There are quite a few ways to celebrate Halloween and the general spookiness of October, such as marathoning scary films and binge-reading horror comics and books. Gamers often turn to playing horror-centric video games during the month. The newly created #horrorgameoct hashtag is being used to call attention to the practice, with gamers announcing their intentions to play popular survival-horror games such as those from the Resident Evil, Silent Hill, and Dead Space series. It is also a perfect opportunity for some to revisit forgotten or cult games, such as Deadly Premonition and Phantasmagoria. It’s even an excuse to play off-beat or periphery scary games too, such as Dr. Franken and Corpse Killer.
The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree is one such off-beat title. Released for Nintendo’s Game Boy Advance handheld back in 2005, Spooky Old Tree is a video game adaptation of the classic 1978 children’s picture book of the same name by Stan and Jan Berenstain. The Berenstain Bears have made numerous appearances in video games, mostly in educational PC titles throughout the ’90s. Spooky Old Tree is an oddity in the Berenstain Bears line of games in that the gameplay is actually quite fun, with cartoonish visuals and almost RPG-epic music in certain scenes. The end result is a competently made video game, a far cry from most titles based on existing IPs.
The gameplay of Spooky Old Tree is a puzzle-platformer much in the spirit of The Lost Vikings from Blizzard back in the ’90s. In Lost Vikings, the player controls the three titular vikings who each have a unique ability: Erik the Swift can run and jump; Olaf the Stout has a shield which can block projectiles; and Baleog the Fierce has a sword and bow to dispatch enemies. Controlling one at a time, the player must place the vikings in certain spots, using their unique abilities to solve a puzzle in order to have all three vikings exit the level. Spooky Old Tree mimics this gameplay nearly verbatim, with each of the three bears having both unique abilities and unique attacks. Brother Bear can push boxes, and with his sling shot he shoot projectiles straight ahead. Sister Bear can leap over wider gaps and armed with her stick, she can perform short-ranged melee attacks. Cousin Fred has a grapple and rope that he can use to climb up obstacles, and his attack is by throwing pine cones in an arch. The levels revolve around maneuvering the bears into specific locations, such as Sister Bear jumping a pit to flip a lever, with Brother Bear pushing a box against a wall so the other bears can hop on and over. Peppered every few levels is either a boss fight or a chase sequence.
The story of Spooky Old Tree is an extrapolation of the original children’s book. In the book, the three bears set off with purpose to explore the spooky old tree. After they rappel down the tree’s mouth-like stump, they encounter a crocodile who snaps underneath them as they ascend a flight of stairs. Atop the stairs, they turn a key which grants them passage to a hall lined with suits of armor, of which one’s ax falls down. At the end of the hall, the trio happen upon a large sleeping bear who wakes up and gives chase. The three bears scoot down a slide and out from the tree, running back home into Mama Bear’s arms.
The core elements from the source material (armored suits with falling axes, chasing bears, snapping crocodiles, exploring the tree, and so on) are all present in the video game, which has been expanded with additional plot. The game sees the three bears set off to explore an abandoned house to see a real ghost. A thunderstorm erupts as they detour through the woods during the evening, and the bears take refuge inside the spooky old tree. The bears encounter a fairy within the tree who explains that, long ago, a wizard cursed the woods with his sorcery, but if a Wonder Seed is planted in the Wonder Meadow, the spooky old tree would bloom again, and the sorcery will be lifted. The bears explore the halls of the tree, which are full of enchanted furniture and critters, and find a treasure chest full of the seeds. The fairy uses them to restore the forest (implied off screen), while the three bears escape the pursuing bear from the original story and make it back home the next morning.
While the puzzle-platforming gameplay is the Spooky Old Tree’s major highlight, the game’s music is another positive element. There are quite a few instances of level music that sounds almost RPG-epic, as if it was lifted from a Legend of Zelda title. The Game Boy Advance graphics are also executed well. The first few levels show the exterior world in the late autumn afternoon, with pumpkins and mushrooms everywhere, giving the game a fantasy look. Inside the tree and within its halls, the dressers, chairs, and bureaus have comically drawn sharp teeth and eye stalks. The art style almost looks akin to ’90s-era Nickelodeon cartoons.
The end result is that The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree is quite the hidden gem on the old handheld system. Perhaps overlooked due to being based on a children’s book series, the game surprises with fun gameplay. It’s a perfect retro game to visit for the Halloween season.
Nicholas Diak is a pop culture scholar of industrial and synthwave music, Italian genre films, and Lovecraft studies. He contributes essays to various anthologies, journals, and pop culture websites. He is the editor of the forthcoming anthology, The New Peplum: Essays on Sword and Sandal Films and Television Programs Since the 1990s. He can be found at nickdiak.com.