Full-motion video games have a somewhat spotty reputation. Developers used FMV to enhance gameplay, cutscenes, or both at the end of the 20th century–an impressive feat given the limitations of gaming tech up until that point. Arcades became the primary laboratories of the industry in the early 90’s, and among the many eye-catching gimmicks that developers would trot out, full-motion video reigned supreme…for a while. Seeing real actors on the screen made a game stand out among the other arcade machines.
FMV also provided an interesting hook for games in the emerging home console space. Like most gimmicks, though, programmers also used it as a crutch- a way to distract from a lack of quality gameplay- hence the questionable reputation FMV games have today. That’s not to say all games that utilized full-motion video failed, though. Many FMV games accomplished quite a bit, and thankfully, a lot of them still offer hours of fun gameplay today.
1. Area 51
Light-gun shooters always attracted players in the arcades, and it just so happened that combining that genre with FMV technology worked out splendidly. Area 51 brings the fight to the infamous government facility where aliens had run amok, and players must to neutralize the situation. Combining 3D environments that moved between segments, pre-rendered backgrounds, and, of course, a handful of full-motion video actors and actresses comes together nicely here. The cheese-laden delivery of the actors makes it a fun experience as ever, and the smooth difficulty curve makes the experience light and easy to jump into. Area 51 wound up with several console ports and is still thoroughly enjoyed by its cult fanbase today.
Not all FMV games started life in the arcade space. Many of the better ones went straight to the living room on 32 and 64-bit consoles. One of these gems–also highly regarded in the retro first-person shooter space as well–is Insomniac’s Disruptor. Before this studio would become famous for Spyro The Dragon, Disruptor took players into the distant future with space-faring military conquest and mental implants called “psionics” that gave soldiers special powers. The game played well on all fronts, but has a legacy for its deliciously corny scenes between levels that told the story. We won’t spoil it here, as it’s best experienced fresh, but it is one of the finest displays of hokey writing and shoe-string budget filmmaking ever, and nothing short of delightful.
3. Road Avenger
FMV games don’t always have real actors on the screen. Sometimes, the video seen is just a cartoon playing out with occasional forks in the road where a button press determines the outcome. Despite some of these winding up as lazy, unfun experiences, a handful worked quite well. Road Avenger stands out as one of the best, as it incorporates a first-person perspective behind the wheel of a speedy muscle car. The player doesn't drive the car per se, but still chooses which direction it takes and whether or not it avoids hazards on a regular basis. Trial-and-error plays a role here, but players can do quite well on the first try if dialed in and paying close attention.
4. Dragon’s Lair
Dragon’s Lair catches the eye for several reasons, but most notably, the Disney-esque animation and art style. As a cartoon FMV game, it stands apart from others that use real actors and 3D environments. Between the dazzling illustrations and fluid movement of the characters, the player must press a direction of attack button with very short windows of time to act upon them. The gamer must avoid any of the many potential deaths of our hero, Dirk the Daring. The outstanding artwork actually makes the game more challenging, given that beguiles so easily.
5. Night Trap
Night Trap earned notoriety for shock value, and at the time, it succeeded more than designers probably wanted to. Spawning countless debates in the public square and even in Congress for its depiction of home invasion, the inherent campiness seemed lost on the public. Now that a few decades have passed, gamers can see Night Trap for the silly puzzle game it is. Selecting different security cameras and flipping switches has more in common with Home Alone than the violent video games of the era like, say, Mortal Kombat. Sega CD uses FMV to tell the story, with tons of real videos of actors playing the ski mask-wearing hoodlums and the multiple victims. Gameplay recalls Five Nights at Freddy’s at times, as the player monitors the situation and does their best to isolate intruders and protect innocent lives. It’s more unique than it gets credit for and certainly belongs in the upper echelon of FMV games.
6. Corpse Killer
More in line with the many FMV shooters of its era, Corpse Killer blasted its way into multiple arcades and 32-bit home consoles and even has ports to modern platforms today. Truth be told, Corpse Killer doesn't really qualify as a “good” game. It features genuinely bad design choices, including extremely repetitive gameplay and a complete disregard for perspective and scale. In a weird way, that contributes to the fun factor. After turning the brain off and giving in to the B-movie schlock story, Corpse Killer can provide quite a bit of entertainment. Being directed by John Lafia (Child’s Play 2) and having recognizable actors in some of the roles gives it some notable street cred. Moving to the right and shooting down low-quality jpegs is rarely fun, but the repetition manages to work with the ridiculous amount of enemies flying at the screen and with the cornball scenes shoving the story forward.
7. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers
Similar to Dragon’s Lair and Road Avenger, this FMV game feels more like a movie in which players follow prompts to avoid a fail state. That said, a Mighty Morphin Power Rangers episode works perfectly with that format. Fighting putties and other bad guys makes Power Rangers entertaining, and adding in the interactive aspect fits it like a glove. While being a millennial who grew up on Power Rangers certainly helps, this is a highly recommendable FMV game for anyone who enjoys the format. The game never gives up control of the action the way a more traditional fighting game would, but having several real episodes of the show to enjoy while hitting the prompts brings the player into the action in its own endearing way.
8. Roberta Williams' Phantasmagoria
Moving into a haunted house owned by a magician is one thing, but having to sort it all out while our main heroine’s husband is possessed makes things extra complicated. Roberta Williams' Phantasmagoria horror adventure FMV game utilizes the point-and-click format of most early FMV games leaned into, but also combines it with a lot of timed moments where the player needs to click on something nearby to avoid various threats. For instance, players must click on a jar of acid while under attack by their possessed husband before they lose consciousness. The solutions ranged from blatantly obvious to rather obtuse, but for the most part the game makes sense and offers a rather unique take on the genre with digitized actors moving around in real-time on top of well-designed pre-rendered backgrounds.
9. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
One of the more recent games on this list, Hellblade uses FMV as a story-telling mechanism, but it still impacts the overall experience. As Senua struggles with her mental illness and fights off Norse-inspired demons, the journey becomes a whirlwind of ambiguity and emotion. Not knowing what is real and what is not elevates the stakes, as do the many extremely well-produced FMV sequences. Senua often recollects her fallen lover and other figures from her past, and these heart-wrenching sequences illustrated by footage of real actors mesh with the game world in a way that makes Hellblade stand out. On top of being an excellent action-adventure game, it testifies to the powerful role that full-motion video can still play in video games.
10. Time Gal
FMV enthusiasts know Time Gal for its anime-quality video as well as its immersive implementation of traditional FMV gameplay mechanics. Instead of distracting with on-screen prompts, however, objects of interest will flash on the screen. This indicates to the player to press the directional button that points towards that object. Our heroine, Reika, has to track down an evil time traveler and restore order, hopping around major time periods. This opens up the game to lots of different environments and situations, which add a lot of entertainment value on top of the other positives. Escaping from rabid cavemen, defeating ancient Greek warriors, and taking down giant robots in the distant future are just a few of the outrageous scenarios in which Reika finds herself. Time Gal offers a wild ride from start to finish and an extremely memorable FMV game.
Erica is another great example of modern FMV adventure games taking advantage of real actors, sets, and creating an all-around cinematic experience. Tipping into psychological thriller territory, Erica does things a bit differently than the action-packed FMV games that populate the majority of the genre. The game limits a player’s interaction to just making choices and clicking on objects of interest. This gameplay offers nothing in terms of innovative functionality, but unraveling the mystery of Erica’s past while enjoying the high-quality scenes that tie it all together makes a nice combination for a slower, more cerebral FMV game. It comes in at only around 2 hours or so, but the multiple endings can extend that dramatically if players feel so inclined.
12. The Rescue of Pops Ghostly
The Action Max is a little-known system that specializes in light gun games on VHS format and has little of note throughout its short lifespan. The Rescue of Pops Ghostly became a standout, which took the popular ghost effect from every haunted house movie and made a whole game around it. Since the game uses real video backgrounds, it has a fun B-movie feel. It also has a thin story, as the player simply needs to shoot through hordes of ghosts. Still, as most fans of the genre will admit, this justifies the experience. With the strange VHS format of the system, and the lightgun tech requiring a very specific type of TV to work, playing the game today isn't easy. But as a rather charming and goofy ghost-hunting game that stands out in the genre, it deserves remembering.