Terror Tuesday: The Horrors Of Franchise Film Video Games

Brian blows on his cartridges and writes about the horror games of yore.

Over the past few weeks we have been treated to glimpses of the Child’s Play video game, which will put you in the plastic shoes of Chucky himself. Finally! A horror movie game where you can play the killer, which is probably all anyone ever wanted to do. However, more often than not, the game would cast you as the hero and force the developers to make up a bunch of nonsense in order to create an entire game’s worth of enemies. Sometimes this made (video game) sense, other times not. So as we look forward to Chucky’s big game debut, let’s take a look back at how the other “Horror Heroes” have fared in their games.

HALLOWEEN (Michael Myers)
Platform: Atari 2600

Given my love of the Halloween series AND the fact that I have a still functioning Atari, you’d think I’d own this twice – a shrinkwrapped copy and another that permanently lived in the 2600’s game slot. But I’ve only ever played it on a ROM, and after 5 minutes knew that I had no reason to track down a real copy of my own.

Even for an Atari game, this one was too simplistic. Granted, the movie it was based on wasn’t exactly complex either, but why is there no Loomis component? Or different houses? Instead, you’re Laurie (I guess? She has a green shirt on; Laurie wore blue) and you wander around the world’s strangest colored house saving the numerous cloned children that live there. Or you can just wander around and let them die – there’s no in-game penalty for letting Michael get them. When he kills a kid, the block of pixels that represents his tiny corpse is kind of funny; it wriggles on the floor with two or three pixels’ worth of blood pumping out. But it’s nothing on the death animation for Laurie – if he gets her, her head disappears and her headless corpse runs off to the side of the screen, blood squirting from the neck stump. It’s awesome.

But there’s no reason to keep playing the game once you’ve seen everything. It’s not addicting like Pac-Man or whatever, and worse, the Halloween theme starts and stops every time you enter/exit a room with Michael, so unless you run around in circles in one room and enjoy the whole thing, you’re going to get pretty sick of the first 3-4 seconds of the theme after a while. And any game that actually makes you HATE the idea of hearing the Halloween theme is not one I want to play.

Platform: Atari 2600

As far as I know, this is the only currently released horror movie game that allows you to play as the killer. As Leatherface, you run around a field filled with fences and cow skulls (and Franklin’s wheelchair!), seeking anonymous victims to ‘saw and rack up points before your chainsaw runs out of fuel (when it does you lose one of your standard three lives; as the hulking brute that is Leatherface couldn’t possibly just, you know, beat the kids to death I guess). It’s a lousy game, but at least it’s slightly more fun than Halloween (Wizard Video put out both games), since you get to be the killer and there’s some semblance of tension with the fuel running out.

Sadly it’s even more dull to look at – the obstacles are the only way to understand that you’re moving; the background (a barn, a car, and some trees) never changes. The animation isn’t as impressive either; when you kill a kid they just turn into something that looks like a ham fucking a chicken wing. You can also see through Leatherface’s “eye” and “ear” to the green grass behind him. His chainsaw is the same color as his body, which just makes it look like he’s attacking with the actual body part that many critics try to suggest the chainsaw (and other weapons) in horror movies are meant to represent, and the obstacles are all simple one color objects that never move.

Ironically, of all the big series, this is the one where having you play as the hero might not be so bad. There’s a whole family of killers to deal with, plus it’s Texas so having a few random snakes and such to deal with wouldn’t be so out of line (whereas having anything besides Michael trying to kill you in Haddonfield would be a bit odd). And if it was based on the second movie, they could even have a maze element (the tunnels of the Alamo park where the 2nd half of the movie takes place). Also there’s no iconic theme song to ruin (the beginning of the Atari game hilariously tries to recreate the sound of the flashbulb going off as it does at the top of the film), so if those killers kept showing up they could do their own music or just a sound effect. So of course they opted to let you play as Leatherface, resulting in the game being kept off shelves (you had to ask for it specifically, if the store even carried it at all) and probably is the reason why “you play the killer” never took off.

