Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Plan 9 Odyssey, Part Three by Greg Dziawer

If you can remember when computers looked liked this, maybe you played the Plan 9 video game.

Plan 9's unsuccessful video game
In 1992, the release of Rudolph Grey's seminal biography Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. ushered in a new era of recognition for filmmaker and author Ed Wood. More than a decade after The Golden Turkey Awards, Ed's reputation was finally taking a step beyond the reductive "worst director of all time" moniker that had, until then, shaped his limited public myth. 

When Grey's book inspired the 1994 Disney-produced biopic Ed Wood, with Hollywood superstar Johnny Depp in the title role, Eddie's posthumous renown doubtless reached its pinnacle. Sixteen years after his tragic, untimely passing, Ed Wood had finally become an object of mass pop culture interest.

Timing, they say, is everything. In late 1992, during the interim between the book and the film, a bizarre video game based upon Eddie's best-known "worst" film, Plan 9 From Outer Space, reached the market. Much like the movie that had inspired it, the game was largely panned by critics. In the pages of Computer Gaming World, for instance, writer Charles Ardai declared that the game "attains a degree of cheapness that even the movie didn't reach, which is quite an accomplishment." Ardai, who went on to co-found the internet service provider Juno, was an avowed non-fan of Wood's original film as well, calling it "pitiful and headache-inducing."

Developed by a now-defunct British software company called Gremlin Graphics and published by Konami—yes, the company behind Contra, Castlevania, Frogger, Metal Gear, Dance Dance Revolution, and much more—Plan 9 from Outer Space is a satirical, fourth-wall-breaking, point-and-click game. Not my cup of tea, honestly. 

A typical screenshot from the Plan 9 game.
For the record, the player assumes the role of a detective hired by a gruff, cigar-chomping producer who looks exactly like Tor Johnson but does not act or talk like him. Other Tor lookalikes populate this world, and there are cameos by Bela Lugosi and Vampira, too. 

The goal is to search through 70 various locations in Hollywood, including bars and cemeteries, and find all six reels of Plan 9 from Outer Space. Apparently, these reels have been purloined by Bela Lugosi's embittered stand-in, who wants to insert more footage of himself into Plan 9 and even colorize the entire movie! (Incidentally, a colorized Plan 9 is now widely available on DVD and BluRay from Legend Films.) As in other point-and-click games, there's not a lot of visceral, blood-pumping action here. Instead, as you make your way through the game, you'll find clues, read onscreen text, collect items in your inventory, and interact with various hostile weirdos. A tombstone in the corner gives some standard options, including HIT, TALK, and OPEN.

One notable aspect of Gremlin's Plan 9 from Outer Space game is that it contains crudely digitized clips of Ed Wood's original film. In the primitive days before streaming video and cinema-quality cut scenes, this was something of a novelty.

Gremlin dug its own grave with this one.
Ultimately, Gremlin released its Plan 9 from Outer Space game across three platforms: the Commodore Amiga, the Atari ST, and MS-DOS for IBM personal computers. Unfortunately, two of these systems, the Amiga and the ST, were released in 1985 and were on their last legs by 1992.

On the plus side, the Atari and IBM editions of the game actually included a VHS copy of the movie! That was definitely a rarity. But even that didn't compensate for Plan 9's limited graphics, repetitive soundtrack, and unsatisfying gameplay.

Needless to say, Gremlin's Plan 9 from Outer Space fell through the cracks a quarter century ago and is only barely remembered today. The game is intentionally designed to be frustrating—Ardai complains of the "little creature" who steals items from the player's inventory—and I find it difficult to navigate. A review from the January 1993 edition of Electronic Games magazine provides some good tips for playing Plan 9... before panning the game!

Fans of Ed Wood, especially those who enjoy point-and-click games, will naturally be tempted to play Plan 9 despite its poor reputation. Luckily, you still can! Thanks to the Internet Archive, you can play it here online. Chances are, you'll get stuck before finding all six reels. If that happens but you want to see more—the game includes little knowing details and images from Wood's movie that must have been utterly baffling to the average gamer at the time—you can watch others play here, here, and here.

Enjoy! And God help us in the future!