Outside of my regular column, I have decided to spend one evening writing about a  game that exists, but might as well not exist, due to how little documentation there is about it around the net. Buck up and get ready to sate your curiosity, thanks to this deep dive into a game so cursed that I cannot even write its name without facing repercussions. Therefore, we’ll only refer to it as “the game” or “D██t███rg█”!

A modern urban legend

It’s hard to talk about D██t███rg█ or to find any precise information about it on the internet. This game has been called “vaporware” or “a scam” or even an “urban legend”, due to its cryptic history. There are people enthusiastically saying that this game doesn’t even exist, while other would swear they have seen a copy of it on a shady ███████ eBay account registered as [NAME EXPUNGED], only for said account to disappear into nothingness one day before the end of the auction.

However, despite all rumors, I can offer you evidence that not only D██t███rg█ was released, but it is also — somewhat — playable.

This, however, was just one reason this game has become notorious. The other is, well, that every gameplay video, every web page showing any screenshots of it, is, sooner or later, struck down by means of a ████. It is hypothesized that any visual representation of the game acts as a ████████, notifying those who developed it about the need to issue such a ████.

Thus, to protect SuperCombo from the effects of this subtle yet deadly legal cognitohazard, I won’t post any screenshots of the game, replacing them with crude diagrams, based on witness reports. I realize this isn’t optimal, but the safety of the website comes first.

…your video codec isn’t supported, please install the technical marvel of the year 2000! With the vids.IV50, you will….

Enter the drama

D██t███rg█ is — or, rather, was — a game made by an independent ███████ film studio called [NAME EXPUNGED] in 20██. The game was sold exclusively through their website and promised, as its most prominent feature, “fatalities that would make Mortal Kombat 9 shiver”, with the prominent use of real actors and practical effects. The game was heavily anticipated as a serious contender to the ultra-violent fighting game genre and had many people interested in buying it. However, after a lukewarm reception, some physical copies of the game spotted in the wild, and a complex activation system that required the player to send an email to the developer to receive a file that unlocked the game, D██t███rg█ was critically panned due to several reasons:

  • a plethora of small bugs and glitches;
  • an almost total absence of real combos;
  • lackluster gameplay;
  • visually confusing stages that obstructed the characters;
  • performance issues even on decent gaming rigs.

Instead of fixing the issues encountered by the players, however, the developers marked the game as unsalvageable and tried to delete all existing information about it. Every video, review or tangentially related material would just be shut down in the blink of an eye, including a video by Super Best Friends Play. Between 2014 and 2017, the online magazine [REDACTED] dedicated a series of articles to the game itself, delving into its mysterious first trailer, its rocky release and the impossibility to play it due to its byzantine activation system.

Still, little to no footage of it survived D██t███rg█ ‘s release. If anyone posted a video about the game on YouTube or any other platform, as soon as [NAME EXPUNGED] caught wind of it, the channel or website would be hit by a ███, effectively banishing that content into oblivion. For years, all that was left of this game was word of mouth of its existence and some rare videos that escaped the deadly effects of said cognitohazard. I have managed to track down one of the few surviving clips, whose creator managed to get reinstated after [PROCEDURE EXPUNGED].

Due to all of the above, the game seemed to be destined to disappear in the dark, never to be preserved or played. The developer [NAME EXPUNGED] decided to move on and advertise a new, commercial endeavor: a side-scrolling beat’em up called [NAME EXPUNGED], set in the same universe as D██t███rg█, effectively replacing it, and originally scheduled for 2019, but never released (at least, not as of December 2021).

But, back to D██t███rg█, delving into the old ████████ forum archive, some threads on the topic seem to detail a horrific experience, made of broken promises and rocky customer support.

This story could have ended like this, but I wanted to delve a bit deeper into it. I wanted to be able to play the game or see it played to understand how bad it could actually be.

At this point, if you have read any articles of mine, you might know me. I am a physicist, I solve problems. I wrote a training mode script for a PSX Digimon fighting game, I delved into the broken gears of a Chinese knock-off arcade machine and went through hell and beyond to try to play a Windows XP doujin game, only to settle for its sequel (this failure still burns and I haven’t accepted defeat yet).

