An edited collage of Elvira from Elvira: Mistress of the Dark (1990)
Horror Soft

Remember horror hosts? If you were born after the year 2000, there’s a good chance that you won’t. A seemingly outdated concept in an era where anyone and anyone can broadcast themselves, horror hosts were at one point in time a beloved staple of the eponymous genre, acting as a campy or self-aware personality that bookended the airing of a cheap Z-grade film for an adoring audience on live television. They embodied the fun side of horror, one that reminded us that, at the end of the day, the horror genre is merely just a means to express ourselves as creatives. They even came in all shapes and sizes, with names like the fabulous southern icon Joe Bob Briggs (portrayed by John Irving Bloom) still rocking his familiar duds to this day.

But one particular horror host seemed to penetrate beyond her horror niche and into the wider realm of pop culture. We’re, of course, talking about the enigmatic, the venomously sarcastic, and the ever-charming Elvira.

Portrayed by Cassandra Peterson ever since her on-air debut in the early 1980s, Elvira has become a horror icon, no doubt due to the eclectic but effective combination of traits she brought to the character: the Valley Girl accent, a biting sense of humor, the beehive hairdo, her . . . other “assets,” to be polite. It all amounted to a beloved character that, to this day, still pops in and out of horror media as needed. She was even the subject of two feature-length motion pictures.

Of course, given her ties to the horror genre, this popularity would also translate into the world of video games.

Adventure Soft, a British PC game developer and publisher founded by Mike Woodroffe, found themselves at the onset of home computing’s technological revolution in the mid-1980s. Seeing as how the Amiga, a bona fide titan compared to where Microsoft DOS machines would be before the 1990s, would quickly rise to prominence throughout the mid-1980s, Adventure Soft took advantage of the system’s graphical capabilities with a brand-new publishing label, Horror Soft.

With a specialized focus on horror games, Horror Soft would populate the platform with a series of several horror titles, beginning with Personal Nightmare in 1989 and ending with their infamous gore-riddled game Waxworks in 1992. But, between these two games, there would be a pair of Elvira-themed horror titles that, for better or worse, would come to encapsulate the best and worst of the genres they exhibit. Today, we’re taking a look at the first of these two games — Elvira: Mistress of the Dark — to see what it brings to the table.

Light on Plot

For being a first-person adventure game, the actual plot of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark isn’t really all too interesting. Despite her comedic prowess, Elvira has found herself in a sticky situation. After coming into possession of an ancient castle, Elvira finds herself accidentally awakening the all-powerful Queen Emelda during some impromptu renovations. Now imprisoned in her own home, Elvira has employed a nameless lackey — aka, you, the player — to rescue her, destroy Queen Emelda via a hidden scroll, and return control of the castle to its rightful owner. You better be quick about it, too, lest you face the wrath of an impatient Elvira.

Thankfully, this first-person adventure game defies some standards of the time by avoiding a time limit. You’re free to explore the castle grounds at your own leisure, solving puzzles as they come, battling hordes of monstrous foes, and witnessing some of the most graphic death scenes you’ll ever see in the genre. If anything, the latter would quickly give Horror Soft its modest legacy, with their later games — most especially Waxworks, the last published under the Horror Soft label — really ramping up the appeal for gorehounds.

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The castle itself is an expansive piece of terrain. You’re free to explore the first and second floors, the ramparts, the surrounding hedge maze, and both the dungeon and necropolis hiding beneath the surface. Weapons for fighting enemies, items for solving puzzles, and herbs for potion-crafting abound, though you’ll really have to squint to make them out against the static background assets. Likewise, anything that isn’t nailed down can also be freely picked up and carried around, even when it’s completely worthless for what you’re trying to accomplish. You also have to take your carry weight into consideration, as taking on too much weight for too long will quickly lead to your character’s demise.

Where does Elvira come into all of this? Well, the short answer is she doesn’t. She’s mostly off to the side for the journey, offering her occasional jibs and jabs at your current situation while acting as a means to craft the numerous spells you’ll need to progress. With the right combination of ingredients, you’ll be able to shoot lighting from your fingertips, craft rejuvenating jelly, or even summon walls of flame. Just make sure Elvira isn’t locked up in her room, otherwise she’ll just brush you off.

