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Faces of Fear

Hello children.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Science has given us much. The internal combustion engine, penicillin, Furbies - all represent terrific advancements for humanity. Yet science has a darker side. In sinister underground laboratories, filled with bubbling test tubes, weird electric nodes and other pieces of highly stereotypical equipment, gangs of rogue geneticists are churning out crime after crime against nature. No piece of DNA goes unwarped, no embryo is uncorrupted. The horrific result? Countless perverted offspring of a misguided attempt to play god. The shameful cost of progress.

Oh ... no, wait, sorry. What I've done there is confused a rogue branch of science with various videogame programmers of the 1980s.

It made sense, of course, for game creators to dream up bizarre and twisted creatures to act as antagonists. The gallery of hallucinogenic horrors fashioned by Matthew Smith for Jet Set Willy takes some beating in this regard. Likewise, the colourful selection of enemies in Atic Atac. But what on earth possessed several 8-bit developers to make their lead character look like a one-man freakshow? Was it down to graphical restrictions? Subliminal loathing of a creation that was causing major coding frustration? A playful desire to give children nightmares?

Cover your eyes and peek nervously through your fingers as we examine some of the heroes who were inexplicably permitted to enter our homes.

Just Plain Wrong

Almost inevitably, we begin with Horace. Veteran of three titles (Hungry Horace, Horace Goes Skiing, Horace and the Spiders), this blue chap was, not to put too fine a point on it, a demented monstrosity. The inlay for Hungry Horace read as follows: 'a delightful cartoon figure with mischievous moving eyes and a rolling gait.' Hmm. Just cast your eyes over to the screenshot for a second. Ok, now read that promotional blurb again. Puzzling, isn't it? Perhaps what they meant to say was this: 'a frightening casualty of war with gaping wounds in his torso and a limp, useless appendage dangling from his back.' That particular cassette even had a picture of Horace on the front - so who exactly did they think they were fooling?

Far from being a one-off, Horace legitimised the grotesque. Remember the vicious vulture-like Skeksis from The Dark Crystal? Gargoyle Games certainly did - taking direct inspiration for Sweevo's World from the scene in which a humiliated Skeksis is de-robed. Exposed and moulting, the creature cuts a sorry sight - but this is nothing compared to the disturbing display of mob violence that precedes it. Hoping to remind us of this grim slice of fantasy cinema, Gargoyle elected to make Sweevo resemble a deranged carrion with a massive neck and apologetic arm stumps. Particularly galling, because he was supposed to be a robot. They could have made him look like anything. But they chose a smirking emu in a t-shirt.

Still, at least there were other titles on offer which could boast loveable animals in place of malformed genetic mistakes. Ninja Hamster, sadly, was not one of them. The concept of a cute little golden hamster dressed in black pyjamas and adorably kicking people to death was highly promising, but, as you'll no doubt have realised by now, the reality was somewhat different. Instead of making their Syrian star vaguely resemble, oh, let's say ... a hamster, the snappily named CRL Group instead opted for a ball of frazzled fluff with arms and legs. Far from being a cuddly experience, players were left wondering why they were trying to beat the crap out of a cat by controlling something more often found inside a discarded vacuum cleaner bag. At best, you could say this game was Ninja Shaved Poodle.

Circle of Cute

Perhaps even more distressing than the characters who appeared to have been designed that way on purpose were those which aimed for super-duper-wuper-cute, but went desperately off course. Much like the 'wheel diagram' of political views where far left and far right join up, these sprites landed on the point where 'happy smiles and innocent eyes' crossed into 'I'm planning to stab you while you sleep.'

Many of us will be familiar with Zebedee, the sleep-conscious springed wonder from Magic Roundabout. 'Boing!' he would say, and we'd all smile at his bouncy antics and inverted zapata moustache. What isn't so widely publicised is the shameful secret of the spring family; the cousin who 'wasn't quite all there,' normally kept safely under lock and key - out of the public gaze. His dramatic escape in 1987 was documented by Gremlin Graphics, who accurately portrayed the manic grin and amphetamine-fueled eyes of this tormented soul in Thing Bounces Back. After this brief foray into the outside world, Thing was never seen again.

