Of the 2,196 bloody and bizarre finishing moves crammed into the never-released arcade fighting game Tattoo Assassins, none surpass the weirdness of “Happy Thanksgiving.”
Tapping the High Kick, Low Kick, Low Punch, and High Punch buttons in quick succession at the end of a match prompts a victorious character, such as lightning-fingered “cybermercenary” A.C. Current, to drop his pants. As a canned fart noise plays, A.C. craps out a whole roasted turkey in the direction of his cowed opponent. The platter of meat multiplies into a dozen more turkeys, and the flying fowls bounce both competitors into the air.
“Happy Thanksgiving” is only one of several ass-centric combat moves in Tattoo Assassins. Another fatality involves shooting flames from said orifice to engulf a defeated enemy. Billy Two-Moons—a Native American character so offensively stereotypical he makes the Washington Redskins mascot look culturally sensitive—can summon a fiery Phoenix to fly out of his chest and take a green acidic shit over the head of his opponents, dissolving them into a pool of ooze. Billy celebrates with a war dance and chants “Hey-ya, hey-ya, hey-ya!”
Joe Kaminkow, the engineer who was the creative lead on Tattoo Assassins, doesn’t apologize for its legacy. “I think it had the first deaths by diarrhea or farts ever in video games,” he told me in an interview. “All I can say is, we had no good taste, no good decorum, and no good style. There almost wasn’t anything that was off limits.”
“Nothing off limits” was something of an unofficial mantra for Tattoo Assassins, which began life as a last-ditch gambit for Data East Pinball, a failing pinball machine developer, in 1994. Originally part of Stern Electronics in Chicago, the pinball factory and its assets were purchased in 1985 by Tokyo-based Data East, the studio responsible for early ’80s arcade hits like Burgertime and Karate Champ. Kaminkow had a knack for securing high-profile pop-culture licenses, and for the next several years, Data East Pinball focused on creating pinball machines tied to recognizable properties like The Simpsons, Star Wars, and Guns N’ Roses.
The company’s reliance on expensive licenses turned out to be bad for Data East’s bottom line in the early ’90s, an era when the pinball market had gone tilt. Fortunes had reversed, meanwhile, for pinball’s arcade siblings, as the booming success of one-on-one fighting games such as Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat had spurred a revival for arcade video games. It was difficult for Kaminkow to gaze a few miles down Chicago’s Interstate 90 and not feel jealous of the success that Midway Games was having with Mortal Kombat II, which had grossed millions of dollars for parent company WMS Industries.
So in early 1994, with Data East Pinball needing a big financial splash to survive, Kaminkow came up with a surprising plan. Despite his team having no experience creating video games, Kaminkow approached his higher-ups with the idea of creating a one-on-one martial arts game.
“I convinced them to let us put together a small team and try and take to back some market share and eventually save the company,” he said.
“We had no taste, no decorum, no style.”
Kaminkow didn’t elaborate on what exactly that discussion was like, but it’s possible the Data East executives bought into his vision for Tattoo Assassins as a game that would try to outdo Midway’s violent beat-’em-up by doubling down on the gore and juvenile humor. Mortal Kombat was infamous for its “Fatality” moves—decapitations, electrocutions, and other scenes of graphic death that skilled Kombat players could unleash after defeating an opponent. The Kombat series’ reputation for ultraviolence raised the ire of parents groups and Congress, but the negative attention only seemed to grow the game’s popularity.
So, Kaminkow wondered, what would happen if you made a fighter even bloodier and more over-the-top than Mortal Kombat? “Everybody was pretty excited about the traditional spine-rip out of Mortal Kombat. We said, ‘Well, that’s pretty tame.’”
Kaminkow chuckled while we watched a YouTube complilation of fatalities from the game, which includes Billy Two-Moons scalping an opponent with a tomahawk and stacking the bloody remnants on top of his own head like a hat. “Maybe we were too sick. I don’t know,” Kaminkow said.
It wasn’t just the quality of finishing move that Kaminkow was looking for, but the quantity. “We were pretty shamelessly ripping off Mortal Kombat, yes,” said Jack Liddon, one of two lead artists on the game. “But I think Joe’s attitude at the time was that more is better. He figured that the volume of the content was going to be what people remembered.” Liddon recalled that Kaminkow “would carpet-bomb the entire art department with suggestions that would counter something he said the day before. Every day, new fatalities were introduced to the game, so it was like, ‘Oh. That’s 50 fatalities for this one character.’ It was like that.”
