Animal Abuse in NES Games
Note: The original version of this piece was featured in the first issue of NES-Bit Magazine, which is now available for free as a pleasant, full-color, high-quality downloadable .pdf. Consider supporting via donation anyway; and if you are interested, here is the next issue.
The 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) console provided (and still provides) countless fond memories for gamers across the world. Whether saving the Mushroom Kingdom from the nefarious Bowser and his cohorts, trekking the lands of Hyrule to vanquish evil in all its forms, defeating the Robot Masters as the beloved Blue Bomber, defending the Earth from alien invasion, restoring peace to Dream Land, putting an end to the Metroid plague, or staking Dracula himself, these and dozens upon dozens of other quests awaited courageous players.
Such bold sorts of adventures may seem to inevitably lend themselves to intense situations, brutal violence, and racy controversies, but the Nintendo company censors became rather adept at barring any potentially questionable content in their perspective. Even if a stray swastika or partial nudity made it onto a Japanese cartridge, those pixels may be edited or removed altogether for future releases in the US, UK, and elsewhere. Obscenities, swear words, blood, Nazi iconography, sexual innuendo, and other possible problematic elements placed the censoring staff on high alert.
There was one aspect, though, that seems to have been oddly ignored. While human-on-human violence could be “excused” for any number of reasons, animal abuse remained in certain NES titles. This raises a number of questions, such as: Why was it acceptable to depict animal abuse but the choice was made to remove clever double entendres originally scripted into Maniac Mansion, or the Nazi references in Capcom’s Bionic Commando? Whatever the reasoning or lack thereof could claim to be, in retrospect we get to view some intriguing, maybe even disturbing examples. For the purposes of this piece, cartoonish animal-on-animal violence, like that found in Tom & Jerry or the Rescue Rangers games, does not count. The following is likely not an exhaustive listing, but three noteworthy examples.
RoboCop is a cyborg police officer policing the mean streets of fictional New Detroit. Somehow, early in his line of duty, on the very first level, he resorts to killing dogs. Not petting them, not capturing them, not reporting them to animal control, not naming them, not buying them chew toys, just straight-up slaughtering them. At first, RoboCop is content to just punch them in the face so hard they fly backwards and disintegrate; but, later, RoboCop shoots them with his pistol. In the face. Seriously: This is a video game where the player punches and shoots dogs. These are canines that clearly pose no threat to the cybernetic superman, yet they must die anyway, it seems.
Super soldier Solid Snake’s mission in Metal Gear involves infiltrating the “outer heaven” of the enemy forces and destroying their Metal Gear weapon. Very soon, though, he finds himself faced with quite the adversary: Three sleeping dogs. Although this video game was somewhat innovative for its emphasis on stealth, which was uncommon for the era, the player could definitely choose to punch the dogs to death rather than simply avoid them. If players truly want to, they can certainly stab, shoot, and explode the canines as well.
Hurting dogs is one subject, but surely it could be defended by claiming self-defense, or perhaps by citing that they were vicious attack dogs. Then there is the special case of aforementioned NES video game Maniac Mansion, a port from several other systems, in which the player can place a hamster in a microwave and cook it until it explodes. Not only is this deplorably horrific, but the consequence of this sick choice is even shown within the gameplay mechanics: If the player keeps the “exploded hamster” item in his or her inventory, then finds Weird Ed, the original owner, Ed enters a rage and kills the character without further provocation.
Some gamers and other interested parties may point to Mortal Kombat or perhaps Grand Theft Auto as the true introductions of real, cringe-worthy violence in video games. If these prior examples of animal abuse teach us anything, though, it is that unethical actions have been portrayed on-screen since even the early days of console gaming. No one may ever really understand why the Nintendo censors edited some content over others, but because of the thinking guided their decisions, we are now left with some intriguing exhibits in gaming history, and the haunting reality that acts of violence against animals are quite readily available within the sphere of 8-bit experiences.
I mean, seriously, in RoboCop the dogs even whimper when you kill them. It is awful.
Update: I wrote a part 2.
Honorable mentions: Stabbin’ gators in The Adventures of Bayou Billy, dinosaur massacre in Jurassic Park, maybe Duck Hunt. Can you think of any others?