The Fun and Flop of FMV Games

Back in the day, I was a pretty avid gamer. Nowadays I’m more of a dilettante. I break out my systems once in a while, though I have a particular passion for vintage systems.

Back when I was a teenager, I purchased a JVC X’Eye, essentially a combo Sega Genesis/Sega CD player. When the Sega CD came out, I was fascinated by the types of games that would be available, especially the full motion video games also known as interactive movies.

FMV games were a pretty polarizing lot. People either loved them or hated them. Most probably hated them, citing poor writing, acting, and low replay value among the many flaws. I don’t disagree with these criticisms, but I always found the genre to have a certain charm. If I could find a way to immerse myself in the story, I found that this style of game could have a very high replay value.

Today’s article is going to focus on the FMV games that I felt were the most enjoyable of the lot and why I liked them.

Dracula Unleashed

This game is one of my two favorites of the genre and it proved a bit of a challenge at first. The game takes place ten years after the events described in Bram Stoker’s novel and centers on Alexander Morris (the considerably younger brother of the novel’s Quincey Morris) as he tries to learn the circumstances behind his brother’s death. This search leads him into a desperate hunt for a revived Dracula before the vampire kills Morris and his friends.

In the game, you travel from location to location watching video clips that may or may not provide important clues and/or items. You have 4 days to unmask Dracula and you must complete a set of tasks each day in order to progress and it is much harder than it sounds. The key to progressing is bringing the right item to the right place at the right time. Failure to do this will result in the demise of Alexander at the end of each day.

It took me nearly a week to get off of the first day. One of the difficulties of the game is that there are no clues to tip you off as to what you need where. The only clues you’ll get are usually after the fact and are vague. For example, failure to bring an odd Romanian manuscript to a meeting where Van Helsing tells the others that Dracula has been returned to life will cause the group to split. Afterwards, Alexander laments in his diary that he wishes he could have convinced them of the danger.

Sometimes it isn’t obvious at all as to what item you need to proceed. I struggled for a long time on what was needed to convince Jonathan Harker to open up about Quincey’s death. My brother suggested, “Why don’t you try the knife?” I said, “Yeah, like he’s going to threaten Harker,” but I tried the knife. . .and it was correct.

The highs of this game are the atmosphere, costumes, high production values, sense of danger, and long gameplay (even if you know it perfectly, expect at least 90 minutes of play). The downs are the constant traveling around to find valid clues and clips, figuring out what item will move the story along, and the acting.

The acting is very shaky. The lead actor, Bill Williamson, is pretty stiff and wooden. Louis Markert, as Devlin Goldacre, is an overacting disgrace. Though strong performances are given by Jay Nickerson as Arthur Holmwood and John Arthur Olson as Professor Van Helsing.

The Beast Within

Had it not been for the lack of danger to the main character, this game would have easily been number one on my list.

This game is the second of a trilogy featuring the Schattenjager (supernatural detective), Gabriel Knight and the only one done in FMV format. In this case, Gabriel attempts his first case as Schattenjager as he investigates the murder of a young girl by a werewolf.

The story is very deep and involved and count on hours of gameplay to complete it. Some of the puzzles are a little unfair, but on the whole, it’s a very worthwhile effort. The production values are a little lacking since most of the backgrounds are green screens, but the writing and acting are very top quality. Undoubtedly the best acting I’ve ever seen in a FMV game.

Particular kudos need to go out to Peter Lucas for his extremely subtle portrayal of Baron Friedrich Von Glower. It is a powerful performance and worthy of film and stage.

The only gripe I have is that Gabriel Knight faces no true danger until the last couple of chapters. Prior to that point, you will get past each day if you solve the puzzles. If the level of danger in the last few chapters was present for the entirety of the game, it would be the absolute best FMV game of all time.

Double Switch

This game was a lot of fun and focuses on you shifting between cameras in an apartment building to trap intruders. The game is split into 3 parts. In the first part, you need to help Eddie, the main character, escape from the basement. In part 2 you need to protect the residents from a killer disguised as a mummy while searching for a hidden treasure. In part 3, you need to stop the unmasked killer and find the treasure.

The game is extremely fast paced which is one of its downfalls. You need to capture far more intruders than you can let escape (and I mean a LOT more). Failure to do so will result in having the plug pulled on you. Since you have to keep catching baddies, you will often miss out on quite a bit of story since everything happens simultaneously. It will take a few go rounds to figure out how to watch most of the story while keeping the villains out. The trap sequences are also repetitive, but quite amusing.

I felt very immersed in this game. From the beginning, you really feel like a part of it as the game is presented in such a way that it does seem like Eddie hacked into your computer system in order to get your aid.

Arguably, the game also has the most star power of any FMV game. Featured roles are played by Corey Haim, Deborah Harry (of Blondie fame), Oscar nominee, R Lee Ermey, and character actor, Irwin Keyes. This results in some pretty solid acting and a fun story.

Ground Zero: Texas

This was probably the most professionally produced of any FMV game. It was made by a real production company, had high production values, was directed by an experienced film director, and had competent actors. Regrettably, they could not afford good scriptwriters as the dialogue is utterly laughable in some spots and painful in others.

