Adapt And Die is an ongoing look at how seminal (or at the very least semi-interesting) works of film and television have crashed and burned in the gaming world.
Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1988)
There is a duality in all of us. Though our intentions may be virtuous, something within us aches to act on our basest impulses, society’s moral conventions be damned. Even as a child, I was aware of such a battle raging inside me. Oh, I tried to follow the righteous path, to play NES games that were well-made, interesting and fun. But deep inside me grew a dark power I could not ignore, a power that had an inexplicable and unquenchable thirst for absolute crap. It’s what led me to purchase the miserable “video board game” Anticipation despite having no one to play it with. It’s the reason I wasted hours trying to buy my stupid girlfriend her stupid yacht in Wall Street Kid. And it’s why I woke from a fugue state one morning to discover I somehow owned a copy of Bandai’s Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde. My evil side must have been drawn to the box art.
If you have to pick one classic work of Victorian literature to make the leap to video games, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde is a pretty good choice in theory. You already know the plot: A mild-mannered scientist creates a formula that he hopes will separate the moral part of himself from the evil within, and instead he unleashes a dark persona that eventually destroys him. The internal clash of good and evil is a powerful concept, and one that obviously resonates in pop culture; the story of Jekyll and Hyde has been retold and parodied in everything from Broadway musicals to Bugs Bunny cartoons to Australian pop songs.
As a Nintendo game, however, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde displays no such duality. It exists only as a black nugget of unadulterated malevolence. The setup: You, Dr. Jekyll, have opted to take the Shoe Leather Express to your own wedding. As you walk from left to right at an excruciatingly slow pace, you are besieged by all manner of irritations. Some are minor, such as dangling spiders or wayward, slingshot-wielding ruffians. Other distractions are more problematic, like the elegantly dressed pedestrian who drops hissing black bombs along the path. As Jekyll suffers these indignities, his nondescript “meter” rises until it reaches the dreaded “H” mark, at which point he clutches his head and transforms into Mr. Hyde.
In a stunning twist, Hyde moves from right to left, which for players of the era must have elicited the kind of shock the original novella did when it was published in 1886. In Hyde Mode, the sky is a darker shade of blue, and the citizens of London are replaced by grotesque monsters who try to kill you. Hyde can only return to his original form by blasting the bejeezus out of these creatures with something the box refers to as a “psycho-wave.” (Stevenson’s work comes in at under 100 pages, but just in case I missed something, I used my Kindle to search the text for “psycho-wave.” No results.)
Lest this description mislead you into thinking the game delivers anything resembling entertainment, let me assure you it does not. The most impressive thing about the title is how little effort seems to have been put into it. The stages through which Jekyll wanders include such diverse environments as Town, City, Alley, and Street. The controls are atrocious. Jekyll has two moves, a standing leap and a meek stab with his cane, neither of which seems to have any effect on his tormentors. The only vaguely interesting parts of the game are the Hyde sequences, but let Hyde trudge a little too far to the left, and he’s struck by lightning. Game over.
Video game heroes have a reputation for being stoic and unflappable. It’s a nice change of pace when a title lets you experience a character’s inner turmoil, and games have come up with some nifty tricks for getting into their protagonists’ heads. In the criminally underplayed Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem for Gamecube, players have to keep an eye not just on their health and magic gauges, but also on a “sanity meter.” As it depletes, the game unspools a variety of unsettling effects, including wild shifts in perspective, screams and footsteps, phantom enemies, and most famously, a fake system message that makes it appear as though the console is deleting your save files. The Scarecrow episodes in the recent Batman games create a similar feeling of disorientation. And each giddily surreal environment in Psychonauts is the manifestation of a different troubled mind.
By contrast, there’s nothing revealing about the two mental states represented by Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde. Jekyll is assaulted mercilessly and without explanation, but otherwise he has no interaction with the world around him. Mr. Hyde indiscriminately attacks creatures that have stepped out of another game entirely. Is Hyde’s ordeal some kind of karmic punishment? Wouldn’t killing demons be considered “good” behavior? Nothing links the game’s two halves other than similar graphics and a pervading sense of boredom.
In the confession that ends the novella, Dr. Jekyll admits he has grown frightened of his alter ego’s brutality. But like Lindsay Lohan at a pharmacists’ convention, the good doctor backslides, continuing to slam down shots of Hyde juice until he’s no longer able to control his transformations. Open that cellar door to your soul just a crack, he learns, and it’s hard to close it back up. This is not the message of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, the game. The digital Hyde is encouraged to cause as much destruction as he can, as rapidly as possible. His reward? Renewed stability as Dr. Jekyll.
For most people, being warped into a horrifying bizarro world populated by sentient brains-on-legs might be a stressful experience, but it seems to have a calming effect on Mr. Hyde. One man’s hellscape is another man’s Club Med, I suppose. In this sense, Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde probably has more in common with games that explore catharsis through violence, like the Grand Theft Auto series, than it does with its source material. But testing that hypothesis might require another playthrough, and that’s a notion that would terrify anyone’s dark side.