Long Live the Mega-Flesh: Body horror on the Sega Genesis
I don’t think anyone would question the assertion that the Super Nintendo—the 16-bit successor to the NES—is historically one of the better gaming consoles. Its library is legendary, rivaled only by the god-king of consoles, the PS2. That being said, there was something hollow about Super Nintendo games. The synthesized sound was tinny, and its games sanitized in order to earn the Nintendo seal of approval.
If you wanted to get real and get nasty with it, the Sega Genesis was your machine. The audio was thick and meaty, and funky as all get out. And due to a number of reasons (including less oversight on the part of Sega, ease of porting over games from the Amiga, etc.) the extended catalog of the Genesis was similarly funky. It was the first game console where something approaching body horror could really be attempted.
In case you aren’t familiar with the term, body horror refers to media that tries to scare, nauseate, and disturb you by making you think about your body. Your body melting. Your skin sloughing off you in front of your screaming family. Waking up to discover your body has changed into something horrific. Your torso and neck distending and inflating as something horrible uses your body as a nest.
Sorry, I'm sure you get the idea. Think Videodrome and Carpenter’s The Thing.
There were certainly PC titles from that era that would fit the bill (HR Giger’s Dark Seed and I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream definitely come to mind), but the fidelity of home consoles wasn’t able to really swing it until the Genesis. Even the console itself was well suited to the genre—black and shiny, shaped like a beetle, carapace bulging outward with 32x and Sega CD attachments. It looked like something out of Naked Lunch compared to the SNES’s antiseptic beige and purple block.
To honor the beloved console's skin-crawling library, I’ve shunted together a list of a few juicy titles to examine. Come, let the change take control of you.
The game that taught countless children what the word “decapitation” means. You play a meaty red torso wrapped in bandages named Chuck D. Head. You have eyeballs in your belly. Whenever you come across a skull, you pick it up and stuff it on top of your neck hole. The skull starts laughing, so you throw it at ghosts. You chuck the head. It is an edifying experience.
Chuck stomps around landscapes made of exposed muscle tissue and yawning pits of bone. Huge bugs and creatures swarm across the vast meaty mountaintops of places called “Abdominland.” It is both nauseating and delightful. The game is honestly quite fun and responsive, while also causing the player to confront the idea of consciousness inhabiting each part of the body. What if you woke up one morning and your head was gone? Your mouth is below your belly button now, and you can shoot your face out of your stomach and bite people. Yeah, Decap Attack is messed up.
While Decap Attack taught me the proper term for cutting someone’s head off, Splatterhouse 3 made me vividly consider what a dead body smells like. I could talk about every title in the Splatterhouse series in the context of this article, but the third one is something special. The games revolve around a young man with really bad luck named Rick, and his equally unlucky girlfriend Jennifer. She keeps getting spirited away by meat demons that have possessed a house. Rick puts on an evil mask that beefs his body out tremendously, giving him the strength to beat the meat demons into a bloody pile.
In the third title, Jennifer has once again been kidnapped, forcing Rick to once again walk into a mansion where the walls pulsate with slick, red worms and eyeballs. More complexity is introduced in this entry; you are free to choose your path through the house, but you need to do so quickly. There is a clock ticking down to Jennifer’s impending defilement and death. Rick’s body swells enormously and he grabs a vomiting uterus with legs and rips it in half. A thing of beauty.
While gore on its own is not necessarily body horror, an intense and varied array of gore can be. The classic fighting game Mortal Kombat awesomely scandalized everybody when it showed up in arcades. You could pull off someone’s head and the spinal cord was still attached, and we all collectively lost our minds. Quarters were spent, congressional sub-committees met, fun was had. A flood of copycat fighting games appeared, trying to snag some of those quarters that Midway collected.
The most notable of these, to me at least, is the multiplatform title Eternal Champions, specifically the version of it that was released on the Sega CD. This was the first game I can remember seeing that had such vivid depictions of people being disemboweled. The execution animations go from over-the-top hilarious to bizarrely cruel pretty quickly. Heads are blown off with bits of skull and brain matter littering the ground. A ghost of a Pharaoh enters a combatant’s body and inflates it to the point of exploding. A log pierces a cowboy’s belly, his guts hanging off the end. Fun for all ages.
Kid Chameleon was another one of Sega’s attempts at going for that Super Mario Brothers money. It’s a two dimensional platformer where you played a little guy that jumped on monster’s heads to kill them, fairly direct.
The premise is that a virtual reality arcade game called “Wild Side” has become self-aware and is eating children alive. A young man named Kid Chameleon is apparently a bad enough dude to attempt to save them, so he/you enter the simulation. The "chameleon" aspect of it comes from the dozen or so masks that you slap on your oversized head, changing your body into various heroic and/or monstrous attack forms.
Unlike Mario, who puts on different fun little outfits over the course of his adventures, the Kid’s body physically (and, to my eyes, painfully) contorts and shifts into each new body. Players are treated to images of a Knight’s armor melting into a tank, and flesh boiling off skulls. Also, when you die a voice sample yells “DIE.” It’s a pretty intense experience.
The plot of the fantastic, forgotten Genesis game The Ooze is ripped straight from our current headlines. An evil corporation called The Corporation has created a chemical/disease that will melt people instantly. They intend to release it and hold the world hostage with their “cure.” I’m not really sure what the cure to being melted is and neither is the game, but no matter.
You play a heroic Edward Snowden-esque whistleblower that, like Snowden, is injected with chemicals and flushed down a toilet. Instead of dying, as they no doubt planned, you become a puddle of green acid with a skull floating in it. Becoming disembodied/melting like this has always been extremely disturbing to me.
The ending to the previously mentioned game I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream (and the short story by Harlan Ellison that it was based on) follows a similar path: your human body gone, brain placed in a stunted lump of skin with no way out. The Ooze has a similar “unhappy ending,” with the protagonist spending the rest of eternity in a lava lamp.
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