In 2020, I stumbled upon Night Trap: 25th Anniversary Edition on the PlayStation Store, completely unaware that I would soon adore it. I knew of the original game’s notoriety as one of the primary subjects of the 1993 United States Congressional Hearings on video game violence, and I knew it was a campy horror “interactive movie,” but that was about it. I’m into historical oddities, though, so I downloaded it, expecting to spend maybe an hour or two with it. Instead, I beat it countless times en route to its platinum trophy. Don’t get me wrong, Night Trap is not a “good” game. I stuck with it for a different reason — as I played through it, I realized I was unlocking substantial bonus content by viewing restored deleted scenes, bad endings, and noteworthy story bits. This wealth of information and context turned a solid port of a bad game into a fascinating historical document and an exemplary rerelease.
The underlying incentive structure strengthened the base game, too. By playing and even failing at the game, I unlocked archival material that helped me learn about and appreciate Night Trap a little bit more. Content that remained locked motivated me to return to the game, and the repeated exposure further endeared me to it. I came around on Night Trap in a way I wouldn’t have if the 25th Anniversary Edition had merely been a barebones port with sharper video and a better interface. The game became a personal favorite instead of a passing dalliance with a ‘90s curiosity.
FMV: The Early Days
In a 2017 interview included with the Anniversary Edition, Night Trap creator James Riley recalls pitching his early interactive narrative concepts to Hasbro in the late ‘80s for use with VHS tapes. His company Digital Pictures received initial funding, but as Night Trap was developed, feasibility concerns arose, and the project was abandoned. Fortunately, the Sega CD came along in 1992, and it was “just powerful enough” to support full-motion video (FMV) and make Riley’s vision a reality. As other companies were clamoring to capitalize on the possibilities of FMV, Riley had a head start.
And so Night Trap went to market. The game’s FMV content comprises a film involving a family of vampires that invite victims to their lakehouse, which is full of traps laid for their unsuspecting prey. The player’s job is to protect their guests by hacking into the home’s CCTV and trap system to catch the family themselves. Certain failure states include scenes of mild violence in which the guests – who happen to be teenage girls – are trapped or dragged away. From the ensuing controversy, the ESRB was born, and Night Trap enjoyed commercial success. Consequently, Digital Pictures went on to release a number of other games before fading into obscurity along with the FMV fad.
Enter Screaming Villains. In 2017, Night Trap: 25th Anniversary Edition became the Kentucky-based studio’s debut and the first of four Digital Pictures games it would work on. Their inaugural title’s path to release, of course, started years prior. Founder (and lone employee) Tyler Hogle told Ars Technica that a failed 2014 Kickstarter intended to revive the game was his initial inspiration. Hogle was not involved with that effort, but at the time, he did contract work making mobile ports of old FMV games owned by visual effects director William Mesa. With relevant experience and a friend’s encouragement, Hogle threw together his own prototype of Night Trap and uploaded some clips to YouTube. Inspired by the stir this caused among the game’s cult fanbase, Hogle reached out to Tom Zito, producer and co-creator of Night Trap. Zito was receptive to the idea of a remaster, the aforementioned Riley provided the original footage, and Hogle quit his day job to focus on the project. Ultimately, he succeeded in creating the definitive version of the game.
He wasn’t content to stop there, though. Once Night Trap was out the door, Hogle set his sights on Double Switch, another Digital Pictures effort (and one Hogle told Ars Technica he prefers to Night Trap). However, the rights to the game were retained by William Mesa (d.b.a. Flash Film Works), not Zito and Riley, making Hogle’s relationship with the former fortuitous indeed. He was able to make Double Switch: 25th Anniversary Edition a reality, and he partnered once more with Flash Film Works for Screaming Villains’ third release, Corpse Killer: 25th Anniversary Edition. His studio’s fourth and most recent release was 2021’s Ground Zero Texas: Nuclear Edition.
Despite this steady clip of output, the company has not announced any future projects, but it has at least discussed the feasibility of releasing other FMV games on official channels in the past. Irrespective of what the future holds, Screaming Villains is a fascinating case study. With cooperation from rights holders and access to source material, even a single developer can admirably preserve, update, and document old games (original quality notwithstanding).
Naturally, I was happy to learn after enjoying Night Trap that it was not a one-and-done release. I knew I had to try Screaming Villains’ sophomore effort, Double Switch: 25th Anniversary Edition. The game is a spiritual successor to Night Trap, borrowing the gameplay of its predecessor, but is longer and more sophisticated. Despite its improvements, Double Switch remains difficult to recommend on its own merit because it retains some irritating flaws. It introduces randomness, but success still largely depends on rote memorization to avoid instant game overs. It’s got more traps and more baddies, but catching them requires the player to miss a lot of the plot. Fortunately, the anniversary release is bolstered by similar bonus content to Night Trap. I feared its comparative lack of historical significance might hinder it in that regard, but I was happy to see it handled with similar care.
