Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Early Video Game Content Advisories - Who Needs Ratings Systems?

Prior to the formation of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board in 1994 there was no comprehensive content ratings systems for computer and video games in the U.S.  However, that did not mean that video games never provided warnings to potential purchasers and their parents or spouses.  Here let us explore the attempts to advise the public of adult-oriented content prior to and outside the eventual dominance of the ESRB.




Early video games were not known for explicit depictions of graphic violence, nudity or sex. These Computers and video game consoles supported only low resolution graphics with relatively limited colors.  The most realistic depictions of sex or violence were likely to come from the descriptions found in text-based games.  There were no restrictions on swearing in a text-based game.  Unsurprisingly, the first video game (known to me) to come with any sort of advisory or label was Softporn Adventure from On-line Systems for the Apple II and later the Atari 8-bit computers.  The company that would become Sierra On-line was innovative in many ways, and distributing the first adult video game sold to the general public was one of them.  This was in 1981 when Sierra was still distributing its games in zip lock bags with a manual, which doubled as the cover art for the game.  

The cover for Softporn Adventure warned the purchaser that "this game is R-Rated. It is not suggested for Minors or persons easily offended. It is offered solely for entertainment value. No other purpose is intended or implied by the manufacturer."  The front cover also included three topless women drinking wine while sitting in a hot tub.  The back cover advertised a Casino, Women, Erotica, Derelicts, Booze and much more!  The note and voluntary rating was probably unnecessary given the name, front and back cover of the game.  Softporn Adventure sold  25,000 copies and many more were almost certainly distributed as pirate copies.  Given that there were probably around 100,000 Apple II computers sold by that time, Softporn Adventure would have been found in the possession of a very high number of Apple II owners. 

Softporn Adventure is the only retail computer game of which I am aware released nationwide in the U.S. prior to the year 1991 with any kind of warning on the box.  If a parent wanted to find out if a computer game was appropriate for his or her children (or for themselves), he or she would have to read about it in the newspaper or a magazine or rely on word of mouth to make a buying decision.  A game entitled "Strip Poker" with a cover featuring a scantily clad woman would not need a warning, the packaging spoke for itself.  Given that this was the era of Reagan, only four Strip Poker games were released in the U.S.  Many more were released in the less-prudish U.K.

Meanwhile in 1982 the first adult video games appeared for home consoles.  The most popular system of the time was the Atari 2600, and publishers tried to tap into that market.  The first adult game released for the 2600 was Custer's Revenge, which made headlines for all the wrong reasons.  The game has the player's character, a naked General Custer, trying to dodge arrows as he tries to cross the screen to penetrate a naked native american girl tied to a tree.  Native American and Women Rights groups both condemned the game, and as a result it tended to be sold under the counter in the same kinds of stores that would sell pornography.

Other adult games released for the 2600 were not particularly successful, nor were they any good.  The Atari's graphics were so blocky as to make the games more comical than arousing.  Many of the games following tried to enhance their value to the perv...consumer by using double-ender cartridges.  In a double-ender cartridge, one piece of long plastic houses a PCB at each end, each PCB holding a ROM chip with a different game.  Nine adult Atari 2600 games were released, but there really was no market for adult games at the time, so no adult games appear to have been released for the 2600's competitors.  

The first horror games for home consoles were also released for the Atari 2600 with Halloween and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  These games did not sell well because of their violent themes, especially Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which had you play as Leatherface and kill women.  No explicit warning was found on their labels, but the movies were well-known and the descriptions on the back of their boxes were quite revealing of their gameplay.  

Nintendo implemented an increasingly strict censorship policy for its NES, Game Boy and SNES games.  While graphic violence, religious iconography and eventually smoking would be eliminated from its system's games, it always had a policy against adult language, nudity and sexual conduct.  Taboo : The Sixth Sense technically violated its policy of endorsing religious or spiritual beliefs by being a tarot card game.  Taboo was seen as something of a party game and unlikely to offend anyone except those liable to take offense at everything, but Nintendo still put a warning label on its box.  Taboo also has a graphic showing full rear nudity, but it is only seen under certain circumstances.  

Nintendo's competitors were less strict when it came to explicit graphic violence.  When Namco published Splatterhouse for the TurboGrafx-16, it included a rather humorous warning on the cover : "The horrifying theme of this game may be inappropriate for young children. . . and cowards."  This warning, like Softporn Adventure's appeared more to advertise the game than to warn.  Splatterhouse on the TG-16 was a port of the arcade game, but the arcade game may or may not have been officially released in the U.S.  If it was released, than it was very obscure.  Splatterhouse's US release changed the inverted cross boss and removed the altar in Stage 4, so it appears that NEC and Namco were taking some influence from competitor Nintendo.  

