Night Stalker: the original survival horror

Today, as part of Spooky Season 2021, we’re going to take a look at 1982’s Night Stalker for the Intellivision, also known as Dark Cavern when it was released for Atari 2600 through Mattel’s M Network label. It’s an Intellivision classic — and coming soon to the Intellivision Collection 1 cartridge for the Evercade — but there’s also a strong argument to be made for it being the original survival horror game.

These days, people are pretty much agreed on what “survival horror” means as a genre. A fragile protagonist, limited resources, deliberately cumbersome controls, powerful enemies — those are the basics of survival horror as defined by games like Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark. And all of these things are present in Night Stalker.

Night Stalker

Okay, Night Stalker doesn’t have a plot beyond “your man needs to destroy as many killer robots as possible” (yes, the character doesn’t even have a name — the game’s manual literally refers to him as “the man” or “your man”) and there’s no way to win. But in many ways, this means that it is survival horror in the purest sense: the entire point of the game is simply to survive for as long as you can. And that’s it.

Night Stalker unfolds as a single-screen maze game. The Man begins in a bunker in the middle of the screen, unarmed. The bunker is a safe place for the most part; while hiding in the bunker, you are invulnerable to almost everything in the game except the most powerful of the killer robots. But you won’t score any points if you’re not killing anything — so you’ll need to brave the maze and pick up the flashing weapon in order to acquire six bullets with which you can deal death.

Shooting is deliberately cumbersome. You can’t move and shoot at the same time, and you can only shoot one bullet at a time — you can’t fire again until the previous bullet has disappeared, but you can move while the bullet is flying across the screen. Your robot foes can also fire at you, and they have a distinct advantage — so you’ll need to position yourself somewhere that you can get off a shot and then “take cover” in order to stay safe. Yes, we also have an early example of cover shooting, too!

Night Stalker

There are four kinds of robots that are gradually introduced as the game progresses. Initially, the robots will patrol slowly and randomly, firing shots when you enter their line of sight. At various score milestones, new robots will be introduced; they will start tracking The Man’s position, and the most powerful black robots can even cancel your bullets and wear away at the safety of the bunker. And just to make things even more frightening, if you can beat 80,000 points, you’ll have to contend with completely invisible robots.

Robots aren’t the only things you’ll have to deal with, either; spiders and bats are present in the maze, and both will paralyse The Man on contact. Shoot a spider and a new one will spawn in the on-screen spider web; shoot a bat and it will spawn another bat randomly up until 5,000 points, at which point a bat’s death will produce a new robot to pursue you!

Night Stalker plays using a “twin-stick” style of gameplay, as popularised by Eugene Jarvis’ classic Robotron 2084, which came out the same year. For the unfamiliar, the Intellivision has a peculiar controller with a directional “disc” and a telephone-style keypad; this allows for significantly more complex games over and above what the single-button Atari 2600 offers. In the case of Night Stalker, the keypad allows you to fire in any of four directions at the press of a button without having to move in that direction first; this allows you to effectively “strafe” around corners while taking cover.

Dark Cavern (Atari 2600)

The Atari 2600 version, renamed to Dark Cavern for some reason, actually compares surprisingly well to the Intellivision version. While it lacks a few features such as the aforementioned directional shooting and some of the more complex robot mechanics — plus its scoring system is much simpler — it still plays very well, and the fact you play with a more conventional controller will likely make it feel a bit more accessible to newcomers.

It’s also a bit faster-paced than the Intellivision original; bullets fly much more quickly than in Night Stalker, and you can carry more ammunition at once. You also start the game with 20 bullets rather than having to begin your adventure by hunting down a weapon. These little tweaks are enough to make Dark Cavern actually feel like a distinct experience that is worth playing alongside Night Stalker; they both definitely have their own value, but they’re both still recognisably an early example of what we now know to be “survival horror”.

Regardless of how you play Night Stalker (or Dark Cavern), there’s plenty of fun to be had. It’s markedly distinct from the more frantic blasters of the period and provides a pleasingly tactical experience thanks to its relatively slow pace and necessity for careful planning. Sure, there’s no way to “win”, but we were still in the era of arcade-style games in 1982; gaming back then was all about the score. And you’ll be surprised just how addictive trying to top your own high score in Night Stalker ends up being over the long term!

Give Night Stalker a go for yourself when it’s released as part of the Intellivision Collection 1 cartridge for Evercade later this year.

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