Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 The Buggles “Video Killed The Radio Star”
 Power-Pill “Pac-Man”
 John Williams “The Raiders March”
 Shigeru Miyamoto & The Roots “Super Mario Bros.”
 Josh Mancell & Mutato Muzika “Sanity Beach”
 Bob Dylan “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”
 Elizabeth Daily “Shake it Up”
 Soil “Breaking Me Down”
 Pitchshifter “Microwaved”
 The Dillinger “Escape Plan One Of Us Is The Killer”
 Michael Sembello “Maniac”
 Culture Club “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”
 Peter Tosh “Out of Space”
Anyone who plays videogames will be all too familiar with the above message. It’s an unvoidable rite of passage, the moment when all those best efforts count for nothing, and a bitter reminder that you failed to make the cut. On the plus side, it’s not quite time to dust off that sarcophagus as you will be likely provided another bite of the cherry, courtesy of the continue tab. But this live will just have to be chalked down to experience. And it was going so well too. The next checkpoint beacon was barely seconds away and all that was required to reach it intact was to not get eaten by the gargantuan man-eating flytrap.
Curse Mother Nature and her cruel sense of irony. The next time I happen across a Rhododendron on my travels, I’m going to tug the little bastard out at its root and plant it in the nearest pile of freshly laid manure. Actually perhaps that isn’t such a shrewd idea as that may be what got me into this fine mess in the first place. Perhaps I fertilized my own foe.
And to think that it all started with Pong. A bat and a ball was all we needed to entertain us, frustrate us to the nth degree and beyond, make us feel utterly pathetic. It all seemed so simple on paper. Using the supplied paddle, the sole objective was to prevent the speeding pellet from exiting via your side of the screen. Of course, this was far easier in theory than practise, as you couldn’t hope not to fail miserably without judging the bounce and the sensitive controls made this downright infuriating. Eventually the round would be won or lost and the game will have claimed another victim.
However, it didn’t see fit to laugh at your demise; punish you any further than the knowledge that you’ve come off a rather poor second best. We didn’t lay awake at night agonizing over sending another bat to its early grave. Indeed, failure to keep a hula hoop above our hips was considered far more shameful than losing at Pong and made us look a darn sight more ridiculous in the process. Things were so much different back then.
That was until those gusts of change came rolling in. Technology is known for many things but patience sure as shit ain’t one of them. Pong was all well and good as a novel way to pass ten minutes but videogames were still in their infancy, and sooner or later, it’s only natural that they’d grow a little hair on their balls. Pac-Man may not have been able to boast a pair of fuzzy danglers, but at least he possessed some kind of identity. The world wasn’t yet ready for legs so he had to be content with rolling around a cunningly designed maze in search of his five-a-day.
However, just to add a little cyanide to the cherry cluster, he was opposed at every conceivable turn by a rowdy rabble hell-bent on stopping this jaundiced juice ball dead in his tracks. It wasn’t all doom and gloom as there were always power pills on hand to turn the tables on the persistent spooks in question. But defeat was inevitable and it was a solemn sight watching the poor little guy vaporize time and again.
Arcade games were now all the rage and, while simplistic at best, the characters we were requested to manoeuvre were starting to become more lifelike. Enter Pitfall Harry, a brave archeologist in the Indiana Jones mould with a maze-like jungle to navigate and numerous ancient relics to recover within a 20-minute time period. Harry just so happened to be rather handy with vines, which was just as well considering the various hazards he faced.
All manner of spike-laden pits, quicksand, rolling logs, fire, rattlesnakes, scorpions, and crocodiles littered his path and one false move would spell an early bath in murky swamp water. Activision’s Pitfall was one of the games that helped bring the side-scrolling platformer to the masses and his many painful deaths weren’t in vain as it wasn’t too long before other young hopefuls entered the fray.