The sequel to Splatterhouse was released for the Sega Genesis in 1992, and it also contained a (humorless) advisory.  It was just as gory and disturbing as its predecessor and was one of the few Sega Genesis games I am aware of prior to the implementation of rating systems to have such a warning.  Sega's release of Night Trap for the Sega CD that same year signaled a sea change for advisories, because Congress began to hold hearings on violence in video games.

When home computers graduated from 8-bit consoles, they were able to display some semblance of realistic imagery.  Elvira, Mistress of the Dark had rather gory images shown upon dying, but the number of colors displayed, even though resolution was only 320x200 and the number of colors able to be displayed at any time on screen was limited to 32.  

PC-compatible games, now supporting 256 color VGA graphics, were also becoming more violent and the violence was more lifelike.   Wolfenstein 3D allowed you to kill Nazi's in bloody ways and had gore strewn about its levels.  With a Sound Blaster, gunshots sounded real and enemies said things when they found you and when they were killed.  But DOOM's huge popularity in 1993 took things to a new level.  Not only was there more blood and violence in DOOM, but it contained some very disturbing (to some) demonic imagery.  

Additionally in the PC world, the more realistic graphics provided by VGA inspired publishers to put content advisories on their boxes for games featuring adult themes.  Thus Leisure Suit Larry 5 and Leather Goddesses of Phobos 2 had advisories where their predecessors did not.  Ultima VII may have been the first game to feature every kind of adult theme imaginable.  The beginning has you encounter a ritual cult murder complete with dismemberment and you can gamble and enjoy the services of a brothel in Buccaneer's Den.  Between the violence and morally dubious behavior, Origin instituted what was probably the first rating label for a video game in the U.S. when it rated Ultima VII in 1992 as "Voluntarily Rated MP-13 for Mature Players".  This rating was applied to the next two games in the Ultima series as well as the two Crusader games, but does not appear to have been used outside of Origin's games.  Origin did not apply ratings to its other games like Wing Commander and Strike Commander.

The release of Mortal Kombat in the arcades, along with Night Trap, helped prompt a more intense review of video game content.  Mortal Kombat featured digitized actors and fatalities such as ripping out your opponent's spine or burning them to a crisp.  You could also see your opponent impaled on iron spikes in one of the fighting arenas.  While there had been beat-em ups and one on one fighters before, the comparative realism of Mortal Kombat caused parents and legislators to become concerned of their children becoming insensitive to violence.

Sega's Genesis console was one of the best selling consoles in North America.  It decided to take the lead by instituting the first rating system across its entire line of platforms.  Its system was the Videogames Rating Council or V.R.C.  Every publisher of a game for the Sega Genesis, Sega Game Gear and Sega CD during mid-1993 to late 1994 submitted its games to this entity for a rating. Unfortunately, there is no comprehensive list of games by V.R.C. rating, although Sega Retro does have them for each game which was rated.

The difficulty with Sega's system is that its rivals, namely Nintendo, Atari, 3D0 and Sony would not use it.  Strangely, Leisure Suit Larry 6 for the PC did use a V.R.C. rating for the original floppy release.  When Nintendo and Acclaim saw that its censored SNES version of Mortal Kombat was outsold significantly by the uncensorable Genesis version, they released Mortal Kombat II uncensored with a prominent warning label on the box.  Ultimately, the video game industry, forced by public pressure to establish an industry-wide system, settled on the ESRB system by 1995.  Sega migrated to the system first, then followed by Nintendo, Atari, 3D0 and Sony.  After 1995, almost all video games carried ESRB ratings and some older games which came with custom advisories were rated with an ESRB rating.  Some PC games used the RSAC ratings system until the end of the 1990s, but by the 21st Century every game released on consoles or by major publishers for the PC obtained an ESRB rating.

