From Halloween to Splatterhouse: The Evolution of ’80s Video Game Gore
Blood, guts, and controversy abound, as we delve back to look at the evolving gore and mayhem in a dozen '80s videogames...
This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Ah, the ’80s. The decade of video nasties, The A-Team, Boy George, and Ronald Reagan. A time of conspicuous consumption and voluminous hair, the ’80s were also the decade when video games rapidly evolved, from the blocky 8-bit computers and consoles at its beginning to the more powerful 16-bit systems at its end.
The ’80s were also a period when the depiction of video game gore would be realized with ever greater detail – much to the consternation of media watchdogs, who commonly regarded games as bleepy toys for children. The mainstream furor which would greet Mortal Kombat was still just over the horizon, but from the start of the decade to its end, mischievous (and sometimes cynical, it has to be said) developers occasionally churned out surprisingly bloody and violent games to a ripple of mild controversy.
In fact, the first ever controversial video game was probably Death Race, which appeared way back in 1976. Based very loosely on the Roger Corman-produced Death Race 2000 movie, this black-and-white arcade game involved running over stick men (supposedly gremlins) in blocky little cars. Although crude, the game was considered scandalous enough to appear in the earliest TV documentaries about the impact of video game violence and was eventually banned.
Death Race was therefore not only one of the very first movie-to-game adaptations, but also anticipated the next decade of video game bloodshed and the growing concern over its effects on players. So with an inevitable warning over the blocky, splattery content of this article, here’s a look at how video game gore evolved through the 1980s…
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – Atari 2600 (1983)
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Atari 2600 was a sales phenomenon, and dozens of companies rushed to make their own games for the system – often with little concern over the quality of the finished product. One of those companies was Wizard Video, an indie movie distributor owned by filmmaker Charles Band.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was one of two licensed games released by Wizard before the 1983 game crash reversed Atari’s fortunes, and it’s a true oddity. It puts the player in the maniacal Leatherface, who rushes around a pastel-green countryside in pursuit of fleeing victims. Offering little in the way of variety or challenge, Texas Chainsaw was little more than a bad-taste novelty; nods to the movie included the cameo appearance of a wheelchair (the one belonging to the luckless Franklin) and a high-pitched beeping noise which we’re assuming is meant to be the screaming of your victims.
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Gore quotient: Surprisingly low. The Atari’s humble underpinnings meant that Leatherface’s violent hobby could only be depicted in the most abstract ways – his chainsaw is little more than a handful of blue pixels, and hitting a victim with it simply flips them upside down. Is that brown row of pixels meant to be blood? We’re really not sure. Understandably, there were complaints about the game’s amoral subject matter, but Leatherface does get his comeuppance in the end: when the villain’s chainsaw eventually runs out of gasoline, one of his victims runs back on the screen and kicks him up the backside.
Halloween – Atari 2600 (1983)
Wizard Video’s next Atari 2600 horror offering was Halloween, based on John Carpenter’s genre-defining slasher flick. On slightly less murky territory this time, the game cast the player as a blonde babysitter (presumably Jamie-Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode, though she’s never mentioned by name) who has to protect a cavernous house full of kids from the maniacal Michael Myers.
Although better programmed than Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it’s still a fairly shallow offering; Myers’ appearance is marked by a warbling rendition of Carpenter’s theme tune, and the player has to either shepherd any nearby kids off the screen, or pick up a sword – if there’s one lying around – and stab Myers with it. Doing so causes the killer to rush off the screen for a few seconds, only to return to menace the player again later on.
Gore quotient: Moderately high. If the babysitter got too near Myers, she’d be decapitated, leaving her body running across the screen with gore oozing out of her neck stump. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween‘s adult theme saw many shops either refuse to stock it or hide it behind the counter. Understandably, Wizard Video’s experiments in horror gaming ended here.
The Evil Dead – Commodore 64 (1984)
Three years after Sam Raimi’s debut feature ended up on the video nasties list in the UK, Palace Software decided to license the title and turn it into a game about closing windows and doors. The aim was to protect your friends from the demonic forces attempting to enter the archetypal cabin in the woods, and with the help of the shovels and swords lying around, batter the occasional green ghoul into submission.
The Evil Dead was Palace Software’s debut and the first in an intended string of licensed horror games (home versions of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween were also planned), but never happened. As though cursed by the Book of the Dead, The Evil Dead game’s launch at The London Dungeon went awry, and the ZX Spectrum version was never released – instead, it was given away free with copies of Cauldron in 1985.
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Gore quotient: Considering the unhinged nature of the movie that inspired it, The Evil Dead was surprisingly gore-free, and to modern eyes, its top-down perspective and chunky characters make it look like a PG-cert version of the brutal Hotline Miami. The ability to club a demon to death with a shovel makes it a more adult proposition than, say, Monty Mole, but the cartoonlike puff of smoke that marks their departure is hardly the stuff of nightmares.
