Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Evil Dead…on the Commodore 64!

The Ultimate Experience in Grueling (Cartridge-Based) Terror!

Seeing as how the much-anticipated/much-dreaded “Evil Dead” remake is being released this weekend, I figure it’s only fitting that we take the time to revisit the first “Evil Dead”-branded video game to hit the market, no? 

Oh, by the way; for those of you that think you have to go back to 2000 and “Evil Dead: Hail to the King” to play the first officially licensed, Deadite and Fake Shemp filled title…you’ll actually have to go back much further than that. How much further, exactly? Try before the Nintendo Entertainment System was even available in the U.S., you primitive screw heads.

The very, very first official “Evil Dead” game was released in 1984, on the much beloved (but hardly played by anyone under the age of 30) Commodore 64. As for the back story behind the title? The game was apparently produced by some dude named Richard Leinfellner, and produced by U.K.-based Palace Software. According to the wiki at Giant Bomb, Leinfellner’s most recent forays into the world of gaming are re-dos of “Populous” and “SimCoaster,” released in 1999 and 2003, respectively. Meanwhile, the much more reliable Moby Games database says that the dude’s had a pretty prolific career, working on such cult classic titles as “Outlander” and “Alfred Chicken” in the early 1990s and helping produce numerous Electronic Arts games  throughout the aughties -- including 2004’s abysmal  “Catwoman” and the fairly-underappreciated (and Avril Lavigne-tastic) “Burnout Dominator” in 2007.

Palace Software continued to make games up until the studio officially shuttered its doors in 1991, when the group’s parent company sold it off to Titus Software -- the same publishing masterminds behind such legendary offerings as “Superman 64” and “Blues Brothers 2000.” Outside of “The Evil Dead,” the studio’s most famous game is probably “Cauldron,” an All Hallows Eve-themed SHMUP which began life as, of all things, a platformer based on John Carpenter’s “Halloween.” And crazily, when the studio ported “Cauldron” to the ZX Spectrum, they actually included a totally free version of “The Evil Dead” as an unmarketed “bonus game” on the flip side of the tape!

Now, seeing as how the game was released almost 30 years ago, you’re probably not going to be surprised by the fact that the gameplay therein is rather limited. As are the graphics, the sounds, the controls and pretty much every other technical attribute you can think of. That said, the game -- for its time, anyway -- is actually pretty decent, and shockingly, quite a bit of limited fun, pending you have a tolerance for vector graphics and Atari 2600-esque gameplay dynamics.

"The Evil Dead” was a fairly simplistic movie, and the Commodore 64 version of “The Evil Dead” is even simpler. The title screen is very minimalistic, but I think that works in favor of the game -- especially considering the “bare-bones” nature of the source-material. I really dug how that creepy, Castlevania-esque music starts piping up as soon as the cartridge loads; unfortunately, it’s the only portion of the game with anything that resembles “actual music,” so enjoy it while it lasts.

And of course, any long-time “Evil Dead” aficionado will note at least one discrepancy regarding the cast list presented here. I suppose we could overlook the misspelling of “Ashley” as a data compression issue, but, then why in the heck would the characters “Cheryl” and “Shelly” be fully spelled out?

That awesome, spooky title theme continues as a brief cutscene unfurls. The sequence is basically our exposition and a tutorial at the same time, with the uninitiated learning the whole “Evil Dead” mythos in about the time it takes to heat up a cup of Ramen noodles.

The premise of the game is absurdly simple. You play Ash, and it’s your job to close all of the doors and shut all of the windows in the iconic “cabin in the woods,” so that the “Evil Dead spirit” - - the unseen force in Sam Raimi’s movie, which is visualized in the game as a generic puffy cloud -- can’t seep in and turn everybody into frog monsters. Uh…more on that plot point later.

By the way, if you accidentally touch the Evil Dead cloud yourself, it’s an instant kill. I bring this up, simply because the death screen in the game is so amazingly minimal, yet effective; the screen gets all static, a few distorted beeps ring out of your C64, and then, it’s time for a re-do, with a freshly reset game clock. Be careful though; in the game, you only get three lives, and believe you me, you’ll run out of all of them in a hurry.

So, back to those afore-mentioned frog monsters. When the Evil Dead fog hits one of the non-playable-characters in the game, they transform into “green mutants”…which is the precise term the explicatory cutscene used earlier to describe what you are fighting. Needless to say, if they end up touching you, it’s time for another interstitial of static to scroll across your monitor.

To defend yourself against the Brussels-sprout hued legion of the dead, however, the game gives you a small arsenal of weaponry to defend yourself with. Sprinkled throughout the cabin, there are axes, shovels, a samurai sword (must’ve been in the long-unseen “first draft” of “The Evil Dead” screenplay, I imagine) and this narrow, baseball bat-looking object that could really be anything. A piece of lumber, a lead pipe, a sledgehammer…really, the only boundary here is your imagination. Every time you pick up a weapon, the game clock freezes for about a half second. On the surface, that doesn’t really seem like a long time, but seeing as how your stage-time-linked life bar drains from full health to “deader than Elvis” in less than two minutes, trust me…those seconds matters.

Probably my favorite aspect of the entire game is that after you “slay” a “green mutant,” the demon returns…this time, as a small platoon of disembodied, multi-colored body parts. It’s an incredibly small detail, but something that I think really pushes the game over the hump from being a mere “cash-in” to something with at least a little bit of thought and planning behind it.

Considering the scope and technological restrictions imposed upon the software, it’s probably not surprising that the overall “game world” is rather limited. The cabin you walk into is really the entire game geography, so outside of a few rooms and some extremely limited walking space a few centimeters around the parameter of the cabin, that’s all there is to see in the game. That said, the in-game cabin itself is a pretty detailed representation of the one from the movie -- not only do you get the fireplace and a couple of beds, you even get that spooky, creaky swing set on the porch, which actually sways back and forth while you murder-death-kill broccoli-headed zombies.

So, yeah, as I was saying earlier: the gameplay here is EXTRAORDINARILY limited. Seeing as how your life bar is perpetually draining, I think it’s pretty unlikely that anyone can last longer than about five minutes on any play through of the game. I guess you could find ways to up your high score by tracing the patterns of the “Evil Dead” clouds and proactively closing windows and doors, but if you have enough time to figure that out…congratulations on having such a fruitful life.

Despite the obvious gameplay deficits, I would still consider “The Evil Dead” on the Commodore 64 to be an “entertaining” game, keeping in mind two major caveats. Number one, it’s the kind of game you play in ten minute spurts, and usually, just once a year (around Halloween, preferably.) And secondly, you have to remember this game was released when this was considered visually groundbreaking home video gaming. It’s basic, and repetitive and purposelessly difficult, but you know what, kids? That’s what video games used to be about, in general. If you can’t get at least a twinge of nostalgic happiness out of this thing, your attention span is probably too short to even make it this deep into the article, anyway.

There’s really not much else to say about the game, I suppose. It’s a curious little relic from yesteryear, and if nothing else, a mildly entertaining diversion for a couple of minutes. And in my humblest of opinions? It sure as hell beats the pants off the Commodore 64 treatment “Friday the 13th” got, that’s for darned sure…


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