Ghosts, ghouls and games…

As the cold nights draw in, the cosy magic of Halloween is like an apology for the bad British weather about to descend on the UK for the next three months.  It’s a time for pumpkins, trick or treat and scary movie marathons.  But it can also be a time to curl up under a duvet with some popcorn in front of the tv and indulge in some spooky gaming.  Here are some recommendations from my collection, I have tried to stay away from the usual suspects, although one Resident Evil game has slipped through the net because a list of scary games would be incomplete without survival horror’s biggest hitter.

Night Trap (1992, Mega CD)

Night Trap is probably more famous for the controversy it caused on its release than for its actual gameplay quality.

The plot surrounds a family who are in the process of transforming into vampiric creatures known as Augers and who also lure unknowing teenage girls to their family holiday home for existing Augers to feed on.  The house is rigged with cameras and traps and it is your job to monitor the cameras and use the traps to prevent the Augers from attacking the girls.  The big selling point at the time was that the gameplay footage was actual video with real actors rather than computer programmed characters which gave the whole game a more voyeuristic and authentic atmosphere. It can be finished in a reasonably short time of around an hour or so and has potential replayability in that its unstructured format means it can be completed in multiple ways.

The game was heavily criticised in the mainstream media for the objectification of women, and for the heavy use of gratuitous violence perpetrated against them. This eventually lead to a broader discussion on video game violence around the world and the establishing of various age rating systems, predominantly the ESRB, which is still in use in North America today.

I was ten years old when I first put Night Trap disc one into my Mega CD.  I’d read about it previously in Sonic the Comic and thought it sounded exciting.  In the UK, Night Trap received a BBFC rating of 15, so it’s logical to assume this violent misogynistic game warped my precious and naive emotionally under developed mind.  This may have been true had Night Trap been everything it was accused of, but the game itself was pure B movie entertainment.  The Augers themselves were clad in what appeared to be over sized boiler suits and the acting was beyond hammy and unconvincing.  Even at that tender age I was too busy being amused by the bad fashion choices of the lead cast.  The video footage in Night Trap had actually been filmed five years prior to its release and this was heavily reflected in the eighties styling and bouffant hair dos.  However, this all added to the quirky low budget feel of the game.

For a ten year old, Night Trap was nowhere near interesting enough to keep me entertained when compared with other high octane games in my Mega CD collection such as Sonic CD or Road Avenger.  But on revisiting it at a much later time, I had become mature enough to appreciate the artistic nuances and discover it was worth persevering with after all.  It’s a game that doesn’t take itself seriously and is packed with laugh out loud moments, and it’s difficult to identify why it created such controversy back in the nineties. Nevertheless it’s definitely worth a play if you have the chance to pick up a copy.

Resident Evil Code Veronica (2000, Dreamcast)

Debuting in 1996, the Resident Evil franchise has defined and redefined survival horror. Having sold over 84 million copies over the last two decades, it has spawned over ten critically acclaimed main series games, numerous spin offs, novels, comics, and animated and live action movies.

Code Veronica was the fourth often overlooked instalment and on its release was exclusive to the Dreamcast for around a year before an updated version was released for the Playstation 2.

It was a hybrid of what Resident Evil had been and what it was about to become.  Previous games had included pre rendered backgrounds and somewhat restrictive controls, Code Veronica was the turning point, where the franchise eventually gave way to the slick graphics and gameplay it boasts today.

Players firstly take control of Claire Redfield, younger sibling of the original games protagonist, Chris Redfield, who later appears as a playable character in the second half of the game.  Both are in search of each other after the fall out from the Racoon City event which occurred in Resident Evil 2.  While this story may seem complex, enjoyment of the game is certainly not dependant on knowledge of the previous games. It’s far from a standalone title but the strength of the Resident Evil franchise has always been in the immersive story telling as well as the game play.

The action primarily takes place in Paris and Antarctica, featuring some beautiful atmospheric spooky graphics, a pair of wonderfully theatrical evil twins and the signature double crossing of the protagonist by recurring bad guy, triple Agent Albert Wesker. Possibly the most stunning set piece is the boss battle with Nosferatu on the roof of the facility in Antartica.  Heroine Claire Redfield attempts to make her escape down a ladder as Nosferatu’s distorted form emerges out of the mist to block her path and casually brush her friend Steve aside.