Capcom lead the charge with Commando putting us in charge of one man army Super Joe and Ghosts ‘n’ Goblins introducing us to a creatures knight by the name of Arthur, while hordes of undead creatures went medieval on his ass. Lucky for him, he suited up in his iconic boxer shorts as rumor has it he was only packing a solitary pixel underneath. Is it any wonder his beloved Prin-Prin got herself abducted? Say what you will about the tyrannical demon overlord Astaroth but he was apparently a most attentive lover.
With steroid-pumped super soldiers and noble knights running amok, you’d think that Capcom had the whole hero angle pretty much sewn up right? I mean what could an overworked plumber ever hope to bring to the table? Unbeknownst to other developers, Nintendo had been busy grooming a new heir to the throne ever since his first appearance in a supporting role back in 1981.
Donkey Kong had every reason to feel hard done by as he’d been promised the moon on the stick only to have it callously snatched away from him by some smug pipe-fitting knucklehead who just happened to be rather adept at leaping barrels. Forget his listless brother Luigi, Mario was where it was at and, in 1985, he was provided his own platform to the big time. To add extra poisonous mushrooms to the stuffed crust, the disgruntled ape wasn’t even invited back for a guest spot.
The sole consolation for Kong was that Mario would suffer many deaths before getting so much of a sniff of his fair maiden’s petticoat. You see, each level was deviously laid out to thwart him at every hop, skip and jump and the “one more go” factor that this hopelessly addictive platform game encouraged translated to a world of pain that he still hasn’t managed to escape to this very day.
Naturally every game developer out there wanted a slice of this lucrative pie, and in 1996, Naughty Dog brought us Crash Bandicoot to provide millions of Sony PlayStation owners their very own potential platform messiah. This mischievous marsupial stood out from the crowd effortlessly thanks to his denim shorts, high-top sneakers, and a pair of gloriously animated bushy brows seemingly poached from Peter Gallagher.
Roaming around the Wumpa Islands in search of his nemesis, the diabolical Doctor Neo Cortex, Crash found himself falling foul of all manner of precariously placed perils from short-fused TNT and nitro crates to runaway boulders plucked straight from the lost ark. However, by far the most endearing element to the gameplay were his rib-tickling demises and Naughty Dog drew their inspiration from the likes of Looney Tunes as they found numerous fresh and inventive ways of sending their flagship character to the great Bandicoot settlement in the sky.
Meanwhile, Lara Croft was doing the business for Core Design and bringing puzzle-based 3D adventure to the masses courtesy of the Tomb Raider series. As beautiful as 32-bit technology could allow, pony-tailed English rose Ms. Croft was also deeply intelligent and athletic, skills perfectly suited to exploring hazard-strewn environments all over the globe. Often finding herself teetering above gaping chasms at nose-bleed inducing altitudes, she thrived on every last drop of adrenaline.
However, according to Einstein’s theory of relatively, what goes up must eventually come back down and the bone-shattering sound of Lara swan-diving to her certain death sent a shudder right through me as she landed in a crumpled heap hundreds of feet below. Did this put me off? Of course it didn’t, my new favorite pastime was hurling her from great heights just to hear that very audio. As a self-confessed whore for all things blackly comical, I was now starting to find my true niche as a gamer – observing others die horribly.
Capcom catered for this evil streak exquisitely with their survival horror big-hitter, Resident Evil, and there were plentiful opportunities to watch on in sheer horror as elite task force members Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine came a cropper within that creature infested mansion. Should the green herbs dry up and health become depleted, then players would be rewarded with a game over screen that left them under absolutely no illusion that “YOU DIED!” while revelling in their final death rattles.
By the time the fourth entry arrived in 2005, technology had advanced to such a point as we were presented up close and personal coverage of the main protagonist having his head taken clean off by a burlap sack wearing nutbag wielding a chainsaw. Things were evidently starting to hot up and horror aficionados worldwide began rubbing their sweaty palms together with impish glee.
