Accidental history—remastering the campy teen horror game Congress famously hated

A scene like this doesn’t exactly scream “2017 video game.” And yet…

FMV (full motion video) games,” the title was nothing more than a lightly interactive series of pre-recorded videos.

But after years of effort to get the project off the ground, months of coding and delays, and time spent navigating the grueling certification process for modern console launches, independent game designer Tyler Hogle was ready to be done in late summer 2017. Pressing through exhaustion, Hogle’s target release date was days away—but so was the birth of his child. On top of it all, after a last-minute patch to add extra language support, he noticed that he’d accidentally broken his own game and needed a patch out. Fast.

An accidental piece of history

Long before Hogle’s dilemma, the original Night Trap was an unlikely standard-bearer in the debate on violence in video games. Originally filmed in the mid-’80s for Hasbro’s canceled VHS-based NEMO console, Night Trap featured big names of the time including child star Dana Plato (of Diff’rent Strokes fame). By the early ‘90s, though, it had already been delayed and reworked to be a relatively tame riff on teen slasher horror. When the game first hit the Sega CD in 1992, it already looked and felt quite dated. It didn’t help that the Sega CD’s limited hardware struggled to render even a low-resolution, low frame-rate version of the original film—don’t even ask if it responded snappily for the interactive bits.

As the game opens, you’re introduced to a specialized team of law enforcement who have been investigating mysterious disappearances. Agent Kelli (Plato) goes undercover during a slumber party, and you’re basically left watching security camera footage for intruders and then using access codes you collect from eavesdropping to control a system of elaborate traps built into the house itself.

While it’s clearly influenced by slasher flicks of the ‘70s and ‘80s, you are there to stop assault—not delight in it like those films. And because of Hasbro’s initial involvement, there’s no nudity or sex, nor any significant violence besides people being slowly dragged off-screen, screaming. Maybe it can be blood-curdling to some folks, but it’s far milder than its place in the annals of gaming lore would suggest. A tween-friendly modern horror game like Five Nights at Freddy’s is probably more horror-filled.

A remastered trailer shows how well (or not well) the footage has aged

Players were originally meant to defend a group of teenage girls from an onslaught of ninjas. Over time, though, those foes morphed into toothless, sickly vampires with a wobbling toddle and no weapons beyond a machine that could wrap around its victim and drain them of blood. At the time, it was thought that this ridiculous “weapon” would keep the game out of the realm of “reproducible” violence, thus making the game “safe” for younger players. Instead, even the game’s original director, James Riley, thought the change from ninjas to wobble-piers made the game more creepy and gruesome, not less.

In any case, Night Trap soon earned its place in gaming history when it became a central subject of numerous congressional hearings. In December 1993, senators Joe Lieberman and Herb Kohl held Night Trap right alongside the much bloodier Mortal Kombat to dissect video game violence and its impact on the country. Lieberman would admit he never even played the game, but he still quickly pointed to a scene involving those not-originally-included vampires to support his views that Night Trap featured sexual aggression towards women.

According to Steve Kent’s Ultimate History of Videogames, the notoriety actually helped spur sales of Night Trap at first. The game sold 50,000 copies in the week after the high profile hearings. But ultimately the unexpected spotlight grew too hot. The two largest US toy chains at the time—Toys “R” Us and Kay-Bee Toys—pulled the game two weeks before Christmas after being bombarded with negative phone calls, according to GamePro reports at the time. Eventually, SEGA pulled the original from the market and announced a censored version was in the works. The hearings infamously led to the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, still in use today.

Mortal Kombat, which was again much gorier, never left shelves. But deserved or not, the scrutiny propelled Night Trap into the spotlight and forever made it a cultural touchstone of early ‘90s gaming.

Starting over

Tyler Hogle started his career in games as a contractor, hungry for work. He had a day job, working in what he termed “call center hell.” In his off-hours, he worked on projects for William Mesa, a wealthy producer who happened to own the rights to countless old games.

“He was paying me to update them and bring them to mobile, essentially,” Hogle says. Typically, the work was pretty straight forward. He’d dig into the code and port it to phones over a few weeks. It wasn’t difficult, but it was intense and he rarely had the time he wished he had to complete a job. Between contracts, though, his friend convinced him to make a Night Trap prototype for Android.

He spent three days on it, which he spent mostly watching and re-watching Night Trap clips so that he could get the timings right. Because there’s one universal clock that times the progression of the kinda-sorta-but-not-really vampires through the house, there was an impossibly complex web of triggers that had to be coded just right to get it all working. Still, Hogle managed to get the original port running within hours.

“This was shortly after the Kickstarter,” Hogle says, referencing a failed 2014 effort to revive the game with crowdfunding. “After that, there was a dedicated group of fans, maybe 500 or so, who were trying their hand at remaking the game as [fan projects]… My friend convinced me to make my own, but post a clip to YouTube with a weird name ‘night trap mobile prototype.avi,’ I think, so that it would look like a leak. From there, it caught some traction and then we got picked up by a few sites who were really excited to see something like this.”

The source code for the original Sega CD version of <em>Night Trap</em> (above) is long gone, but the new version acquired DVD-quality footage from the master tapes of the footage.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Night-Trap1.jpg” width=”630″ height=”420″/><figcaption class=
The source code for the original Sega CD version of Night Trap (above) is long gone, but the new version acquired DVD-quality footage from the master tapes of the footage.

After that initial buzz, Hogle says, he got in contact with Tom Zito, the game’s original producer and co-creator. The two were able to negotiate a deal.

“I walked in and quit my job the very next day. I was so confident,” Hogle recalls. “I thought ‘this is my way into the industry, having my name attached to a name this big could make my career.’ I didn’t even think about the necessity of preserving older games at the time, I just wanted to live my dream.”

