Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Zombies Ate My Neighbours", 1993.

A game no Hallowe'en would be complete without, a paean to a century of B-movies and a return visit from distinguished extinguished development house Lucasarts, who we commemorated earlier this year. This scan is from Retrogamingaustralia and it was worth borrowing, because the game is awesome.


-Anita Placetohide
Amityville Herald

Only Konami could bring something so demented and sick to your Super NES and your Sega Genesis. Action! Adventure! A real scream! A must see!

"55 levels of sheer terror.
Not a dry seat in the house."

-Washington Post Mortum


-Slash Meehup - Rolling Tombstone

Thrilling performances by two teenage stars who must save cheerleaders, babies and BBQ-happy neighbors from every monster that ever stalked the cineplex.

"Somebody help me! Help me please!"

- B.A. Goner - New York Times Up

Fifty-five B-horror movies rolled into one are now slaying in your neighborhood. Scream to the sounds of "Hedgemaze Chainsaw Mayhem," "Mars Needs Cheerleaders" and "Weird Kids on the Block." Find your way through a "chopping" mall, a grocery store, mysterious monster islands, a haunted house and your own Zombie infested backyard. Run, swim and trampoline over hedges to escape hordes of Zombies, Chainsaw Maniacs, Mummies, Evil Dolls, Lizard Men, Blobs, Vampires, Giant Ants, Martians and more. Or take them out with your uzi squirt gun, exploding soda pop, bazookas and weed wackers. In a pinch use one of your collectible power-ups like secret potions and bobo clown decoys. Go it alone or as a Zombie squad of two. The game goes on and on and on. Run for your life! It just won't die!!

So much to say, but so little needs to be said. The ad demonstrates a Lucasfilmian wit above and beyond what we see in most Konami ads -- is it possible they marketed it in-house? Or is it just that they have so much to work with? Of course kids wouldn't appreciate the nods to movies from the '50s or the references to the Washington Post, New York Time Out and Rolling Stone (well, unless they're real keeners) but the stylish silliness has them square in its uzi sights. (Ah, and Amityville, we haven't seen you since Jaws!)

This great game had a Day of the Tentacle easter egg (not just the bobo clown decoys) and enjoyed a Genesis-exclusive sequel, Ghoul Patrol. We wouldn't really see another game revisiting this territory until Destroy All Humans, and even that has a much narrower (if deeper) point of reference. If you pop open only one game in an emulator today, make it this one.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"Splatterhouse 3", Genesis, 1993.

I don't know what happened to the intermediary sequel, but next up we have an ad for a horrific game, courtesy of Benj from Vintage Computing. With a touch of Friday the 13th's masked-face motif, we bring you: Splatterhouse 3 - Splatter with a Vengeance.

Splatterhouse 3 for the Sega Genesis is the kind of game rating systems were invented for. Check out the screen shots and see for yourself. [screenshot]
So fun you could lose your head over it!

Don't get all choked up!

Get your kicks!

Wear a mask and pack a powerful punch.

Pow! Right in the kisser!

Walk on the wild side!

You've gotta have guts!

  • 16 megs of gruesome graphics!
  • Deadly New Weapons!
  • 6 levels of monster bashing mayhem!
  • Killer special moves!
  • Non-linear game play!
  • Multiple endings!
  • Password support!
Warning: This game contains scenes of graphic violence that may not be suitable for younger players.
The first point is absolutely correct: game rating systems were a new state of affairs at this time, though probably not implemented with the intent this ad suggests -- to spur sales of outrageously adult content. Where "adult" means, I suppose, gratuitous.

This is another lazy ad; Namco designed the game and could no doubt find many relevant remarks to make about the game and what differentiates it from its predecessors, but it looks like the US office just decided to make some weak jokes and fling things that look like punchlines but have no humour. Is "wear a mask and pack a powerful punch" a paraphrase of "speak softly and carry a big stick"? "Walk on the wild side": this blog's obligatory Lou Reed memorial tribute. We should hope that the new weapons are deadly and that the special moves are killer, otherwise they're kind of missing the point. Where does the phrase "monster bash" originate? The next two items redundantly reinforce each other: non-linear and with multiple ending. Then it wraps up by kind of apologetically asserting what it boldly proclaimed in the opening: indeed, this house is filled with splatter.

And for a bonus, here's another version (from World 1-1 at extralives) of an ad for Splatterhouse 1 we saw last year, this time in two-page form:



It started as a college field trip to an old and somehow evil mansion. You just wanted to study the gruesome experiments of the world's most renowned, yet twisted parapsychologist.

Then, things started going wrong. Terribly wrong.

The last things you remember were a blood curdling scream and a dull thwack to the back of your skull.

You awaken to find someone or something has taken your girlfriend, and to save her you'll have to slaughter seven levels of monstrous ghouls.

You're about to find out exactly why this horrible place is called Splatterhouse.

And why no one has ever entered, and lived long enough to talk about it.

To get a ghoul's attention, try a two-by-four to the head. (The slime stains should come out in the wash.)

He's got a chainsaw. You've got a 12-gauge shotgun. Who will cut who in half?

Punch and kick the bloody guts before they suck the life out of you. That surgical get-up you're wearing is quite attractive.

Killing the head is tough. To have a ghost of a chance, try the two-by-four again.

How tough is this maggot-eaten boss? You've got to give him a hand, he uses his head.

Manufacturer's suggested retail price for the TurboGrafx-16 system is $159.99.

No, it's not then that things started going terribly wrong; the premise is terribly wrong from the start. And if no one ever lived long enough to talk about it, how would the horrible place have achieved its name? Did it begin as a utensils-free buffet?

