10/09/2012

MAD NURSE (ZX SPECTRUM)

Okay, picture the scene: it's 1987 and you're looking to purchase a new game to play on the computational powerhouse that is your ZX Spectrum. You're perusing Firebird Software's "Silver" range of budget titles, because after buying Rick Astley's latest single and a cinema ticket to see Hellraiser you've only got £1.99 left. One game in particular stands out, and as you look at the cover you remember reading about it in Computer & Video Games magazine where it was described as "probably the sickest game (the reviewer has) ever played." That game is Mad Nurse, and with a description like that how could you not buy it? Thus, this poor sap from 1987 pays his two quid, Mad Nurse claims another victim and from the comfort of the space-year 2012 I can tell you why he'd have been better spending his money on a large bag of pick-n-mix or something.


That was a very roundabout way of saying that today I'm looking at a 1987 ZX Spectrum game, developed by Software Creations and published by Firebird, called Mad Nurse and if this loading screen is anything to go by then it's an accurate title - that nurse definitely looks like she might be harbouring a mental illness or two.


GIVE ME YOUR PRECIOUS BABIES!
Yep, those things at either side of the screen are supposed to be babies, despite their considerable amounts of perfectly-sculpted hair and the fact that they're propping their infant heads up with an arm that looks more like a tentacle that ends in a foot. I've no idea what's going on with the red dots on their bellies, either -  two possible explanations are that their umbilical cords have been cut so recently that they're still bleeding, or there's an assassin in the rafters with a laser-sighted sniper rifle and a pathological hatred of toddlers.
So we've got nurses and babies, and you're probably thinking "how can this possibly have been described as the sickest game ever?" That'll become clear once we get into the game, but first there's a title screen to contend with.


Don't worry, the game hasn't gone rural and replaced the Mad Nurse with Ma Nurse, plump, strong-armed matriarch of a farming family. I just couldn't get a screenshot where one or more of the letters hadn't cycled onto the colour black and I figured "MA NURSE" was better than "A NUS."


Then there's another title screen, just in case you forgot what game you were playing. The Mad Nurse - or rather, one of the Mad Nurses - is heading to the maternity ward to look after all the cute little babies and they'll all get better and never be poorly again. What's this nurse's name, anyway?


Ah yes, the Bumwasher family of Kent, known for their daughters' tireless dedication to the well-being of others. I was going to say that Brenda Bumwasher sounds like a character who's escaped from the pages of Viz, but I think even that wonderful bastion of sniggering crudeness would pass on the name "Brenda Bumwasher" as sounding a bit too obvious.


At least that baby looks more like, y'know, a baby. Much more like a baby than the tentacled freaks from the loading screen, at least. The baby slowly crawls toward Brenda until, ha ha ha, get this - he bumps into her legs!


Jesus Christ, she looks like an inflatable sex doll modelled on those monsters from Sesame Street that honk their noses.
I hope you enjoyed that brief - but not nearly brief enough - little animation of a baby crawling into someone's legs, because you'll be seeing it a lot if you play Mad Nurse. In between every single stage, in fact, where watching the ponderous, unskippable movement of the baby's inevitable leg-collision will test the very limits of your patience.
Now all the front-end stuff is out of the way, we can get on with the business of playing Mad Nurse. Are you excited? Well you bloody well shouldn't be.


This is the game screen, and that's Brenda standing in the lift on the right. Your mission, your life's work, your Hippocratic duty, is to collect all the roaming babies and put them back into their cots. The babies crawl from left to right, and all you need to do is walk Brenda over a baby, press up to pick them up, walk over to one of the electric-blue cribs and press down to put the babies to sleep. That's it. Put babies in their beds and make the NHS proud. Once all the babies are in their cots, the stage ends, you have to watch that bloody animation, and then you do it all over again in a stage with a slightly different layout.


So how did this game come to be described as "sick" by the gaming press? Well, it's because these particular babies seem to have been cross-bred with DMA Design's famous Lemmings. The babies do nothing but crawl from left to right... unless they're interrupted by something interesting like, say, an uncovered power socket.


Oh dear. Yes, Mad Nurse is a game about the easily-preventable deaths of innumerable helpless babies. As well as electrical outlets, sometimes they happen upon bottles of medicine carelessly left on the ground, proof that childproof caps are no match for the remarkably strong hands of these super-babies. Even if there's nothing deadly littering the floor, the babies will keep on crawling until they reach the lift shaft...


...and then just keep going.


Don't worry, though, it's not like Software Creations will have programmed a game where babies can plummet down a hole and explode upon impact with the floor, a spray of pixels erupting to symbolise their tiny, vulnerable bodies being torn asunder by the remorseless forces of gravity?


And now you can see why Mad Nurse was charged with having some questionable moral content. Now, I'm cynical, jaded and childless enough to not be overly fazed by the constant stream of infant death that Mad Nurse throws at you, but I can see why some people might not be too keen on the idea of a game that takes a light-hearted, comical approach to babies dying horribly. It's certainly a strange mixture, and it's made even weirder by the fact that letting a toddler or two guzzle more drugs than Lemmy or fall to their splattery end is not really punished or even remarked upon.


