Anniversary Blog Games Retrospective

Night Trap: A 25th Anniversary Retrospective

25 years of silliness.

Looking back on the hyper controversial Sega CD launch title, a quarter-century later…

While I’m out gallivanting with the NES book and other assorted projects, writer James Swift of Uncommon Journalism graciously offered to pen some Sega-themed articles for the site. Expect them once a week for the next while. So without further ado…

Night Trap: A 25th Anniversary Retrospective

With Screaming Villains re-releasing Night Trap on Steam and the PS4 (complete with a gnarly, 25th anniversary collector’s edition physical copy of the game), now is as good a time as any to reflect and reminisce on the history and profound influence of Sega’s infamous full motion video offering.

Of course, it’s a bit of a stretch to call Night Trap a true “Sega” game. Yes, it was eventually released on the Sega CD, and for a time at least, Sega marketed it as one of their marquee pieces of software. But the game actually began life as the killer app for Hasbro’s never-released Control-Vision console – a system that would’ve used video tapes instead of traditional gaming cartridges or CD-ROMS.

Francis Ford Coppola’s Night Trap

The mastermind behind the Control-Vision (which was briefly codenamed the NEMO – it stood, rather humorously, for “never ever mention outside”) was Tom Zito, a former Atari employee who quickly put together a series of tech demos to wow the suits at Hasbro. One of the demos, a ripoff of Clue called Scene of the Crime, pretty much served as the prototype for what would become Night Trap. The game included seven rooms which the player could check into with a push of a button, with a house layout map that would migrate over to Night Trap virtually unchanged.

Interestingly, Night Trap was initially meant to be a licensed game based on A Nightmare on Elm Street, but apparently New Line Cinema never gave Zito and their pals their blessings. From there, the Control-Vision crew mulled producing an interactive murder-mystery in which the player had to thwart invading ninjas(?!?) from looting their family fortune, but after a few more tweaks the Night Trap we all know and love (or loathe) finally began to take shape.

Quoth the mustachioed figure, “Saddle up, cowboy.”

The game was “filmed” in 1987 for about $1.5 million. It starred Diff’rent Strokes star Dana Plato as the main character, a plant for an undercover mission to lure a bunch of vampires – who, strangely enough, look more like Foot Clan castoffs than Dracula and his ilk – to a slumber party. Interestingly, the director of photography for the gig was a guy named Don Burgess, who would later get an Oscar nod for his cinematography work on Forrest Gump.

Keep in mind that, at the time, the movie/game was designed for Hasbro’s proprietary video console. As such, the NEMO team was beholden to their demands, which included diktats to tone down the violence. Inexplicably, one of Hasbro’s biggest problems was with the speed of the vampires; for whatever reason, they demanded that the bad guys in Night Trap walked at a stilted pace, I guess to deter kids from jogging through their kitchens after playing the game.

There’s so much “over it” in this shot.

By 1989, Night Trap – alongside an even more expensive FMV title dubbed Sewer Shark – was in the can and ready for the Control-Vision’s Christmas launch. According to David Crane (who served as a consultant on the game … for one afternoon), Toys “R” US were so impressed by the hardware they were ready to buy up Hasbro’s entire inventory. Unfortunately, a global RAM shortage drove up the manufacturing costs of the Control-Vision, more than doubling its retail price point. Feeling the console was too expensive to compete with Nintendo and Sega, Hasbro officially pulled the plug on the Control-Vision project, as Night Trap (more or less a completed game at that point) sat on the shelf for another three years.

Shortly after Hasbro cancelled the hardware, Zito bought the footage rights to Night Trap and started his own interactive movie production firm, Digital Pictures. He originally wanted to port Night Trap to the Super Nintendo, but after the Big N abandoned its CD-ROM partnership with Sony, he naturally decided to partner with their arch rivals Sega instead. And on Oct. 15, 1992, Night Trap – after five years in development purgatory – was finally released as a launch title for the Sega CD.

For I was blind, but now I’m trapped!

While the game was slightly retooled to better accommodate the Genesis’ lima bean-shaped control pad, relatively few alterations were made to the finished port. With the exception of an opening tutorial introducing players to the control setup (as well as the Sega Control Attack Team, the top-secret agency the player “works” for), hardly any other additional footage was filmed for the Sega CD title.

Gameplay-wise, Night Trap is pretty straightforward. There are eight cameras you can cycle through by hitting the A button, and to set off death traps, you hit the B button. Probably the biggest structural problem with the game is the inclusion of “security codes,” which are basically just random colors that constantly change, and you can only activate the aforementioned traps by knowing the correct “security code” color in each room. This gets really annoying because it’s pretty much impossible to listen in on every bit of dialogue in the game so you can know what the proper security code is at any given time. Which means, inevitably, that you’ll spend the bulk of your game time constantly mashing the C button until you inadvertently stumble upon the right one.

Those nutty bloodsuckers!

While it doesn’t sound very intuitive at first, cycling through the eight cameras isn’t as difficult or irritating as you would assume. You usually have a pretty good idea where all the characters are at any point in the game and believe it or not, there actually is something resembling a coherent plot in the mix. It takes some getting used to – and a set-up like the one in this user-generated video would have been much preferred –  but it certainly amps up the replayability. You’d have to play and beat the game dozens of times before you experienced everything Night Trap has to offer, and there’s certainly some cool stuff in there – ESPECIALLY the quasi-Easter egg where Dana Plato lip syncs to that amazingly awful “Night Trap” theme song.

