A Disgusting History of Gore in Video Games
If you came to games fresh during the previous console generation, where once-grainy graphics made the switch to full HD, you don't know how easy you've had it.
This post originally appeared on VICE UK
If you came to games fresh during the previous console generation, where once-grainy graphics made the switch to full HD, you don't know how easy you've had it. There was a time, long before the gushes of crimson coloring contemporary offerings of extreme violence--Gears and God of War, Dead Rising, and the more recent Resident Evils, Max Payne 3, the Dead Space series, Bulletstorm, and BioShock (to name but a few)--where you had to lean on your imagination to bring scenes of disgusting dismemberment to life.
Today's games are suitably rated, informing parents that something like Shadows of the Damned really isn't for their six-year-old. But there was a time when violence in games was barely regulated at all, when a kid much like myself could slip Barbarian into his ZX Spectrum's tape deck and settle down for an afternoon of decapitating.
Barbarian: The Ultimate Warrior, to give Palace Software's 1987 one-on-one fighter its full title, is today mostly remembered for two things. One, it featured Wolf from Gladiators on its packaging (alongside, when first published, Page 3 girl Maria Whittaker); and two, you could cut your opponent's head off and see his corpse dragged away by some goblin chap. The Spectrum's limited palette and basic animations left a lot to interpretation, but it wasn't long before a cracked Amiga version made its way to my bedroom. Then, with more colors on show, I could really revel in the ruddy glory of a classic finishing move.
Barbarian attracted its share of bad press, with conservative critics calling its packaging "pornographic." Concerns were raised about the game's gory content, but not so much as to have its British sales restricted, as today's games are by the BBFC and PEGI. The game did received an 18-certificate in Germany, though, and wasn't available to younger players until its red stuff was turned to green. Which makes all the difference, offensichtlich.
In the UK, the first game to get the BBFC on its case was the CRL Group's Dracula (1986), released for various home computer formats of the time and deemed too graphic to be sold to under-15s. This bummed its makers out, as they were hoping for a higher certificate. Undeterred, CRL put out Jack the Ripper the very next year, and were rewarded with the first-ever BBFC 18 for a video game. Not that Dracula or Jack the Ripper were exciting action games--they were text adventures, of the kind seen in the movie Big (you can actually play The Cavern of the Evil Wizard, if you like). Images were static, and crap.
There was bloodier fare to be found in the arcades of the 1980s. Splatterhouse gobbled up pocket money in 1988 (its 2010 remake is a modern gore-fest), but a much grosser game beat it by two years. Chiller, developed by Exidy in 1986, invited the player to pick up a light gun and target human captives, severing limbs, squashing skulls, and liberally splattering blood around each level. "You" are the torturer of the title, responsible for ensuring that these helpless souls are punished in the very worst ways possible. Quite amazingly, the game was ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1990, albeit after some substantial censoring. All the same, it made for an incongruous addition to the NES's family-friendly catalogue.
But Chiller had a problem: It was fucking awful, a joyless shooter with nothing going for it except gore. A still-bloody but rather more cerebral proposition was Interplay's Battle Chess, released on the Amiga in 1988. It was great fun working your way through all the different combat animations, the best of which witnessed a splash of red. Bishops were uncommonly brutal, stabbing the queen clean through and slicing the king three ways, while knight versus knight would see the taken piece lose its arms and legs--a precursor of sorts, perhaps, to the limb-removal finishing moves of 1992 arcade fighter Time Killers.
' Primal Rage'
Of course, any fighter game that saw off its second-place contenders by tossing their body parts around the screen was more indebted to the bout-climaxing bloodiness of Mortal Kombat than anything else. Midway's arcade game, subsequently ported to home systems, was the fiercest rival of Street Fighter II in the 1990s, and the progenitor of countless cartilage-cleaving clones. Primal Rage (Atari, 1994) featured prehistoric beasts but retained MK's fatalities, while Saffire's Bio F.R.E.A.K.S. for the Nintendo 64 took finishing moves into the third dimension, but nobody cared. And we simply don't talk about Way of the Warrior any more. It's too upsetting.
Games censorship owes much to Mortal Kombat--it was the spine-yanking finishing move of its character Sub-Zero that led to the introduction of the ESRB, responsible for age-rating releases in the United States and Canada. The move--like all moves in MK--has got gorier over myriad iterations, but as graphics have improved and sound effects have become all the more squelchy, it's actually lost some of its allure. All the same, MK's creative killings remain some of the most grotesque sights on a modern console.
'Mortal Kombat X' finishing moves. The game is due in April 2015
You can line up a number of today's games as continuations of developers' laissez-faire attitude to gore that's been evident since the 1980s--The Evil Within is exquisitely gooey, and Dead Rising 3 isn't afraid to paint its town several shades of entrails. But there's nothing all that memorable about their explicit scenes, because we're so used to seeing this stuff. Whereas, in previous generations, excessive gore stood out--and when it was paired with an enjoyable game, magic happened.
