In 2013, video games have a graphical fidelity that was unthinkable during my childhood. But games were still able to shock us. Often, their seemingly simple worlds allowed these surprises to sneak up on us, changing the way we thought about everything that came before and, sometimes, even the entire world around us.
So take a trip back with me as I explore 5 Surprising Moments From Classic Video Games…
Apocalypse Nowish, or Heart of Contra
The final level in Contra is a descent into the alien’s lair complete with rampaging soldier aliens, tentacle monsters, and walls literally dripping with extraterrestrial viscera. This kind of thing wasn’t new to gamers in the 80s. We’d seen it before in Metroid and adult players were surely familiar with it from James Cameron’s Aliens, to which Contra owes a great debt. This is what most of us expected an an alien’s den to look like. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary until I came face-to-face with the game’s final boss: a beating alien heart.
Since then, The Heart has shown up in almost every subsequent Contra game. But it was different the first time around. The appearance of The Heart recasts “Area 8” as something else entirely: the innards of E.T.’s very angry cousin. The beating heart meant that somewhere after the penultimate level, I had been swallowed by the alien known as Red Falcon. It also revealed some horrible Jonah-like truths… All that viscera was actually the esophagus of some absurdly large alien. Those soldier aliens were actually parasites living off the discarded crap that this monstrous beast ate. The acid pits were actually pools of alien blood or possibly stomach acid. And those little mouths were…
OK, those were still little mouths that were trying to eat you. That doesn’t change whether you’re in a South American cave or down the gullet of a giant xenomorph.
Live Like A Dragon Warrior… Rule Like Darth Vader
In 1668, John Milton wrote Paradise Lost, one of the great epics of the medieval age and the originator of the famous quote, “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven.”
In 1999, director Stephen Sommers repurposed the quote and used the weaselly Beni to reword it in reference to The Mummy: “It is better to be the right hand of the devil than in his path.”
In the Spring of 1991, I had never heard either of these quote. To be fair, I was only ten. And the latter quote was still eight years away from its cinematic debut. But the thought process behind what it meant to be a hero was at the forefront of my brain because I had been playing Dragon Warrior for weeks (why yes, I did subscribe to Nintendo Power the year before). Dragon Warrior (now known as Dragon Quest, to match its original Japanese title) was the first Japanese-style turn-based RPG to be released in America. As such, it’s a little rough around the edges. There’s only one character in your “party” and you can only fight a single enemy at a time. But it was unlike anything anyone in the US had ever seen.
As a ten-year-old, I was enthralled.
In the Spring of 1991, I had nearly completed the entire game and was slowly marching towards Charlock Castle, the home of the evil Dragonlord. After battling through the castle, I came face-to-face with the frail old man behind all the evil in the kingdom of Alfegard.
Instead of the fight I was expecting, the Dragonlord actually makes you an offer: He will give you half the world if you will lay down your sword and stand beside him.
I was too scared to say “Yes” the first time through. Instead, I battled the Dragonlord and bested him in a grueling fight that seemed to last an hour (in reality, it was only a few minutes). But I always wondered what would have happened if I had said “Yes.” So, a few days later, I loaded up my save file and returned to the Dragonlord. This time, I accepted his terms, fully expecting the game to negate my choice and make me fight him all over again. Instead, the Dragonlord plunged the world into darkness and put my character into a deep sleep (complete with blood red text implying a very gruesome end for my character). The only way to continue was to reset the system.
“Thy journey is over. Take now a long, long rest. Hahahaha…”
Link’s Awakening: Hail to the THIEF
Everyone is familiar with the rather lax police presence in your average RPG. If something isn’t nailed down, there’s a very good chance you can just take it. And no one will mind. Shopkeepers will still charge you outrageous prices on items you absolutely need to save the world, but the rest of the public has decided to just do their part.
Except for the shopkeeper in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening.
In Link’s Awakening, it is possible to net the five-finger discount on the shopkeeper’s wares, but he won’t be happy about it. In fact, your actions will send him into a murderous rage and the next time you try to play Snake to his Apu, he will shoot you in the face with a magical lightning bolt until you are dead.
But he’s not done. Oh no.
The most shocking thing about the shopkeeper’s turn to vigilante justice is what he does next. After you die, he hexes you and changes your name from Link (or whatever you input at the start screen) to THIEF. And there’s no way to change it back. Ever. For the rest of the game. You are now THIEF and you have to learn to live with it. The people of Koholint will still act nicely towards you and greet you all the same, but you have been branded. They’ll ask, “How is it going THIEF?” and you’ll just want to cry (I may have cried). Your name isn’t THIEF anymore, it’s Hester Prynne.
The peer pressure actually got to me and I was so disgusted with myself that I erased my save and started over. No more stealing for me. And to this day, I’ll never pick the evil alignment in a game that gives you a choice.
Ocarina of Time: You Pig-Faced Mother…
For the majority of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, “Ganon” is a non-entity. Instead, the franchise’s legendary big bad spends most of his time as the human-like “Ganondorf,” a skilled magician and thief. But after his defeat at the hands of Link, Ganondorf literally pulls down his castle brick by brick and uses the Triforce of Power to transform into his familiar pig-faced self.
Except he’s not so familiar as this Ganon is larger and meaner than any you’ve seen before. Also, my brain has forever linked the word “epic” with the final battle against Ganon in Ocarina of Time.
Between the lightning bolts illuminating the screen and the circle of flames keeping Link and Ganon together (and Zelda and the Master Sword out), it is a moment that has never been topped for me, even 15 years later. Unlike the other entries on this list, there’s no larger surprise here. It’s just a fantastic boss fight that is the perfect capper to a game that many view as the greatest of all time.
Katamari Damacy: Soylent Stars Are People!
The King of All Cosmos is kind of a jerk. Behind his fanciful clothing, perfectly formed mustache, and impressive
package way with words, the ruler of the galaxy is actually a bit of a lout. He treats his son badly and eventually he gets so drunk that he knocks the stars out of the sky.
Rather than clean up his own mess, he recruits the Prince to roll up a giant katamari (literally translated as a giant ball of garbage or a “clump”), which the King then compresses into a new star. Things start out small with the Prince picking up thumbtacks and flatware and toothbrushes to create the new stars. But they take a turn for the worse when the King demands bigger and bigger katamaris to recreate the moon. Knowing that there aren’t enough thumbtacks in the world for that, the Prince is forced to collect larger objects like park benches, street signs, trees, and people. With complete disregard for his son, the King turns him into an accomplice to the greatest murder spree the world has ever known.
Ed Gein’s got nothing on the King of All Cosmos.
The Prince’s first visit to Earth stops being a musical jaunt through a colorful world and instead becomes a holocaust of biblical proportions. There is no great voice to stop Abraham from killing his son this time. Humanity has been offered up as a sacrifice because The King of All Cosmos (AKA “God”) is working off a hangover. The Prince collects dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people to fix his father’s drunken mistake and whenever he picks up a person (including an entire class of children) they scream a horrible scream. It’s as if their life is ending. Which it is!
Even the smiling, happy family we’ve been following in parallel to the Prince’s story is rolled up and squished into a massive space rock by the King’s extra-large hands. And they’re thrilled about this turn of events. So thrilled, in fact, that humanity asks the King of All Cosmos to do it again a year later in We Love Katamari.
It was all right there in the title. Katamari Damacy. “Clump of Souls” in Japanese. The King of All Cosmos is history’s greatest murderer. And I helped. What have I done?
At least it’s not as bad as being branded a THIEF.