Archive for October, 2011

As Halloween night draws near, Chad has taken it upon himself to dig into the vaults to bring you some of his favorite horror-themed video games. Can you handle the madness? Read on, if you dare!

Not Just a Dead Man’s Party…

Zombies Ate My Neighbors Chainsaw ScreenshotZombies are hip now. They star in big-budget cable TV shows, appear in trailers for overhyped Borderlands clones, and enjoy a respect and admiration mostly reserved for corrupt politicians and overpaid celebrities. However, in the early 1990s, they didn’t have quite the clout they have today. In fact, many popular horror icons show up in Zombies Ate My Neighbors, stepping up to get the ever-loving stuffing shot out of them. Zombies making snacks out of your neighbors? Turn your Super Soaker on ’em. Werewolves shredding the cheerleaders? Toss some silverware their way. Chainsaw-wielding madmen ruining block parties? It’s times like these when you gotta step up to to plate and take a swing. And by “take a swing”, I mean attack them with bazookas, popsicles and grenade-ified soda cans.

Zombies Ate My Neighbors, released in 1993 on the SNES and Genesis/Mega Drive by LucasArts and Konami (what a team-up!), is a top-down action game set in a wacky, colorful world that homages schlocky horror and sci-fi flicks from the 1930s to the ’80s. To think that it just has zombies sells it short – you’ll run afoul of mummies, vampires, gill-men, giant ants, and killer dolls as you guide the plucky teenagers Zeke and Julie through mazelike levels that span suburbs, castles, pyramids, and shopping (chopping?) malls against increasingly insane odds. And to help you fight, you’ve got a huge arsenal of both dedicated and improvised weapons – ranging from ceramic plates and weed whackers to glowing crucifixes and alien blasters. The game also homages LucasArts’ own Day of the Tentacle, with both a secret level of that name and an appearance from Purple Tentacle in the credits level.

Zombies Ate My Neighbors Trampoline Screen
“What’s the matter? Never taken a shortcut before?”

It’s a pretty wild ride as you battle your way through the ghouls and goblins to stop the nefarious Dr. Tongue (of the in-cheek Tongues, apparently). The gameplay is simple to get into – I mean it can be condensed to work on a standard Genesis gamepad, so it can’t be too complex. Basically one button uses items, one button changes weapons, and one fires. And one button…crap, I don’t even remember how they mapped four commands to a three button controller. They did, somehow. Needless to say, the SNES version had better controls, but that version also has the slowdown typical of SNES games when the screen gets busy. Oh well, tradeoffs either way. Such was the 16-bit era.

Also of special note is the music – it’s just oozing with vintage B-movie vibes, heavy on electric organ and theremin (as well as the occasional zombie gurgle and chainsaw). And it fits the game perfectly. When you turn on the game and get that psychotically twisting spiral accompanied by its music that just shouts “WEIRD!”, you know you’re in for a goofy treat. It’s a great game to play while just kind of goofing off on Halloween night. Pop in Zombies Ate My Neighbors, fire up your 16-bit system of choice, get your hands on a few pumpkin-spiced ales, and don’t be stingy with the candy bowl. Your neighbors will thank you.

View Previous Fortnight of Fright: Shadowgate 

Proceed to Final Fortnight of Fright: MediEvil

As Halloween night draws near, Chad has taken it upon himself to dig into the vaults to bring you some of his favorite horror-themed video games. Can you handle the madness? Read on, if you dare!

Another Way to Die

Shadowgate initially debuted on the Apple Macintosh. Although it was about as successful as a game developed specifically for the Mac could be in the late 1980s, most people, myself included, are more familiar with the NES port. An early point-and-click adventure, Shadowgate put you in the shoes of a nameless adventurer who had to set off to the eponymous Castle Shadowgate to hunt down a magic staff, and subsequently prevent the Warlock Lord from summoning an ancient evil. Despite the fact that playing a point-and-click adventure on the NES is cumbersome at best, Shadowgate manages to be an incredibly compelling game, and an incredibly frustrating one as well.

And that’s because you’re going to die. You’re going to die a lot.

