Shot in 16 days in 1987 and created by a former Atari programmer, Night Trap would become a by-word for “sick”, used by the people, press and those involved with the 1993 American Congressional Hearings into Violent Video games – despite having absolutely no on-screen violence. Full Motion Video (FMV) meanwhile would become synonymous with the Sega CD and its short comings. The story of Night Trap is long and exhaustive, tying into two failed consoles and a very poorly informed Congressional hearing.
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 kid… er… Hasbro 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. God damn them.
But at least we got Night Trap, right? Some argue of its terribleness (least of all, Joe Liebermann, but we’ll get to that), and it frequently appears on “Worst Games of All Time” lists. Unfortunately these lists are 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.
Before we go any further, here’s a cast list:
Played by Dana Plato of Diff’rent Strokes fame, she is an uncover agent of S.C.A.T. who has infiltrated a group of mallrats. She is the only one in the game who knows you’re watching and talks to the screen often. Most people seem to ignore this though, perhaps they just think she’s barking or something.
Played by J. Bill Jones, he is the S.C.A.T Team Commander and a nob. He is your superior and will pull the plug on you if you suck or if you give into temptation and let the Augers kill Megan.
Lisa’s mother has made her bring her little brother Danny to the sleepover. Danny uncovers the Martins plot and is the proverbial spanner in the works for the Martins and he gets to waste an Auger with a futuristic ray gun. He’s pretty cool actually, not as annoying as you’d think.
Played by William Bertrand. Eddie knows the truth about what’s happening in the Martin household, so he’s written off as mad by Sarah. He makes laser guns that work like television remotes, and also dresses up as an Auger at one point, so don’t trap him.
Played by Jon R. Kamel and Molly Star, respectively. According to his explanation at the game’s climax, Victor, his wife Sheila, plus their children and nephew, are part of a terrible curse and are still becoming vampires. Despite this, they are super strong and bulletproof. (Well, Victor is, at least.) He has to be trapped in the en-suite, while his lady wife is trapped before him in the bedroom in a trap he was saving as a surprise for her.
Played by Andras Jones, the son of the Martins and Sarah’s brother. He gets to abduct Cindy personally and then finds out about S.C.A.T. If you let him do this, taking over the traps and locking you out, there’s a pretty fun Game Over sequence.
Played by Allison Rhea, the little brunette of the group, she is the spitting image of Tony’s long lost love and the trustworthy one. The second one who needs saving.
Played by Tracy Metheson, and probably the most bearable of the group after Kelli even if she doesn’t believe anything strange is going on until it tries to bite her on the a… neck. Another blonde, finds the blood-sicles in the fridge. She is the third to be attacked, not by Augers but by Jeff Martin.
Played by Christy Ford, she is an obnoxious, loud, ignorant 1980s child with a bow in her hair. She sings the diabolical Night Trap theme tune and is generally the most annoying thing in video games until Metal Gear Solid 2. Sadly she is the last of the girls who needs saving, meaning she’s in it the most.
He works for S.C.A.T. and puts on a totally convincing Jamaican accent to check on things inside the house.
These are who you have to trap for most of the time. They’re like vampires who need blood to live, their skin falls off as a side-effect of this need so they dress like PVC ninja-commandos. They carry large poles with collars on the end.
Sega Control Attack Team (later Special Control Attack Team)
The special ops group you work for, I guess they work for the government. They will turn up in the house a couple of times so don’t capture them.
The Sega/Mega CD version of Night Trap contains a bit over an hour of footage, not including alternative outcomes, endings or Game Over screens. Fairly impressive for 1992. In order to finish the game, one must capture at least 33 Augers and Jeff Martin, and save the main characters all 9 times. For a perfect game and perfect ending, you must catch all 95 Augers, Jeff Martin, save the main characters all 9 times and not capture Eddie in his Auger suit or any SCAT members. Failure to save any of five girls or Danny will result in an instant Game Over, making it a fairly difficult game requiring repeated play-throughs (or GameFAQs). I’ve been playing it since its release and I’ve only achieved a perfect ending once, with the help of a walkthrough and a gun to my head to stop me from just letting the buggers eat Megan.
