Grab Bag: Horror Games!!!
Good evening, boils and ghouls. I've got another crinkling creepfest for you as we tiptoe closer and closer toward that magical last day of October... Halloween. I hope you've all got some fun plans. I plan on going as a man who stands on his porch and yells at kids. I'm on a budget this year and already have all the stuff I need for the costume. I did bring some candy, though, so strap in for another Grab Bag.
I went deep diving through the ROM mausoleums and the silent catacombs stacked with floppy disks, hoping to pluck a few motes of dust worth examining. Horror is historically a hit-or-miss genre in video gaming, with the misses only diminishing significantly among computer titles and consoles of the Fifth Gen and newer. I remember playing the NES's Friday the 13th and being very confused and disappointed, which ended up cosmically balancing out years later when I first played Silent Hill 2 at a friend's house, in the dark, with a 5.1 Surround Sound system, while I was (in my feral youth) high as hell. It was awesome to be frightened by a game in the same way a good horror film can make you squirm or jump.
Nonetheless, I digress: There were some good eggs before things moved to CD formats and low-poly gore. Several personal computers of the late 80s and 1990s were making leaps and bounds in graphical and audio capabilities, two picturesque examples being the Amiga series and the lovely Japanese-domestic X68000. It is my educated professional opinion (something I could not say in real life without laughing) that the NES was ill-suited for the horror genre with exceedingly few exceptions. Inf act, none come to mind. To support this statement, I'd like to point out that a solid majority of the attempts made at NES horror titles were left in the hands of LJN – the canned-tomato shitbird degenerate gambler among NES development teams. Which leads me to my first game (yes, we're gonna rag on LJN again, we will never stop)...
I'll start off with a frank statement, an observation that strikes home like the spanking of a truly furious parent: LJN is responsible for an entire dynasty of early-gen licensed titles whose strongest tie to their source material is the use of said franchise's trade dress. Their games are like warm, dented tins of ass left in the summer sun as a booby trap; I'd go so far as to say that giving one of LJN's video games to someone as a gift qualifies under international law as an act of war.
The woeful truth is that, despite being significantly less terrible than LJN's earlier shit-gobbling train wrecks for the little gray box, Beetlejuice is still this kind of game, in a nutshell – a loosely coherent and surprisingly desolate adaptation of a film that really didn't have the potential for a good video game in it. The film was released in 1988, but was apparently scooped up in one dangling, errant arm three years later for this purpose. Go figure.
I love the film, is the really crushing part. The dark and irreverent humor, the excellent FX and soundtrack, an all-star cast (including a great role for the late Glenn Shadix, who I sincerely wish had lived longer and done more)... Hey, you remember the part where Beetlejuice leaps around the sheer ravines and cliffs surrounding the Maitlands' home and stomps on giant bugs repeatedly?
Yeah, I don't either, but that's a big part of the video game.
I'll cede a few bright spots for Beetlejuice's NES incarnation, though:
It has a fun little powerup system that revolves around how your power is to scare the shit out of people, and you can buy uses of these abilities that are kept in a sort of inventory. The one early in the game lets you slough off your flesh and become a skeleton.
The game has both side-scrolling and top-down action, similar to the far superior game Super C.
While nothing in the implied sequence of events seems to make any sense when compared to the film's story, The exposition and cut scenes and other fluff at least attempts to suggest that things are going the same way. You are also obviously supposed to be in the same places from the film, however cartoonish and exaggerated they may seem.
This game gets 4/10 from me. It's really not up to what Beetlejuice deserves (if you'd try to capture the film's flavor in an 8-bit game in the first place – a dubious choice), but it's more of a solid attempt than you'd expect out of NES-era LJN. It doesn't make me less mad at them for Uncanny X-Men, Back to the Future, Wolverine, or that Spider-Man NES game that they should have all gone to prison for... but it did surprise me that it was actually kinda sorta playable. Oh, here's the soundtrack if you want it... it's not really good or bad, but the loops are kind of short so it doesn't make for great active listening.
Fright Night (Microdeal, 1988)
I had taken a few glimpses at this one, but knew I'd want to save talking about it until October.
On the one hand, Amiga machines had relatively rich graphics and sound compared to their well-known rivals in the PC market; on the other, I literally never knew one fucking person who owned an Amiga rig until I was in college and met a dude who collected vintage computers. Much like we saw in the X68000 article, a good portion of developers for the Amiga were small-scale or in-house programmers. However, Microdeal was kind of a big deal back in the 1980s-era computer scene. They had earned their stripes writing an impressive library of software for the Tandy CoCo and the British-domestic Dragon 32. As the eternal boxing match went from 8 to 16 bits, Microdeal divided its efforts between adapting its old games for the newer sets and throwing some new stuff out. The latter was a bit more profitable for them, but to make a long story short, they cashed in their chips in the 90s.
But before nailing the coffin shut, they did produce a really interesting game based off the kick-ass 1985 film Fright Night. In a rare (but not unique) twist, you play not as the unlikely hero Charlie Brewster, but as the suave yet monstrous Jerry Dandridge. Jerry prowls his home nightly, killing two birds with one stone as he cleans his domain of pesky vampire-hunters... getting himself a nice multi-course supper in the process. Another example of a 3-year delay on cashing in, this game is a far better product than Beetlejuice for the NES in so many ways that we won't even get into it.
