THE EVOLUTION OF EARLY HORROR GAMING (1992-1996)
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Hello friends. It’s been a nightmare month at work. Hopefully sometime in May I will be able to get into something more like a regular schedule. In the meantime, here, take this.
CRAWLING OUT OF THE GRAVE AND INTO THE FIRE (1992-1996)
1992 was the year that horror stirred from its slumber and began creeping its way back into the harsh light of day. The success of Scholastic’s Point Horror imprint and RL Stine’s Fear Street books, as well as Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? and the surprising popularity of edited-for-network-TV reruns of Tales from the Crypt, had at least proved that kids, if no one else, were hungry for horror, and when Scholastic launched Goosebumps in the summer of that year, it appeared that those needs were finally being met. On the more adult cinematic side, in the wake of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs, it appeared that audiences were starting to become nostalgic for the sumptuous gothic atmosphere of the past, as the Francis Ford Coppola-helmed Bram Stoker’s Dracula paired nicely with the dark urban fantasy and social commentary of Candyman. 1992 is also a year that saw foreign films pushing the envelope on extreme gore effects, as seen in The Burning Moon and Braindead (better known over here in the States as Dead Alive), both of which achieved cult notoriety. The painful transition between the vivid colors of the valley girl 80s and the decidedly grittier grunge flavor of the 90s was epitomized in the uneven Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, which was met with much more middling success than it could have had at least partially due to its inability to commit to either tone.
Whether it was a conscious attempt to wade back into the newly-deepening horror waters or just a happy coincidence, 1992 was also the year that horror in gaming started to tentatively step into darker, more visceral territory. But the hangover of Reagan’s Morning In America, with all its PMRC and Just Say No! moralism, was stronger than anyone could have predicted. The 90s was the decade that horror and gaming finally unified, forged in the flames of a common enemy: censorship.
Fittingly, this is easily encapsulated by two 1992 games that led to the creation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, or the ESRB for short. The first, the arcade game Mortal Kombat, wasn’t necessarily a horror game in the traditional sense. A fighting game in the mold of the Street Fighter series, it was drenched in influence from old kung-fu movies and openly parodied action star Jean-Claude Van Damme with the character of Johnny Cage. But as the game was being developed, the devs continued to add more and more elements of ultraviolence, similar in tone to the maniacally over-the-top bloody battle scenes from the 1991 martial arts splatter classic Riki-Oh! The Story of Ricky and classic anime like Fist of the North Star; it’s also difficult not to draw comparisons to Splatterhouse.
The famous “fatalities” feature, where players were allowed to finish off their opponent in comically convoluted and lovingly-animated explosions of grue and guts, was by far the game’s most controversial element, and was famously completely butchered in the Super Nintendo port of the game. While the Sega Genesis port of the game also “officially” subtracted some of the violence, it could be easily unlocked via a well-publicized cheat code, leading to the Genesis port becoming the much-preferred version; as Sega infamously claimed in many an ad, “Sega does what Nintendon’t.” And while Mortal Kombat was not a horror game as such, the sheer glee it took in using the then-advanced graphics, including photo-realistic sprites, to portray such transgressive displays of brutality endeared it to many a horror fan. James A. Janisse of Dead Meat argues that it’s at least horror-adjacent; who am I to argue?
Appropriately, Sega was also home to the other big controversy in 1992 gaming, Night Trap. Night Trap was developed for the Sega CD, an accessory built for the Sega Genesis that boasted larger storage space, which allowed games to incorporate pre-recorded full motion video sequences. While the Sega CD wasn’t an enormous success-- in many ways, it was yet another example of Sega shooting itself in the foot by being just a little too ahead of the curve-- Night Trap utilized the FMV capability to the fullest. It is essentially an interactive movie in which the player takes the role of a special agent tasked with watching over a group of girls having a sleepover who, unbeknownst to them, are in danger of being attacked and drained of their blood by a clan of vampire-like beings known as Augers. The player accomplishes this by secretly keeping watch over the slumber party with the aid of a network of hidden security cameras and traps. Hopefully, the trashy B-movie nature of the game’s plot and content is readily apparent.
Night Trap was the center of an absolute shitstorm of controversy. Much attention was paid to a sequence in which one of the girls, wearing a nightgown, is attacked by Augers, with accusations that the supposedly-lascivious sequence promoted violence against women. Leaving aside the obvious fact that this sequence was only triggered by the player’s failure to protect the girls-- you know, the stated goal of the entire game-- it’s almost laughable how tame the game plays out in comparison to the furor around it. There’s very little actual onscreen violence; even in the much-ballyhooed “nightgown sequence,” the girl is taken offscreen before anything untoward even happens. And, despite the “titillating” nature of the premise, it should go without saying that there are no pornographic elements, or even nudity, within this 1992 Sega CD game.
Despite these facts, and despite the fact that Mortal Kombat’s arcade cabinets could be easily segregated from the general-audience arcade games, and despite the fact that Sega even introduced its own in-house rating system in order to clearly demarcate Mortal Kombat and Night Trap as unsuitable for younger audiences, the two games were at the center of a moral panic over video games in general. Since the success of the Atari 2600 in the early 80s, video games had become entrenched in the popular consciousness as being solely for children. It was easier to buy video games at Toys R Us than at an actual computer store-- a far cry from the earliest days of gaming, when the audience for games was primarily composed of computer enthusiasts.
This perception was exacerbated by Nintendo’s insistence that games adhere to a family-friendly standard before being licensed for publishing on their consoles. As the success of the Genesis port of Mortal Kombat demonstrated, Sega’s comparatively lax approach to mature content in their games was a not-insignificant factor in their growing popularity. Where Nintendo had once dominated the video game industry, with the NES accounting for 90% of sales in the US video game market in 1990, Sega had managed to obtain 65% of that market by 1992, despite the fact that Nintendo was pushing its then-new Super Nintendo console heavily and the Sega Genesis had been on the market since 1989.
Accordingly, a frustrated Nintendo of America leaned heavily into the moral panic element of the Console Wars, with then-president Howard Lincoln proclaiming that “Night Trap will never appear on a Nintendo system.” For those of you keeping score at home, you can currently purchase the 25th anniversary edition of Night Trap for your Nintendo Switch at the low, low price of fifteen US dollars.
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