Moonstone: A Hard Days Knight was one such title, released by Mindscape in 1991 for the Amiga. Up to four players could take turns guiding their knight around a fantasy land plagued by monsters--and they'd battle each other when paths crossed. The objective was to deliver the titular rock to a Stonehenge-like central area, at which point your character would ascend to the stars like a god. Or something. The story didn't matter then, and to a great extent it doesn't now, because all I really remember was scenes like this, and this, and this. Just look at it in motion. Glorious...
'Moonstone': Fast-forward to 9:55 and drink it all in
The Amiga was home to a multitude of gory games, but one outstanding example of its kind was Damage: The Sadistic Butchering of Humanity, which is essentially a Grand Theft Auto murder spree played out by Sensible Soccer sprites, a side-scrolling urban Cannon Fodder. Issued in 1996, it's a game devoted exclusively to, in its makers' words, killing "thousands of enemies: harmless civilians, policemen, army troopers, organized criminals, bloodhounds and vehicles." You end the game with your dick out, nuking the world. It's been remade for modern systems, and could be seen as a forerunner of Dennaton Games' Drive-inspired Hotline Miami--colorful and subversive alongside the gratuitous violence.
Believe it or not, despite such gleeful goriness, not many games have been threatened with a ban in Britain. Carmageddon was refused a certificate in 1997, but modifications saw it pass censors, and Rockstar's crowbar-happy Manhunt 2 had to go via the courts--and undergo a handful of edits--on its way to commercial release ten years later. It eventually received an 18 from the BBFC, and found a home on, of all consoles, Nintendo's cuddly Wii. Another game to face up to and beat a British ban was 2004's The Punisher, from Volition, Inc. Its interrogation scenes were only passed when processed into monochrome--decide for yourself if anything goes too far.
The black-and-white-but-red-all-over aesthetic returned with Platinum Games' MadWorld in 2009--against type, the over-the-top dice-them-up was exclusively for the Wii. PC first-person shooters have wallowed in grisly surrounds for decades. Both Rise of the Triad (1994) and Blood (1997) drew influences from 1992's Wolfenstein 3D and Id Software's evergreen Doom--a game that recently received a new "Brutal" mod, raising the gore to puke-worthy proportions. And then there's Postal 2, which you really don't want to mix up with Portal 2 on your Christmas list.
Over at Nintendo's greatest competitors, Sega did what it could to market its Mega Drive as the more mature choice for late-80s/early-90s gamers by sanctioning a series of bloody titles. In 1990 it received a port of Techno Cop, a wholly shitty affair that mixed 2-D shooting with abysmal driving sections. It's terrible, but noteworthy for being the first Mega Drive (Genesis) game to carry an explicit content warning in the States.
The Mega Drive's RoboCop Versus the Terminator (1994) saw enemies explode into pools of the red stuff, whereas its Super Nintendo counterpart just had them vanish in puffs of smoke. Its port of Mortal Kombat kept the blood that the SNES didn't, too, and when the Mega-CD received an English-language version of Hideo Kojima's masterful cyberpunk mystery game Snatcher, it didn't scrimp on the gore at all.
From the weird-as-all-fuck file comes Harvester, originally released in 1996 but brought to Steam in April 2014. It's a point-and-click puzzle game featuring popular-at-the-time full-motion video footage. It's also completely out of its mind. I don't really know where to begin. Maybe with the baby whose eyes fall out of its face? Perhaps the teacher who baseball-bats a pupil to death? Or the part where a mother's own children eat her? Oh, and you can totally kill your wife-to-be, in a scene that wouldn't look out of place in Mortal Kombat. (Do note that every one of those links contains a spoiler, best avoided if you want to play the game yourself.)
I want to finish on a release that followed Mortal Kombat's lead in its graphic finishers, but for my money took things to the highest level for 16bit slaughter. Sega's self-developed Eternal Champions was a 1993 fighter that, while overly acclaimed in some quarters, was a decent second-choice scrapper for when your mate was over and your copy of Street Fighter II had gone missing. But its Mega-CD update, 1995's Challenge from the Dark Side, was something else. I still have a copy, and I don't mind saying that some of its content can churn my stomach today.
In 2006, IGN wrote that Eternal Champions' Overkills were the goriest finishers in gaming. Based on the CD version, I can't disagree. This game was brutal. And I made sure I learned every move, ticking them off as I went, compiling my favorites. ...Dark Side expanded on the simple Overkills, adding Sudden Death scenarios, gruesome Vendetta finishers, and FMV Cinekills, where the unfortunate victim would be teleported to their doom at the hands of the Dark Champion--an evil dude with a lightbulb for a head.
I appreciate that today's glossy gore is more realistic than video games have ever before realized, but some of what ...Dark Side featured was just--is just--horrific. Check out the video below, featuring Overkills and Sudden Deaths.
Special mentions for the casual shotgun killing at 1:11, the microwaving of 4:35, the acid bath at 6:24, and the impaling at 10:42. And stay the distance for a literally monumental finish. Beautiful.
Illustration by Patrick R Allan
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