Dark as hell; deeply morbid; sick and twisted. That’s Twisted Metal Black.

It’s not as though we didn’t see it coming. The first Twisted Metal game, released for the PS One in 1995, was extra bizarre. Maybe it was the photorealistic renderings, combined with the aggressive, weapons-based combat. Maybe it was that depraved voiceover screaming, “Yeeeah!” in the background whenever I died. Whatever it was, Twisted Metal worked, and I felt unclean whenever I played it. Those contestants were not healthy people, particularly that green-haired clown in his polka-dotted ice cream truck.

Twisted Metal 2 was the most popular entry in the series, and it took Calypso’s car competition global—not only to L.A., but to NY, Paris, Moscow, and Antarctica. Although Twisted Metal 2 nerfed Hammerhead, the huge monster truck from Twisted Metal 1, the sequel also introduced fan favorite Axel, the human fused with an, um, axel with two truck wheels for arms. Did it make sense? No. It did not make sense. That didn’t make it any less awesome.

Then, for a few years, the series lost its way. Developer SingleTrac handed the franchise off to 989 Studios, who developed a new game engine from scratch. They released Twisted Metal 3 and Twisted Metal 4 to mixed reviews—the car physics were state-of-the-art TruPhysics (they sucked), and the games had zero input from David Jaffe, the original creator of the franchise.

Thankfully, Incognito Entertainment took over, and in 2001, they released Twisted Metal Black for the PS2. I still remember the hype on the message boards and in magazines at the time: “The original creators are back!” “David Jaffe is directing again!” “This is going to be darker and more disturbed than every other Twisted Metal!” What a joy—and horror—when Twisted Metal Black was everything we hoped it would be. It was the restoration of a floundering franchise, and 13 years have done nothing to dim its star.

The storyline is classic, deal-with-the-devil fare—Calypso is holding a car destruction derby tournament to the death, and the last man or woman standing will have a single wish granted. This part wasn’t new—it’s been the plot of every single Twisted Metal game, before or since. So what was new? It was the overriding morbidity. Yes, previous Twisted Metal games were dark, but they retained a sense of humor–a detached comic book aesthetic—to distance you from the horror.

Black, on the other hand, played it almost completely straight. Every entrant in the contest—and there were 15 of them—was a resident of Blackfield Asylum, a loony bin for criminally insane, lost causes. And boy, were these people lost. There was DollFace, a creepy girl/woman with a doll’s mask locked onto her head—so tightly, that it deformed her skull and caused brain damage. There was Grimm, a Vietnam war veteran with a taste for human flesh.

And of course, there was Sweet Tooth, re-imagined as an undead, serial killing clown; hellfire burning on his head for all eternity. It’s amazing, really—that a fictional child murderer has become such a recognizable, beloved icon to so many gamers. Take this choice quote for example: “I was out like the dying heartbeat of a little girl.” Wholesome, no?

I loved these short films—each character got their own backstory and motivation, and it drove the replay value through the roof. You got three films per main character—the first film played when you started your campaign, and it introduced you to your driver. You got another film at the midpoint when you defeated Minion, and you got the third film when you defeated Warhawk in the final deathmatch.

The mid-film was always the flashback, which told the psychotic history of your character. The final film was where Calypso fulfilled your wish—always in a bloody, darkly ironic fashion. My favorite story? Probably the one about No-Face—a palooka boxer, whose eyes and tongue were cut out by a vengeful doctor. That tale had everything going for it, especially the horrific surgery. You’ll never think of opera music in the same way again. 

All of this would mean nothing if the gameplay didn’t hold up. But it does—even now— in a way that’s seldom been duplicated. The cars drive exactly how you hoped they would, with weight and responsive controls. When you pulled a hairpin turn, your car steered in the exact manner you needed it to. When your car skidded, it did so sparingly, and never in a manner that was overly punitive. No one plays a Twisted Metal game to get a realistic driving experience. Unlike in Twisted Metal 3, the car physics in Black served the enjoyability of the game—not the other way around.

The weapons were fantastic and varied. Of course, you had your fire missiles and homing missiles—those were the bread and butter of your offense. But you could also launch a gas can, which would explode on impact, and you could call down a satellite missile strike on an unsuspecting opponent.

And lastly, every character had his or her own Special move, that was unique to each vehicle. My favorite Special was Preacher’s—he would launch a suicidal, religious zealot, who would scream, “REPENT!” before blowing himself up on your windshield. Most iconic, however, was Sweet Tooth’s Special—the ice cream truck transformed into a clown robot, which launched a fatal barrage of missiles. Whenever you saw the transformation, you knew shit was about to get real. You ran. You ran like your life depended on it, because it did.