Perhaps since there’s only so many ways you can skin a cat—or murder a human, as is the case here—many of the fatalities stray from the gratuitous torture porn of a Saw movie and instead resemble the comic violence of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. Cruise ships and giant bowling balls appear from the sky and crush hapless fighters. Other fatalities transform your rivals into walking hot dogs, marine animals, Elvis Presley, or the painting American Gothic (with the farmer’s head decapitated). Tattoo Assassins even includes “nudalities,” which first stemmed from false rumors that Mortal Kombat II contained a secret code that stripped buxom Army lieutenant Sonya Blade of all of her clothes. Tattoo Assassins transformed that rumor into bizarre reality—allowing players to disintegrate characters’ clothes at the end of the match as they cower in embarrassment.
In Mortal Kombat, fatalities were meant to serve as so-called Easter eggs—amusing, throwaway rewards to the player savvy enough to know a secret code. Tattoo Assassins, in comparison, feels designed to function as one giant, unedited Easter Egg with the actual game shoved haphazardly between the couch cushions.
“Everybody shot fire out of their asses. Everybody vomited. It was a free-for-all of weird shit that went into that game,” Liddon told me. “Some of them were amusing. Some of them were just pathetic. It was done half-assed.”
One of the fatalities—a silver DeLorean racing across the screen to turn an opponent into bloody roadkill—was a secret tribute to Tattoo Assassins’ unlikely collaborator. Bob Gale, a co-writer and producer of all three Back To The Future movies, had become friends with Kaminkow during the production of Data East’s Back To The Future pinball game, and Kaminkow talked him into joining the project as a writer and executive producer. (Gale declined to speak to me for this story. “What’s in the past is in the past,” he said through Kaminkow.)
The backstory behind Tattoo Assassins was reportedly ripped from a movie script written by Gale about tattoos that came to life and battled each other. The convoluted tale describes a spiritual leader named Mullah Abba (pictured as a bald guy wearing a diaper-like garment) who discovers the secret of “the mystic ink of Ghize.” This so-called ink is actually an amorphous fluid organism that can reconstitute itself into solid objects when applied onto human skin in the form of tattoos. Only a select few with the right genetic makeup can wield the tattoos properly. One such lucky fellow is a Freddy Kruger-styled villain named Koldan, who intends to use his magic ink powers to enslave the human race with his squad of Tattoo Assassins. Fortunately, Mullah Abba discovers a mysterious woman named Lyla Blue, who magically grants players the ability to control the Tattoo Assassin of their choice.
It was a deranged take on a familiar template. “Mortal Kombat was still the standard by which we were following, and it was like, ‘That was a great game. We can do something like that, but we can do it more tense and more weird and add an actual story to it,’” Liddon said. “That was one of the things Bob Gale wanted to do with it…and that was one of our bragging rights—that we had this fighting game that had a compelling story. I don’t know how compelling it really was, but it was a story.”
As Kaminkow explains it, the tattoo element wasn’t just shoehorned in to make the fighters look like streetwise badasses. Beyond the standard punch and kick buttons, the game featured a specific tattoo button, which allowed the player to call upon unique powers. “It was a little revolutionary because it allowed the layperson who didn’t memorize all of these moves to still beat the hell out of your competitor in a really disgusting way,” Kaminkow said.
For his part, Liddon liked Gale’s backstory. But the game overall? “Our execution was just so hamfisted.”
“Everybody shot fire out of their asses.
While the first floor of the Data East Pinball office in Chicago’ Melrose Park suburb was still devoted to pinball, a handful of artists, programmers, and engineers on the Tattoo Assassins team were squeezed into the second floor. Because the clock was ticking on the company’s financial solvency, the team was promised $25,000 bonuses and $25 per game manufactured if Assassins could reach the production stage within nine months. The developers were enticed by the financial incentives but unaware of the reasoning behind them. As Liddon told me, “The sad part was that [Kaminkow] never told us how bad the financial situation at Data East Pinball was. It was much closer to closing down than he ever let on.”
