Funny thing about the Playstation and its era of videogames: it proved that no one had a damn idea what they wanted from a videogame.
Today’s game is Brain Dead 13. It is another title that, like Dragon’s Lair or Time Gal before it, is barely more than a playable cartoon. The player controls Lance, a typical computer geek, who, during an average tech support house call, winds up in the clutches of a mad scientist (and, as someone in the tech field, I can safely say we’ve all been there). It’s your job to guide Lance back to safety, and escape Fritz, an imp with an impressive mastery of chainsaws for a creature with hooks for hands. Of course “controlling” Lance is a bit of a misnomer, as this entire game is prerecorded, and it’s less Mario, and more “press left now or die”. It’s something you’ve seen before if you were a child of the 80’s, and it’s something we saw an awful lot in the early CD era of gaming. Is it a “game” or is it an “interactive movie”? Gamepro tried to answer that question a couple of times, but I’m pretty sure Scary Larry never gave us a response. C’est la vie.
Of course, whenever a game like this comes up, it is compared to Dragon’s Lair (I’ve already done it once!), the title that pioneered and defined this kind of gaming experience. The corollary to that that is rarely mentioned? Dragon’s Lair hit the arcades in 1983. For a bit of comparison, Super Mario Bros. (1) hit the Famicom in 1985. The laserdisc/CD-based “playable cartoon” is older than Bowser.
And it’s easy to see why Dragon’s Lair was successful. It’s pretty! It probably made about fourteen billion dollars in quarters, as, come on, who can resist those Don Bluth graphics when it’s playing an attract mode next to friggin’ Joust? Who doesn’t want to be Dirk the Daring when the alternative is… Ice Climbers? I don’t even want to consider the universe where someone would choose those parka wearing nincompoops over a fully realized cartoon dude fighting for his Marilyn Monroe-inspired love. Yes, we’ve all been claiming for years that graphics don’t matter, but even one with such a refined palate as myself may or may not have once bought a game entirely because of its fine graphics, and completely ignored a better game that unfortunately looked like the ass end of an ass (or even just looked different from what was supposed to be advanced). A lot of people decided to swim to the Dragon’s Lair shore from the deep, barren gulf between “animated feature” and “pixels that kinda maybe look like a ghost, but we’re calling it a monster”.
So it makes a certain amount of sense that when the CD-based consoles started to become available, there was a push to produce more FMV/”cartoon” titles. It took all of seven seconds to recognize the difference between a Shinobi and the high resolution (for the 90’s) art of any given prerecorded CD title. The thinking must have been amazingly simple: pump out some videogames that look astonishing, and people will line up to buy the newest systems with their advanced graphics. We could have all been happy with games produced under that premise.
Unfortunately, what we got was Sewer Shark. Nobody was happy with Sewer Shark.
The Sega CD, by and large, was a failure. Give or take a Myst, PC gaming would take years to reach the same echelon of fame as its console brethren. And the Playstation… well that revolutionized gaming in a way that is still relevant today. Why? Because it might be the first videogame system that was successful because someone made a conscious decision to make videogames.
Brain Dead 13 is a Playstation title. What’s more, it’s a Playstation title that came at the start of the system’s lifespan, and, thus, was inadvertently influential on a certain demographic of nerds. It would not be surprising to find that not a single person reading this article ever played Brain Dead 13. However, it would be astounding if no one ever saw this gremlin in this exact pose…
Brain Dead 13 wasn’t exactly getting airtime during Seinfield, but it was introduced via a disproportionate number of GamePro pages. It was featured in Electronic Gaming Monthly. And I’m going to go ahead and guess that it probably was on AOL’s frontpage for its videogames community at least once. Like Battle Arena Toshinden, Brain Dead 13 is one of those titles that, should the history of the world be abolished and replaced exclusively with late 90’s videogame magazines, might finally be recognized as one of the biggest games of 1996 (or so).
But you’re not going to find Brain Dead 13 on the Playstation Classic. In fact, you’re not going to find it anywhere. Why? Because the early days of CD gaming taught us a valuable lesson about videogames: we like to actually play videogames.
Brain Dead 13 is gorgeous, particularly when compared to the polygons that could poke an eye out from the early PSX days. Unfortunately, beyond being pretty, there isn’t much “there” there. This title, designed for home consoles (and computers), and not to be a quarter-munching arcade machine, has all the replayability of a VHS cassette. In fact, Dragon’s Lair and similar titles from this specific genre have been released in recent years with a “just let me press play and watch what happens” feature. Brain Dead 13 has not been lucky enough to receive such a rerelease, but the first Youtube result for BD13 is a 47 minute “longplay” of the entire title (which includes an approximately 15 minute death compilation). And if you watch that 47 minute video? Congratulations, you have seen literally everything Brain Dead 13 has to offer! And, technically, you suffered through the same exact experience you would have if you actually played the game, just give or take actually pressing the buttons and dying a whole heck of a lot.