FRIDAY THE 13th (Jason)
Platform: NES

Notoriously tough games like Ninja Gaiden have got nothing on LJN’s Friday the 13th game, which is impossible to even figure out what to DO unless you have the instruction manual. As one of six counselors, you wander around Crystal Lake and attempt to light the fireplaces in the numerous (spread out) cabins, which keeps Jason from entering them. Or something. Some of the counselors have names that match characters from the series, but I assume this is coincidence more than anything. For example, Mark was in a wheelchair in the movie but he can run faster than anyone in the game.

It’s also by far the most ridiculous adaptation of the horror games, as Jason is “helped” by wolves and zombies, and his mother’s head has become some sort of Medusa-like thing that you must battle. And Jason is fairly impossible to fight unless you’re aided by Game Genie or something, due to the poor controls/hit detection and the fact that he’s Jason goddamn Voorhees while you are some all-but-anonymous counselor with a rock or a lighter depending on where you are in the game.

Like the Halloween game, there’s a “save the kids” game mechanic built into it, but here it actually seems to have some sort of effect on things – there’s a finite number of them, for starters. And it also had a theoretically cool idea in that you could switch among the counselors to whoever was the closest to Jason when he started killing kids. Unfortunately the kids were all pretty much the game (they had different speeds and jumping abilities, but since Jason could kill you almost instantly anyway, it barely had any effect on things), so doing this was usually pointless; you’d often get lost trying to find the cabin anyway.

In other words, I am proud to own a copy.

Platform: NES

LJN also put this one out, but for my money this was not only an improvement over Friday the 13th, but a legitimate decent game. As one of four nameless Elm Street teens (if you had the multi-tap thing you could play all four at once, arcade style), you search a variety of locations (houses, the school, a junkyard…) for a pre-set number of bones. Finding all of the bones in each location would unlock the final room, where you battle either Freddy’s head or glove (or both!) as it flew around the room in a pattern that you had to figure out before going to town on the NES controller’s one action button. On the 7th level you fought Freddy himself, who would also appear if your character ran out of health during the nightmare scenes.

See, there were two modes in the game – awake and dreaming. While awake you just had your standard punch attack, but when you fell asleep you could have powers similar to the ones in Dream Warriors or Master; a ninja like Rick, an acrobat like Kristen (I guess?), and (my favorite) a wizard like good ol’ Will the D&D nerd. The enemies in the dream world were a bit tougher, but it was a lot easier to fight them with actual powers (plus the wizard could fly a bit). You earn the powers via icons that you find in the real world, as is coffee which could fight off the dream world longer. Very cool, and a fun way to mix things up without taxing the game’s engine too much.

(That CHILD'S PLAY game we talked about in the first paragraph.)

And that’s a good thing, because this one was much more prone to glitches than most of the other games I owned. Characters would be reduced to one giant pixel, and whenever too many enemies appeared on screen (like, four) it would slow to a crawl. Nothing sucked more than making it to the 5th level or so and having to reset the NES (complete with blowing in the game and shifting it back and forth in its slot) because you could no longer tell your character from part of the background. Luckily the challenge level was just right – the first few houses were pretty easy but once you advanced to the others it started getting tougher (plus you’d be lower on lives). You do have to get used to the jumping controls though; as with many NES games, the characters were prone to sliding off the edges after jumps. Worse, when playing two player, if one character was in a certain spot then the other might re-spawn in midair and die again (I can’t imagine how obnoxious four-player mode must be). So yeah, it’s hardly the most polished or even memorable game, but of all the movie games I ever owned on NES (and there were many) this is the only one I actually played regularly, and even today when I turn on the ol’ “8-bit” (whenever I have to change the layout/wiring of my “game station”*) I’ll play for a bit, see how far I can make it without codes.

Interestingly, this one was almost a rare “play as the killer” game – early marketing and even a few screenshots had a much different approach – you would play as Freddy (an overhead view seemed to factor into it) as you battled to kill the kids BEFORE they buried all of your bones. I assume it was changed because the late 80s is when all those parents groups started really giving horror movies a hard time (it’s when the MPAA was its most unreasonable toward them); I was unable to find a concrete reason. Either way, it’s interesting that they kept the same basic plot (Elm St kids with “Dream Powers” burying the bones) but changed who you controlled. A few years later and they might have just let you do both; the Jurassic Park game for Genesis (and SNES I assume; never had that one) had two games – one where you were Alan Grant, another where you were a Raptor, following the same sort of plot (same locations) but with different objectives.

