Spoiler Warning: This article contains plot spoilers for the game ‘Night Trap’
Call me childish, but there’s a small part of me still smirking at playing ‘Night Trap’ on Switch; a game that Nintendo’s North American President once said would “never appear on a Nintendo System”. Even stepping away from that, it’s clear that the game wears the controversy that surrounded its original release like some robe of state and that without the original drama it’s fairly questionable that it would have received a 25th anniversary re-release. Now, I know that it’s a title that has an unquestionably vast library of opinion pieces, critical breakdowns, and impact articles already associated with its name, but now that I’ve finally experienced the game myself, something that my eight year old self would have been super jealous of having seen those futuristic FMV graphics splashed across the pages of Mean Machines Sega, it’s a good moment to throw out my own views on the controversy surrounding it and how it actually stacks up as a game.
Night Trap is one of those titles where the events surrounding it are at least as (if not more so) interesting as the game itself. Graphics are mainly comprised of live action FMV video that is cut and changes depending on your actions as a player and represents that weird time when CD based games were young. With this new physical format developers were presented with a vast amount of storage space compared to the cartridges that they may have been used to, and like all new tech, they didn’t seem to quite know what to do with it. Thus games like ‘Night Trap’ were born, and for a brief instant were going to be the direction that all games were going; real actors in live action video where the player gently influences the actions in something more like an interactive movie than a traditional game. It was released on the MegaCD (or Sega CD), Sega’s CD drive add-on for that 16-bit blast-processing fuelled monster the Mega Drive (… sigh… or Genesis), in 1992 at arguably the height of Sega’s presence in the home console market on a system that was at the time one of the more widespread CD based platforms. This relatively high level of exposure to the general public arguably led to what happened next, but the twist is that this game was originally meant for a completely different (and more primitive) technology.
The footage was filmed several years earlier in 1987 and the game was developed for the ultimately scrapped ‘Control-Vision’ system; some diabolical hybrid of a Colecovision and VHS player where games were on videotape that held several different simultaneous video streams alongside game data. Player actions would determine which video was shown on screen as the tape played allowing for primitive interactive movie type games. Eager to showcase their shiny new CD tech, Sega rescued the abandoned title several years later.
... having now played the game, I can’t imagine how much of a pain in the butt it would have been having to rewind the tape after each failed attempt…
Receiving a fairly mixed reception when first released, I imagine it was one of those games that you either really enjoyed, or just didn’t get. Sitting firmly inside the genre of low-budget B-movie horror, but also being something of a parody of that type of film, the footage has a thick camp fanciful core surrounded by some cringey performances and cheesy dialogue. As for playing it now, I can firmly say that it is … an experience... and stands as a time capsule of the late 80’s preserved in low resolution video form. Events kick off with the player being introduced to the Special Control Attack Team… or…. S.C.A.T. …. I’m just going to avoid calling them that… They’ve been performing surveillance on some weird house where guests of the Martin Family keep dying in in a series of elaborate traps cunningly positioned around the house and triggered when some hapless soul walks over them..
… and no, you’re not allowed to point out that with this much evidence they could have just stormed the house and arrested them. From this point on in the plot overview you’re not allowed to use logic ok!
So of course the Special Forces team decide the best course of action is to infiltrate one of their agents (played by Dana Plato) in to a group of teenage girls who are visiting the Martin household for the weekend to join in with all sorts of wholesome activities like playing air guitar with a tennis racket. They’ve also managed to hack in to the trap system and put the player in charge of keeping a remote eye on the eight security cameras around the house and the power to activate the traps in each location should you see any dangerous characters. I’m not going to lie, from here on out the plot is kind of hard to follow but the basic meandering idea is that the Martins are Vampires… or nearly vampires… who lure people to their house to drain their blood. They also ‘look after’ a kind of sub-class of vampire called the ‘Augers’ who feature as the main supply of hooded enemies that fall victim to the various traps around the house. Into this already slightly hazy mix are the special forces unit who blunder in and don’t really do much, some kind of sub-plot involving one of the Martin’s vampiric cousins who’s going through a teenage existential crisis about not really wanting to be a murdering vampire, and a quirky neighbour character who gives the tag-along-younger-brother a sci-fi-ray-gun that can kill the Augers. Climaxing with farce levels of teenagers running from room to room screaming as they’re chased by unconvincing vampires the player finally manages to capture the last of the Martins in their own elaborate trap system to save the day.
