The great thing about video games is their potential to immerse us totally in a fictional world. Even in their early days, with graphics that would make a Rubik’s Cube laugh scornfully, video games could capture the imagination and tap directly into our adrenal glands. That’s great if you want the buzz of drifting a ferrari, or exploding a star-cruiser. It’s slightly more worrying, though, when the video game’s sole objective is to make you @£$! your pants.
So steel yourself, brave gamer, as we take a journey through video game history and take a look at some of the… OH MY GOD LOOK BEHIND YOU!!
METROIDS!! (Metroid, 1986)
When home gaming was just beginning its golden-age, Metroid was a ground-breaking newcomer that seemed gargantuan and labyrinthine compared to its peers. Set on an eerie alien world, you took control of a futuristic bounty-hunter, and could wander for hours through haunting caverns filled with more dangerous indigenous lifeforms than Australia could shake a spider-infested stick at.
It wasn’t until the final level that the true horror began. Dropping suddenly into a laboratory-like environment where automated guns fired at you with alarming regularity was disconcerting enough; but then came the Metroids– hulking jellyfish-like abominations unlike anything you had encountered before. They were impervious to most of your weaponry, honed in on you with frightening speed, and once they caught you they didn’t stop leeching your energy until you were dead.
Metroids might seem like child’s-play to a modern gamer, but at the time, enemies with this kind of merciless attack-pattern were unprecedented. More worrying still is that you would have been leveling up your character throughout the entire game up to this point, modifying your energy and weapons capabilities until you felt damn near invincible. To have an enemy that made a nonsense of all your achievements suddenly ambush you was, to say the least, bowel troubling. Worst of all, if you were unfortunate enough to make it this far without obtaining the ice-beam weapon, the Metroids were impossible to kill. There hadn’t been a more horrifying surprise at the end of a game since John Doe from Se7en hosted Let’s Make A Deal.
LEECH AMBUSH!! (Splatterhouse, 1988)
In the late ’80s Splatterhouse carved its way into the arcades with all the subtlety of a rusty lump hammer. Squeezing every horror movie trope for all it was worth, Splatterhouse became a nightmare mishmash of grotesque demons, deadly poltergeists and womb-like abominations– all of which you could splat into wallpaper paste with a well-timed blow from your axe-handle. With hanging corpses that puked acid at you, and chainsaw-handed freaks getting all up in your grill, Splatterhouse was full of awful surprises–none more so awful than the boreworm ambush.
It started when you entered the first boss room, and instantly realised that you were totally boned. By this point you would yet to have encountered boreworms–they’re leech-like creatures that are fast and difficult to hit, a pain in the ass that rank right up there with the birds from Castlevania. And now you had wandered into a room where they were piled up like dirty laundry. What followed was possibly the most button-mashing, joystick-wiggling panic dance in arcade history, as you desperately tried to avoid being overwhelmed. Then, when you thought it was all over, the corpse that had been hanging by its neck from an open attic throughout the whole ordeal suddenly had a surprise for you– a final boreworm that burst from its chest, just in time to see you squeal like a girl. Perhaps not one of the first examples of a video game salute to the Thank-God-He’s-Dead-Oh-No-Wait-He-Isn’t horror trope, but certainly one of the most memorable.
WHY WON’T IT DIE!?!? (Resident Evil, 1996)
Although Resident Evil wasn’t the first game in its genre, it was the first of its kind to find a home on the massively popular Playstation games console, and is justly credited with bringing survival horror to the masses. It’s important to remember that up to this point, for many gamers, the entire concept of survival strategy in a horror game was summed up with “shoot stuff until stuff is dead”. A demon/zombie/girl-scout would charge you, and you would shoot it. Rinse and repeat. End of story. So when us innocent console gamers of the past piloted our clumsy Jill Valentines or Chris Redfields into their first zombie encounter, we really weren’t prepared for what came next…
The game’s focus on tense atmosphere, creepy music and a (for the time) ground-breaking cutscene couldn’t have prepared us for that first moment when, after pumping a zombie full of your limited pistol bullets, it got up from the ground and tried to eat the look of panic clean off your face. More shots, more blood, and still it came. Crawling now, and still moaning like some kind of ghostly cow. And God help you if you tried to take it on with the knife…
Sure, the rest of the game was mostly solving over-elaborate puzzles and hilariously bad dialogue, but for that one shining moment, when I fondly remember spending a full two minutes training a pistol on a computer sprite just incase it wasn’t really dead, Resident Evil raised the bar in video game terror.
