Saturday, September 9, 2017

Night Trap - 25th Anniversary Edition (PS4)

It would be difficult to discuss the history of video games without bringing up Night Trap. Developed by Digital Pictures in 1987 and released on Sega CD in 1992, Night Trap would almost singlehandedly lead to the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board, better known as the ESRB. This gave the game a cult following such that 25 years later, it received a digital HD rerelease by Screaming Villains on PS4 and PC, with an Xbox One release to follow, along with a limited physical version by Limited Run Games. Considering the historical value of this game, it was hard to pass up the opportunity to play it, especially on a physical disc. With that said, the game itself, while improved, is a bit lacking.

The Collector's Edition package from Limited Run Games,
featuring the full box art from the 2017 release.

A group of students working at a resort have been mysteriously disappearing. Local authorities had no clue until the group S.C.A.T. (Special Control Attack Team) tapped into the camera system of a nearby winery house and recovered footage of the students being trapped by one of the residents. S.C.A.T. is sending in a young agent named Kelly (Dana Plato) to scout the house undercover until she gives them a signal to go in. Another agent has placed an override switch on the camera system, which gives them complete control over the cameras and traps within the house. It is up to you to use this power to help Kelly and the rest of S.C.A.T. during their mission.

From here, the rest of the game can be accurately described as an interactive movie. There are eight security cameras the player can switch between. As they scroll through these cameras, a movie plays out while enemies called Augers periodically roam the property. The player has to skillfully trap the Augers at exactly the right time to allow the movie to continue to completion.

Combining live action footage with the technology of video games is an interesting concept, but Night Trap’s execution of it has some noticeable flaws. For one thing, the game is very strictly timed down to the second due to the live nature of the video feed. As such, it is nigh-impossible to see the whole movie and trap a good number of Augers at the same time, not to mention the different perspectives within the movie which play out at the same time. For instance, while Kelly and the other party guests are performing a song, a S.C.A.T. agent is taken away by Augers. Going for a perfect run, in which the player captures all 100 possible Augers and all four members of the Martin family, is another story. Not only does this require missing out on most of the movie, but also following the very precise timing either memorized through grueling trial and error or a modern walkthrough that someone else can read off to you while you play.

One thing the game doesn’t tell you is that activating the traps also requires the player to have the correct color access code. The code initially starts at Blue, but there are a few points in the game where the Martin family changes the color, meaning you have to know exactly which security camera to be on and what time it occurs in order to hear what the next color will be. In addition, a single playthrough of the game takes a minimum of around 25 minutes, assuming you don’t get any Game Overs from failing captures at specific times. Should the player get a Game Over, they will have to start over from the beginning, unless they hit the one checkpoint near the 14-minute mark, which seems to mimic the original two-disc setup of the original Sega CD version, though either way several minutes of progress will be erased. Should the player die after the checkpoint, they will begin with the correct access code color for that time frame.

The gameplay of Night Trap (2017 interface).

Then there’s the movie itself, told through FMV (Full Motion Video) sequences. Night Trap is very much like a B movie, including the cheap costumes, sets and effects, a bad plot where some things are left completely unexplained and plenty of cheesy overacting. In other words, it’s laughably bad. Even Dana Plato of Diff’rent Strokes fame, perhaps the most competent actor in the game, gives a somewhat overacted performance. Playing through the game unlocks a Theater mode to view parts of the movie you may have missed, but you’ll then have to play through the game enough times to see every scene for at least one second, including the deaths, in order to view everything at your leisure. Depending on how much you like Night Trap, this may become an exercise in patience. However, the music is at least memorable, likely due to the minimal use of it, mainly the catchy Night Trap theme and the music for the Augers and the infamous bathroom scene; incidentally, these tracks are the ones highlighted on a cassette tape that comes with the Collector’s Edition.

