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October 2012 Retro Gaming Article

October 27, 2012 Retro Gaming Blog Post:

Night Trap's game release is an odd tale of technologies, Congressional outrage and Dana Plato

When using the term "train wreck" as a metaphor to a situation that's out of control, stop for a minute and think about all the elements that validate this term. Think: high speed, innocent victims, destruction and powerful force and perhaps a dab of dumb.

Night Trap video game for Sega CD I remember when Night Trap came out on CD for Macintosh and the controversy surrounding it - which is likely why I bought it in the first place. However, I had no idea how peculiar the back-story was. Night Trap's evolution began on a ridiculous technology while spanning several others before it finally broke out in controversy.

Night Trap video game for Sega 32X Night Trap video game for Sega 32X - CD After it's release, misinterpretation by various interest groups led to Congressional hearings by equally uniformed Congressmen who labeled Night Trap and it's genre as objectionable. But the story is far more interesting than these soap opera proceedings. This outrage occurred after it's release on a variety of platforms including: Sega Mega-CD, Sega 32X, 3DO, DOS & Mac (between October 1992 and October 1994).

As a player, it is your job to rid a home of vampire-like creatures before they kill the ensuing girls sleep-over party. Various Senators, spurred by ignorant interest groups, believed the object of the game was to kill the girls, not save them. These Congressional heroes are the folks that attempt to govern our nation. Most are complete technical novices (morons).

Dana Plato Night Trap's existence goes back to 1987 when it was filmed over a 3-week shoot for an FMV game for the Control-Vision game console (codenamed: NEMO) Dana Plato Playboy Dana Plato Playboy pictorial developed by Tom Zito, who founded Digital Pictures, in 1991. Night Trap starred the adorable daughter of Phillip Drummond (television's Diff'rent Strokes) Dana Plato. Her inability to transition from child-star to actress led to drugs, arrest and ultimately her early death due to an overdose. Ever desperate to shed the Dif Strokes typecasting, Dana did a pictorial for Playboy in 1989, which didn't help the status of Night Trap's controversy.

Back to the tech...
The Control-Vision's development began in 1985 in conjunction with Nolan Bushnell's company Axlon - he also founded Atari in 1972. You may not have heard of the Control-Vision console and part of the reason is it's implementation of VHS tapes as a storage and playback mechanism for Full Motion Video (FMV) games. At the time FMV was evolving into a consumer possibility since technology was moving along and video tape was well-accepted as a standard for video playback. However, the Compact Disc (CD) format had been commercially available since October 1982 which made analog storage far less appealing than digital. Stranger still was that LaserDiscs predated this as well.

Dragon's Lair on LaserDisc

Dragons Lair arcade cabinet Remember how popular Dragon's Lair was on the arcade scene of 1983? It was a LaserDisc-based video game published by Cinematronics, featuring animation by ex-Disney animator Don Bluth. LaserDisc as a format appeared around 1978 as a digital storage format (it's drawback being consumer LD players could not record). Most games at the time used sprites. Hardware limitations stifled the amount of possible motion due to resolution and frame rates. Dragon's Lair used the large storage capacity of laserdiscs to create better on-screen motion.

One wonders how VHS could be considered a "good" medium for video gaming. The latest generation gaming consoles all have mass storage and enough processing power to make us forget that full motion video was ever an issue. I've lived through the Betamax -vs- VHS hardware wars of the mid 1970s, the digital format of LaserDiscs a year later, the proliferation of CDs in the mid 80s and finally DVDs in 1995. With such varied storage mediums, from analog tape to digital discs, how could a FMV game begin it's life on VHS tape in 1987?

The answer becomes somewhat more transparent when all this is dumped on a timeline with a simpler visual perspective on when these various technologies and tragedies played out.

While watching a movie on your cell phone, it's hard to remember that recordable video formats were available to consumers in the late 1970s. Hearing about movie footage being shot in 1987 for a FMV game, only to be relegated to a hacked Colecovision that had been "Frankensteined" into a VHS-based gaming console (the Control-Vision) seems highly improbable - but it's the truth.
Game regulating Capitol building
The Hasbro toy company invested in the Control-Vision, but pulled the plug in 1989 leaving a handful of FMV titles stranded until the USS Sega came into port and ported several of the titles to it's new CD-based gaming consoles. The Genesis put Sega permanently into gaming history and they became HUGE... until their CD consoles failed to deliver epic libraries of titles fans had grown accustomed to on the 8 bit Genesis.

Still, Sega was a major player and Night Trap's release on the Sega CD and 32X systems (and Mac & PC computers) put Dana Plato's sleep-over party into the living rooms of the masses. Mom and Dad were not happy. They spoke up about their woes. Suddenly, there was a manufactured outrage at video game companies who these parents (and developing interest groups) said were marketing violent sexual materials to minors. It wasn't simply Night Trap's slumber party massacre alone - Mortal Kombat, Lethal Enforcers and others fueled parental outrage that somehow became a Senate Judiciary and Government Affairs Committee hearing where many titles were lumped together as sick, disgusting and ultra-violent.
ESRB Ratings
We all know that Congress can't solve any problem in less than a decade, but they can delegate problems in mere minutes. 1994 ushered in the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) who would begin to assign ratings to games in Canada and the USA. Those who enjoy the more graphic adult-appropriate video games can thank the ESRB for the letter "M" :)

1995 saw the advent of digital storage arrive in the familiar CD-looking format called DVD which held an epic quantity of game code, computer back-ups or pornography. Thankfully we haven't gone farther awry than the MPAA in regulating the content of movies.

The fascinating part of this odd tale is the overlapping of better technology combined with the Dana Plato drama and Congress feeling the need to chime in. You can't make up stuff like this!

An Easter egg: During the Night Trap credits, you can enter a code to view footage shot in Pawtucket, RI in December 1986 when Tom Zito demonstrated a prototype of the Control-Vision (NEMO) game console for a group of Hasbro execs. This may be the only live glimpse of the unit.

Use our interactive infographic to view the NEMO/VHS/Dana Plate tale on a visual timeline.

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