From there, Riley gave Hogle the master tapes with markers for each of the carefully-timed events and cut scenes that run throughout. While the game’s source code had been lost for years, the master tapes let Hogle import video at DVD quality, rather than the grainy, low-res video required for early ‘90s consoles and PCs. Thus, what was originally planned as a simple fan-remake turned it into a right-and-proper remaster, to be built from the ground up around the original video clips.

From the bottom up

While the Sega CD Night Trap was ported to the 3DO and PCs in the mid-‘90s, the original release has largely been lost to time. It lives on for modern gamers mainly in archived videos on the now-defunct G4 and TechTV, or maybe in YouTube gaming retrospectives or “Let’s Play” videos, according to Hogle. “A lot of people know about Night Trap,” he says, “But very few have ever played it.”

Ostensibly, that is partially due to the fact that the game is usually considered an accidental hit. Even upon its release in 1992, it was dated—having been filmed years earlier and looking the part. Plus, while Night Trap ultimately found a home on the Sega CD, that console struggled to render play from what was essentially a film from a CD (never mind working around all of the various interactive bits). And unfortunately, that’s the totality of the game.

So despite Night Trap’s notoriety, it’s a game more infamous as a symbol than famous as an actual, played game. In fact, the game’s dated visuals and Hasbro-tamed “horror” content may have made it hard for Night Trap to find an audience on its own merits alone. The reworked plot, the ridiculous villains, and a corny theme song with a companion music video gave it a camp rating that would even make Rocky Horror fans cringe.

“I don’t think it ever got fair consideration,” Hogle laments. “When you’re in 1992, you’re looking ahead to the coming changes, not trying to relive the decade you just left. Now, though, we have a generation of people who are fascinated by [the years they never saw].”

When it did come to actual gameplay complaints about Night Trap, the most common seemed to be various glitches and technical problems that the game had—including some scenarios that could make the game unwinnable. This issue sat on top on the list of changes for Hogle.

“I saw comments on videos and new stories about the project with people exclaiming ‘Why not remake Snatcher [a Sega CD classic from Metal Gear Solid’s Hideo Kojima]? Night Trap was terrible and buggy!’ I wanted to clear its name in a sense, and give people the chance to play it on its own terms,” he says. “I feel like we’re far enough out that we can really start looking at these things and recreating them in a way that’s more in line with how they were meant to be played.”

Oh daddy dear you know you're still number one...
Enlarge / Oh daddy dear you know you’re still number one…

Launch days and life

Night Trap was originally supposed to arrive in “Spring 2017,” but May came and went without an official announcement. As he continued to press on, Hogle seemed to maintain a good spirit about the project—joking with one repeated Twitter questioner that the release date would be in 25 years for the PlayStation 7—but the finish line looked like it’d be his only relief.

The developer told interviewers throughout the spring that he had time for very little else between the project and a baby on the way. “I hate admitting this but I haven’t even had a chance to check them out yet so I’m not sure what’s going on with those,” Hogle said when Rely On Horror asked if he looked to other recently released FMV-remastered games for inspiration. “It has been Night Trap 24/7 trying to get this thing finished and eventually released. I have an absurd number of games that I need to catch up on in general.”

His personal Twitter feed conveyed some recurring struggles, too—noting how hard just coming up with a PSN store listing could be and lamenting that some unrelenting press seemed upset over the delay. “Kinda bummed and happy about being completely done with Night Trap since it’s all I’ve done the past 9 months,” Hogle tweeted in July. “Ready to move on.”

A week or so later on July 30, things finally became official: Hogle’s blood, sweat, and tears would bear fruit on August 11Night Trap would first be released as a physical disc for PS4 with digital versions arriving on August 15.

And for the most part, everything went as smoothly as you could hope given the developer’s biggest project to date launched on a Friday and his new baby arrived that Saturday, August 12. Hogle was still sending out review codes from the hospital this week, and he’s been troubleshooting launch day bugs with whatever spare time a new parent can be expected to have.

All of that joy (and some glowing early reviews) hopefully made the minor issue of a European release day delay less of a burden. Hogle’s development company, Screaming Villains, had to announce the bump on that August 15 digital release day since a bevy of translation requests came in after initial development was complete. It all adds another month or so to Hogle’s time spent on Night Trap, as the game is expected to be ready for abroad audiences by the first half of September according to Eurogamer.

Reflecting on all the work and time put in, Hogle admits he was never a huge fan of Night Trap. As a kid, he didn’t get it. As an adult, he’s fallen for its less-famous siblings based on the same interactive video principle. Double Switch, for example, starred ‘80s teen idol Corey Haim and was “better in every way” than Night Trap, according to Hogle, thanks to a much brisker pace that would force you to rotate through camera feeds more often. Once he’s done porting Night Trap to every system he can, Hogle even hopes to start working on a Double Switch revival someday.

But for now, after some unexpected extra time focused on Night Trap, his next project likely won’t be a big departure. Hogle recently confirmed with DigitalTrends that he’ll look into the production of a sequel to Night Trap given the interest this new project has found. Both Riley and Zico, the original co-creators, will be involved.

“Just about everyone who made it back then is still around and, with Hasbro [at the helm] of it, they didn’t get to make what they wanted,” Hogle says. “Now, we’re talking about doing just that.”

So grueling as it may have been, Hogle’s ultimately glad he took on the project—especially with a new future for an aging classic on the horizon.

“[She] understands,” he says, referring to his wife. “I feel like this has really opened things up for me… and there’s a lot of things I can choose to work on next… It’s rough, because my daughter was born days before launch, but she understands.”

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