DWARVES!!! ARRRRGH!! (Silent Hill, 1999)
Unlike Resident Evil, which became more about terrible plots and convoluted action sequences, Silent Hill dedicated itself entirely to creeping you out. Whether you were being chased through the dense fog by sinister mutants, or stumbling through a dark alternate nightmare world of blood and rust, Silent Hill used every trick in the book to keep you on edge.
Perhaps one of its cleverest tricks was the use of the radio and the torch. For those of you unfamiliar with either the game or the movie (shame on you, go rent one or both right now) the broken radio would emit a creepy burst of static whenever monsters were approaching, and with many of the levels being in total darkness, the torch would often be the only point of light in the game. The clever twist was that the very things that let you see and hear your enemies, also let them see and hear you…
This was first made apparent in the school level, where the abandoned, pitch-black corridors were patrolled by shuffling, mutant dwarf monsters. You could walk into a room with your radio and torch turned off and hear them moving around. You could choose to brave the dark and hopefully sneak past them, or you could use your torch and radio. Almost as soon as you turned the torch on the monsters would zero in on you, coming out of the shadows and into your circle of light like something out of a nightmare, while your radio crackled and whined the soundtrack to your imminent demise.
These days, the kind of lighting effects in games that allow a room to be lit by a portable light source are taken for granted, but at the time of its release the technology was still groundbreaking, and Silent Hill used it in a way that still stands up to modern games in terms of ruining a perfectly good pair of pants.
I’M LOSING MY MIND!! NEEEEEEEE!!!! (Eternal Darkness, 2004)
Eternal Darkness doesn’t make the scary-moments grade because its monsters are the most intimidating, or its atmosphere the most tense; it makes the grade because how it tries to scare you is by far the most fun and original way in video game history. Eternal Darkness tries to convince you that you’re losing your mind.
For those of you who haven’t played the game, please don’t read on. Go and find an old copy of the game and play it through. It’s not the best game out there, but there are certain moments that’ll make you glad you made the effort.
Now, for those who have played, you’ll likely remember the times when your character would suddenly return to a room only to find themselves walking on the ceiling, or that your television would appear to mute itself, or that your inventory would suddenly be wiped. Or maybe your game would pretend to to crash, or stop midway to tell you you’d only purchased a demo version. Or sprinkle power-ups around making you think you’d hit the jackpot, only to have the screen white out while your avatar clutched his or her head, bemoaning their lost marbles as you realize the power-ups were never there in the first place. Eternal Darkness was crammed with more “What the @£$%?” moments than Clint Eastwood’s entire history of political commentary.
Eternal Darkness may not have been a heavy-weight in the horror game circles- appearing only on the comparatively under-powered Game Cube system- but it achieved with originality and creativity what many slicker games failed to do with blood and guts.
Its easy to become jaded with horror themed games these days. After all, those of us who are grownup are less concerned with zombies and demons and more concerned with unemployment or that weird lump on our foot. And the younger kids? They’ve grown up with YouTube, and have thus become desensitised to the point that grizzled Vietnam veterans would shake their head in pity. But there are still great games out there bringing us brand new worlds, brand new monsters, and brand new ways to die. So here’s to the game developers, past and present, who have done their damnedest to momentarily take us out of the real world, and submerge us fully into a realm of spine-tingling terror. Thanks guys… I guess…
Steve also chronicled the ’80s with our Harsh Life Lessons learned from Classic Video Games. But if you want to see where horror meets failure, check out The 5 Worst Monsters In Resident Evil.