Artifacts that prove the non-existence of a coin-op failure

NEWS FLASH: Emulation is imminent. Several people have written in to inform me that MAME will support Tattoo Assassins shortly. Don't know how complete the ROM will be, but we'll know within a few weeks, probably. Check out the Work In Progress page, thank the folks (especially Stiletto) who made it possible, and partition off a special section of your hard drive, so that Tattoo Assassins does not make all your other data all icky when it arrives.

In January 2000, the call went out on

I've asked before and I'll try again. Does anyone know where I might find a Tattoo Assassins PCB (or even the full machine?) I know this thing never went into full production, and I know there are good reasons for that, but I'd like to get it anyway.

Also, last time I posted about this, someone claimed to have a video of the making of the game. The return email was fake though. Does anyone have this? I'd at least like to see what the game looked like. Email me if you know anything.

And this is my answer. :) I collect pictures and information on games that never came out--I write about them in GamePro every once in a rare while under the header "Vapor Trails"--and Tattoo Assassins is one that I'd tracked for a while. I have nine screenshots from Data East's aborted fighting games--some as 35mm slides, some as color photo printouts. Please excuse the quality--these were generated from photographs of a monitor, and the originals aren't exactly optimal, but hey, when you're chasing shadows, you take what you can get.

Clearly, this was Data East's chance to cash in on the Mortal Kombat craze of violent video games. And, by all accounts, it sucked, so it was never fully produced. Mind you, I'm not a fan--I've never played it, I've never seen a cabinet in person (only on the flyer), and I probably never will. I only know what I know from what you see here and from what others have told me. However, that's just enough to make a web page for it (and I'm eager to hear your stories), so, without further ado...

The Screen Shots

Karla Keller...or is it Nancy?
Well, we know this much: One of the characters was a Nancy Kerrigan clone. You'll note that her name is crossed out in red ink; this is one of the scans from a color photo print, and the Data East person scribbled "Nancy" on the border above. Were they planning on changing the character's name to Nancy so there'd be no chance of anybody even remotely misunderstanding who she was supposed to be? Dunno.
Pretty girl, ugly outfit
Bad girl Hannah Hart was played by Gretchen Stockdale, an ex-Raiderette and popular swimsuit & calendar model. The magazine I was working for at the time, a wonderfully immature game rag called Flux, did a short article on her in the context of the game, which is how I came into possession of the screenshots. Check out a scan of the Flux article.
Ooh, get it off me! Get it off me!
Lyla Blue, all dolled up with markers. The hand-scrawled note on this photo print said "Slash's Wife, I swear." Anybody recognize her from the back?
Hydra Thunder?
The conceit of this fighting game was that the warriors' tattoos, you see, would, like, come to life and attack the other player and stuff. Cool, huh? No. In any case, this guy--who we'll call, oh, I don't know, "Liu Johnny Kang Cage"--unleashes the power of his two-headed dragon on...himself, apparently.
The Nancy Kerrigan clone goes for a ride courtesy of someone or something named Truck.
Why, God, why?
I don't know if that's supposed to be a pickaxe or a lightning bolt or something else entirely, but I know this: He missed her knee.
Hey, I'm speechless.
The secret to winning at Tattoo Assassins? Two words, my friend: Skull vomit.
My attacker has a first name, it's O-S-C-A-R...
What you are seeing is real. Better still, this photo print of a giant weiner was accompanied by some handwritten text on the border: "Don't be one--I need ink for our new upright Tattoo Assassins." And what better way to get it than by enticing gamers with pugilistic pork products?
So *that's* what happened to Kukla, Fran, & Ollie
Or perhaps they don't.

Flyers & Other Images

The front of the Tattoo Assassins flyer. Thanks to Alphacat for the scan. Click for larger version.

The back of the Tattoo Assassins flyer. Thanks to Alphacat for the scan. Click for larger version.

Here's the article we ran in Flux on Gretchen, which includes some anecdotes about her role in Tattoo Assassins. This is circa 1994 or 1995. Click on it for a larger, readable version.

I am very grateful to Chris Bieniek, editor-in-chief of Tips & Tricks magazine and fellow old-school trivia maven, for providing me with a picture of the "Girls of Tattoo" promo poster. He has one and I have one (which was on the back of a coworker's door at GamePro for many years, until I showed an interest) but I have no idea how many others may be out there.