With the carrot of the big bonuses in front of them, the team was required to put in 90-hour weeks—often without days off. Kaminkow recalled that “almost literally every waking moment” was dedicated to finishing the game. “We were doing laundry for people. Bringing in masseuses while they were sitting in the chairs. We brought breakfast, lunch and dinner in seven days a week, and people were working while eating.”
The problem of the time crunch was compounded by the fact that these pinball designers had no real experience making a video game. “It’s like, we were all rank amateurs at this whole process,” Liddon said. “For the art, it was just myself and Kurt Andersen, and previously all we had ever done was dot-matrix [art] on pinball machines. We were excited to get involved initially, but it turned out to be that we bit off more than we could chew.”
On paper, Tattoo Assassins promised to be a straightforward design challenge because it mimicked Mortal Kombat’s “digitization” approach to character animation. Most video games of the time required artists to draw and animate characters from scratch, but the creators of Mortal Kombat filmed live actors performing kung-fu moves and digitized that footage. Tattoo Assassins followed suit with video created in Hollywood by Gale and Mike Marvin, a B-movie director of schlock like Hamburger: The Motion Picture. The actors chosen for the shoot were mostly “real guys and real gals who could do a lot of the kicks and stunts,” Kaminkow said. He noted that Charley Rice, the actor playing Navy SEAL Luke Cord, was an ex-SEAL in real life. The biggest names of the Z-list cast included Gretchen Stockdale, a former NFL cheerleader turned swimsuit model who played a stripper with a heart of gold in Assassins, and Renee Hudson, better known as the wife of Slash, the Guns N’ Roses guitarist.
Not that Tattoo Assassins’ roster of one-note multicultural stereotypes required Oscar winners to play them, exactly. All of the fighters fall into two basic categories: unjustly accused fugitives on the run or righteous anti-heroes on bloodythirsty quests for revenge. Billy Two Moons and a tiger-tattooed South American woman named Maya both fight for the lands of their ancestors, against the government and greedy corporations, respectively. A.C. Current is a cyberhacker mercenary wanted by Interpol. Aging Irish rocker Derek O’Toole—who has special shreddin’ guitar attacks—is framed as a terrorist in his hometown of Belfast (where’s Bono when you need him?) and joins an underground club scene to avoid being spotted by authorities.
The most gimmicky assassin is Karla Keller, a female ice skater who’d recently been ambushed by a rival skater and cheated out of Olympic glory. Sound familiar? Keller is like an embodiment of a Jay Leno monologue joke about the Tonya Harding scandal from the ’94 Olympics—driven home by the fact that Keller wears her ice skates during her fights.
When it finally came time to digitize the footage and incorporate it into the game, the art team struggled with antiquated technology and a general lack of know-how. Data East hired more artists to assist Andersen and Liddon, but the new staff only made matters worse.
“We had some of these—I shouldn’t say lesser artists—but these other artists that we brought in late in the game that didn’t really have a lot of animation skills. They would take an image they found online of an anvil to use for a fatality move, and they would cut it out, recolor it, and that would be it. A static image would just drop into the frame,” Liddon said.
The sheer amount of special moves that were constantly being added to the game also added to the burden on the development team. Brian Schmidt, the game’s sound director, struggled to keep up. “I usually like to record my own sounds, but when you’re asked to do 90 new ones a day, it’s tough,” Schmidt said. “For the ‘fart attack’ sound, thankfully I didn’t record myself doing it. I just went to a sound library and used a generic one for that.” Most of the game’s voiceovers also had a rough-hewn homemade quality. “Joe got us all drunk, and we recorded the game characters’ voices in [Tattoo Assassins engineer] Neil Falconer’s little office,” Liddon said. “I think I’m the voice of Truck Davis, the beer-guzzling, crowbar-throwing guy.”
“Joe got us drunk to record the characters’ voices.”
As the project became mired in delays and setbacks, most of the team gave up hope that Tattoo Assassins would turn into a quality game. Tension between Kaminkow and engineer Kevin Martin made the atmosphere even more toxic. Martin “just didn’t do what Joe asked him to, and Joe would harp on him constantly, and eventually have his way a little bit,” Liddon said. “Eventually, [Martin] was throwing things into the game and not even testing them to see if they would work, just to get them done.”
