Opinion: Top Ten Forgotten Horror Games
3D Monster Maze (1982)
A pioneering first-person experience set (as its name so helpfully points out) in a three-dimensional labyrinth inhabited by a T-Rex style beast, this produced a very retro kind of dread, where rounding a corner to see a badly-animated silhouette of a tyrannosaur leering towards you proved surprisingly alarming.
Though the game might appear rather quaint to today’s jaded eyes, in his brilliant TV one-off Gameswipe, writer, satirist and professional rant-merchant Charlie Brooker noted that 3D Monster Maze was “surprisingly frightening despite its Spartan visuals and complete lack of sound; partly because … seeing through the eyes of the character was a total novelty”. Brooker also pointed out that the player’s inability to fight back added to the sense of fear – and this sense of powerlessness would go on to become a crucial component of both early, and later, horror games.
Developed by point-and-click pioneers ICOM, Mac game Uninvited (1986) adopted the now cliched haunted house as its setting, with plot elements and concepts that would find their way into later horror games.
The game had the player enter an old, imposing mansion in search of their missing younger brother, only to reveal that a malevolent, hostile force had taken hold of the house. Ghosts, zombies and demonic creatures lay within (the result of dark sorcery, as it turned out) and everyday rooms in the interior were contrasted with more immediately creepy locales such as a tower and a maze.
Adding a sense of panic was the imposition of a strict time-limit (sadly removed for the NES port): if you had not solved the game’s mysteries by the end of the countdown you would be taken over by the mansion’s evil force. Though the sketched, simplistic graphics and matter-of-fact text-descriptions may look terribly old-fashioned by today’s standards, many gamers found it satisfyingly unnerving at the time – paving the way for similarly spooky titles to follow suit.
Sweet Home (1989)
Taking place in a haunted mansion, the game tasked the player with guiding five different characters around the house, solving puzzles and surviving attacks from creatures, these latter fight or flight moments taking the form of randomly generated battles. The top-down, scrolling graphics may have been basic, but the title worked hard to create a frightening atmosphere, with its violent imagery, spooky storyline and emphasis on ‘survival’ in the face of permanent character deaths. For its time, it was extraordinarily unusual and daring.
Several years later, a talented young developer by the name of Shinji Mikami was asked to create an updated successor to the game – and the end result, drawing upon Sweet Home’s intelligent mechanics and innovative approach, was Resident Evil.
The 7th Guest (1993)
Exploring another dark, sinister mansion that could now be presented in eye-catching 3D and actual video footage, it put the basic scenes of Uninvited in the shade, signalling a step-up in the visual rendering of horror scenes. Taking in elaborate traps, imprisoned desperates turning on each other, grotesque shocks and a killer twist, The 7th Guest was almost like a supernatural version of Saw II.
It contained objects that could kill you if you touched them, Rod Serling-esque narration and an impressively extensive audio track of quirky sound effects and music. The game has attracted a strong cult following; a legacy of its propensity to both frighten and intentionally amuse.
An intriguing creation from developers Riverhillsoft, this sci-fi horror was released in Japan six months after Resident Evil and made use of grotesque monsters and slow-burning atmosphere to unnerve the player.
The action began with player-character Raz Karcy (later dubbed ‘Wienerless Steve’ by Matt Helegson of GameInformer, due to his apparent lack of a certain appendage) awakening from cryo-sleep in a scientific research facility, with no memory of where he was, why he was there or what the hell was going on. From thereon in, the player set out to explore these surroundings and soon encountered more than they bargained for.
In many respects Overblood was similar to Resident Evil, taking in puzzle-solving, combat/chases with monsters and an interactive 3D environment; the key differences being that there were far fewer enemy encounters and the puzzles were far less stylised (but arguably more logical).
Pursued doggedly by an abominable creature through the subway system and sewers of Tokyo, the player’s only option in the absence of a combat mechanic was to run like hell. In this respect, it could be argued that Hellnight was as pure a survival horror as you can get, but despite being a bold and chilling experience it failed to capture a mainstream audience.
Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem (2002)
Complete with a time-travelling plotline and a sword & sorcery combat system atypical for horror games, GameCube masterpiece Eternal Darkness proved a thoroughly disturbing action-adventure.
The scale and fantastical elements of the intriguing plot marked this out as a much more epic and less intimate affair than previous, claustrophobic thrillers, but in the dread stakes Eternal Darkness really was something to behold. It mustered deeply foreboding environments, hideous foes and a haunting, choral soundtrack, but the game also introduced an inspired mechanic in the form of a ‘sanity meter’, which would be drained in response to the presence of evil. When this bar was completely depleted, the game would mess with your mind by manifesting your character’s madness in the form of disorientating and occasionally nauseating hallucinations, occurring in real-time.
Most impressive of all was when Eternal Darkness broke the fourth-wall in an ingenious, crafty and darkly humorous manner, reaching out from within the confines of its gaming dimensions to insinuate that you yourself were going crazy. For example, the sound might unexpectedly cut out, accompanied by a bright green ‘MUTE’ display on screen, or a message might appear stating that the console had just deleted all of your save files. In other words, it was nothing short of post-modern genius.
Call Of Cthulhu: Dark Corners Of The Earth (2005)
A genuinely intriguing horror FPS with some notable psychological flair, this took its cue from the outlandish, mystical nightmares of HP Lovecraft (and is heavily based on his tale The Shadow Over Innsmouth), taking the player on a mind-bending journey through cliched but no less frightening locations such as an abandoned mansion and insane asylum, to more bizarre environments such as an underwater city (complete with its own, near-unpronounceable Lovecraftian moniker).
Like Eternal Darkness the game made use of a ‘sanity metre’: when you encountered unsettling, dangerous or threatening sights, loss of sanity could result in visual or auditory hallucinations and play havoc with the controls; lose too much sanity and you died. Also marking the game out was its ‘realistic damage’ approach, whereby injury to the legs could lead to hampered movement and injury to the arms could impair the ability to aim ranged weapons effectively. Both of these things helped make Call of Cthulhu a satisfying scary and challenging experience, and though it may not have gone down in gaming history or spawned a fully-fledged series, it is one of the previous decade’s most accomplished horrors.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow Of Chernobyl (2007)
An FPS-RPG hybrid for the PC which bucked the trend for linear horror with its open-world gameplay, the first STALKER was set within an irradiated fall-out zone around the infamous Chernobyl plant.
Similar in set-up and execution to the hugely successful Fallout 3, which would ultimately overshadow S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s achievements upon its release a year later, the title nonetheless stands as an effectively atmospheric and unconventional take on the horror genre, at a time when more conventional and unimaginative shooters have become the norm. Its hellish post-apocalyptic gameworld stands out as one of the most unsettling of recent years.
Mark Butler’s book, Interactive Nightmares: A History of Video Game Horror, is out now to download for Kindle, PC, iPad, iPhone and Android.
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