Thursday, October 29, 2009

Oddities: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre

As Halloween approaches, it seems like a good time to examine one of the earliest horror-themed home videogames ever produced.

Charles Band's Wizard Video label pioneered exploitation and horror movie distribution during the early days of VHS and Betamax home video, and in 1982 the company branched out into videogames with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the Atari 2600, under license based on the classic movie directed by Tobe Hooper, inspired in turn by real-life murderer and human skin fashionista Ed Gein.

The game opens with a rarity among 2600 games, an actual title screen:

The game was controversial at the time of its release, partly because of its subject matter, but mostly because of its perspective.  Unlike LJN/Acclaim's later NES Friday the 13th game, or Wizard Video's own contemporary Halloween game, the Texas Chainsaw Massacre game did NOT cast the player as a hero or heroine pitted against the movie's villain.  Instead, the player takes on the role of Leatherface himself, armed with a chainsaw and limited fuel.

The game plays a bit like Activision's Stampede.  The object of the game is to chase fleeing victims (who shriek with a high-pitched beeping) and mow them down with a button-activated chainsaw, while avoiding or chainsawing obstacles including wheelchairs, fences, sagebrush and cattle skulls. Fuel is the primary limitation -- the player has to target victims efficiently, and avoid wasting fuel, to achieve the highest possible score.

The game actually looks pretty good by 2600 standards, with a bit of parallax scrolling and blocky renditions of the movie's iconic house and blue pickup truck visible in the distance.  Victims bleed brownish red from the head and feet whenever Leatherface succeeds in his mission: 

Of course, all evil things must come to an end, and when Leatherface has exhausted his three tanks of fuel, one of his potential victims runs onscreen and ends the game with a swift kick to his serial-killing posterior, knocking him offscreen:

Due to the controversy, the game was usually sold "under the counter" at the independent video stores that were willing to stock it.  It consequently didn't sell well, and Wizard Video only produced two titles before leaving the videogame market. 

But through modern eyes, inured to the more explicit horrors of Resident Evil, it's clear that The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has a sense of humor and was not meant to be taken seriously.  It's a simple game, just 4 kilobytes of Atari 2600 code and data, and worth a quick play for history's sake, and the rare opportunity to play the bad guy.


  1. Isn't that background tree-line stolen from Pitfall! ?

  2. It's certainly a similar design -- shorter vertically, without the smaller supporting branches. My guess is that the options for rendering a forest on the Atari 2600 were pretty limited and there were only a few ways to solve that problem!