Tie-in games based on movies have always been one of my greatest passions, especially because they tend to be a great showcase of bad design ideas, even more in those rare occasions when the movie they’re based on seems well suited to be brought to the video game realm. It is difficult not to love a subcategory that gifted us such gems as Street Fighter – The Movie – The Game and indeed, Plan 9 from Outer Space.
In the realm of cinema, when talking about “the worst ever”, there is one name of a director that seems to come up again and again in discussion: Ed Wood. The american cinematic factotum is still considered, somehow, to be one of the worst directors to have worked in the medium, which is definitely a bit unfair considering the honest and straighforward way in which he approached his movies.
What happens when the realm of bad movies and bad video games meet or, rather, clash?
You are interested in the unknown, the mysterious...
Just to clear the air: the pseudobiographical film about Ed Wood is one of my favourite movies ever. While I would hardly define myself as a Tim Burton fan, especially of his Disney period, Ed Wood perfectly married his sense of weird with his love for the outcasts and unsung heroes. The director was a crossdresser, back in a time when it was impossible to imagine someone like that as “normal”; hence it makes sense that his first movie, Glen or Glenda, would be clearly autobiographical. And, well, also pretty awful, since he had little money and basically no actors.
Plan 9 From Outer Space was supposed to be his masterpiece, marrying themes of atompunk, gothic horror and sci-fi. He actually managed to secure (some) financial backers, even though still working with a shoestring budget, especially for such a grandiose vision. TV host Vampira, wrestler Tor Johnson and Tom Mason, a chiropractor, were among the people casted: as long as one was willing to work for free (or a couple hundred dollars), Wood would gladly cast you. While it is true that he was rather incompetent, he seemed to be on a quest to make his vision come alive on the big screen. Especially by the way of shooting epic melodrama on a minuscule budget. To this day, Plan 9 remains more a curious piece of cinematic history rather than a dreadful movie, really.
Plan 9 from Outer Space has been called “the worst movie of all time” more times than I care to remember. Watching it today, where it’s sat in the public domain for decades because the rights were not correctly registered, a modern viewer might think it’s not offensive or even that boring. Ed had his heart in the right place but everything else did not seem to really work out the way he wanted. There’s also the infamous Bela Lugosi footage that the director spliced in while using another actor as a stand-in for all his other scenes, because the romanian actor had died before shooting had began.
We are bringing you all the evidence
When I found out there was actually a tie-in adventure game based on Plan 9 from Outer Space, I jumped out of my seat in excitement. It was like two of my favourite things in life coming together. Still, sometimes, even the best sliced cheese and the most delicious salami don’t actually make for a good sandwich. Sometimes, it is better to go with plain white bread. Unfortunately, while I am unable to make a whole introduction about the original idea behind the game, let me state an obvious fact : Plan 9 From Outer Space – The Game is not the worst gaming experience of all time.
Having made that clear, still the burning question remains: why did somebody at Gremlin Ireland decide to develop a game, for Amiga, Atari ST and Ms-Dos, based on a public domain movie released 33 years before? While there is little information about it out there, unfortunately, a recent interview with graphic designer Phil Plunkett and programmer Tommy Rolf reveals that designer Ian Hadley simply loved the movie in its badness and wanted to develop a game that would riff on that.
As mentioned, the interview doesn’t shed much light on how the design for Plan 9 The Game actually went down. Still, it is designed to look and play pretty similarly to early 90s Legend Entertainment point-n-click adventures: list of verbs in the bottom right, inventory just above it and a small window where all the action happens. Music is pretty much non existent, except for low drones, same with sound effects.
The game puts the player in the shoes of a detective, tasked by a movie producer to recover the stolen reels of the infamous movie, with the culprit actually being one of the characters from Plan 9, of course. Rolfs remember that a good part of the game was written with Ian Hadley in an afternoon, getting down aproximately seventy locations which, Plunkett adds, were then expanded to a hundred in the final version.
Since the game had to be ported on three different systems, Rolfs mentions, the quality of the graphics suffered quite a bit, along with it being displayed in a small window. “It’s based on a bad movie, so no one will mind if the graphics quality is also bad. It was part of the whole tongue-in-cheek idea, a play on bad movies and bad quality of the graphics.” But a great technical feature of the game, one that Gremlin was crazy about as mentioned by Rolfs, was the possibility to view small reels of the movie in-game, with the possibilty to control it. It is really just an extra feature, since it is never needed to complete the adventure.