Another sign of imminent failure: Data East’s testers would sit in the lab and play Virtua Fighter or Mortal Kombat, only occasionally deigning to fire up Tattoo Assassins, the game they were being paid to play. But the testers weren’t the only ones distracted by other, superior fighting games. More technically advanced competitors like Primal Rage and Killer Instinct were appearing in arcades while Tattoo Assassins was still in development.
“At the time, we weren’t smart enough to know enough, but our hardware was unbelievably underpowered. I think we were still at 256 colors at the time when the world was going 1,024,” Kaminkow said. “Then when those new games came out, they were making the technological jump to PC-quality graphics with zillions of colors. All of a sudden, we looked dated. Obviously, even Mortal Kombat II looked very dated by the time that product came out.”
The team still held out hope that Tattoo Assassins would get an arcade release despite its many flaws, but the game’s fate was sealed after Data East sold the pinball factory to the Japanese video game maker Sega at the end of 1994. Sega, which had its own arcade fighting game in Virtua Fighter, didn’t have much use for Kaminkow’s oddball Kombat knockoff. The Japanese executives opted to pull the plug on Assassins before it could reach U.S. arcades. Several dozen Tattoo Assassins arcade cabinets were manufactured, but most of them were intentionally destroyed. One machine sits in Kaminkow’s garage in Lexington, Ky. His lawyer owns another one.
Even members of the team that created Tattoo Assassins argue that the world was spared a minor disaster when the plug was pulled. “Towards the end, we were just like, ‘Thank God this thing is done,” Liddon said. “We were all burned out, it was long, long hours, and we had no hope about it just because the game didn’t look good. And it didn’t play very well. It was sloppy. Some of the stuff in there, some of us were proud of—like, ‘That was all right.’ Some of that stuff was pretty cool. Some of it was just awful.” Liddon is now an artist at IGT Technologies, a developer of slot machines.
“It’s definitely not a thing most of us list on our résumés,” said Schmidt, who later went on to design much of the audio architecture for Microsoft’s Xbox consoles. (Indeed, Schmidt doesn’t list Tattoo Assassins among the credits on his studio’s website.)
But Kaminkow, who’s now the CEO of a startup company that creates Facebook and “social” casino games, is far from embarrassed by his pet project. He brought it up of his own accord while I was interviewing him about a Wizard Of Oz Facebook game that he oversaw. I asked about his early career, and he launched into a 15-minute aside about Tattoo Assassins—even requesting a laptop so he could show me a gag reel of fatality moves.
Kaminkow is convinced that Assassins was held back because of the rising call—from political heavyweights like Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman—for limits on video game violence in the wake of Mortal Kombat. “Had Lieberman and the anti-violence movement around video games not occurred around then, I don’t think Data East or Sega would have been so worried about putting it out,” he said. Kaminkow also cited the popularity of Tattoo Assassins bootlegs over the last decade as evidence that he created an enduring classic. “It’s amazing because here we are 20 years later, and people are still talking about the game, and remembering, and playing it. It’s a cult favorite now. We’re probably like Plan 9 From Outer Space.”
That low-budget 1950’s sci-fi flick, often cited as the “worst movie of all time,” is an apt comparison, and not just because both works have earned an ironic fanbase for their “so bad it’s good” camp quality. Charming yet brazenly hucksterish, Plan 9 director Ed Wood believed he was making a masterpiece while he presided over a low-budget, lowbrow genre piece plagued with production problems. Similarly, Kaminkow speaks as if there’s a secret subversive genius in Tattoo Assassins—as if it was the video game equivalent of South Park that the world missed out on because it wasn’t ready. He conceded that some critics see the game as a mere Mortal Kombat ripoff, “but it was just really pushing the boundaries of bad taste at the time. We were trying to find something that could be talked about, that would be controversial.”
I asked Kaminkow whether something like Tattoo Assassins ever see the light of day in 2013. “Something like Xanadu was an okay movie, and it turned out to be a great Broadway play,” he said. “We could probably go back and make Tattoo again, I’m not sure. All I know is that I’m not the one who’s going to do it. I’m making slot machines these days.”