Seeing how my blog title is influenced by it, I do like to talk about some Commodore 64 games from time to time. I know there is sometimes a divide with us older gamers. Some of us moved to home computers between the crash of 1983/1984, and the NES. Others chugged along on their Colecovisions, 2600’s, and Intellivisions. Still, there were others who played whatever they could get their hands on. Be that as it may, home computers were a haven for new experiences. Many of today’s giants are here because back then one or two people coded games on them. It paved the way for PC gaming, as well as provide shelter for displaced gamers without any new console games to play.
There were arcade conversions, deep RPGs, point, and click adventure games, text adventures, as well as a ton of quirky games. Home computers provided an outlet for creative game programmers. Hobbyists would become small businesses. Like a regional band, some of them would be picked up by a publisher. Where am I going with this? Well there were all kinds of strange games that ended up on the Commodore 64. There was a shmup involving birds. There was an Outlaw clone that replaced the cowboys with a demon, and soldier. Today’s game is one of the most disturbing, unsettling, arcade score hunters of the era. I must warn you, it’s going to get really uncomfortable.
PROS: Spot on controls, and mechanics.
CONS: It’s disturbing, and may make you uneasy.
REALLY?: After all of the shock value, nurses’ names are puns.
Let’s be clear. Nobody at the time was advocating anything happening in the game happen in real life. The entire game is done in a Looney Tunes sort of vein. The humor is supposed to come from the main character’s reaction when they see bad events about to happen. It even mimics those old Warner Bros. cartoons right down to the playing of Hungarian Rhapsody #2 by Franz Liszt. But it’s highly unlikely you will even chuckle. Because even for the time, the set up was very controversial. Firebird Software almost didn’t publish the game. By sheer luck, the company had changed heads, and the new leadership decided to put it out anyway. A few of the larger chain retailers of the time still refused to carry it. But it still sold under the radar, and eventually found its way into some budget priced game bundles. Firebird also stuck it on diskettes with their other games.
Programmed by Simon Pick, Mad Nurse was, and is one of the most bizarre titles you will ever play. Even by the standards of golden age animated cartoons it can be one of the biggest examples of going too far for some people. However, to be fair the actual game play works fine. There are no technical issues with this at all. Unlike a lot of other controversial games that have come, and gone, Mad Nurse isn’t trying to hide bad game play with its shock value.
But the shock is going to be too big to ignore. In Mad Nurse the player controls a nurse as you could probably guess from the title. The game takes place in a three floor infant ward at a hospital. Unfortunately, it is also one of the least inspected, and most dangerous hospitals on the face of the Earth. The object of the game is to get a high score by running around, picking up babies, and putting them in their cribs. When the kids do get out of their cribs (they springboard out of them like Jet Li) they will get into trouble fast. They’ll play with electrical sockets, find, and ingest medicine, or wander down the elevator shaft.
Putting them back to bed, and keeping them there is key. However, as this is a high score sort of game each stage gets harder. No sooner will you have two babies back in their beds on the bottom floor, only to realize five babies are on the top floor about to fidget with something else. While none of the injuries, or deaths here are particularly graphic, the implications can be horrifying. The game continues until so many kids get hurt. If the threshold of allowable instances of neglect is broken you lose. Well, you lose a life. Each life is a new nurse. You see, rather than the hospital getting sued into oblivion, and thousands of people going to prison they just fire you. And your replacement. And the one after that. Until basically there are no more nurses to look after the descent into anarchy the infant ward has become.
You control the game with a one button joystick. Since the C64 uses the same pin connectors as the Atari 2600, and the Sega Genesis, you can use either console’s first party controller. The game controls work as follows. Moving left or right will move your nurse along the floor. If you move over a baby, you can pick the child up by pushing up, or put the child down by pushing down. Going into the elevator, up, and down are used to change floors. The game gives you three gas bombs per life, with an extra one for every stage you clear. Pressing the fire button on the joystick will use one.
Using a gas bomb temporarily freezes all of the babies. This lets you quickly get to a nearby child about to hurt themselves by buying you some time. Keep in mind, you’ll need to conserve these however. Because at higher levels the game is going to challenge you with many more babies to pick up, and put in their cribs. Plus the babies gain much faster crawl speeds, and the game spawns in more medicine bottles for them to drink, and get sick on. The challenge also amps up as the number of beds seem to decrease, or shift to a single floor on higher levels. Since you can only pick up one baby at a time, you’ll want those gas bombs so you can get between the floors faster.
Eventually you will fail, run out of nurses, and wonder what the hell you just played. If you manage to beat the high score of your household, you can enter your name. This way other people can challenge you, or you can type in just how bad you feel about yourself. It’s obvious that the entire game was supposed to be going for dark comedy. But for the majority of people it might be a little too dark, and they won’t find any of it funny. It’s probably for the best that it didn’t become a big hit for Firebird. As we’ve seen with other controversial titles over the last 30 plus years, sometimes one bad joke gets turned into a game. Then it starts off another media crusade that threatens to impose restrictions, and censorship on the hobby. Mad Nurse had the potential to upset as many politicians as Mortal Kombat did.
One of the strangest things though? Mad Nurse plays well. Mad Nurse has some of the most responsive controls a quarter-muncher game could ask for. It hits all of the bars set by high score arcade games of the era. It’s easy to pick up, and figure out the goal. But each wave gets increasingly difficult, and goes until you’re out of credits. On the level of recreating a golden age arcade experience it succeeds. It’s just that it’s very warped, demented, and uncomfortable while doing so. Even the messages scrolling along the bottom of the title screen admit that it has a sick sense of humor.
Simon Pick’s game will be a footnote in even the history of shock games. In 50 years people will still probably be more familiar with Death Race 2000. But he still did a lot of good work that probably didn’t, or won’t piss you off. He ported Shinobi, Gradius, and NARC to the C64. NARC had some controversy of its own, but that really fell on Midway. Besides, NARC was ported to everything under the sun. He was also one of the people who brought us Star Control. One of the highlights of Accolade’s catalog.
Looking back on Mad Nurse? It’s an unfunny, bad joke turned into a competent arcade romp. It’s too bad, because with a less offensive setup it could have been pretty memorable for all of the right reasons. Instead, it goes into the dustbin with other insensitive titles like BMX XXX, and Postal. If you’re morbidly curious, or simply morbid you can look into it at your own peril. Mad Nurse had a right to be made. But If you’re easily offended, if shock value makes you uncomfortable, or if you’re somebody with standards you’ll probably want to put it on your list of retro games to avoid.
Final Score: 2 out of 10