In the game, you’re brought to the little town of El Cadron, Texas as a tactical expert. Utilizing four cameras, you scout around the town shooting aliens disguised as humans and, later, robotic stormtroopers.

The game is split into 4 parts. In part 1, you stun the disguised aliens and protect your 4 partners as the aliens try to kidnap them . As you save a partner, you will receive part of a code. In part 2, you need to locate the alien stronghold, stun the undisguised aliens, and correctly enter the code that will let you into the aliens’ arsenal and prison. You will also rescue kidnapped partners if the aliens nabbed them. In part 3, the aliens send in their robotic stormtroopers to start wrecking the town and you get to blow them to smithereens. In the last part, take out the mother ship lest the military launch a tactical nuke that will stop the threat and wipe out the town.

I really enjoyed the gameplay and was intrigued by the fact that the aliens are aware you are watching them. They are trying to shoot out your cameras in order to stop you. Shields will briefly protect your cameras, but can be destroyed. As your camera breaks down, the picture quality goes down as well, fading to black and white and pixelating. You can get a couple of repairs, but lose too many and you’ll get fired most emphatically. This game had numerous endings which really made it a joy to play.

Prize Fighter

This is a boxing game and, while the game was fun, I felt there was a truly great game trying to break out hidden within it. The cinematography was absolutely gorgeous and the game had a Raging Bull feel as it is filmed entirely in black and white and has some beautiful, close-ups of your opponents being pummeled. The game was directed by Ron Stein, known as a fight coordinator, and I believe he also created the boxing sequences used in Raging Bull.

The game does have the feel of a real professional boxing match right down from the walk to the ring to the introductions by Michael Buffer. I think the game could have used more opponents as you only fight 4 people. The game is also diabolically hard. It is incredibly difficult to figure out what type of punch to thrown when and expect to take a beating for a while until you figure it out. I would advise to use Training Mode to start. In this mode, the first round will indicate where and what type of punch to utilize and it will help you get a field for the fighters’ styles.

The game does have a surprising amount of replay value as there are 3 ways to beat every fighter (KO, TKO, and decision). The fun is winning in every possible way to see all of the available movies. The game is also pretty well acted, again making use of talented character actors.

Supreme Warrior

This game is guilty pleasure fun. If you like cheesy kung-fu films then this is the game for you. It’s essentially Prize Fighter only in color and martial arts. In 16th century China, your character, often referred to as Silent One, comes upon a village being attacked by the evil Fang Tu and his warlords. Fang Tu wears half of a mystical mask that grants its wearer unimaginable power. “He who controls the full mask controls the world,” says Fang Tu and he wants the half his former sensei, Kai, holds (To be more specific, you’re holding it as you were carrying it to the village). Kai refuses to hand it over. Fang Tu gives Kai 24 hours to hand it over or else he’ll put every villager’s heart on a stake and feed Kai’s to his warlords. It then becomes up to you to defeat Fang Tu and his warlords and bodyguards to obtain his half of the mask.

The game actually does contain some well-known actors in the genre of kung-fu movies such as Roger Yuan, Vivian Wu, and Richard Norton. The fights aren’t as difficult as the ones in Prize Fighter though it is sometimes tricky to figure out when to strike your opponent. If your opponent is close you will punch or strike. If they’re farther away, you will need to kick.

The dialogue is ludicrously bad, but I think that is done on purpose as the actors clearly play it tongue in cheek. The locales are cool and the characters are entertaining. Playing it on easy mode will show you where and when to strike your foe. However, beating it on hard will show you the full, over the top ending.

Night Trap

The final game we’ll look at is Night Trap. This was the game that actually kicked off the FMV genre and generated quite a bit of controversy back in the day. This game was actually pulled from the shelves due to the brouhaha surrounding it and was responsible for the creation of the video games rating system.

Having played it myself, let me assure you there is nothing untoward about the game. It is a cheesy B horror comedy. Similar to Double Switch and Ground Zero: Texas, you play a tactical expert for S.C.A.T. (Sega Control Attack Team) investigating the disappearance of teenaged girls at the home of the Martins. Having hacked into their security system, you roam from camera to camera catching augers (half-vampires) and members of the Martin family.

A lot of the controversy stemmed from the incorrect beliefs that you were hunting the girls, the game was excessively violent, and the girls were running around in their undergarments. Well, you’re not, it’s not, and they’re not. What little violence occurs is bloodless and so over the top it’s funny.

The actors are pretty bad for the most part. The only decent actors are John R Kamel and Molly Starr as Victor and Sheila Martin, J Bill Jones as S.C.A.T. leader, Simms, and Dana Plato (best known as Kimberly Drummond from Diff’rent Strokes) as Kelly, the undercover agent investigating the Martin home from the inside.

A big downfall of the game is that you have to continually catch augers to keep from having the plug pulled on you a la Double Switch. It is very difficult to get the whole story so I would recommend going to YouTube as it has been spliced into a full movie if you want to see it in all of its hammy glory. It is possible to catch every threat in this game which leads you to a special perfect good and bad ending. The good ending has Kelly walking off into the sunset. The bad. . .well, you can see for yourself.

That wraps up my little retrospective. I sold my X’Eye about 12 years ago, but I admit that writing this article has given me the itch to play these games again. If the price is right, maybe. . .just maybe I could be convinced to own this underappreciated console and library once again.

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