A much more regular visitor to our screens was the ever-changing Seymour. Pity poor Seymour - he just wanted to experience a tiny percentage of the love and reverence poured upon Dizzy. To this end he would pursue layer after layer of damaging plastic surgery, trying to lose the pounds which he believed were hampering his career. It was sheer madness. If anything, the public had warmed to his cheeky butterball features in Seymour Goes To Hollywood. By the release of Wild West Seymour, however, the ravages of serious facial-alteration (include controversial dental implants, insisted upon by Codemasters) had taken their toll. Seymour was no longer a potential heir to Dizzy's crown, but a washed-up casualty of the 8-bit age. Those who may once have considered themselves as fans would look awkwardly at the floor as he passed by, hoping to avoid his botox-cheeked visage.

Codemasters didn't stop there. They were at it again with Little Puff In Dragonland, the tale of a nappy-wearing dragon who'd wandered away from home and couldn't make his way back because of a mean security guard. Awww, bless his little wings. But hang on, he was easily half the size of the imposing guard - not to mention almost as large as various trees and mud huts. Even for a supposedly baby dragon, that's pretty big. Best estimates would therefore make Little Puff eight or nine years old. Eight or nine and still wearing a nappy. That's not endearing, it's just embarrassing.

The Price of Fame

It wasn't just original creations who suffered, the rich and famous also saw their hard-earned image rights being mangled into pixel hell.

Of late, the Caped Crusader has been used to finding himself styled as a brooding, rubber-and-leather-clad crime fighter; appealing to both traditional masculine aesthetics and those who favour something a little kinkier. He must have been somewhat dismayed, then, to find memories of Adam West come flooding back after the release of Ocean's crack at the film-crossover market. Their Batman was a curiously portly portrayal - spookily foreshadowing Fathers For Justice, but also suggesting that this isometric Dark Knight had spent rather too much time living it up in Wayne mansion and stuffing his face with bat-pies. Though hardly the most horrific of afflictions we've witnessed so far, it nonetheless represented a fall from grace which left Gotham's finest at his lowest ebb. Well, until Batman & Robin hit the cinema screens in 1997.

Ridley Scott's celluloid exploits also suffered a moderate beating with the 8-bit ugly stick. As Blade Runner celebrates a 25th anniversary release, many will be revisiting Harrison Ford's role as a gritty replicant-hunter in a neon dystopian future. Alternatively, we could all re-play the Spectrum version, where Ford has been replaced by a claymation figure wearing a duvet. Thrill, as he tries to dodge other claymation figures while running after someone who's left their wallet behind at the police station. Or something like that.

What seems to have happened here is that CRL Group (yep, them again) unexpectedly acquired the Blade Runner license and hastily applied it to their almost-completed Hart Beat title: Chas and Morph's Wacky Street Dash. Excellent though the Speccy's homage to Vangelis' famous theme turned out to be, this decision was probably a mistake. They should have stuck with Morph.

Then again, when other developers tried to integrate childhood favourites into games, it often went badly array. The loading screen of Alternative Software's Sooty & Sweep didn't just hint at something being amiss, it put up a gigantic flashing billboard with the message 'I WASN'T MEANT TO BE' emblazoned across it. Sooty himself appeared to be in some kind of wand-induced trance, whilst Sweep raided the bondage slave dress-up box, permed his ears and applied far too much make-up. Sue, who must at least have been pleased her name wasn't on the box, is pictured looking somewhat drunk and disorderly. In contrast, the game itself is rather less damaging (though zonked-out Sooty returns to take up frightening residence next to the hi-scores) - save for one alarming factor. All the puppets walk around the place. That's right, walk around. With their legs. Now, either this is an unfortunate oversight, or it's trying to tell us that on the TV show they ... well, it doesn't bear thinking about too closely.


Brr, chilling stuff.

There is, however, an unexpected twist to this extended campfire ghost story. Could it be the case that this prolonged exposure to distorted imagery was actually for our benefit? We're all aware that school children are the cruelest of tormenters - anyone daring to be even vaguely different to the crowd will be singled out for serious bouts of verbal abuse. So perhaps those 8-bit titles were trying, in their own sinister way, to teach us tolerance. If we could put up with Horace's haunting non-face, they reasoned, then a kid with a slightly odd nose wouldn't even register on the bully-radar. Rather than aiming to spook the pants off us, these games were striving toward a bold new age of equality and fairness. Huzzah!

It didn't work of course, and children merrily continued to act like right little bastards. But at least they tried.

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