From pinball to Call of Duty: A history of Elvira in video games

Recently, Activision released downloadable content for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare called Absolution, and in addition to the expected new maps, the DLC included an expansion to the popular Zombie mode featuring Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

Elvira hasn’t been in the public eye very much recently, but she’s been around since 1981, and her history with video games goes back almost as far. Since much of Call of Duty’s current fanbase is probably too young to remember Elvira in her heyday, we thought it might be interesting to take a look back at how she became famous, as well as looking at some of the video games with which she's been involved over the years. 

Elvira, Mistress of the Pinball Table

Elvira is defined by her sense of humor and her sex appeal, frequently combining the two with self-deprecating jokes and double entendres. She’s the creation of actress Cassandra Peterson, an improvisational comedienne who trained with Paul Reubens (best known for playing Pee Wee Herman, who also appears in Absolution) at The Groundlings, a Los Angeles comedy club/school of improv. The character was created to act as a local LA horror hostess, introducing low-budget, schlocky movies as a way to fill TV airtime. Peterson developed the character based on a 50’s vampire combined with a gothic Valley girl stereotype, and her quick wit and low-cut costume quickly gained her national attention.

The character became popular enough that she was able to star in a feature film in 1988, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. The movie is sort of a fish-out-of-water tale, following Elvira as she inherits her great-aunt Morgana’s estate and moves to an extremely conservative suburb. The film’s climax features a magical battle between Elvira and her great-uncle Vincent, who has secretly been trying to get his hands on Morgana’s spellbook for decades.

Mistress of the Dark wasn’t a huge success, but did well enough to inspire multiple game tie-ins. Bally Midway released a pinball table in 1989 featuring the curvy actress’ likeness on the table and backglass. Called Elvira and the Party Monsters, the machine was notable for being one of the first pinball games to require two quarters per play rather than just one. The marketing campaign made mention of this, and fliers advertising the machine let arcade owners know that “Elvira Is No Cheap Date!” The game also featured Peterson’s digitized voice, and came with a modesty decal owners could attach to the backglass, partially covering up her famous cleavage.

Image via the Internet Pinball Database

The table itself was well-received, and even today is a favorite among pinball aficionados. If you’d like to try it for yourself but don’t have $4500 lying around, a digital version has been added to FarSight Studios’ The Pinball Arcade, available on multiple platforms. An earlier digital version of Party Monsters was released alongside Police Force on Atari’s portable Lynx console in 1992, but the significant downgrade to the game’s graphics and sound makes it hard to recommend.

Point-and-Click Elvira

A PC title also called Elvira: Mistress of the Dark was released for the Amiga, Atari ST, Commodore 64, and MS-DOS in 1990. It’s a single player first-person adventure game where the player can move around a castle collecting and using items, and it’s reminiscent of earlier MacVenture titles like Shadowgate. It was one of the first non-Macintosh games to utilize the point-and-click interface, and featured impressive graphics for the era. Some versions even had digitized sound samples from Peterson herself, a rarity at the time. 

The game is set directly after the events of the movie and tasks the player with rescuing Elvira from her great-uncle’s castle, which she inherited when he disappeared following their duel. She had intended to turn the place into a tourist attraction, but the castle turned out to be inhabited by several monsters and a cult devoted to her distant ancestor, Queen Emelda. The followers intend to sacrifice Elvira to resurrect their queen, and the player must prevent this by helping her find a way to defeat the sorceress before the ritual is completed.

Mistress of the Dark was a surprising success for its publisher, Accolade, and a sequel was released in 1992. Called Elvira II: The Jaws of Cerberus, this time players took the role of Elvira’s boyfriend, exploring a haunted movie studio built on a hellmouth. The props and monsters have come alive due to the influence of the demon dog, and the player soon meets a Native American who asks them to collect several artifacts that will help banish Cerberus back to hell.

Elvira doesn’t help the player as much in this game, though several enemies along the way disguise themselves with her appearance before revealing their true forms. The studio setting allowed for much more diverse environments, and in addition to rooms like the studio cafeteria and prop department, players also explore a bug-infested cave system, a haunted house, and an earthen catacomb maze teeming with the undead. Along the way, Elvira occasionally pops up onscreen to offer hints or her own special brand of encouragement.

This game had a much greater focus on crafting and casting spells using objects found in the environment, and there was a certain logic to the spell components. For example, you could use a floppy disk to augment your intelligence or an extinguisher to boost your fire resistance. The sequel played up the horror element as well, and it was fairly common to get a game over screen featuring a gory portrayal of your own severed head. Unfortunately, it’s very easy to trap yourself in a failure state since you can drop any item at any time and once you do, it’s gone forever. If you’re interested, this game can be played for free in your browser at the Internet Archive.

Platforming and back to Pinball

While the adventure genre proved to be a good fit for horror gameplay, the early ‘90s were all about mascot platformers. In between the two adventure titles, Elvira got her own platformer in 1991 with Flair Software’s Elvira: The Arcade Game, released for Amiga, Atari ST, MS-DOS, and the Commodore 64. In this game, players take direct control of Elvira as she explores an ice world and a fire level to open a portal to the Castle of Transylvania.

She can throw daggers to defend herself, and these can be upgraded to magic spells that cover more of the screen if she finds the proper power up. While the graphics are reasonably good for the time, the game isn’t much fun to play. Elvira moves stiffly and enemies spawn constantly and randomly, leading to unavoidable collisions and frequent deaths. If you’d like to try it for yourself, it can also be played in your browser at the Internet Archive, but you’ll need the manual to get past the copy protection. 

Elvira and the Party Monsters was such a successful pinball machine for Midway that a sequel of sorts was created in 1996. Called Scared Stiff, this game depicts Elvira on the playfield and backglass, and also features a skeletal snake as one of the ramps the player can shoot for. As with its predecessor, a modesty sticker was included, and the game itself has a horror theme. Plastic coffins and skulls feature prominently in the playfield’s design, though the artwork also showcases Elvira’s shapely legs.

Image via the Internet Pinball Database

Pinball wasn’t nearly as popular in 1996 as it was in 1989, and Scared Stiff is a bit harder to find nowadays than Party Monsters. According to superfan Robert Winter, the video tapes resting next to Elvira on this machine’s backglass have a hidden reference to the day everyone was laid off at Williams, another pinball manufacturer. If you’re interested in trying this table out, it’s also available digitally in FarSight’s The Pinball Arcade.

The Return of Elvira

Elvira dropped out of video games for quite a while after the release of Scared Stiff, and didn’t show up again until she was added as a downloadable character to Sony’s PlayStation 3 launch title Pain. The game was designed to show off physics interactions, and gives players an enormous slingshot to fling a ragdoll character towards a city landscape to try to cause as much damage as possible. Elvira was added as a DLC character in 2009, and her voice lines were provided by Peterson. In the promotional video for the DLC, Peterson jokes she’s perfect for the game because she can cushion her own landings.

And that brings us up to date. Call of Duty’s Absolution DLC features Elvira in its popular Zombies mode, and the schlocky horror theme she helped define is carried throughout the campaign. In Attack of the Radioactive Thing, the crew of zombie hunters is thrown back in time to the 1950’s and meet Elvira, who explains the situation. The zombies sport retro-fifties haircuts and fashion, and the map uses a black and white film grain filter to make the whole experience feel like one of the movies Elvira began her career introducing.

All in all, not a bad game resume for a horror-loving girl from Kansas. How many people can say they’ve been in a modern Call of Duty game and also shared the screen with Mario?