FGC #572 Night Trap

It's a trapThe sooner you internalize this simple fact, the happier you will be: Nobody knows what they are doing.

Let’s talk about the game so bad, it nearly destroyed everything. Let’s talk about Night Trap.

It is reasonable to assume you have heard of Night Trap. But do you know what the game actually is? It is interactive fiction! It is a playable movie! It is a game that ostensibly tries to be a “videogame” (as opposed to, like, one of those “games” you can play with a DVD remote), but features real, human actors. Night Trap has “graphics” on par with your average Marvel movie, which was practically unheard of at the time. In fact, “practically” nothing, Night Trap was approved for production in 1986, and filmed (with the intention of being released shortly) in 1987.

1987! That was the same year as Castlevania: Simon’s Quest, R-Type (1), and Final Fantasy (1)! Can you imagine a videogame having such amazing fidelity in 1987! And it isn’t Dragon’s Lair! This could have revolutionized gaming as we know it!

Heavy emphasis on the “could have” there, though. Years before the release of Night Trap, a murderer’s row of people that were ostensibly successful in the western videogame development world of the 80’s (Nolan Bushnell! Even my beloved videogame-shunning wife knows that name!), gathered together to create what would be this infamous title. Within this group, Tom Zito produced a device by the name of the NEMO. NEMO (considered so valuable, its acronym literally stood for Never Ever Mention Outside) could use VHS technology to create “movie-based” gaming through playing four video tracks. This technology was used to sculpt a proof-of-concept prototype, Scene of the Crime, which clearly displayed how one could enjoy a “murder mystery” type game. Clue was a fruitful property, right? Well, someone at Hasbro agreed, and NEMO was on its way to powering Night Trap.

What else is on?It is probably worth noting at this point that the brilliant minds that had previously been responsible for videogames as we know them maybe did not have a great idea of what people wanted from videogames. I have written about this phenomenon before, but the first twenty years of gaming were practically defined by people realizing that something would be a cool idea for a videogame (detective work!) and then just completely blowing it with an execution that was about as fun as watching an adorable puppy choking on your math homework (passively watching monitors for maybe something to happen!). The same generation of genius programmers that brought us the likes of Asteroids and Pitfall settled on the “gameplay” of Scene of the Crime being little more than meticulously watching a movie. Nobody wants to hold a controller in their hands and quietly wait for something to maybe happen. But Scene of the Crime, excellent tech demo or not, is just that, and Night Trap would not be much better. You may have been responsible for the whole of gaming in the 80’s, guys, but that didn’t mean you had a damn clue what would make a fun videogame.

And speaking of people that did not know what would work, let’s get back to Hasbro. Hasbro was ready to fund the production of Night Trap (one of the first videogames to include live actors, “movie” directors, and a director of photography that would go on to shoot Forrest Gump), but there were a few notes. Unfortunately, Hasbro was a toy company, so they were downright afraid of any lawsuits that may arise from violence that could be copied by an impressionable child. So the “vampires” intended to be Night Trap’s antagonists weren’t allowed to actually draw blood, and they had to use some manner of grabby-arm trash collector to ensnare their victims. This meant everything slid precipitously into the “goofy” category. Additionally, Hasbro eventually learned of the cost of producing the NEMO system game console that would actually play Night Trap (MSRP in 2021 dollars? About $630), and decided that, grabby vampires or not, Night Trap was literally not worth it. Hasbro purchased and funded the NEMO and its attendant games, but dropped ‘em like a hot potato(head).

Kind of a small dungeonAnd Hasbro in the 80’s really did know toys! They produced Jem (of the Holograms, natch) who once outsold Barbie. They won a lawsuit that allowed them to sell Transformers, or Go-Bots, or something that was a robot that could turn into probably not a robot. They purchased a children’s furniture company, and improved its profitability from millions to billions. And Hasbro was right on the cusp of being responsible for Barney the Dinosaur of Infinite Love/Money. This was a Hasbro that was hugely successful and poised to become the number one toy company in the known universe.

Yet, they could not foresee that new technology would be costly. Nor could they foresee that vampires using zoo-equipment might have unanticipated legal consequence. Brilliant toy company, stupid videogame producer.

But, like a vampire hobbling through the suburbs, Night Trap would not die. Rob Fulop, one of Night Trap’s designers, would call it a day at this point, and go on to be responsible for Petz. But Tom Zito purchased the rights to the NEMO games, and eventually founded his own company in an effort to make an appeal to Sony and its forthcoming Super NES CD-ROM system. That was a dead end and a half, so Zito migrated over to the only decent CD-based platform in town, Sega and its Sega CD.

