Top five craziest uses of historical figures in video games

Do Einstein, Custer and Stalin really belong in videogames? And if so, do they need better material...?

Uncle Joe in Command And Conquer: Red Alert

There’s a trend in some corners of the video game industry for games to become more ‘authentic’, ‘visceral’ and ‘meticulously researched’. All three of those phrases whiff of back-of-the-box quote-spin, but this is particularly true when it comes to games that attempt to incorporate, or recreate historical events and contexts.

One needn’t look further back than April to find the controversy surrounding Konami, peddling their now-cancelled Six Days in Fallujah project, which sought to do justice to, and create entertainment out of, one of the key early battles in the still-ongoing conflict in Iraq. It shouldn’t have to be pointed out that one of the main aspects of gaming’s appeal is recreation, or ‘fun’. When war meets interactive entertainment, it’s hard to be respectful – and many have expressed their awkward feelings when, in a Call of Duty or Medal of Honour game, they feel that real history of pain and suffering echoing behind all the achievements and headshots.

Thankfully, there are games that take history a little less seriously, using pure expression, imagination and kookiness to, in some cases, sidestep the gravity and responsibility of their historical basis. Wolfenstein, id Software’s long-running FPS series, is one example, which takes its setting of 1940s Nazi Germany and, like Indiana Jones and countless pulps, infuses it with a spirit of crazy, tongue-in-cheek silliness. The latest installment is due out next month, and in honour of that, we present five of the barmiest uses of historical figures in gaming. They’re a bit weird, and often incredibly inaccurate, but at times they offer some glimmers of real genius.

5: Wolfenstein 3D / Return to Castle Wolfenstein1992/2001, PC, id Software

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It’s quite interesting to note that the original Wolfenstein games, developed by Silas Warner for the Apple II computer in the 1980s, were relatively straightforward stealth-based adventures. However, by the time id Software got their hands on the series, things were a little bit different. Allied agent B. J. Blazkowicz is tasked with killing Hitler, and his adventure involves him taking in the full extent of Nazi horrors, from the swastika-emblazoned prison Castle Wolfenstein, to the super-soldier research of Operation Eisenfaust. On the way, he must take down SS troopers, mutants and mad scientists, before facing, in the episode titled ‘Die, Fuhrer, Die’, Adolf himself – although in the form of a mechanised robo-Hitler, who sports quad-chainguns, and explodes into a bloody mess upon death.

22001’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein dialled back 3D’s gaudy, cartoonish eccentricities and instead went for a brooding, atmospheric approach. Taking advantage of the progression in FPS-based storytelling since 1992, this time the developers crafted a thrilling yarn, taking inspiration from the conspiracy theories and conjecture around Heinrich Himmler’s Ahnenerbe organization, and their supposed obsession with the occult.

Less in-your-face, Return was WW2 gone Hammer Horror, right down to the overtly black-magic subject matter, and the pseudo-gothic locations, details and enemies. This time, B. J. had to contend with Übersoldat cyborgs, elite Nazi mages and the revived Medieval warlord Heinrich I. Himmler makes an appearance, at the end, showing he’s not at all happy with this meddling American.

4: Custer’s Revenge1982, Atari 2600, Mystique.

Custer. Major General George Armstrong Custer. A huge figure in American military history. A household name, due to his death at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (or Custer’s Last Stand), one of the key skirmishes of the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877 – where his regiment was defeated by the Lakota, led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. His reputation stood on his successes in the American Civil War, where he was a cavalry commander for the Union, aggressively charging and taking risks – providing important plays in the Battle of Gettysburg and finally blocking the retreat of Confederate General Robert E. Lee at the end of the war.

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His life and achievements take in two of American history’s most bloody, complex and conflicted periods. So, we have Custer’s Revenge. An Atari 2600 title, in which the player guides Custer, sporting a pixellated hard-on and hat, through a volley of arrows, in order to reach a tied-up Native girl, and rape her. Crude and crazy, Revenge was made by controversial developers Mystique, a group of banditos who focused on pornographic-themed games – another of their titles was called Beat ‘Em and Eat ‘Em, and, well, it didn’t involve whisking eggs. There’s little to actually say about Custer’s Revenge, it’s best to see it in action. Although, is there a profound message shoe-horned into its white-man-rapes-native-culture gameplay? We’ll see about that; in truth, it’s more like Yankee Doodle Randy.

