Once upon a time my aunties and uncles as well as my parents and their friends played a classic VHS tape interactive board game called Nightmare. They'd roll dice, move plastic headstones around a miniature graveyard and collect cardboard keys so that they can confront their worst fears at the centre of the board. Throughout the course of the tape's countdown a strange, cloaked man would appear on the television screen to banish players to the black hole and cause other mischief.
The adults treated this pastime like a spooky murder mystery party where they dressed up, dimmed the lights and sent the kids to bed. My siblings and I were always fascinated with this innovative concept so we eventually convinced our legal guardians to let us play. To be fair, though, we were more interested in the host's transformation from pale, hooded guy to green-glowing Emperor Palpatine.
There were booster tapes and expansion sets, too. I was always fond of the eye-popping zombie, Baron Samedi, whereas my sisters were enthralled by Elizabeth Bathory's braces and Anne de Chantraine's complexion.
Yes, My Gatekeeper
After years of fast-forwarding and rewinding the same videos, Nightmare's novelty waned and we moved on to other distractions. A reboot of the franchise, however, renewed my interest in the Gatekeeper.
Atmosfear hit the store shelves in July of 2004 however I nabbed a copy in December as a family Christmas gift. The box art features an interesting profile picture of the new Gatekeeper. You can tell by the visual effects and the gaunt makeup that this iteration of the game is designed to amuse children and teenagers rather than satisfy the serious, gothic Halloween crowd.
Where the Nightmare videos were linear due to limitations in state-of-the-art technology, Atmosfear exploits randomised DVD chapters to ensure unique gaming experiences. How unique each session plays out, though, depends on how frequently you challenge the Gatekeeper.
Stop! Whose Turn is it Next?
Preparation time to set up Atmosfear is a matter of minutes. Pick numbered key racks at random, shuffle your time and fate cards, place the coloured keys in their respective domains and then choose from six different playable characters. Don't forget to scribble your biggest fear on a slip of paper (these go into the well of fears at the centre of the board). When everyone's ready, it's DVD time.
The black key is a new addition to the game that hinders players. So long as you have that wretched key you cannot win the game. The meta-game here is passing the black key on to other players who are unfortunate enough to share your space. It's like passing an Olympic torch … of fail.
The time and fate cards are more miss than hit. You end up discarding the majority of your time cards because they can only be triggered at the right … time. A well-timed scream can either be an effective jump scare or a predictable annoyance.
Fate cards must be read as soon as you receive them. If you are playing a small game then there is a greater chance that you will encounter numerous cards that reference characters not actively playing—straight to the discard pile with those.
Your quest will become so frantic that you will often ignore your time and fate cards, which is a shame.
Other gameplay features include duelling (where you can steal keys from other players) and flying (teleport to other flight stones).
Look out for the black hole. You can miss a lot of turns by hanging out in that dank place. Sometimes the Gatekeeper will even send you there to rot for a little while.
You are Released from the Black Hole
Atmosfear has a running time of 49 minutes. The pace is decent and the balance feels just about right. While the designers recommend up to six players the sweet spot is anywhere between three and four.
The cheesy, joke-riddled nature of this Gatekeeper's persona never wears too thin because you're always in for a bit of a goofy adventure. This game doesn't take itself too seriously and that's why I still play it with my family and friends. If the story took a darker direction I would imagine that it would lack the same longevity. Hats off to Phillip Tanner and Brett Clements for pioneering an innovative and entertaining formula that gets me right in the nostalgic feels.
You bring back some very cherished memories there... memories of last Saturday when I watched a game of this being played ! All in all, good wholesome family fun with just a touch of tongue-in-cheek aboveboard abuse !