Image: Cover of I Spy Spooky Mansion Deluxe
Written By: Katelyn Vause
“Games from my Childhood Library” is a series I’ll be doing where I go through the CD-ROM games that I played/owned when I was growing up. Some have been given to the CD-ROM Fossil Library, but some, whether due to a lack of particular value or me being too nostalgic to give them up, are still in a black CD case at home. I’ll talk about both, and today I’m going to break form with I Spy Spooky Mansion.
We like to keep things honest here at CD-ROM Fossil, which is why I have to start this article with a disclaimer. I Spy Spooky Mansion was a game I played during my childhood, and it is a game I own, just not in CD-ROM form. Like I mentioned in my previous article in this series, the Computer Specials class in elementary school was where I played many of the games that I grew to love, and that class is where I played Spooky Mansion for the first time. Unlike Zoombinis Island Odyssey, however, I Spy Spooky Mansion was never a game that made its way into my library; at least, not until I was a teenager.
I Spy is a children’s book series that involves photographs of scenes with various objects hidden within them. Lists of objects are written in couplet form and placed at the bottom of the page, and it’s up to the reader to find those items within the pictures. I only ever owned one of them, I Spy Treasure Hunt, but I remember getting a lot of enjoyment out of flipping through its pages. Several of these books were adapted into various forms of media. I Spy Spooky Mansion was first released as a CD-ROM game; in the 2000s, it was updated and re-released as a mobile and Wii game. I spent a lot of time in elementary school playing Spooky Mansion in the Computer Special, and I talked about it and loved it so much that it stuck in the minds of my family members. I know this is true, because I acquired Spooky Mansion thanks to my younger brother. When I was about fourteen years old, we went to Wal-Mart and began to rummage through the $5 bins, as kids like to do. My brother found the Wii version of I Spy Spooky Mansion in one of the bins and showed it to me. Needless to say, I was ecstatic, and we made sure to buy it. Though the CD-ROM and Wii versions aren’t exactly the same due to some content changes, it was close enough that it brought on waves of nostalgia when we were playing it.
The premise of I Spy Spooky Mansion is that you have entered a haunted house and found yourself locked in by a doll-sized skeleton. The skeleton tells you that if you solve all of their riddles and collect puzzle pieces for doing so, they will reveal a way for you to escape. You enter various rooms of the house and find the objects the skeleton “spies,” with each room having two lists of objects to find. There are also mini games that involve matching items from a similar category as they appear on screen, though you’re not rewarded with puzzle pieces for completing the games. Both my child and teenage self tended to not spend too much time on those; my child self because I was so story-focused I didn’t want to diverge from that, and my teenage self because the games were far too easy. When you’ve collected all of the puzzle pieces, you have to go downstairs and put them together in a picture frame by the front door, revealing a message from the skeleton that says you have go to the science lab to find your escape. In the science lab, the skeleton tells you to go find pairs of objects in rooms you’ve previously visited (I remember thinking that this was pretty demanding given everything I had already been through, but it wasn’t like I could argue with the skeleton about it). When you return with these objects, they are fed into a machine that creates ghosts. The final ghost you create takes you up the chimney and out of the house. The game ends back where you started: at the front gate of the mansion, though this time, the skeleton is poking its head out from around a pillar and waving you goodbye.
Spooky Mansion is great at getting players to interact creatively with the world. When you go to the attic, the game switches things up by no longer having your cursor be a simple vehicle for clicking on items. Instead, it becomes a flashlight beam, the only light in the room in addition to being the way you select items. You also have to think creatively; the writers of the books took full advantage of many English words having multiple meanings, and the puzzles within Spooky Mansion do the same. For example, one section of the game takes place at a window. In order to complete one of the lists, players are told to find three bats. Naturally, given the location, one would assume you have to find three of the flying mammals, but that’s not so; two of the bats are the fuzzy kind, but one is the kind you use to play baseball. Additionally, the game doesn’t hold back in terms of having players (particularly if those players are children) find things they may have never heard of before. The best example of this is when you’re told to find a gyroscope. Now I don’t know about you guys, but when I was nine I had no idea what a gyroscope was, and I well remember clicking desperately all over the screen in the hopes that I would accidentally find it. I can’t say Spooky Mansion was responsible for making my vocabulary expand per se, but I can say that I appreciated they didn’t solely make me search for simple objects. And as someone who grew up to love words and writing, it’s no surprise that while I found the couplets cheesy, the tricky wordplay was always a delight for more to figure out.
