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Monday, July 3, 2023

Cinema of Fear The Best of Old-School FMV Horror Games

A while back, when we had celebrated the 30th anniversary of Trilobyte’s The 7th Guest, a few of you got nostalgic for the heyday of Full Motion Video (FMV) horror games. So, what better way to scratch that itch than with a selection of titles from the genre’s peak?

Now obviously, there’s more to the genre than the usual culprits of Phantasmagoria, Harvester, Night Trap and so on. And yeah, the quality of FMV titles is all over the place, even when you don’t factor in the age of the games. But darn it, there’s always room for varying types of cheese.

And for some of you, there are very likely some games you’ve either never heard of, or haven’t seen since the 90s…

Phantasmagoria – Windows, MS-DOS, Sega Saturn (1995)

Really, you can’t talk about FMV horror without mentioning Phantasmagoria. It’s like there’s an unwritten law regarding it. It’s also surprising that years later, we find out that this classic game came about because Roberta & Ken Williams had tried to strike a deal with Stephen King for a video game, but were unsuccessful. We’re kind of glad that it never happened, as we instead received a game that had a compelling story, combined with quite the gory effects that still hold up today.

And you can’t mention Phantasmagoria without its sequel, A Puzzle of Flesh. While the sequel never quite reached the success of the first game (which was Sierra’s best-selling computer game with over a million copies sold), nor did it continue the original game’s story, A Puzzle of Flesh is still beloved by fans. And thanks to actor Paul Morgan Stetler, A Puzzle of Flesh and other adventure games are still being kept in fans’ minds with his Conversations With Curtis YouTube channel.

The 11th Hour – MS-DOS (1993)

Taking place 60 years after the original game, Stauf Mansion has been left derelict. Journalist Carl Denning is trying to find his producer and lover, Robin Morales, after her disappearance three weeks prior. Before her disappearance, Robin had been investigating a series of grisly murders and disappearances over the last few months. Eventually, Denning’s search leads him to Stauf’s mansion.

Trying to follow up the hit that was The 7th Guest was going to be a tall order for Trilobyte. And while things were more refined for The 11th Hour, it never captures what made the original game so charming. The story is darker in tone, but lacks any real depth. It certainly doesn’t help that none of the characters have the same appeal as the first game’s cast, and the questionable acting furthers the irritation factor. As for the puzzles, they were too derivative of original game, and the new “Treasure Hunts” were an exercise in frustration. It still turned a profit for Trilobyte, but its reception was nowhere what the first entry received.

Night Trap – Sega CD, Sega 32X, 3DO, MS-DOS (1992)

You are a member of of the Sega Control Attack Team (S.C.A.T.), or Special Control Attack Team in other versions. You are tasked with finding out what happened to five missing teenage girls who were last seen at the Martin winery estate. Your undercover team member, Kelli Medd (Dana Plato), has been placed with another group of five girls, who have been invited up to the Martin estate for a weekend. You are to observe the happenings through cameras placed throughout the property, and utilize the traps placed around the house to catch any intruders.

Again, Night Trap is another “obligatory” FMV title. By now, we all know about the controversy this one spawned, and how along with Mortal Kombat, led to the creation of the ESRB. The game never was the murder simulator that the experts claimed it was, but that’s obvious once you actually sat down to play the game (since there’s a good chance they didn’t). Cheesy acting, lame special effects and goofy story make this one the equivalent of a bad B-movie, which for many fans, is all part of its appeal. It’s clearly more of a movie with some game mechanics thrown in, but man, that theme song never gets old.

Harvester – Windows (1996)

Steve Mason wakes up one day to find himself in the American midwestern town of Harvest in 1953. Problem is, Steve has no memory of who he is, and has a vague sense that he does not belong there. His mother can’t seem to stop baking cookies for a charity event a week away, and his little brother is obsessed with a violent cowboy TV show. Steve is told that he’s to marry Stephanie Pottsdam in a few weeks, and is encouraged by everyone to join the Lodge, which serves as the headquarters of the Order of the Harvest Moon. To do so, Steve will have to commit increasingly illegal acts in order to prove himself.

