Ginger Nuts of Horror
Strangeness and disturbia were hardly uncommon to the now archaic Commodore Amiga and its contemporaries; owing to the relative youth of the video game market, invention and free expression was rife, though not always successfully manifested.
Straight examples of horror, however, were exceedingly rare, owing to video games still largely being regarded as toys and the reserve of children. The UK based Horrorsoft was a rare example of a video game company that specialised in exclusively adult products, their most consistent output Dungeon Master style RPGs that, rather than being fantasy-based, explored horror themes and subjects instead.
Their first notable work, Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, was loosely based around the late-night TV host of the same name, who appeared in the game not so much as a “damsel in distress” as a kind of guide and sage who could provide hints, help to solve puzzles and even mix up spells and potions for the player character's use. Whilst generally well received (most notably for its atmosphere and imagery), the game suffered one or two crippling faults, as did almost all of Horrorsoft's output, some of the most notable being almost unavoidable “instant death” situations, the likelihood of making the game unwinnable from very early stages by not picking up particular items or losing them along the way and so on and so forth.
For all that, the game garnered some significant attention for its horror stylings; whilst somewhat adolescent by present day standards (much of the scares are cliché to the Nth degree, not to mention extremely crudely rendered), this was, for many, the first time they had seen anything even approaching horror-film like grue, gore and mutilation in a video game, let alone experienced anything like dread or fear. The game and quickly amassed a dedicated audience, especially amongst older players, resulting not only in arguably Horrorsoft's seminal work, Waxworks, but also a direct sequel to the original Elvira in the form of The Jaws of Cerberus.
A fairly standard set-up: the eponymous Elvira is featuring in a number of films being produced by Black Widow studios. However, unbeknownst to those involved, a genuine demon (the monstrous Cerberus) is influencing affairs from its particular circle of Hell, influencing those on the horror film set to make it synthetic body to infest and to perform a ritual that summons its spirit to the material world. Once unleashed, it kidnaps Elvira with a view to sacrificing her, then transforms the various film sets into Hellish parodies of themselves; special effects monsters becoming real, what was previously only paint and cardboard becoming stone and soil.
As one of potentially four characters, you arrive at the lot to find the gates open, the studios in absolute chaos and Elvira taken. In a cliché directly from the Stephen King playbook, after being shocked out of your wits by mutilated corpses tumbling from closets etc, you encounter a token ethnic-minority character (this was the 1980s, after all) -in this instance, a native American gentleman-, who has some insight into what is happening and tells you what you require in order to banish Cerberus and its minions back to the abyss.
Those familiar with Elvira's TV and film antics will know that her schtick was a potent cocktail of raunchy humour and horror commentary; factors which definitely feature in The Jaws of Cerberus but do not dominate. Furthermore, many of the flaws that dogged the original game have been improved, if not done away with entirely:
A completely overhauled interface and spell-system, far more variety in environments, enemies and generally better presentation...what's more, the game is far more sophisticated in its horror than its predecessor, with many set-pieces and the imagery they contain being genuinely unsettling.
The game is divided into multiple distinct sections based upon the film sets within Black Widow studios, each of which can technically be tackled in any order, though you will need certain items and knowledge from one to progress through certain sections of another.
The “haunted house” film set, for example, is where much of the genuine horror in the game occurs: a slow and ominous section filled with logic puzzles and encounters that, whilst potentially lethal, are generally not solved through violence. Here, the player might fall asleep in a conveniently vacant bed, only to experience beautiful and faintly erotic dreams. On waking, the beauty from those dreams lingers over the bed, descending for another kiss, only for its features to shrivel, its hair to recede; puckered lips to become a lamprey maw of spiny teeth...Elsewhere, a dining room is set as though for a lavish feast, investigation and removal of a tray lid not revealing a roast bird or a joint of meat, but a severed head whose eyes flutter open, that grins at the player, drooling blood onto the plate below...wandering a nearby hallway results in the emergence of a spectre so hideous, the player character faints dead away, only to wake in a large storage freezer amidst the hacked and eviscerated corpses of numerous other victims. The only way to survive is if you have some form of fire-based spell prepared to dispel the cold, at which point the spectre itself will return: a diseased and gangrel woman, teeth sharpened to cannibalistic points, bearing a butcher's knife that she immediately starts hacking the player with...
