In the beginning there was Pong, except even in the history of videogames that’s not true. Pong was just the first one that people could bring home, but videogames had been around for years before that. So in the beginning there was Space War, which again is true only so far as it goes. Videogames are nice and all but the arcades were already full of pinball in the ’50s, and before that were mechanical devices. Sports and poker were popular, but even so they didn’t quite have the arcade action of the late ’70s-early ’80s. Unless a lost genius of the very early 1900s is rediscovered, in which case maybe Bartlow’s Dread Machine can live again.
As the story goes, Bartlow was a genius who, in 1907, made an electromechanical wonder that was so far ahead of its time it terrified all who saw it, and may in fact have been cursed. In the game the player takes on the role of a Secret Service agent who must rescue Teddy Roosevelt from the terrifying clutches of anarcho-Satanists. Nearly every aspect of the presentation plays out as if it were mechanically possible, with sets rising up from the machine depths and the player moving along a track carved in the playfield. Powerups such as ammo and health act as switches, bumping up dial numbers or lighting up bulbs, and even menus pop out from the sides on small piston-arms. Enemies are confined to the same tracks you move along, attacking in numbers large enough that the electromechanical device inside the machine must be smoking from the effort. About the only thing that doesn’t quite fit the theme is bullets, which fly along in their path just like you’d hope videogame firepower would, but the only reason that detail stands out is due to how perfectly the rest of the tin-toy feeling of the Dread Machine works. The weird glitch-ghost is a bit of an outlier too.
Bartlow’s Dread Machine released on Steam’s Early Access today with about half its levels complete, looking for feedback to tune and balance the final version planned for September. It’s a fantastically clever presentation that livens up a fun adventure, equal parts twin-stick shooter and a silent movie in full vibrant color. The new trailer shows not only a nice chunk of shooting action but also a selection of real-life guest stars such as Annie Oakley and zombie George Custer, the latter of which hopefully had the uncomfortable arrow removed. Give it a watch below, then give those anarcho-Satanists what for.