One thing I strenuously try to avoid in my half-baked nostalgic looks back at the computer games of my youth is painting them out as somehow better than what’s being produced now. It’s just such an easy fallacy to slip into, giving vent to the whole “in my day” shtick as you bitch about the damn kids and their Justin Bieber. Go look up Youtube videos of Queen and Led Zeppelin and you’ll see the comments section stuffed full of just such notions. Admittedly, we’re talking Youtube comments, the place that debunks Obi-Wan’s notion that Mos Eisley was the be-all end-all of hives of scum and villainy. I’m not going to argue that Queen and Zep aren’t awesome, but give the kids a break, music didn’t die with Freddy Mercury. Or the Beatles. Or Mozart, for that matter.
Now, before I completely revoke my cranky old man cred, I will say that I believe certain offerings of yore could not be made today, or at least that doing so would take a heck of a lot of clout and a set of testicles so large they could be used as Jumping Balls:
Like, for example, “Blazing Saddles“. I’m not sure Blazing Saddles could have gotten made and released in modern times, what with all them racial epithets in the script. As I recall, even the South Park movie didn’t get much further than “darkie” despite managing to show a photorealistic penis in an R-rated film. The only person I would halfway trust to remake Blazing Saddles would be Dave Chappelle, but it’s probably better just to leave it alone, as a relic of a time gone by.
Now picture the following: you are entertainment software corporate mega-entity Electronic Arts, in 2011 the #1 game publisher in the Western world. Your reach is vast, your properties legion. Into your empire comes a humble programmer who pitches the following scenario for a computer RPG:
An average guy, with an average job and an average life is inexplicably warped into the bowels of Hell. He must find his girlfriend and escape. He can get Stalin, Hamlet, Horatio, Hitler, Dr. Jekyll or Genghis Khan to join his party, fight Al Capone and Dillinger, get blood from Bonnie and Clyde, or, in Limbo, learn archery from Thucydides and melee from Marc Anthony. Oh, and there will be scenes of damned souls in torment, and plenty of lampooning of Dante, Milton, and The Holy Bible along the way.
And as that EA exec, you turn this pitch away, because you know there’s no way in he…ck you’re going to convince Wal-Mart to put it on their shelves, and that means a serious profit problem. Heck, even your Rated M titles have lines no one crosses, which is why there’s a distinct lack of children in many games (even in zombie form), and what children are present are immortal even if everyone else is up for murder.
I don’t remember Escape From Hell having children in it. I do know it used the same engine as the game Wasteland, which I clearly recall had an entire camp full of children you could kill if you so chose (but that choice would haunt you even if you survived a rather surreal form of karmic retribution). I also know that both games were published by… Electronic Arts.
Things were just different back then, I guess. Sure, there are games these days that let you be “evil” (or the less moralistically tinged “renegade”), but a game where you can literally be fighting your way through Hell with Hitler and Stalin as your comrades-in-arms? Fox News would die of happiness… I mean outrage. Yes, outrage at the corruption of our youth.
Back in 1990, I was one of those youth, and I have to confess I remember very little of the game, except being very, very entertained by the concept of a latter-day “Inferno” journey made up as an RPG, where you leveled up your rag-tag band composed of some of the worst monsters of human history and fought for freedom with nail guns (heh heh) and spiked baseball bats, meanwhile also doing very standard RPG things like picking locked doors to get at loot. This game was what the post-apocalyptic scavengers of Wasteland dreamed about in their radiation-soaked nightmares.
But like Wasteland, Escape From Hell was a very wry game, smarter than it appeared, reveling in the absurdities of its premise. As one review puts it:
“Escape from Hell, despite its dire sounding title, is actually a fairly light-hearted role-playing game that is saturated with tongue-in-cheek humor and some good sarcastically comedic moments…
There are all sorts of twists and turns in Escape from Hell. To begin with, your guardian angel leaves his apologies and abandons you to your fate. What you are doing with a guardian angel in Hell and why he is delayed is a mystery to be solved. You will have to talk to all manners of demonata and crazy monsters, lost souls and minions of Beelzebub himself. You will witness some rather morbid but inventive tortures, but will also glean a full explanation of why they are beneficial and what each victim may have done to deserve such treatment. Escape from Hell does not offer random gore for a cheap scare tactic.”
It’s a very old school RPG with old school graphics, but I must admit I’m pondering checking it out again now that I’ve had another 20 years under my belt to get all the references being thrown around. And like many of the games I’ve looked back on, it does seem to be available for download (though you’ll likely need DosBox to play).
Escape From Hell was a fresh twist on the usual CRPG format, and again, a game I don’t believe could have been greenlit or distributed by the Electronic Arts of now versus the Electronic Arts of then. It’s a major release with an indie vibe, and a wild, wonderful example of the kind of insanity that could get published back in the day, before watchdog groups even realized there might be something to bark at.
“Escape from Hell…is not a bad game at all. It is filled with parody and Biblical references which may offend some people, or may serve as more like a test of knowledge for others. It is well worth a look.”
The greatest irony here may be that because of the lack of controversy when it was first released, Escape From Hell never achieved the kind of recognition it deserved. Were it released nowadays the resulting Fox News frenzy might easily have overcome the “No Wal-Mart” handicap, not to mention there’s all the direct distribution channels available where a big-name publisher is no longer strictly necessary for software to reach the masses.
Maybe it would succeed, and maybe it wouldn’t. Probably not, since the graphics are dated even for a portable device, and it’s a lot headier of a gameplay experience than something like Angry Birds. Also, eye-bleeding EGA colors. But, eh, that’s something you have to weigh in the balance of crusading with Free Market Stalin by your side…
P.S. If you want a taste of the game without the effort of playing it, this gentleman has done the legwork for us, including screenshots! (WARNING, pixelated bewbs are presented. As well as, y’know, Satan and such).