This might as well be called a review of the reviews of this particular game, seeing that it still seems to provoke quite an emotional reaction with many of those people who care enough to actually write something about it down. Apparently, it caused quite a stir in North America when it was first released, leading up to parliamentary hearings about moral standards in video games – that getting regularly ridiculed in most of said retrospective reviews.
When the game got to Europe in 1993, nothing similar occurred. Nobody cared. The game received short, indifferent reviews in a few console-centric game magazines. Which also might have had to do something with the extreme obscurity of Sega's Mega CD add-on for their fairly popular Mega Drive; the total target audience of this game would have been about a dozen people all over Europe combined! When the game was also released on the PC a couple of years later, still nobody cared, though.
So what was this controversy on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean all about? Apparently, the gratuitous violence and sexual innuendo inherent in a plot about a group of 'teenage' girls (as usual played by a group of women clearly in their twenties, at least one of them obviously pushing thirty) being in the danger of being 'drilled' for their blood by comically limping, black-clad lepers in a game for children (because obviously, the whole medium of video games was supposed to be targeted exclusively at children) was too much for the moral police.
It was exactly the same discussion that every medium has to go through once it reaches mainstream mindshare. A humorous science fiction themed remake of the classic The Most Dangerous Game called Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity (which I happen to own on DVD and which I wholeheartedly recommend as being an affectionate tribute to the creepy original as well as being one of the few intentionally camp films whose intended humor actually works) being shown on late night TV enraged a couple of senators in the very same year. In the 1980s, when Night Trap was obviously produced, there was a huge outcry about so-called zombie films appearing on the home video market.
It would be easy to dismiss all of this, as most commentators today do, simply because those stuffy old men in their dark suits make it so simple. They openly admitted never actually having played Night Trap or any of the other games they criticised. Much of their outrage seemed to be based on the assumption that the game is about trapping helpless girls while in fact, it is the player's task to protect those girls by trapping the attackers. Though most reviews stop at pointing this out. And with all due respect, it is hardly a sufficient defense to point out some flaws in your opponent's argument.
Again, consider what the world has learned from the film business. What is the most common recurring theme in so-called exploitation films? If you think about it, it's the double standard. How many of those films claim to hold conservative or even reactionary moral views, to condemn 'sexual deviance' or gratuitous violence? How many pretend to only be a sort of documentary of 'shocking tendencies' within the 'decent society'? While, of course, at the same time playing on the fascination of exactly these subjects. A well known example dating back to the 1930s being Child Bride: This 'drama' claims to be a criticism of child marriage in the southern US, but the longest scene in the whole film shows a little girl skinny dipping. Talking about double moral standards…
So, in a similar vein, it would be possible that although Night Trap takes the explicit theme of protecting girls from harm, it could still be delving deeply into showing them being chased, tortured and ultimately killed (and to be honest, there is an opportunity at the very end of the game where the player can actually use a deadly trap on a girl). The question should rather be: Is this really relevant and how 'bad' is it actually? I.e. is it really worth the outrage?
Night Trap falls into a genre which had developed since the late 1970s in the film business: the self-conscious, ironic slasher. It certainly works to the game's advantage that the video material had been shot (and temporarily shelved) at the height of this genre (the mid-80s): Colourful costumes, crazy hairstyles and basically every single fashion sin of the time (a canon to which the game even manages to add a couple of previously unknown ones) await the player – accompanied by an excellent, catchy soundtrack, which the girls dance, mime and sing to in a particularly memorable scene.
All the standard cliché characters are well represented: the 'funny' (i.e. annoying) one is responsible for the permanent attempt of comic relief, the 'dorky brother' is not taken seriously when he actually discovers the truth about this place and another girl is a dead ringer for the 'lost love' of one of the mansion's inhabitants. Speaking of the party's hosts, it takes the plot about 10 seconds to reveal that they are actually vampires as well, and they are sort-of in league with the other menaces.
