• Graeme Mason

The Spooky Story Of Jack The Ripper


Released in 1987 by the appropriately East London publisher CRL, Jack The Ripper quickly became notorious thanks to its official 18 certification, levied against a videogames for the first time by the BBFC. With both the grisly Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum versions of this graphic adventure available to play on Antstream Arcade, and with Halloween just around the corner, it’s the perfect time to delve into the dark and moody world of Victorian London. Yea Gods – it’s the Ripper!


The genesis of CRL’s successful horror adventures began in 1986 with an adaptation of one of the

most famous horror novels of all time, Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Written by Rod Pike with the addition of gory graphics to frighten the player along with his haunting prose, it was CRL boss Clem Chambers who hit upon the idea of submitting the game to the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification).


Formed a few years earlier, the BBFC’s main remit was to judge and award age-appropriate

certificates to home videos in the wake of the video nasties furore of the early Eighties. Dracula

contained multiple bloody images – including many of the player character’s own gruesome demise– and was certainly deserving of a certificate, although its eventual 15 rating was short of CRL’s ambition for an 18 certification. Reasoning that there was no such thing as bad publicity, Chambers and CRL decided that they would push the horror further for their next foray into foggy and perilous Victorian era London.


With Rod Pike busy working on further monster adventures (including Frankenstein and Wolfman), CRL hired adventure specialists St. Brides to create what it hoped would be its killer app. The real-life and oft-told story of serial killer Jack The Ripper, the identity of whom is still unknown to this day, was an ideal subject. St. Bride’s School themselves were a peculiar bunch, an institution that offered Victorian-style getaways for women in County Donegal, Ireland. Introduced to a Commodore 64 computer when it was smuggled in by guest Priscilla Langridge, the school’s head mistress, Marianne Martindale, was taken by the technology, despite her atavism. Soon, St. Bride’s was creating its own text adventures, many of them for Clem Chambers’ CRL. “I remember they dressed in Victorian garb,” Chambers told me back in 2015, “and ran a pseudo-school for those who wanted to go back to school for a holiday. Very different!” St. Bride’s found a natural subject in the Nineteenth century serial killer and were determined to help CRL achieve its coveted 18 certificate; but it was obvious to all that words alone would not be enough. Jared Derrett, a young graphic artist at CRL, set about creating another series of macabre images, this time including the animation that the BBFC deemed necessary in order to achieve the desired endorsement.


It is December, 1888. Everyone is talking about The Ripper, a rampant murderer stalking women

throughout the capital. The player assumes the role of an unnamed innocent, caught up and

suspected of the latest horrible murder. Via the-then complex input language that allowed for the

use of adverbs and combination commands, the player must avoid the long arm of the law and the

long knife of The Ripper while trying to clear their name and escape unscathed. Throughout the

murky streets of London and beyond, the mysteries of the occult and devilish Satan-worshippers

confront the player, along with a series of increasingly-disturbing locations. “What a gruesome

subject,” noted Crash, the ZX Spectrum magazine, in its review of Jack The Ripper. “I’m not a wimpo, but I can see why Jack The Ripper got an 18 certificate. The graphics aren’t really that scary, but the text creates a terrifying atmosphere.” Over on the Commodore 64, a machine bestowed with a greater palette and animation, the graphics were even more disturbing, ensuring that Jack The Ripper once more hit the newspaper headlines.


“Computer horror of Ripper game” screamed the London Evening Standard headline on the 17 th

October 1987. “A Jack the Ripper computer game featuring ‘horrifying’ scenes of mutilated women and crucifixion could become the first piece of X-rated software,” said reporter Steve Clarke, who had clearly not played the game despite his article’s specific headline. The tactic had worked: CRL’s improved graphics and the real-life frisson – including violence to women, a big issue for the BBFC – ensured not only the 18 certificate but also the sales-boosting headlines. Even the refusal of WHSmith to stock the game failed to bother CRL. “It was typical moral panic,” Chambers told RetroGamer magazine back in 2018. “And without the media, no attention seeker would get the oxygen they crave. Without the media there could have been no provocation.”


Away from the tabloids, the dedicated videogame press took a more sanguine approach, all too

aware that CRL was cunningly manipulating the media machine in order to promote its games. “Now of course, this is partly commercial gimmickry,” noted Commodore User in its review of C64 Jack The Ripper. “There is really no obligation for a game to be subjected to such scrutiny. However, it does mean that publishers CRL are covered, should someone try to get it banned.” Computer games, so long stereotypically considered the domain of early teenage children, were finally beginning to grow up. But wasn’t CRL worried about frightening the nation’s youth when they inevitably got to play Jack The Ripper, despite its certificate? "I don't think anyone ever had a nightmare having played one of our games," Chambers told Eurogamer back in 2015. "You know, I once met Sir Christopher Lee and told him I'd spent my whole childhood having nightmares about him; he just looked me in the eyes and said "Fairy tales, dear boy, fairy tales." And compared to Sir Christopher Lee and his fangs, our games didn't even move the dial."


Feeling brave? Then why not check out the terror of Jack The Ripper on Antstream Arcade this

Halloween!


Further reading:

Dracula Unbound: https://www.eurogamer.net/ articles/2015-03-01-dracula-unbound-the-story-behind-the-first-18-certificated-video-game


The Mystery of St. Brides by Owen Williams: https://flexiblehead.blog/2014/02/16/st-brides-school/


Retro Gamer: Courting Controversy: The Horror Games of CRL, issue 178, March 2018.

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