Back when I was a kid in the late 1980’s, one of the most popular gaming machines at the time in Australia was the Amiga 500. Amongst the myriad of games I plowed through, one particular title has stuck with me to this day – a sadly long-forgotten horror-adventure called Personal Nightmare. Thumbing through a August 1989 issue of Computer + Video Games, I came across a review of Personal Nightmare, and was immediately struck by its crisp, detailed graphics and stylish design (for its time). Also, already being a horror fan at age 10, I was also intrigued by its storyline – the main character returns to the remote English village where he grew up and discovers that several residents, who are under the influence of the Devil himself via possession, have been committing satanic rituals and murder. Several young girls from the area and neighbouring villages have also gone missing, presumably kidnapped to be used as sacrifices in said rituals (shades of ‘The Wicker Man’ anyone?) The object of the game is for you to defeat the power of the Devil by finding and eradicating him (he has ensconced himself somewhere in the town), but not before discovering who the possessed villagers are and bringing them to justice for their horrific crimes. There’s also a bunch of archetypal horror villains (vampire, witch, devil dog) thrown in for good measure. Of course the warning at the end of the article, “There are some quite horrific happenings, and the game is certainly not recommended (even by the authors) for children” only whetted my appetite for the game even more!I immediately begged my older brother to track down Personal Nightmare, and sure enough, a few weeks later he triumphantly presented me with a copy of the game, which comprised of a whopping 3 discs. We booted up the first disc in anticipation and were thunderstruck by its audacious opening sequence – the town’s vicar, delivering a sermon in church, is struck by a bolt of lightning, is engulfed by flames...and then re-emerges from the inferno as THE DEVIL! (complete with ear-splitting demonic roar). Your character then arrives at your accommodation, the local inn, where literally upon five minutes of arrival a local man is killed outside the inn in a hit-and-run accident. Thus begins your ‘Personal Nightmare’.
However, the first of the game’s glaring flaws soon appeared. We discovered how incredibly easy it was to die – simply standing in the wrong place at the wrong time resulted in a quick garrotting. It didn’t take me long to get mighty sick of the sentence (“You are suddenly strangled from behind with a garrotte...”). A unique feature of Personal Nightmare was its revolutionary use of ‘real-time’ – you have 4 days to complete the game before complete demonic oppression engulfs the village. However every single event in this game was set to run according to the real-time structure with no flexibility, for example if you happen to miss witnessing the hit-and-run at the start (where you have to search the body to find some essential evidence), you may as well give up as there’s no way of finishing the game without those particular artefacts.
In addition to having to arrive at particular locations exactly on time to advance story progression, another hindrance was the sheer complexity of many of the puzzles. I daresay that 99.9% of people who’ve played Personal Nightmare would never be able to complete it without at least some reliance on the walkthough (easily found via a quick Google search). Releases of the game were also hampered by careless bugs inexplicably not detected during the development and testing stages. These unfortunate flaws (as well as an ill-advised, tacky marketing campaign featuring Elvira) no doubt contributed to Personal Nightmare being a commercial flop, banished to $5 bargain bins (my brother scored an original copy for that price several months later), and soon sinking into unfortunate obscurity. However the emergence of the World Wide Web soon revealed a small group of hardcore fans dotted around globe fondly reminiscing about this classic adventure on retro computer game websites and forums. A compilation of the game’s varied death scenes created by my brother a couple of years ago has received no less than 17,000 views on YouTube. Not bad for a little-known, 23-year old game!But what made up for these pitfalls was a genuinely eerie, unnerving atmosphere. As day turned into night in game time the chills would increase tenfold as you never knew what terrors could be stumbled upon roaming the village streets at night – the vampire emerging from his crypt in search of his next victim, a gaggle of ghosts swirling around the cemetery at the stroke of midnight, and the mysterious ‘strangler’ never lurking too far away in the background. The inn is no safe sanctuary either – there’s the risk of being shot by toy soldiers conjured to life by a possessed orphaned child lodging there (!), or a stabbing to the head by a watery demon that emerges from the kitchen sink after closing hours (!!) Add a touch of soap opera drama to the proceedings - the wife of the hit and run victim is engaged in a torrid affair with the local garage owner in between attending black masses (!!!) and you have one lost gem that’s crying out for a remake.
Personal Nightmare was initially released in 1989 by the long-defunct Horrorsoft, a UK-based video game developer established by Mike Woodroffe, also head of Adventuresoft (who had previously released a series of text-and-graphic adventures based on the hugely successful Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks). Having obtained the rights to market horror icon Elvira, Woodroffe decided to release a series of horror adventure games featuring her prominently on the packaging (though this did nothing to help boost sales of Personal Nightmare), and even made her the star of two (fairly successful) games – Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, and Elvira II: Jaws of Cerebus. Mike Woodroffe has now retired from the gaming industry following the disastrous failure of his highly anticipated Call of Cthulhu in 2006. However, his son Simon Woodroffe, who followed his father into the game design business, is a prominent and respected figure in the industry. Hopefully one day, and particularly considering the current mainstream popularity of horror games, movies, and books, he might look into a reboot of Personal Nightmare?
Original magazine ad
The Computer + Video Games review that led me to seek out the game (click on the following link to zoom)