So, six years after being conceived and five years after being filmed, Night Trap was finally released for the Sega CD in 1992. And, at this point in time, it was only a spectacular failure.

Get 'emHasbro may have been divorced from the project, but their changes remained. A game that was once supposed to feature ninja gradually morphed into something that included vampires, and now neutered vampires were scampering about. But it would be disingenuous to simply blame Hasbro for this debacle. Those ninja were replaced with vampires in the first place because it was determined that too much darkness would play poorly on modern television screens. So a game that was initially designed to be cloaked in shadow had to step out into the harsh light of poor illumination. What’s more, the one interactive bit of Night Trap, that the player could activate traps that would eject or otherwise harm the villains of the piece, necessitated some extremely awkward behavior from the stuntmen playing these malcontents. So our Draculas had to be reduced to “henchmen” that skulked along like Renfields that had been forsaking the blood for far too much hooch. And, as one might expect, those “real live actors” involved in the filming of Night Trap had no real idea what they were doing. To be clear, they were likely consummate professionals, but this was a new medium, and its not like a director can direct when they do not even have a full picture of what the final product is going to be. In short, Night Trap was a mess, and practically every corner of it exuded b-movie shlock.

And, oh yeah, the gameplay was frustrating, obtuse, and demanded a lot more dedication than Night Trap should have ever required. Do you know what color code is required at Minute 4 in the bedroom? No? Well get ready to watch someone die, stupid!

Actually, watching someone die repeatedly might make an impact on an impressionable player… Huh, I wonder if anyone else noticed that? Anyone like, you know, the entire United States Senate.

NERDS!Night Trap saw release in 1992, and it is cited as one of the chief reasons we had the 1993 Congressional Hearings on Videogames. Night Trap and its tremendously more popular cousin, Mortal Kombat, were cited as the primary motivating factors in this series of hearings, but, make no mistake, videogames had been a popular scapegoat for years. In 1982, Surgeon General Koop claimed that videogames could be affecting children’s health, as apparently Pac-Mania had infected the general populace. And, as Hasbro was well aware, this was the era when “won’t someone please think of the children” escalated to the point that you could barely have a dude in furry underwear bully a skeleton without someone shouting about kids hitting each other with homemade nunchucks. And, as we all know, once you involve the welfare of children, you know there are predators that are perfectly happy to profit off that fear, whether that be through actual profits or an eternal campaign bullet point.

In the fullness of time? These congressional hearings did have a good outcome: the creation of a ratings system for videogames. Considering the same had existed for movies for years, this was an excellent innovation for a medium that was still in its fledgling stages. But beyond that? This whole hearing was nonsense from top to bottom. The likes of Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl were obviously punching down on a medium that did not yet have the clout to resist such a slanderous public hearing, and certain companies took the occasion to hurl accusations at their most prominent competitors. Howard Lincoln says Sega hurts kids that Nintendon’t. Yes, there were probably some genuinely concerned people involved in these hearings that frequently showcased clips of “videogame violence”, but it seems like the biggest names in gaming and politics were mostly just there to advance their own agendas (and Captain Kangaroo, too, who had reasons known only to him).

She's basically dancingAnd this was and continues to be terrible. Ever hear about Seduction of the Innocent? It was a book published by a psychologist in 1954, and it eventually led to Congress launching an inquiry that neutered the comics industry for decades. In short, Fredric Wertham called Batman gay (not an exaggeration, true believers), and that snowballed into the giants of the comics industry corralling guidelines into a path that incidentally promoted the very comics that those industry giants were selling. And if you weren’t one of those giants? If you were publishing horror and/or horny material? Sorry, you are out of business. Literally! And this meant that the Western comic book medium became regarded as the domain of children for (apparently) the rest of time. Want to see what an American “manga market” could look like? Too bad! We had Seduction of the Innocent and a bunch of gold-diggers pushing their own superheroes forward, and now all we get is Iron Man, Iron Man: Civil War, and Iron Man: First Sip.

And it could have happened to videogames, too! Actually, it absolutely did. Thanks to ESRB regulations and conservative retailers, videogames were not sold in many brick and mortar stores if they ranked as an “Adults Only” title. And considering that physical stores were all that existed for a long time, we didn’t see anything that could even prod at that AO rating until three console generations later. And while no one is exactly lamenting a lack of Senran Kagura on the Super Nintendo, it is hard to say if something like the entire Suda51 or Yoko Taro oeuvre would have been allowed in the wake of 1990s videogame panic. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, gaming needs more voices in its chorus, and we would be missing out on some very distinct tones if we universally outlawed android butts.