Go to Hell – ZX Spectrum (1985)
A maze game with a heavy-metal horror theme, this Spectrum curio involved finding crosses in order to rescue someone from eternal damnation. Its programmer, John George Jones, had a real knack for creating grim and disturbing games. His 1987 arcade adventure Soft & Cuddly was all about a character finding the dismembered body parts of his mother in order to rescue his father, who was trapped inside a fridge.
Gore quotient: Although low on blood and dismemberment, Go to Hell is full of nightmare imagery and often looks like a neon-colored Bosch painting. One screen contains a giant head with a saw cleaving through it, what looks like tiny yellow demons bowing to their horned master, and a screaming skull bursting out of a grave. Other screens contained flickering crosses, rivers of blood, and bodies stretched out on racks. For a generation raised on stuff like Jet Set Willy and Sabre Wulf, it was pretty ominous stuff.
Chiller – Arcade, Nintendo Entertainment System (1986)
A year before Operation Wolf made arcade cabinets with machine guns strapped to the front universally popular, along came Chiller, a light gun game apparently designed to offend as many people as possible. Programmed by Exidy, who’d caused a fuss with Death Race exactly a decade earlier, Chiller took place across a series of horror-themed screens, ranging from torture chambers to monster-filled crypts.
Unlike most shooting games, however, the aim wasn’t to kill as many aggressors as possible, but to simply blast various items on the screen in order to see what happened. Worryingly, this usually involved shooting helpless victims strapped to torture devices, making Chiller one of the most baffling and unseemly games of the decade.
Gore Quotient: Extraordinarily high. Actually, the crude graphics and jerky animation make Chiller look like a grisly South Park episode. A conversion of Chiller also appeared on the Nintendo Entertainment System – and although censored to a certain extent, the rather creepy preoccupation with torture devices remains.
Death Wish 3 – Commodore 64 (1986)
It took more than a decade, but in 1986, Gremlin Graphics finally allowed 8-bit computer owners to step into the role of movie theater’s ultimate vigilante with a side parting, Paul Kersey (or Charles Bronson). Like the movie, the game involved running around New York and gunning down bad guys, all to the strains of some incredibly catchy music courtesy of Ben Daglish.
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Gore Quotient: Controversially high. With a variety of guns and bazookas, Kersey could blast villains and civilians alike into a disturbing pile of dismembered body parts. Like several other games on this list, the gore did a great deal to paper over the repetitive nature of its gameplay, but Death Wish 3‘s programmers should be commended for the quality of the central Charles Bronson sprite: like the actor himself, the digital Kersey remains grim-faced and emotionless throughout.
Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior – Commodore 64/various (1987)
At the time, Barbarian was most commonly noted for the scantily-clad models (Maria Whittaker and the hulking Michael Van Wijk, better known as Wolf off of Gladiators) on its cover, but it also became infamous for its violence – Barbarian was even banned in Germany due to its gory content. A one-on-one fighting game with an emphasis on swords, kicks, and headbutts, Barbarian was highly entertaining, at least in those pre-Street Fighter II times…
Gore Quotient: High. The ability to decapitate your opponent quickly became its signature and is perhaps the earliest example of a one-hit finishing move in a fighting game. Although simple and repetitive by today’s standards, the satisfaction gained from executing the perfect move (you had to be just the right distance away from your opponent) was quite unusual, and the brutality of the moment illustrated with some great animation: the victim slumps lifeless to the floor, before a little green goblin trudges into view to collect the corpse and kick the head out of the arena like a hairy football.
Jack the Ripper – ZX Spectrum (1987)
As a change of pace, here’s a graphic text adventure based on the infamous killer who stalked the East End of London in 1888. Jack the Ripper‘s publishers released some similarly grisly games before and after, including Dracula (1986), Frankenstein (1987), and Wolfman (1988). The explicit imagery in Jack the Ripper made it the most commonly discussed, though it also helped that the game was also well written and highly atmospheric. Cast as an ordinary Victorian man accused of the crimes in Whitechapel, the player must find a way to track down the real killer while avoiding the police at the same time.
Gore Quotient: Loads. Jack the Ripper gained quite a lot of attention at the time due to its 18-certificate from the BBFC – something highly unusual in the days before games didn’t yet come with any kind of rating attached to them. Although publisher CRL claimed that it was required to submit the game to the ratings board (or risk being prosecuted under the Obscene Publications Act, it said), some sensed that it was all a bit of a publicity stunt.
Certainly, the repeated still images of dead bodies, entrails, and pools of blood seemed like a calculated attempt to shock, and it was widely reported that these scenes were added by CRL near the time of release. The original makers, St Bride’s School, were only responsible for the text.
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“Wait,” you’re probably thinking. “St Bride’s School? What kind of name for a developer is that?”