Let us punish the guilty! Let us reward the innocent!
Quite obviously Gremlin Interactive wanted to milk the “worst movie ever” moniker as much as possible. Consquently, the script seems to be plenty self-aware: most of the in-game characters are played by either Vampira or Tor Johnson in bad disguises. While it makes sense in the economy of the “cheap and bad movie tie-in”, it does make for a pretty repetitive cast (even though Tor as a fish is quite funny). The movie is mocked through and through, which weirdly makes more sense now than in 1992: back then people did not really become famous just for making fun of bad movies and games. Too bad that the writing is not really Mystery Science Theater 3000 level of goofy nor it contains the same pop culture references.
Gameplaywise, it is easy to find the usual slew of illogical puzzles, like having to show a polaroid of you and Bela to please the bats. Which might be par for the course, especially in a game where not only there is garlic available, but also a vampire costume right there. Also, for some reason, the detective needs to have US dollars in his inventory, even though I don’t think they are ever used in the game, but without money finishing the game is impossible. Still, the worst part is being forced to use a taxi or a plane to switch between the various locations each time. Clearly, an idea added just to artificially prolong the game’s length, since it does not really change anything to the gameplay. A product of its time, that is for sure.
Personally, though, I have some issues with the game’ self-awareness. The movie, cheap and boring as it might be, still has a kind of refreshing honesty about it. Despite the producers being pretty much duped into giving money, the overall project was not a scam: it was a story born out of passion, as misguided as it might have been. The adventure by Gremlin does not really feel like a passion project, despite the interview seemingly talking about it as one. It seemed that despite the designer loving the money, he was unable to translate that into a loving project, limiting the script to simple mockey.
The part I like best is the last fifteen minutes, when the plot suddenly veers into pure craziness: aliens, a producer hell bent on destroying the world, ninjas, Cuba and all such nonsense which, indeed, feel right out of an Ed Wood movie. Unfortunately, such loving weirdness is balanced by the scene where the detective breaks into Bela Lugosi’s crypt to kill a vampire: apparently that is indeed the body of the Romanian actor, even though it doesn’t look like him at all. Kind of in poor taste, really. Interestingly enough, Plunkett remembers not using the actor’s surname in the game, but in reality, it is used several times. He comments “we were quite carefully on naming anything in the game, we probably had the rights to make a game about the movie, but not much else besides that.”
Even trying to recommend the adventure to fans of the movie, finds me a bit on the fence. Sure, the game goes as far as recreating certain scenes from Plan 9 quite accurately (like the plane’s cockpit made with a cheap shower curtain), but the whole “making a game about the worst movie of all times” ends up feeling like an afterthought. There doesn’t seem to be anything original or even remotely interesting in its design, which is why – in the end – this ended up being mostly forgotten, despite being a rather original idea for the time (or even today!). Plan 9 plays like most average early 90s adventure games, with the “cheap bad movie” subject tackled in.
It pains me to say that Plan 9 From Outer Space – The Game lacks the spark of a crazy madman like Ed Wood: it sadly feels and plays like any most average tie-in products, as much as it might be weird to think about it as one.
My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts about illogical puzzles?
Perhaps I’m getting hung up too much about it, but trying to capitalize on a bad movie made on a shoestring budget forty years before via an average nineties adventure game, feels somehow morally reprehensible. Naturally I’m not blaming the developers, since I am pretty sure they had the most honest intentions of just having a bit of harmless fun. My point is that this was probably a project that should have been tackled in a different way, or maybe not at all. Here comes the twist though: in some way I’m glad it exists.
An illogical puzzle if there ever was one.
I am so much in love with the whole idea of making a game about a legendary b-movie that still, despite everything I just wrote, I am more than ready to defend its existence. Yes, I am happy this project ended up with an actual released game, as average as it might be. Call me lunatic but it feels wonderful that this deranged idea of poking fun at a mostly forgotten b-movie from the 50s did not end up in the bin or with a bunch of unfinished sketeches. Also, the original boxed copies came with a Plan 9 VHS, since – again – the movie had been in public domain for a while. At least, as average as the tie-in adventure was, one could have the pleasure to see the “worst movie ever” in all its original low definition glory.
It is currently possible to find the game on plenty abandonware websites; I would recommend also getting the manual cause the copy protection is still in place, at least on the DOS version. But, should one wish to play an actual good game that feels like being in a camp b-movie from the 50s, It Came From the Desert is definitely a much better alternative or the faux-NES platformer Manos: The Hands of Fate.