This licensed platformer from Tose and Buena Vista is a bit like Castlevania for kids.
I'm not really sure why this decade-old movie is just now seeing video game adaptations, but the timing is great in one sense – Halloween is upon us. In The Nightmare Before Christmas: The Pumpkin King, you control Jack Skellington in a quest to save Halloween Town from Oogie Boogie, who has sent an infestation of bugs to take over the town on the very holiday it is named after. The story isn't particularly interesting, but there are some funny moments, and the characters are generally memorable.
Nor are the production values anything special. The character animations are impressively fluid, but the game's washed-out hand drawn art is a poor substitute for the original movie's stop-motion technique. The audio is likewise punctuated by odd sound effects backed by a moody but repetitive soundtrack.
No, the surprising thing about this game is its overall structure, which roughly follows the non-linear, exploration-heavy level design of the Metroid and Castlevania series. Huh? In a licensed game? No kidding? It's true, right down to the inaccessible areas which only open up after you gain new abilities later in the game. The level progression takes you on a tour of most levels before you even reach the game's halfway point, and the rest of the adventure involves going back to visit new sections of those levels (some of which are gigantic). Luckily, there's an auto-map to help you get around, just like in Metroid and Castlevania, and it even marks out save points in advance.
Jack doesn't even have an attack move at the beginning of the game, but he eventually earns a few different weapons which have unique properties that will have you switching back and forth often to solve puzzles and defeat different types of enemies. Most enemies aren't difficult to beat, but they are placed cleverly so that you'll take a lot of damage if you aren't careful when moving through an area.
Most areas have some kind of trap or other platforming gimmick that you'll have to deal with. For instance, one level has enemies that generate a gas that completely reverses the controls (including swapping the functions of the A and B buttons!). It's a minor nuisance at first, but soon you'll encounter a complex platforming sequence, and eventually a boss battle, which must be passed with the controls handicap. In another level, there's a flying bug watching over the area who will take you back to the beginning of the room if he sees you. The only way to proceed is to hide underneath special mushrooms and then make a mad dash for the next one when the bug looks away. It's not too hard at first, but after a few rooms of this routine, the shielded mushrooms start to move back and forth, and there are various enemies and barriers between mushrooms to make it harder to get back to safety in time. Some of these challenges get to be a bit annoying by the time they ramp up to maximum difficulty, but unquestionably, they are well designed and provide a ton of variety to the game without resorting to out-of-place mini-games or fetch quests, as so many other platformers do.
Though the game's story is definitely geared towards younger players, the actual gameplay is quite advanced and actually pretty difficult at times, including a few instances in which it's not very clear where to go next. The game is also lengthy for a GBA platformer, with a game world at least as big as any of the handheld Castlevania games, though part of the game's longevity can be attributed to the rather slow pace of Jack's movement. There are plenty of hard-to-reach optional areas which may contain a useful life bar extension or a completely useless character prop. There are also three button-mashing mini-games which can, but shouldn't, be played with up to three other people.
The Nightmare Before Christmas: The Pumpkin King will appeal most to fans of the movie, but you don't need any attachment to Jack or the other characters to appreciate that developer Tose went far beyond the call of duty with this assignment. It doesn't live up to the tight, polished designs of its direct inspirations, but you have to give this game a lot of respect for even trying. Moreover, it's a beefy and satisfying adventure on a system that probably doesn't have many big games left in the pipeline.