Erik: The Phantom of the Opera

     from Crysys Games

Anne: Oh, man, baby. Look at the cover of this eighties game. Look at it. It is spell-binding.

 

John: What the hell is going on on that cover?

 

Anne: He looks like a bad-tempered caricature with gorilla hands and a serious need of hair gel. And is that a lamppost growing out of the Garnier?

 

John: Why does he have an axe?

 

Anne: I have no idea, but I think I'm delighted. It could be a holla to the 1983 movie.

 

John: But that makes no sense. He won't use an axe in the game!

 

Anne: OR WILL HE?

 

John: I'm not playing this.

 

Of course, play it he did, folks, because I made him.  But first, I researched and developed on my own, because I'm a busy little bee like that. This game was originally released for the ZX Spectrum, one of the first popular personal computers in Britain. It looks a lot like a gigantic, possibly not-too-bright calculator. Of course, in this age of supercomputers that can calculate sine, like, way faster than that, the Spectrum and other machines of its ilk are completely obsolete, but it had a very large following back in the day. One reason for this was because it was very easily programmable, meaning that people could write their own simple programs, and the other was that it had a huge number of games generated for it over the course of its short lifespan. Yay! Games! About masked men in opera houses! Sure, why not?

 

So my first problem here is apparent: I don't exactly have an 8-bit computer from 1982 lying around amongst my newfangled space-age gadgets. But another great thing about time and technology constantly fornicating is that they produce babies like the internet, which is the world's largest repository of geeks telling other geeks about stuff they like. It turns out that there is a very large community of faithful old fans of the ZX Spectrum, and that they have ported many of its games and programs over for PC use, provided you have the tech savvy to operate one of the kajillions of Spectrum emulators they have also written. Oh, you wacky geeks, what would I have done without you?

 

So I sneaked on over to the nest of Spectrum geekery, snagged a copy of the game (long ago fallen into the public domain, much like Leroux's novel), and started trying to convince my computer that despite the fact that it has more RAM than it knows what to do with and a proven history of being able to take whatever massive abuse I subject it to, it really wants to pretend it has less capacity than a graphing calculator.

 

That took about an hour, mostly because I was trying different emulators and hoping one would operate close to the way I wanted it to. But then, huzzah! With a discordant buzz of low, ominous, almost cacophanous chords, the game ran! The DANGER could begin!

 

Then I spent another hour trying to figure out how to configure the damn thing so that I could use keyboard controls to do things. Even after I (vaguely) succeeded, it was still very touch-and-go. Sometimes, when you say right, my computer decides you go left. It resents me and it wants me to know it.

 

So, anyway, in the game, you play Raoul, intrepidly racing through the opera house in the hopes of rescuing Christine, who has been kidnapped by the madman Erik. So far, so good! Raoul is adorable in his evening wear, with a wee little top hat that he grabs whenever you force him to jump over something. He also has a tiny pistol, which may hearken back to Leroux's novel and its scene in his bedroom, or to a more recent version, such as the 1943 Lubin/Rains film, which featured people shooting at the Phantom in his very lair. The pistol is for shooting the many things that Erik begins throwing at poor Raoul the moment he starts moving away from his starting position, while you try to run around and find the six pieces of the key that you need to get into Erik's lair and free the distressed singer. It's one of the more basic run/jump/duck/climb ladders kinds of games; Super Mario Brothers in nineteenth-century evening dress.

 

The things Erik throws at Raoul, by the way, are hilarious. First it's just rocks. Then it's skulls and large, grinning theatre masks. Ooh! Symbolic! Then it's suddenly bombs - what. And then pyrotechnic flares! Then books, and ghosts, and holy Mary mother of god he's chucking entire chandeliers at you, and it only gets wackier from there. All the items, with the exception of the rocks, seem to have been selected by the game makers to have something at least peripherally to do with the Phantom's character; the skulls and masks are self-evident, while the bombs and flares could be related to various stagecraft skills or Leroux's love for pseudo-supernatural abilities in his character, the books are appropriate for a learned man (albeit one who obviously does not care about his books very much), and the chandeliers have plenty of precedent (though where do they keep coming from? aren't we out of chandeliers in this damn place yet?). And ghosts, well... looks like this version of the Phantom has a bit of a supernatural element to him, doesn't he?

 

Unfortunately, while I'm not what I would call bad at games, I'm also probably not spectacular at them. Which means that, about five minutes into my first attempt at this game, a flying skull clocked my tiny Raoul over the head and I received the following message in gigantic capital letters:

 

ERIK HAS DEFEATED YOU. CHRISTINE IS DEAD.

 

Dead? Fuck!

