[Retrospective] The Strange Video Game History of John Carpenter - Bloody Disgusting
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[Retrospective] The Strange Video Game History of John Carpenter

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From the pixelated blood-shed of Halloween to the dulcet synth tones of Sentinel Returns and cosmic horror of The Thing.

Whether it’s glowing-eyed wizards, multi-limbed alien monstrosities, masked serial killers solemnly stalking nubile babysitters, or sunglasses that reveal a new world order of skull-faced aliens and unfettered capitalism, the creations of auteur John Carpenter are some of the most influential sci-fi and horror visions of all time.

The likes of Halloween, Escape From New York, The Thing, They Live and Big Trouble in Little China have also shaped a myriad range of other media, including games on the Atari, PlayStation, and even the world of board games: nightmarish miniatures and all.

In terms of actual game credits, John Carpenter’s first game outing was in 1998’s puzzler Sentinel Returns, for which he composed the soundtrack with Gary McKill. It’s a sinister score titled Earth/Air and consists of swelling synths, ominous ringing, and urgent bass. Not too dissimilar to the soundtrack of The Thing.

Essentially each level sees you attempting to outrun an evil alien sentinel by indiscriminately absorbing trees and boulders, and ascending to a higher plane. Carpenter also directed some cut-scenes in horror game F.E.A.R 3, as well as working on the story.

Notably, one of video game’s foremost leading men, Solid Snake from the Metal Gear Solid Series, is based on John Carpenter’s anti-hero Snake Plissken, played by Kurt Russell in the film Escape from New York. Much like Kurt Russell’s character, Snake sports bouffant hair, an eye patch, and a gruff he-man attitude.

First up on the Carpenter games front, is the 2002 game sequel to the cosmic horror film The Thing, where John Carpenter voiced a cameo role. Computer Artwork’s The Thing landed on PlayStation 2, PC, and Xbox 20 years after the movie. A third person survival shooter, its clunky noughties graphics undermine the horror gravitas of the original. The game also relies on the use of guns, a definite no-no in the slow-burning, disquieting universe of The Thing.

However, The Thing game utilizes some aspects of fear similar to the film: your squad’s feelings affect their performance, and any one of them could be hosting a horrifying alien parasite.

The original film follows an ill-fated group of researchers isolated in Antarctica. They are stalked by a parasitic alien life-form that uncannily imitates other organisms. This rapidly sows distrust among the group, as they realize any one of them could be the eponymous Thing.

Part eye-searing body-horror (there’s gratuitous ripping, splaying and bloodied tentacles), part “trust no-one” paranoia fest, The Thing was released to predominantly negative reviews and poor box office ratings in 1982. Its sinister nihilistic underpinnings, down and dirty atmosphere and nightmarish creature effects were diametrically opposed to the optimistic message of that summer’s other alien blockbuster: E.T.

Considering The Thing was developed during an era of cold-war tensions, wherein the US seemed perpetually at threat of nuclear annihilation, it’s no wonder a film riding on themes of distrust and fatigued counter-culturalism was not well-received. However, like many of Carpenter’s films, it gained a cult following on home video and went on to have a marked influence on everything from Stranger Things to the films of Quentin Tarantino.

The Thing is referenced aplenty in the game world too. Culture vultures playing Resident Evil 4 would have spotted an alien, disguised as a dog, splitting its head open from the sides, not unlike the Thing itself. “What movie is this; Snow all around; a lonely outpost… and a creature attacking the staff,” a character says in one episode of Resident Evil: Revelations.

One of The Thing’s most curious incarnations is paper and pen game Who Goes There. A semi-cooperative game, one side plays the ill-fated research troupe; another the hostile alien life-forms. In addition, recently released survival horror Distrust sees you assuming control of 15 definitely doomed survivors in an Arctic base. Madness and unspeakable horror are of course, inevitable.

Next up is Carpenter classic Big Trouble in Little China, which sees a hard-boiled trucker played by Kurt Russell (a staple of the John Carpenter universe) and his rag-tag gang scouring through a magical labyrinth of sorcery, psychedelia and haunted wizards sporting laser eyes. The film got the game treatment in 1986 by developer Activision, operating under the label Electric Dreams Software. It was released to limited fan-fare on Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum.

You play as the main characters Jack, Wang and Egg Shen, who are in hot pursuit of the villains that have stolen your lovely green-eyed gal. All move in hypnotic synchronicity as one through streets, sewers, and temples biffing and a-boffing through a repetitive onslaught of foes. The enemies are only vaguely indistinguishable from the heroes. The developer opted for the same character model, but inverted, to represent them.