I imagine the problem in this game isn't attracting the ghouls' attention. How will guts suck the life out of you, do they have little mouths or stomas? Repeated mention of the 2x4 isn't selling me on the imaginative variety of player weapons available. A boss who manifests as a head and a hand is described in terms of a head and a hand. That isn't figurative language, you're just saying what you see!

And finally: will this bloody game convince you all on its own to purchase a TurboGrafx-16? (History suggests that the answer is: no.)

Monday, October 28, 2013

"The Legacy: Realm of Terror", MS-DOS, 1992.

This is the last game that Magnetic Scrolls ever made, after perfecting their craft as the "British Infocom". The end of the line for the commercial text adventures was a baffling crossroads that no one really made it through unscathed. So from those vaunted wits we have a haunted house that doesn't know if it wants to be Myst or Doom.











You kind of get the feeling that much of this copy originated from the publisher, who just has to sell the thing, rather than from the developers who put blood and tears into the project and could speak about it passionately. (Publishers are just passionate about their ROI.) The plot probably isn't as dopey as it sounds. Why am I so special that my ancestors, the sinister Winthrops (could have tried harder for a sinister name, guys) have been plotting my downfall since before I was a gleam in my grandfather's grandfather's eye? Well, because it might make for a good game. Writers everywhere need to come up with answers for "once the nature of the situation is made obvious, why doesn't the protagonist just head out of Dodge?" The standard answer is "to rescue his girlfriend", and only slightly less common is the "it's his blood legacy, wherever he goes he takes it with him" trope.

"Unreal estate" I like -- that was a missed opportunity by the author of the Choice of Games title "Eerie Estate Agent", a unique game that actually takes the quotidian approach to haunting that this ad merely feigns.

400 rooms doesn't excite me, it concerns me. "Up to 400 rooms" tells me that many of them (maybe 395?) do not play necessary roles in the completion of the game. Filler, then? Mazes? You can't play this numbers game because Time Zone and Snowball took the cake a long time ago. "You'll encounter puzzles, magical items, and forbidden books." Is it true that the end boss has a copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover in his back pocket? That list sounds a bit bored, a bit "what are three things this game contains?" rather than "what are the three most critical elements of this game?"

Leeches are bad enough, folks. They don't have to be death leeches. That's gilding the lily. Then MicroProse asserts itself once again and demonstrates that it's lost the thread by making a baffling Wizard of Oz reference that works even less well than the mangled aphorism the ad opens with. Then it's like... guys, we have six lines left and we've run out of screen shots. What are some boring old horror cliches we can invoke to fill space? I'm actually very fond of "stupefying stumpers in surreal rooms". Note that there's no value judgement there, it's a knife that cuts both ways. I kind of hope that someday I can make a game that someone will apply that description to.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

"Waxworks", MS-DOS, 1992.

So, what's the most frightening thing about wax? OK, we're in consensus, as is the artist for this ad. And is there a second frightening thing about it? Yes, you in the back? What? Well, okay, a Brazilian bikini wax is indeed a harrowing prospect, but I was thinking something more along the lines of... the uncanny sensation that the realistic wax models in museums might somehow become animated, sapient and murderous. Isn't that one universal? Well, take it from these chappies from the land of Madame Tussaud's...
Jack wasn't nimble.

Jack wasn't quick

So Jack became a candlestick.

No other fantasy role-playing experience delivers the undiluted horror of WAXWORKS for the IBM PC. Descend into five vast worlds of molten terror, battling over 100 evil denizens that occupy the WAXWORKS. Decaying graveyard ghouls, man-eating plants, bloodthirsty Egyptian priests -- even Jack the Ripper -- are all dying to enter the world of the living with only you in their way. But stand warned: the first-person perspective, VGA color graphics are not for the squeamish. WAXWORKS. It all boils down to terror.

Unofficially a species of Elvira 3, harnessing the tech and sinister themes of the two Elvira games (and, heh, "Elvira 0", Personal Nightmare -- adapted by Alan Cox from AberMUD 5 code!), this is one tough game. I always wondered at the precise logistics informing the ad art -- the wax fills the throat and coats the tip of the nose but somehow fails to pool in the eye sockets? Or it has been chipped and peeled away from there to lend the ad extra punch? I give hats off to the artist for rolling with such an esoteric order and depicting it in such a way as can be understood more or less at a glance. (How would you depict "asphyxiated and coated in wax, barring bloodshot, terror-filled eyes" in a round of Eat Poop You Cat? Everyone would just keep glossing over the exceptional elements and you end up with Han Solo in carbonite every time.) The big slogan unfortunately just makes me think of Rolling Stones songs. (Anything reminiscent of Stones songs is unfortunate.) (Edit: not 5 minutes after penning these words, what comes on the radio? I've got to be more careful...)

The small print says Adventure Soft UK, but the line of games was released through the "HorrorSoft" label (under publisher Accolade in the US, as you can see), and the warning is fair: these games didn't hold back on delivering punchy shocks. (The Adventure Soft UK story is a whole other post, taking us from a Scott Adams "Adventureland" UK importer to licensed Fighting Fantasy adaptations, the consummate graphical adventure presentation of the first two Simon the Sorcerer games, and on to Dark Corners of the Earth -- long after most of their competitors had been put out to pasture. I belive Simon Woodroffe is currently heading Rare, a fellow traveler through the ages. Erk, I probably shared a similar tangent back when I wrote about Ironsword.) (Come to think about it, I believe there was an earlier text adventure game by Brian Howarth, also entitled Waxworks.)