In hindsight, you have to second guess Sega’s decision to bet the farm on “interactive movies” as the primary driver of the new hardware’s sales. But at the time, Night Trap and its kindred were considered extremely cutting edge entertainment, and all of the game mags back in the day were convinced this was going to be the future of video gaming, if not the first step towards bona-fide virtual reality entertainment. As a standalone game, Night Trap is pretty enjoyable for what it is – a playable, no-budget, late night Showtime horror movie. There are better FMV games on the system, and there are definitely worse as well. As a tech demo, the game succeeded as a hardware showcase, but alas, such didn’t translate into purchased consoles. About 200,000 Sega CD units were sold by the end of 1992, and Night Trap did very little to convince consumers that the add-on’s $300 asking price was justified. While the game initially did very little to make an impact on gamers, the title certainly made an impact on an entirely different demographic: federal legislators.

Teenagers clearly conversing in sin.

A little more than a year after Night Trap was released, the game was immortalized as the focal point of a Dec. 1993 Senate hearing on video game violence spearheaded by Democrats Herb Kohl and Joseph Lieberman.

You can check out the full three hour hearing here, but for those of you that don’t have an afternoon to kill listening to quarter century-old CSPAN programming, the gist of it was that Night Trap – with its lurid depiction of half-naked women getting their blood sucked out of their necks with giant K’NEX toys – was lambasted as the exemplar of virtual depravity and degeneracy. Avowed child development experts and other moral watchdogs took to the chamber to explain, without any tinge of sensational overreaction whatsoever, how games like Night Trap were making children more prone to aggressive behavior and encouraged sexual violence against women. The bad press eventually goaded Sega into developing its own MPAA-esque video game ratings system, which served as the basis for the industry-wide Entertainment Software Ratings Board standards shortly thereafter.

Kathleen Turner guest stars.

Yet despite the negative publicity from Capitol Hill, that didn’t stop Sega from re-releasing the game as an “enhanced” 32X disc barely a year after the infamous Senate hearing, nor did it bar Digital Pictures from porting the game to Panasonic’s short-lived 3DO system. In a strange way, all that political ire gave Night Trap a second life, turning what would’ve otherwise been a forgettable, full price tech demo into one of the most significant (and slightly financially successful) titles of the 16-bit era – indeed, the game managed to sell 50,000 copies just one week AFTER being torn asunder in D.C. Still, all the controversy in the world couldn’t save the Sega CD, and in many ways, the full-motion-video subgenre. By the time the Sega Saturn was on store shelves, the whole “interactive movie” shtick had become painfully passe, and it wasn’t long before Digital Pictures (who wound up producing more than a dozen games for Sega) went belly-up.

For better or for worse, Night Trap came to embody everything Sega did right – and wrong – with its initial foray into CD-ROM gaming. Even now, when most people think about the Sega CD they don’t think about standout titles like Sonic the Hedgehog CD, Snatcher or Robo Aleste. They think about the system’s deluge of Digital Pictures games – chief among them, of course, being Night Trap. Twenty-five years later and it’s still difficult to tell if the game, and all the controversy it courted, helped or hurt Sega in the long haul. While all the bad publicity may have put Sega in the doghouse with concerned parents, the brouhaha over largely uncensored games like Night Trap and Mortal Kombat made the Genesis and Sega CD the edgier and more countercultural choice of the big two 16-bit systems and represented the fledgling medium’s first steps into truly adult-oriented entertainment. Still, one can’t help but wonder if Sega could have extended its lifespan by foregoing the Sega CD altogether, or at the very least focusing on aurally and graphically updated traditional video games instead of the glut of FMV titles.

I think this clip speaks for itself.

Regardless, Night Trap may not be a good game using normal quality measuring sticks, but it’s undeniably an entertaining title. The acting is hokey and hilarious, the softcore erotica soundtrack is cheesily endearing, there’s a ton of replayability and the tongue-in-cheek, fourth-wall shattering grand finale – complete with a surprisingly well-done “twist” ending – is actually quite engrossing and nerve-racking.

Night Trap is one of those cornerstone video games you just HAVE to experience for yourself at least once. If you’re a hardcore B-horror fan, you’re going to love it and if you just have a general fondness for pop cultural cheese and sleaze, you’ll probably adore it, too. It hasn’t aged particularly well in all respects, but that’s sort of the game’s charm; it feels refreshingly simplistic, refreshingly dated and at certain junctures, even refreshingly frustrating.

Not pictured: Dana’s agent.

That, and it’s a pretty remarkable testament to our society’s ever-changing views on what is and what isn’t culturally permissible. Here we are in the era of Grand Theft Auto V and Postal 3 and games where you literally rape other characters, and to think that elected officials once thought grainy footage of Kimberly Drummond getting chased around a winery house by guys with pantyhose socked over their faces was positively obscene.

Images/GIFs courtesy of James Swift, MobyGames, GameFAQs, Factory Sealed, and RetroGameNetwork.

2 replies on “Night Trap: A 25th Anniversary Retrospective”

“Not pictured: Dana’s agent.”

SAVAGE. Seriously, though, I missed out on the physical PS4 version, because I didn’t get to the site in time, but knowing this is on Steam, it might be worth picking up at some point, especially because of the remastered footage, so it will look and feel more like the VHS-centric experience it was originally intended to be. I’d still like to track down an original Sega CD and/or 32X CD copy, but honestly, to strictly play through the game, the cleaned up footage would be part of the draw. An interesting look into the early-90’s microcosm of FMV games, and a fairly clear indicator that such technology would not, in fact, be the “future” of video games, only a short-lived, minor distraction.

Great article. Even as a pre/early teen I was really dubious of the whole FMV movement back in the day – the games on more-or-less affordable hardware looked so pixelated, the acting was just embarrassing and the gameplay seemed to be MIA. Amazing looking titles like Dragon’s Lair didn’t really stand up to actual play time either. Still – I suppose if you’re going to dip your toes in those waters, you may as well get some comedy value out of playing the schlockiest and most notorious game in the genre! Rom.

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