Blood Meridian for the NES
In 1992, Acclaim Entertainment, famous for Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam, released the video game adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West.
Blood Meridian was an action-adventure game set along the Texas-Mexico border in the 1850s. You played as the Kid. It used a map-based system, similar to Mario Bros. 3 and Zelda II: The Adventures of Link, where you entered into side-scrolling levels, making your way West, joining Glanton’s gang and hunting down Apaches and anything else that got in your way.
That much is known. The rest, along with any trace of the game, is victim to half information, mysteries, and speculation. Blood Meridian is a ghost game, the rare thing that has to be seen to believe.
I’m telling you this now because I played Blood Meridian. I owned a copy. It was a divorce gift from my dad. In the middle of the custody battle, he offered it as part apology, part bribe. Video games were my love language. I had little interest for the outside world beyond the walls of our family den where the Nintendo was hooked up to our cabinet TV. Everything around me was unstable; the world of Nintendo was the exception.
It wasn’t Metal Gear, or even Metroid, but Blood Meridian grew on me.
Much of Blood Meridian is spent scalp hunting and then taking those scalps to towns. In those towns are general stores that you can trade scalps for ammo and other supplies along with saloons that allow the Kid to recover his health. You encounter townspeople and gather information from them, before setting out again into the wildernesses, repeating this over and over again.
Just when you’d start to lose interest, you’d come across a tribe of Apaches and try to collect as many scalps as possible. It sounds more brutal than it was.
Games nowadays show everything, all the gore: zombies shredded to meaty husks by a Gatling gun in a first-person shooter or “fatalities” in Mortal Kombat, where Sub Zero’s decapitation fatality rips his foe’s head from his body and holds it up as a trophy, spine and all. But back then, playing Blood Meridian, it looked more like you were pulling a square, pixelated hat off their heads, no different than Mario plucking a turnip from the ground and throwing it at his enemies.
“Get those scalps,” I used to yell at the TV, because I didn’t know what that really meant. They were like gold coins or rubies; the more I got, the better I felt, because the best gift you can give a kid for a divorce is distraction.
What makes Blood Meridian so fascinating as a game has less to do with it as an actual game or its gameplay and more to do with its rarity. Few have heard of it, even less have played it. It is speculated that less than 200 games were created. None of which ever hit the shelves of Babbage’s.
Blood Meridian isn’t like Stadium Events, considered among many to be the Holy Grail of rare video games. Stadium Events was only released in a limited test market in the United States back in 1987. Blood Meridian was never released. Games like that can be hard to identify because they weren’t mass-produced, so the packaging is more prototype than store-shelf ready. It still looked like the predominantly gray colored NES Game Paks, only without artwork, replaced by a simple white label. Seeing one in the wild is like spotting Big Foot: it’s hard to tell if it’s a hoax.
I call my mom to see if she remembers anything about the game. I try not talking about the divorce, even though the divorce is everywhere. At Christmas, Thanksgiving, my birthday. Every conversation we have is about the divorce in code, submerged or sidestepped, always around, never directly talked about until she finds a way of bring it up.
She remembers the Nintendo 64 she got me for Christmas; my dad got me one too. She made me give his back, like a punishment. Even though she had full custody, taking his gifts over hers was treason. She goes on about this, my dad the asshole, and how he had the nerve. I interrupt her and ask again but she doesn’t remember Blood Meridian.
“I never would’ve let you play a game like that,” she says, shading the past, creating a false narrative about her parenting.
It’s possible Blood Meridian was a garage sale victim, she thinks. Possibly donated. It’s hard to determine its whereabouts. It was hard to keep track of the things that mattered back then. She tells me she’s sorry she can’t help more before the conversation circles back around to that Nintendo 64 Christmas. I’m 32 years old, my parents have been divorced for over 21 years, and neither of them will enter the same room together, let alone speak to each other. My mom can hold on to a grudge like it’s the side of a cliff.
At the Embassy Suites in Colorado Springs, banquet tables are configured into rails funneling people through the lobby and into conference rooms. Rare action figures, comic books, and video games are displayed and stacked. Index cards warn you to ask for assistance before handling anything. I’m wandering the local comic and toy con asking around about Blood Meridian for the NES.
The first video game vendor says, “I think my cousin had a copy, but his house burned down. He owned over 600 original Nintendo games. All gone now.”
