2004 was a long time ago from a gaming perspective. Games have come a long, long way! Once upon a time, people hung up calendars of Lara Croft that were distinctly pixel-rendered. There was no sense that this might be an actual woman or an actress. Today, when a game shows a close up of a person, they have pores; they sweat. But 2004 was significant for me because it marked the year my younger son was born. Now, he’s not my son biologically, so I didn’t know it at the time, but he’s absolutely my son in every other way, right down to doing the same goofy things I did when I was his age. So to celebrate his birthday, which is today as of this post, I thought about games I was playing when he was born. When I spotted an old favorite, Painkiller, I knew what I’d want to talk about. It seemed apt, because while kids are often pains when they don’t do what they’re asked, the truth is, they help overcome way more obstacles than they create. They are a bit like painkillers themselves, especially when we laugh together. (We do that a lot in this house, too!)
When Painkiller came out, it was along the lines of a B-movie. It wasn’t talked about like Doom 3 or Half-Life 2 were. But in April of 2004, I picked up Painkiller just because it looked interesting. The story is a sad one: taking your wife out on her birthday, you crash and both die. You end up in hell and have to fight hordes of demons. Ok, simple, if depressing. But the game then gives you round after round of intensely fun battles. So much so, that I played three consecutive times. I used to play every game twice, but that was more about getting “bang for buck”. Three times in a row was unheard of. I played on normal, then on hard, then on nightmare mode. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
Through the game you are met with an assortment of horrors, but the most common are the skeleton warriors. To battle them, you get the standard assortment of weapons. Except one isn’t really standard. It’s a stake-gun. (No, not the Napoleon Dynamite kind of steak that you throw at your nephew, gosh! We’re talking about the ones that impale vampires and give them bad heartburn.) When I tell you that the fun I had playing with this weapon was off the scale, I’m not doing it enough justice. With the rag-doll physics for the enemies, a well-placed shot with a stake gun could launch your enemy into the air, or pin him to a wall. Boy howdy. It’s no wonder Polish game studio People Can Fly created this game: with the stake gun, they really could fly!
Now, don’t complain about the violence! The game takes place in hell, so yeah, it’s not kid-friendly. It’s gruesome. A stake to the face doesn’t create Fred Astaire! Like most games of this sort, it had bosses and I typically hated those because I have more fun with the main villains, but some of these bosses were pretty cool. The stake gun was of little use on these guys though, and that was a bummer. The game was also not a particularly long game and I think that was part of the reason I played so many times in a row. I was big on finding all the extras since the Quake 2 days when they told you how many creatures there were on a board, so that extended the game play for me but under normal momentum, I don’t think the game was more than about 10 hours. The cut scenes, for the time, were quite good too. In retrospect, maybe I’d cringe, but at the time, they were good.
So remember I said I’d come back to the nightmare mode? Well, each play-through ended the same way, as one might expect. Except in Nightmare mode. Upon completing that, there is a different ending; a very happy one. I didn’t see that coming! Talk about a wonderful surprise.
Yes, Painkiller may be an old game and I haven’t played it in years, so I don’t know how well it would hold up, but I do know that 2004 brought a pleasant surprise to my life. Well, it actually started two pleasant surprises, though I wouldn’t encounter one for a few more years. Yes, there are times I’d like to break out the old stake gun again but I won’t say if it’s to shoot skeleton warriors, or my son for leaving banana peels in his room. Either way, I’m still thankful for the two wonders that 2004 produced. To both “Painkillers”, Happy 15th Birthday… ML