It’s hard to imagine a time when you didn’t have two readily available analog sticks in which to comfortably play a first-person shooter on consoles with, and people growing up today in the post Dualshock/original Xbox era may never know how we once easily got used to aiming and moving with face-buttons because we had no other choice. As much as I love the Sega Dreamcast, one thing its standard controller is not perhaps the best at is handling first-person shooters, which is why when it came to bringing games like Quaka 3: Arena and Unreal Tournament to the console, developers wisely added support for keyboard and mouse controls. This not only made the supported games more comfortable to play, but also evened the playing field as those games were also playable online once upon a time.
A FPS that offered neither keyboard and mouse controls nor multi-player support of any kind is a Dreamcast port of a PC game based on a short-lived comic based on the rock group KISS: KISS: The Psycho Circus: The Nightmare Child, a game that doesn’t technically star any member of the band and doesn’t really have any of their songs included in the game either. It’s also one of the worst games in the Sega Dreamcast’s small library and less feature rich than games of the same genre that arrived on the Nintendo 64.
In the universe of KISS: The Psycho Circus, the band isn’t a band at all, but four deities that channel the elements themselves: The Star Bearer (Paul Stanley) is the master of the element of water; The Beast King (Peter Criss) controls the element of earth; The Celestial (Ace Frehley) is the guardian of air and Gene Simmons is, you guessed it, the Demon who uses fire. After the four defeat the Nightmare King, he enacts a plan to take away their powers and use them to plant a seed which will cause him to reborn as the titular Nightmare Child. When four members of the band Wicked Jester arrive to play a gig at a place known only as The Coventry, they’re unwillingly recruited to find the armour of the four ancient warriors in which to become them and stop the rise of the Nightmare Child.
None of this is communicated to the player really well in-game, and most of what I just described is taken from several text heavy pages in the instruction manual but to sum things up: Bad thing is coming, and four average people have to become KISS. Who are Gods? You just…kinda have to roll with it. Not that any of it really matters anyway as the game just assumes you have an intimate knowledge of this spin-off of the KISS brand and after the final boss fight, if you make it that far, you’re probably going to forget everything that happened anyway; I know I did.
In order to become KISS, you have to collect various pieces of their armour that grant you new power-ups and at first, it actually is kinda novel and clever. Getting your platform shoes for example, makes you able to jump higher over obstacles you couldn’t before and the breastplate will increase your health from one hundred to two hundred percent. Each member of the band also has their own special unique melee and final weapons that make their play style seem somewhat unique from each other. At least, that’s what your meant to believe.
After you collect all the pieces and become a full fledge member of KISS once, you see everything the game has to offer: The enemies, abilities and all the weapons save the character specific ones, but despite having a different weapon on-screen when selected, they all pretty much do the same thing. It would be nice if you only got certain weapons when trying to become Gene Simmons, or different enemies when trying to kind the costume for Peter Criss, but once you’ve gathered one complete set of armour, you’re sent back to the Coventry to do this again four separate times. The levels themselves have different themes: The Demon’s have a lava and fire motif while The Celestial’s stages have an emphasis on vertical traversal, for example, but just as you get comfortable with your arsenal and feeling capable of dealing with the enemies being thrown at you, you’re depowered and sent back to square one. Imagine if in a Metroid game, you spent hours gathering your equipment and then lost it all only to have to that all over again. Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Well, it is.
It would help if the weapons you collected over the course of the game was a fun arsenal to play around with, but although the guns having a unique design to this game, like the shotgun that looks like its organic and alive, you’re still limited to a simple melee weapon, a mini-gun, shotgun, rocket launcher and the character specific weapons that have very limited ammunition and only appear towards the end of each mini-campaign. None of the weapons even feel that good to fire either, as this game offers no support for the Dreamcast tremor pack, which is pretty sad as most N64 games from Goldeneye 007 onwards had rumble implemented in them. The only somewhat interesting weapon you get is a whip that’s not that great for fighting the swarming enemy hordes, but acts as a grappling hook of sorts that changes up how you navigate the levels. Instances where you have to do this though are limited, and as the game goes on, the emphasis on tricky jumps puts the “nightmare” in Nightmare Child.