The first sentence of the blurb is weird, establishing that no other game is, well, this game. Well, yes I suppose that's true. The numbers are casually tossed around to impress (as if we could be impressed by the implication of "we didn't find enough in any of these rich settings to build an entire game around") and if you count on your fingers you note that the fifth of the five vast worlds remains unnamed, a surprise reserved for the exclusive enjoyment of the game's players. "Dying to enter the world of the living" works; "boils down to terror" not so much. Please put your living statue game on hold, I am interested in learning more about the process by which wax is refined!

Of the four screenshots presented, only the lower right-most appears to represent any kind of interactive gameplay, and you know, I don't think offering him a papyrus is really the most strategic option at that point. (Remember the ubiquity of "Egyptian" levels in games? When did we leave our ludological Egyptology fixation behind? Did the platform games wear it out?)

Speaking of worn out, could they say WAXWORKS a few more times? Not without someone catching on, I suppose.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

"Flesh Feast", Windows, 1997.

Since we're getting to the gruesome point in our pre-Hallowe'en run-up, let's get serious.
Death. Life is squeezed out of a body, until nothing remains but a cold, inanimate corpse.

Resurrection. The corpse comes back to life, lacking spirit or soul. In order to live, it must feed.
On humans.

Solid! The nose is, surprisingly, intact, though the ears don't seem to have fared as well, and the scraps of hair are very effective. Was this fellow's mouth so jagged before death or does zombification add points to your teeth? Snarling upper lip or just decayed away? It's a new take on zombie eyes, and the church in the background (hello, body-eating followers of a man returned from the dead) is a very nice touch.

The blurb is also very adeptly handled. But what is the product being advertised here? Turn the page for a double spread!

Send the dead to their graves.

FLESH FEAST. Six feet below the earth, worms are crawling through empty caskets. Above ground, the putrid stench of rotting flesh hangs in the air as corpses claim victims to feed their insatiable hunger.

The dead have mysteriously come back to life, and Nasat Island has gone from premier[e] tourist destination to nightmarish human hunting ground, where nobody is safe.

Survive the island's many terror-filled sectors using weapons and wit to eliminate wave after wave of ravenous undead hordes. Rescue the remaining survivors and strategize your escape.

Then, in the climactic finale, penetrate the complex that houses the secrets to the dead's resurrection. FLESH FEAST. IF YOU'RE ONLY CONSUMED BY FEAR, YOU'RE ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES.

Now we'll see what you're made of.

That's a, er, wide stance! How long is a chainsaw blade that reaches almost to the ground and how many of those can you lay end to end between your two feet? I suppose that depends on how high it's being held -- waist level? Wait a sec, we don't even see knees here. Just how long are those shins, anyhow? Moving right along... The pack of living dead appears to contain some stylishly long-maned potentially repeating zombies -- I've heard that hair and fingernails continue to grow for up to two weeks after death but this is ridiculous. And are the left-moon and red-cloud zombies pursuing us carefully balanced on single legs? The shadows are deliberate but inconsistant reference points. Center right ground zombie -- emerging from the grave or just cut in half? Barring the teaser cover model, these zombies are actually surprisingly gore-free, but what they lack in decay they make up for in exaggerated claw-hands. They're either going to gore, fondle or tickle you. (Or maybe more than one of the above simultaneously, for new heights in simulated horror.)

Given the high speed of its moving parts, I have to wonder just how tenacious that zombie gore on the chainsaw blade really is. Though it looks good, it gives me the impression of a party cold cuts tray carefully toothpicked on to the tool for the photoshoot. And the graveyard -- was this really a planned community facility? It seems somewhat haphazardly strewn, headstones facing hither and yon with no real scheme or pattern. Inadequate feng shui will bring your deceased ancestors back from the dead! (or at least provide you the refreshment of a cold can of Coca-Cola.)

The ad copy here isn't any more specific than it needs to be, largely focusing on atmospherics without falling into pitfalls of stupid wordplay or camp as well as distancing from the mood by getting too deep (though that digression into is halfway there) into technical and game mechanics jargon. The phrases that stand out -- "using weapons and wit" -- are positive ones. Rescue survivors? Strategize escape? For something that seems so superficially Army of Darkness-ish (okay, those are Deadites, that's very different) as this centrefold portrays, there appears to be deeper gameplay at heart. The closing slogans -- also well executed.

Outside of this ad, I've never heard of this game, which suggests that it wasn't all that and a back of chips -- but by advertising standards I find it intriguing and consistent. Is the game underrated or just oversold? (Looking back at old warez: another way something can come back from the dead.)

Friday, October 25, 2013

"Chiller", NES, 1990.

And the pendulum swings back toward genuinely disturbing games. This one was by Exidy, no stranger to antisocial controvery following their pedestrian-mulching simulator, the unlicensed Death Race. Also unnerving: rather than just phoning in their work, the artist here seems to be uncannily into his subject matter, as if he spends all day drawing scribbly doodles of zombies on all his notebooks, guitar cases, carving them on to benches, airbrushing them on to hot rods and tattooing them on his buds. The overall effect is one of mud, a precursor to Quake's earthy palette, but there's no lack of love for the linework and the obsessive cross-hatch. Zombies, maan! Dude, zommmmbies! Let's put on some Iron Maiden and roll a fattie!

Two Player Simultaneous Action


For play on the Nintendo Entertainment System

Suggested Retail for Chiller only.

At Last - Affordable Arcade Cartridges Now Available to Play at Home!

  • Play with light gun, zapper or control pad
  • New enhanced pinpoint accuracy
  • Rapidfire mode
  • Multiple levels
  • Hidden objects
  • Arcade quality graphics
  • To order:
    Visit your retailer or call (602) 961-4022

    Two New Titles:
    and Crossbow
    coming soon.
    For play on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

    Affordable Fun!