I will start with the negative, since it's really not that overwhelming. The big issue I had with it is that the entire game takes place in Dandridge's home, and the elements of play really don't change. Your goals, environment, abilities, and even your victims remain static... it seems almost as if the Fright Night universe gets stuck in some bullshit Dr. Who style time bubble as you kill the same 3-4 people over and over again while prowling the same set of rooms. The monotony is occasionally broken by Dandridge's unsafe working conditions; there are hands in the floor, and sometimes a tit-ghost will cross paths with you while you're on the hunt. Occupational hazards of being an undead sex machine, I guess. Despite all, the game is still fun... at least while its shelf life holds up before you get bored of the limited breadth of experience.
The graphics are mind-blowing when compared with similar systems of the time period. Jerry's house is richly appointed and rendered in great detail. I especially dig the wall portraits; Jerry shows pride in his heritage by littering his walls with framed pics of his fellow nightmare creatures. The characters are also well-drawn and their animated reactions to the snarling vampire's entrance make for some pretty good shit. The game, not unlike the film, has a sense of humor about itself. While the soundtrack can best (and most politely) described as minimalist, the digitized sound contrasts it as another redeeming quality.
I'll throw Fright Night for the Amiga 6/10. It's well-produced, bears lush detail, and only falters slightly due to its narrow gameplay style.
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (Advanced Communication Co./Bandai, 1988)
Sometimes, within the first five minutes of playing a game, you can tell that the men and women responsible for the actual product had far less enthusiasm than the marketing/licensing people who sent out the memo.
Let's talk about the red flags clearly visible in this spiritually numbing jug of cold piss they tried to pass off as a game. Is it based on the 1886 literary horror classic? Uh... it has the same titular character(s). Otherwise, it's not a story or game... it's some kind of artistic statement centered around obliterating the dignity and willpower of the hapless player who fumbles into it.
First off, take a look at those graphics. You know what they remind me of, in their style (read: lack thereof)? Those rinky-dink unlicensed Bible-themed and Chinese pirate-published carts that are still mentioned readily by NES fans as possible proof that cutthroat capitalism can put people who are competent at programming into a sweatshop-style environment. Just like Bible Buffet and Grand Dad, this game palpably reeks of the woe inherent in its origin. I bet if you pressed one ear to the cart like a conch shell, you could hear the baleful moaning and the rattling chains. Let's have it writ plain: IT'S VERY CLEAR THAT THIS NES GAME WAS NOT CRAFTED BY MINDS ONE COULD DESCRIBE AS HAPPY.
The developers did have a pretty innovative idea for continuing the saga of two men in one man: You play as Jekyll, who is on his way to his wedding, on foot. The problem with this plan is that apparently every single man and beast along his route sees Henry Jekyll as a mortal foe who must be viciously murdered at all costs. Every injury not only reduces your vitality but also increases your “Anger Meter.” You know what, if I couldn't even walk to the church in my hometown without being bitten/shit on/disintegrated by casually-dropped spherical black cartoon bombs... I'd be pissed to. I'd have a “meter.”
If your Anger fills to 100%, you transform into the Incre.... I mean, Mr. Hyde. Inexplicably, this also turns day to night instantly and transmutes your mundane earthly assailants into supernatural monsters, too. You know what you have to do to escape this shadowy realm and turn back into poor Dr. Jekyll?
YOU HAVE TO BRUTALLY KILL EVERY LIVING THING YOU SEE.
Doing so reduces your Anger... and when it's empty, you're Henry again, and you can keep walking to your wedding, as well as increasingly absurd situations wherein your death or loss of self become constant risks.
This all sounds cool on the surface (despite being more of a Bruce Banner meets Jules Verne thing than any kind of faithful follow-up to the original tale). When you actually PLAY this shit, the cool factor nose-dives and crashes into your soul. I've already mentioned that the boxy, sloppy, unimaginative visuals hang heavy. The sound throws a curveball at you by somehow being expertly done and simultaneously being the single most ghastly sensory offense present during play. When the dogs bark, they don't sound like dogs; the digitized snippet sounds distinctly like a very large man yelling “BIP” at you in the same tone of voice you'd use to caution a child not to touch the stove. There is a bird in the graveyard who constantly strafes back and forth over you, peppering you with what appear to be pre-coiled mounds of brown, non-bird shit. Every time it pulls the trigger on its abomination of an anus, the sound effect sounds like someone petulantly shouting “NOOOOO” through a maxed-out auto-wah pedal off some shoegaze guitarist's setup. Jekyll & Hyde made me profoundly grateful that NES games do not convey olfactory, tactile, or gustatory stimuli. Who even knows what you'd feel, smell, and taste when you pressed Start on this abusively foul program.
Here's my parting shot: if I were Jekyll in this game, I'd be postponing the wedding and re-planning it somewhere I didn't have to play The Running Man to just arrive. It seems like an awfully long distance to walk, with or without the poop-birds, bip-dogs, and dapper bowler-wearing arsonists.
Jekyll & Hyde gets 2/10. This game was like non-consensual hardcore S&M with me as the bottom. The only difference was, instead of getting my balls crushed or my nipples obliterated, this game went straight for my spirit and wrenched me into a state of ego death. And real talk: just the sound the turd pelican makes has me convinced that dead people can see ME while I play it. Bandai, how can you normally be so decent and crisp and clean, then offhandedly hurl a hex like this on the world? What would Kamen Rider think?
Via con diablos, Fright Fans. One more gruesome article coming up before All Hallow's Eve... Have fun and check your apples for razors.