And, as the past decade of let’s play debates have proven, there are a number of people that seem to believe the preceding statement could be true of all videogames. You watch a longplay of some random game, see the player 100% every last challenge the dev can throw into the title, and then why would you ever need to “play” the game at all? You’ve seen everything there could be! Videogames are videogames, man, and there’s no difference between pressing down to make Lance duck under Fritz’s blades than making Super Mario crouch below Bowser’s fireballs. A videogame is a videogame, so let’s all buy some videogames! Sewer Shark ahoy!
Yeah, it’s all bullshit. (You hear me, Atlus!?)
Netflix might try to redefine gaming with some manner of Bandersnatch Box. Google might try to define gaming by marrying Youtube to a streaming console. Microsoft might try to define gaming with whoever has the most trophies wins. But you want to know who I think got it right? Nintendo. And you know why? Because we both believe videogames come from the same place. We believe videogames should be able to be played anytime, anywhere, with any internet connection. In short, we believe videogames are…
… No, that isn’t right. Not that kind of freedom.
Brain Dead 13 is, by a technical definition, a videogame. However, it offers exactly zero freedom. There is simply a win or loss state in response to every input, and there is nothing in-between. Brain Dead 13’s contemporaries, though? They offered freedom. Mega Man may have been about defeating renegade robots, but it was also about jumping and shooting around vast stages filled with traps and hidden powerups. Contra was about runnin’ n’ gunnin’, but there was always time to kill your little brother on a trip up a cliffside. Zelda offered a world of exploration (and oftentimes, two worlds), and Final Fantasy gave us scores of characters to tromp around exotic lands. So which wound up defining the hardware generation: Brain Dead 13 or Final Fantasy 7? Yes, the way Final Fantasy 7 seemed to toe the line between “freedom” and “enjoy watching this movie” (and its many, many imitators that veered over to the wrong side of that divide) may have confirmed that the developers of the Playstation era were still confused about what a videogame truly was; but by the biggest hit of the Playstation 2 era, we truly had our freedom. Grand Theft Auto 3 solidified the freedom that was inherent in videogames, and titles like Brain Dead 13 were forever relegated to the likes of novelty compilations.
Brain Dead 13, you were a relic of a time before gaming had matured enough to know what it was. Forever wield you chainsaw, confident in the knowledge that you are the awkward high school yearbook photo of gaming’s history.
FGC #424 Brain Dead 13
- System: Playstation 1 for the purpose of this review, but we’ve also got a murderers’ row of CD-based systems, like the 3DO, CD-I, Saturn, and the goddamned Jaguar CD. Also, apparently this was released for iOS in 2010… but that’s probably not available anywhere anymore.
- Number of players: You are alone in a haunted house.
- Sexual Dimorphism is a Scourge: Everyone in this title is a cartoonish caricature of various horror tropes, like the nefarious brain in the jar, or at least two characters that seem to originate from Frankenstein. However Vivi is… a little less Roger Rabbit, a little more Jessica Rabbit than the rest of the cast. Though I suppose Elvira, Mistress of the Dark is a horror trope onto herself…
- What’s in the box: This is one of those rare, early Playstation titles that was released in the giant, entirely-too-vertical OG Playstation box. And those things are royal hell on trying to organize a game collection. Tekken 1, you may never be filed next to your latter brethren.
- Favorite… uh… Room: There is an early one with a puppet that is supposed to be a famous composer or something. Mozart? I don’t know. It seems like the least derivative location in the game. Would you rather I choose the one-eyed witch? Or the other one-eyed witch?
- So, did you beat it: Nope. I always play this game for about a half hour, die a billion times, and then decide there are better uses for my time. I could be mowing the lawn! Or scraping nails along a chalkboard!
- Did you know? The absolute first release of Brain Dead 13 for Playstation contained a bug that prevented the game from starting up. At all. Like, that was it. The end. No Brain Dead 13 for you. I realize this may have been a small blessing for some people that had the misfortune of purchasing the title, but, come on guys, I’m pretty sure someone should have caught the bug that refuses to let the game even start.
- Would I play again: Whoops! Did I already compare this game to nails on a chalkboard? Spoilers: that was the answer.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… to just let me talk about Kingdom Hearts 3! Good plan, ROB! So we’re going to get another Kingdom Hearts FAQ entry, and FGC “coverage” of Kingdom Hearts 3. Wow! So much Kingdom Hearts! Two whole articles! Please look forward to it!
I have never “played” Brain Dead 13, but I definitely remember it ‘cuz of the magazine coverage and ads. I recognize Fritz and Lance’s shaggy-haired self on sight.
I also totally agree with you assessment of the FMV game genre. They make for impressive quarter munchers, but it’s not a good sign that you can get the entire experience from YouTube. The late Telltale Games’s stuff might have been one budget cut away from being FMV games, but at least I choose what stupid crap comes out of his mouth or whether or not he’ll kick that trash can.