The game also lacks the far-out wackiness of the film, such as main villain Lo Pan’s lair, where exploding men and floating eyeball monsters abound. Effectively a stuttering mess of relentless walking to the left, the Big Trouble in Little China game thankfully ends within about 20 minutes. Much in the vein of games from that time, it can be fiendishly difficult. Surprise arbitrary enemies that are nigh impossible to kill? Check. Lazy animations? Double check. All indicate that the title was a shameless cash-in on a popular B-movie.

Despite this clunky tie-in, Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China went on to influence one of the biggest fighting games of all time: the blood-soaked frenzy that is the Mortal Kombat series. One of the original seven playable characters in 1992’s original title, fighter Raiden’s design was based on one of The Three Storms – the deadly servants of the film’s Big Bad Lo Pan. As well as riding and controlling literal lightning, he also sported a conical hat much like Raiden.

Mortal Kombat boss Shang Tsung is also based on the aforementioned Chinese sorcerer Lo Pan, who is cursed with a decrepit form that can only be broken by marriage to a green-eyed girl. Shang Tsung too must devour souls to keep the darkness at bay.

There are some theories that Big Trouble in Little China also influenced the Street Fighter series. A gruesome troll-like beast sighted wandering underneath Little China in the film bears an uncanny resemblance to the game’s playable character Blanka.

As an alternative to the shoddy Atari game, retro ROM hackers Pacnsacdave created a Big Trouble in Little China SNES title. Apparently one of their most requested games, it hacks arcade classic Bad Dudes vs Dragon Ninja. A game that sees you playing two muscled up guys in wife-beater vests, who are tasked with rescuing the president from a pesky ninja kidnapping.

You punch, nunchuck and kick your way through hordes of enemies, including sexy ninja ladies who make a simpering noise when they are knocked over by one of your souped-up ultra manly punches. “I’M BAD!” roars your player character on achieving beat-em-up victory. The baseline mechanics of Bad Dudes vs Dragon Ninja are reskinned in full Big Trouble in Little China glory, complete with chunks of dialogue that the Electric Dreams title overlooked. This game captures the high-octane kung-fu action of the film infinitely better than the officially licensed title, despite being effectively fan-made.

One of Carpenter’s most successful films was slasher title Halloween, which went on to spawn a franchise of innumerable sequels. The original follows homicidal maniac Michael Myers, dubbed the epitome of evil by his ex-psychiatrist. Myer unleashes a killing rampage on a small town and its unfortunate babysitters.

Halloween was adapted into a game by the short-lived Wizard Video Games, a subsidiary of the infamous Wizard Video: consummate purveyors of gore and filth led by B-movie veteran Charles Band. It published the likes of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the Driller Killer on VHS.

Wizard Video released an Atari 2600 game of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was billed as “the first violent video game”. Despite involving you playing as Leather Face himself wielding a chainsaw, the gore was undermined by the clunky graphics of the console. Although there’s plenty of bit-blood spraying and flailing victims to hack up with your chainsaw. In a mechanical detail usually missing from this sort of game, the iconic chainsaw requires fuel refills to run.

The company went on to make a Halloween game the next year, where you play a babysitter desperately trying to protect an unlimited horde of hapless kids in the wake of a crazed maniac on a killing spree. Michael Myers strides around wielding a big pointy knife, while kids flail, and the rooms you’re running about in become intermittently pitch black for extra spooks. If you’re lucky, you can pick up a knife to murder Myers.

The deaths are pretty fantastic. With one swift stab of a knife, Myers decapitates the babysitter and kiddies alike. They flail about helplessly while red pixel blots spurt from their bloodied stumps. Despite this level of violence being laughable in a post-Doom and Grand Theft Auto world, the Halloween game was deemed so twisted at the time of its release plenty of retailers just outright refused to sell it.

As such, this led to a strange sub-culture of nerds passing copies of the game among each other in secret, or requesting copies innocuously at local rental stores, complete with handwritten labels on the boxes.

Wizard Games, unfortunately, shut down not long after its Halloween release, and before it was able to create a games version of the brilliantly titled erotic adventure Flesh Gordon, based on a film of the same name.

It may still take some time for a good, solid reboot of any John Carpenter’s films in game-form, but for the time being, the auteur’s influence on gaming worlds fuelled by horror, madness, and isolation remains uncontested.


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