Yet another obligatory entry, Harvester writer/designer Gilbert P. Austin sought to spark debate with his game regarding violence in videogames. The game was actually supposed to come out earlier than its eventual 1996 release. Unfortunately, the game’s development took longer than expected, and by the time it was released —after Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh had hit the shelves— the FMV game craze was starting to wane, and the game was seen as dated, in addition to being overly violent. It didn’t help that the gameplay was inconsistent, with the latter half devolving into an action-adventure game with poor hit detection. Still, those gory death scenes are still a sight to behold today.

Ripper – MS-DOS (1996)

Taking place in New York City in the year 2040, Jake Quinlan, a reporter for the Virtual Herald, has been receiving messages from someone known as The Ripper, a serial killer who has been committing murders that mimic the actions of Jack the Ripper. Along with the police, Quinlan is seeking The Ripper’s true identity. Things become personal for Quinlan when his girlfriend, Catherine Powell, is selected to be The Ripper’s next victim, as she has gotten too close to discovering his identity.

To get a sense of how much FMV was seen as the future of entertainment, one only has to look at the cast for Ripper: Christopher Walken, Paul Giamatti, Karen Allen, Burgess Meredith, David Patrick Kelly, Ossie Davis, and John Rhys-Davies. The game was budgeted at $4 million, though only managed to earn $3.5 million in sales. Despite the obvious production values, it didn’t help that Ripper fell into the repeated criticism of the genre of being an interactive movie, with low level of real interaction, excessively difficult puzzles, and over-the-top acting. It’s still an entertaining romp, though you might want to consult a strategy guide for help.

D – 3DO, Sega Saturn, PlayStation, MS-DOS (1995)

Taking place in 1997, Laura Harris is contacted by Los Angeles police after her father, Dr. Richter Harris, director of the Los Angeles National Hospital, had gone on a killing spree and barricaded himself in the hospital. Laura rushes to the hospital, and upon entering it, finds herself in an old mansion. Ignoring the disembodied voice of her father urging her to leave, Laura continues her search for her father.

Another title we’ve talked about in the past, D (and its two sequels) has definitely earned its cult following. The game has a creepy atmosphere to it, and can be thought of the precursor in some regards to the Survival Horror genre, which Resident Evil established a year after D‘s release. That being said, time has certainly not been kind to it. Despite the unique mechanic involving its two-hour time limit that requires you to play the game non-stop from beginning to end, D is painfully slow. The puzzles you’re required to solve in order to progress are pretty easy, and its story is pretty ridiculous.  Regardless, it’s a noteworthy title in terms of the history of horror video games, even if you’re better off just watching a playthrough on YouTube.

Bloodwings: Pumpkinhead’s Revenge – MS-DOS (1995)

Inspired by Jeff Burr‘s Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings, players become the “Keeper of the Spirits” and must travel through the Netherworld in order to “soothe the raging spirit of Pumpkinhead” and to save the people of Ferren Woods. You are required to search for objects needed to appease the spirit of Pumpkinhead, occasionally peering through portals into the “real world”.

When the manual and even the ending take on a derisive tone, you know you’re in for a “treat”. The majority of Bloodwings takes place in a dungeon similar to Doom, running around and shooting enemies. After defeating an enemy, the player can collect Tantanik Crystals, which are required to access the “real world” portals, which are just FMV clips from the film where you can collect items by clicking on specific areas of the video. Mindlessly. Unless you know what to look for, the game gives you little in the way of what you need to do to solve the puzzles. You’re better off just watching the film on Blu-Ray, which is far more enjoyable.

Realms of the Haunting – MS-DOS (1996)

After his estranged father passes away in a remote British manor under mysterious circumstances, Adam Randall ventures into the house to investigate. Immediately, he finds himself sealed inside. Making matters worse are the monsters stalking the halls. Adam soon discovers the house contains portals to different universes, and that he is the Chosen One who must prevent the final apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil.