Previously these kind of grue-soaked displays had been considered too excessive and resulted in Paradox Development’s beat ’em up, Thrill Kill, being scrapped by publishers EA just weeks before its release. Featuring BDSM and fetishistic costumes, limb dismemberment, and brutal special moves with suggestive names such as “Bitch Slap” and “Swallow This”, it was deemed too offensive for the masses, and ended up in perpetual development limbo before the game engine was eventually used for slightly less scandalous means.
Thrill Kill was the victim of audiences not being deemed ready for such gratuitous sexually charged violence and it was left to Midway’s Mortal Kombat brawler to provide the splatter-heavy finishing moves. Performing a complex sequence of button presses once prompted by the words “finish him” would afford the player the black-hearted pleasure of total annihilation. Plucked spinal columns were then used for pummeling, buzz saws provided to dismember felled victims, and bragging rights duly followed.
By the time the noughties were underway, the gloves were off, and videogames were now becoming increasingly bloodthirsty. Rockstar Games had already raised eyebrows with their controversial GTA series, when Grand Theft Auto III arrived on the PlayStation 2 to take full advantage of the 3D technology the hardware afforded. Placing the player in a sandbox environment, it was then whispered into their ear that “crime pays” and the rest was under their sole jurisdiction. Some followed the story through its natural progression, while the more roguish amongst us roaming free to cause maximum mayhem amongst the unsuspecting inhabitants of Liberty City.
No money to purchase a vehicle? Fret not as you could simply indulge in a spot of carjacking and flick through the array of available radio stations for the ideal rampage music. Those with a hard-on for Scarface could then listen to Elizabeth Daily’s Shake it Up whilst sending airborne pedestrians flying over the blood-spattered windshield. If that grew old, then why not make a quick pit-stop, grab a nearby baseball bat, and batter some sweet old lady senseless, before running off with her pension money and spending it on hookers? Needless to say, not everyone was on-board with this particular brand of free-for-all, but by this point, the wheels had already been set in motion.
Rockstar were on a roll and their bruising 2003 stealth-em-up, Manhunt, looked to push the envelope even further. This time those punished pretty much had it coming as the aim of the game was to cling to the shadows, performing increasingly spiteful “executions” on enemy gang members before they had a chance to return the favor. These ranged from bludgeoning them to death with blunt instruments to suffocating them with plastic bags and the game awarded star ratings for industry shown in the field.
Manhunt caused a considerable furor, was banned in several countries, and was even implicated in a real-life murder by the UK media although this was later rejected in court. Whether reprehensible or not, the fact remained that the gaming public were starting to grow desensitized to violence and age ratings were introduced to prevent these violent virtual realities falling into the wrong hands.
By the time Microsoft’s XBox console brought online gaming to the masses, barbarity was beginning to become somewhat par for the course. Epic Games made the very most of this new-found freedom to flay some limbs with Gears of War, a third-person shooter focusing on the end is nigh battle between mankind and a horde of scaly subterranean hominids known as the Locusts. While online head-to-heads consisted mainly of long-range firefights, signature assault rifle, the Lancer, was mounted with a chainsaw for close quarter exchanges, resulting in instant decimation for those coming off second best.
Should a combatant be downed but not out, then one quick curb stomp would see their top boxes compounded into gory mulch beneath the boot of their antagonist, while those of a more cowardly nature used sticky grenade tagging to plant their explosive, before scuttling to a secure distance to relish in the inevitable detonation. State-of-the-art graphics made every punishing encounter all the more gratifying and the servers heaved as gamers worldwide assumed formation to crack some newbie skulls.
It wasn’t only deathmatch skirmishes that captured the public’s imagination either as cooperative gaming also received the shot in the arm it was screaming out for. Valve Corporation were already pretty much untouchable thanks to the humongous critical and financial success of Half-Life, while multiplayer focused first person shooter Counter-Strike had proved they knew precisely how to populate the online lobbies. Left 4 Dead made excellent use of their much-lauded Source engine and took survival horror three steps further by introducing a four-player co-op element to proceedings.