Starting out the levels in The Nightmare Child are pretty typical of your standard FPS with doors to be unlocked with keys found in the environments and corridors to explore for guns, ammo and health. As the game moves forward though, more and more stages have platforming segments that would be hard to do in a traditional third-person game, let alone in an FPS played with the Dreamcast controller. You can change your look from inverted to non-inverted, but aiming is locked to the analog stick with movement and strafing done with the face-buttons. You get used to it, in the same way you did with the Turok games on the N64, but you never exactly feel comfortable, especially when you have to navigate a thin beam or jump on a tiny platform. Death has little penalty thankfully, because even if you die, you just respawn back to a checkpoint with all your ammo intact and the enemies you kill still vanquished, so the most you lose is time, but this becomes more frustrating as you move into the third and fourth parts of the campaign.
The enemies you fight stick to the Psycho Circus theme with twisted clowns, cannonball shooting enemies with bullseyes on their unitards, strong men, and demonic unicyclists that are probably the most creative thing about this game, but the rate at which they spawn towards the latter half of the campaign just gets riduclous. With no knowledge or playtime with the PC version of this game, I have the feeling this title was heavy on action and required you to be able to move around and shoot very quickly, as well as change weapons on the fly but the Dreamcast controller just doesn’t facilitate that. You can only change weapons by cycling through your arsenal with the directional pad, meaning when you have to move from your weakest weapon to your most powerful, you’re often left very vulnerable The majority of the enemies are cannon fodder that come from spawning generators like something out of Gauntlet, and don’t stop coming until the generator is destroyed.
Often it’s easier to take a ton of damage just to kill a generator and start over because it’s simply not that easy to aim while moving given the awkward controls. This isn’t just for the smaller enemies, but for the tougher enemies that kill you a lot of the times before you can even find them and show up in larger numbers to the point of controller breaking frustration towards the final few levels. The back of the case sells the fact that it can handle a lot of enemies on-screen, however the game slows down very noticeably if you leave a generator alive too long which doesn’t help either.
KISS: The Psycho Circus: The Nightmare Child has a decently long campaign, though it is very repetitive, but once you’re done, there’s little to come back to and no mutli-player. While I’m playing this game far, far from when it initially launched in the year 2000 and not a fan of multi-player, I do admit there would’ve been some novelty in playing at the very least a local two-player deathmatch mode as members of KISS. To bring up the N64 comparison once again, those games had both rumble support and multi-player for the most part and ran on much inferior hardware than the Dreamcast.
Above all else though, what hurts The Nightmare Child the more than the start/stop nature of the campaign, the repetitive weapons, poor level design, no multi-player and not so great controls, is that for a game about KISS, I only found one instance of the game playing KISS to speak of! The instruction manual has the copyright for ten songs from the band, but I only heard one song randomly coming from a radio in a level. To clarify, the one KISS song I heard wasn’t during a boss fight or an action heavy segment, but just some random room that happened to have a radio in it. The music otherwise is okay, but ultimately forgettable, and I’m glad that KISS wasn’t playing on an endless loop throughout the entirety of the game, but given that this is a game inspired by the band, the songs should’ve been more than Easter Eggs to discover.
The Dreamcast didn’t have a lot of FPS’s in its library, and given the default controller, there’s probably a good reason for that. Even if you love the Dreamcast, the band KISS, or both, there’s little reason to seek out KISS: The Psycho Circus: The Nightmare Child. The levels and enemy spawn rate constantly becomes less fun and more frustrating as the game moves along, the controls are not suited for this type of game and there’s no KISS music to speak of. Maybe this is a more bearable experience on PC, but if it’s anything like the Dreamcast port, even though we asked for the best, we most certainly didn’t get them.