|Bogleech.com Interviews Scott Marshall
|Scott Marshall is a programmer, game designer, and the creator of a sometimes-awkward but very unique
NES video game known as Ghoul School. Having ran across it in a search, he had some nice things to say
about my crummy little tribute and agreed to what is now this site's first-ever interview. Released in 1991,
Ghoul School wound up a bit of a flop, and continues to show up from time to time on lists of classic
"bad" games, but what it lacks in thrills it makes up for with plenty of heart and style, like any good
low-budget monster movie.
As it turns out, Ghoul School was originally intended as a very different game, one that could have easily
been a hit (trust me, you'll agree by the end of this page), but as things often go, the final product fell
extremely short of Scott's original vision. Whether you liked, loathed or (most likely) never played this
forgotten title, you should find what Scott has to say about it fairly interesting!
For the readers, what is the full extent of your involvement with Ghoul School?
Scott: I was "the creator" with all that implies, although a few parts were done by others. The idea came
to me when the Game Boy first appeared. I thought that kids would be playing it surreptitiously in school,
so I came up with the idea of a game about school. The Zelda NES games were really big then, so I took
the game play model from Zelda 2 and adapted it to a ghostbusters storyline. I really wanted it to become a
"property" that could be picked up by Hollywood and made into a Saturday Morning cartoon show or line
of merchandise, and whatever. I ended up writing and pitching the initial idea, developing it into a complete
game, programming most of it and creating all the sound and music. Some of the enemies were created by
others, and two graphic artists did the artwork.
How did you get the game off the ground?
Scott: I'd been doing some work for a game developer here in New Jersey called Imagineering Inc. (no
relation to the Disney subsidiary). I told them I had an idea for a Gameboy title. We executed a
non-disclosure agreement, and I wrote up and presented my description for Ghoul School on October 18,
1989. They agreed to have me do the game, not for the Gameboy but for the Nintendo NES, and we
executed a contract and schedule.
We had a close call with the title. I was in a video store when a parent asked the clerk for suggestions on
kid's films. "How about "Scooby Doo and the Ghoul School?" I panicked and made up about 20 more titles
and informed the company's lawyer that there might be a conflict, but he cleared it and we went ahead.
"Creep School" was the working title for a short while.
Apparently the title and concept leaked out of our confidentiality agreement. A straight-to-video movie
called "Ghoul School" was made while I was making the game, only a few miles from the company I did
the game for, released in 1990. The movie bombed.
We kept most of the ideas from the original description in the final game. Changes happened when we
thought of better ideas, found out the NES was underpowered for the graphics needed, or we ran out of
time and resources.
Is there a story behind the game's opening shot? It almost looks like a pixelized photo of a real
Scott: That was my concept, executed by someone I regard as one of the best video game artists on
Earth, Jesse Kapili. The NES has a very limited graphic memory, which is why some of the screens seem
a bit sparse. The title screen used up a whole bank of graphic memory out of 16 IIRC. Princeton High
School was the actual model (I'm a Princeton high Graduate). It's a gothic type designed and built at the
same time as Princeton University. Here's a 1965 photo of the school online (when I was a Freshman
How were the game's enemies designed?
Scott: I'd thought of the game as a combination of "Ghostbusters" and "Attack of the Living Dead." The
Monsters were supposed to all be people risen from graves. When time ran out at the end of the schedule,
the production company offered to help create and program the enemies I didn't have time to do. They
completely ignored my scripted ghouls and made up stuff entirely their own. I was annoyed that the
school seemed to have been invaded not by ghouls but by interplanetary aliens, but at that point I had little
control. They came up with the eyeball monsters. I embellished them to throw the dumbbell and wear the
chef hat, although it's possible those ideas came from brainstorms with the artist. Jesse, the main artist,
and I hang out together and when developing a game have lengthy creative discussions and negotiations
such that it seems like the two of us as a team come up with ideas instead of as individuals.
Is there anything more to the monsters that isn't explained in the final game or manual?
