Though my knee-jerk reaction left me regarding the story as horrid in every conceivable way, in retrospect, I couldn't help but recognize the incredible feat it was to tell it so effectively. It's as if the director was consumed by it, had to tell it just to get out of its grasp, and its domination of his life dictated that he tell it with all the passion that a good film maker would tell any story. Likewise, I note without exception that the movie both disturbed my sense of peace and kept me in a state of fear for weeks after I viewed it, to the point that it was I who was trying to escape the story's grasp. Yes, I felt assaulted just by watching it, but in the end I was unharmed, and that's precisely why horror genres intrigue me so much. They put us into situations that would in literal circumstances be unwanted and unwelcomed, assaulting our sensibilities and our boundaries at every turn, but they do it without the consequences of real violence. In that sense, this is one of the perfect horror films. I have no choice but to recognize the director for his ability, despite the awful subject matter. He painted a canvas in shades of blood, one that is quite atrocious in the watching, but his brush strokes are unquestionably brilliant.
Elements of the chainsaw wielding anti-hero of the film, known as "Leatherface", are so frightening that they have been used and reused in horror-themed video games as a device to inspire a certain doomed animalistic fear that few other icons can inspire. Game developers know that presenting an immediate need to escape from a fate worse than death, and survive the experience, is the key to captivating a player in a horror-themed game, and there are few pop culture icons that can accomplish this in quite the same way that Leatherface does. "Castlevania 64" and its prequel "Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness" for instance had a chainsaw wielding Frankenstein's monster in a hedge maze who was indestructible and always after your player character. Games as recent as "Resident Evil 4" had a chainsaw wielding hooded "Ganado" who was both terrifying, and explicitly dangerous. While these characters are clearly based on the horror that was Leatherface, there is only one game I can think of in which Leatherface made a starring appearance, and that is the notorious Atari 2600 game based explicitly on the equally notorious film. Unfortunately, his first video game appearance was one in which his real value to scare like no other was virtually wasted.
The opening screen is actually pretty menacing. The title "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" flashes like an ominous neon sign, accompanied by an electrical sound burst at each light up. That's where the terror ends, for the most part. What made the film so utterly frightening was that we can identify with those teenagers trying to escape from one of the most hopeless situations ever put to celluloid in the form of Leatherface and his menacing family of cannibals, but that conflict has been turned on its head in the game. You see, in this game, you aren't playing as the poor unfortunate teenagers who happened to drive through this god forsaken Texas town, but as Leatherface himself. With the house of horror looming in the distance, your job is to chase those screaming teens and mow them down with your chainsaw. This move was obviously intended to satisfy that sadistic side that the developers assumed we all have hidden in our personalities, but as the game focused on the sadism of turning innocents into hamburger meat, it robbed it of all the "fight or flight" sweat and tears that the movie was literally drenched with.
Putting the focus of the gameplay aside for a moment, the gameplay mechanics themselves are also pretty flawed. As you are chasing after teens, you will have to navigate around many objects which will try to block your path. Among these will be stationary objects like fences, cow skulls, and brush. These will all stop you in your path for a while, delaying your pursuit of prey. Brush will actually delay you indefinitely, requiring you to run your chainsaw to finally break from its grasp. Along with stationary objects are the moving wheelchairs rolling at you from time to time, which will also delay you for a significant period of time. These annoying roadblocks are almost unavoidable regardless of your dexterity, and make the game somewhat frustrating. Another constraint is that you have a fuel tank for your chainsaw, which you must watch carefully. It slowly runs out regardless of what you do, but really starts to burn when you press the Atari joystick's fire button, which activates your chainsaw for a moment. By itself, the fact that there is this time and resource restriction wouldn't be debilitating, but the fact that your fuel meter cannot be refilled (outside of using up another of your three lives) makes any game last only a few minutes, regardless of how well you play it.
The graphical presentation isn't terrible given the Atari 2600's limitations. Leatherface looks reasonably like his on-screen counterpart, including his chainsaw. Teenagers at least look like human beings, albeit short, pudgy ones. The horror house in the background distance moves along the horizon as expected more slowly than objects that obstruct your path, and none of the objects that block you are indiscernible to what they actually are, as in most Atari 2600 games. While graphics aren't lacking, sound effects are terrible. Like the movie, the game is absent of notable tunes. The chainsaw makes interesting sound effects, but the high-pitched beeps you are subjected to when a teenage victim appears are inexcusable. These are supposed to represent their "screams", but it's more hurtful to the ears than to the conscience.
This game was subject to an immediate cabal of censorship. So thorough was this attempt that many Atari aficionados in its heyday never even knew it existed. The game's premise of playing the murderous villain from the movie was so controversial that it led to the games being pulled from almost every retail shelf in a matter of days after its release. While I hate that the long arm of censorship had something to do with the demise of the game, I am more saddened by the rights we lost in the sad affair than I am in the loss of this particular game. Admittedly, I am no fan of games that focus on playable characters who murder innocent people, but my objections to the formula go beyond the ethical and into the aesthetic. Consider that "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" was made by the same company that brought us one of the first very well-executed and genuinely tense horror game based on a movie. That game, "Halloween", has you playing as the heroin of the film, attempting to save yourself and the children you are babysitting from a cool calm serial killer, and could be described as reasonably tense and frightening BECAUSE your objective was to escape the killer. That this game attempts to turn the tables on that formula and puts the player in the role of the villain himself might have been a disturbing first for the industry, but it wasn't in the least frightening, and that's what good horror games should be about.