Classic horror movies on the Atari 2600

I have been using emulation to give my twelve-year old neighbor the people’s history of classic video games and home consoles (much more on both the emulation and the history shortly). While preparing these rigorous classes, I came across a couple of gems that I can’t believe I hadn’t known about until now—so if this is old news please forgive my enthusiasm. The classic horror movies [[The Texas Chainsaw Massacre]] and [[Halloween]] were made into video games for the [[Atari 2600]] back in 1983 by Wizard Video Games.†

Texas Chainsaw Massacre Video GameIn the [[Texas Chainsaw Massacre]] video game you are [[Leatherface]] and are charged with “murdering trespassers while avoiding obstacles such as fences, wheelchairs, and cow skulls. Each victim slain gives the player 1,000 points. The player receives additional fuel at every 5,000 points (5 victims). A life is lost when the player’s chainsaw runs out of gasoline. Gameplay ends when the last tank of gas is consumed.” ¹

In the [[Halloween video game]], you are a babysitter “who must save children from a knife-wielding Michael Myers. The player obtains points in two ways: by rescuing children and bringing them to ‘safe rooms’ located at both ends of each floor of the house, and by stabbing Michael with the knife (if it can be located). The player advances a level either by rescuing five children or stabbing Michael twice. The killer gets faster with each level increase, and the game continues until all of the player’s three lives are lost.”²

Halloween video gameSeems like the games are remarkable for a few reasons other than the game play, for even by the standards of 25 years ago they were nothing short of terrible in terms of graphics and narrative conception. A fact that may make them candidates for the illustrious title of the earliest b-video games. The story surrounding their release is kind of interesting in regards to more recent backlashes against violent video games, such as the furor over the [[Grand Theft Auto]] franchise. They are considered the first video games in the horror genre, and their adult themes and “graphic” depiction of violence resulted in many retailers refusing to carry the games. And those who did often kept them behind the counter on a request-only basis. Given this controversy, the game sold extremely poorly. Wizard Video Games soon after went out of business, yet these two titles are considered extremely valuable today by collectors given how rare they are as well as the fact that they cross over ito the horror memorabelia manaics, making them a rather valuable commodity.³

Thanks to the beauties of emulation, you can see examples of the game play for each of these gems below. The whole idea of these “ultra-violent” Atari 2600 games is both puzzling and fascinating to me. Most video games for the Atari 2600 frame a certain amount of violence depending how you look at them, [[Kaboom!]], [[Pitfall!]], [[Space Invaders]], Combat, etc., etc. Yet, the idea of Michael Myers severing heads and Leatherface cutting up pixels with a chainsaw, no matter how bad the graphics are, is too much. Not necessarily because they are too gory or difficult to look at—for they are ridiculous in that regard—it’s simply the idea of violence, the idea the developers of this game gambled on exploiting and lost, yet that was only the beginning. The state of video games today offers a totally different level of verisimilitude, yet I still think it is the political valence of an idea that is controversial, not the actual violence regardless of how good or bad the graphics are. I’ll have to re-visit this idea again soon, for it is half-baked but interesting to me.

A clip from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre video game:

A clip from the Halloween video game:

† Wizard Video also distributed the Texas Chainsaw Massacre on VHS, which marks an interesting relationship between home video and home gaming consoles during the early 80s, which may be just as obvious and trite as it reads here, or it may tie into the idea of a new market for all things “b” that I have always believed the VHS made possible, despite the fact that it killed the single-screen movie house (which I love and miss dearly). Oh yeah, and it aliented the moviegoer by keeping him or her in their living room. Oh yeah, and the quality of VHS tapes was terrible…

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8 Responses to Classic horror movies on the Atari 2600

  1. Brad says:

    Ooooooh man, I’ve been waiting for a post about this for some time, this is really really cool stuff. That YouTube clip of the Texas Chainsaw game is really bizarre, truly a time capsule moment if I ever saw one; it also looks like a really confusing game to play. Also, it looks relatively boring compared to the film itself. I’ve played a dozen Atari 2600 games that looked way more interesting, how unfortunate! Refusing to carry a video game that has pixelated colored blocks running into each other? Now that’s humor.

  2. Reverend says:

    Brad,

    Yeah, the TCM game held my interest for about three minutes, and I tend to be very, very forgiving. But cutting up a pixelated character with an ill-defined chainsaw has its rewards. But don;t take my word for it, you can get the game yourself, get the Atari 2600 emulator called z26 (and the x26 GUI interface makes in more windows friendly). Then just do a search for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre ROM.

    In fact, I’ll be posting more about this emulation soon. I was thinking about your post on TCM and the way in which the violence on the screen spilled over into the production of that film (or is it the other way around?), and it is interesting to me how the mediated representations of this violence take on their own reality, even if only virtual. The idea of this game as violent really opens up some interesting questions about what we understand as violence in media –is it verisimilitude? Or is it only the idea? Nonetheless, it can be kind of fun as you suggest.

    Now, if I can only get to Cannibal Holocaust -did they make a video game of that? 🙂

  3. Brad says:

    Haha, no I don’t think there’s a video game, there was barely even a video release because of how banned it was on initial release.
    But video game violence, now that’s definitely something. I do think it’s interesting that TCM was called one of the goriest films ever made when it first came out (& the legend still persists), though there is hardly any blood at all; it must all be imagined or perceived, I suppose. Will playing that blocky, boring TCM game make me more likely to swing Legos at innocent bystanders? I wonder what would have happened if the Grand Theft Auto games came out in ’84…
    Actually, Guillermo Gomez-Pena’s essay, “Culturas-in-Extremis: performing against the cultural backdrop of the mainstream bizarre” touches on this in a much better way than I ever could. It seems, he argues, that time has made what was once shocking, underground acts of cultural defiance into mainstream norms in the forms of Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, & others. Where does the underground go when the mainstream accepts it as average?