Another one says, “Wasn’t it only on Sega Dreamcast?”
I keep searching. Everyone is willing to talk about it, but few actually know anything. I mention the gameplay, its style, how hard the controls were to command. It could’ve been any game back then, they argue.
Popularity often ran parallel with ease of gameplay. The harder a game was, the less people who played it. A game like Mega Man 2, for example, was equal parts hard and gratifying. With enough time, advancements could be made, levels conquered; the game gave back. Not Blood Meridian. It didn’t lend itself to even the kind of popularity rare games find when they’re fun and easy to play.
GameOver.com is a site that is an archive to preserve articles, screens and videos for cancelled, beta & unseen videogames. I learn that most of the files from Acclaim Software were ruined in a fire back in 1998. This is where much of the half information comes from. They wanted to create games based on To Kill a Mocking Bird, Slaughterhouse Five, and The Great Gatsby.
The closets game I’ve found to Blood Meridian is The Great Gatsby.
At The Great Gatsby Game (greatgatsbygame.com) I find this: “If anybody has more info about this please let me know! As it is, I really don’t know much about this game… Apparently it’s an unreleased localization of a Japanese cart called “Doki Doki Toshokan: Gatsby no Monogatari”, but I haven’t found anything about that either.”
But this is another dead end, a hoax game. What at first seems like the lost cousin of Meridian is a game built by gamers for gamers, a passion project fueled by nostalgia. Whatever remained of the plans Acclaim had for their literary line of games went up in smoke.
I ask my dad how he got a copy of Blood Meridian.
“I think I got it from a guy at work,” he says. “Honestly, I don’t really remember. You played a lot of games back then.”
In college I took an English class that required us to read Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West. It was an English Merit Badge book, like something you’d sew to a Boy Scout sash. A lot of English students carried around their English Badge of Reading Courage and bought into a novel and become a fan, bringing it up in (every) conversation. Novels like Blood Meridian, House of Leaves, The Handmaid’s Tale, Gravity’s Rainbow, etc. They were literary street cred.
“I haven’t read the book but I played the game before,” I said in class. People laughed. They thought I was joking.
Many of the old Nintendo games were like those books: hard to follow, no idea how it will end, or if you’ll ever finish it.
Conquering those games was a lot like reading and understanding those books. Only if you got stuck and ran out of time, you could check online and find a synopsis. The information was available and only a click away.
For those games back then, we didn’t have the Internet. You were limited to your neighborhood or school’s collective gaming knowledge. Mysteries solved and secrets revealed in the lunchroom, cheat codes and tips shared on the school bus: the world so much smaller and limited, but in this way closer, more familiar.
Blood Meridian was a serious game, and all you wanted as a kid was to be taken seriously. This is the connection between the game and the player: respect. This is also what every English student wants.
There’s a picture of me, age twelve, head turned away from the TV, my hands gripping the NES controller. It’s clear from my expression that I’m irritated by this interruption. Behind me next to the TV is the cartridge cabinet that held my games. Third game down is Blood Meridian, I think. It’s difficult to tell, the image isn’t clear. If memory serves me right.
Memory is tricky. At best it gives us glimpses, nothing firm. Put it under duress, interrogate it, and it fades and flexes. If you ask too much of it, it will create. The weight of my memory collapses inside itself. I am not accountable. None of us are accountable. What we want is something to tell us differently. Our memories can’t do that either.
It is difficult to sum up my parents’ marriage, or failure to sustain one. I’m not alone in this, but it feels like I am.
So much of my life during that transition from separation to divorce was video games. The Nintendo escape hatch. It was the only thing that was mine and in my control.
I remember beating Blood Meridian. I faced the judge in the final boss battle. The alopecia boss was unbeatable; he anticipated every move. There was no way to inflict damage. The judge didn’t even have a life meter. We fought inside the cramped space of an outhouse as I tried every combo possible, until the judge finally smothered me in his arms.
Trying to figure out what I did wrong, the game cut to a brief epilogue featuring a row of holes across the prairie. A man sparked a fire in each of them while what looked like ghosts wandered the rows before the screen faded to black.
I hadn’t beaten the game, but I’m not sure that was the point. The game was over and I was left sitting there in the den among the half-filled moving boxes. I didn’t know what to say or do. I wasn’t sure if I’d failed or conquered the game. I pressed the power button off and went upstairs to bed.
At least that’s what I remember.