Blending first person shooting with point-and-click adventure mechanics, the game’s FMV sequences work to punctuate the story, and do an excellent job thanks to the great acting performances, campiness aside in some. Coupled with a great atmosphere that still exudes spookiness, it’s a shame that the outdated FPS controls threaten to ruin things. That, and the AI for the enemies isn’t the greatest, often getting stuck in doorways or just wandering aimlessly. It certainly has its flaws (particularly in the latter half which devolves into running around mazes), but it’s definitely worth a look for the atmosphere alone.

Are You Afraid of the Dark? The Tale of Orpheo’s Curse – MS-DOS (1994)

Based on the Nickelodeon television series of the same name, you’re attempting to gain entrance into The Midnight Society by telling a ghost story of your own. The story in question is about Alex and Terri, a brother and sister who sneak into the abandoned “Orpheo’s Palace” theatre, home to a famous magician of the same name. Unfortunately, everyone associated with the theatre are long gone, having mysteriously disappeared 50 years ago. Of course, it turns out that Orpheo is still very much around, and he has plans for the siblings.

Framed like an actual episode of the show (right down to The Midnight Society recapping your progress when you load a save), the game has you exploring the theatre in a first person view, with a very user-friendly interface for younger players. The game’s uses CG pre-rendered backgrounds which look great for the time, and generally still hold up today. The FMV, on the other hand, doesn’t fare nearly as well, given the choppy framerate in most of the footage. Still, the game is quite enjoyable, and provides enough creepy atmosphere that’s perfect for younger horror fans.

The X-Files Game – Windows, PlayStation (1998)

Set around the time of the third season of “The X-Files” TV series, you assume the role of Seattle-based FBI agent Craig Willmore (Jordan Lee Williams), who has been assigned by FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner to investigate the disappearance of agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, who were last seen in the Everett, Washington area. Clues lead Willmore to an abandoned warehouse. The situation soon escalates into the discovery of a smuggling ring, unexplained cases of radiation poisoning, governmental cover-ups and the possibility of alien visitation.

Coming in the waning days of the FMV craze, The X-Files Game features a story from series creator Chris Carter himself, with the cast of the TV series here along for the ride. That being said, fans will no doubt have a degree of disappointment that they aren’t playing as Mulder and Scully. In fact, the duo don’t show up until much later in the game. That’s the least of the game’s problems, as gameplay boils down to finding that one pixel to advance the game, all the while the game itself is extremely linear. Playing the PC version, you’ve also got seven discs to swap between. There’s still a good game for fans here, but at the same time, The X-Files Game also shows why the genre fell out of favour.

Black Dahlia – Windows (1998)

Inspired by the real life Cleveland Torso Murderer and The Black Dahlia murder, you are Jim Pearson, a new recruit of the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI, the precursor to the CIA) in the 1940s. Assigned to a case involving Nazi conspirators, you soon find that there is something much more sinister looming behind it. The case soon evolves into the Nazis having connections to the supernatural and occultism. Jim eventually meets Elizabeth Short, who possesses a strange engraved stone known as the “Black Dahlia”, which the Nazis are looking to possess. When her brutal murder occurs, the stone disappears. During Jim’s search for the missing item, he uncovers a web of evil, deceit and intrigue.

Much like Ripper, Black Dahlia sported a huge budget, with developer Take 2 claiming that development involved hundreds of hours of extensive research to ensure complete and accurate graphical immersion. It definitely shows, as the CG backgrounds blend incredibly well with the actors. And once again, Take 2 roped in Hollywood with Dennis Hopper and Teri Garr being part of the cast. As for the game itself, it doesn’t quite hit the mark as you would hope. Puzzles range in difficulty (and logic), with most being trial-and-error. Meanwhile, Hopper and Garr only have minor roles, and like the rest of the cast, turn in some suspect performances. It’s a “style over substance” affair.