Shadowgate is perhaps most memorable for the myriad ways you can meet your end, complete with a text description of your grisly end and Death’s grim, grinning visage. The designers thought up countless ways to kill you. Heck, it’s possible to commit suicide if you’re so inclined in Shadowgate. Of course, with the bottomless pits in every other NES game, it’s not like suicide isn’t an option in those, too. It’s highly recommended that you don’t enter the castle until you’ve first notified your next of kin and made out your will, because Shadowgate makes some of the early King’s Quest games seem forgiving by comparison. This game is sadistic! The only way to make it through the game is through intense trial and error. But something keeps spurring you on to try to look Death in the face and spit in his empty eye socket again.

Shadowgate Death Screen
Get used to this scene.

And honestly, I think one of the most compelling factors (in the NES version, at least) was the game’s music. It’s extraordinarily atmospheric, giving you the feel you’re entering a place you’re not welcome, but never abandoning a feel of adventure and mystery. And yes, even your funeral dirge is unnecessarily awesome. So I implore you, grab your limited amount of torches and crappy armor and raid Shadowgate. You’re going to die, so you might as well do it in style!

View Previous Fortnight of Fright: Sweet Home 

View Next Fortnight of Fright: Zombies Ate My Neighbors

As Halloween night draws near, Chad has taken it upon himself to dig into the vaults to bring you some of his favorite horror-themed video games. Can you handle the madness? Read on, if you dare!

Home Sweet Hell

Sweet Home Screen Shot 1If there’s one hard and fast rule of localization that we’ve learned over the years, it’s to never allow Nintendo to decide what content is appropriate. Reportedly, Sweet Home was too gruesome to import to American audiences, and this is a shame because it was important in the development of the survival horror game and a fine game in its own right. Supposedly, Resident Evil draws from it (although I’ve never seen any evidence to suggest that, other than both are horror-themed games published by Capcom), but taken on its own, it’s an enjoyable RPG with some unusual twists. Luckily, another intrepid group of fans translated the game into English.

In Sweet Home, you take control of a team of… art restoration specialists and documentary filmmakers as they visit a recently vacated mansion. Naturally, the mansion is haunted by the ghosts of the previous owners and numerous other strange creatures. The front door, inconveniently enough, locks the characters inside the mansion. Each character has a particular skill to contribute to the party, and if they’re dead, they’re dead. No Phoenix Downs here. Therefore, survival becomes a priority – the fewer survivors, the harder the journey through the mansion is going to be.

Probably most interesting, though, is that Sweet Home is a tie-in game. Toho made a film of the same name and released the film and game simultaneously. While details on both are rather scarce, one would think that this involved quite a bit of planning and forethought, thus making this one of the few licensed games to make more of an impact than the film it was based upon.

View Previous Fortnight of Fright: Clock Tower

View Next Fortnight of Fright: Shadowgate

As Halloween night draws near, Chad has taken it upon himself to dig into the vaults to bring you some of his favorite horror-themed video games. Can you handle the madness? Read on, if you dare!

Hexed Text

Apple II Lurking Horror Start Screen
Now that’s what you call a game.

Infocom’s vintage text adventure starts with a horror most of us all know too well – rushing to finish a term paper. As a student at G.U.E. Tech, you have access to the latest computer technology – presumably a 386 running at 25 mhz and 4 megs of RAM – as you barge into the computer lab in the middle of a blizzard. Then…things get worse. Your PC eats your words, taunting you with pages of gibbering madness, before transporting you to an alternate dimension. When you get back, your paper has evaporated into thin data-air, and you have to traverse the various buildings of G.U.E. Tech’s campus. Of course, there’s that blizzard going on, so you have to cross a series of underground tunnels to reach the other buildings.

Naturally, with a name like The Lurking Horror, there’s more than just a term paper catastrophe afoot. Deep beneath the school, ancient evil festers, and as the game goes on, more of it boils to the surface. While the game plays with a lot of horror tropes, it also plays on urban legends that always seem to arise around old college campuses, steam tunnels, and secret societies. Of course, those less interested in campus shenanigans will be pleased to know that there’s a more traditional sense of horror as zombies, eldritch abominations, and a floor buffer conspire to kill you.