Spooky Mansion, despite the name, really isn’t scary. It’s more like kid-friendly Halloween “scary.” The creepiest thing in the game is probably the room with all of the dolls on a shelf looking at you, but even those dolls give off more of a weird, rather than scary, vibe. That being said, there are classic horror motifs built into the game. There’s an “Enter if You Dare” sign by the front door. The music relies heavily on the organ, an excellent choice given the theme. Before you even start the game, you have to enter a name. This name not only serves as a save file, but also appears in various rooms throughout the mansion, bringing to mind horror movies where characters find their names or other messages written on the walls and ceilings. All of the rooms and many of the objects are in various states of deterioration, with creaky doors, cracks, and dust everywhere. There’s an attic and a creepy science lab, of course, as well as bugs in the kitchen and eyeballs on the dining room silverware. Even though these are all clichés of the horror genre, none of the elements feel overdone.
Something that is overdone? The voice of the skeleton. Think like if a thirty year smoker had a head cold but was also trying to act like they had the voice of a thirty year smoker. (If you can’t imagine it just look up some gameplay; the skeleton talks a lot). The point is, it’s bad, and even my little kid self didn’t like it. I know what the creators of the game were going for: another horror motif, this one of the gravelly, creepy voice of the undead. In this particular case, it doesn’t work, and I think if they had toned back on the gravelly-ness or given the skeleton a smooth voice, it would have been much better. And for those of you who are considering purchasing the game, know that it doesn’t have much replay value. The puzzles don’t change when you start a new save file, so if you try to replay the game too soon after finishing it, you’ll remember where most everything is, ruining the fun, as well as the point. That being said, I still go back and replay it every couple of years or so. I fly through it now, but when I’m playing I remember that there was a time when I’d get stuck in a room for hours.
Spooky Mansion, as I mentioned earlier, has a lot of nostalgia value for me. Obviously, any game from my childhood does, but Spooky Mansion is unique in that I technically shouldn’t have enjoyed it. I was the kid who was afraid of the dark and didn’t really like Halloween, and I’ve since grown in to the adult who can’t stand any remotely scary film or video game. But one of the things that saved Spooky Mansion for me was how it made something scary in to something fun. The skeleton, despite the annoying voice, is delightfully whimsical. Their bones clack when they move, and the game ends with the skeleton inviting you to come back to the mansion. It feels almost as though locking you in was less of a malicious action and more of an elaborate prank. Continuing with the idea of the scary becoming whimsical, one of my favorite areas of the game is the bathroom. During your first search in the bathroom, the mirror will fog to reveal your name. Though I’m older now and able to recognize this as an element of the horror genre, when I was first playing I was delighted by seeing my name appear on screen in a rather unique way. To add to the delight is the way the game responds when you get something right. Every time you click on a listed object, music will play and the object will move in place in such a way that it looks as though it is dancing. I always thought that was really cute. And that’s why I ultimately liked Spooky Mansion. Yes, it is a point and click game, which I was fond of at the time. Yes, it had a cool soundtrack. And yes, it was the right level of challenging. But the factor that ultimately meant the most to me was the lighthearted tone of the game that turned Halloween from being something I disliked to something I could appreciate.
For those of you who love Halloween, a friendly reminder that you only have about a month to go! Hopefully this article will help to tide you over; if not, try to find Spooky Mansion and play it. That is, if you dare.