While the game itself may be lackluster, there are some obvious improvements made for the 2017 remaster. For one, the image and audio quality is crystal clear, so no compression artifacts like the earlier 1990s releases. There is also a major quality of life improvement regarding the camera icons. Instead of a static image, the icons now display full video of what’s going on in the house at any given moment, be it Auger appearances or parts of the movie. Even then, Augers can be a bit sneaky in the Driveway camera, since the game takes place at night. As a nice touch, the PS4 controller’s light bar will also change color to match the code color the player selects. If someone doesn’t wish to play Night Trap with the revamped icons or the 2017 layout, it is also possible to play the game with the original static icons for a challenge, as well as different game layouts recreating those from the 1992 Sega CD, 1993 3DO and 1994 Sega CD 32X releases.

However, while there aren’t really any control issues, I did notice an audio glitch issue that came up during one of my playthroughs. Sometimes, when switching from one scene to another and then returning to the previous scene, the audio from the scene will start over from the beginning, putting the audio and video out of synch. This didn’t affect me too much, as I was paying more attention to Augers for a perfect run, but the player should watch out for this glitch, as it might potentially cause them to miss hearing the next access code for the traps.

As befitting a 25th anniversary release, the game now comes with a number of extras. Apart from the Theater mode, the player can unlock production stills and the game timeline used during filming and post-production. Also available are a couple videos, including a new interview with Director James Riley, and for the first time, a playable version of Scene of the Crime, a prototype version of Night Trap.

A screenshot of Scene of the Crime.

Scene of the Crime follows the same gameplay as Night Trap, though on a smaller scale. In this game, the player is tasked with watching the security cameras in a house to see if anyone will attempt to steal jewelry from a safe during a party. Naturally, someone steals the jewels and, to complete the game, the player has to identify which of the seven guests has committed the crime. It’s sort of a watered-down version of Night Trap, since the film only lasts a couple minutes and there are fewer cameras to select from on a map of the house, although the game does highlight certain areas where action is occurring. The short length also makes it easy to replay, though it is once again a test of patience depending on how many plays it takes you to single out the right suspect.

Of course, it’s not the story or the gameplay of Night Trap that has kept it relevant 25 years later, but rather the game’s legacy and influence on the video game industry. When Night Trap first released, it represented a leap forward with gaming technology with its combination of live action footage and player interactivity. However, this marriage of footage and gameplay freaked out moral groups as well as US Senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl, who felt that it was beginning to blur a line between fiction and reality. The game, along with Mortal Kombat (1992), subsequently came under scrutiny during congressional hearings about violence in video games and their impact on young minds. One scene from Night Trap in particular, in which a group of Augers attack a woman wearing a nightgown in the bathroom, was misrepresented as promoting violence against women. The hearings also claimed that Night Trap was about “trapping and killing women” and that it featured gratuitous violence and sex.

The scene that ultimately led to the creation of the ESRB.
(Video by WarpedPixels)

The result of the congressional hearings ultimately led to the creation of the ESRB, the video game rating system that’s still used in the US to this day. With the creation of the ESRB, Night Trap received an M rating, meaning only those 17 and older can play it, while the 25th Anniversary Edition has been rated T, meaning those 13 and older can play. Another result of the hearings was the increased sales of Night Trap instigated by the controversy, giving it significantly more attention than it perhaps deserved and justifying releases on other platforms, granting it a cult following which eventually justified the current 2017 release.

On its own merits, Night Trap is at best an average game and enjoyably bad at worst. With simplistic gameplay, a cheesy B movie which not even Dana Plato can really save and a heavy trial-and-error element, it is a little difficult to figure out who would unironically enjoy this game today. However, with vastly improved audio and video, as well a few good improvements which make the core mechanics somewhat less frustrating, this release is easily the best way to play. The added bonus features, including a new interview with director James Riley and the ability to play Scene of the Crime, also add a bit of value to the overall package. I would recommend Night Trap – 25th Anniversary Edition to newer players for the historical value alone, although the actual game may only hold ironic entertainment for those willing to stick it out to the end.

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