Coin-Flip Combat

Then there’s the combat, of which there is a lot: and it isn’t very interesting mechanically. Granted, real-time combat in a game such as this is a rarity, so the act of even attempting such a thing deserves some modest praise. Then again, having so much of it in this kind of environment is also somewhat middling.

A typical brawl will see you and one of the castle’s many monstrous creatures making contact. A noticeable delay takes place as the opposition readies their weapon, allowing you to take a potshot with the few ranged options you have available. Then the battle truly begins.

You’re transplanted into a black void, facing off against a (mostly) still monster that can attack you in one of two ways: a swing to the right and a swing to the left. You can attack in much the same way, either by lunging or hacking at your opponent. Though combat is considered to be in real-time, it’s effectively turn-based in practice. If you fail to either parry or block the enemy’s attack, you’ll take some damage, and they’ll immediately attack again. And again. And again. And again. And again.

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What combat ultimately amounts to is a series of dangerous coin-flips, with the only independent variable being your response time. They’ll keep attacking until you block an attack, and you’ll keep attacking until they block your attack. Again, there isn’t really any strategy going on here either: you’ll either hit or miss. Your spells and other miscellaneous weaponry don’t even come into play during these sections, as they’re seemingly inaccessible. Considering the sheer volume of combat encounters you’ll face, often back-to-back with no break in between, it gets to be pretty obnoxious.

That’s a good word to describe the worst parts of Elvira: they’re always functional and somewhat fun, but they can quickly become obnoxious if you can’t stomach the repetitiveness. This extends to how the game handles progression, too, as while the castle is pretty expansive, what you’ll actually do within it is somewhat limited.

Free of Moon Logic (Mostly)

It’d be disingenuous to suggest that Elvira: Mistress of the Dark falls into the terrifying trap of “moon logic”—you know, the kinds of puzzles that depend on an esoteric solution that really couldn’t ever come to mind without trying every other solution possible. It’s still there, mind you, but it’s not to the point of being overly obnoxious. Mostly.

Take some of the puzzles surrounding hostile NPCs, for instance. One involves a “vampira” lying dormant in a room on the upper floors of the castle. Approaching her normally results in. . . well, death. Naturally, the only way to kill a vampire is to drive a stake into their heart. So, by gathering a stake and a sledgehammer and “using” them on the vampira before she’s fully alert, you’re able to vanquish her. It makes sense if you have the slightest idea of how to kill a staple monster from pop culture.

Things become a little more obscure when you come across characters like the Falconer. A man seemingly comprised of nothing more than skin wrinkles, the Falconer attacks if you spend too much time in his vicinity or otherwise interact with him via a mouse click. He’ll send his falcon to, quite gruesomely, rip your eyes out. You’ll need a crossbow to defeat him. Specifically, you’ll need a crossbow to shoot the falcon, not the Falconer himself. Specifically, you’ll need to become a trained crossbow expert via a separate training target next to the verdant hedge maze in order to kill the Falconer.

And, of course, the Cook deserves its own mention as well. Sometime after mixing your first few potions with Elvira (or anytime, really, it’s difficult to tell), she’ll be forced back into her room by the monstrous Cook, who subsequently occupies the kitchen and cannot be killed by conventional means. An errant comment from Elvira mentions that the Cook never uses salt in her cooking. Naturally, one would assume that she’s just being her usual self and making a caustic comment about her current living situation. Not so. Turns out, the Cook is weak to salt, which, for some reason, is found exclusively in the castle’s dungeon. As in, she’ll melt you if you throw it on her. Otherwise, she’ll just chop your head off and boil it in a soup.