This problem, though, had a very straightforward solution: look for someone, somewhere, who still had a working, digital copy of the game. And this is exactly what I have done.

…aceship has crashed. I repeat, the spaceship has crashed. We have cheated death, but our cargo of deadly weapons is…

Connections, connections

Originally, I made a misstep, by chasing a red herring — a promising trail left by a shady French associate of mine (whose name I won’t write, to shield him from potential repercussions due to [NAME EXPUNGED]), who had access to a copy of the game, but lost it due to some accursed hard drive failure. This prompted me to ask some experts in obscure fighting games in the [NAME EXPUNGED] ███████ server. One of my contacts there, who asked to remain anonymous to be shielded from [NAME EXPUNGED]), shared ███████ footage of their legitimate copy with me, which I then used to check the game out.

It was time for me to fight the curse head on and to shed light on the truth behind D██t███rg█.

S… lo, it was …ualo! He bargained with the primitives on this damned periphery planet for…

A horrific setup experience

First thing first: the installer plays creepy music in the background and has even a dedicated button (!) to mute it. If this is not some dedication to commit to the horror atmosphere, I don’t know what it is. After a very unproblematic, yet bizarre, installation process, I could finally see the game booted up. However, I immediately realized that gathering material wouldn’t have been a walk in the park.

As of today, my go-to process to snatch screenshots from a game is to add it to Steam and exploit the DLL injected by the launcher to have an universal screenshot button, which also saves them in a folder on my PC. Of course, D██t███rg█ didn’t accept it and forced my contact to take screenshots ye old , long, Prt Scrn plus Paint dot Net way. But, hey, I can’t use screenshots anyway, so where’s the problem?

Surprisingly, though, the game started, and there was no trace of the original, obnoxious activation system in place, which spared my contact an international phone call to [NAME EXPUNGED] to get their copy to run. Most likely, they already got the original activation file when they acquired the digital version of the game years ago.

After browsing some very barebones settings, which didn’t even include a free remapping of the controls — just the ability to switch among some basic presets — I noticed that there was also an option called “moves list”… which literally showed controls for all characters in one screen worth of text. Because, I kid you not, the inputs are exactly the same for each and everyone of them. More on this later, when we will delve into how D██t███rg█  plays.

D██t███rg█ install routine

Mockup of D██t███rg█’s setup program, built using publicly available resources and made to be similar to the original. During the installation, creepy sci-fi horror music plays, but you’ll notice that you can actually turn the music off by clicking on the relevant option (!)

…roblems with your neighbors intercepting your TV signals or communications with your starship, while dozing in Ultra New Mexico? Fret not, because we have a solution!  Call our customer service number for…

A stylish first impact…

Credit were credit is due: D██t███rg█  does a very good job in setting the atmosphere. The presentation and music are top notch and ascribe to a feeling that could be defined as “sci-fi horror B-movie with shades of Dario Argento soundtrack”. The character sprites are nicely rendered and the stages, beside being a bit barren, offer an interesting experience.

If one had to judge this game by the cover, the impression would be weirdly positive. It’s charming and fascinating, with an undeniable visual and auditory impact.

Since I cannot show any screenshots for fear of being subject to a ████, here’s an artist’s interpretation of the game proper instead.

Since this game is a ticking DMCA bomb, I had to resort to crude schematics

Images from D██t███rg█ cannot be uploaded or displayed without a [REDACTED], so I asked [NAME EXPUNGED] to recreate an impression of it, using copyright-friendly images and paint dot net. As far as my sources go, this is a semi-faithful representation of the game’s UI, with the life gauge, the movement gauge, the special gauge, the weapon gauge and the combo counter. The names of the characters were altered to avoid ██████ and [EXPUNGED].

… and the death that follows

The beefy 2019 gaming laptop of my contact had some hiccups here and there, but ran the game almost flawlessly. However, I cannot see this working on a average 2014 machine without it throwing up its fan first. D██t███rg█ suffers most likely from poor optimization, as this was one of the original issues those who bought it reported.

On a 2019 rig, it behaves quite well, with just some occasional frame drops. This isn’t perfect, but it’s at least good enough, as it allowed us to dive deeper into its core, and finally pass judgment on its actual worth.

D██t███rg█ has a fairly standard input system, with three attack buttons (not tied to any specific button strength, at least according to [NAME EXPUNGED]) and the so called TW button (tech weapon?).