Corpse Killer – Sega CD, Sega Saturn, Sega 32X, 3DO, Windows (1994)

You’re an unnamed marine who’s been airdropped onto a tropical island on a top secret mission to stop Dr. Hellman, who plans to release his army of zombies on the world.  It’s up to you, a snarky photo-journalist named Julie, and Winston, your Rastafarian driver, to rescue your four squadmates and stop Dr. Hellman.

Whereas Night Trap had that “good” cheesy B-movie feel, Corpse Killer leans more towards the other end. The gameplay throughout is the same: you have a scrolling background with FMV zombies flying (literally) at you or lumbering towards you at questionable speed, and you’ve got to shoot them. In between bouts, you’re treated to badly-acted FMV cutscenes with a ridiculous plot. Repetitive action is offset by having a degree of non-linearity, with you being able to choose where to go in-between stages. Really though, once you’ve played through a couple of stages, you’ve basically experienced everything there is with Corpse Killer.

Dracula Unleashed – Sega CD, MS-DOS (1993)

It’s 1899, ten years after Dracula’s demise chronicled in Bram Stoker’s novel. You’re Alexander Morris, the younger brother of Quincey Morris, who died defeating Dracula. After arriving in London to investigate the circumstances of your brother’s death, but in the process, you meet an English woman named Annisette Bowen and become engaged to marry her. However, you learn that Quincy was involved with the group called the “Hades Club” which was responsible for the death of Dracula. Delving further, your  investigation leads to bodies turning up, completely drained of all blood. You must uncover the identity of this new vampire and prevent him from transforming Annisette into his queen of the night.

Dracula Unleashed is another title that sports great production values. The atmosphere hits all the right notes, with just the right amount of cheese in the acting department. Gameplay-wise, it’s another point-and-click adventure game, but changes it up with the story mechanic involving you having to be in the right place at the right time with certain items in order for you to progress. Unfortunately, complicating things is the fact that some scenes will eat up precious time, requiring you to rely on saving and reloading to make sure you don’t start the wrong conversation or travel in the wrong direction. Play it if you must, but have a guide handy to avoid the headaches.

Frankenstein : Through the Eyes of the Monster – Windows, Sega Saturn (1995)

You have been falsely accused of murder and executed. However, Victor Frankenstein (played by Tim Curry) has found a way to bring you back to life. You wake up in his laboratory, and your goal is to find out what exactly happened to you and what role Frankenstein played in your resurrection.

Despite the cool premise, this feels like a missed opportunity. The game boils down to mazes. Lots of them. While exploration in an adventure game is practically a necessity, putting you through the tedium of navigating through castle corridors without any way of getting your bearings wears thin pretty quickly. Add to that the fact that Tim Curry feels wasted here, popping up on occasion to chew the scenery and then ducking back out of sight. Not to mention that for Frankenstein to have brought someone back from the dead, he’s pretty nonchalant about it. Play this one with a pen and paper, since you’ll be lost without them.

Terror T.R.A.X.: Track of the Vampire – Windows (1995)

As a dispatcher-supervisor of T.R.A.X. agents (Trace, Research Analyse and eXterminate), who handle paranormal-related calls to 911, it’s up to you to direct your agents how to proceed in two different encounters. In this game, the focus is on encounters with vampires. There are two interconnected cases: one regarding a vampiric drug bust, and another involves an undead serial killer who has been stealing organs from his victims.

Much like the other Terror T.R.A.X. game, Track of the Werewolf, Track of the Vampire is another bad B-Movie that’s been cut up to create a game. The shaky camera work tries to disguise the low budget while trying to make things frightening, but it all just comes across as annoying. Spliced in between the FMV footage is Ether, your T.R.A.X. computer AI that will occasionally drop gameplay advice and exposition whenever she’s onscreen. As for the gameplay, it literally consists of A and B choices. You can thankfully save on the fly in between choices in case you mess up, but like the minimal effort put into the gameplay, there’s minimal reason to check out either of these Terror T.R.A.X. titles.

The post Cinema of Fear – The “Best” of Old-School FMV Horror Games appeared first on Bloody Disgusting!.


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Got any friends who might like this scary horror stuff? GO AHEAD AND SHARE, SHARE!

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