 

What are you doing, Erik? She can't go walking with you on Sundays if you kill her, you asshole. It seems clear that this Erik is more in the vein of the horror versions of the character than the more nuanced or romantic ones. So I resurrected Raoul with the reset button and soldiered forth again, and immediately got creamed by a funeral mask.

 

ERIK HAS DEFEATED YOU. CHRISTINE IS DEAD.

 

Goddammit. Raoul and I got back up again, made it up the stairs, and were chased to our dooms by a battalion of ghosts.

 

ERIK HAS DEFEATED YOU. CHRISTINE IS DEAD.

 

Okay, fine. No problem. I'll just get back up and--

 

ERIK HAS DEFEATED YOU. CHRISTINE IS DEAD.

 

What the fuck, I barely--

 

ERIK HAS DEFEATED YOU. CHRISTINE IS DEAD.

 

Look here, you stupid game, I totally jumped at the right--

 

ERIK HAS DEFEATED YOU. CHRISTINE IS--

 

And it was at this point that I called John for a consult, so I could go get some soothing cocoa and not break anything. He swaggered into town, full of smug machismo, a video game master prepared to sit down and defend the little woman against all the pixellated violence she just couldn't handle on her own. After a few minutes of complaining about the counter-intuitive controls (it wasn't designed for a modern keyboard! That's not my fault!), he settled in to investigate.

 

ERIK HAS DEFEATED YOU. CHRISTINE IS DEAD.

 

"What the hell? Are you serious? I can't jump and shoot at the same time?

 

"Sorry, babe. It's an old game. You know how the old-school ones go. It's like Frogger but with fewer safe places to stand."

 

"How do I reset this thing?"

 

ERIK HAS DEFEATED YOU. CHRISTINE IS DEAD.

 

"Where the hell are all these things coming from?"

 

"Presumably the Phantom is throwing them at you. From... I dunno, one of his secret trapdoors or passages. Seems like something he'd do."

 

ERIK HAS DEFEATED YOU. CHRISTINE IS DEAD.

 

"This is asinine. Did you see that bullshit? NO ONE ON EARTH COULD HAVE AVOIDED THAT."

 

"Well, clearly someone could, they have to have tested it, right? Are you saying the game has beaten you, darling?"

 

"No game beats John! What the fuck, was that a butterfly?"

 

"Uh... I have no frame of reference for butterflies being related to the Phantom of the Opera, so I'm not sure. Could have been. Maybe he ran out of chandeliers."

 

ERIK HAS DEFEATED YOU. CHRISTINE IS DEAD.

 

"My brain is going to fucking explode, honey. This is a terrible game."

 

"Or is it just TOO HARD, eh?"

 

"NO. It is a BAD GAME. It is the WORST GAME EVER. Absolutely, positively THE WORST GAME. I want you to write that in your review. In fact, it could be the whole review.  REVIEW: WORST GAME EVER, THE END."

 

ERIK HAS DEFEATED YOU. CHRISTINE IS DEAD.

 

"You're such a grump, honey."

 

"I have to leave now, or you're going to need a new keyboard. WORST GAME EVER."

 

And that was pretty much the extent of our foray into this game. I tried my hand at it a few more times, but it was so ridiculously difficult that I was absolutely unable to get more than a third of the way through it before keeling over each time. John refused to enter the room again until I turned it off, and explained to me in very annoyed tones that NO ONE ON EARTH could possibly have beaten that game except on its native platform, and since we don't own a ZX Spectrum, it is TOTALLY UNREASONABLE for anyone to expect him to win and therefore this does not reflect on his manhood AT ALL. I consoled him that he was, indeed, very manly, and that his attempt to aid me, abortive though it might have been, was very valorous.

 

My grade is based on what little I could see of the game; while nothing mind-blowing, it's got averagely enjoyable gameplay once you get the hang of it, and the little story touches added to an otherwise formulaic game are fun, especially for a fan of the story. The sound is awful and the graphics, in all their spell-binding four-color glory, are extremely primitive, but those things are constraints of the time period, so it's hard to really knock the game over them. My greatest sadness is that, since apparently John's and my powers combined are still not enough to get us through the opera house to actually confront Erik himself, I will never know what his representation in the game itself looks like, or whether there is anything interesting going on in the inevitable lair scene at the end of the game.

 

So here is my challenge to you, internet denizens: if anyone else out there has played this game to completion or is so excited by this review that they go out and do so, tell me about it! Is the C grade still applicable? Is there anything interesting going on in later stages of the game? Are we complete video game failures because we can't beat a game written on an 8-bit computer?

 

(Spoilers: we totally are.  But seriously, I do want to know.)

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