Using an AI host dubbed the “Director”, it randomly generated enemies and items to allow for a more dynamic experience, pitting survivors against wave upon wave on infected mutants and requesting they work together as a team to reach the end of each scenario. The game was a real breath of fresh air but it was the supporting cast that made it so impossible to put down.
Alongside the legions of the dead, were a number of “special infected” hell raisers, each with their own high-risk enhancements. The Boomer was a gargantuan ball of highly toxic blubber who spewed blinding bile over anyone in the vicinity, thus attracting hordes of zombies to the scene and causing instantaneous bedlam. The hyper-agile Hunter pounced from far off vantages, pinning its victim down and tearing into them until which point as it was either removed or his prey’s health reached zero. The cyst-covered Smoker used any one of its six lickers to ensnare its quarry, dragging them off into the shadows. There it would either continue to attack or leave them suspended and prone to the incoming horde.
The heavily armored and ultra durable Tank lived up to its title, incapacitating survivors at will and tossing any object it could get its hefty hands on in their direction, including stationary vehicles. Finally we had The Witch and she was actually quite content to keep herself to herself. That said, fail to tiptoe through the tulips and startle her from her peaceful slumber, and there’d be absolute hell to pay. It wasn’t one of these “special infected” in particular that made for such seat of the pants fun, it was the culmination of all five and their random placement that made Left 4 Dead such a noxious treasure to play.
Meanwhile, Capcom were at it again, with their open world survival horror beat ’em up, Dead Rising, notching the undead count up to insane levels. However, while the feat of cramming up to 7,000 shufflers into the screen at once was mightily impressive, it was the sequel that truly took things to the next level. Here players could manufacture their very own custom weapons by combining items altogether in maintenance rooms strewn throughout the play area.
These included the “Spiked Bat”, a baseball bat littered with rusty nails, the “Hail Mary”, a grenade duct taped to a football, “Dynameat”, a stick of TNT attached to a slab of mutton, and the “Paddlesaw”, two chainsaws fused to a kayak paddle. Dead Rising 2 never took itself too seriously and banked on the fact that everyone loves obliterating brain-dead zombies to snag itself an audience, which it did to the tune of over 2 million copies shifted worldwide. My personal favorite was the “Drill Bucket” and no prizes for guessing the ingredients to that one.
Meanwhile, Running With Scissors’ PC-based first person shooter, Postal 2, was grabbing the headlines, although it has to be said, its infamy had nothing whatsoever to do with the game’s quality. Gleefully revelling in its political incorrectness, it afforded the player the chance to pour gasoline on innocent bystanders, light them on fire, then extinguish the blaze by urinating on them. Other than that, it was the usual dismemberment and shameless bloody violence, although cat lovers may not have greatly approved of their feline friends being converted into silencers for machine guns.
Quite how that works, I have no idea, but it was accused of moral degradation and had precious little to say in its defence. That said, the most shocking thing about this wretched little number was that five minutes of gameplay seemed five too many. It’s one thing setting out with the sole aim of shocking and appalling, but it helps if the game in question isn’t just plain appalling.
The prize for most satisfying kill surely has to go to Rebellion’s Sniper Elite III. While technically speaking, this was pretty much your bog standard sharpshooter, the attention to detail with its anatomy based executions elevated it into downright compulsive territory. This one was all about achieving the ultimate “precision kill” as it supplied an x-ray kill cam view, allowing you to follow the trajectory of each bullet as it hurtles towards its target.
On arrival, the marksman in question was rewarded with an extreme close-up of the shrapnel forcing its way through vital organs in considerable detail. To take things even greater levels of moreish, it rewarded “trick shots”, which entailed using ricochets to demolish multiple targets with a single shot. If you were looking for a game that rewarded your progress, then watching your foe’s head explode in a geyser of grue and splintered bone was ample payment for services rendered.
