Death Night, Death: 10th Anniversary Deluxe Edition

let-off-studios's picture

Death Night, Death: A 10th Anniversary Retrospective

You gotta hand it to Parabola Studios: what they don’t have in talent, they sure make up for in gusto.

Actually, I shouldn’t be so hard on them. And I invite you to not judge them too harshly, too. Think about the time it was released: 1984. To attempt a live-action video game seemed a completely inconceivable, Sisyphean task of epic proportions. Not only had Don Bluth’s Dragon’s Lair been released the year prior – wowing arcade audiences and setting the bar impressively high with its laserdisc animation game breaking pixel barriers – but Parabola and their now infamous Executive Producer, Vigo deRomero, set out to provide what became the first-ever live action video game. Though many have already shared their strong opinions on Death Night, Death, few have done so in print. Here’s my contribution.

With the exception of a few HUD elements and map screens, the game plays out through stitched-together clips of live film, guiding the player on a fantastic, gothic-horror journey through Italian castles, countryside, and catacombs. Channeling references as disparate as Dark Shadows and Dynasty, the sprawling tale (rounded out with just over 45 minutes of eye-popping live action video, easily three times the length of Dragon's Lair) guides the player in a spectacular vampire horror tale, straight out of Hammer’s catalogue of the 70’s. The two unlikely protagonists, 13 year-old fraternal twins Dianne and Chet, uncover a diabolical scheme to turn their mother’s inherited castle into a temple teeming with blood-sucking vampires set on turning all of humanity into their feed stock. A clever manipulation of game elements combines to bring this vampire-hunting tale to life.

One of the more interesting aspects of DND is the use of the two different protagonists in different scenes. They become separated early on in the game, and the rest of the scenes provide the challenge to the player of reuniting them before the midnight of the Harbinger’s Moon: when a vampire’s powers of domination and mesmerism are at their height. The player must guide, in turns, Dianne and Chet through vibrant locales such as mouldering dungeon corridors, a gloomy haunted forest, and eventually the evil Count’s throne room (see screen shot for the dramatic reveal). Though the chapters can seem short, it’s only because the action is intense and film editing was tight and on-point consistently throughout.

A break between scenes provides the player a welcome chance to catch their breath, and a visual representation of how far away from their goal the characters are, as well as the remaining time. The player is welcome to attempt each scene multiple times, but instead of limiting the number of lives the player has (and punctuating the scenes with grisly deaths a la Dragon’s Lair), a variety of brief cinematic endings are provided, and the one shown after a play-through is based on the remaining time. Though devoid of the gratuitous, ultra-saturated blood of 70's cinema, the horrific violence not shown on screen is mainly left to the player to imagine.

So not only was this game visionary in terms of format and player interaction, but multiple endings were also a new thing. deRomero can be applauded for taking a risk here, and even could be credited as an inspiration to the multiple-ending twist of the following year’s comedy Clue: The Movie. However, the comparison stops there, because Death Night, Death is, if anything, certainly more Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing than Tim Curry and Lesley Ann Warren.

Sure, you could aim for the low-hanging fruit, harping on the hammy acting (what ya gonna do with child actors?) and sometimes-abysmal dialogue. You can check out various AOL message groups right now (or even find them on Yahoo! search) for clips of the hilariously cringe-worthy delivery of actor Alan Hafferty’s, “You bastard!” for the cream of this particular crop. But personally I think it’s important to look beyond the cinematic conventions, and instead recognize DND for blazing a new trail for video game media to inevitably follow.

Parabola has released a deluxe version of Death Night Death to appease its cult following on the 10th anniversary of the release. A few extras are found on the CD (not a laserdisc anymore!) though these interviews and design documents will be welcome only by true collectors. Still, it’s a worthy offering for those who want to look into video game history, and how far we’ve come with live-action video games today. Seems to run just fine with my 4x speed CD-ROM drive. Just make sure you have a good set of PC speakers or even headphones.

Parabola Studios, LLC
For Windows 95
Retail: $24.99 (Babbage’s)

Jeff Dzalinski
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gisbrecht's picture

What a brilliant review,

What a brilliant review, I'll definitely have to go hunting on ebay for this haha.