Retro Vault – Night Trap review

Retro Vault is my video series looking at vintage games from back in the day – both popular ones and those forgotten over time.

The video can be found below, but if you’re more of a reader I’ve provided a modified version of the script after the jump so you can read my thoughts in written form instead.

Night Trap is one of my favourite games of all time.

Every time I’ve said this in the past, people have smiled and gone “oh, you” as if I was taking the piss, but I’m really not: I love Night Trap, and I always have.

Now, I fully appreciate that I’m in the minority here. In fact, I was even in the minority back in 1992 when it was first released on the Sega Mega CD.

nighttrap_boxYou see, despite its use of flashy CD-ROM technology and full-motion video, both of which were massively cutting edge at the time, Night Trap was only met with average reviews by the gaming press.

These days Night Trap enjoys a bit of a cult following, of which I’m happily a part, though it’s a modest one to say the very least.

For the vast majority of gamers it’s little more than a comedy milestone in gaming history, proof that at one time we thought full-motion video was the way forward before we all realised how stupid we were and shifted over to polygons instead.

Today, though, I’m going to try to convince you that Night Trap isn’t actually a load of old shite. In fact, if you’ve never played Night Trap before, my aim is to make you desperately want to play it by the end of this article.

GIven that it’s now 23 years old there are plenty of gamers out there who have never even heard of Night Trap, so I’m going to be covering the game from a completely clean slate. So first, it’s time for a wee history lesson.

That infuriating feeling when you invite someone to your party and they bring a guy who vapes
That infuriating feeling when you invite someone to your party and they bring a guy who vapes

The story of Night Trap’s development actually started way back in the mid-1980s when an imaginative developer named Tom Zito came up with an idea for a home console codenamed NEMO.

Instead of using cartridges like Nintendo, Atari and Sega’s systems did, the NEMO would instead use special VHS tapes that could store not only multiple video tracks (instead of just one), but computer data too.

Zito made a prototype game called Scene Of The Crime, where players switched between different security cameras in a house to try to find a murderer.

Scene Of The Crime, in all its glory
Scene Of The Crime, in all its glory

He then showed off Scene Of The Crime to toy company Hasbro, who decided they were on board and agreed a deal to make and manufacture the NEMO.

A new console needs new games, so Zito started work on a number of live-action productions with the intention of releasing them for the NEMO. One was Sewer Shark, a first-person shooter set in a dystopian future.

The other, more importantly, was a remake of Scene Of The Crime, called Night Trap.

Shot over a three-week period in 1987, Night Trap was notable in that it starred Dana Plato, the former teen star of TV sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, who had just left the show after eight seasons.

As for the rest of the cast… well, let’s just say you wouldn’t recognise them even if they came right up to you and said “Alright mate? I was in Night Trap”.

Look! It's... nope, I've lost it
Look! It’s… nope, I’ve lost it

Sadly, some things don’t work out the way they’re supposed to, and shortly after Night Trap finished shooting Hasbro decided to pull the plug on NEMO, finally realising that a $299 games system based on VHS tapes was a fucking mental idea.

The unused Night Trap footage lay untouched for years. To all intents and purposes, it was never to be seen again.

Meanwhile, a new digital format was entering its infancy. CD-ROM was a way of storing massive amounts of data on a compact disc, giving software developers far more space to work with.

ssfiiUntil this point, console developers had to cram everything onto a cartridge: the biggest Mega Drive game, Super Street Fighter II, was a measly 5MB in size.

Suddenly though, they had up to 700MB, giving them vast amounts of storage to work with.

This extra space also let them experiment with new things that wouldn’t have been possible before, like CD quality orchestral soundtracks, larger game environments and, most notably, video clips.

Sensing an opportunity, Tom Zito formed a new company called Digital Pictures and nabbed back the rights to the then-dead Sewer Shark and Night Trap.

Aware that Sega was making its own CD-ROM add-on for the Mega Drive, Zito and his team got to work taking the five-year-old Night Trap footage and repurposing it as a Mega CD game.