  4. jeff drouin says:

    In addition to the political valence of the idea of violence in video games, I think it’s that the player becomes an agent of violence that freaks some people out. Even moreso than about horror movies alone. The game is a narrative that the player acts in, and gameplay erodes that distinction between fantasy and reality. Even though it’s virtual, it’s still “doing.”

    At the CUNY IT conference last November I attended a gaming panel that was interesting. The speakers were from a company called Tiltfactor (tiltfactor.org), which is dedicated to creating politically progressive games. They observed that almost all video games embody value and belief structures, in which gameplay reinforces either genocide (kill all the “bad guys”) or capitalism (eat or otherwise capture all the resources). Tiltfactor developes games that try to break that mould. In one game, based on a popular first-person shooter, the player is a member of an immigrant group being chased my immigration officials. During gameplay, the player “learns” about unfair U.S. immigration policies by interacting with people from other immigrant groups. Another game, Velvet Strike, allows players to hack violent online multiplayer games like Counter Strike, a popular anti-terrorist game, and introduce anti-war graffiti into the environment.

    I’m not sure how much “learning” is achieved through such a polemical approach, but it struck me that the Atari games you mention fit the kind of genre that the Tiltfactor folks described. Maybe some of the negative reaction derived from a latent recognition of deeper ills that the games embody and re-enact. Maybe that’s where a lot of the horror movies come from, too, but I must confess I’m ill-read in that genre.

  5. Reverend says:

    Jeff,

    That is awesome, I love the idea behind tiltfactor. Creating a video game focused around illegal immigration and being on the run is compelling for all sorts of reason. Particularly as Virginia is in the process of “cracking down” mightily on this workforce as the economy contracts. Speaking of Counter-Strike, that game is certainly embedded within the violent logic of the war on terrorism, but I always found it fascinating how that model allows you to pick a side, and in many ways “become” a terrorist. That seem to suggest a whole different layer of complexity when it comes to the idea of national loyalties, etc.

    The idea of a peaceful form of protest within those games is really interesting. Hacking these servers to disrupt the war on terror (which in many regards has been virtually acted out by the civilian with such a game engine) does, indeed, introduce a whole new layer of thinking about the violence inherent in games. I think your point about doing within these environments is an excellent one, and the becoming an agent of aggression and violence is a good point. I often approach the polemic visually, yet the actual ability to agree to cut up people with your chainsaw is definitely an act of virtual violence, regardless of resolution.

    All of this has me thinking about [[Bioshock]]. This game is pretty amazing in terms of graphics and game play, but it introducing an interesting element of choice into the narrative. Quickly, there are characters called little sisters that are genetically mutated children, you have the choice to either harvest them for ADAm (the manna for survival) or save them. Each choice has its benefits and drawbacks, and in many ways determines the ending, yet yo are ultimately faced with a kind of ethical choice. I harvested the little sisters (which says something about me!) and the first time I did it was kind of strange because, unlike in toher games, I knew there was an alternative.

    Trippy stuff, and we are still only at the beginning of the virtual narratives that will really bring the psychological, philosophical, and moral questions at the root of our culture into some serious question.

  6. jeff drouin says:

    I followed the link about Bioshock and it looks interesting. Set in a post-cataclysmic dystopia, it riffs on that either-or, apocalyptic mentality of so many video games and horror movies while trying to do something different with the genre. Still, like most video games, and like the pervasive apocalyptic mentality in our culture, “the enemy” is relegated to a stereotyped and uniform “other” that must be eradicated in order to save your own group or your self. In Bioshock, you can either bring the Little Sisters to the “in” group and “save” them, or relegate them to the “other” and destroy them. The narrative is almost straight out of the Book of Revelation.

    What I don’t quite understand is the ending. On that wiki page, it seems to indicate that regardless of which of the two outcomes you achieve, Slicers still overrun a nuclear submarine, presumably threatening the end of the rest of the world. Does the game thereby explore the question of whether free will and morality can exist in a deterministic world? Or does it perhaps negate the notion that what we do matters, since the particulars of the end are inevitable? And if the narrator’s voice (the voice of moral conscience?) relates the same story, just with an angrier tone if you eradicated the Little Sisters, what does that say about the locus of moral agency?

    If I had a PC or an XBOX 360 (and didn’t have a dissertation to write), I’d love to get my Structuralist hooks into that game.

  7. jeff drouin says:

    After writing the above, it occurred to me that perhaps the way to make a true philosophically and morally sophisticated videogame would be either: (1) to create a variety of endings that reflect the complexity of the moral choices made over the entire course of gameplay or, since that would still be highly deterministic, (2) to hire a cool young philosopher to devise a sophisticated moral-philosophical algorithm that dynamically generates an outcome based on a complex set of moral attributes of gameplay. Then the game really does become a play-object, and also possibly a literary one that merits repeated readings.

    Maybe the future of digital storytelling lies in dynamically generated narrative through reader/player interaction?

    By the way, I brought up this post on the course website I set up as instructional technologist for an upper division seminar on apocalyptic thought.

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