The player, on the other hand, is an agent of a sort of law enforcement agency called SCAT (Sega Control Attack Team) who, due to SCAT's elite hacking skills (i.e. planting an 'override cable' in plain view), has taken control over the mansion's security system. This consists of surveillance cameras in eight different rooms as well as the remote activation function for… the traps which are all over the place as well. You'd think that any SCAT agent could have taken a quick look at any of the cameras and discovered the 'secret' of the people who live here, but, no, they left it to the player (or the reader of this review).
Basically, there are eight video feeds running concurrently in real time. The player switches between them at will. At each point in time, there could be nothing going on, some plot development or shadowy creatures shambling along the room. In the latter case, all that is expected of the player is to wait for a meter to reach the red area and then quickly to activate the trap present in this room in order to get rid of this danger.
So it all comes down to being in the right place at the right time. This had already been a well established in the mystery genre since Deadline, so it wasn't quite such a bad idea as it is often made out to be. Just that in games like Deadline, there is a logic to what will happen where and when, while in Night Trap, although there are absolutely no random elements, the player's main activity is guesswork… or busywork, i.e. simply taking notes of when something interesting happens in each room.
The even more severe issue from a game design perspective is another one, though: There is a conflict between playing / succeeding in the game and watching the plot unfold. The game makes the player choose between the two, because trapping intruders mostly takes place where otherwise, nothing interesting happens. Not that the plot is much to write home about, but it is fairly amusing. Probably more entertainment value than in the thin gameplay. Wait, not 'probably'. In consequence, this means that the game does not communicate an urgency to play well at all. Rather, it rewards to do only the bare minimum necessary to avoid an early demise.
No, we aren't talking about art. Almost none of the actresses and actors ever appeared in anything else again after this, but they are on quite an appropriate level comparable to similar films. This being one of the pioneers of the 'interactive movie' genre, it comes from a time when it was still considered common courtesy to shoot in physical sets with actual props instead of a blue screen and, as cheap as everything undoubtedly was, it shows in a comparatively clean and believable overall look. In some scenes, the 'directors' even went for some non-static staging, i.e. characters moving around, leaving or entering the room, groups splitting off the main pack to flow into other scenes and different things happening in the foreground and the background of the set at the same time. It's nowhere near the quality of its fellow sufferer Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity, but it does have its moments.
As mentioned earlier, Night Trap was produced in the 1980s and it was scheduled to be one of the release titles of an ill-fated VHS based game system. The first generation of CD-based consoles, like the Mega CD, did not quite offer the video quality we have grown to expect today: The limited colour palette and the small video frame, occupying only a fraction of the screen, certainly do get a lot of bad press these days.
Though, as with so many other things commonly written about this game, it does not seem to be entirely fair. Admittedly, later ports of the game, most notably on the 3DO, look much better, but today's emulators combined with our pixel-perfect flat screens don't really do justice to what this version would have looked like on the blurry PAL or NTSC TVs of the day. Yes, the picture would have been blurry (not unlike a washed out VHS tape…), but the colour interpolation, for example, would not even have been visible other than in a couple of scenes. So don't believe everything you see on screenshots (like… right here on this site).
Now, it may seem like I'm defending the indefensible here, and that's not even that far off. It is undeniable that Night Trap set a dangerous precedent for the developing genre to not give the player nearly enough to do (making the word 'interactive' in the term 'interactive movie' kind of ironic) and making that minor interaction not even particularly noteworthy. At least that interaction is not particularly frustrating and the short film in there at least is not as forgettable as almost everything which came later. The game entertains on another level than with its gameplay. By serious standards, it is certainly impressive how many major plot holes which cannot just be explained away with the usual excuse of this being satire can be produced within such a short running time. Nevertheless, I had a good time for the short while it lasted. Even if it hardly deserves the cult status it seems to have gained by now – or its notoriety. Though it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth in spite of everything: Being marketed as a game, it would be sold for the multiple of the price you would pay for a DVD (or, in those days, a VHS tape) of one of those B movies it supposedly spoofs. I grabbed the aforementioned Slave Girls… film off a bargain bin for a fiver and there is no doubt it offers much more entertainment than Night Trap. If you want to consider value for money, there is indeed no defense.