Grabs are performed by pressing together the Attack 1 and Attack 3 buttons, always switch sides, and — apparently — can be blocked.

To add to the bewilderment, one character, S████, cannot grab or be grabbed, resulting in a very weird animation if a grab is attempted on him. We didn’t find out if it was a bug in the engine or just some character-specific nonsense, but the fact that no character seemed to be able to grab him might tip the scales towards something intentional.

Some characters can mash their Attack 1 button to get a short “beat’em up” combo that can be canceled into a special move. Notice, however, that combos made only of normal moves are practically non-existent. You can’t cancel normals into other normals or command normals, and — aside from jump-ins and few outliers — moves cannot be linked either.

Each character has access to six different special moves, all performed by inputting quarter-circle-forward or quarter-circle-backwards plus one Attack button. Almost all characters have a projectile attack as a part of their kit, and there is nothing that resembles a command grab or a rekka. Overall, the feeling is that each character offers a limited amount of variety with similar tools.

… what does it mean “we lost the death cargo?” Send immediately commander Pl…

Weapon, weapon, where art thou?

The TW button is used to perform all movement options (back dash, forward dash, and a sort of double jump), which use up movement meter. Movement meter regenerates over time fairly quickly, but notice that without the use of these additional maneuvers, jumps cannot overcome the opponent and there are no dashes of sorts.

The TW button can also be used alone to trigger a character-specific skill, tied to the T. Weapon gauge. These are somehow plot relevant, as they were all apparently part of a death cargo of alien machinery that was dumped on planet Earth by a crash-landing starship, and are what make each character feel a little bit more unique.

For example, P████ can unleash a barrage of kicks until the bar is depleted completely, Agent M█████ starts firing his alien gun like a mad man, A█████ transforms into a spider and rams forward, N███ becomes invisible until the gauge is empty, L████ becomes actually untouchable and undamageable until the gauge is empty, while I still have to understand what S████ was doing, because it wasn’t clear at all.

Weapons can also glitch out badly. In our test of the game, it happened more than once that Agent M█████’s gunfire would remain on-screen while he was performing other moves, effectively becoming a sort of infinitely active hitbox.

The TW button also has another, important function: it can be used as a modifier to trigger EX and Super moves. EX moves use up one bar of super gauge (which can host up to five stocks) and are performed by pressing the TW button together with an Attack button after a quarter circle forward/backwards.

However, if one has five stocks and inputs a quarter circle forward followed by TW plus Attack 3, the character will perform their super move, which has an incredibly slow start-up, hits like a truck but has seemingly no invulnerability whatsoever.

To add insult to injury, supers cannot be comboed into, due to how long the wind-up is, so one needs to use them raw and hope the opponent is sleeping or in the middle of some long-winded special move.

A historical review of D██t███rg█'s gameplay

A historical document about the alpha version of the game. Some of the bugs would be fixed in the build my contact showed me, but some would remain untouched. All personal information was expunged to avoid █████.

…a storm is coming. A deadly storm, maybe a necro storm… however we call it, we aren’t safe, out here…

Finish him/her!

Each match consists in only one round, with a double life bar, like “Injustice: Gods Among Us” and its sequel. When the match is over, the losing character will stand, dizzied, while waiting for a fatality. There are two different kind of fatalities: Life Rips and Death Rips. Life Rips are triggered by simply performing a special move on the dizzied opponent. They are gory, splatter-y and immediate, in a Mortal Kombat 2 fashion.

Death Rips are… huh, we can call them “fatalities made with real actors and practical effects” and — probably — the main selling point for the studio who made it (which, let’s remind it, it’s primarily an independent ███████ movie studio and not a game studio).

These Death Rips are performed by inputting quarter circle backwards or forward, followed by the TW button, and then by mashing the attack buttons to fill a bar. When the bar is full, a gruesome video will play. Or — well — it would play, if there weren’t issues with a defunct video codec which results in the screen turning blank for a few seconds instead.

