The Third Annual VGJunk Hallowe’en Spooktacular continues, and after the first article about Data East's sort-of-alright Real Ghostbusters coin-op, it's time for another movie tie-in. This one's not quite as suitable for young children, however - it's Palace Software's 1984 Commodore 64 / ZX Spectrum release The Evil Dead!
That's the ZX Spectrum loading screen, although for the rest of the article I'll mostly be using Commodore screenshots because the palette is much easier on the eyes than the Spectrum's neon-death-barrage approach to colour management.
So, we've got a movie license. We've got a green mutant woman who looks like the product of a drunken one night stand between Alice Cooper and Shrek. We've also got - and I think this is the really big giveaway - the title "The Evil Dead" occupying a quarter of the screen. I think maybe, just maybe, this game is based on Sam Raimi's 1981 cult classic The Evil Dead.
Well, I guess that confirms it. His name may be misspelled as "Ashly" through the game, but don't let this fool you: in this game, you play as Ash Williams, Deadite-slayer supreme, master of the wisecrack and extremely slipshod time-traveller. For those of you who've never seen The Evil Dead, it's an age-old story - group of kids travel to a cabin in the woods and accidentally unleash a dread force of unspeakable supernatural evil. Demons start possessing the hell out of anything nearby, evil trees overstep some personal boundaries, there's loads of gore and it doesn't really end well for anyone. Bruce Campbell plays Ash, and both actor and character went on to become cult favourites, with Campbell / Ash appearing in the two Evil Dead sequels and a host of spin-off projects. It certainly sounds like a Hallowe'en-y premise, right?
There have been a few other, more recent Evil Dead games, all of which (I think) are third-person hack-and-slash titles, but this game obviously isn't one of those. For starters, it came out before Evil Dead 2, the movie where Ash gains his trademark chainsaw-arm and shotgun combo, and plus The Evil Dead was released for the home computers of the early eighties. These platforms couldn't handle that kind of all-out action, so what do we have instead? Well, helpfully the C64 version has a demo that explains the game's simple premise - it's a "defend yourself" game.
The demo shows the various stages of the game, with scrolling text at the bottom which is presented as though Ash himself is talking to you. The illusion is somewhat dented when he gets to the end of his spiel and starts thanking the various people who helped with the creation of the game, giving the impression that Ash survived his hellish ordeal, caught a lift back to town and immediately started programming a computer game based on his exploits.
Once you start the game, you'll find yourself in the cabin from the movie, complete with porch swing and beds that look like C64 recreations of Mondrian's less successful works. From your top-down vantage point, your first task is to take control of Ash and close all the windows around the cabin.
The dotted line at the top is a closed window, and doors can also be closed and are represented by a solid line. To close a window or door, walk up to the hole in the wall and press fire. Just like real life! The purpose of closing all the windows, aside from keeping the heating bill down, is to stop the Evil Force for gaining entry to the house. In the movie, the Evil Force is an unseen, well, force that floats around and does various evil things. Look, it doesn't have very well-defined goals, alright? In the game, however, it is represented by what looks like a pile of cooked spaghetti, hurled to the ground by someone with an uncontrollable hatred for Italian food.
Terrifying! Okay, so it's easy to mock the limitations of the C64 or Spectrum's graphics, but the Evil Force will kill you the second you touch it so if you're going to mock it, at least don't do it to its (lack of a) face. Try your best to keep the Evil Force out of the cabin, because once it gets in - and it always gets in - the first thing it'll do is fly over to one of your friends and turn them into a "Mutant".
Ash is the broad-shouldered white fellow at the top of the screen. The grey clone of Ash just below him is one of his friends in a blissfully un-mutated state. The green person in the zombie-like pose? That's your mutant. Ash may not be overly blessed in the intelligence department, but he knows what to do with a mutant when he sees one: dismember it in as gory a manner as possible. To do that you'll need a weapon, so go pick up one of the various Deadite-bashing tools that randomly appear around the cabin and get to work.
Clockwise from the top left, we've got a sword that's probably meant to represent the ceremonial dagger from the movie, a yellow... stick? Knitting needle? I have no idea. Then there's a nice, easily identifiable pink shovel, good for lopping monsters' heads off, and finally there's something which is either a garden hoe, an axe or Pinocchio's leg.
Once you've grabbed a nearby weapon, walk up to the mutant and press fire. Congratulations! You have dismembered your first mutant. Unfortunately, all that this has accomplished is splitting the mutant into several still-living body parts.
Namely the arms, legs and torso / head. It's nice to see the arms are still hanging about together, even after they've been separated from the body - so many people don't socialise with their colleagues outside work but these guys are just damn good buddies. Of course, the real star here is the expression on the head. "Hmm," it seems to say "I notice you've severed my limbs. Not sure why you'd want to do that, but whatever. I'm not going to hold it against you," and then you both chuckle at his use of the word "hold" while his arms are laying six feet away on the fireside rug.
You deal with the limbs like you do with the mutants - hit 'em with a weapon. This, as well as chopping up mutants and closing windows, nets you points, and the entire purpose of the game is to score as many points as possible.
This all sounds like a jolly enough survive-em-up romp, and that's exactly what the game could have been... but it isn't. Right from the start, glaring flaws become apparent and it only gets worse as you get further into the game.
The first thing you're likely to notice is that Ash is a big, strapping lad. A little too big and strapping, because his wide-shouldered frame is forever getting stuck on the scenery and simply turning around can become a nightmare, especially when your friends - who you cannot walk through - all decide to stand around in the corridor while the Evil Force bears down behind you. I tried hacking my way through my pals, hoping to at once save them from the horror of becoming a foul undead ghoul and to save myself by climbing out of a window, but you lose a life if you purposefully kill them. I'm not saying I should've been given a medal or anything, but a little recognition of my initiative would have been nice.