    For those not in the know, Chiller is basically the no-holds-barred light gun game taking players on a tour through a mad scientist's graveyard grounds and into his torture chamber. Some shooting games would penalize you for catching innocent collateral damage in the crossfire, and then there is this game, that rewards you with bonus points for sharpshooting the rope holding the guillotine blade away from the innocent victim's neck. Essentially it's a provocative "Hot Coffee" kind of idea, except if GTA: San Andreas did away with all the walking, driving and shooting business and was just repeated bouts of poorly-conceived, blockily-rendered intercourse. Wouldn't that be outrageous? It'll be so controversial our best business option will be to throw it at the market at bargain prices.

    Some thoughts about the ad: allowing a second player in a target-shooting game is basically a no-cost feature. When you put a price in bold type in your ad, it's not intended as a "suggestion" -- and it's understood that it's meant to refer to your product, and not other unspecified goods... that's kind of how an ad works: "my product... a price! Is there a relationship between the two or is this ad totally abstract? Ask your retailer and find out!"

    By "arcade cartridges", do they mean conversions of arcade games on cartridge for home consoles? This is 1990, so we're several years past the heyday of the Atari 2600, who kind of trailblazed the "affordable arcade cartridges ... to play at home". Guys, you didn't just invent the home video game. Maybe you could tell us something about your game instead? Ooh, it supports light gun and zapper. (?!) "Enhanced pinpoint accuracy" must be jargon for "you will think you hit the target, but we reduced its on-screen pixel footprint." Rapidfire? Zombie vs. gatling gun simulator! (Sorry -- as you can see, the protagonist's hand is wielding a magic wand, making this pre-Catacombs, pre-Hexen fantasy violence somehow more palatable to Nintendo of America.) If the arcade quality graphics are anything like the art quality of this ad (hm, no screenshots, even!) then that might not be a huge selling point. My recollection is indeed that the game enjoyed a workmanlike "programmer art" aesthetic. And what's this coming up? Deathrace? Did I call it or what? One imagines Crossbow will basically be this game, but with more Robin Hood and less Night of the Living Dead. Were these advertised conversions ever released?

    Well yes, sharing data does make the fun affordable. May as well name your company "SneakerNet."

    As a bonus, here's the arcade flyer -- basically the ad that promoted the game to video arcade owners, convincing them what good moneymakers the arcade cabinets will be. They're not buying the games because they're fun, but because it's a purchase that gives them access to a resource: the contents of your pockets. I got this one from an entry on the game over at World 1-1.


    HORROR -- the popular motion picture genre that has entertained generations of show-goers is now yours on an Exidy video gun.
    ACTION -- the theme is a scream but the skill is an equal thrill. Video dexterity married with "Hollywood horror" adds up to a piece your customers should love to play.
    FLEXIBILITY -- CHILLER is available complete or as a conversion for previous Exidy guns. It's another long-lasting money-earner in our proven series of video target attractions.

    Borrow a card from the movie industry's deck and deal yourself a winning hand with CHILLER.

    This earlier artwork is more sophisticated, in a '70s horror comix sort of way. Brings to mind Bill Gaines' defense before a Senate subcommittee regarding the use of the "female decapitation" motif on cover art, telling them just how much worse they could have drawn it on their EC covers, shortly before inadvertently singlehandedly bringing about the Comics Code Authority. Nice psychedelic logo -- we're much closer to the '70s here than anything for the NES, which had really left that groovy era well and truly behind.

    I guess rumours and word of mouth would result in my hearing and reading about CHILLER, but what exactly is compelling me to howl about it again? My excitement at having it in my pizza parlour, compelling my customers to spew their pepperoni shortly after it enters their mouths? Perhaps every purchase of this game includes a free bite from a lycanthrope at no extra cost.

    "The popular motion picture genre". I gather they're talking about (around, really) horror movies here specifically and not motion pictures as a genre unto themselves? "Video gun" is a terrifically blunt way of summing up a light-gun shooter, and would just as easily apply to today's FPS games. There we go again, a dead-end or forgotten phrase: "video dexterity". (The adjective "video" has really fallen by the wayside in favour of "virtual" or "online". I suppose we just don't care that the machine shows us visuals anymore. That said, the fact that this weird pairing of words yields something comprehensible is a testament to some clever scheming.) Here we go -- "Hollywood horror", a la "Universal Monsters" or Ackerman's "Monsters of Movieland". In the early '80s I'm not sure what the competing strains of horror culture were, but there you have it. And then that great DIY bit where the arcade owner could save a couple of bucks by diving elbow-deep into the guts of his "video gun" machine with a soldering iron. I can't imagine a shopkeeper doing that today.

    The closing card-game metaphor is weird because of how bland it is -- it could apply to any game, while surely they could come up with a more specific trope fitting this game's subject. (Maybe they did, but it was just a little too outrageous.)

    Thursday, October 24, 2013

    "Fester's Quest", NES, 1989.

    The Addams Family enjoyed phenomenal success for a franchise that began as single-panel comic strips. Have you seen the Far Side movies? (Maybe even asked yourself what a Far Side video game would look like?) It's a trickier act to pull off than it seems. The Addams Family movies were very canny, timely works that used great actors in the service of superb characterization. Then in their wake, all these licensed video game adaptations emerged that essentially had nothing to do with the films or anything that came before them, save a vague kind of skinning. (Not that these are any more off-base than, say, M.C. Hammer's rap about the family.) Apparently this game concerns the voyages of feral Uncle Fester in space. Admit it: you were making a space game already, then lucked into this license and decided to dump the characters in. Thing is, the space game wasn't very fun in the first place. (Actually, some commentators note that in many regards this game resembles SunSoft's Blaster Master, which actually is quite fun. But Uncle Fester doesn't drive a giant tank.)