… and if anyone is imagining something with a high production value here then put those thoughts to bed immediately. The traps are largely goofy trap doors and moving walls that cause the entire set to shake as they’re activated accompanied by a healthy blast from a smoke machine. My absolute favourite is the rotating wall in the bathroom which when activated causes the unfortunate Auger to clearly and intentionally step on to the appropriate piece of flooring and then draw in their limbs as they spin round in to the wall recess.
A year after release in 1993 Night Trap sat alongside Mortal Kombat in the congressional hearings in to videogame violence. Held up as a prime example of the depravity that was rife in the videogame world, Night Trap was picked apart and accused of promoting sexual aggression towards women, the truth of course being that whilst the accused Mortal Kombat is a game where the player can literally rip their opponent’s head off, Night Trap mostly features a lot of pushing and shoving and very little onscreen, or even implied, violence against the female protagonists. One specific ingame moment highlighted by the hearings was a game over scene where one of the night gown clad teenagers is attacked by the Augers in the bathroom who then proceed to drain her blood using some kind of hokey plastic collar; whilst this is possibly the most violent that the game ever gets, it’s fairly tame, even by 1993 standards. I’m not defending B-movie horror involving scantily-clad women as sophisticated or high-brow, but to accuse these goofy scenes of being depraved emphasises just how out of touch congress actually were. Of course various retailers eventually decided to no longer stock Night Trap, but not before sales of the game took off quite substantially due to the controversy and media coverage surrounding it.
All of this baggage, convoluted history, controversy, and outright bizarreness completely avoids the real question that gamers are interested in; i.e. how does it hold up as a game? First up the gameplay is super simplistic; the player can switch between eight different cameras throughout the house, each covering a different area. It’s worth noting that whilst these are supposed to be fixed security cameras, they do cut to better angles to show action at appropriate moments. The events that take place are entirely linear, always occur in the same order, and take place in real time across all of the cameras meaning that the player can follow characters or conversations through the house – infact understanding the layout of the house is fairly important. In each area there are several traps, when a character gets close to the trap an orange warning indicator flashes, and when they are in the trap’s target position it flashes red. If the player presses the activation button at that moment then they’ll capture the enemy. Aside from ‘press-button-when-light-is-red’ there is also a rudimentary ‘code’ system that can be set to a specific colour. At various points in the game the Martins mention that they’re going to change the code to a specific colour and the player has to match that in order to keep using the traps and that’s really all the game has to offer.
The big problem is that the player is forced to near continuously scroll through the cameras keeping an eye out for enemies throughout the house and rarely gets a chance to stop and watch the dubious acting unfolding in the main plot scenes. Honestly, my advice to anyone picking this up for the first time would be to forget about the traps initially and just watch a few of the scenes, after a while you’ll be told that you didn’t capture enough of the Augers and it will restart, but at least you’ll have had a good dose of that 80’s cheese. When it comes to playing the game I suggest an old fashioned notepad and pen; each time you trap an Auger, pause the game and scribble down the room and time. It’ll take a handful of attempts, but after about an evening of play I had a fairly complete timeline for the whole game, which made me feel all warm and fuzzy, but didn’t really inspire me to go back and push the button in the right room at the right time again once I’d watched the end credits roll once.
I guess my final impressions come back around to where I stated; that this is a game that’s more interesting because of what it is than what it is. I couldn’t recommend it based on its gameplay, but I absolutely recommend it if you’re interested in the history that goes with it and as a glimpse in to what game designers thought the future of gaming was going to be in 1993. It may not have deserved to be dragged through the mud in the congressional hearings and remains one of the first in a long line of games that have been vilified by politicians looking to score points without taking the time to actually understand what they’re talking about. Although without those hearings, there’s a good chance it would have been forgotten by now and I’m pretty happy that more than 25 years later it is playable in remastered form on a family friendly Nintendo console, complete with a pocket full of bonus features, long after it stopped being relevant.
Soooo… Sewer Shark Next?…