The game was written by Zork creator and long-time text adventure wizard Dave Lebling, and in spite of its grim theme, there’s a pervasive sense of wry humor that’s very much in line with his previous games.  Also in line with Infocom’s products are the feelies, the neat extras in the box that add flavor to the game (while also doubling as copy protection). These include your G.U.E. Tech orientation guide and a student ID. Infocom used to always pack their game boxes chock-full of this kind of thing.

The Lurking Horror is a minor classic in the Infocom pantheon. If you’re of a mind to grapple with a text parser and do battle with the dark forces of the universe (and college), I’d recommend downloading a ZMachine (a program that allows you to run Infocom’s text adventures on your system of choice) and hunting the game down. It’s not all that difficult by the standards of text adventures, and it’s a fun and mind-boggling ride.

As Halloween night draws near, Chad has taken it upon himself to dig into the vaults to bring you some of his favorite horror-themed video games. Can you handle the madness? Read on, if you dare!

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Jennifer finds her father in CLOCK TOWER.Clock Tower has an interesting history as an export outside of Japan. The first Clock Tower was an SNES game that never saw an official release in the US or Europe, although some intrepid translators created an English language ROM. The PlayStation version that was simply called Clock Tower was actually Clock Tower 2, and what was called Clock Tower 2 in the States was actually a mostly unrelated side story called Clock Tower: Ghost Head that merely shared the same play mechanics. Clock Tower 3 was, in fact, Clock Tower 3. Oh well, I guess it’s still better than having 7000 Street Fighter II‘s with the only way to tell them apart being words like “Turbo” and “Super”.

Since the original and second games are in the same continuity, I’m going to cover those two.

Clock Tower (sometimes subtitled The First Fear) begins with the main character, Jennifer Simpson, and her friends Laura, Ann, and Lotte being adopted by a miserly hermit named Mr. Barrows, who lives in a secluded mansion – because that certainly seems above board. A presumably single, middle-aged man adopting four teenage girls to live with him in his secluded mansion? I bet he certainly has the best of intentions, right?

Clock Tower: Finding Lotte
You and your friends are dead.

Jennifer soon finds herself separated from her friends and wandering the mansion by herself, and soon her friends start dying at the hands of a deformed boy wielding a massive pair of scissors. This is the series’ legendary “Scissorman”, a relentless slasher in the mold of Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. Picture Angus Young on PCP with a pair of gardening shears and you’ll have a good picture of the Scissorman. The gameplay consists of solving puzzles and trying to keep Jennifer’s friends alive to unravel the mysteries of the Barrows mansion. It uses a point-and-click interface not unlike that of the adventure games of the era (think Gabriel Knight or Monkey Island), although, unlike those, you have the ever-present threat of the Scissorman bearing down on you. Sometimes he’ll just come charging into the room, and you’ll have to make a run for it. And even if you do manage to get a head start, there’s a chance you’ll trip…and then you’ll have to buttonmash to keep your head on your shoulders.

The sequel picks up where the first game left off, with Jennifer as the sole survivor of the incident and undergoing psychiatric treatment for the trauma she endured. However, the Scissorman murders have started up again. This time, the game offers several playable characters in addition to Jennifer, and it’s possible that she won’t even make it to the end of the game. The game offers a prologue followed by two “scenarios”, although in reality they comprise a three-act formula.

SNIP! SNIP! SNIP!

One of the things that makes Clock Tower stand out from other horror series is that you play a defenseless teenager. Resident Evil typically puts you in the shoes of a police officer or soldier and provides you with plenty of ammo and weapons. Heck, even Silent Hill will give you a gun or a steel pipe. Clock Tower doesn’t work that way. You don’t have the option to fight Scissorman head-on. You’ve got to run and hide to survive. As a result, it works really well as straight up horror. The gothic mansion is atmospheric, and the creeping feeling that Scissorman could be anywhere with you only having the option of running your ass off gives Clock Tower an uncommonly tense play style.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that the plot and general style of the games is inspired by the films of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento, Phenomena in particular. Clock Tower‘s developers based the central character Jennifer Simpson on Phenomena‘s protagonist Jennifer Corvino who was, in turn, played by a young Jennifer Connelly. Wrap your head around that. Why do I bring this up? Well, if you enjoy Clock Tower you may want to check out some of the films as well; the ones that relate the most thematically are Suspiria, Deep Red, and Phenomena.