Getting stuck seems especially problematic in the ZX version, and as you can see from this screenshot I managed to get myself trapped on the porch, the unopenable window blocking my route back into the house and the enormous, boat-like swing stopping me from going around to the door. The only thing that saved me from having to quit the game and start again is the fact that the doors and windows randomly open and close themselves, (or the Evil Force does it, I suppose,) so I just had to wait there for ten minutes until the window magically flung itself open. In retrospect, I should have quit the game and restarted. Or just quit the game.
I could maybe forgive the busted controls and wonky collision detection, but engaging the enemies in combat completely destroys any appeal the game might have had. For starters, when you pick up a weapon it sometimes simply vanishes from out of your hands. Poof, gone, go pick up another one. Then you spend your time walking towards a nearby sword or Pinocchio leg, only for it to disappear just before you reach it. I put part of the blame for this trudging, leaden movement on Ash himself, because if his walking sprite is anything to go by he's got a pair of caterpillar treads instead of feet.
It might seem churlish to complain about having to walk over to weapons to collect them, and it would be if it weren't for The Evil Dead's bizarre health system. You've got a supply of health, or "energy," that you can see at the bottom of the screen. So far, so within accordance of the ancient rules of videogaming. The trouble is, Ash must have some undisclosed and very serious medical conditions because every step you take drains your health. Not just a little bit, either - it plummets quickly enough to make me wonder whether the cabin floor is made of bear traps and used needles. Upon noticing this, I thought, okay, so I have to be careful, plan my movements and try to conserve energy. Between running away from the Evil Force and trying to collect weapons, this is easier said than done.
And say you do survive long enough to traverse the cabin and get a weapon - you'll be wanting to hit an enemy with it, right? Oh, a noble dream indeed, but one that'll leave you deader than Gary Glitter's music career. Every time you attack an enemy, even if you kill it right away, you lose a big chunk of health. Every single time. It is impossible to defeat these mutants without getting hurt, which wouldn't be so bad if there was any way at all to increase your health. Thing is, I think there was supposed to be a way to heal yourself; the demo / instructions clearly inform you that picking up weapons "gives you energy." Weapons, and let me make this clear, do not give you energy. So, you'll die a lot.
That's the death screen from the C64 version, and you may think it looks bad but it's got nothing on the Spectrum one. I can't show you it because I couldn't capture it correctly, and anyway I think there are health and safety rules about putting something so retina-meltingly painful on the internet. Put it this way - I saw it a lot. I have epilepsy. I did not have epilepsy before I started playing The Evil Dead.
I did struggle on through the Spectrum version, using a cheat to give me infinite lives, in order to show you the end of the game, but all I received was one more kick in the gaming nethers. Once you reach 100,000 points - which I did, slowly and laboriously - a book appears on the floor of the main room. I think it's meant to be the Necronomicon, but the cover leads me to believe it's the autobiography of some guy called Ed. Whatever the case, picking up the book and throwing it into the fireplace (that's the fireplace at the bottom there) is supposed to banish the evil and finish the game. I did that, and nothing happened. Well, I got another 10,000 points but nothing else happened - mutants kept appearing, the Evil Force kept roaming, the game just would not end. So I turned it off, and I felt better.
I really wanted to like The Evil Dead, not just because I'm a fan of the movie but because it could have been good - an against-all-odds battle against the marauding forces of demonkind with an emphasis on defence and survival would've made for an interesting take on the source material, much more interesting than the usual side-scrolling platformer, but in the end The Evil Dead's many flaws weigh the game down and eventually crush the fun right out of it. It's an interesting curio with five minutes worth of play-time wrapped around an almost-good idea, but in the end it has to go down as a missed opportunity.
Before I close the (blasphemous, bound-in-human-skin) book on this one, a couple more points. The first thing is that the C64 version has a pretty good theme tune.
It's simple but it's spooky, and it does a good job of setting the mood - something that the graphics don't really manage.
Secondly, while the Commodore 64 version of The Evil Dead received a stand-alone release, the ZX Spectrum version didn't. It was released as the B-side to another Palace Software game called Cauldron and advertised as a "free game."
I've seen a few different theories regarding this unusual marketing decision: my first thought was that Palace considered The Evil Dead to be too slight an offering to deserve it's own full-scale release, but given that the C64 version was released, combined with the vast amounts of barely-there Spectrum titles that did make it to the shop shelves, it doesn't seem likely. One explanation was that Palace, concerned about the VHS release of The Evil Dead attaining the title of a "Video Nasty", tried to slip the game out quietly on the back of Cauldron and thus avoid any negative press. Again, I'm not sure I believe this story either, because if there was one thing guaranteed to drive game sales up, it was a bit of good ol' media controversy. The other explanation, and the one I'm most fond of, is that there was a cock-up somewhere along the line and Palace accidentally recorded The Evil Dead to side B of the Cauldron tapes. If that is true, and I dearly hope it is, then it certainly goes to show how far the videogame industry has come. It shall forever remain a mystery, however, unless some former Palace employee stops by and gives me the full insight - but a mystery is a good way to end this Hallowe'en article, don't you think?
Of course, this being October I need to turn to the Hallowe'en-O-Meter for its reading on The Evil Dead's fright-factor:
I feel like I'm being generous with a seven out of ten, but anything called The Evil Dead is bound to be fairly creeptacular, and the Commodore 64 version's theme gets it an extra point to bump it up from a lacklustre six. The main problem is that it's just not Evil Dead enough - if you didn't know what the game was called, I reckon you'd have a pretty hard time figuring out that it's supposed to be based on Sam Raimi's horror classic, or any horror movie for that matter. Also, no pumpkins. If there'd been a pumpkin in there, it would have been an eight at least.