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).