Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Great Nintendo Horror Games: "The Return of the Living Dead: Partytime"

If you haven't read the article that preceded this one, it's here. Now onward.

I now, it's been a while since we talked about GNHG (THAEBWOBA) but since it is October and this is apparently an annual tradition for me I thought it would be prudent to bring it back.

Re-visit our last review: "Monster Squad: The Game". 
The Monster Squad Game

Before we get into the review there's a little bit of history we need to get into. The history of the arcade light gun shooter.
"You mean you have to use your hands?"

Back in the good old times the arcade was the holy temple to youth. These pristine pleasure palaces were the places of dreams and one of the last pure parent-free zones.  Really, arcades during this time were where we thought we could be who we REALLY were (but honestly were just what we thought we wanted to be. Savvy?). Arcades had their own rules, including who you were friends with. You would run in certain circles with their own customs and style who believed they "ran" that particular arcade. These were the friends you would have ONLY in the arcade and never invited over. This wasn't because they were bad asses or anything like that but because to invite them over would be to ruin the illusion you built of being anything other than a normal suburban kid. We needed to remain cool and mysterious within those neon walls (we were all Lucas from 'The Wizard'). Arcades were kinda like turfs for adolescent street gangs whose only rumbles occurred in Street Fighter II.
"You see what you get when you stay too long on The Simpsons"
We were tiny kings and kings were only as cool as their kingdom. Arcades were judged by the caliber of games they housed and, for me anyway, the one way to judge an arcade is by what kind of light gun shooter it had. Or if it had Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. Well, mostly Turtles in Time but shooters were important to.

There were plenty of great light gun games, from House of the Dead to Lethal Enforcers, that all had a shared vision of recreating the act of holding a fabricated weapon, pulling a trigger, and destroying a target. That all seems simple and fun but an interesting issue of morality could be raised when considering the nature of the targets in these games. Who, or what, you unloaded your virtual clip at was what made a gun game playable (and made parents fearful, but more on that later). The "cooler" shooters were the ones where you shot people, undead or otherwise. Personally I preferred blasting zombies over drug dealers but to each their own. The violence quota also raised a games notoriety and one of the most famous was a game called Chiller.
"No world, you put your hands up!"
Chiller, despite its spook house exterior, was essentially a snuff film where you played the lead. The game's premise was that you had to shoot victims, whose flesh and bones would slowly be stripped away by your bullets, and activate torture devices that would eviscerate these poor souls faster. That's pretty much it. No amulet to retrieve. No Dracula to defeat. Kill-maim-repeat. Jesus Christ, this was like 'Saw' but without a overcomplicated moral philosophy. This game was also notorious for the amount of pixelated nudity, but when you have bloody screaming skeletons strapped to rack you tend to overlook naked breasts (who am I kidding, that's all we thought of then). If your arcade had Chiller it was Camelot. My arcade didn't have Chiller but we had something far more intriguing: The Return of the Living Dead

 Released in 1985, 'The Return of the Living Dead' was a landmark zombie film. It was the first to feature not only the fast moving-intelligent zombie, or the "O'Bannon Zombie" variety, but also to introduce the idea of zombies eating brains. It also goes further to explain a reasoning why they hunger for grey matter and make them somewhat sympathetic (as much as a raging horde can be). 

It was comedic. It was moody. It was punk rock. It was the '80s. And it's still one of my all time favorite zombie films but I didn't get to see it till years later, so my first exposure to this undead gem was through racking up points on its arcade translation released the same year. Designed much like Chiller, The Return of the Living Dead was a glorious tribute to that golden era of turning any popular property into a game. I remember playing this non-stop and then, without any reason, it was gone from the arcade. Gone not just from our arcade but all arcades. Gone like it never actually existed and I invented the whole thing in a fevered Surge-fueled dream. After that I was never able to locate another no many how many arcades I entered. Soon the memory of The Return of the Living Dead  game faded into my subconscious as I moved on into a healthy obsession in Nintendo and Sega. Then, just a scant couple of months ago while pouring over old comics, I came across this... 

How could I not of known about this? This entire time I could of been re-playing my childhood in glorious 8bit violence. Why had it taken me this long to find out about this game? No one had brought this game up through my years of horror research, not even in The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead. I began searching online for any trace of the history of this game and I found nothing. I was beginning to think I was going insane until I came across a seller offering a small collection of NES games. Here's how the description went:


Could this be it, did I just stumble onto a legendary game that may or may not be real? I've heard of the other games so there was a shred of reliability. Not wanting to let this opportunity pass me by, knowing it would eat at me for perhaps the rest of my life, I took a chance and made an offer. I won't get into the amount I proposed but I'll just say it was substantial. What followed was a waiting game. Had I made a horrible mistake? What if it's all an elaborate ruse? When the box finally arrived I tore into and, to my great relief and joy, this was waiting for me. 