Jonathan Raines was kind enough to scan in the Tattoo Assassins article from the April 1995 issue of EGM2 (with Darkstalkers on the cover, if you're looking for it). Click for huge 500K+ versions.

There you have it--explosive diarrhea, not to mention projectile vomit.

If you wanted to get a menacing tattoo on your chest, I'm sure you'd choose an octopus, too.

Don't tell Takara, but his swords are made of cardboard. And keep your Maya comments to yourself.

Note the lower right corner screen. Bob Gale produced Back to the Future. And he came up with this game. Get it? GET IT?

The Tale of the Tester

Someone was nice enough to send in this recollection of a tester who had the displeasure of working on Tattoo Assassins. I've cleaned it up a bit, but whoever wrote this up, thank you! I'd love to give you credit if you want to come forward.

[This is] a game I tend to leave off my resume as a game tester. :) I did some testing on it. The game was made by Data East (later Sega Pinball), based out of Melrose Park, Illinois. It was a Mortal Kombat rip-off but the story and idea, I believe was written by one of the guys behind the movie Back to the Future [Bob Gale]--there was a DeLorean fatality in the game!

The game had the same button lay out as Mortal Kombat. It featured digitized graphics just like MK as well, but the hardware it was produced on didn't display as many colors on screen, so graphics were bland compared to Killer Instinct, which was ruling the day at the time. The game wasn't responsive, which was sad considered a lot of the combos where juggle based and responsiveness was the key.

There were quite a few characters. There was the biker guy named Truck, the ninja guy named Taka Hara, the amazonian Maya, and a stripper named Black Widow or Spider--I don't remember he name that well. There was a computer geek guy, there was Luke the Marine, and Billy the Indian, plus a few boss characters.

Some of the features of the game were nudalities (but nothing explicit), animalities (way before MK3), and well over 200 various fatalites, ranging from the weird to the funny-- in fact, you could just randomly hit buttons and get a fatality. Each character had their bodies adorned with tattoos, which gave them their various powers and fatalities. The Indian character, for example, had an eagle on his chest; one of his many fatalities was his eagle tattoo would come off his chest and crap on the other character, who would melt away. Each character had their own sets of fatalities, but a lot of the fatalities weren't character specific, like the Godzilla foot stomp fatality, or the fly swatter, or Cruise Ship fatality. As far a nudalities went, there would be a puff of smoke and your character would be naked, but with arms and hands in the appropriate places.

I remember that there was a very damaging move: up, right, up, right, up, right, up, right while holding block, then press punch. Your character would then turn around and fire acidic diarrhea at your opponent. If you got hit by it, say good-bye to 25% of your health.

Was the game cheesy? You betcha. Was it bad? Well, I've played worse fighting games out there. Was it released? I don't know about that. Ask around, maybe someone has it. It was neat working on it, but I have since moved on to better game testing and designing opportunities.

An Insider's Report

I am shocked, delighted, and a little embarassed to reveal that a person from the original programming team contacted me about Tattoo Assassins after seeing this site, and I am extremely grateful to that person for the anonymous info you're about to read. This person assures me that the source code still exists, and that only two machines are believed to exist featuring the final code. I think I can safely say that now we know EXACTLY what happened to Tattoo Assassins, and I hope you find this as fascinating an account as I do...

I was both proud and highly amused when I stumbled across your web page. TA deserves every bit of scorn and dripping sarcasm you have to give her :-)

Tattoo Assassins was the brainchild of Data East Pinball's head of engineering, Joe Kaminkow. He had become buddies with Bob Gale after DE did the Back to the Future pinball, and from time to time Bob would send Joe his latest movie script. One of these scripts involved tattoos that came to life and did battle with each other, and it was here that Joe got the idea for a video game. MK2 was in the process of becoming the biggest arcade hit in recent history, so in typical DEP fashion Joe decided to do a rip-off of MK2. We'd have more hidden moves and fatalities than anyone had ever dreamed of, and we'd tie everything together with a Hollywood film shoot to get the hype machine going full tilt. He then sold DE Japan on the idea, which was impressive since before TA (and after) DEP only manufactured pinball machines.