    You rang.

    Fester's Quest takes the skeletons out of the closet for a trip to outer space.

    If "space games" are your thing, here's the spaciest one yet! With Lurch, Pugsley, Thing, and the rest of the Addams crew at his side, Uncle Fester leads the way in the wildest, wackiest alien shoot-'em-up ever! The action is manic, the graphics explosive, and the story is guaranteed to leave you howling. So find out for yourself how much fun going crazy can be. Get "Fester's Quest." At your favorite dealer now!

    Maybe I'm being mean. Still, I have some problems with this ad. 1) The picture caption is clearly not being presented on-screen, bereft of the jaggies gracing Lurch's portrait. But to what end? 2) The little boy in the foreground is clearly not looking at the screen. 3) If the game the boy is playing is this one, he is aggressively button-mashing his way through a non-interactive cut scene.

    Are "space games" my thing? Not being talked down to by patronizing adults is my thing. Wild and wacky are filler adjectives, invoked when you don't actually have anything to say. Just because the story will leave me howling doesn't imply that I will be howling in satisfaction. "How much fun crazy can be"? This ad just showed a pulse! Alas, just before it ends.

    Then there are some curios in the small print: Sunsoft and Orion Pictures alike licensed the Addams Family characters from Barbare Artists, Inc. But who licensed television rights to Fester's Quest from Orion Pictures? Is that to cover broadcasting gameplay footage over the air? Brand licensing: it's a strange world. (Edit: strangest of all -- this game pre-dates the movies by two years. But evidently they were in the works.

    Wednesday, October 23, 2013

    "DecapAttack", Genesis, 1991.

    The uncanny can be frightening simply by virtue of its irrevocable strangeness, but sometimes it goes so far that what would ordinarily be frightening just becomes a kind of background noise as a whole new silly system attempts to assert itself.

    To win at this game, you've got to use your head.

    Welcome to DecapAttack, the new game for Sega Genesis starring Chuck D. Head, who demolishes his enemies with just a toss of his head.

    Chuck can outwit a ghoul by leaping across a collapsing log bridge. Hop aboard a roving eye to escape vicious werewolves. Bounce over horned beasts with a flagpole. And gain extra propulsion by punching a skull head.

    In a jam, he can always use his other head. The one in his chest that lunges out to chomp anything in its path, instantly turning attacking totem poles into piles of toothpicks.

    Everyone knows that two heads are better than one. But in this game, you've got three heads -- counting your own, of course. That's enough to give Chuck's arch enemy, Dr. Frank N. Stein, more than a few headaches himself. It's an experience that'll pop your top, and a whole lot more.

    Sometimes it takes a while to hit on the natural mascot for a platform. The Sega Master System was adrift for a time before Alex Kidd, presenting Fantasy Zone's spaceship Opa Opa as its face to the world. Where would the NES have been without Mario? Then there is this, which one imagines as a stab in the dark for extreme credibility in the dark days prior to the advent of Sonic the Hedgehog. Points for originality, guys, but it's a little too avant-garde.

    Typically "a toss of his head" would imply ducking out from an errant lock of hair. The blow-by-blow reads somewhat like stories written by grade school children, with constrained Dick and Jane antics substituted out for whatever Mad-Lib fancies strike the speaker. All plot concerns fall by the wayside in the service of a child's only required narrative drive: and then what happens next? And then what happens after that? Many events, all outrageous, none amounting to anything.

    The protagonist's name is just stupid, while the antagonist's name is worse -- it's lazy. Let us hope there were somewhat cannier Japanese labels initially and they were just localized in a pathetic fashion. (Edit: it is a conversion of the JP game Magical Hat, and in fact the ad messes up the name of even the NA release's big baddie, which is actually Max D. Cap. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it doesn't sound like Chuck D. Head would have much to fear from Max D. Cap.)

    And then there's that last sentence. Sega, is that a come-on?

    Tuesday, October 22, 2013

    "Zombies", Atari 8-bit, 1983.

    How scary is this game, anyhow? I don't really know, but its ad artwork is a thing of beauty, with stylised '70s features reminding me of the mysteriously vanished Dragon magazine comic feature Wormy. A pity they have to compromise it with the glaring drag factor of mundane commercial concerns. Thanks to Bart Day for contributing this phenomenal game ad scan!


    * Atari is a trademark of Atari, Inc.

    Scrolling 3D graphics, on-line instructions, one or two player cooperative, seven different dungeons, 74 different screens, high score save to disk, full sound and color, zombies, poisonous snakes, giant spiders, evil orbs, scrolls, talismans, lost crowns and spectacular underground scenery.

    A fast action arcade fantasy for Atari's [sic].*

    Ah, but whose trademark is Atari, Inc.? This thing could go GNU-shaped dangerously quickly.

    I like how the ad copy rings of being written by the programmer Mike Edwards, tallying features he implemented. Apparently in '83 "3D graphics" meant something very different from what we understand it to mean today, as did "on-line instructions". This is 3D, Zaxxon-style, an isometric projection. Some cocktail napkin math suggests that every dungeon averages slightly over 10 screens each, each screen costing the player about 50 cents; I don't know if a high score save to disk has ever sold a game but it probably doesn't hurt. But you know, if the game didn't actually contain zombies, many consumers would doubtlessly have been quite disappointed. "POISONOUS SNAKES" just doesn't have the same ring to it. Evil Orbs? A fore-runner of the Murray's Manhunter games? I do like the cherry on top, "spectacular underground scenery." Zork could claim much the same.

