Exploitation Retrospect | The Journal of Junk Culture and Fringe Media

Originally published in ER #43 (Fall 1995)

The current debate over the Internet's allegedly easy access to "cyberporn" and the spectre of pedophiles luring innocent compunerds into disrobing via video-conferencing has all too familiar a ring. With anything new comes the inevitably raised voices of concerned parents – and then politicos – who are aghast at the perceived filth and perversion that Bobby, Cindy and Susie are poisoning their minds with. Luckily, my parents never knew what type of dementia was being created for that harmless electronic babysitter, The Atari 2600.

"I Wish I Had BACK ALL THE MONEY I Spent at The Arcade..."
Quite frankly, I don't think anyone was aware of the impact the Atari 2600 would have on our generation (I'm talking about those of us pushing, or already over the wall into, The Land of 30). After the numbing monotony of PONG and competitive systems like ADVERSARY, the masses of children raised on "Schoolhouse Rock," the Ralph Bakshi-tinged SPIDER-MAN, and post-nuclear Japanese fightfests like ULTRA-MAN and JOHNNY SOCKO needed a more universal outlet for their pre-pubescent rage and suburban angst. Luckily, the Taito Corporation was listening and Space Invaders drew us to movie theater lobbies and local convenience stores like flies to a dead squirrel.

By the time we turned Pac-Man into a national obsession, the coin-op videogames and their mutant offspring had rung us out like so much dirty laundry. In fact, at the height of its popularity, Pac-Man and its spin-offs alone were generating about $6 billion dollars (that's 24 billion quarters!) from the sale of records (the obsequious Top 10 single, "Pac-Man Fever"), two bestselling tips books, and a Saturday morning cartoon show...as well as jeans, lunchboxes, pajamas, toys, drinking glasses, and feminine deodorant spray. Well, that last one was actually a Ms. Pac-Man product.

And, like anything that grips the nation, the voices of our national conscience arose with concern. No less an authority than the surgeon general warned that children were becoming addicted, and a Stanford social psychologist went so far as to warn that Pac-Man "fed into masculine fantasies of control, power, destruction." (Is this starting to sound familiar?)

Of course, had we actually been addicted to Pac-man we wouldn't have gone looking for cheap, sick thrills in the seamier parts of town. And game companies were happy to satisfy the sensational tastes that would come to earmark our generation...

"THE SAW IS FAMILY"
After all, what fun was there to be had in games like Pac-Man, Space Invaders, Missile Command and Asteroids? Sure, some of them allowed you to let loose with the pent-up childhood rage that would spill over into the occasional case of patricide or matricide, but most of the games were defeatist blows to our fragile teen egos.

Yes, Pac-Man devoured his enemies, but he lived in an "eat or be eaten" world that he couldn't truly conquer. Missile Command was the perfect government tool to make nuclear proliferation seem like a gas! We identified with the desolate, black & white spacescape of Asteroids, but it taught us the lesson that "the longer you stand still, the longer you'll survive...those that stray from their set position are quickly crushed." And the encroaching foreign "invaders" of that first arcade hit could be beaten back, but they inevitably squashed hopes for rebellion under the weight of their tireless advance.

The fine folks at Wizard were obviously aware of the void left by these games when they sat down and drew up the plans for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a game based on one of the creepiest horror films ever made. A company truly in touch with their customers, Wizard realized that a game that positioned you as a helpless victim was again sending the wrong message to the populace. So, what better way to lash out at the authority figures that got under your skin than to assume the guise of Leatherface and chainsaw your way to power-tool-wielding bliss?!

Armed with your trusty chainsaw and three fuel tanks, your sole goal is to flay, slice and dice as many cowering victims as is (in)humanly possible. Pausing only to avoid the rushing thickets, fences, cow skulls and wheelchairs (in honor of Franklin), Leatherface hunts down his prey and splatters them all over the tv screen with a guttural roar from the saw.

Unfortunately, the inevitability of failure creeps in and Leatherface's ability to torment is limited to three fuel tanks. When they expire, a lone survivor is allowed to trot onto the darkening screen and give the misunderstood killer a swift kick in the ass. Yet the ending maintains the spirit of the original film, and lets you fire up "reset" for as many sequels as you desire.

"TRICK OR TREAT"
Few cinematic mass killers have had the silent charisma of Leatherface, though one wonders what a game featuring the early version of Freddy Krueger might have been like. So, what's a game designer to do when bringing the lumbering, unstoppable visage of HALLOWEEN's Michael Meyers to video life?

Well, in the case of Halloween: The Video Game (Wizard again, 'natch) you concentrate on the concepts that made the film such a screw-your-butt-to-the-seat eye-popper.

  1. Unstoppable, knife-wielding maniac.
  2. Gutsy babysitter.
  3. A house fulla pre-teen rugrats just waitin' to have their bodies uncorked.
  4. And that goddman music!

"Ladies and gentlemen, I think we've got another hit on our hands!"

Exchanging the saw-toting maniacism of Leatherface for the scaredy-cat, knees-bent, running-about sheer terror of "the babysitter" isn't an easy transition. (I heartily recommend an ass-kicking game of NHL '95 with penalties off to get the remaining aggression out.) But once you accept the premise of the game – "There's a killer in the house...save the kids without losing your head" - you're golden.

Brilliantly rendered as the cross-section of an old house where you're babysitting, Halloween fills the hallways with terrified little kids (few game companies are secure enough to put children in peril from the word "GO!"), places the odd knife at your disposal, and lets Michael Meyers defy the laws of time and space by materializing behind you... then in front of you! It's no wonder that one round with this twisted cartridge leaves you a sweaty mess contorting yourself and screaming at the rudely animated babysitter to "run FASTER!!!"

Ultimately, the game achieves its place among the classics for the superior deaths dispatched on you, the babysitter. While the kids/pawns are "spared" a horrid death and just get knifed in the gut (with as graphic a blood-spurting as an Atari 2600 will allow), you don't get off that easily. One false move or misplaced jab with the knife and you're literally running around like a chicken without a head... arms akimbo and your life's juices streaming out of your freshly opened jugular. Ewwwww.

As a bonus, the entire game is scored to John Carpenter's trademark theme, which takes advantage of every tiny sound processing capability the 2600 has.

"TWO OUTTA THREE AIN'T BAD"
Unfortunately, not every 2600 games based on a classic horror flick achieves it's limitless potential. In fact, 20th Century Fox's insulting Alien cartridge can be summed up in four words: Pac-Man Meets Frogger.

The first screen insults your intelligence by placing "Ripley" in a dot-filled maze guarded by a group of roving "aliens" (that look amazingly like Audrey from the LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS musical), but the second is even worse. Your "Ripley" must cross a multi-lane highway of "aliens"...again looking like, ah what's the point?

Shame on you 20th Century Fox... you should've had Wizard create the game! Then again, how would the chest-burster have looked on a 2600?


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