As you may be aware, DEP (and then SEGA Pinball and then Stern Pinball) have always been known for cranking out sub-standard pins. The primary reason for this was lack of engineering manpower. While development teams at Williams would get a whole year to design, program & play test a given model, their counterparts at DEP were given only 3-6 months. To his credit, DEP survived because Joe was so good at snagging the best licenses for our pins, i.e. Star Wars and Jurassic Park.

The team was promised $25,000 bonuses and $25 per game manufactured if we could make it to production within 8 months. This was a pretty juicy carrot, and we all hung out our tongues and nodded our heads and began chasing it like fools. Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and all that but I think you will agree that the deadline was ridiculous considering we had no video game experience whatsoever amongst us.

During the whole project, we were required to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. Our lunch and dinner were take out - paid for by the company, which was great, but the purpose was to keep us from going out and having an hour long lunch or dinner break away from our desks. Every meal was a "working" meal, meaning we would have meetings in the conference room as we ate to keep from interfering with the "real" work. If we were late to work, or left early, we would be threatened with having some of our $25,000 bonus docked. The "carrot" had become a big baseball bat we were beaten with almost daily. One guy walked out after having his bonus docked for coming in at noon, and he quit on the spot. The next day he was placated and he came back. I remember this moment vividly--working away at 3:30 a.m. one morning. I was so physically exhausted that I casually leaned over to the garbage can and vomited, after which I went right back to tapping away. My fingers never left the keyboard.

Our biggest deadline was the ACME convention. We made it there with a game that played, but there were no special moves for any characters except for one electric zap thrown in for A. C. Current just before we got on the plane. The game was a joke but no one seemed to notice--we were congratulated at having made it that far, which was impressive only if you knew the whole story. One guy at the show made a point over and over again that he could get through the entire game start to finish by pounding the electric zap button over and over with one finger. I wanted to beat him senseless.

The biggest problem at this point was that we were all completely burned out. We knew the game was crap, and that we were no longer capable of fixing it. After we got back from the show, we were so "crispy" that we no longer cared about the money--our only true reward for finishing up was that we wouldn't have to work on it anymore. The artwork looked pretty bad because it had all been a rush job to make the show. This was an incredible shame because the artists were so talented, but their talent were being scuttled in dealing with the crappy video source. New artists were brought on to help pitch in, but it was too little too late.

New games like Primal Rage and Killer Instinct came out, and they blew Tattoo Assassins away. We resisted violently any attempt to change the game to make it better, because that would mean we would be working on it longer--I've since read about this attitude being common in projects under high pressure. The artists were hoping that the programmers would come up with some new game play feature to make the game sell regardless of the art. The programmers were hoping that the artists would miraculously beautify things so that the game would sell regardless of the game play. One programmer stopped working almost entirely in the hopes of getting fired--he had signed a three year contract and would have to be paid off in a huge way if he got fired. He wanted out anyway to go get married and start his own dot-com.

DEP got sold to SEGA in the meantime, but we were kept on the DE payroll for the next couple of months to finish things up. Things just sort of died and we all got put back on pinball.

Some other trivia: Bob Gale was indeed involved in the project. He came up with the characters and story. Bob is a real stand up guy. He doesn't have the ego that you'd expect. He'd send us these enormous fruit baskets all the time with a case of Heineken - those nights usually degraded into Doom matches across the LAN.

Our director for the Hollywood shoot was Mike Marvin, Bob's buddy. Mike has directed several low budget films, most notably The Wraith. Bryan James (remember Leon from Blade Runner?) showed up at the shoot for a couple of hours--he had been in one of Mike Marvin's movies, I can't remember which.

Karla Keller was never going to be "Nancy," although that was who she was obviously modeled after. Lyla Blue was indeed Slash's wife. TA was actually developed within Data East Pinball in Chicago, IL. We had a working relationship with Slash because of the Guns and Roses pinball we did. His wife is a professional model, naturally.

I remember our testers. One of them posted some really scathing stuff to Usenet. We had several of our competitors' games in the lab with our TAs, and we'd have to go down to the lab every half hour to make them go back to playing our game. We couldn't *pay* people to play TA it seems :)

Tattoo also appeared in EGM2, some kiddy vid rag. I've got a copy of that lying around too. They had a shot of the diarrhea blast in there if you can get a copy.

Email Dan with your comments or further information about this turkey.