Coaster Kingdom

 
Duel, Alton Towers
Saturday, February 24, 2007

This article contains spoilers. If you read on, please be aware that surprises or secrets may be revealed in great depth

Although investment has been heavy of late, overlooking the Corkscrew, Tussauds are clearly careful not to let older rides be swept under the carpet of obscurity. Rides that have become stale are normally either removed (especially if it's a hand-me-down from John Broome) or revamped and advertised as new.

Tussauds have shown they're more than competent running theme parks, and even in the case of PortAventura building them from scratch. They can also knock up a pretty good ride when forced to.

But alarm bells ring when it comes to refurbishing rides. Spectacular failures include the Vampire, Toadie's Crazy Cars and worst of all, Rumba Rapids. It seems quite remarkable that following even the most minimal of investment, the finished ride is actually worse than what it was before.

Tussauds struck gold with Tomb Blaster, replacing the amateurish Terror Tomb in the loosest sense. The budget was clearly enough for even a primary schoolchild to fund with enough money left over to buy a Curly Whirly, consisting of several thousand LEDs and the trains retrofitted with arcade-style laser guns.

Who would have thought that such a haphazard bodge would become the dictionary definition of re-ridable? Not me. Such has been Tomb Blaster's success, Alton Towers' Haunted House received the same treatment for the 2003 season and advertised as new.

Like Tomb Blaster, the changes are subtle. Cars have been retrofitted with guns and score displays (forfeiting a single seat per car), the ride interior with several thousand multi-colour LED lights, with the final portion of the ride taking on a completely different style.

Duel can be found in Gloomy Wood, down a wooded path from Forbidden Valley (home of Nemesis) and Katanga Canyon (home of Congo River Rapids). The simple architecture of the decaying mansion consists of a timber-framed gable-end with ivy crawling up the cracked plaster. A conical slate roof sits atop a red brick tower to the side.

Using contrasting styles as an art-form, the crisp and colourful bluey-green, yellow and red Duel logo sits upon a grey, weathered obelisk aside a tomb.

From the cracked lid of the tomb, a decaying zombie holds a flashing laser gun. His ugly head, a pale shade of white with just a few random tufts of hair shudders from left to right with the finesse of a windscreen wiper. A truly terrible animatronic.

The music draws you in to the ride with its solemn melody overlaid with a true Doctor Who style lasergun sound effect whilst at the entrance to a house, a colourful sign briefly explains the concept of the ride and the idea of the game.

Once inside, you pass through a dark hallway with portraits of Adam's Family style residents hung around a dust-covered table beneath the flickering chandelier above.

The next hall sends your senses a-kilter as it has sunken dramatically into a sideways slant. As you weave from side-to-side through this crooked room a pre-ride video introduces Duel to you.

Richard O'Conner of ATNC reports on the disappearance of a leading surgeon experimenting with the re-animation of the dead. O'Connor adheres to every roving reporter stereotype in the book down to the receding hairline and beige raincoat.

The film then cuts to a reasonably attention-grabbing video with more than just a passing similarity to Michael Jackson's Thriller video, with un-dead zombies clawing their way from the ground in a desolated graveyard.

Into the cosy station, burgundy wallpaper peeling from the walls, busts along the back wall caked with dust. The five-seater cars slowly parade the length of the station seating three riders in the front, two in the back which is slightly tiered above the front.

Accompanying the length of the station, announcements warn you not to 'touch your blaster' until the bar has lowered 'auta-mat-i-cal-lee' (typed as announced) which briefly interrupts the grim atmosphere with a true Carry On moment, albeit accidentally.

Your four-wheeled motorised coffin is immediately plunged into darkness and tightly dodges an approaching wall. Alive with the twinkle of hundreds of green targets, there are no shortages of targets to shoot at.

The amount of targets is more apparent on Duel, perhaps, due to the fact that the several thousand targets are shared among only four, maybe five riders, whereas on Tomb Blaster you are fighting against nearly thirty other riders.

As you slalom across the marbled floor a large ghoul lurches from behind a pillar littered with targets. A turn away from the main part of the hall surprises you with another monster, this time bizarrely holding a teacup before like before, your fibreglass sarcophagus heads towards a small doorway that opens up out of the way at the last moment, before a turn takes you towards a gaping skeletal mouth, mirror ball eyes lighting the vault with a rolling red glow.