Such set pieces infest the area, many of them not immediately lethal, at least, so long as the player is well prepared, others being examples of what so dogged the original game: encounters that come with no warning or clue as to how they might be survived, their result an instant and hideous death (graphically portrayed in one of the game's many gory “game over” screens). This highlights one of the consistent flaws carried over from its predecessor, and which are extremely common, not only amongst similar adventures of the era (certainly amongst Horrorsoft's back catalogue), but video games of the period in general: the game ultimately becomes a matter of trial and error; it's all too feasible to stumble into a room or corridor that has no indication or signifier of impending threat, only to be met by a trap, puzzle or encounter that, unless you have the correct spell, item or tactic prepared, will end your game instantly. This certainly enhances the longevity of the game (it is fiendishly difficult; notoriously so, amongst the Amiga's gauntlet of games), but also makes it a uniquely frustrating experience, particularly in the days before internet walk-throughs or long-plays.
For example, early in the game, it is necessary to fish a set of keys from a fish tank. Dipping in with bare hands results in the piranha infesting the tank graphically gnawing the player's fingers to ribbons, halving their strength and carrying capacity. Making the attempt again will result in the loss of their hands, meaning that they can no longer carry anything, wield weapons or cast spells. The game is effectively over. Similarly, if you happen to blunder into the attic of the house, you will encounter a vampire in its coffin that rises and hurtles at you with next to no time given to defend yourself. The trick is a fairly simple one; all you have to do is smash the window above it to let the sunlight in. However, the moment comes with so little in the way of warning and is over so quickly, the vampire will be gnawing on your throat in a matter of seconds, sending you back to a previous load or, potentially, the beginning of the game.
This element of the unexpected certainly makes the game tense and somewhat scarier than lesser titles, but, once again, also makes for an insanely frustrating experience.
Other sets on the lot include: an immense labyrinth of subterranean caverns, infested with giant worms, ants, centipedes and scorpions. This is the “grinding,” combat area of the game, which is essential not only for building up the player character's levels and finding essential ingredients for spells, but also contains a number of essential secrets that the player must discover if they have a hope in Hell of defeating Cerberus. This is where the game grinds to a halt for many, and where its age certainly begins to show; the maze of caverns is little more than a series of identical tunnels and chambers, no auto-map available to chart your progress. This is a true “pen and paper” experience; in order to navigate, you must have graph paper and pencil handy in order to map out the caverns manually, or you don't have a chance of finding your way through (or, for that matter, finding your way back out again). Enemies are numerous and crop up almost randomly; gigantic worms bursting from the ground, hideous, giant mosquitoes hurtling at you out of the darkness. Combat, whilst much improved, is still something of a trial; you must learn the attack patterns of enemies and know when it is best to dodge, defend or attack. Even then, you are highly likely to suffer damage and multiple deaths until you reach higher levels. A number of encounters here are unique and essential to completing the game: a gigantic ant-queen that sprays acid in your face, a monstrous scorpion and, finally, an immense spider in whose web writhes a captive Elvira. The spider in particular is absolutely terrifying: looking out from a small cave into a vast cavern, the player sees the web stretched below and Elvira snared in it. From an adjacent vent, the spider emerges, scurrying down across the web before its legs crawl over the lip of the tunnel in which you're standing. Facing the spider head on is next to impossible; if you don't have the correct spell equipped to defeat it from a distance, it will snare and murder you instantly.
Clambering down to release Elvira results in another encounter; the eponymous heroine morphing and transforming into a giant wasp that must be defeated. This is a consistent situation throughout all of the sets: at the climax of each comes an encounter with a false “Elvira” that then morphs into something hideous which must be taken down.
Ultimately, if the player proves patient and canny enough, they will gather the items for the ritual to summon and dispel Cerberus, culminating in encounter in the parking lot, in which the triple-headed, canine demon bursts from the ground, drooling lava, belching fire. If the player does not follow the ritual exactly throughout the encounter, then they will die instantly. If they succeed, then the beast's beating heart is (graphically) torn from its moorings, and the demon is banished back to Hell.
However, owing to its insane difficulty, the all too feasible likelihood of losing or simply not finding an essential item from the game and having to start over from scratch, the vast majority of players from the era of its release never even got close to this final encounter, which is a shame, as it is well rendered and suitably epic.
The game is all but unplayable by present day standards; an example of the evolution of horror gaming in its early adolescence; certain consistent kinks not yet identified and ironed out, certain follies still pervasive not only in assumptions of video game design, but also in the very technology on which they operated.
That said, the game is visually arresting (for the era), intriguingly atmospheric with some decent scares, an excellent sense of humour about itself and a notably “adult” sensibility; there is no hand holding or on-screen instructions here: the player is expected to engage and experiment; to find their own seeping, bleeding way through the insanity, whether they ultimately expire (highly likely) or emerge gasping and half-mad on the other side.
is an entity that seems to simultaneously exist and not exist at various points and states in time and reality, mostly where there are vast quantities of cake to be had. He has a lot of books. And a cat named Rufus. What she makes of all this is anyone's guess.