I then proceeded to spend the following week playing this game all I can say...well...let's get into the review-

So, getting right in I notice that there's a sticker on the cassette that says "NOT FOR RESALE". This leads me to believe first off that the reason no one has ever heard of this game is because it never made it into the mass market. Oh boy, if Chiller eventually made it onto the NES and it was as violent as it was I can only imagine what this game must be like to have been pulled. As I stare at this game cover I attempt to remember the arcade game. Nothing. Why can't I recall any details of this arcade game? What was this game like? Did it follow the film? Any time you deal with nostalgia you run the risk of being disappointed. That's what makes it nostalgic. But this was ROTLD, how could it be bad? Then I see a small graphic on the cover that chills me to the bone.

There. Is. No. God.
LJN games. The scourge of all classic gamers. The rainbow of death. Like The Monster Squad before it, LJN had bought up the rights to make a NES version of The Return of the Living Dead arcade game. This does not bore well. Across the board LJN failed to understand how to properly transfer intellectual properties. Doubt my, go search out some of these other games. It is to weep. Still, I had to have faith. This game had zombies. You get to shoot zombies. No way to mess that up. I insert the game into my old NES, lock it into place, press the POWER button, and steel my nerves. No turning back now.

A small graphic of an ARMY steel barrel appears on the screen. Anyone who has seen the film knows what's coming. This is the barrel containing 2-4-5 Trioxin, the gas that raises the dead and starts off all the madness. It also contains a certain zombie, but he shows up later. Yellow lines begin typing on the screen as the barrel top pops open and begins leaking Trioxin gas. Okay, so far so good. Featuring actual dialogue lines from the film is a positive sign and the graphic of the gas escaping is pretty cool. I wish you could hear the music here as well. It's nothing extraordinary, just your typical 8-bit mood builder. Just imagine the Mario sewer music. The screen flashes black and-

And the title screen flashes. This is very rad. The weird use of color is advance for a NES game at this time. Plus, even cooler, is a 8-bit version of the main theme song. It's extremely simplified and has a lot of static but you can tell it's the main theme. It's here that I have to point out that the added title of "Partytime" has yet to be seen. It's not on the cover, it's not with the title page. Why was this game listed as The Return of the Living Dead: Partytime? Was it a attempt to make it unique from the arcade version? I don't know and it doesn't seem like it was ever suppose to be included with the game, like it was a last minute add before the marketing got started. Another mark of LJN quality.

It's at this point that I also got to mention the arcade version of the game again. When doing research for this article I was unable to find more then a couple images of the arcade version of this game. One image that I was able to find was the light gun for the arcade game.
This bright red plastic forced a sudden rush of memories back to my mind. I still can't recall the game but I remember this gun. I can clearly see now that this was suppose to be the films mortician Ernie Kaltenbrunner's German Walter P38 because the character was (humorously?) meant to be a hidden Nazi. Only problem, the actual arcade light gun is clearly based off a Luger model. Right Reich, wrong weapon. Anyway, I now think I know why the arcade games disappeared overnight. Marvel at the idea of kids across the nation using Nazi Germany firearms to kill zombies. I don't have a bright red Luger to use with my game play but thankfully the home port utilizes a less historical damning weapon: the zapper gun.

Back to the title screen (Jesus, we're still at the title screen!). Once you select the first player option what  follows is a text heavy explanation of the games premise. This I could of done without. I came to bleed, not to read. According to this exposition dump you play an unnamed protagonist who has been sent to the Uneeda warehouse to investigate "strange happenings". "Strange happenings?" Finding a VHS copy of 'Dorf on Golf' without a case in your back seat, even though you never owned a copy of 'Dorf on Golf', can be considered "strange happenings". This is the dead coming back to life to eat the brains of the living! Also, who the hell are we suppose to be? Are we the army? Are we one of the punk teenagers? Are we Ernie?

Well that's left to your imagination because that's the last of the information given to you for this game. What follows are just shooting levels that go into other shooting levels without any transitions. No collecting artifacts. No bosses. All you do is shoot and rack up points. Simple pure carnage. I can see how this could be fun in an arcade setting but this home gaming, we needed more. Find the barrels. Save the girls. Call the government.

