Cheating death has always been one of mankind’s biggest dreams. As a way to exorcise our collective fear of dying, we have tried to imagine, again and again, what happens after we shuffle off the mortal coil. Leave it to horror literature to turn our fear on its head, by making “the returned” one of mankind’s biggest enemies. From vampires, to mummies or even a more noble version of Frankenstein’s monster, something coming back from the dead is usually both angry and hungry (sometimes, perhaps, also sexy, but let’s not go there). The returned in Dead of the Brain can definitely be all of those things combined, apparently, they also do love some good ol’ 80s horror movie quotes.
CONTENT WARNING: except, obviously, for gore, there is some light nudity in the images. Also, a couple of references (without detail) to scenes featuring sexual assault.
Are you dead in the brain, man?
Dead of the Brain first appeared on the PC-98 in 1992, part of a (short-lived) series of horror adventures called Nightmare collection, which also includes its sequel and a maritime themed title, Marine Philt. It was also later converted for MSX and FM-Towns among others. This trio of horror games was developed by FairyTale, a group of developers who split off from Jast to found a company mostly dedicated to erotic (or outright porn) adventures for Japanese home computers.
The sequel was never released on any other computer besides the PC-98, at least not as a stand-alone game. As mentioned, both Dead of the Brain games were Japan-only releases, with a recent English fan translation for the first. Most of these adventures, not just the eroge kind, but the rest as well, never saw release outside of their original country. We have already mentioned the main reason why, but we’ll get more into it later. In the case of Dead of the Brain, there is a PC-engine compilation (released as late as 1999, also probably one of the last official releases for the console) which includes both games which added redbook CD audio and voiceover.
These adventures are quite a different flavour from the classic point and clicks developed during the same years in the West. And no, not because they’re eroge or even hentai. Instead, because they’re text-heavy, less reliant on puzzles and centered on story and exploration with some limited action events inbetween. Probably the very first famous example of the genre, outside of Japan, would be Snatcher (the Sega / Mega CD variant from 1992). The early Kojima penned adventure does play similarly to Dead of the Brain, especially in its 1988 original version on the PC-88.
After the Nightmare collection was completed, in 1993, FairyTale went back to releasing erotic / hentai games. But Dead of the Brain 2 would not be the last horror adventure they would release, as in 1994 they would publish one last adventure in the same style, Necronomicon.
Cole will slay those deadites
In both Dead Brain games we play, 90% of the time, from the point of view of Cole. At the beginning of Dead 1, the guy receives a frantic phone call from his friend Dr. Cooger. The scientist has apparently created a serum to bring people back from the dead, but his first experiments have gone wrong with his cat returning as a violent beast. While they are busy putting down the cat, Cole and Dr. Cooger receive a visit from a policeman and, sure enough, all hell will break loose when the serum ends smashed up in a cemetery (as it happens). After a few hours, the entire town will be zombified.
Cole, along with saving the city, has to protect his lover, Sheila, from the revenant menace. Interestingly, she is not really Cole’s girlfriend: apparently, she is cheating on her current boyfriend. While the amorous trio could have been an interesting plot point, it is only brought up at the beginning and never really goes anywhere. I was sure we’d get a Cole vs the zombie boyfriend fight, but nope. Strangely, even though Cole seems pretty knowledgeable about the lore (he even namedrops Dawn of the Dead at one point), it takes him a while to come to the realization that the monsters can only be stopped by shooting them in the head.
Cole is quite an interesting character as, at the start, he is little more than a loser, especially by Japanese standards. He is basically broke, has a throwaway job and lives in a dump. His narrative arc in Dead 1 is completed when… well, when he realizes how much of a loser he is. Many times, during the story, he will get his hide saved by someone else, something he sadly comments on right before the ending. He doesn’t even get to save Sheila really, as the one time she’ll be in danger (of being raped by a gang, obviously), she’ll be saved by another character as well.
Cole is definitely unique by adventure game standards. Despite being a loser, he very clearly stays winning, gets the ladies and can rely on other people to save his sorry behind. Not sure if I would go as far as to define him as the classic anime horny stereotype, as he still has a good heart, but he sure does tend to let his thoughts drift off-course. Somehow he’ll be one of the few to survive the zombie menace, so I guess being a loser ain’t all that bad.
Find items, aim for the head
Dead of the Brain has a lot of fun with horror movie tropes, embracing them all with decaying glee. With references to Evil Dead and Romero’s zombie trilogy, along with quite gory images, there’s definitely a lot for horror fans to chew on. While I don’t think I played any of the other erotic titles from FairySoft, it does feel like they swapped the sex scenes for gorey images and… well, it does work. As adventure games of the time go, there doesn’t seem to be much weight to our choices, as they don’t make a lot of difference. There are no multiple endings either.
