Saturday Crapshoot: The Rocky Horror Show

Richard Cobbett

Every week, Richard Cobbett rolls the dice to bring you an obscure slice of gaming history, from lost gems to weapons grade atrocities. This week, it's just a jump to the left, and a step to the right. But it's the stupid puzzles that really drive you insane...

Well, my brain just dribbled out of my ears. The Rocky Interactive Horror Show, to give this game its full name, isn't really a game. It's interactive food poisoning. It's that feeling you get when you know the sick is coming at some point, guaranteed, with only one difference - at least then, you can just lie in bed and groan. Here, you're expected to solve puzzles. Let's get it over with quickly, shall we?

The Rocky Horror Show is a cult phenomenon, which translates roughly as "Everyone knows it's shit, but lots of people dig it anyway." It's the story of a wholesome 50s couple, Brad and Janet, who stumble on a scary house full of the kind of people Gomez and Morticia Addams would be reluctant to invite for dinner, and get sucked into a chaotic whirlpool of sex, music and Tim Curry. Eventually it turns out that everyone in the house is an alien and the house is a spaceship and oh god, just read the Wikpedia synopsis if you don't already know, because the game is more than enough for one page.

On the off-chance it's not obvious, no, not a fan. Feel free to comment about how wrong that is, but bear in mind that all I shall hear is the buzzing of infinite bees. On the other hand, it does have Christopher Lee in it, and Christopher Lee in a game is at least a novelty. (In case you're some cultural ignoramus, he's the guy who played the mad scientist in Gremlins 2 , and also some other roles.)

http://youtu.be/BImV1ZNiYOw

Yes, you did indeed just see Christopher Lee describe sexual lubricant. Good morning.

The Rocky Interactive Horror Game (which is based on an older one for ZX Spectrum and similar platforms) is an adventure that's a bit like Dizzy, if Dizzy was cheerfully confused about his sexuality and had to explore a house full of condom dispensers, deathtraps and fireballs. Fucked Up World Dizzy, if you will. You play as either Brad ("Bounder!") or Janet ("Cad!"), with the other getting captured by Frank, Columbia, Magenta and their clan and turned into stone. To rescue them, you need to collect all the pieces of the Demedusa machine. The catch isn't that in just 30 minutes, the house is going to blast off into space forever. It's that extra-terrestrial abduction is the least of your problems...

This is a game where nothing - nothing - makes sense. To get one of the bedroom keys, you fill a glass with alcohol. A crucial object is hidden from you unless you find a pair of leather panties in the attic and put them on a skeleton in the dungeon. There's a door with a security camera over it, but it doesn't actually connect to anything - you can walk through, but it's just the equivalent of a closet. There's a key hidden in a fish, and a robot Elvis guarding a condom machine. It gets to the point where finding a portrait of Dr. Frank-N-Furter with a pair of lips where his crotch should be, from which you pluck that tube of KY jelly that Mr. Lee discussed above, is almost refreshingly logical and straight-forward.

Part of the problem is that there aren't any clues. Brad and Janet only communicate in grunts and squees, shrugging if you hit the action key at the wrong time. You have to be pixel-perfect with their positions though, with no distinction between "That doesn't do anything" and "I can't do anything with that" or "You're just hitting Space on everything in increasing desperation, aren't you?"

Speaking of which...

http://youtu.be/es0sOE_d1Ik

Christopher Lee's occasional interruptions are the closest the game ever gets to helping you out, countered by writer and Crystal Maze host Richard O'Brien getting his own set - not as Riff-Raff, his character from the movie, but as the Game Devil, whose job is to lead you astray by eating all the scenery , lying, and laughing. He also shows up on a digital jukebox, performing some oddly low-key solo versions of the musical's songs. In drag, for Sweet Transvestite. Appropriately enough.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2F0fGnRmwM

But all this is just trimming. Here's how the opening bits of the game play out. Imagine every paragraph that follows dripping out of your screen incredibly slowly, with whatever you press to scroll down doing so as if submerged in treacle. That's your character movement, right there.

Starting outside with 30 minutes on the clock, you obviously try to walk up to the front door. But that doesn't work. You just get a shrug from your digitised character, who incidentally looks like they're waiting for Scorpion and Liu Kang to step in and challenge them to Mortal Kombat.

