Have You Played… Total Carnage?


Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time.

We – by which I mean a flock of just-about-teenage schoolboys in the early 1990s – didn’t question Total Carnage in the slightest. It’s a gaming extreme that forces people to ask, “Is straight up murdering loads of middle eastern people for kicks and then shouting “SATIRE!” good enough?” Unless those people were us lot as teenagers, lapping it up at face value. The follow-up to Smash TV certainly has no shortage of satire, but boy oh boy, that was not how we interpreted it.

“Kill all the Arabs, take your pick of women”: that’s the journey of Total Carnage’s Rambo+++++ characters, and, to a teenage mind, the message of the game. We played it because we wanted more of Smash TV’s absurd robo-mutants and murder-gameshow arenas – and there the Robocoppish consumer satire was big and broad and preposterous enough that we just about got it.

By contrast, playing as an uber-Aryan American commando (I should point out that, in co-op mode, the second player character is African-American, but singleplayer defaults to the blonde’n’blue guy) joyfully mowing down an endless legion of dark-skinned, mustachioed men was something we took as read – as the done thing in games and films of the time.

This was right around the Gulf War at the time too, so we’d had “Middle East = the enemy” drilled into us. Few of us were savvy enough to grasp the idea that this was all a send-up of American gung-ho, jingoist stereotypes. In games as in films of the time (or recent years to it), American action movie types were the heroes, the foreign devil was the enemy and boobladies were the reward: maximum silliness didn’t change that message. We lapped it up unthinkingly.

Maybe, for older players of the time, it seemed far too exaggerated to take seriously in the comparatively sober first Bush era, but in 2017 it’s uncomfortably close to the darkest Trumpist rhetoric and the kind of game that certain subreddits might pitch now.

Total Carnage is funny and it can be a glorious sight to behold, especially as it becomes ever-more outlandish (and more like Smash TV), but in a way the raw fun of that stuff is a retroactive endorsement of its earlier Ultra-Iraq elements.

Which is all a great shame, because there’s bags more of the oh-so-90s visual imagination offered by Smash TV, some very solid (and tricky) twin-stick action that still plays well today, and with a sense of open space that was lacking from its predecessor. (Smash TV wasn’t exactly innocent either, but at least it wasn’t riffing off a real war and a real mentality of the time).


  1. Premium User Badge

    Ninja Dodo says:

    Well, at least they didn’t name the game after paramilitary terrorists funded by the CIA.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      I can’t decide if it makes you satire better, that my first thought was “which ones?”.

  2. plsgodontvisitheforums says:

    “Maybe, for older players of the time, it seemed far too exaggerated to take seriously […]”.

    Or… for non-American young players :p

  3. rayo153 says:

    Holy shit! I’ve been trying to remeber this game’s name for years! I had a blast with it but never finished it because I had to return it to the rental store, and every time I got it back, my progress was gone (i’m not even sure it had a save option). Thanks, Alec, I can get this out of my list now :’).

  4. Sin Vega says:

    Played the demo many times on the Amiga, never got the full game, except on the gameboy, which was a fucking terrible version. Boo.

    What was weird was how the regular mooks all had rifles but would only ever walk towards you and try to club you to death with them.

  5. Jazzhole says:

    So what about the game? Half the artcile is political rumbling, the other is Smash TV.

  6. Bing_oh says:

    Wait…did I just read an article discussing the underlying political commentary of a 20 year old twin stick shooter? Seriously?

    • GeoX says:

      Probably, yeah. Inasmuch as it has a very prominent, distinct political underlining. And you have a problem with that because…?

      • Bing_oh says:

        Well, considering it was released around the time of Desert Storm, I think analyzing it as a political commentary might be reading a bit too much into it. Making the villain a parody of Saddam Hussein is pretty much low-hanging fruit on the part of the developer as opposed to a distinct political statement. Most of the action war movies of the early-80’s used the Soviet Union as the villain for the same reason…not because they wanted to make a political statement, but because the Soviet Union was a recognizable “boogeyman” of the time that didn’t need additional explanation.

        • GeoX says:

          Political commentary doesn’t count as political commentary if it’s commenting on current events in a simplistic way and it’s obvious what it’s about? Huh.

          And no, eighties movies aren’t apolitical either. What an odd lens through which to view the world.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      Twin stick?! We were lucky if we had a second joystick for our younger siblings to join in back in those days!
      (And if you did have two, inevitably one was a bit crap, and so the arguments over who got which ‘stick started up)

      You kids with your ‘twin sticks’ and ‘shoulder buttons’, you don’t know you’re born! We had a digital joystick with a single button and we were glad of it!

  7. Atlas says:

    Fun fact: the voice of General Akhboob, who speaks in racist gibberish, is played by Ed Boon, creator of Mortal Kombat.

  8. geldonyetich says:

    I have to say, I completely missed out on the political message when I played in the arcades. I thought the enemies were just a bunch of clones.

    Yet, even then I could tell that Total Carnage lacked a lot of the punch and cleverness of the original Smash TV. I was largely disinterested in what they came up with.

    Looking at videos of the two games now, I can tell why I bounced off: the flow was much slower and less exciting. Smash TV was more a game in the vein of Crimsonlands, while Total Carnage was more Icari Warriors. We’ll still play Crimsonlands, but Icari Warriors is rather dated.

  9. Chillicothe says:

    The Fuck You, Pay Me version of the far superior Smash TV.

  10. argherpargen says:

    Man, this is some vapid navel-gazing if I’ve ever read it. Please continue to tell us how one political candidate spells the end of the world, while another with just as violent tendencies was a savior we didn’t deserve.

    Just so you all know, the rest of us who aren’t misandrists or bigots will be laughing when this place shuts down.

    • MirzaGhalib says:

      Uh oh. Sounds like some little snowflake needs to go back to his safe space.

    • Buggery says:

      Congrats! You did it! The worst comment on any article on RPS!

    • Ancient Evil says:

      You know, as an American, I remember during the campaign how we were constantly bombarded by the media with the message that Trump was a “dangerous isolationist”, who would “abdicate” the United States’ “global commitments”, which seem to consist mostly of overthrowing the governments of sovereign nations on a whim, general sowing of chaos and death, and becoming entangled in endless, expensive wars with no clear objectives or realistic outcomes.

      Hillary was the “grown up in the room” because she wanted to keep doing all those things.

      Then again, just Monday night Trump gave a speech in which he backtracked and basically admitted we’re going to be in Afghanistan forever. So the military industrial complex tamed him after all, and the media and political elites breathed a sigh of relief and gave him a pat on the head.

      – But as to the article: I don’t think Alec was operating on any level other than “but Trump is a RACIST and middle eastern people are BROWN” here, so that’s all beside the point.

  11. codetaku says:

    Some of us played it while realizing that the characters on the screen were not people. They had no families, no friends, no hopes, dreams, or aspirations. No past, and no future. They felt no pain, and had no desire to live. They were merely images, and we knew the act of sitting on our couch and pushing plastic buttons held no actual moral implications. You know, the ones who can tell the difference between reality and fiction. Children. It’s only adults that find themselves incapable of recognizing the linguistic trick of referring to the characters as ‘people’ is only that – a linguistic trick and nothing more. Images can certainly convey meaning, but there is a stark difference between discussing that meaning and simply banking on the audience having a similar emotional reaction to phrases like “straight up murdering loads of middle eastern people” as they would if you weren’t actually talking about nothing but the interplay of imagery on a screen.