From 2010 to 2014 Richard Cobbett wrote Crapshoot, a column about rolling the dice to bring random obscure games back into the light. This week, 80s B-movie horror has a new face. Though that's not exactly the first body part most of her devotees liked to focus on.
“Elvira who?” you might be asking, rudely ruining the best “Doctor, doctor” joke in the world. Well, not without cause these days, especially outside the US. During the '80s though, TV hostess Elvira was infamous for two big things, and they weren't taste or subtlety. Nor were they the two British-made adventure games that both bear her name and proudly bare her… ah, soul.
Wait, why am I bothering with innuendo? Seems pointless when dealing with a character who once proudly hoped people would remember “I was more than just a great set of boobs. I was also an incredible pair of legs.” Screw it then. She's Elvira. And these are her titular games.
Elvira isn't a character I know that much about, to be honest. In writing this, I watched some YouTube clips, but I've never seen one of her shows, and only made it through half of the movie. Over in the UK, I don't remember us having much of an equivalent, and can't really think of another one unless we go all the way back to Vampira, one of the stars/victims of Ed Wood's not-really-worst-film-of-all-time Plan 9 From Outer Space. When you have to reach to Ed Wood for a recognisable comparison, you're in pretty niche territory. Even then, the two aren't separated by much except a few decades and the addition of humour. Elvira only exists because the actress who played Vampira pulled out of an attempted revival project, and indeed later lawyered-up over the similarities.
(Incidentally, did you know there was a Plan 9 From Outer Space game? Made much later, of course, gaming technology circa 1959 not being up to much. The Unreal Engine didn't even have coloured lighting by that point, though lens flares were already considered passé.)
Still, never mind. Elvira's job—aside from keeping the scotch tape industry in business—was to introduce, interrupt, and snark at horror movies. She's a mix of punk, goth, and valley girl, throwing around bad jokes and many, many double entendres, called into service by the dark of night to ensure everyone gets to see Attack of the Killer Tomatoes when they should be fast asleep. Here's a few snippets of her doing her thing…
Over here, people are more likely to have seen a parody of this kind of thing, the obvious ones being The Simpsons' Booberella, and Grandpa Fred from the greatest movie of all time, Gremlins 2. That is, unless you count the 1988 movie based on the character—Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark. I'm not convinced anyone's ever actually watched all of this turkey, never mind its sequel, Elvira's Haunted Hills: Yes We Know What We Did There, That Was The Point, But Congrats On You For Spotting The Boob Joke. A great many have however no doubt caught five minutes of it while channel-flipping late at night and getting stuck in that classic bad movie wrinkled-forehead-duckface stare of confusion.
Yeah. You know the one I mean.
(That said, all this seems much less silly now that we're in the blip.tv age, where you're not allowed to be a critic unless you have magic powers, story arcs, arch-enemies, spaceships, and plans for a movie about your alter ego. I of course have no time for this self-aggrandising silliness, what with the pressures of running a supernatural detective agency between reviews and everything.)
Given the silliness of the character and what she did, the games are a little… odd. At least, the two that anyone really noticed at the time—adventure/RPGs from a company called Horrorsoft, which later became AdventureSoft and best known for the Simon the Sorcerer series. The first two were pretty fun. The third was legendarily awful. Since then, there have been another couple for reasons that have been known to make nuns scream “OH CHRIST ON A ****ING BIKE, WHY?” But I digress.
“Elvira: The Arcade Game” also existed, but was unconnected to the adventures. Still, just from the name, you can tell a couple of things—that it's obviously a platform game, was never actually in an arcade, and that it's as closely connected to its source as the snot on a giant's finger after picking his nose.
Here's all you really need to know about Elvira: The Arcade Game. While the basic jumpy-killy side isn't awful, it's set in two equally uninspired biomes: Fire World and Frozen Earth. Slap Candy World, Music Land and Green Forest Where Water Is Apparently Acid onto that, and you have what's technically known as every single platformer ever. The closest it gets to having anything to do with Elvira is having two giant globes you need to prod to start the game, which may not even be intentional.
But onto the adventures. They're… weird. Not in the sense that you start in a spooky castle and are then spirited away to become the saviour of the Pizza People, but that their tone is spectacularly inappropriate. Here, let's compare directly. Here's the trailer for the original 1988 movie:
It should speak for itself, but just in case, here's a quick précis. Elvira leaves her hosting gig to collect an inheritance, which turns out to be a spooky house in an ultra-conservative small town. She shows up, gives it an '80s style system shock by having breasts, listening to metal, and delivering zingers like “There's nothing wrong with G-rated movies, as long as there's lots of sex and violence” and just avoids walking away with a Razzie. It is very silly, very aware of this fact, and basically harmless.
(Well, up to the point I was too bored to watch any more. It may become a gory, Satanic orgy in the last act, in which live chickens have their throats sliced and poured down the throats of innocent children while they're forced to service horses, but I doubt it. It's only rated 15 in the UK, which in censorship/classification language roughly translates as “Oh, I say .”)
The Elvira, Mistress of the Dark adventure game is more like this…
Wait, that’s a squirrel. I mean of course, this….