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It all comes back to this issue we’ve brought up before: the ability to pick up seemingly everything and anything — even if it blends into the background — isn’t just a feature; it’s absolutely essential to complete the game. For instance, what would you think to grab if you found a pile of skeletal remains with a key attached to them? Just the key? No, the key and the skeletal remains. You find a silver-colored crucifix needed to form a silver-tipped crossbow bolt, which is needed to kill a monstrous wolfman. Except, actually, you’re supposed to find a completely separate silver crucifix lying next to a corpse near the hedge maze. Even some enemy encounters are downright obtuse, with the explosive goblins inhabiting the hedge maze practically guaranteeing your death through untreatable fire damage unless you attack them with spells and crossbow bolts. Mind you, the former needs to be crafted with specific ingredients that, again, often blend perfectly into the background.

Speaking of which, it’s time to dredge up a particularly painful memory of early PC gaming: copy protection. You see, Elvira, like a lot of other PC games at the time, had to get creative when it came to early forms of copy protection. It wasn’t a form of protection as much as it was a means to delay the inevitable: things will eventually be reproduced without permission at one point or another. But when simple software checks failed, some developers thought outside of the box — in this instance, quite literally.

Older PC games would often come with copy protection in a physical form: code sheets, passphrases, and anything in between would often be bundled with the purchase of a game, allowing you to finally access the title you paid hard-earned money for. Given that xeroxes and photocopiers were a thing that existed, studios would find craftier and craftier ways to make their games difficult to redistribute.

Case in point, Elvira, which utilized a physical book of recipes for the many spells you can craft. There’s just one caveat: you could only see them through a specific filter provided in the physical packaging. If you’re playing this nowadays, and unless you forked out a hefty lump sum for a physical copy, you can probably see how this presents an issue.

Is Elvira Worth Revisiting?

Looking at these pros and cons, you may be wondering if Elvira: Mistress of the Dark is even worth revisiting. From a presentation standpoint, absolutely. The game is gorgeous to look at, grisly gore aside, and the music — especially on the Amiga version — is astounding. Composer Dave Hasler, along with artists Paul Drummond, Michael Landreth, and Philip Nixon, craft an atmosphere that can be genuinely unsettling at points, even with the presence of saturated colors and bright exteriors.

But actually playing it? It depends. Elvira boasted about its “over 100 hours of frightening gameplay.” A typical playthrough, once you know where everything is, takes a little over an hour. Even if you’re not a mathematician, you might be raising some eyebrows at the discrepancy between the two.

It comes from an era where adventure games really were an “adventure.” Getting stuck and lost for hours on end wasn’t so much an accident as it was an expectation. Finding the exact sequence of events to progress wasn’t underwhelming; it was the norm. Dying over and over again as you struggle to solve puzzles, all while navigating labyrinths without the assistance of an in-game map, it all works together to create an oppressive yet inquisitive atmosphere. There really is a lot to discover in the clutches of Elvira: Mistress of the Dark. It’s just that actually getting there is more reminiscent of crawling through the desert instead of taking an express flight.

For being an Elvira game, one that heavily leans into her signature appearance in its promotional materials, she’s really not that much of a presence either. To its credit, it worked. I did play it since she was on the box. But still, it would’ve been nice to see her be more of an active player in the story instead of just standing around. At the very least, her characterization is completely on point, especially when you finally see the game’s ending.

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If you can tolerate some of Elvira’s deliberate design choices or if you find the journey more satisfying than the destination, Elvira is certainly worth considering. If not, I’d highly recommend looking elsewhere. While functional, Elvira is heavily rooted in a certain kind of experience that may ultimately be off-putting nowadays, especially when you’re surrounded by plenty of more easily accessible alternatives.

In terms of horror gaming on PC, however, the Elvira games (and Waxworks, too) are arguably some of the most atmospheric encapsulations of the genre you’ll find throughout the 1990s. Even if games like Phantasmagoria would offer more of a visceral thrill only a few years later, there’s something genuinely charming about Elvira‘s vivid presentation, its fantastic soundtrack, and its mix of gloomy atmosphere and self-aware cheesiness.

Elvira: Mistress of the Dark, as well as Elvira II: The Jaws of Cerberus, and the spiritual sequel Waxworks can all be found on GoG. Thankfully, the accompanying recipe book is also available as a digital copy in GoG’s version as well.

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