Here is a list of games with advisory labels on their packaging :

Game Title System Publisher Year of Release Warning
Alien v. Predator Jaguar Rebellion 1994 Content Description: Graphic Violence
Bachelor Party Atari 2600 Mystique 1982 An Adult Video Game Cartridge, Not for sale to Minors
Bachelor Party/Gigolo Atari 2600 PlayAround 1983 Adult Video Games Cartridge, Not for sale to Minors
Bachelorette Party/Burning Desire Atari 2600 PlayAround 1983 Adult Video Games Cartridge, Not for sale to Minors
Beat 'Em & Eat 'Em Atari 2600 Mystique 1982 An Adult Video Game Cartridge, Not for sale to Minors
Beat 'Em & Eat 'Em/Lady in Wading Atari 2600 PlayAround 1983 Adult Video Games Cartridge, Not for sale to Minors
Crusader No Remorse PC Origin 1996 Voluntarily Rated MP-13 for Mature Players
Crusader: No Regret PC Origin 1995 Voluntarily Rated MP-13 for Mature Players
Crypt of Medea Apple II Sir-Tech 1984 An Adventure Game for the Very Mature and Strong of Heart
Custer’s Revenge Atari 2600 Mystique 1982 An Adult Video Game Cartridge, Not for sale to Minors
DOOM (Shareware) PC Gold Medallion Software 1993 M Mature Audiences Graphic Violence
Elvira PC/Amiga/Atari ST/C64 Accolade 1990 Caution: Contains Bloodcurdling Graphics
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers PC Sierra 1993 Warning This game contains adult subject matter. Parental guidance is suggested
Hell: A Cyberpunk Thriller 3D0 GameTek 1994 Guidance for 17 and Under, May contain graphic violence, sexual situations, strong language, recreational drug and alcohol use
Jungle Fever/Knight on the Town Atari 2600 PlayAround 1983 Adult Video Games Cartridge, Not for sale to Minors
Leather Goddesses of Phobos! 2 PC Infocom 1992 Mature Attitudes Expressed
Leisure Suit Larry 5 PC Sierra 1991 Warning! Parental Discretion Advised
Leisure Suit Larry 6 PC Floppy Sierra 1993 Rated by V.R.C. MA-17: Not appropriate for minors. Mature Audiences
Leisure Suit Larry 6 PC CD Sierra 1994 Warning! Parental Discretion Advised
Les Manley in: Lost in L.A. PC Accolade 1991 Recommended for Mature Audiences
Mortal Kombat PC Acclaim 1993 PC-17 Not Recommended for Audiences under 17
Mortal Kombat II SNES Acclaim 1994 May not be Appropriate for Players Under 17 Years of Age. Parental Discretion Advised
Night Trap Sega CD Digital Pictures 1992 Content Advisory: May not be suitable for young children
Philly Flasher/Cathouse Blues Atari 2600 PlayAround 1983 Adult Video Games Cartridge, Not for sale to Minors
Plumbers Don't Wear Ties 3D0 United Pixtures 1994 M Recommended for mature audiences
Police Quest : Open Season PC Sierra 1993 Warning This game contains adult subject matter. Parental guidance is suggested
Softporn Adventure Apple II/Atari 8-bit On-line Systems (Sierra) 1981 Note : this game is R-Rated. It is not suggested for Minors or persons easily offended. It is offered solely for entertainment value. No other purpose is intended or implied by the manufacturer.
Splatterhouse TurboGrafx-16 Namco 1990 The horrifying theme of this game may be inappropriate for young children . . . and cowards
Splatterhouse 2 Genesis Namco 1992 Warning : This game contains scenes depicting graphic violence which may not be suitable for younger players
Splatterhouse 3 Genesis Namco 1993 Warning : This game contains scenes depicting graphic violence which may not be suitable for younger players
Stormlord Genesis Razorsoft 1991 CG-14 Publishers Rating Association, Challenging Gameplay: Suggested for Ages 14 and Above
Taboo: The Sixth Sense NES Tradewest 1989 Note: Taboo The Sixth Sense is not intended for children under 14. It is meant for curiosity value and entertainment only. No mystical or magical claims are guaranteed or inferred.
Technocop Genesis Razorsoft 1991 Not suggested for children under 12
The 7th Guest PC Virgin 1993 Parental Discretion Advised: Not Recommended for Individuals Under the Age of 17
Ultima VII PC Origin 1992 Voluntarily Rated MP-13 for Mature Players
Ultima VII Part 2 PC Origin 1993 Voluntarily Rated MP-13 for Mature Players
Ultima VIII PC Origin 1994 Voluntarily Rated MP-13 for Mature Players
Waxworks PC Accolade 1992 Parental Warning, Intense Graphic Violence
Wolfenstein 3D Jaguar id Software 1994 Content Description: Graphic Violence
X-Man Atari 2600 Universal Gamex 1983 An Adult Video Game Cartridge, Adults Only – Sale to Minors Prohibited

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