Raven’s Soldier Of Fortune II: Double Helix preferred the more up close and deeply personal approach, and on primary exposure, it seemed like your run of the mill first person shooter. However, what elevated it above the competition was the GHOUL damage system it introduced; allowing you to pinpoint specific body parts and blow them to smithereens. Entire sections could be removed with nominal effort and it played devilishly on the sadistic intent of its audience.
Relinquish your enemy of his lower leg and he would attempt to drag himself away from the firing line. Alternatively, you could fill him with lead until all that remained was gore-soaked giblets. The emphasis was on choosing those shots wisely and the more extravagant dispatches provided no end of indelicate titillation. If you’re ever curious about someone’s dark side, then hand them a joypad and slip this little baby into the drive. All will soon become clear believe you me.
Epic’s ill-fated first-person shooter, Bulletstorm, adopted a similar approach, encouraging players to perform any number of skillshots in order to multiply their scores. The more OTT the execution, the more significant the points tally, just begging for maximum experimentation. The adversaries here were mere clay for the sculpting and the number of manners in which you could humiliate them were almost embarrassing in their abundance.
You could fire off a few rounds into a man’s ball sack, deliver an explosive charge rectally, burn his ass to cinder, or punt him onto any one of dozens of strategically placed environmental hazards and that was just for starters. Quite why this rather glorious game failed to ignite much interest is anyone’s guess as it did precisely what the tin stated and bloody well to boot.
Namco’s Splatterhouse started its life as a side-scrolling 2D beat ’em up back in 1988 before reemerging over twenty years later with a fresh lick of emulsion and extra dimension to play with. Despite these upgrades, the core gameplay dynamics remained the same – batter every last creature you happen across into oblivion using the first weapon you have to hand at the time.
Every last action was rewarded with a generous splat of blood, until which time as the entire screen was painted deep red. It may have been a case of style over substance, but that all depends on what kind of substance we’re talking of here. Had I mentioned that the main character is clad in a hockey mask and wields dual machetes like a certain someone I really ought not to have to mention? Even more reason to give the grey matter a well-earned breather and slum it with the wonderful Splatterhouse.
While we’re on the subject of slumming it, Artificial Mind and Movement’s Naughty Bear was widely regarded as one of the Xbox 360’s most insipid excuses for software and I wholeheartedly disagree with this sentiment. Perhaps I’m easily pleased but there was something about the wrongness of laying siege upon a colony of cute and cuddly toys that just felt right to me. Effectively a base-level stealth game, the eponymous bear snuck around Perfection Island looking to exact his revenge on those who cruelly neglected him.
Every other stuffed animal was invited to Daddy’s birthday party except for Naughty Bear so it was no great surprise he was pissed. It then became his personal quest to amass as many “naughty points” as possible by massacring of the lot of ’em. The game awarded him both for the volume of kills and the amount of creativity shown in racking up the numbers. Moreover, the more each bear became fearful, the more he could sow those seeds of chaos. This resulted in deep-rooted psychological torment, convincing terrified victims to blow their own fluffy brains out in order to cease their suffering. It may not have been big or particularly clever, but this didn’t stop me burning the midnight oils playing it.
Midway’s The Suffering appeared to recruit the cast of Thrill Kill, placing them in a third-person horror game that echoed the likes of Namco’s Silent Hill but ramped that shit up to thirteen. While nowhere near as memorable an experience, the gloriously grotesque enemies were a thing of pure twisted beauty.
Eliminate a sufficient number of these scuttling nasties in close proximity and lead character Torque would top up his “Insanity meter”, thus allowing the escaped inmate to morph into a similarly hellish creature and tear everything on-screen asunder with his bare bloody hands. Its sequel, The Suffering: Ties That Bind, did an astute job of furthering the blood-soaked madness but regrettably so-so sales stopped the series dead in its tracks.