And the rest… well, the rest is Night Trap, I suppose.

Night Trap puts you in the role of a nameless operative working for the unfortunately named S.C.A.T., a security organisation specialising in surveillance and, for some reason, booby traps that look like they’re straight out of Home Alone.

“I’m up here, ya horse’s ass!”

You’ve been tasked with keeping an eye on the Martin house, a typical American suburban home with a suspicious past. Five girls previously spent the night with the Martin family, and all five disappeared. If you’re big on maths, you’ll realise that doesn’t add up.

As the game begins another quintet of teenagers are headed to the Martin house for what’s referred to round these parts as an ‘empty’, but this time one of them, Kelly (played by the aforementioned Dana Plato) is actually a spy working for S.C.A.T.

(Call me paranoid, but if I was choosing a spy and I wanted them to be inconspicuous I wouldn’t pick someone who’s been on the fucking telly.)

It quickly becomes apparent that all is not well at the Martin house, because while perfectly pleasant goings-on are… well, going on in some rooms, in other rooms you’ve got these creepy bastards swanning around.

The S&M episode of Changing Rooms garnered plenty of controversy
The S&M episode of Changing Rooms garnered plenty of controversy

These are Augers. I don’t know what that means, but I do know they’re sort of weird sci-fi vampires who have a nasty habit of draining humans of their blood.

It’s up to you to figure out what in the world of fuck is going on, try to find out if the Martin family is in on it, and make sure none of this new batch of teens is caught and turned into a human strawberry Calippo.

You do this with a special control panel, which lets you take control of the hidden cameras and traps set up in each room.

There are eight different cameras in the Martin house, and you can switch between them at will to keep an eye on what’s going on. Sometimes you’ll see the characters having a chat, sometimes you’ll find an Auger, and most of the time you’ll see fuck all.

When you come across an Auger you have to try to trap him. A little gauge tells you when he’s getting close to a trap: hit the button when it goes red and boom: he’s on his arse.

Alright mate, chill out. Christ
Alright mate, chill out. Christ

Trapping is the most important mechanic in the game. If you don’t trap enough Augers and let too many of them go you’ll eventually trigger the Game Over sequence, in which the angry S.C.A.T. Lieutenant Simms gives you a piece of his mind.

You have to stay on guard, though, because even if you’re a trapping maestro there are still a few moments in the game where you can get an instant Game Over regardless of your trap ratio.

Anyone familiar with slasher films should be able to tell when these moments are kicking in, the first being the classic ‘scantily clad lady in the bathroom’ scene.

Trap the Auger here and Lisa will escape, continuing the game and advancing the story. Fail to set the trap at the right time, though, and shit will go down.

Lisa will be caught by the Augers, they’ll sap her blood from her, and a fucking raging Lieutenant Simms will literally pull the plug on your game.

The staff at Bannatyne Spa in Dunfermline were a little heavy-handed
The staff at Bannatyne Spa in Dunfermline were a little heavy-handed

There was a plague of FMV games throughout the 1990s but what makes Night Trap such a unique example is the way in which it handles the limitations of linear video. Instead of having to work around these limitations, it actually uses them as tools to mess with the player.

Take the lengthy intro sequence for starters. When you’re first introduced to Lieutenant Simms he tells you what’s going on and runs you through the basic instructions.

This video lasts about five minutes and is a perfectly acceptable way of starting things off, if a little long. It turns out, though, that this is a deliberate trick to shaft you from the word go.

You see, while Simms is giving you attitude and telling you how everything works, there are already a bunch of Augers entering the house and freely wandering around. The longer you watch the intro, the more of a handicap you’re giving yourself.

Essentially, if you don’t skip the intro at all, you start the game at a massive disadvantage with a load of Augers already missed. It’s a sneaky trick but one designed to give you an “oh shit” moment once you notice it, and a satisfying “fuck you Night Trap, you can’t fool me” moment every time you start a new game from that point on.