View Previous Fortnight of Fright: Blood 

View Next Fortnight of Fright: Sweet Home

As Halloween night draws near, Chad has taken it upon himself to dig into the vaults to bring you some of his favorite horror-themed video games. Can you handle the madness? Read on, if you dare!

Spill Some!

Duke Nukem's Blood Cameo

Caleb was making fun of Duke Nukem before it was cool.

Rising from the dead with a pitchfork in hand, a gunfighter named Caleb drags himself out of the grave to do battle with the minions of Tchernobog, the dark god he once served. Such is the setup for Monolith’s Blood. Caleb shambles out of the crypt to battle the other undead, with revenge on his mind and a song in his heart.

Now, I only had the shareware version of Blood when I was younger (I think it came on one of the PC Gamer demo discs), and after seeing and hearing me play it, my mom would under no circumstances allow me to buy the retail version. The game is a gruesome and visceral experience, with such macabre occurrences as heads flying from bodies, slain cultists letting out pained screams as they gave up the ghost, and disembodied hands attempting to strangle you to death. However, the game isn’t all axe-wielding zombies and decapitations; Caleb readily spouts one-liners, most of them referencing flicks like Army of Darkness, and even sings a showtune here and there. There’s a solid mix of horror and humor, and, in spite of some of the stomach-churning imagery, Blood never seems to take itself all that seriously.

Beyond the atmospheric considerations, it’s a solid shooter. Like its action-movie themed counterpart, Duke Nukem 3D, Blood uses Ken Silverman’s Build engine, and features probably the best version of the engine that was ever fielded. There are plenty of enemies, ranging from zombies and cultists to giant spiders, phantasms and fire-breathing hellhounds (the latter of which are the bane of my existence). There’s a good variety of weapons, too – instead of a pistol you have a flare gun that sets enemies on fire, you have your coach gun, tommygun and three kinds of dynamite, too. However, it’s the more unusual, “flavorful” weapons that really make Blood unique. For one, there’s a bottle of hairspray, and you can set the aerosol stream on fire. One of the more unique weapons is the voodoo doll. The primary fire stabs it with a pin (or you’ll stab yourself if no one’s around), and the secondary fire is an instant kill which destroys the doll. The voodoo doll’s instant kill features some unique animations on some enemies, like the Butcher’s skin just falling off. The final weapon is the Life Leech, which is a skull on a stick. A magic skull on a stick. It uses souls to power it, and if it runs out it pulls its energy directly from Caleb’s health. Yeesh.

Jason Mask in Blood
References to horror flicks abound in Blood. Here we see a rather iconic hockey mask.

But if you stripped away all the horror trappings, you’d still have an excellent game, and for one reason in particular: the level design is fantastic. Blood was one of the last games designed with the old-fashioned, labyrinthine level design that characterized early shooters, and while the levels would certainly work if they were, say, re-skinned for Duke Nukem 3D, they’re full of wonderfully macabre touches that really make them stand out. The game takes you through funeral homes, derelict ships, a haunted hotel straight out of The Shining (complete with frozen Jack Nicholson in the hedgemaze), and a very familiar summer camp. The two expansions to the game are also well-designed, with plenty of clever tricks and traps to tempt the unwary.

Blood received a sequel in 1997 (using the same LithTech engine as SHOGO: Mobile Armor Division), and while it’s a great action game that continues the tradition of one-liners and ludicrous, headkicking gore, it’s not nearly as good as its predecessor. Blood 2: The Chosen seems to be missing a lot of the variety and charm of the first game, even if you can wield half your arsenal akimbo. It feels a little less like a horror-based game and more like a gothic-punk shooter a la White Wolf’s World of Darkness. However, the storyline is less vague than in the first and there is some genuinely good gameplay in there – it just fails to live up to the first game.

I won’t deny it, Blood is my favorite Build engine game. It’s pretty cool that a game can succeed at being dark and creepy as well as funny all at the same time. If you haven’t played it and it sounds like your kind of game, I advise you to hop on GoG and get a copy. It’s a gory, groovy good time.

View Previous Fortnight of Fright: Alone in the Dark 

View Next Fortnight of Fright: Clock Tower

As Halloween night draws near, Chad has taken it upon himself to dig into the vaults to bring you some of his favorite horror-themed video games. Can you handle the madness? Read on, if you dare!