    Before genres gelled, sometimes you just had to cast a wide net over your game. An action arcade fantasy? Well, why not. At least it didn't style itself an "adventure", a marketing term so overused it became actually meaningless in the '90s, when it was taken to indicate that a game contained a narrative and was not entirely abstract.

    BRAM Inc. sure was taken with their company logo. I believe this game was part of a series capitalizing on impossible MC Escher architecture that could be described with the isometric projection perspective, leading to a game entitled something like "Realm of Impossibility". (Correction: that was just EA's title for subsequent ports.)

    It almost looks as though this was just slush pile art that they seized for promo purposes, but there are specific hallmarks of this game in it: not just the ZOMBIES and giant spiders, but indeed there in the hero's pouch are the lost crowns. I kind of figured they'd be worn on a head or tossed haphazardly in a general purpose rucksack, but it looks like that there is a dedicated crown satchel.

    Monday, October 21, 2013

    "Shadowgate", NES, 1989.

    Deadliness can, in a pinch, pass for horrificity. This is a fear-emphasizing ad for a fundamentally stock fantasy dungeon romp with slightly more lethal traps than most. Icom (not that you can see their name here, buried beneath NES porters / publishers Kemco - Seika -- it's in the small print at the bottom) made a horror-themed game, Uninvited, which also made it to the NES, but for whatever reason they felt this angle would sell better here than an invocation of yet another journey to Ye Old Englande Tymes.


    Can you outwit and overcome the thoroughly-evil Warlock Lord? His mysterious spell holds Castle Shadowgate captive. Dozens of hidden pitfalls and nasty entities lurk in every corner.

    Probe along menacing stone corridors looking for hidden passageways. Discover mysterious artifacts in dark chambers. Clues are there for those bold enough, and wise enough. Torches. Keys. Gemstones.

    Slay a dragon, cross a river of fire.

    But be careful. A wrong move could bring your quest to an untimely end.

    A whole world of options are at your command with dynamic graphics to bring the dark mysteries of the Middle Ages to life.

    The question is... are you up to the challenge of Castle Shadowgate?

    ...I've just got to come out and applaud their genius ad artwork here. This is an inspired piece, not derived from box art for any version of the game. The duelling green/purple illumination, the player photographically inserted into the scenario (usually a terrible idea), with NES joypad cord trailing off into the undead-filled chasm and off the edge of the ad... It's all very classy. Not the most representative of the actual game, but torches do figure prominently in it. The fourth sentence is the operational one: dozens of hidden pitfalls and nasty entities lurk in every corner. If you could boil down this ad copy to one sentence, that's the one that would sum up the game best. (Second up, that one about a wrong move leading to an untimely end.) But they feel they've got to ice the cake a bit. How often are players invited to probe? I don't believe the dragon is slayable.

    A whole world of options? The screenshots list 8, which is, well, less than Maniac Mansion but more than Sam & Max Hit the Road. By "dynamic graphics" I gather they mean when the player picks the key off the floor, the sprite of the key is removed from the depiction of the room, which is, y'know, a step up from Psycho and Mystery House. The dark mysteries of the Middle Ages? Have Kemco made the mistake of deciding that because this game takes place in Olde Fantasy Tymes, it's actually a chapter of genuine Earth history? This is much closer to Lord of the Rings than Domesday Book. Let's us not muddy the waters here by suggesting that there's some educational historical aspect to this game. If there's any suggestion that it takes place on Earth (as do all of Icom's other Mac-Ventures, elapsing roughly in the present day), I believe the sequels to Shadowgate put that lie to rest. (Ah, thank you Wikipedia: 'Shadowgate takes place on the fictional planet of "Tyragon" where creatures from fantasy and myth live. In the land of "Kal Zathynn", on top of "Gatekeeper Mountain", is the living castle of "Shadowgate"')

    Sunday, October 20, 2013

    ACTIONLearning games, MS-DOS, 1995.

    More allegedly scary games for the under-aged set, meaning naturally kids would want nothing to do with them. (I see this as early as my own 16-month-old, who will happily ignore a bin full of colourful, noisemaking brain-developing baby toys in favour of grabbing a keychain, wallet or utility bill. Look! Grown-up things! I'm now a full-fledged person of complete status! Now change my diaper.) Of course, marketers have two angles to exploit: either sell the kid on it and leave it to the little one to convince the parents to open the purse-strings... or just appeal directly to parents. Granted, the selling-points that work on kids ("over 32 levels of awesome eye-bleeding action guaranteed to give you nightmares for months!") are not always the ones that will compel parents to spend. You'll see.
    Get your brain into the action!


    Ignatius Mortimer Meen keeps his prisoners in a 36-level labyrinth infested with giant spiders. His nasty pal Ophelia Chill is the mistress of a mansion full of gruesome ghouls. To outwit these evil geniuses, you need lightning reflexes -- and plenty of smarts. Find out if you have what it takes to play I.M. MEEN and CHILL MANOR, two of the most challenging "Doom"-style games for kids ever designed.

    CD-ROMs have never been this cool!

    "Your brain" is not something any kid ever wants to see referenced in a game ad unless it's in a "this game will totally fry your brain" context. "Learning" is another one, unless maybe in reference to adaptive enemy AI. "ACTIONLearning" as a brand is practically a zero-sum oxymoron, but in this case the baggage of learning still exerts a certain drag factor. And there's the kicker at the end, "for kids". No kid has ever pestered their parent to buy them a game because it was "for kids". Kids don't want to play games for kids, they want to play games for juvenile delinquents of all ages. And because these ads are being run in comic books, more likely to be read by the kids than by the parents, they're missing out on the child-evangelizing factor. When a kid has a comic with this ad in it, they hide it under the bed instead of leaving the book open on the kitchen table with this page exposed.