3: Command & Conquer: Red Alert1996, PC, Westwood

The Command & Conquer series is one of the longest enduring in the gaming industry, with its tight, explosive Real-Time Strategy gameplay and hilarious, pantomimic cut-scenes. The Red Alert off-shoot features as bonkers a plot as any, taking a well-worn topic of pub debate as its root: what if you could go back in time, and stop Hitler from taking power? Would World War Two be prevented? Would the world, in the long term, benefit?

The original Red Alert starts with a cutscene involving Professor Albert Einstein (John Milford) inventing a time machine, and subsequently disposing of Hitler years before his rise to power, creating an alternate timeline in the process. Instead, the Stalinist Soviet Union takes up the mantle as the evil, expansionist empire. Stalin (Gene Dynarski) is played with camp abandon, with cheesy accent and exaggerated mannerisms through the roof. The short, pre-mission briefing scenes are more like ultra-absurd caffeine trips, with Stalin chewing scenery and barking out propaganda; he strangles one aide, beds another, all before being poisoned on the cusp of victory.

Einstein is just as caricatured, played as a kooky mad scientist by three actors across the series’ installments, until he is – shock horror – killed at the beginning of Red Alert 3, by (who else) the Russians, who had created their own time machine, thereby setting up yet another alternate timeline, this time with a new faction, The Empire of the Rising Sun. Head hurt? Best take some ibuprofen.

2: Shadow of Rome2005, PS2, Capcom

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It has been scientifically proven that playing Shadow of Rome actually reduces your knowledge of the history and culture of the Ancient Roman Empire. Capcom should be commended for not simply making another Mega Man, Street Fighter or Resident Evil game, but they seemed to funnel more effort into re-writing history, than representing it accurately. Taking place in the aftermath of the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar, Shadow of Rome’s narrative deviates from the popular historical accounts, from writers such as Suetonius and Plutarch (used as a basis for Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar), and instead weaves a mad, bloody tale of conspiracy, double-crossing and intrigue.

Gameplay is split across two characters. Real-life General Agrippa finds out that his father has been framed for Caesar’s murder, and must pursue justice and truth by posing as a gladiator and taking part in incredibly bloody combat. Meanwhile, fey dandy Octavianus, Caesar’s adopted son and future Augustus (ie the first Roman Emperor, and all-round ground-breaking ruler), must search for clues by stealthing around the senate, shadowing notable citizens, and dressing up as a maid to avoid detection. That doesn’t stop him from being implicated in the murder of orator and statesman Cicero, though. Whole university-level papers have been dedicated to Shadow of Rome’s utterly baffling story, which ends with Agrippa facing, and killing the evil Decius (not Marcus) Brutus and Antonius (or Mark Antony). It is history as convoluted soap opera!

1: Eternal Sonata2007, Xbox 360 & PS3, Namco-Bandai

For games coming out of Japan, the music is an integral part of the experience. Many of the most popular franchises and series feature distinct, memorable themes and scores, in a variety of modes and styles. Some, like the famous ‘opera’ scene in Final Fantasy VI, take direct inspiration from musical forms, but in terms of sheer musical fanaticism, you’ve got to give props to tri-Crescendo, a development team formed by erstwhile sound programmer Hiroya Hatsushiba.

Their 2007 game Eternal Sonata exudes music from every pore, and features 19th century Romantic composer Frederic Chopin as its protagonist. The narrative takes place in a fantastical world that exists within Chopin’s dreaming mind while on his death bed, on October 16th, 1849. The conceit of a dream means the creative team can go nuts with the setting, melding copious, unending references to music to the usual JRPG tropes of innocence, romance and angst. Occurrences in the plot mirror Chopin’s real life, albeit portrayed in a (beautiful) cell-shaded, anime style, and is divided up into chapters represented by the man’s compositions. Musical theory saturates the world, with towns called Ritardando and Tenuto, and characters with names like Polka, Allegretto and Prince Crescendo of Baroque. What’s more, each chapter features a documentary-style slideshow of photographs, set to a Chopin piece, that relates his life and inspirations.

Eternal Sonata is utterly weird, and utterly Japanese – in both positive and negative connotations. The cheesy English dub might be a little awkward, and Chopin might look like a Neo-Victorian teen fashionista, but there’s no denying it does something special with its historical inspiration, and is made from a place of real admiration for the man and his music.

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