a thinly-veiled vehicle for moving between the major monster set-pieces: werewolf, mummy, Dracula, and the Monster Zoo. While the costumes look incredible, these aren’t Goosebumps monsters. The Goosebumps franchise has a ton of interesting characters to call on, but the main villains are all generic Universal classic monsters. The Horrorland Horrors only make a few, brief appearances.
Throughout the story, your friends are trapped and tortured by each of the main monsters. This is mainly a plot device to stop you from asking “why don’t I just run out of the park?” Your friends getting trapped also means you’re alone for most of the game, ramping up the tension.
The actors themselves are impressive. Since every background is either a miniature set or a rendered environment, the actors aren’t reacting to anything. Production footage shows performers in front of massive green screens. That’s no small task for child actors, but they manage to see it through, especially Lizzy who often speaks directly to the camera.
Then there’s Jeff Goldblum who does, indeed, play Dracula in a children’s point and click adventure game. Remember, this is 1996. Goldblum was hot off the heels of Jurassic Park and Independence Day. So why is he here? It could be because Stephen Spielberg worked as co-director.
What about the performance? Goldblum’s Dracula is the only antagonist (aside from the park’s creator) who talks. To be honest, it’s deeply unsettling. The first time you meet him, he flashes his fangs at you (sparkle and all) just to put everyone on the same page. Moments later he tries to seduce Lizzy, a preteen, with some ballroom dancing. The height difference between them is especially jarring.
Your role is to pickpocket Dracula. Even this scene has some of that wonderful world building. As you search Dracula’s pockets, you’ll find little gags like Fang Paste. It’s fun. The script is a little unsettling, but Goldblum went full ham. It’s kind of amazing that this has never become a meme, despite some attention from outlets like Buzzfeed.
Overall, Escape from Horrorland is unusually dated. The core gameplay is fine. It’s not buggy, it’s not bad, but it is a relic. It’s a nostalgic trip into the style, culture, and technology of the 1990s. Windows 95 games are difficult to play now, but if you watch a Let’s Play or find an emulator, it can be the perfect way to immerse yourself in another era, if only for an hour.