A Lonely Place to Die

The opening scene of Alone in the Dark 3.

Each of the original trilogy begins with a similarly sinister scene.

Few games have the influential reach of Alone in the Dark. Ever played Resident Evil or Silent Hill? Or how about the medieval adventure Ecstatica? Perhaps you remember the prerendered backgrounds and keyboard-based movements of Grim Fandango? All of these owe something to Infogrames’ 1992 classic, the first true survival horror title.

The game begins with you choosing your character, either private investigator Edward Carnby or heiress Emily Hartwood, as they go to unravel the mystery of Derceto, Emily’s uncle’s Louisiana mansion. You start out by rooting around in the attic, and after your first fight with a ghoul, you start to suspect that weird forces might be at work in Derceto. The scraps of Jeremy Hartwood’s journal reveal the dark secrets of the mansion. Along the way, you fight increasingly dangerous creatures with your limited supply of weaponry, often resorting to punching zombies to death in uncompromising displays of toughness. Yeah, Chris Redfield doesn’t seem so tough when Emily Hartwood is punching ghouls to death with her bare hands.

Edward Carnby fights a zombie.

Karate: a good way to deal with zombies.

The game was one of the first popular titles to use 3D rendered characters, and this certainly makes the Alone in the Dark trilogy look particularly dated. Characters are constructions of flat-shaded polygons. This is especially unfortunate for the game’s Lovecraftian beasties. The ghouls are green and cartoonish, the Nightgaunts look like Spider-Slayers, and what I can only assume are supposed to be Byakhee…look like giant, bulbous-headed chickens with sharp teeth. Or maybe super-deformed velociraptors (was Jurassic Park even out at that point?). The game makes up for its graphical deficiencies, however, with sound and music. The music is often quite overpowering, even if it is synthesized, and the sounds can be incredibly loud and disturbing. Even if the monsters aren’t quite nightmarish, the game still retains a sense of mystery.

The original Alone in the Dark trilogy (and the promotional spin-off Jack in the Dark) used the same basic engine and gameplay. Alone in the Dark 2: One Eyed Jack’s Revenge featured Carnby going up against demon ghost pirates (LeChuck not included, sadly). One Eyed Jack’s Revenge was far more combat-oriented than its predecessor, with Carnby picking up a Tommygun off the first enemy he takes out. This makes it, in my opinion at least, the weakest game in the original trilogy. However, it’s by no means a bad game; I’m just partial to puzzle solving and mystery over combat in survival horror. The third game finds Carnby trying to track down Emily from the first game in a Wild West ghost town. In my opinion, this is the best game in the series because it does a good job of splitting the difference in combat and puzzles, and also has the most original setting. As big a fan as I am of Lovecraftian horror, an abandoned ghost town full of actual ghosts is a very fun and inventive premise.

Alone in the Dark: The New Nightmare character select screen.

Edward Carnby steals Gabriel Knight's taste in clothing. I miss Carnby's mustache.

There were two more Alone in the Dark games, The New Nightmare and the 2008 game simply titled Alone in the Dark (the PS3 port got the subtitle “Inferno“). The New Nightmare updated the setting with heavy helpings of Resident Evil and The X-Files, and while not as good as its predecessors, it was a decent enough game in its own right. It’s also the only game in the series to have a handheld version, with a Game Boy Color port appearing at one point. Unfortunately, its legacy is rather tainted as it was the basis for Uwe Boll’s universally loathed adaptation of the games. By extension, it seems that the 2008 installment failed to move out from the shadow of Boll, with the team having claimed to use ideas and designs from the film in one of the biggest moments of “What were they thinking?” ever. The game was an unmitigated disaster on all formats except the PS3, which benefited from an enormous delay which gave them time to fix the problems and complaints reported from the other releases.  I had the misfortune of playing the PS2 release, which was nearly unplayable.

Whether the series will return is unknown. While the recent game was universally panned in all but its PS3 ports, it apparently did quite well financially. And somehow, Uwe Boll was able/allowed to make a sequel to his famed monstrosity. So who knows what the future holds? Let’s just hope that whatever happens, Carnby regrows his mustache.

View Previous Fortnight of Fright: Monster Bash 

View Next Fortnight of Fright: Blood