For example, at one point, we get the choice to be sexually intimate with another girl, which is something we have been recommended NOT to do by others since she is not all there. If you decide to go through with it, well, there doesn’t seem to be any negative consequences. I was sure that at least Sheila would find out, but no, she remains oblivious to our little “moment of distraction”. The only choices that will end up being disruptive to our run will be failing to act in the correct way during the action sequences.
While the interface is rich with different commands, they can all be summed up with “look”, “use” and “move”. The action sequences will be mostly about pointing the mouse at the head of the zombie (or human enemy) and pressing the fire button. In a couple of other instances, we’ll have to make the right choice before the time is up. Most of the time, the game will be about exploring rooms, grabbing items (mostly keys, torches and guns) and using them. The few puzzles are of the kind easily solved by looking around for the combination of a safe or the right clue to proceed.
Unfortunately, this is where the game gets quite frustrating, as Dead of the Brain requires you to mostly exhaust all available text in the room before proceeding, even though nothing really crucial is learned by reading all of these descriptions. So, while it might sound similar to the “exhaust all conversation” point and click trope, it is even worse. Using “Look” on an item on the screen will bring up several different descriptions, as Cole perhaps starts reflecting on how the town has gone to hell or other navelgazing. When we come to the last description, with the text repeating, we know we can safely proceed to the next item. This is barely game design, but rather “keep clicking until it goes away”.
Still, Dead of the Brain is strangely compelling in getting the player to keep at it until the adventure is over. Perhaps, again, FairySoft had already mastered that balance between gameplay and “reward” in their eroges, but still I was really curious to see what else the game would throw at me. It definitely feels like a classic guilty pleasure, much like a cheesy 80s horror movie. They got me there.
It does help that Dead 1 is not that long, clocking in at around 2/3 hours at the most. The art is solid, in a classic 90s anime style, the design of the zombies is more modern than traditional, since those revenants can run and are tough to put down. Also, apparently, the serum reanimates each part of the body, until the brain is destroyed which is something that will come back in the sequel as well.
There are a couple of exquisitely gratuitous gory scenes, like having to defeat a zombie by caving his eyesockets in. But, still, the worst enemy for mankind is not death, but… A.I. Yes, this might be a spoiler, but then again, he is on the cover, glaring at you. Indeed, at the end, Dead of the Brain gets all Metal Gear meets Terminator on us. Instead of a megazombie (I mean, the evil guy is named “Ghoul”), Cole faces a hulking robot who is tired of humans and wants to exterminate everyone. Who can really blame it?
The dead on arrival instasequel
Dead of the Brain 2 was released not even a year after the original, in 1993. Most of the original team seems to be back as well, including the writers and director Nakai Shin’ya. The artists are all different though and that, well, definitely shows. The story goes that two years have passed since the original incident and Cole and Sheila have since married. At the start, the happy couple is getting ready for a holiday in beautiful sunny Canada, when suddenly two of their friends are murdered.
Among the blood and bits of brain matter of their friends, they find traces of the Doctor’ serum from two years ago. They soon discover that the new drug that’s been hitting the streets, Purple Sky, is indeed a mix of heroin and the original zombie serum. Bloody Fox, a gang of criminals briefly featured in the original, is also involved in its distribution. This time, people who are still alive are being injected with the serum, what is going to happen to them? Will they turn into zombies right away? Also, in the introduction, someone is trying to bring Ghoul back to life…
There is also a strange subplot about Catherine, a waitress friend of Shila who works at a place called Shuffle Food. She is saved (well, I should say “found”) by Cole, and then opens up with him about her stepfather, who is obviously the director of the pharmaceutical company producing the zombie drug. He apparently raped her, which is a detail that I imagine should make him the bad guy, but it is quite a gratuitous details, despite not being shown as a sex scene, luckily. Daniel is working with Jill, the doctor who has brought back Ghoul from the dead, but this time, the android is… on our side?
Dead of the Brain 2 is slower than the original and features a much more complicated plot, as Cole will have to track down the bikers through bars and abandoned warehouses, in a kind of post-apocalyptic vibe. It is also a longer game, so, in some way, it does make sense that the zombie menace will come into play only one hour after beginning. What we get at the beginning are mostly the bikers trying to sexually assault women, especially Sheila, but at least this time Cole is the one to save her. This change from gore to long drowned out explanations is definitely not effective in getting the player to stick with the plot. Perhaps it was FairySoft’s attempt at branching out into a more serious adventure, but it didn’t really work.