Okay, maybe don't call the government. Still, games are better with achievable goals to be met and this one could of used some. LJN really missed a opportunity in bringing the film to life through the game be featuring, I don't know, plot elements. Why couldn't you play Spider or a lone cop trying to either regain control of the zombie chaos or happening after the dead started rising? This might be asking too much from a game that is older then a decade but some connection to the film besides some dialogue scenes and the presence of zombies would of been nice.

In that same vein, LJN did attempt to recreate a variety of the zombies from the film in several of the game scenes including the half-lady corpse...
 Zombie Freddy...
  And of course the most famous Zombie from the film Tarman.

The designs for these featured zombies is pretty accurate (although Half-lady and Freddy are a stretch). The thing is, these zombies don't prove any more difficult then any other zombie in the game. In a "better" game they would of been bosses or awarded some achievement when defeated but they don't. They simply appear and you get the same amount of points as the rest. Tarman is the only variant in that he appears more than once during the game. Maybe this is a sign of his difficulty level but I think it's just LJN reusing of a sprite to save time. While on the issue of game characters I bet you're wondering if one very specific zombie character appears during the game. She does and she's magnificent (and probably why this game was never wide released).
As you can see in this screenshot I captured, the game begins in the Resurrection graveyard and we get right into the action. The rain starts falling and the zombie hands strat rising. If you fail to shoot the hands they eventually crawl out as full zombies. You can also get points by breaking beer bottles and shooting...severd heads? Why are there severed heads? Those weren't in ROTLD, were they?
Unlike the important need for several heads in 'Ghostbuster II'
 Looking back at the screenshot, I guess you notice what I was alluding to earlier. Yep, rising from muddy earth is zombiefied Trash, punk as hell and naked as...hell. In the film Trash, played by my 80's supercrush Linnea Quigley, spends a good amount of her screen time prancing (and dancing) around in her birthday suit. Well, her birthday suit and an added inarticulate crotch piece giving her the appearance of a barbie doll. The 1980's, am I right ladies? The makers of The Return of the Living Dead: Partytime choose to feature this important plot device in the game and create a decent amount of undead nudity, much in the same way Chiller did. The difference here is that while the nudity in Chiller was only available in the arcade the good folks at LJN decided to release a home port with boobs aplenty. It was bold, it was relevant to the story (one of the few times you can say that about nudity), and it's most likely why this game never saw the light of day.

I can only guess but I'm going to assume that The Return of the Living Dead: Partytime suffered the same fate as its arcade cousin: parental outrage. Now, the question becomes how the PTA found out about the nudity in a game that was never wide released. Usually when parent mobs form is in the aftermath of a (supposed) offense, like a killer Santa Claus film or Breaking Bad toys. You know, the things that truly threaten the children of America. Can't let kids play with a plastic Bryan Cranston least they grow up to sell blue meth in the future (mind you they would have to be a failed science teacher/cancer patient first).

I'm always mystified at what gets parents stirred up into a tizzy and apparently pixilated nudity was a straw too far. At the time video games had reached their zenith and, because of their popularity, they were beginning to be more closely scrutinized. Gone were the dangerous days of arcade games with no rules. This was the big time and they were being watched by our censorship police. I don't want to make this all about these imposed watchdogs that feel that we must be protected from entertainment, I just want to point out that what we are talking about is poorly rendered boobs.  The late eighties saw the height of these morality squads and they have only grown as the years have gone on.

aka "Saturday Morning Full-of-Shit"
When media, of any kind, becomes part of the popular culture it loses its independence for the shake of notoriety. No longer does it belong to the few, it belongs to the zeitgeist.  Heavy weighs the crown I suppose. The point is, LJN decided rather then deal with a public uprising simular to what Chiller experienced they instead choose to take a bath and dump all their copies of The Return of the Living Dead: Partytime.

And that's not exactly a bad thing. While it hits many notes of nostalgic fun it fails to deliver a exciting game experience. Playing the game I realized that this was probably also true of its arcade brother. Why else couldn't I remember how, after continued playing, boring the game is. I never thought I'd say this but I need more then just killing zombies in a game. I need story, I need plot. As a kid I probably didn't care so much about linear storytelling, but as an adult I can't overlook it. The game still has a level of absurdity that makes it worth checking out (also, naked zombies) but overall the game just left me kind of cold (like a naked zombie).

Due to the lack of story and repetitive nature I give this game a...
If you want to feed your ROTLD nostagia I suggest you check out Return of the Living Dead: The Animated Series, but that's for another time.
Artwork by Andrew Barr and Leigh Young
Till then...do you want to party?,

No comments:

Post a Comment