once in a while, you discover a videogame that comes straight out
of left field. You can’t really describe it, because there’s
precious little to compare it to. You only know that you’re
faced with something truly inspired, truly clever. I don’t
think there’s a better example of that then Panic!.
This game is just damned weird.
game opens with an animated musical number, goofy fun all the way,
set to Dixieland Jazz. It shows people in cars, phone booths, and
Laundromats, pressing buttons and then suddenly watching the machines
go haywire. A driver gets walloped by his steering wheel, and then
his car’s wheels become triangles. A submarine suddenly slams
shut like a book. A phone booth shoots into the sky like a rocket.
Various odd machines dance around, and then throw up.
any of this make any sense? Of course not. Is it funny? Yeah, sure.
opening also sets up the plot to the game: computers around the
world have gone haywire. You play the role of a boy who gets sucked
into his television (while playing Sega CD, no less). In order to
get out, you have to somehow make your way to the main computer
system and shut everything down. I’d suggest that he add a
couple more numbers to the dates on the computer, but this is all
taking place almost a decade before Y2K.
is a title that, largely, involves clicking buttons. There isn’t
any hand-eye coordination beyond moving a mouse around. The whole
game is a mammoth collection of screens, with a series of buttons
to press. Some buttons send you to another screen, but most of the
time, you press a button, and something funny happens. And that,
dear readers, is about it.
meat and potatoes of this game is its zany humor. This game draws
all its inspiration from Chuck Jones cartoons, Frank Zappa records,
and Monty Python. Let’s start at the beginning of the game.
The boy is facing an elevator door with two buttons. Press one button,
and the door opens. Press the other, and an elevator drops on top
go inside the elevator, and see several buttons. One buttons causes
the whole screen to shrink into the size of a small box. Another
pair of buttons suddenly flattens the screen in half, leaving the
boy floating, paper-thin. Still another button causes a noisy crowd
to stampede inside, through the wall.
is great fun.
a terrific variety of environments to be found in Panic!.
You'll find a lawn mower in a back yard that mows down the house.
There’s a rocking horse, flying through the air with small
fans for wings. A room which turns into a jungle or an ocean (complete
with dolphin). A room with animal trophies that moon you. A vacuum
cleaner that sucks up the entire screen. A Mona Lisa that suddenly
grows fat or turns into a wolf. A toilet that grows a tongue and
eats the kid. A car that turns into a jumping bug. An umbrella that
becomes a spider. An Aztec statue that vomits green goop.
screens offer some pleasant surprises, such as the light bulb level,
with its silly patterns inside the bulbs, or the spaceship level,
with its rainbows. One of my favorite scenes is the snowfall level.
The boy and his dog press a button, and it starts snowing candy.
Press another button, and it starts snowing poop. Yeah, you read
is the kind of game that Panic! is. Very surreal, very
weird, and at times very, very funny. It’s quite telling that
there is no score; the computer keeps track of the number of gags
you’ve discovered. I’ve only described a tiny fraction
of what awaits you.
was a late entry to the Sega CD library, and achieved some cult
status among hardcore gamers and the fanzine crowd. It was imported
from Japan, where it was known as Switch, but you would never guess
this from the jokes. Everything is more accessible and less obviously
Japanese. Much of this, I’m sure, is due to the American localization
effort. All the audio effects and voices sound like they came from
just a couple people, who were probably just given a microphone
and told to start riffing.
early CD-ROM games were experimenting with the new storage medium;
gamers and developers alike wanted something more ambitious than
cartridge games with better music (which describes, sadly, most
of the Sega CD library). Panic is an excellent collection of digitized
photos, animation, music, and widely varied graphics. For the 16-bit
era, this is something of a gold standard for “cartoon”
games, and it couldn’t possibly be made on cartridge. In its
own way, this game set the stage for Cyan when they created Myst
a short time later.
leave it for you to decide whether or not that’s a “good
thing” for videogames. A title like Myst or Panic!
aren’t games in the traditional sense, because you’re
not moving blocks or driving cars or causing explosions. Isn’t
that a narrow definition? It’s true that most of you won’t
be playing Panic! for weeks on straight, but it’s
terrific for social gatherings, an evening here and there. This
game, like so many others, deserves a larger audience.
in the age of the internet, we can rediscover this gem, or enjoy
it for the first time. There’s a website called Home of the
Underdogs that currently offers Panic! for download. I
heartedly suggest you download the game and a copy of Gens, the
excellent Sega Genesis/Sega CD emulator.