JAWS (Jaws)
Platform: NES

I don’t consider Jaws a horror hero like the others, but I’m sure someone will say “What about Jaws?” so here it is. As with the others, LJN put this one out (and several other movie games – Roger Rabbit in particular was pretty awesome), but it’s more like Friday the 13th than Nightmare, in that it alternates between being too boring to bother with and being too difficult to be any fun. You drive around in a sailboat (yeah, they based it on Jaws: The Revenge – another red flag) and occasionally see the fin poke up, at which point the game shifts to a side-scroll view in which you fight jellyfish and occasionally a baby shark while collecting conch shells to use as currency.

Trust me, it’s even duller than it sounds, and they don’t even use John Williams’ music, opting for a generic bleep n’ bloop-based midi theme that will never get stuck in your head. The only time it picks up is when you fight Jaws, who is tough but at least well animated, and you don’t just hammer an attack button until he’s dead – you have to drop charges at the right time in a first person type view AFTER you hammer the attack button until he’s dead (plus drive around in the overhead view until you find him in the first place), so there’s at least some variety to it. Still a lousy game though; and it never got any better for the shark; about 20 years later Majesco put out a game called Jaws Unleashed, where you actually play as Jaws. Sounded amazing on paper, but the game ridiculously took a GTA style open world approach to the material and even had you, as a goddamn shark, run missions involving keycards and such. Amazing. But I believe that makes Jaws the only one of these licenses to earn a second game, so there’s something.

Post-NES era, none of the big franchises have really made any appearances on consoles or computers. There was a Pumpkinhead CD-ROM game (!) in the 90s but I can’t find much about it, as well as a Warlock game for the Genesis/SNES that I can’t imagine is worth even looking up on Youtube to see if anyone has uploaded a walkthrough. Then we had a couple of Saw games, which actually fit into the series’ canon (sort of) and were pretty good for what they were, and the license made sense – traps were beaten through traditional gaming puzzle mechanics, and you fight off attackers who seek a key that has been surgically implanted in your chest, a plot point taken from one of the films. But neither game made much of a splash, and thus apart from the occasional mobile type game promoting a movie (Scream 4 being the most recent), the Chucky game is the first one of note in over 20 years. Hopefully it’s a big enough success to warrant exploring the other series; while I don’t see a Friday game ever having more to them beyond mindless killing (Chucky will an adventure element built into it due to his size; can’t see that making much sense with Jason or Michael, though I guess some sort of stealth game for Michael might be fun), I think the Elm Street series could be adapted into a next-gen game, given the “anything goes” nature of nightmares (maybe a Kinect game not unlike Rise of Nightmares?).

Of course, the ideal game would be a Mortal Kombat style fighter with all of the icons duking it out with their special moves and weapons, but alas, the fact that they all belong to different companies (mostly New Line and Dimension) has prevented such a thing from occurring. There’s a guy making a game called Terrordrome but due to the various cease and desist notices he’s gotten over some of the licenses, he has apparently decided to just make the game for his own amusement and won’t offer any way to download it on his site (which has so many “file removed” and “under construction” pages it’s barely even worth visiting unless you want to read his typo-ridden updates).

In other words, maybe making games based on our movie monster icons isn’t the best idea, for one reason or another. While some horror movies would obviously make great games (The Descent!), the plots are usually too thin for a 90 minute movie, let alone a 6-8 hour game, and the “one villain vs. 10 kids” setup most of the monster/slasher movies have just doesn’t lend itself to a satisfying solution when it comes time to decide whether you’re the hero or the villain. As we’ve learned over the years, limitations in the technology aside, the games tended to suck either way. And various rights issues prevent anything fun from happening – not to mention that those rights owners will have a say despite knowing nothing about games. Can you imagine trying to do something as complicated as scripting a video game with Bob Weinstein getting involved and demanding last minute changes the way he does with his films?

Luckily for TikGames, they won’t have to deal with him on their Chucky game. I wish them success!

*In my office I have an HDTV with my 2nd Xbox, a PS1, an NES, an N64, and a Sega Genesis, all wired in and playable without having to switch anything around. My Atari is also there but I ran out of hookups (and playing an Atari on an HDTV just seems like the most counterproductive thing ever). It’s my pride and joy but I barely ever get to use it.