"A zombie dancing on a table is quite a sight!"
Midnight Mutants is a survival horror game developed by
Radioactive Software for the Atari 7800 in 1990. It was one of the
last games released for a system that was obsolete the moment it hit
shelves, but did more than its fair share to ensure the 7800 went out in
Most games of the Atari age were light on the storyline front, to
say the least. Midnight Mutants broke rank with a vengeance, boasting a
storyline that while not terribly original still did a fine job of
drawing the player into the game. Our story begins in 1747, where a
powerful warlock, Dr. Evil (sadly, not Mike Myers) is captured and
executed by one Johnathon Harkman, Witchfinder General. "You're all
going to pay!" he shrieks as his captors fight to tie him to the stake.
As Harkman lights the pyre, Dr. Evil issues one final admonition:
"You're going to pay most of all."
Fast forward to 1992. A young boy named Jimmy and his grandfather
(portrayed by none other than Al "Grandpa" Lewis of The
Munsters) are looking forward to celebrating Halloween together. As
the instruction manual states in the surprisingly well-written and detailed
introduction, Grandpa celebrates Halloween like most people celebrate
Christmas. This year, however, sees Grandpa unnaturally agitated as he
works on his famous potions in his laboratory. He takes a break from his
work to take Jimmy to the pumpkin patch to purchase their Halloween
pumpkin. While they are there, something strange happens. One of the
pumpkins explodes, revealing the flame-ravaged form of a man dressed
in antique clothing.
"You don't know me," says Dr. Evil, "but your great-great-grandfather
did. And I promised I'd be back for him. But since he's not
here...you'll have to do." Revenge from the grave then takes a turn for
the weird as Dr. Evil traps Grandpa in a "plasmic pumpkin prison."
With his vile mission now complete, Dr. Evil vanishes, and young Jimmy
comes to the grim realization that only he can rescue his Grandpa and
Save for the pumpkin part, it's not the most original tale ever to be committed to print, but certainly impressive for a game of this era. And the macabre
storytelling doesn't end there. Midnight Mutants boasts an entire cast
of weirdos, each with their own backstory. There's the exiled Austrian professor
whose experiments with the living dead end in tragedy when his ungodly
creations turn on him, the misanthropic geneticist who finds himself
transformed into a skeletal mutant ram, and my personal favourite, the
"greatly feared optometrist" who went blind and died after receiving a
transplant of tainted eyeballs and turned into a giant skull. Wonder what those guys at Radioactive
were smoking when they came up
with that one. Best of all, these bizarre diatribes are relayed in inimitable style by Grandpa himself via the inventory screen. Even when he is not telling Jimmy tales of the freaks that once inhabited the town or offering hints, Grandpa can still bust out with puns and one-liners that are so bad they're good, all at the touch of a button. A detailed story and entertaining dialogue...what could be better? Except maybe for...
Here is where Midnight Mutants stands head and shoulders above so
many other 7800 offerings. The isometric view gives a different feel to the gameplay. While it occasionally makes aiming at enemies tricky, it is still a refreshing departure from the side-scrolling adventure games that were the standard at the time. The game combines action RPG elements a la
The Legend of Zelda with good old-fashioned senseless killing. The
scavenger hunt for items both optional and required is what gives the
gameplay that extra boost to elevate it above simple button mashing.
There are plenty of items and weapons for Jimmy to collect to aid him on
his quest, as well as plenty of freakish monsters to hinder his
progress. Zombie slaughtering becomes quite a treat upon acquisition of
the better weapons, namely the holy Mega Blaster. Jimmy can stand on
one side of the screen, unload into a gaggle of shuffling mutants, and
watch the heads and limbs fly. Woohoo!
But while Jimmy has a variety of ways to kill the beasts at his
disposal, they too have a few tricks up their rotten sleeves to off him.
Jimmy has two life meters, one representing his hit points, the
other his blood purity. If either reaches zero, Jimmy dies and the
game is over. As a cool little Easter egg type thing, if Jimmy perishes from depleted blood purity, he turns into a blue skinned zombie, just like the ones he was fighting before he shuffled off the mortal coil. Cool! But fortunately Jimmy can obtain recovery potions, as well as
items to ward off the blood-tainting bites of vermin and extend his
life bar, the best way to guarantee survival against the more difficult
later enemies and the infamous Mutant Bosses. Speaking of which...
Yet another bragging right for Midnight Mutants. The graphics are
bright and nicely detailed, and there is even a sense of atmosphere.
Basement rooms, caves, and forests all "feel" dark, and even the
exterior environments give the impression of a crisp October evening.
The aforementioned boss characters fill the entire screen, another
first, and are appropriately menacing and gruesome-looking, particularly
the ram's head boss. Even the zombies vary in appearance; some with
grotesquely misshapen heads and bulging eyeballs, others with long
spindly necks and gore dribbling
down their chins. And, as previously mentioned, they blow up beautifully. A visceral visual pleasure. I should add, however, that the 7800's limitations in how many colours/sprites it can show on-screen at once ensure that this game's graphical muscle unfortunately proves to also be one of its weaknesses. At times, specifically when there are a lot of enemies onscreen, the game will glitch out. It wouldn't be such a bad thing if it didn't cause the game to reset itself, which, as I experienced the very first time I finally reached Dr. Evil playing this game as a kid, is just cause for a controller-hurling tantrum.
The sound effects and music of Midnight Mutants are a mixed bag, but the sound capabilities of
Atari's game systems were never anything to write home about anyway. The
sound effects are just kind of there, with nothing particularly awful
or outstanding. The outdoor theme music is pretty grating and annoying, but again, par for the course. The interior theme, however, is eerie, slinky, and ominous, and the boss theme and cavern
theme are both very catchy. All in all the Midnight Mutants soundtrack
is the exception to Atari's aural mediocrity rule.
I fired this game up via emulator for old times' sake prior to this writing, and while I never managed to beat it back in the day, primarily due to the reset glitch, I breezed through it today in roughly 40 minutes. Seeing as there is no save or password feature, I would say this is a decent length for a single-sitting playthrough game. While the game is very much non-linear there is a "system" to completing it efficiently and relatively easily, one that can be honed via multiple playthroughs. There are many ways to play the game that can make for a different experience every time. For added challenge one could attempt a run-through without collecting any health powerups, for example. And of course there is the fact that the game is just plain fun. Watching zombies go to pieces never gets old. Ever.
I am a big fan of writing scathing reviews poking fun at video games that I did not like and/or are just plain bad. Atari games make particularly easy fodder for this purpose, as many of said games were either half-assed ports of arcade staples or were just quite simply awful. However, I will confess to a bias toward the Atari 7800 and a good portion of its library. The 7800 was my very first video game system, and I was rather proud of this fact seeing as it was exceedingly rare, particularly in its twilight years. My 7800 still got played on the regular after I got my Nintendo, even after I got my Super Nintendo. Midnight Mutants was far and away my favourite game. Midnight Mutants is one of my favourite games of all time. Without it we likely would not have such survival horror staples as Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Without it we wouldn't know the dangers of soaking eyeballs in tainted blood and how inviting distinguished scientists to a house where the undead run amok can really ruin one's chances of winning the Nobel Prize. It has everything; zombies, mad scientists, mutants, folklore, and dark humour. Midnight Mutants is everything that is great about Halloween.
See it in action here and here.