Sega’s Condemned: Criminal Origins was one of the original line up of Xbox launch titles and was all about collecting forensic evidence from crime scenes. However, what resonated most with the public, were the vicious dispatches once close-quarters combat became necessitated. Firearms were present but uncommon and woefully lacking in ammo, so the emphasis here was firmly on melee, with the surrounding environment littered with all manner of blunt weapons to cudgel with. From lead pipes to shovels, locker doors to blocks of 2×4 replete with protruding spikes, there were no end of ways to prompt those bruises and one misplaced swing could result in the tables being turned, making for an incredibly tense gameplay experience.
Better yet, it knew exactly how to freak you the hell out, as attested by one nerve-shattering level set in an abandoned mall. Being surrounded by inanimate mannequins was bad enough, but we just knew they would burst into life at some point. Instead of shooting its load too soon, this inactivity was dragged out to such a point that there was no choice available but to jump at every long shadow. Then the very moment you lowered that guard… whammo! All that and not a solitary Kim Cattrall in sight.
Grasshopper Manufacture’s Shadows of the Damned celebrated all that is kooky about the Japanese, with industry legends Goichi Suda and Shinji Mikami pulling those crazy strings. Renowned demon hunter Garcia Hotspur may have been a fairly par for the course protagonist, but his sidekick, Johnson, certainly couldn’t be accused of being unremarkable. Acting as Garcia’s light source, mode of two-wheeled transportation, and three forms of weapon, his disembodied glowing skull also happened to adore a spot of sexual innuendo.
Spouting such priceless bad taste lines as “it sounds like a cat having sex with a harmonica, and not the consensual kind” and “Taste my BIG BONER!”, Johnson was as wrong as wrong could constitute, then a little bit more wrong for good measure. He was also multi-talented and had no problem with breaking out into impromptu rap verse just to further amuse himself. I’ve seen a lot of firepower in videogames before but none quite as unashamedly phallic as the aptly named Johnson.
I couldn’t possibly conclude without paying reverence to the superb Dead Space from EA Redwood Shores. Set aboard an abandoned interstellar starship, the USG Ishimura, players assumed control of the vessel’s engineer Isaac Clarke, pitting him against an ever more relentless alien scourge while he searched high and low for fragments of his misplaced memory. The mutated “Necromorphs” in question were a hideous collection of sprawling limbs and scuttled the shadows with fiendish intent, making for a heart stopping exercise in raw terror.
To even the odds some, Isaac had a smorgasbord of hardware at his disposal, the most satisfying of which was his default plasma cutter as it allowed for strategic dismemberment, slicing through appendages as though they were piping hot margarine. The sequel threw even more of these undesirables into the melting pot and the result was one of the finest action-based survival horror games this side of Uranus or the other.
Et voila. That brings us to the game over screen of this particular bloodthirsty jaunt through the annals of videogame slaughter. How things have steadily degenerated since the bat and ball exploits of Pong is anyone’s guess although I certainly won’t be biting the hand that has fed my darkest desires so generously over the years.
Certain quarters suggest that playing too many violent videogames encourages copycat behavior and the only response I have to that claim is to say that I’ve never once beaten up a pensioner or removed an arm at the elbow from close range with a 12-bore. That may be a flippant response but my role is neither to vindicate or damn, just to celebrate the merry hell out of the letter G for all you good people. If that makes me a sinner, then does that mean I’m awarded my own Johnson? That lovable rascal had me way back at big boner.
Click here to read H is for Hellraiser
The history of gaming in one fell swoop! I had Pong back in the day & it was addictive. Segue forward & you could find me in the arcade playing Pole Position (love to drive fast! Still do. Damn speed limits), Frogger, Space Invaders & Pacman.
Unfortunately, life intervened & I didn’t get many chances to play Grand Theft or Res Evil. Terrific retro, Rich! You can see the amount of research. Well written, my friend!