    I gather that Meen is some kind of sinister dungeon-keeper; he looks like an off-brand Count Chocula, and how frightening is that? (There is a visual filter in effect giving things a pseudo-woodgrain look, which I approve of, but overall it doesn't salvage the ad.) I surmise that Ophelia Chill isn't actually a mummy but you can't tell from the ad or the box art. (Is she at top centre, holding the book?) Whatever she looks like, it's not as scary as Boo Berry.

    "Find out if you have what it takes" is a depressing challenge when applied to two games clearly made for babies. If it turns out that you don't have it, you might as well just throw in the towel. '"Doom"-style games' is a curious euphemism for the established genre name, FPS for first-person shooter -- a genre with considerably less pull on parents who consider themselves responsible types. (To be fair, it took a while for the genre name to gel; for a while we just called them "Doom clones" and some journalists, Second Life types, tried in vain to champion the name "egoshooters", similarly parent-unfriendly.) But who knows, perhaps these games don't have the player shooting -- I can see in small print at the bottom of the box art, unmentioned anywhere else in the ad, that the first game challenges kids with grammar and the second with world history. That accounts for the "plenty of smarts" requirement, but what about the "lightning reflexes" needed? Defeating spiders and ghouls by hunting and pecking correct answers in real time, like some precursor to the awesome Typing of the Dead? This also, of course, raises the question of just how many Doom-style games were ever designed for kids besides the renowned Chex Quest?

    I hope that I.M. MEEN isn't really 36 levels of giant spiders. That would grow old fast. Basically, it sounds like the training section of a MMORPG, with nothing to graduate to. Tetris sustains 36 levels of the same gameplay, but otherwise it's a tough act to pull off.

    Myst was probably, at least at the time, a CD-ROM that was much cooler than these games. But really, nothing is less cool that something that anxiously needs to tell you just how cool it is.

    Friday, October 18, 2013

    "Goosebumps: Escape from Horrorland", Windows, 1996.

    Keeping things scary for the juvenile set, here's another book-to-CD-rom adaptation. Here they forego roping in the branding with the nominal missing link between static text and interactive multimedia (that missing link being the Goosebumps gamebook spin-off line "Give Yourself Goosebumps"), and just go for the R.L. Stine jugular.

    In this game, you dodge
    Mutants, Weirdos and Creatures that drool.
    (Just like in the hallways at school.)

    The CD-ROM game

    Your favorite book now on CD-ROM

    Based on the #1 best-selling book series by R.L. Stine

    So, a joint DreamWorks / Microsoft venture? Sorry, MultiPath Movies, you're swimming with sharks. Though the screenshots aren't markedly different (scary 3D monsters, meet slightly better-modelled and textured scary 3D monsters) this seems like a higher-rent version of the last ad we looked at -- and rightly so, as the CYOA juggernaut had run out of steam by the '90s while Goosebumps was still a burgeoning titan. Higher production values. More reputable co-producers. I bet, however, that it's still not much fun to play in retrospect. (The retrogaming conundrum: some cherished childhood titles, when revisited, are simply dogs. Do adults really enjoy more sophisticated tastes, does the state of the art really advance so far, or are kids just kind of stupid? Probably some combination of all three.) For what it's worth, this game does have a sequel (or rather, the franchise did have another licensed game adaptation.)

    My (admittedly limited) Goosebumps experience has been that the scares aren't really scary and the humour isn't actually funny. It's not that these are frightening games and books so much as that they are kind of fear-themed. (Cue a conversation with a neighbour a few nights ago about the tendency of the horror genre to slide from horror, eg. Gremlins, into comedy, eg. Gremlins 2.) (Actually Gremlins 2 is not a great example of anything.)

    There's something to be said here about R.L. Stine's early family connection to the gaming industry, with him and a few family members (the Parachute Press cronies, apparently still in effect in the small print here) penning CYO gamebooks and also regular storybooks interspersed with plot-related type-in BASIC computer programs. It may have just been an unexploited angle for them to capitalize on while funding made itself available, fecklessly drifting from gig to gig (like the Spaceballs novelization and the Scholastic joke books by his earlier alter ego "Jovial Bob Stine") waiting for the motherlode to come in. Well, here it is. It came. And like all such things, then it went. I'm sure none of them had their grubby fingers on this particular product, which must have been far too expensive to risk muddying with input from the creative side of show business.

    Where is R.L. Stine today? Did he find, then lose, Jesus, like Anne Rice did? Will he become a counterculture hit on the college lecture circuit to kids who learned to read on his literary pablum? Is his Twitter account even today doggedly followed by millions? It's, well, a mystery. One beyond the scope of this blog.

    Thursday, October 17, 2013

    "Choose Your Own Nightmare", Windows, 1997.

    Let's establish the correct sequence here. First, in the '80s, the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure gamebook publishing phenomenon sweeps children's libraries everywhere. Then, in the '90s, the series' popularity wanes as a certain appetite for juvenile horror lit (cf. "Fear Street", "Goosebumps") rises. Someone thinks that these two currents would go well together, hence Goosebumps begets the "Give Yourself Goosebumps" gamebook series, and CYOA spawns the Choose Your Own Nightmare spin-off. But because this is the '90s, one always has the additional option of making a wretched "interactive movie" multimedia CD-ROM as well. I don't know for certain that that's what we've got here, but the odds aren't in its favour of escaping from the shadow.
    big>Your Worst Nightmare is About to come true... again... and again... and again...