The premise of the game is that you are “Control” for S.C.A.T. who have an undercover agent (Plato) amongst a group of mallrats who are all staying the weekend at a house owned by the Martin family. Their rationale for doing this is that another group of girls have gone missing after spending a night in the house. They have previously infiltrated the household and taken control of the Martin’s sophisticated security camera system and booby traps, and using these, you must protect the girls at all costs while Kelli uncovers the necessary evidence. You have to follow the film by switching rooms, as well as switching away from the movie itself, to catch the Augers who invade almost instantly after the game starts.
The Martins are going on charity work, being caring monsters, delivering blood to the Augers, so this night’s killing is down to the kids – their son, daughter and nephew. These three are unaware of the Auger infiltration or that you have control, so they’ll keep changing the code for the security system (Blue, Green, Orange, etc) which will lock you out. In practice, all that means is you have to manually change the code colour on the control panel, which fills the bottom half of the screen.
The plot itself is the stuff of standard horror, but way past acceptable. The girls arrive in Megan’s daddy’s car and go about regular slumber party activities like singing along to the godawful Night Trap theme, getting changed and making sandwiches a little too gleefully. They also meet Jeff and cousin Tony, who starts obsessing over Ashley because she looks like some girl he boned years ago. While all this goes on, Danny roots around the house, having more luck than undercover agent Kelli and discovers the control room, the Augers and the fancy bloodletting machine. Of course, none of the girls believe him.
The first girl to be attacked is Lisa, in a scene that requires some detailing if only for the stink kicked up during the Congressional hearings. Having changed into a modest teddy, she is preening herself in the en-suite (while the gleeful sandwich making is going on downstairs) when she mistakes an Auger in the shower for Megan playing a stupid prank. She is then assaulted. You’re supposed to set off the en-suite traps and capture them. If you don’t, you will get Game Over footage of her being dragged off screen. That is all. This short video is pretty much why we have ratings on all video games today.
All hell breaks loose when Kelli and Ashley are confronted by Victor, who is desperately trying to get Ashley to leave (so Kelli tries to shoot him – the vampire, yes), when Cindy and Megan find out the popsicles are made of blood, as well as a dead commando hanging upside down in the kitchen cupboard. Ashley is next to go, either captured or fleeing from the bedroom. Then Cindy, separated from her friends in the Scooby-Doo-esque “run around the house” in panic, is saved by, then either killed by or escapes from, Jeff. Megan escapes out the back door or is dragged down a trapdoor hopefully to her slow and agonising death. The Martins come home, S.C.A.T. invades.
You can have six endings:
-Fail to capture mommy Sheila Martin and she’ll bite Kelli even if you catch Victor and Sarah.
-Fail to capture Victor and he’ll bite Kelli even if you catch Alison and Sarah.
-Fail to capture Sarah and she’ll bite Kelli even if, etc. etc.
-Kelli will tell you to try again and walk off because you haven’t got a perfect trap record.
-Fail to save Cindi, and Jeff makes her into a vampire. Jeff shows up with her as his bride during the SCAT showdown with the Martins.
-Kelli will rave about you to just short of propositioning you and walk off because you have got a perfect score and you don’t trap her.
-Kelli will rave about you to just short of propositioning you and walk off because you have got a perfect and you spring the same trap you caught Sarah in and trap her.
That’s it, you’re finished. But the Night Trap story isn’t.
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 the…um…Genesis) 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. These mentioned 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. But 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 backward 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.
Addition May 2012:
In Jamie Russell’s new book, Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood, there’s a detailed account of Night Trap’s creation. This is available free to read on Gamasutra, and comes highly recommended for anyone even remotely interested in Night Trap.