But that was the sad reality of videogames for decades. All thanks to a pack of opportunistic senators. All thanks to some very imprudent videogame directing. All thanks to very fearful toy manufacturers. All thanks to some ill-advised hardware consideration. Going back years, damage was done to the videogame medium for decades, all thanks to a series of ostensible pillars in their respective fields making the wrong choices.

Love this guyAnd what can we learn from this? Well, at every step in the process no one really did anything objectively wrong. Wanting to drop brutal ninja for fantastic vampires is not wrong. Wanting to protect children from the horrors of violence is not wrong. Wanting to revolutionize gaming in new and exciting ways is not wrong. But the end result? Night Trap scarred gaming for decades, but it was the men (I’m going to go ahead and assume it was mostly men here) in charge that made the repeated decisions to somehow make this product and its legacy worse and worse. No one did anything wrong, but they made the wrongest decisions possible. And, as a result, Night Trap became a game so bad, it nearly destroyed everything in its wake.

Kind of makes you wonder what would happen if these people were in charge of something actually important

FGC #572 Night Trap

  • System: Despite objections from 1990s Nintendo, Night Trap is now available for the Nintendo Switch. Amazing! It is also available for the Sega CD, Sega CD/32X (long story), 3DO (such a cursed system), and, eventually, the Playstation 4/Vita (also significantly cursed).
  • Number of players: No way you could play this with anyone else. Ever.
  • Port-o-Call: The Sega CD is a bit of a… let’s say the graphics took a hit. Not all recordings are created equal. Or at a resolution above 10 x 10 pixels. But the 32X version is a significant improvement. And the modern versions actually look like the game is supposed to look. That said, it’s all the same terrible game, so don’t get too excited.
  • What us even happening?Let’s talk about the plot: A lot can be said for how the gameplay is terrible, and the acting is horrendous. But one thing that is often overlooked is that, whether it’s because the writing has to account for multiple characters that may or may not be kidnapped, or simply because no one knew what they were doing, the ostensible protagonists are wholly forgettable. You are supposed to be saving lives here! And the only character that even seems worthy of having a name is the secret vampire ham-man! Everybody else is just horrible, and that is likely a contributing factor in Night Trap being about as fondly remembered as polio.
  • So, did you beat it? Naw. Went ahead and watched a “full” run through on youtube, but there is no way I am going to take the time to carefully map out exactly where “I” have to be when. The whole thing is just exhausting for the payoff of having watched a complete movie.
  • For the Sequel: Everything about Night Trap/Scene of the Crime would eventually “work” in other games. Scene of the Crime’s concept of detective work would eventually be adapted into the hugely entertaining Phoenix Wright franchise by finding the right level of interface for solving a murder, and the basic gameplay of Night Trap would later work as the Five Nights at Freddy’s series. So, in other words, what the NEMO needed was more whacky lawyers/animatronics.
  • Did you know? The other game that was supposed to launch with the Hasbro NEMO? Sewer Shark. Now there’s a system seller for the ages!
  • Would I play again: Not for all the wannabe vampires in Castlevania. This game is a bear in every conceivable way. And not a cuddly bear! One of those bears that leaves you generally dissatisfied with your current organ count.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Bowser’s Fury! Or Furry! It’s one of those! Please look forward to it!

It's out of control
Any version that doesn’t include a Genesis controller is not real.

One Response »

  1. I feel it was inevitable that there would be a ratings system with a verboten rating in it, even if early 90s games hadn’t swayed a bunch of crooked old overreacting suits to get on the cases of the petulant manchildren who were running the western divisions of these game companies at the time.

    Frankly, my bigger issue is how TOO MUCH of the games industry is trying for those grown-up dollars these days. Almost everything nowadays is either dark and dreary with loads of guns, gore, and brutal torture (mostly it’s the western-made games), or borderline hentai (‘cuz Japan’s CERO is even stricter). Nothing against the Senran Kaguras of course, but I’m not thrilled by every other jRPG being horny.

    And with a few exceptions like Nintendo(‘s console output) aside, most games with cutesy characters are actively trying to get Mommy’s credit card number with artificial barriers and exploitative bullshit like lootboxes.

    On the subject of the “game” though, this article did get me to pick up the original Five Nights at Freddy’s on mobile with the credit I’d been hoarding from Google Rewards surveys, so there’s that.

    I really don’t get why people made such a big stink about Night Trap. It’s basically just an 80s B-movie with a UI duct-taped to it. Very much the kinda thing you’d expect to have been made fun of by Elvira or MST3K.

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