They don't like it when you shout "fuck you" at them, though
They don’t like it when you shout “fuck you” at them, though

This clever trick and others like it continue throughout the game. Any time there’s a key scene involving a lot of people – be it the group pulling up to the house for the first time or the famously terrible party scene – there are always Augers appearing in other rooms.

This forces you to juggle between snooping on the characters to keep track of the story, and scouring the rest of the house in search of those annoying vampire pricks.

“That’s fine then”, I hear you say, “I’ll just concentrate on catching the baddies. If the story bits don’t do anything then I should focus on making sure I don’t get Game Over”.

That’s where Night Trap pumps you again. You see, the house is also fitted with a colour-based security code designed to prevent you from using traps (presumably this sort of thing has happened before).

When the game starts the house’s access colour is blue. Your surveillance system needs to have the same colour displayed, otherwise the traps won’t work.

I'll tell you what else doesn't work – look how bloody tall this girl is
I’ll tell you what else doesn’t work – look how bloody tall this girl is

Before too long the Martin family gets suspicious that someone’s watching them and so, every now and then, they’ll change the access code to a different colour. And it’s a random one every time you play, so you can’t just memorise the sequence.

What this means, then, is that you can’t just ignore the story scenes that get in the way of your trapping, you do have to pay attention to them in case a code is changed.

The best example is the aforementioned party scene. This is notorious among Night Trap fans because it’s the most fantastically bad moment in the entire game.

If you wanted to you could sit there and watch as the cast hopelessly mimes along to the Night Trap theme tune. But if you did this you’d miss the countless Auguers entering the house at the same time and swanning around like they own the joint.

I’ll sit back for a bit and let you enjoy the party scene, easily one of the best worst moments in video game history.

All brilliantly shite, I’m sure you’ll agree. But while it seems obvious that you should be leaving those arseholes to it and going round the house trapping the bad guys instead, you can’t abandon the scene altogether.

Fail to watch the scene at the right time and you could miss out on the access code being changed, meaning a load of messed up traps failing to catch Augers while you frantically try to find the right colour through trial and error.

Ultimately though, being based on FMV this is of course a linear game and you do eventually learn over time when you should switch to each room to trigger each scene. As you memorise the sequence Night Trap then becomes a different beast: namely, the quest for a perfect score as you try to trap all 95 Augers and get the best of the game’s multiple endings.

When it was released Night Trap attracted a lot of controversy. At the time gaming was still considered a pastime mostly enjoyed by children, so the introduction of a full motion video game featuring reasonably clad women in mild peril was considered a national outrage.

In America, it was cited in a 1993 congressional hearing about violent video games, and given a right good kicking in the process. Ultimately, it contributed to the introduction of a rating system for games in America.

Meanwhile, in the UK, it became only the fifth game ever to get an official BBFC rating, making it illegal for anyone under 15 to buy it.

I could go on for another 2000 words about how much I love Night Trap but I think I’ll leave it there for now. If you haven’t played it before and are curious to try it out then you might have a bit of a task ahead of you unless you go down the emulation route.

The original version, released on Mega CD, is the easiest to find but also the one with the poorest video quality. If you can, track down the 3DO version, which has the best quality and is the one I’ve used for this review.

Sadly, because of the limitations of CD-ROM at the time, every version – even the 3DO one – has highly compressed video which is much poorer quality than even the originally planned VHS version would have been.

Here's the Mega CD, for comparison purposes
Here’s the Mega CD version, for comparison purposes

There was a Kickstarter project last year for an remastered version of Night Trap which would have made use of the original recorded footage to create a new, vastly superior video feed. Unfortunately though, the Kickstarter was a bit of a balls-up.

Due to a combination of it not being managed well, not being explained clearly and simply being Night Trap, a game with a small fan base, the campaign missed its target by a fair distance, which is a massive shame.

Still, I and the small group of Night Trap devotees around the world remain in hope that one day the original high quality footage, the ownership of which is currently up for debate, will be released in its entirety in some form so we can finally see Night Trap as it was originally intended.


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