A couple of years after his first commercial video game Combat Crazy had failed to set the sales charts alight — despite being an enjoyable side-scrolling platform shooter — Bizarre Creations founder Martyn Chudley was back with another game, this time for 16-bit platforms.
The new title was known as The Killing Game Show, and was published on 16-bit home computers by a company called Psygnosis, which had been establishing a very solid reputation for itself since its inception in 1986. Not only was Psygnosis a spiritual successor to the legendary 8-bit developer-publisher Imagine Software, but it had also demonstrated right from the start that it was a company dedicated to high-quality, well-produced games that oozed class and style — on both the computer screen and on players’ shelves, too.
The Killing Game Show, developed by Chudley and a team working under the name Raising Hell Software, was an ideal fit for Psygnosis’ portfolio, featuring impressive visuals and solid but challenging gameplay to back them up. So let’s take a closer look.
The Killing Game Show, as the name suggests, follows in the footsteps of the 1987 Schwarzenegger flick The Running Man, in which supposed criminals in a near-future dystopia are given the opportunity to win their freedom by participating in a piece of violent popular entertainment run by the totalitarian government.
While Arnie at least got to retain his human form in The Running Man, in The Killing Game Show, the unfortunate participants — or “MUGs”, as they’re known — have had their lower body (just above the groin) amputated, their flesh sandblasted off them and their vital organs implanted into some sort of heavily armed robotic walker thing with suckers on its feet, which allows it to climb up walls.
The MUGs’ task from this point on is simple: escape from each of the many Pits of Death by climbing to the top before the Deadly to Organic Life Liquid (DOLL) fills up the pit and dissolves what few remaining squishy bits they have. Along the way their efforts will be hindered by Hostile Artificial Life Forms (HALFs) but assisted by the weapons and tools that the hosts of the deadly game show have graciously left for them in each of the Pits of Death. Succeed, and they get the opportunity to plead for their pardon in person; fail and there won’t be anything left of them to mourn.
The character you play in The Killing Game Show is a resistance fighter named Carl, whose organisation was betrayed from within. With the government hoping to make an example out of Carl and his peers, they force him into the role of a MUG in The Killing Game Show — but Carl has no intention of going down quietly. There are people counting on him, after all.
Interestingly, The Killing Game Show was ported and republished (by Electronic Arts, of all people) under the name Fatal Rewind for Sega Mega Drive a year after its original release on Atari ST and Amiga. For the most part, it’s the same game, though it has four fewer levels than the original home computer versions, and the narrative setup in the manual strips out any mention of amputating people’s lower body just above the groin and sandblasting off their flesh. It also rebrands the “MUGs” as “Thugs” and renames the protagonist to “Eric” instead of “Carl”. Presumably at least some of this was due to interference by Sega, who allegedly also took issue with Chudley’s developer name Raising Hell Software. We’ll likely never know the full details of what went down here, but this sounds like the most likely explanation.
The Killing Game Show (as we shall refer to it hereafter) stems from Chudley’s love of both platformers and shoot ’em ups, and incorporates elements of both. The latter aspect in particular becomes apparent almost immediately as soon as the “HALFs” show themselves; rather than enemies confining themselves to platforms as in Combat Crazy, they instead spawn in the sorts of formations you’d expect to see in a scrolling shoot ’em up, proceed through a choreographed movement pattern and then disappear. Blasting a full formation nets you a sizeable score bonus and a health pickup that immediately starts floating off into the air; alternatively, avoiding them means they will go away after a moment, though the formation will spawn in again and go through its whole pattern if you go back to where it originally appeared.
Platforming-wise, things are relatively straightforward. Carl/Eric can jump, and is also able to walk straight up vertical walls thanks to the suckers on his feet. Much of the challenge in the game stems from determining the correct route to the top of each of the Pits of Death; there’s generally only one “correct” way to go, which is sometimes indicated by arrow signs on the background tiles, but which sometimes you’re left to discover for yourself.
With the levels being “pits”, they are implied to be cylindrical by the use of wrap-around scrolling. Keep walking in one direction and you’ll eventually end up back where you started. The level design frequently makes use of this as a means of keeping you on your toes; getting to the top of each Pit is rarely a case of just running from left to right and hopping up platforms as you see them.
As you progress, you’ll discover tools hidden in various containers on the floor. Some of these upgrade Carl/Eric’s base weapon for a limited number of shots; others have functions that must specifically be triggered by holding down the fire button. (Oddly, on the Mega Drive version no-one thought to assign this to the “A” button; the “B” button on the controller functions as both the “fire” and “use tool” button in the same way as the single button on an Atari ST or Amiga joystick.)
Tools range from health-replenishing items to specially shaped keys that must be used in the correct locations to open up pathways; the latter are introduced from the second stage of the game onwards and become an increasingly important part of negotiating the entire level as you progress further. There are also “Oracle” items, which occasionally provide hints but more commonly provide a useless bit of snark, and “Red Herrings” which, as their name suggests, do absolutely nothing whatsoever. Oh ho ho, you cheeky game designer, you.
Probably the most interesting thing about the game from a design perspective is the aspect that the Mega Drive version takes its name Fatal Rewind from. After losing a life — be it by running out of energy or allowing the DOLL to catch up with you — you are given the opportunity to watch a replay of what led up to your untimely demise. You can fast forward through this and then choose to start playing again at any point during the replay; it’s not quite the “rewind” system we see in a lot of modern emulated titles, but it’s pretty damn close, and was an interesting mechanic that successfully set The Killing Game Show apart from many of its peers at the time.
From a modern perspective, The Killing Game Show is worth a play. It’s smooth, slick, responsive and plays well, though the difficulty does ramp up obscenely quickly after the first couple of levels. From the second “set” of stages onwards, you have an extremely tight amount of time to get things done on the Pit’s lowest level before the DOLL starts rising; it’s often not entirely clear exactly what you’re supposed to do at first glance, so it’s easy to find yourself losing a life before you’re able to get your bearings. This is something that you can get past with practice and level memorisation, but it does feel a little obnoxious the first couple of times you encounter it.
On top of this, the fact that there’s no period of invincibility after getting hit can sometimes prove troublesome. Accidentally run into an oncoming swarm of HALFs and it’s not implausible for your entire energy bar to be sucked dry before you know it; once you’re being hit by a formation, it can sometimes be tricky to escape to a safe distance or destroy enough enemies to clear a path for yourself. Not impossible, just tricky — and again, it feels like an aspect of the game that could have done with just a little tweak to make it more enjoyable.
Once you nail all these things, there’s a lot to like about The Killing Game Show. The weapons are interesting and varied, and located at sensible points throughout the levels where they might actually be helpful in traversing the obstacles as well as just blasting your foes. A solid scoring system encourages replays with plenty of risk-taking by increasing your score more rapidly the closer you are to the DOLL, and an end-level bonus based on the amount of remaining energy you have encourages you to try and stay as safe as you possibly can while proceeding through the various levels.
It’s not a game you’ll likely make it through without some serious practice and effort, but as a solid and representative example of what you could expect from top-notch 16-bit games back in the day — particularly those from Psygnosis — it’s hard to beat.
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