Despite the sequel bringing back some of the classic quotes from Return of the Living Dead (don’t know if it was the first instance of zombies in a videogame being able to talk, but they do love saying “brains, more brains” a lot), its tone is also quite more serious compared to the original. The original had a couple of quite silly moments among all the tragedy, here things are played mostly straight. The zombies seem to be, overall, less of a threat and more of a nuisance, with the Bloody Fox bikers being the main enemy for most of the story.
It feels like we’re watching an episode of an anime that needs a lot of explanation to understand the story. As much as we get a brief return of the original Dr Cooger, there are not many characters from the previous game. Again, understandable since most of them died, but that’s not really an insurmountable obstacle, right? The return of Ghoul is only kept at the last twenty minutes and does not really add anything of substance, perhaps it would have make more sense to just go with a new evil guy altogether (whom should be the creator of Ghoul, but again, he randomly pops up at the end).
Sexual assault is worse than a zombie attack
Cole’s narrative arc in the second game is less interesting and, well, barely an arc at all. While he is still not really a hero, the guy at least seems more capable than before, perhaps because of his previous experience. Still, he seems to fumble a lot, like finding himself without bullets for his gun in a zombie-infested area, for example. He will solve the problem by, again, popping the eye sockets of the creature, which speaks to FairySoft not having any great new ideas for Dead 2 and reusing the same scenes.
Funnily enough, despite Cole’s transformation into your average boring hero, he is still not really very faithful to his girlfriend in Dead of the Brain 2 either (still, not as much as the original, true). Sheila is more of a plot point here, mostly because she gets sick from the serum injection, but she just stays in the background and is not even featured in the final showdown with Jill and Ghoul. The story basically ends right after the final confrontation, with everyone dead except for our lovely couple, so at least FairyTale were making sure there wouldn’t be a third game… or would it?!
The gameplay in Dead of the Brain 2 is clearly similar to the original, with fewer action sequences and puzzles, but with more dialogue to click through. The need to just keep on clicking everywhere to find out the one object that we still haven’t exhausted all descriptions of is still there. On the plus side, the interface has been greatly simplified, with each different command now just being a simple click of the mouse, plus a different “Move” button to change locations.
The art, while apparently of higher resolution, seems to lose some of the classic rougher charm from the original, which also fits with the horror theme. The problem with the pacing is that, by spending most of the time in a hospital/laboratory, Dead 2 gets repetitive quite soon. It almost feels like the script for the sequel was more or less the same length as the original, so they desperately tried to pad it out. But, instead of having new zombie scenes or different characters, there is just more unnecessary dialogue with Steve (Ghoul’s brother apparently?), Sheila and Catherine.
Night of the braindead living dead
While the Dead of the Brain series is today little more than a curiosity, the presence of an English patch should definitely make horror buffs interested in taking a look at the original. With its short length, copious amounts of gore and nostalgic 90s anime art, the original is that one cheesy guilty pleasure in the style of Return of the Living Dead (which, heh, that’s where the “more brains” quote comes from) that should make for a perfect Halloween evening. Provided, clearly, that one can forgive some of the typical frustration of its Japanese adventure genre.
While the original is that rare comforting gaming horror experience, I would recommend skipping the sequel, unless you’re quite keen on finding out what else happens to Cole and Sheila. At least, wait until there will be a decent English patch available. While it adds a ton of, quite unnecessary, lore to the Dead of the Brain universe, its main feature seems to be about there being less zombies, less gore and just more sexual violence. Not a good trade-off at all and, as mentioned, it is really too long for its own good.
These thirty-year-old PC-98 adventures offer a small window on what computer owners were playing in Japan at the time. Comparing them to the games we were playing back then, in 1992 the hottest new adventures in Europe and the US were King’s Quest V and The Dagger of Amon-ra, along with a very recent Monkey Island II. All of those definitely feel miles distant from the philosophy and gameplay of Dead of the Brain. Perhaps, a closer comparison to the classic PC-98 adventures would actually be Daughter of Serpents.
With sparse gameplay and a plot-heavy narrative, along with characters that are explored in detail, these adventures spoke to an audience more interested in stories than puzzles. It was definitely not a coincidence that, while it is true this style of design clearly originated from adventures, it was influenced by JRPGs as well. Three decades later, we can see how our Western tastes have also been shaped and influenced by the more verbose and rich narrative style of jRPGs. Ironically, it does feel like this style of vintage Japanese adventure gaming can be more easily appreciated today, rather than in 1992.