Thursday, March 22, 2012

And now, a Brief History of Night Trap

Article by Dwite Fry

Rob Fulop, who had started off programming for the Atari 400/800 computer systems before designing Atari 2600 games like Demon Attack and Cosmic Ark for Imagic and who would go onto create the horrendously best selling Petz simulation series (Dogz, Catz etc) is the man to blame for everything. And he's totally innocent. He created and filmed a new form of entertainment he dubs "Movie Games" for an upcoming revolutionary new Video Game Console from Hasbro and Atari founder Nolan Bushnell's Axlon. Dubbed "Project NEMO" and called Control-Vision, it would use VHS tapes instead of cartridges. He would have gotten away with it, too, if it wasn't for those pesky executives.

Hasbro pulled the plug on NEMO after Night Trap and its sister title, the shooter Sewer Shark, were all but complete, having cost a whopping 4.5 million dollars between them. And Fulop went off to make large amounts of cash via letting you abuse a cartoon dog with a paintbrush. Enter Tom Zito, Night Trap's executive producer and quite a clever man. Seeing that the Hasbro deal was officially pear shaped, he swiftly bought up everything Night Trap and Sewer Shark related and started his own company Digital Pictures. So Night Trap finally saw release, five years after filming wrapped, in 1992 on the Sega CD. Zito and Digital Pictures would go on to fail at making Fulop's dream come true by releasing sub-standard, poorly acted FMV games with little lasting value and help scuttle the Sega CD in the process.
But at least we got Night Trap, right? Some argue of its terribleness, (least of all, Joe Liebermann, but we'll get to that) it frequently appears on "Worst Games of All Time" lists, lists drawn up by people who have totally missed the charm of the game - the same charm you'll find in Troma flicks like The Toxic Avenger. Night Trap is camp, it's silly, it's low budget, and it's pretty dire at times, but it seems to know it and turns itself into a strange send up the slasher genre. It's all a bit of good fun.
Night Trap is one of the the first CD titles to use full motion video (FMV) and audio. The basic concept is you watch footage of a low budget horror film and are required to press a button at certain times to save the characters as they are being attacked. If you do this correctly, footage of them escaping will be shown and the film will continue, giving the impression that you have had some control of the movie. What makes Night Trap more clever than today's DVD games or the FMV titles that followed it is that you also have to tear yourself away from the movie, which isn't too hard, to check over locations in the film where the main action currently isn't. At certain times, these locations show footage of invading monsters, and require you to press a button at the right time to capture these too. Failure to do so will result in a Game Over.

You see, on the 9th of December 1993, Senator Joe Liebermann of Connecticut and Chairman of the Subcommittee on Regulation and Government Information, held Congressional hearings on the nature of violence on video games. Now while I usually write off people who campaign "for the protection of the children" as just covering up their worries about losing control of the children or covering up their bad parenting. Liebermann did have a cause for alarm - originally. In 1993, there was no ratings system for video games, except a self-regulated one from Sega that only applied to games for Sega consoles. Rating systems are quite good things, they stop grandparents buying porno films for their six year olds. Plus, surveys had shown that 49% of kids preferred games with some kind of violence, a loose categorization but still a bit of a concern.

The trouble was he based a lot of his concern on woefully out of date data from before the Genesis had launched, statistics that put the main age demographic of players between 7-12 year old. After five years, this data had become immeasurably erroneous. The average age of a Sega CD owner was 22. The average Genesis owner was in his late teens. The other trouble was he never bothered to actually play Night Trap.

Throughout the hearings the focus was always Night Trap (and Mortal Kombat, but especially Night Trap). All other fighting games, like Street Fighter II (big on the SNES) or Final Fight (also big on the SNES) or Eternal Champions (big on were mentioned rarely; an advert for Splatterhouse 3 (for the Genesis) and its slogan, "This is the game ratings were invented for" was shown ,but swiftly forgotten about - blood soaked PC first person shooters Doom and Wolfenstein 3D were glazed over and even the ultra-violent Time Killers went unnoticed.

The media were also involved and their basic knowledge and half truths, were printed, and taken as, fact, and those said NIGHT TRAP and SEGA. Toys R Us banned Night Trap, but no other titles, and Tom Zito was stopped from speaking at the hearings. And it became more and more clear from every statement made that none of them had actually played the game they all hated and were telling everyone else to hate.

Focus was put particularly on the "bathroom scene", the Game Over footage given to a player if he fails to save the character Lisa. The fact that you got this for losing, that is you were punished for letting violence happen to the girls, there is no onscreen violence or blood and this was the only underwear in the whole game, was essentially ignored. When the truth about Night Trap was pointed out to Marilyn Droz, Vice President of the National Coalition of Television Violence, she gave a bizarre answer seemingly about another topic.

There is a prevalent conspiracy theory that Nintendo purposefully started it all, motivated by a need to get back some of the market share they had lost to Sega. There's a lot of evidence to support this; Sega HAD taken a large market share from Nintendo and continued to enjoy runaway sales; Sega's version of Mortal Kombat WAS more popular because it has not been censored; Nintendo WOULD produce the highly edited videos of Night Trap used by Congress and videos comparing their version of Mortal Kombat to Sega's; Sega WAS outright attacked by Nintendo's Howard Lincoln and Liebermann during the hearings and Sega DID suffer the most, especially their Sega CD, in the months that followed. There is no proof. Liebermann claims to have found out about Mortal Kombat from his Chief of Staff.

The hearing ended anticlimactically without much really being decided. But it did lead to the creation of the ESRB video rating system in America, which continues to this day.

A censored version of Night Trap had been re-released for the Sega CD, it included a few cuts, like the offending bathroom scene, but is much the same. An uncut version was later released for the 3DO. This version took full advantage of the better hardware, increasing the size of the video window and improving the picture quality, since it was no longer limited to the Sega CD's pitiful 64 color limit. This version later was released for the Sega 32X. But even these were eclipsed by the PC release, which added a useful pause menu and an incredibly useful save function, as well as including a short documentary "Dangerous Games" on the whole Liebermann debacle.

And that is the story of Night Trap. It was wrongly accused and given a stigma it didn't deserve, but got a small amount of infamy in the process. It represented an important step forward in technology, a crucial step forward in Video Game rating systems and a horrible step forward in moral majority witch hunting of video games. All from a grainy video of a former television actress in a film with no violence, no nudity and not so much as one reference to sex.

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