Set up in the mid-’80s, St Bride’s School was located on the west coast of Ireland and was run by a headmistress named Marianne Scarlett. For the princely sum of £120, adult women aged 20 or over could head to the retreat and pretend that they were school children in a harsh 1930s boarding school. As a side project, St Bride’s School also happened to make adventure games, including The Secret of St Brides (set on the grounds of the school, naturally), The Very Big Cave Adventure, and The White Feather Cloak. Both the school and the games ceased in 1993, amid stories of fleeing mistresses, spanking fetishes, and other murky goings-on. It was all very, very strange.
Splatterhouse – Arcade/various (1988)
Previously known for its relatively cheery arcade hits, such as Pac-Man and Galaxian, Namco plunged into darker, horror-themed waters with Splatterhouse. A weird amalgam of just about every ’70s and ’80s genre theme going, the game featured a hulking hero clad in a Jason Voorhees hockey mask, a haunted house, and a huge variety of movie-inspired monsters to kill.
Gore Quotient: Very high. Although its side-scrolling, beat-em-up gameplay was typical of the period, Splatterhouse‘s gore and violence were relatively unusual. Its hero could slash the heads off ghouls with a meat cleaver, blast chainsaw-wielding monsters in the face with shotguns, and batter snake-like creatures to death with planks of wood.
Although Splatterhouse generated a certain amount of fuss, there’s a comic sense of fun to its gore, making it more akin to the anarchy of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead than the crass seediness of Chiller. Namco even parodied its own game in the 1989 NES title, Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti. A kind of cartoon remake of Splatterhouse with super-deformed characters, it retained the horror theme of the original, while adding more platforms, ladders, and Thriller-style dancing undead monsters.
Narc – Arcade/various (1988)
“No one had the guts… until now” ran the tagline to this side-scrolling shooter, which involved a pair of masked cops gunning down a legion of drug dealers with machine guns and missile launchers. Narc was designed by Eugene Jarvis, whose run of ’80s classics included Defender, Stargate, and Robotron 2084. In fact, you can chart the rapid evolution of arcade game graphics through Jarvis’ work. Narc used cutting-edge technology at the time, with a 32-bit processor allowing for high-resolution graphics and dozens of enemies on the screen at any given moment.
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Gore Quotient: Astronomical. That 32-bit processor allowed Williams to render its digitized characters and heroic bloodshed with a fidelity that developers earlier in the decade could only have dreamed of: launching a missile resulted in your victims exploding in a shower of arms and legs. Viewed today, Narc looks like some sort of pumped-up, mad parody of ’80s action movies – even its character names (Max Force and Hit Man) sound like something from a Chuck Norris flick.
Before Williams’ own Mortal Kombat in 1992, Narc was one of the most controversial games then released. Your Sinclair‘s Matt Bielby called it “one of the most objectionable Speccy games I’ve seen in ages” in his review of the 1991 Spectrum port. While the NES version sidestepped the drugs (“KRAK” became “KWAK”), it left the flying limbs intact.
Tecmo Knight (1989)
A surprisingly violent beat-em-up from Tecmo, better known for its Ninja Gaiden series of games, Tecmo Knight was also known as Wild Fang in some territories. Like Golden Axe or any number of scrolling brawlers, the game involved wandering from left to right and battering anything that got in your way. What made Tecmo Knight stand out, however, was the design of its graphics. You controlled a warrior who rode around either on the back of a giant, a tiger, or a flying dragon, depending on your mood. There were some great monsters, too, including some huge half-man, half-vulture things, and a guest appearance from King Kong.
Gore Quotient: Dizzying. The trudging giant had the ability to punch the heads off of bad guys and smash their bodies to the consistency of milkshake. In fact, flying heads appeared to be one of Tecmo Knight‘s major additions to the scrolling beat-em-up subgenre. With its fantasy theme and riotous bloodletting, this was about as close as ’80s arcades got to the similarly messy God of War series.
Beast Busters (1989)
Like 1986’s Chiller, Beast Busters is a gun game with a horror theme, albeit with far better production values courtesy of SNK. Borrowing ideas from all sorts of horror and sci-fi sources, including Dawn of the Dead, The Thing, and Aliens, Beast Busters was perhaps the last word in ’80s blasting excess.
Gore Quotient: Stratospheric. Absolutely everything exploded in showers of gore and meat. Although repetitive (there only appears to be about five different types of enemy, at least until the bonkers final stage), Beast Busters is the clear forerunner to Sega’s hit House of the Dead series. Legend has it that Beast Busters was also much appreciated by one Michael Jackson, who’d have the arcade cabinet dragged around with him on tour. Beast Busters is memorable for its bosses (including huge muscle-bound zombies in white shorts and a tank with a grinning face) and the captions in its cutscenes, such as the magnificent, “Were the missing scared to death then back to life?”
Thanks to Goosenman, RetroRemakes, FlexibleHead, and JonLyus for their gory videogame suggestions.