Calling a game an interactive movie is not the insult it used to be. With games like Heavy Rain, Until Dawn and Her Story moving the genre in new and interesting ways and technology finally meeting the demands of the genre, what once seemed like a gaming dead end has found a new lease of life.
Once upon a time, however, the interactive movie wasn’t such a rosy prospect, and in large that was due to games like Night Trap. Born at the dawn of mainstream CD gaming, at that hinterland between console generations when expectations had yet to be met by technology, Night Trap was in many ways ahead of its time.
Originally developed for Hasbro’s VHS-based Control-Vision system, Night Trap eventually found itself released on Sega’s MegaDrive add-on, the MegaCD. More suited perhaps than a VHS system, the MegaCD was still relatively underpowered and its lack of colour severely impacted the quality of full motion video games on it. Combined with a single-speed CD drive that wheezed as it streamed poor-quality FMV from the game’s two CDs, it’s reasonably fair to say that it was hobbled by technology before it even got out of the door.
Contemporary reviews felt this wasn’t Night Trap’s only problem. Limitations with FMV-based games, which meant that it played out in the same way each time, limited gameplay options. Although presenting you with a pseudo-real time house rigged with cameras in each room, the nature of the game meant that everything played out in the same way at the same time each game you played. Other than winning or losing, there was little else happening. Although switching to different rooms meant that on some playthroughs you would see plot elements or Augers (the game’s vampiric aliens) that you would have otherwise missed, it didn’t add much in terms of gameplay.
What gameplay did exist was somewhat basic – switching between cameras and occasionally jabbing ‘B’ on the joypad to capture an Auger. The traps rigged throughout the house were colour-coded, and this code changed every so often throughout the game. Without the code traps can’t be triggered, and details of what colour was needed to activate the traps can only be found by being in the right room at the right time. This involved a lot of trial and error and hasty ends the game as the house becomes overrun with unseen Augers.
What made Night Trap, of course, was its controversy. Infamous at the time of its release, the tabloid furore over its horror and violence is difficult to comprehend now, when it seems no worse than a particularly edgy episode of Rentaghost. At the time, however, this controversy was one of the main draws of the game, along with the novelty of playing a game that looked (however distantly) like a film.
So what appeal could a game reviled upon release and behind the technological curve over twenty years ago possibly have now?
Despite appearing in frequent ‘worst games ever’ polls and despite all of its flaws, Night Trap is enormous fun. Its gameplay may well be limited and its visuals grainy, and these days it doesn’t even have the novelty of ‘extreme’ violence to give it some underground appeal, but despite all that it has has an abundance of charm, particularly if you have any affection for its brand of B-movie horror.
From the opening briefing from SCAT (Sega Control Attack Team) command onwards, the game captures the feel of every B-movie horror that has gone before or since. When a group of suspiciously older-looking teenage girls (including Kelly, an undercover SCAT agent) arrive at a house to party, you know exactly where you are.
Tracking the girls and the mysterious Martin family, who own the house, through the various cameras you’re able to unravel the plot and trigger the traps to save the girls from an untimely death.
The biggest downside to Night Trap is that actually playing the game correctly – capturing the Augers as the appear through the house and ensuring the safety of the partygoers and SCAT agents – means that you miss the best parts of the game. While you’re busy triggering a set of stairs to turn into a slide and send Augers to their doom, the girls could be partying in one room while the Martin’s plot in another. Following conversations that enhance the plot could mean missing Augers or even the signal to change the colour code for the traps.
It’s one of those very rare instances where it is more fun to play the game to lose. No-one should ever miss out on the party near the start of the adventure. It’s one of the least convincing teenage parties ever committed to film, featuring as it does just a single dance to a single song (the Night Trap theme, of course) and a bit of miming into a tennis racquet before everyone retires to their rooms. It’s ludicrous and utterly wonderful, and my games often end there as I forget to care about the eternal ‘pops’ that indicate the arrival of another Auger. In fact it’s so good that you should watch it here.
I would never accuse Night Trap of being a good game, but in some cases that’s beside the point. Things don’t always have to be ‘good’ to be enjoyable and despite its many flaws Night Trap is tremendous fun and a wonderful tribute to B-movie ‘horror’.
Its reputation precedes it and you may have long ago made up your mind that Night Trap deserves its place in the annals of worst ever games. But approach it in the right way and you can have the party of your life. For a few minutes.
Note: This review is of the Sega Mega CD version, but Night Trap was also released with various enhancements (including picture quality) on Sega 32X CD, 3DO and PC.