To picture how they could have looked like, you can watch an amatorial reconstruction of two of them on ███████. A dozen of screenshots of the original Death Rips are still available on ████████ and, provided you replace the number in the link with anything between 1-12, you can see them in all their brutal violence (warning, some of them are definitely gore-y and NSFW).

this is what happen when someone doesn't update their codecs

Performing a Death Rip in D██t███rg█ results in this error screen, due to the fact that the game uses some very old and now defunct video codec.

…eed to recover all weapons, ██████. This death cargo cannot be left unchecked on such a primitive planet

Inside Pandora’s box

Content-wise, D██t███rg█ is on the average side of the spectrum, for an allegedly finished game. There is a very basic arcade mode with unique endings for each character — which consist in a couple pictures and some text which highlights the resolution of their stories; there is a sort of survival mode with some additional bonuses obtained by defeating an opponent, called “Conqueror” mode; there is a traditional local versus mode too, but no traces of online versus — a feature that most likely wasn’t even planned from the beginning.

There is also a very barebones training mode, but it’s utility is very low, as there are no options at all for setting the behavior of the dummy.

What could have been

D██t███rg█ might have been a good game, with some basic changes and a bit more testing. It had the flair, it had a unique style. Bad PR, bad management of the whole fiasco and, probably, a certain naivete was what killed it before it could shine. One can still find threads decrying the game’s unfinished state and the odyssey in having it run, due to the byzantine activation system, which also meant that people who were blocked by the developers on their forums would be IP checked before issuing them an unlock key, thus further reducing the potential user base.

A very short summary of the events surrounding the game’s troubled release can be read here. If one wants to learn more about it, it is surprisingly ████ to find additional information on the ensuing drama, hidden in the nooks and crannies of forums and similar venues.

However, this is just the tip of the iceberg: Scouring the internet for information, a couple associates (which again I won’t name for [REDACTED]) and I have also managed to find a thread on [NAME EXPUNGED] about characters that are NOT playable in the build my contact showed me. The characters would include captain S████o, who looked like the main boss of the game — as he is briefly mentioned in P█████’s ending — and up to five or six other other fighters, of which only some scattered promo pictures, some screenshots in a French ███████, and some random pieces of fanart seem to survive up to this day. Those extra combatants seemed to be destined to be DLCs to be added to the game further down the line.

If we go by the additional information, the game might have aimed at a healthy roster of thirteen characters, of which only six made the final cut, or at least landed in a somewhat playable state in the surviving builds that lurk around the internet.

The copy of the game that my associate showed me had a fat “Extras” option in the menu, that — however — didn’t seem to react to inputs. Does this mean that what I was shown was — in fact — an unfinished version of the game and that somewhere, somehow, there really is a version of D██t███rg█ with the full planned roster? If not, what was the fate of the additional DLC characters? Was this function only used to download the additional content that was allegedly released by [NAME EXPUNGED]?

Mysteries without an answer, wrapped in more mysteries, like the death cargo of weapons dropped on planet Earth by the alien spaceship which kickstarted the plot of this unfortunate game.

EDIT: Back from the dead

This story isn’t apparently over yet: Right as I made this article public, Twitter user [NAME REDACTED] sent me circumstantial evidence that ██████████ is working on a full reboot of D██t███rg█, as a companion project to their beat’em up [EXPUNGED]. The developer in question confirmed it as recently as one month before this article was posted, by replying to a two years old [REDACTED] comment on a video on their channel.

I thought I had finally reached the bottom of this deep rabbit hole, only to find out there were several more meters of dirt to dig through. This saga isn’t even near to completion and I can’t fathom where or when it will end. I wonder what other surprises the future of D██t███rg█ will hold. Until then, I guess we will have to wait till the storm comes, hoping it won’t weaken and turn into a gentle breeze instead.

Game summary

Name of the game: D██t███rg█
Developer: [EXPUNGED]
Available on: PC
Year of release: 2014?
Engine: Multimedia Fusion 2
Netcode: None (Parsec)
Status: Urban legend, allegedly released
In one sentence: [EXPUNGED]

Special thanks to The F████G██B█████ for finding some of the sources cited in this article and [NAME EXPUNGED] for having shared the live footage of the game that made this article possible. Special thanks to [NAME EXPUNGED] too for providing me additional intel on surviving pictures of the characters that didn’t make the cut.

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If you are interested in more coverage about indie fighting games, you can find me on Twitter at @AndreaDProjects