The car slows to a crawl as the motion of the tunnel tries to trick you into thinking that it is the track that is turning, not the tunnel. But, of course in this age of interactivity, this trick goes unnoticed as your mind is otherwise engaged shooting at a flurry of multi-coloured lights.

A few turns are taken in complete darkness, only interrupted by the flicker of targets on the walls and the fracas of bats above. Soon, the pace slows to a crawl, and you enter a spiders' lair. Covered in yellow targets, a spider of titanic proportions straddles the track as you pass beneath the substantial body of this enraged arachnid.

You speed up erratically slaloming through the darkness, before a bull-like character lurches from the gloom and you enter a dark and macabre garden. Ghosts escape from the coffin on the back of a horse-drawn hearse as you weave slowly through a decaying cemetery.

Creepy characters jump from darkened corners, pillars transform into monsters and creatures scurry around in the darkness with the scenery alight with targets.

Following a rather coarse change from the sombre moonlit garden to the grubby industrial feel of the surgeons' house basement, a menagerie of freakish zombies fire back at you, jumping from ooze-stained oil drums and appearing through hatches in the wall.

The animation of these zombies makes the cow with the swishing tail on Noah's Ark looking like an animatronic masterpiece befitting of even the best Disney attraction. Frankly, I expect better animation from a pop-up book.

Some zombies aren't even animatronic at all and stand in a static and stilted stance leaning over a gantry above clutching a flashing lasergun. The most animated our decomposing un-dead opponents get is when they vertically rise from barrels as if they're from a game of Whack-A-Mole.

And so this final scene peters out past a swirling green light as you re-enter the unload station. Fortunately, the bottleneck caused by the ride-photo counter has been moved to a more sensible place, although has been re-decorated to be somewhat sterile and crisp when compared to the softly lit corridors, rotting dado rails and peeling wallpaper elsewhere.

Let's look back at the failings of the Haunted House and see how Duel compares. The Haunted House was superficially good, but relied far too heavily on cheap scares. The element of surprise quickly fades and yields a rather lacklustre ride with little other than characters jumping out of the dark recesses of the house.

Equip riders with laserguns, and the entire focus of the ride shifts from an idle gallery of oversized synthetic monsters to a three-dimensional interactive arcade. And like Tomb Blaster it works... just not as well.

To reflect on the positives, the game is easier to play than Tomb Blaster. Riders are expected to shoot green targets for 100 points or amber ones for a favourable bonus with the targets blinking and then turning red when shot.

Like Tomb Blaster, though, targets litter every available corner and recess with surprisingly little regard shown to using them in context on characters around the house. It's funny to think that during the garden scene in particular when one character jumps out there are no targets on it what so ever.

The game would be better if targets were used sparingly to highlight 'vulnerable' parts of the creatures and zombies around the house - their eyes for example. With the monsters often caked in lights and walls almost wallpapered in blinking multicoloured bulbs, playing Duel doesn't require a masters in firearms.

Tomb Blaster has never used darkness as a real effect, nor relied heavily upon characters jumping out at you. The elaborate sets add depth to the ride whist being careful not to intrude on the game of the ride. With so little regard shown for the placement of targets, and without the eye-candy of Terror Tomb, Duel is a far more vanilla affair than Tomb Blaster which at times could be likened to driving down Blackpool promenade stealing light bulbs.

Duel encompasses a good soundtrack throughout whilst most of the ghouls do still have associated groans, screams or cackles as before. Like any good computer game, your trigger-happy frenzy is accompanied by a fitting soundtrack, sounding not to far off the Futurama theme. It's always upbeat, and whilst not as memorable as the Tomb Blaster theme, really sets the attraction off nicely.

Duel suffers from the same downfalls as the original Haunted House. Off-setting this nicely though, and most importantly, it celebrates the same positives as Tomb Blaster. It's good, but it could be better.

Please, do not use our ratings to compare rides head-to-head. They rate only how well this ride meets its own objectives using criteria that may not necessarily be relevant with similar reviews.

Good points:

  • More incentive now to re-ride
  • Some good special effects and a decent soundtrack
  • A long ride that rarely has any queues

Bad points:

  • Very little of the ride is noticed due to the nature of the shooting element
  • Very cheesy effects in places and very poor animatronics
  • No discernable storyline

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