Games have had a long history of doing things that movies and books have taken for granted, namely, poking fun at real world topics and situations whether you’re looking at SSI’s massive catalog of Cold War scenarios or Access Software’s Raid Over Moscow in 1984 which instigated “moral panic” in Finland and which had become something of a political issue with certain members of its parliament.
Fast forward to 1992 and Midway, one of the old banner standards of the arcade scene, would bring out Total Carnage set in a sort of Middle Eastern pastiche inspired in part by the Gulf War and claims about Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. General Akhboob is the mad leader of Kookistan and it’s the year 1999. He’s determined to take over the world and it’s up to the Doomsday Squad and their ‘Murrican ways to stop him before it’s too late!
Midway, like a lot of other arcade developers, also had a stable of boards used in their cabinets to pick from, developing newer ones whenever the need arose instead of trying to find a standard platform the way Capcom and SNK dipped their toes into in the late 80s. The game ran on Midway’s “T” Unit system board which had a TMS34010, a 32-bit graphics system processor which was something of an unusual choice. The sound CPU was a 6809 and the sound itself was supplied by the old standby: the Yamaha YM2151. This same hardware also ran games such as High Impact Football, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and of course, Smash TV.
Total Carnage doesn’t take itself seriously. This thing is like a tongue-in-cheek satire of the Gulf War just as New World Computing’s Nuclear War was with its take on the Cold War featuring characters such as Ronnie Raygun (Ronald Reagan) and Gorbachef (Gorbachev). What it does take seriously is its action overflowing with blood geysers and flying body parts. If you’re already familiar with Smash TV, this is a lot like that — only with giant truckloads of enemies thrown at players. It’s hard not to feel as if the game is actively trying to kill the player as often as possible.
There are land mines, moving land mines, electrified land mines, enemies like axe-wielding pummelers to Scud missile launchers, mutants, and giant, hit point sponge bosses. And then there’s you, as Captain Carnage or Major Mayhem, fighting across roads, bases, and airfields laying waste to everything while picking up gems, journalists and bikini babes imprisoned by balls and chains as hostages, and special weapons laying waste to everything. Even Mortal Kombat’s Ed Boon provided the voice for General Akhboob.
If there’s one thing that the game does well, it’s that it tries to kill players through repetition — a lot of repetition. This isn’t a typical shooter that can be finished in an arcade scale of time. If you choose to do everything in the game, such as the bonus stages, it could take an hour or so to grind through all of this action. That’s a lot to ask from an arcade audience. It didn’t only want to challenge players, it wanted to slaughter them by throwing armies of cannon fodder into their weapons.
As repetitive as the action is, the game didn’t shirk from providing a lot of variety.
Enemies often came in mixed waves ranging from flamethrowing guys to guys actually on fire. Mutants puked projectiles, guys in jeeps tried to run you over, and giant spiders (and baby spiders) added the creepy to all of that blood. Bonus items included spider eggs, gems, American flags, hostages, or simply blowing up as many giant vehicles as possible. If only it didn’t deluge the player with so much at nearly every stage of the way, it could’ve been more fun.
Bonus stages ranged from blowing up planes to beating a boss like Orcus, or simply surviving waves of enemies in order to earn goodies for extra points.
The game’s ending actually depends on a number of things, some of which were unusually brave for an arcade game. Special keys were scattered throughout the game and if the player can collect enough of these, they would be able to gain entry to the Pleasure Domes at the end. They also had to capture General Akhboob after blowing up that bloody head as clones jump out of the mass and try to escape.
That is, if the ending actually worked the way it was supposed to. The Pleasure Dome was real and players that made it in just had to grab all of the treasure before getting an end screen showing themselves and the Smash TV heroes with bikini babes everywhere. But the text promised something more if they had grabbed all of the treasure, saying:
“However, as greedy as you are, you failed to pick up all the cash and prizes sitting in the Pleasure Dome. If you do this, the ladies will prove that pain before pleasure is worth it. Can you do this?”
According to Polygon’s Matt Leone’s with Dan Filner whose expertise is in porting classic games like Total Carnage to modern systems like consoles, the two dug into the mystery to find out what happened. While working on an arcade compilation, Midway Arcade Origins, Filner noticed something odd about Total Carnage’s ending with the message above and discovered that no one had really gotten the “real” ending, he discovered that a bug that had been in the code for more than 20 years prevented the “good” and “bad” ending from triggering correctly.
So, the text was supposed to show up if players missed bits of treasure, but the screen with the bikini babes and our heroes was supposed to show up only if they had. And it had been there for decades.
Leone tracked down Turmwell who worked on Total Carnage (and who would go on to create the iconic NBA Jam arcade game) and related that Pleasure Domes, bonus stages at the end of the game, didn’t initially exist in Smash TV but the text hinted that they did. Those were added in via EPROMs afterwards. With Total Carnage, Pleasure Domes were also added in — but the text was strangely bugged — but Filner was given the blessing to make the change.
It was too late after Midway Arcade Origins went out, and that was that. But it’s an interesting look back on a rarely looked-at corner of arcade development. Interestingly, Turmell and his fellow co-designers didn’t think that players would even get to the end of Smash TV. And given the horrendously overwhelming action of Total Carnage, it’s not hard to imagine the same there.
Total Carnage didn’t too too well in the arcades. It sold less than 2,000 units which was apparently below expectations. Yet it found new life in being ported to a number of systems from the SNES to the Amiga albeit with a few changes. Hitler’s head, for example, was completely omitted from the SNES version. Total Carnage was even carried over to the aforementioned Midway Arcade Origins compilation for the PS3 and the Xbox 360, finding life well after its arcade days were long over.
Midway’s bloody actioner completely did away with any sense of balance — it was out to slaughter players. Its gameplay was sheer chaos fed by the headlines from the previous year in the Gulf War, a topic that would be parodied elsewhere in films like Hot Shots! Part Deux in 1993. Yet it also demonstrated something that Midway recognized in the arcade as Hollywood did with movies — action violence sells — a topic that they had already visited in 1988 with Narc and would again with the game that would rile Congressmen and parents alike: Mortal Kombat.
Ultimately, Total Carnage might not be the most fair arcade game out there. At the same time, it stands out as one of Midway’s more unusual titles sporting a cutting, satirical edge to it that makes it stand out alongside silver screen peers such as Robocop. But with a much larger bodycount.