With time of the essence, obviously, Brad and Janet saunter at a casual pace around the mansion - in this case, to the left, where a wedding invitation is lying on the ground for no apparent reason. "Marriage, to Transylvanians, is a deeply alien concept," baritones Christopher Lee. Nevertheless, put it through the letterbox and the servant Riff-Raff spontaneously unlocks the door to let you in.

Why? Why not take you prisoner as well, like they did your partner? Never explained. All you get is Richard O'Brien smirking "You'll just love it in here," as you enter, and noting of Riff-Raff, "He won't hurt you. He's a friend!" This turns out to be... actually, I'm not entirely sure.

The thing is, a little like the classic adventure Maniac Mansion, you're an intruder in a house full of crazies, and the family randomly shows up at various points to try and catch you. Sometimes, that's fatal - but all that happens if you die to them is that they carry you to an infirmary, where you wake up absolutely fine. The only penalty is that you lose time getting back to what you were doing, and there's not much of it to spare. You only have 30 minutes to finish the game, give or take a few refills.

The rest of the time, they steal your clothes. That's it. They rip 'em off and put them somewhere else in the mansion, but otherwise completely ignore you. While in your underwear - boxer shorts for Brad, pretty much a complete second set of clothes for Janet - you move at a snail's pace and aren't able to interact with anything due to embarrassment. Unlike the original story, there's no big party or anything going on to cause this, mind. Once dressed-down, the aliens completely ignore their guests, rendering the whole thing about as hedonistic and sexually charged as a game of Strip Solitaire.

Mostly, you're left to wander at will, aside from the locked doors in your path and their bizarre hidden keys. If you're lucky, there's a vague connection between things. A fridge in the basement for instance has a dial that opens a secret passageway behind a Coke machine. That's one of the clearer cases of cause and effect. Once behind it, you find Eddie on his motorbike, sitting in a giant freezer underneath what can only be described as an ice beam. If you hesitate, he runs you over without a second thought. To stop him, you have to hold up... a speeding ticket found in a totally different part of the mansion? For no reason, this stops him, giving you time to activate the ice-beam and create frozen Meat Loaf.

SOMEBODY DESIGNED AND PROGRAMMED THIS.

What makes Rocky Interactive Horror Show hurt so much is that there's just - just - enough of a hint that the designers actually had a reason for this stuff in mind. If it was completely random, it would be okay. As it is, you find yourself trying to follow the logic even after solving a puzzle. Why for instance is the key to a wine cellar in a salt pot? Why does the arrangement of shoes in Magenta's room translate to a code in the house's guest room. Why does Riff-Raff have a disco, and why does dancing the Time Warp in it open a secret compartment containing a disembodied brain?

And do none of these people have any sense of hygiene? I mean, really!

The one really cool thing this game does is something normally overlooked - the graphical border. As time ticks away, it slowly morphs, piece by piece, from a dark, gothic interface of naked statues and gravestones into a 50s era spaceship. Several transitions get their own special animations, like a little gremlin crawling out of its house to make way for something more sciencey. It's pretty funky. Of course, that not being strange enough, you subsequently find that you can turn the clock back by stamping on bugs for absolutely no reason, or picking up bouncing lips that cause the characters to spontaneously orgasm if they're in their pants at the time. Them, but thankfully not Christopher Lee...

The scary thing about Rocky Horror is that as strange as it is, it's not the strangest thing that publishers On-Line were willing to put their name on over the years. While not particularly prolific, it also released two legendarily awful games called Psycho Killer , and The Town With No Name. Overall, Rocky Horror makes considerably more sense than this - its basic existence, not just its contents. At least there had to be a few fans willing to buy it purely on a whim, right? Not so much this festering load...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WeV18bZGMqc

As a game in its own right, this is obviously abysmal. As a Rocky Horror game... well, it's tacky, it's stupid, it's badly made, it seems to actively hate its audience, and you'd have to be absolutely crazy to really get into it. On those terms, I guess you'd have to call it a roaring success. I can even see fans treating it as some kind of test of devotion. If you can ever stand to hear Science Fiction again after having it looped in awful MIDI format, you're a true fan worthy of... praise? Respect? Hell if I know.

Excuse me. I have some intense not-playing-this-ever-again to get back to.

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