It takes at least three dead kids for the authorities to act, and even then they don't begin criminal proceedings - they just fire Brenda, presumably with severance pay and the advice that she probably shouldn't ring the NHS when looking for a reference for her next job. A new nurse, equally mad and with an equally stupid name, takes up the job of running the maternity wards and soon babies are dropping like flies once more (or rather not like flies, because flies very rarely fall down lift shafts).


"Tracy Toetickler, eh? Well, that sounds like a fine and certainly not made-up name, welcome to the nursing staff. Here's your ID pass and remember, the elevator doors are on the fritz so just prop them open with some pill bottles."
Infanticide aside, (that's actually quite fun to say,) Mad Nurse is, as I'm sure you've figured out, a painfully limited and repetitive game that would have been dull in 1987, let alone now. For the sake of completeness, though, there are a few other aspects of the gameplay I should mention. One is that these babies are restless sorts, and they won't necessarily stay in their cots once you put them down. In fact, the more babies you put in the same cot, the faster the babies jump out of it, so there a sliver of extra strategy that comes from having to distribute your baby deposits as evenly as possible. Also, the phrase "baby deposits" sounds like a horrible euphemism for ejaculation, so please don't use it in that context.
The other thing is the only weapon in the Mad Nurse's arsenal: a limited supply of baby-paralyzing gas.


You might just about be able to tell that the above screenshot is slightly darker than the others: that's because the ward is now filled with a strange mist that paralyzes babies. It's sort of like pausing the game, except your nurse is still free to move about and pick up babies, giving you a little extra time to rescue a tyke who's getting dangerous close to licking a plug socket. Nowhere is it it explained how your nurse came to be in possession of this potent nerve-gas, but I've got some friends who have recently become parents and I'm sure they'd pay big money for an airbourne baby-freezing agent. That stuff's not available on the National Health, so the nurses here may be mad but they're also genius-level chemists. If fact, I've become entirely convinced that this isn't even a hospital - I mean, just look at it!


There are many factors that lead me to doubt the official status of this hospital, and here are just a few:
- Despite being a maternity ward, these babies are clearly old enough to crawl.
- Hospitals generally don't have toilets in the middle of their corridors.
- Unlike every hospital I've ever been too, this building isn't a nightmarish labyrinth of identical passages, mysterious doorways and badly-signposted exits.
- Those sockets are clearly much larger than the UK standard size.
- No hand-wash stations.
- The game is called Mad Nurse.
The logical explanation is that a group of mentally-ill women have kidnapped a large number of infants and are holding them in a poorly-maintained house somewhere for their own fiendish purposes. What is their ultimate aim? What terrifying plan necessitates the gathering of so many children? I don't know, and I don't think I want to find out.


Are you the ringleader, Cathy Cuddlecare - if that is your real name? You people sicken me.
So that's Dead Babies. I mean, that's Mad Nurse. Seriously, this game has left this song wedged firmly in my brain and it's a pretty awkward one to accidentally start singing on public transport. One of the strangest things about this game (for me, at least) was that it was released by Firebird, a label set up by Telecomsoft who were themselves owned by British Telecom. So, next time you see BT advert on TV offering new broadband deals or something, just remember that they once, in a roundabout way, released a videogame featuring more dead babies than all the slums in Victorian London.
As for the actual gameplay, it's boring. Plain and simple, it's a tired concept that becomes unbearably dull even before you've finished the first stage. If you're looking for positives I suppose the graphics are pretty good for the time, especially the character animations which are smoother than I expected them to be, but that's really the only nice thing I can say about Mad Nurse. At least it's kinda fascinating as a relic from a time before video and computer games became as homogenised as they are now - people often say "product X would never get made nowadays" and in the case of Mad Nurse they'd be completely right, unless Suda51's obsessions suddenly switch from nerd culture to babies falling from great heights.


And then, just as my time with Mad Nurse was coming to an end, the game hit me with one last piece of soul-darkening action. You see, a big problem with this game is that it's too easy. Sure, a couple of babies will crawl off this mortal coil while you play but it's surprisingly difficult to rack up a body count big enough to arouse the suspicions of the authorities. Normally I'd be happy with a game this old being easy for once, but due to my desire to make sure I'd seen everything, including the Game Over screen, I had to let a lot of babies die. And they die so slowly, wriggling forward with no urgency, and when you combine that with the frequent and irritatingly lengthy between-stage scenes reaching the Game Over screen would have taken much more time than I was willing to spend on Mad Nurse. So, I helped things along a little. I picked the babies up and put them down at the edge of the elevator shaft. I killed all the babies. This game, this paint-peelingly tedious single-screen lump of digital nothingness that doesn't require enough thought to be called a puzzle game nor contains enough action to be called anything else, this game: Mad Nurse turned me into a baby killer.


This stark message is all that I deserve. Screw you, Firebird - my ritual soul-cleansing flagellation session wasn't due for another four months, and now I have to put the tarp down in the spare room and oil my cat-o-nine-tails early.

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