All Play and No Context Makes Mario a Dull Boy
I just wish the surprisingly enriching experience of these two rereleased games weren’t so uncommon. So many games have been rereleased with barely any contextual information — look at the offerings on Nintendo Switch Online, which provide only box art, a release date, and a small text description. Countless other retro compilations and micro consoles fall in the same boat. Such releases absolutely have preservational value, but video games are not self-documenting. Simply playing a game does not necessarily confer any information about the broader context in which it was released nor the motivation or design process of its creators. This is especially true because games are so uniquely abstracted from the real world. They take place in fabricated digital universes and in cases like Tetris, can be totally void of narrative, rhetoric, setting, or characters that might lend clues to their place in cultural history. That makes it critical to surface the human side of their creation.
As live-action works, FMV games avoid some of those problems, but by subverting conventions of the medium, they raise more questions. Why make these hybrid products? Were they viewed as bad at the time or cutting edge? Both? Screaming Villains smartly allows talking heads and archival documents to explain why the games arose when they did and what the people behind them were thinking.
In the latter respect, the anniversary releases of Corpse Killer and Ground Zero Texas do perhaps an even better job than Night Trap and Double Switch. That’s a good thing, too, because the base games are worse. Using FMV as rail shooter backdrops, Corpse Killer sends a government army of the undead against the player, while Ground Zero Texas favors aliens. Both are, unfortunately, dreadfully boring. They consist almost entirely of goofy cutscenes interspersed with pre-fab sequences of FMV bad guys to shoot. The gameplay is as simple as moving a reticle around the screen and pressing a button to dispatch enemies.
Nevertheless, the anniversary releases offer a look behind the curtain that redeems these titles somewhat. On the set of Corpse Killer, character actor Vincent Schiavelli (who plays antagonist Dr. Hellman) laughs with incredulous glee when asked if he has a favorite part of the script. “No,” he says, “what are you talking about?” In a memo to Ground Zero Texas creator Tom Zito, producer Amanda Lathroum expresses similar misgivings, conceding, “[Ground Zero Texas] will probably not be the best game ever produced… but it has the potential to be a good game.” These inside looks show us people that are having fun creating something less than excellent, and that adds a human touch, making their flaws easier to forgive.
The design documents show how iterative the development process was for these games as well. Both initially featured teenage protagonists and entirely different settings. Corpse Killer was to take place in the ‘50s and be a zombie flick pastiche. Ground Zero Texas was originally planned for the Midwest and was to feature mom and dad characters to cooperate with the hero. Abandoned mechanics are described in great detail for both as well. It all provides fascinating insight into what might have been, for better or worse.
A decent historical product made sense for a game with the outsize impact of Night Trap, but these versions of Corpse Killer and Ground Zero Texas show the value in preserving the ostensibly insignificant. For the people involved, at least, these games were a considerable moment in their lives. Seeing that up close is interesting in its own way.
Still, it’s strange that these releases are so much more complete than, say, Super Mario 3D All-Stars. The latter contains three games beloved by millions, yet its only “bonus” content is a glorified sound test. That’s pathetic, and Nintendo certainly has the resources — and, as leaks have shown — the archive material — to do better. My mind turns to the ‘90s Namco Museum compilations, which offered players 3D museums to walk through, featuring exhibits and material relevant to the constituent games. If Nintendo were similarly self-reverent, they could repurpose Peach’s Castle in such a way. Exhibits could take advantage of interactivity by including unused assets and cut concepts. Of course, they could also feature the kinds of static content included in Screaming Villains’ titles to show how the games took shape behind the scenes. In game years, 1996, 2002, and even 2007 are ancient history. Nintendo should have relished the opportunity to show the ways the world influenced Mario and Mario influenced the world in the intervening time.
Making Historical Gold From Lead
With these releases, Screaming Villains has managed to turn objectively “bad” games into interesting windows to the past. In a world where even barebones game preservation is so poor — marked by emulation errors and sloppy porting — I hesitate to say that all releases should be like these FMV remasters. But even the most jam-packed collection of high-functioning ROMs does comparatively little to move the needle of collective video game knowledge when free alternatives exist. By offering primary-source perspective and history with his releases, Screaming Villains’ lone developer has made a more compelling and enriching set of retro products than has ever seen release by companies many orders of magnitude larger. Hopefully some of them are taking notes.