I have to admit that I've murdered more than my fair share of virtual people. I always go for the head shot in Gears of War. I run down pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto like it was going out of style. There's something about the thrill of spilling innocent pixelated blood while hearing digitized screams of absolute terror that keeps me coming back for more, time and time again. And until the McClinsky-Grinhold Virtual Rights Act of 2042 passes, I should be free to indulge in the simulated murder-violence of virtual humans.
Seeing that this is a "vintage gaming" site, I thought I would take a look at some of the "great moments" of digital simulated violence in the past. My only complaint is that, prior to 1989, video game graphics were not sophisticated enough to depict gushing, free-flowing rivers of crimson plasma with any regularity. You kinda had to use your imagination to fill in the blanks. Bummer. Nonetheless, in this column we'll be taking a look at an early pioneer in senseless virtual bloodshed, Thorn EMI Video's Carnival Massacre for the Atari 800 computer system. Carnival Massacre is a 1983 classic that, with a few minor changes, could quite possibly have been the greatest game of all time.
The game starts simply enough, with a low-color presentation of a typical circus scene. Joy-filled, innocent children blissfully ride the packed Ferris wheels, oblivious to any possible danger that might await them. But what's this? Here comes a sniper on a mile-high ski lift, firing slow-moving, multicolored bullets at the kids! He picks off the Ferris wheel riders one-by-one, causing them to fall to the earth. The ever-vigilant player, controlling a rigid blond hero on the ground, is supposed to catch them. Of course, if you're so inclined, you can neglect to catch them, allowing the children to splatter gloriously on the pavement below. But hey, they were probably dead anyway! They just got shot, remember? Interestingly enough, the game does not penalize you for this play style. The player only loses a life if he gets hit by a sniper's bullet or a weird bouncing spring on the ground that he has to jump over.
So, what kind of sick freak would fire at children from a ski-lift? A disgruntled school teacher who's received one too many boogerballs to the face? A highly trained ex-military marksman gone berserk? No. The person behind the gun is another child. I'm tellin' ya, this game was really ahead of its time. The sprite for the sniper and the sprites for the children are exactly the same, except that the sniper was deviant enough to dye his hair Carolina blue. Nice touch! Take a look at the following comparison for proof:
A masterful stroke of sadistic genius, if I do say so myself.
If you liked the wanton child-on-child violence of the first stage, then you'll absolutely love stage two. This stage finds the Aryan zombie children in roller coasters, careening at breakneck speeds across the screen on a selection of flat, multi-tiered tracks. They must be stopped! The ski lift sniper, still shooting his lovely bullets at the kids, is joined by a mad bomber who quietly climbs up the screen and plants bombs on the coaster tracks. When a coaster rolls over the bomb, it knocks a kid out of the car, and the player can catch him…or not. I elected to let the children fall and splatter, preferring instead to dodge the assassin's bullets and the wily bouncing razor springs aimed at me. Why risk life and limb breaking the fall of a mortally wounded child when I should be saving myself? At about this point in the game, I began to think that it should have been titled Corpse Catcher…until I accidentally caught a kid and he miraculously ran off the screen, healthy and unharmed. Oops.
I was really hoping for another level after the second stage that would turn the gore up a notch, but it seems that the game just repeats from there on out, progressing in difficultly. Ultimately, I feel that Carnival Massacre fails in execution (pun intended) because any video game player in their right mind would rather control the the sniper or the mad bomber (and thus massacre the carnival) than some wussy corpse-catcher who is physically incapable of looking down. If this game were made today for the PlayStation 3, you can bet that the option to play as the sniper would be selectable, if not mandatory (the game would also be in hyper-realistic 3D, of course, for better effect). Anybody up for a remake?