Scott: In the original story you attack undead beings, and the little boss enemies were body parts. For
example, a pair of lungs greets you at the end of the ventilation shaft. In the gym you fought disembodied
legs. The heart near the end was part of that script, as was the spinal cord. At the end, the big boss was to
be an assembly of the little bosses you killed throughout the game. This proved too difficult to animate
with the NES and our tight time schedule.
Now that I think of it, they probably went with the eyeball as part of that original storyline but then that
took over as the crime family of the school. I don't think I figured that out until now.
What are some other early concepts that you had to do away with, for whatever reasons?
Scott: Many, and usually because of lack of time and limited graphics on the NES. I wanted to hide useful
stuff in the lockers and have skeletons hiding in them to come out and attack you. I wanted a bell to go off
between classes and have the hallway full of ghoul students for a few moments, but the NES couldn't put
up lots of sprites along the same horizontal axis. I was going to have a thermometer to be found in the
kitchen to disable the nurse by shoving it in her mouth. I wanted cat people blocking you in the lower
hallways so you had to fill the hall with water using the fire hose and swim across. I wanted dancing
ghouls in the music room you could only stop by smashing the metronome. There was supposed to be a
ladder you could climb part way up, and if you had let the janitor out of his closet, he came around and
carried the ladder and you to where you needed to reach the crawl space entrance. Again, too many
graphics, not enough time to program.
The grim reaper was supposed to hover over you when you were nearly dead, but that was too taxing for
the NES graphics engine to do at the same time it was showing monsters on the ground.
One original concept was to make the "health" meter for Spike a "gangrene" meter, so being touched by
ghouls gave you an increasing level of gangrene up to your death. The producers thought that was too
What was your idea behind the hero?
Scott: I started with the heroes of Zelda, Metroid, and Rygar as my prototype. The original proposal just
said "Spike, a student at the school, is the main character of the game". At the time (early 1990) spiked
hair was the rage, so that suggested his look and name. He needed to be a nice kid, but cool and rebellious
as well. Another idea I had was to make the main character a black kid. At the time no video game had yet
had a black hero, so I thought it would be a great means for publicity. On this I was overruled because it
was assumed that white kids would not want to be a black kid in a video game. I figured the gain from
publicity would offset the loss of sales to racists, but the people putting up the money won that point.
The game has quite an odd assortment of weapons. What can you tell us about those?
Scott: I tried to make the weapons funny, cool, and appropriate to the storyline. Among the early ideas
that didn't make the final game were: a Teleporter to warp you through the school intercom, a Boom Box
to play music and distract enemies, a Ghoul Disguise to make enemies ignore you for a while, Erasers to
clap together and escape a tight situation in a cloud of chalk dust, and the Fire Hose.
So what's a Deweytron? The original description was "Obtained in Gymnasium 2, defeats the head
librarian by firing large numbers with decimal points, thereby 'classifying' the enemy." It's named after the
Dewey Decimal System, which was intended to clue the player into where to use it. I probably told the
artist to come up with some "old-world techy-looking gun-like thingy." The "Gamma Gun" was just
dreamed up to have a cool and powerful sounding name, being the ultimate weapon in the game. The
hardest to find, it also has a cool sound, look, and animation.
One curiosity was the "Spinal Zap" weapon. It was originally a "Spinal Tap," which is a syringe filled with
nerve agent doctors inject into the spinal column to relax women during childbirth. Nintendo's censors
thought the syringe was too close to a drug reference and would not release the game unless it was
changed. The name and graphics were changed to become some sort of taser-like device. The funny thing
is that photos for weapons had already been taken for the manual. This was forgotten, so the original
syringe is what's pictured in the manual.
You also said they ignored most of your scripted ghouls, do you remember many more of them
you haven't already mentioned?
Scott: Most of the ghouls were to be undead people (students and teachers). We also had scripted a
disembodied head as the assistant principal and arms in the weight room. All the body parts you defeated
would have reassembled into the final enemy at the end, but this proved impossible with the limited NES
graphics, the small ROM size, and the time schedule to program it.
How was the manual written?
