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SYFY WIRE board games

Revisiting Nightmare, the bizarre '90s VHS horror board game

By Courtney Enlow

As your Classic '90s Youth, my junior high slumber parties had a pretty specific set of criteria. Junk food, scary movies, gossip, pranks, that one time my friend tried to give herself a tattoo with an Exacto knife (here's the thing: kids are stupid), and, at least when the sleepover was at my house, a game of Nightmare.

What's Nightmare, you ask in Non-Classic '90s Youth? OH LET ME TELL YOU.

First released in 1991, Nightmare was a board game that kicked off the Atmosfear series, a line of horror video board games from Australian duo Brett Clements and Phillip Tanner, also known as A Couple of Cowboys, and released by J.W. Spear and Sons, a subsidiary of Mattel. Because thimbles, boots and top hats are for basic bitches, Nightmare players used gravestone-shaped pieces and played as either werewolf Gevaudan, poltergeist Hellin, mummy Khufu, zombie Baron Samedi, witch Anne de Chantraine, or vampire Elizabeth Bathory. Players move their pieces around a graveyard, collecting keys and cards labeled Fate, Chance, and Time, all while a creepy dude in a robe yells at you. Standard kid stuff.

At last year's San Diego Comic-Con, Hijinks Toys announced they would be relaunching the series in 2019. Friends, I have glimpsed our board game future — and all I can say is: go back. So that's what I did. All the way back to my parents' house to pick up a spare VCR and the still mostly intact board game that shaped my childhood.

And also to the grocery store for Doritos, Oreos, and peanut butter to fully complete the experience (and also prosecco because I'm not 12 anymore and you're not my MOM).

Only a few pieces were missing, along with the instructions, which are luckily available online and more complicated than I remember. Each player is to collect all the keys before they can go to the center of the board and attempt to procure a Nightmare card with their deepest fear written on them. I apparently wrote these fears in permanent marker so my similarly adult friend and I played using the fears of 12-year-old me and my friends: sharks, snakes, scary movies, midnight, our teacher Mrs. Hull, and "being attacked," which super holds up, so good job, child me (also, dang girl, that's dark when mixed in with sharks and a math teacher).

Adequately set up, thirsts parched with sparkly booze and already half a bag of Doritos in, we put the tape in the VCR and set out on our journey.

This screen right here means that sh*t is about to get REAL.

I also lit candles to set the atmosphere (or Atmosfear — OH WOW I GET IT) . 

Players are guided through the game by the Gatekeeper, a gravelly voiced man who looks like a gritty reboot of Brain Guy from Mystery Science Theater 3000. The actor, Wenanty Nosul, hails from what is now Belarus, and seemingly uses his own accent with an added Snapchat filter of Spookyoookyooky (you can see more of his very specifically strange and delightful work in these super intense Guinness commercials). He insults you the whole game and demands you respond to his every request with "Yes, my Gatekeeper!" and I think this game is responsible for some people's adult proclivities. Yes, my Gatekeeper, indeed

The Gatekeeper pops in at random to yell at you, make you roll for things, and set you free from the "Black Hole," this game's version of Monopoly jail only it's an open grave. But mostly he spends the game negging you. It's fun for kids of all ages. 

Beyond that, the game is predominately a timer screen. Kids love watching the passage of time.

Over the course of the game, the Gatekeeper's visage grows more and more decayed and grotesque, in a neon kind of way because '90s. He also has a fascination with calling out the "Old One," the player who is oldest (having nine months on my friend joining me for this Doritos-and-neg-fest, I was the old one). He wished death on me and called us maggots. This is a weird children's' game.

Of course, the experiences of our childhoods and what scared us as kids lose some of its terror-luster as time goes by. I no longer found the Gatekeeper quite as frightening as I did as a child, though a man yelling at women telling them how they smell and that he hates them and hopes they die soon certainly developed a different kind of scary as an adult and #InThisClimate. 

I also definitely didn't remember how much of this game is just literally a timer. Just numbers with spooky music behind them, interrupted by an angry man in a gugel. The board mechanics themselves are boring and uneventful. The inclusion of werewolves and witches is wholly unnecessary and unutilized, a hat on a hat if that second hat is a decaying zombie hood and the other one is just a picture of a hat.

Ultimately, what makes it worth it is the Gatekeeper. Nosul's performance holds up, striking an excellent mix of horror, camp, and sleepover giggle-inducing silliness with complete earnestness. 

All in all, revisiting Nightmare was a delightful afternoon and remains a perfect pairing with chips and cookies. Prosecco is optional, but helps when you spend an hour being called an old maggot. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.