    Introducing Choose Your Own Nightmare, the interactive Multipath Movies where you control your fate.

    From the spine-tingling Bantam Doubleday Dell book series, Choose Your Own Nightmare, come two eerie, animated, 3D creature features for your PC. The Halloween Party, where "scared to death" takes on new meaning thanks to a sorceress with murder on her mind. And Night Of The Werewolf, a bloodcurdling thriller that reveals the animal within us all. As the monstrous thrills and chills unfold, use the keyboard to control the plot twists. With dozens of plot paths and multiple endings, play each movie again and again until all your worst nightmares come true.

    If the Multipath people were aspiring for too little with CyberSwine, perhaps here their reach exceeded their grasp. All I know is I see three screenshots, depicting a gremlin head, a ghost, and a gargoyle head -- but no sorceress or werewolf. (The first shot simply replicates assets already present on the depicted box artwork!) I believe there were a few double-feature bundles of these CYON horror-themed multipath movies, but virtually all of the cultural threads it drew on had a limited shelf life and it wasn't long before it seemed hopelessly dated. Which makes it a prime target for my privileged look back.

    Monday, October 7, 2013

    "Hell", 1994.

    Because: what is as scary as FMV games? That's right: mid-'90s Barbie-doll 3D computer graphics, with early-Photoshop logos. Actually: also Grace Jones, come to think of it.
    The ad doesn't do the game a great deal of justice; apparently it's a sequel of sorts (through its staff and themes, not in licensing a setting or characters) to BloodNet, the Citizen Kane of cyberpunk vampire games. Straight up I can tell you when we saw that promotional imagery in the store we thought: chutzpah! The tools are apparently still quite crude but they decided to realize their vision to the fullest extent currently possible on a budget. But we'll let someone else pay the early-adopter premium.

    The cyberspace trope really has fallen by the wayside since the '90s, now that we realize that the future looks a lot like today, only with more banal bullshit from advertisers.

    Anyhow, not having played it, I can't report back in too great detail. But look -- released on Hallowe'en! It fits my theme for this month.

    Wednesday, October 2, 2013

    "Phantom Fighter", 1988, NES. (Part II)

    Turns out that like Hydlide and 8 Eyes, Phantom Fighter had an HD version of its ad! It contains, well, everything that the comic book version had, but more so! The lightning-nails are starker, the pom-poms atop the phantoms' hats less comically nippular and their long, flowing pearl necklaces less comical. (Not un-comical, but ... less so. Actually, the earlier ad didn't feature the necklaces at all!) There is additional detail on the background phantom's garment and in the little building in the background. Also, there is additional promotional copy!
    These zombie phantoms get even bigger and stronger as your skill improves. (But don't worry -- you've got some magic of your own.) You'll be challenged by some tricky questions. Ghosts, puzzles, and dialogue make this kung Fu challenge more unpredictable.
    Zombie phantoms? So, uh, are they phantoms who were bitten by zombies or what? Challenged by tricky questions: before you enter the lair of the phantom king, an arcane spectral mathematician asks -- a train leaves Montreal westbound going 250 km/h, while a train leaves Calgary going eastbound going 200 km/h... Unpredictable? I doubt the ghosts add that much -- re-skin a brawler and the results remain pretty repetitive. Does dialogue mix things up? Conversation trees might result in less predictability, but I don't think those came around until Indy and the Last Crusade.

    OK, not much commentary to offer up here, but when I find a better version of territory I've already covered, I do like to add the upgrade to the record presented here.

    Tuesday, October 1, 2013

    "AbadoX", NES, 1989.

    It's October, and to celebrate the month of thrills and chills, we're again investigating scary games. Or, as often happens in games as in movies, works where gore at least is substituted for fright.




    If this game was promoted in Germany, this ad would have featured a lot of the colour green. It's true -- in addition to outlawing the display of Nazi iconography (which makes playing German localizations of WWII-themed games such as Wolfenstein 3D a somewhat redacted experience a bit heavy on the Iron Crosses and a bit light on the swastikas... which is a bit funny when you consider what Zelda and Final Fantasy got away with), more gory portrayals of violence are typically forbidden from sale to minors and not displayed on store shelves, with storylines often revising human opponents to alien impostors or android impersonators, prone to spilling puddles of green lubricant when fragged. It's like a whole country where the sanitized SNES version of Mortal Kombat won, making for a country where, strangely, the adventure game genre never died, commercially. (Couldn't help Lucasfilm's sequel to Fate of Atlantis however, Indiana Jones and the Iron Phoenix, since the plot was too entirely concerned with occult Nazism to survive the necessary amendments in their biggest market.)

    None of this has any bearing on the game up for sale in today's post, a kind of body horror writ large. The game itself is of a more typically sci-fi genre, the top-down shooter, as exemplified by Galaga or R-Type, emerging from Space Invaders roots. To distinguish themselves from the competition, some (as well as unrelated games such as Contra and Strider) followed an early lead of interest in the H.R. Giger aesthetic (minus all the disturbing sexuality, territory left for the Cho Aniki games) and adopted an anatomical Innerspace/Fantastic Voyage setting. Are the enemies enormous or is the player minuscule? Who cares!? The important part is that they explode in juicy throbbing gibs when fragged.

    The artwork suggests a "nightmare mode" in edutainmental game "Rex Ronan: Experimental Surgeon". (And dig that capitalized concluding X! The '90s are coming! They're going to be totally wiggety wiggety wackX!) Despite the effortless screenshot captions, all things considered, the slogan picked must be considered relatively witty.