If that seems weird, it gets odder when you look at the plot. The game is set in Elvira's… castle. It's not quite medieval, due to having a gift shop and a modern bathroom and a few similar things, but it is a big stone place full of knights and monks and vampires and witchcraft and the like. The plot, which you can read in its entirety here, is that the place has simply been infested with these creatures as the result of one of Elvira's ancestors, a witch called Emelda. Which justifies it all. Obviously.
Now, if I was a cynic, this is the point I'd start to suspect that Horrorsoft just strapped a familiar face and carefully concealed push-up bra on a shameless rip-off of an earlier game called Uninvited that they were planning to make anyway. The two do feature a similar design philosophy, mostly revolving around brutal, unfair deaths out of nowhere, non-linear exploration, and being complete and utter pants.
But of course, there's no evidence for such claims. Likewise, I'm sure that that Knightmare on the Amiga absolutely wasn't a hastily rebranded Dungeon Master rip-off, so half-hearted that nobody saw any problem in the kid contestants' interactive equivalents starting the game stark naked in the dungeon and having to be given basic t-shirts and shorts by the player. Nor indeed in them then heading out to hack up monsters with weapons, which I definitely don't remember the real show allowing.
But I digress.
The second game, Elvira 2: The Jaws of Cerberus, is just as gruesome, but at least feels designed with the character in mind. In this one, you play her unlucky boyfriend who has to stop her becoming a sacrificial victim, with the main setting being her movie studio. Each of its three stages is decked out in a different theme (which Horrorsoft would copy and paste with a slightly different context for its final, goriest game, Waxworks), and you have to work through all of them to save Elvira.
Your motivation is, however, far from guaranteed.
While Elvira is practically an extra in her own game, she's easily the most annoying thing in it—and this is a game with cryptic puzzles that lets you destroy crucial inventory items, and whose approach to encounter design seemed to be “Does this hurt? How about now? “
She's rarely around in person, but to remind you that her breasts and also the rest of her are in the game, she regularly shows up via telepathic projection to give advice, but mostly insult you for not going fast enough, not being tough enough, and generally being a useless worm beneath her contempt.
This is not much of an incentive to rescue her. In fact, I suspect for many players, the complete walkthrough could go a little something like this. No posting to GameFAQs!
ELVIRA 2: THE JAWS OF CERBERUS
Area 1: Black Widow Productions
You start outside the Studio, where you need to meet up with Elvira for your date. The main door is locked, and the gate is shut. As you look around, Elvira shows up in a flash of light.
ELVIRA: Blast! Testing. Testing 1… 2… 3. Finally I've got this spell to work. Listen, I've been captured by this triple-headed guy with a severe body hair problem. He says he's gonna sacrifice me at midnight. Help me! You dumb moose brain.
Immediately quit the game.
CONGRATULATIONS! YOU HAVE COMPLETED ELVIRA 2!
Even if you can be bothered to continue, she keeps on popping back up to berate you for being crap at the game. Which while we're on the subject begs a bit of a question—why the hell is she a damsel in distress, exactly? In the story, she's a powerful witch by this point. Shouldn't she be the heroine, or at least a partner, rather than a bit-player in her own game series? That way, the enemies could have been the targets of her scorn, there could have been loads of quips about the horror elements and then-over the top gore instead of the game more or less playing them straight, and…
…oh, right. 1992. The gaming world wasn't yet deemed ready for a sassy, capable female protagonist back then. This was after all the year when Jill of the Jungle could be held up as a genuinely progressive step for gaming heroines, simply because her ultimate goal was to rescue a prince.
Sigh. How far we've come, eh?
Jaws of Cerberus is one of those games where it's sometimes difficult to tell if the designers were joking, and not in a good way. Upstairs for instance, there's a poster for a horror movie called The Return of the Killer Gherkin II. Okay. So this game has jokes in it, even if they're not very funny. Head downstairs into the basement though, and you immediately bump into the studio janitor… a Native American who actually greets you by saying “How!” I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt on that, but… well… they wouldn't be the only British adventure designer to think that counted as okay.
And speaking of things that aren't okay, here's a genuine puzzle from the same area. Behind the janitor is a boiler room, with a copper pipe on the left that you can pick up. But when you pick it up, with no warning, a ghostly frost-demon hand thing just kills you dead. To do it safely, you have to make a fireball spell, but Elvira 2's magic system is just as sadistic as its puzzles. Each spell means collecting and using inventory objects as reagents, and it's quite happy to let you use plot-critical ones.
On the plus side, if you use an important one by accident, you may never have to find out that a big chunk of the game takes place in a spider-infested warren. So there's that.
Neither game is particularly long if you know what you're doing, with most of your time taken up by object hunts and dying to bullshit traps. Of the two, the second is the better one simply because it doesn't feel like a reskin job. Neither is particularly worth tracking down, though Horrorsoft's magnum opus, Waxworks, is on GOG if you're in the mood for something that puts both the 'gross' and 'adventure' into 'that's a pretty gross adventure, dude. Sure you'd not rather play The Last Express?'
Here are a couple of longplays of both games. Both have death reels at the end if you just want to see the gore. And in case you were wondering, no. At no point do you see any 'more' of Elvira, or even much of her in the first place—unless you count the ending. That's weird in itself. Despite apparently being deemed good enough to see out two separate games, it looks like her head's been filled with Botox and her breasts have a life of their own. Very creepy. And not remotely in a hot way…