Code Veronica’s strengths lie in the characterisation, story telling and impact of the beautifully rendered and haunting graphics.  It has retained the classic control system from the previous games which can feel a little dated but does add to the feeling of panic when needing to react quickly to the threat of a zombie or other weird creature.  Although its a one player game, it can be very much enjoyed with a ‘second player’ watching to help with puzzle solving and to enhance the eerie ambience.

Illbleed (2001, Dreamcast)

Although it received mixed reviews on its release and performed poorly financially, Illbleed has since gone on to gain a cult following.

It was written and produced by the late Shinya Nishigaki, who developed the Dreamcast launch title, survival horror Blue Stinger. In a departure from traditional survival horror at the time, Illbleed was presented in a B movie style after Nishigaki was inspired by American thriller and suspense movies and combined this with complex puzzles, a logical structure and comedy.

The story follows initial playable character Eriko Christy, who is head of the Horror Movie Research Club, and her friends, which later become unlockable playable characters after each is rescued. They are invited to a movie theatre theme park named ‘Illbleed’, by antagonist and movie producer Michael Reynolds who offers $100 000 000 to the first person who can survive the traps and exit his park alive. Inside the park are six movie theatres, each one a playable stage based around a different horror movie title. Within each movie is a collection of traps which must be avoided by the player through utilising the characters senses.

Unfortunately as Sega wound down production of the ill fated Dreamcast console, their game release schedules became somewhat inconsistent across world regions and Illbleed sadly went unreleased in Europe. Fortunately I was able to import a North American copy of the game affordably into the UK and with the aid of a Utopia boot disk loaned by a friend, I could then play the game on my PAL Dreamcast.

Illbleed is a merciless adrenaline rush of incredibly vivid, lavish graphics and excessively gratuitous over the top comic book carnage. With a confident assured degree of irony, it never slows down and even takes a cheeky swipe at Sega’s own mascot Sonic the Hedgehog, in the form of the demonic Zodick the Hellhog.

House of the Dead Overkill (2009, Wii)

Originally developed as an arcade light gun game in 1996, House of the Dead was eventually ported to various consoles and spawned some varied and unusual spin off games.

The game mainly revolved around a pair of agents who teamed up to take on the bio engineered undead. It could be enjoyed on consoles utilising only the control pad, but became much more gratifying when used in combination with a light gun peripheral. Prior to the widespread availability of flatscreen televisions in the mid 2000s, light guns and their compatible games were popular and affordable. A change in the technology saw the genre significantly fade away as it wasn’t as easily adaptable to led, lcd and plasma screens. However in 2006, Nintendo’s Wii console saw the introduction of a two part control pad similar to a remote control which could be pointed at the television screen and movement detected via a censor placed on top of the set. In effect it became a natural successor to the light gun and could even be clipped into a gun shaped shell known as the wii zapper.

Overkill was the first game in the House of the Dead series to be exclusively developed for the home console market rather than being ported via the arcades, it remained a Wii exclusive for over two years before being enhanced and re released on the Playstation 3. The game serves as a prequel to the previous titles as the plot develops the origins of recurring main character Agent G on his first mission.  Overkill makes a slight departure to the earlier story’s tone, by focusing on a stylised movie exploitation approach after the development team were inspired when watching director Robert Rodriguez’ grindhouse feature, Planet Terror.

As is standard with most arcade shooters, game play takes place on predetermined ‘rails’, with the player controlling the aiming rather than the movement.  The story mode takes place across seven chapters and can be enjoyed solo or multiplayer. On completion a Directors cut is unlocked expanding on previous levels with stronger enemies and the duel wield weapon ability. Bonuses and pickups are available throughout the game to assist in progress as well as an array of upgradable guns. The combination of an original quirky seventies derived soundtrack, a plethora of fleshed out off beat characters and unrelenting gore come together to create a gruesome but humorous and thoroughly entertaining title.

Whatever game you decide to play this Halloween, make sure its not Game Over…

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