Scott: When the game was 99% finished, the producers sold it to publisher Electro-Brain, who had a
person on staff to write the manual. The producers took photographs for it off a TV screen while their
game tester played it. The publisher was going to write the manual just from the game without any regard
to the game story I had in mind from the beginning, so I asked to speak with the writer. I don't remember
his name. I think his company was somewhere in the Midwest. We talked by phone and I sent him my
descriptions, and he loved it and ran with it, adding some wonderful ideas of his own. We had many really
enjoyable conversations, and I think he did an awesome job. I had no involvement with the manual's
illustrations or the box cover design, both of which I think turned out great.
How do you respond to criticisms of the game?
Scott: I agree with most of them! The producers didn't believe in testing the game with actual children,
which I think would have revealed the game's weaknesses and allowed us to improve it tremendously. We
would have learned, for example, that the maze was too difficult and boring. I'd also wished I'd made the
play control more cartoonish and less realistic. The Mario games let you change directions in mid air,
which violates the laws of physics but is more fun. I'd mistakenly assumed that correct physics would be
good, but players just found it annoying. The play control was mostly an exact copy of Zelda II. I think
the play control was downgraded just because it was hard to jump across some of the ledges.
You mentioned that you would have liked it to become a bigger property, did you have any
particular ideas at the time for merchandise or a cartoon show?
Scott: A cartoon show could have worked as a series where the school resumed largely normal activities
though remnants of ghouls caused trouble that Spike had to set right from time to time. Stuff like greeting
cards and party accessories would have been fun.
By the way, the original "Princess" in Ghoul School was the female Principal so we could use the bad pun
"Princessipal." Then we turned her into a cheerleader (so it's a cliche -- you gotta problem wit dat?) Since
all the best games were Japanese and had Japanese characters, I decided to name her Suki Yamamoto. She
was renamed Samantha after the game was finished by the author of the manual. Look carefully at her
graphics -- she's Asian!
Of the characters/creatures that are in the final game, do you have any favorites?
Scott: Really, the stuff that still makes me laugh. What first comes to mind is the guy who throws his
own head at you. The janitor was fun to do because in the schools I went to growing up, the janitors were
kind and endearing. It was also fun to make Samantha responsive to Spike -- she looked worried when
you were hurt, and cheered when you hurt the bad guy. Then having her step away from you in the end
screen made her start to feel like a real person to me. I'd worked on the game for so long that the
characters kind of became people in my life, and I was sad to finish it and say goodbye to them. That was
reflected in the sad tone in the music at the end. I missed all those ghouls! They were annoying, but
became comforting and familiar.
What are your own favorite video games of the past and present?
Scott: The "first of" advances are dear to my heart. My first game love was Pong, which arrived one day
in the bar I hung out in and we played it for hours. My favorite game from the days I really enjoyed
playing was the original arcade Frogger. I remember it as the first game with constant music playing. I
really loved the original Joust and Battlezone arcade games, Crossbow, and Double Dragon. When my son
was the right age in the 1980's, we got Atari, then Nintendo and I played lots of them along with him. Our
favorites were the original Pitfall, Rygar, and the Zelda series (which inspired Ghoul School). Sometimes I
feel the greatest game ever made was the NES Super Mario Bros. 3. That's what I would take with me if I
had only one to play on a desert island.
Finally, what do you like to do besides your past design and programming work?
Scott: Play music (mostly piano lounge music), watch foreign films, restore antique radios, TV's, and
clocks. Keeping up with the news and worrying about world events. The best thing in my life right now is
hanging out with my girl friend. Turns out she has a son in High School, just Spike's age, who's really into
his PS2 games. It's amazing how far we've come from Pong. Perhaps the games 30 years in the future
will make the games we play today look like Pong does to today's kids. We can only imagine. That's the
other thing I like to do -- imagine what the future may bring.
...Thanks for your time, Scott, and thanks for a game that may not have gotten far off
the ground, but at least makes a great conversation piece. While I was a bit sad to
hear how many cool ideas you had to leave on the drawing board, I'm glad the game