A History of Evil Dead: Gaming Gets Groovy
The War Against Evil Goes Digital
It was a tale of five college students enjoying a holiday deep in the wooded isolation of rural Tennessee. There was some light drinking, a sprinkling of young love, and the recitation of an ancient Sumerian text that led to an unsettling tree rape, spatterings of blood and gore, and a pile of dead bodies. Not only was it not the weekend Ash Williams and his friends expected, but it also seemed far from a usable concept for Commodore Business Machines’ home entertainment unit, the Commodore 65. And yet, in 1984, developer Palace Virgin Gold took Sam Raimi’s goo-infused horror romp and turned it into a pixelated adventure featuring the film’s bumbling protagonist, effectively launching Evil Dead’s video game exploits.
Removed from the Source Material
Like most licensed games of the era, The Evil Dead (1984) was a very crude depiction of the events that unfolded onscreen. As Ashly [sic] Williams (a reference to the spelling in the original screenplay), players warded off the evils inhabiting the cabin, picking up scattered weapons to replenish a depleting energy gauge needed to slay a host of quirky monsters (including disembodied legs and arms). It was a simple concept largely taken from the Stamper Brothers’ Atic Atac (1983), but it provided enough entertainment to warrant a decent review in the September 1984 issue of Your Computer magazine. What stands out from the review today was the apparent concern audiences had of violent or scary horror movies bleeding out into home entertainment systems. The Evil Dead spurred some worry but ultimately delivered on a kid-friendly experience.
Fast-forward 16 years, though, and suddenly that uneasiness is a little more valid.
Evil Goes 3D
The original PlayStation was six years into its lifespan (which technically ended in 2005) when Evil Dead: Hail to the King was released. By that time, horror gaming had already stirred controversy as the Resident Evil series and similar titles stepped into the spotlight. In fact, it was games like Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark that Hail to the King was clearly modeled after. Unlike the Commodore 64 title, the PSone game featured a 3D model of Ash equipped with his iconic chainsaw and boomstick.
Set eight years after Army of Darkness, Ash returns to the infamous cabin, hoping to rid himself of his recurring nightmares. Of course, things go awry, the deadites return, and it’s up to the wisecracking hero, played by Bruce Campbell, to set things right and save the damsel in distress. Rough around the edges and a little stiff, Hail to the King was deemed largely forgettable by average gamers and critics. For fans of the trilogy, however, the story was clever and fit well within Evil Dead lore by touching on similar beats as Evil Dead II and Army of Darkness. Mechanically, it needed a lot of polish. Even by the time the credits rolled, players never really felt the true weight of Ash’s chainsaw hand.
That is, until three years later, when VIS Entertainment and THQ delivered A Fistful of Boomstick to the PS2 and Xbox.
True to the Source Material
Reviews weren’t necessarily kind to the 3D hack ‘n slash, but A Fistful of Boomstick really emphasized the deadite threat and made Ash feel like the bumbling hero we came to know. As was touched on in Hail to the King, Ash could outfit his stump with various weapons, including a flamethrower and a minigun. Even his boomstick received an upgrade with various ammo types, which he stylishly shoots over his shoulder in a fashion we’ve come to expect from the franchise’s hero. Since the bigger open space gave VIS Entertainment more to work with, A Fistful of Boomstick felt more like a complete and well-rounded Evil Dead game.
Repetition, backtracking, and an unforgiving camera plague the overall experience, but sawing deadites in half and unleashing a variety of spells kept the experience from getting too dry. A Fistful of Boomstick may have felt like the series's best, but Cranky Pants Games returned gamers to the Evil Dead universe in a story-driven hack ‘n slash that improved upon its predecessor's pitfalls.
Ash’s Last Ride
Regeneration (2005) enhanced the gameplay of A Fistful of Boomstick and crafted a more interesting story, which starts quite logically with Ash in a mental institution. The game may feature some of the expected mechanics, like different hand attachments and firearms, but Regeneration changes things up a bit with a deadite sidekick (Ted Raimi) and the ability to change into a more powerful Evil Ash. Escort missions occasionally bog down the enjoyment, but they’re easy to overlook amongst the near-constant bloody on-screen slaughter.
Then, with another damsel possessed and another portal opened, the Evil Dead games stopped. After being spoiled for five years, fans of the franchise were left wondering if any developer would try to reinvigorate the series, but console generations came and went, and Ash was nowhere to be found. A simple tower defense game based on Army of Darkness popped up in 2011, and Ash joined the ranks of Poker Night in 2013, but it would be a full 15 years before the team behind the World War Z and the Crysis remasters introduced players to a survival horror multiplayer experience set in the Evil Dead universe.
Evil Goes Online
Evil Dead: The Game gathers the very best of the franchise, including Ash vs. Evil Dead alumni Kelly Maxwell (Dana DeLorenzo) and Pablo Simon Bolivar (Ray Santiago), to take on the deadite threat in an online capacity. The co-op and PvP gameplay pit human versus demon, with horrifying monstrosities like Henrietta Knowby, Eligos, and Evil Ash (Army of Darkness) serving as generals for the deadite army. Every character has their own abilities to level the playing field, which will be teaming with enemies to dismember and put back in the dirt. Evil Dead: The Game lays heavy into the horror with atmospheric maps pulled right from the cinematic universe, including the cabin that started it all.
For over 35 years, Evil Dead has been delighting fans with whatever nuggets they can get, be it a reboot, a Marvel comic book series, or digital interactive experiences that build upon Sam Raimi’s original story. Evil Dead: The Game is the culmination of all of it, blending as much of the franchise as possible into a playable medium.
Will this be the last Evil Dead video game? It’s possible, especially considering that Bruce Campbell has been vocal about stepping away from the character that defined the series.
And without the chainsaw-wielding king, who’s left to save the world?
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