Retro Horror: Were They Ever Scary?

Jonny Casino

I love horror games.  I’m an emotion junkie and horror games really get me going.  Jump scares get my adrenaline pumping.  Suspenseful moments increase my heartrate 10-fold.  One of my favorites situations is when I think something is going to happen and it doesn’t.  When I finally let me guard down, BAM, something flies at you.

Nowadays, it’s easy to find a game scary enough to make you crap your pants.  Games like Outlast leave you in a haunted insane asylum without weapons.  Resident Evil 2 and 3 remakes have you face gruesome enemies that like to jump out at you.  The Dead Space trilogy mixes fast action with pants soiling horror.  Whatever your preferred flavor of fear is, you can easily find it.

With all the horror games available now, I started wondering if these scares were available when I was a kid.  If I had been older in the NES and SNES eras, would my desire for fear be met through video games?  Going into this, my assumption was that I wouldn’t be able to find anything truly scary.  It had to be difficult with the available technology, but I kept myself hopeful. 

My first thought was to just go through every game I could find with a spooky name.  I knew this would be a waste of time, so I went to the most reliable source for all information, the internet.  The combination of sites leads me to believe that Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Castlevania, and Monster Party are the scariest games on the NES.  So far, my heart isn’t racing at all.

Nightmare on Elm Street

I’ve played Castlevania several times.  It’s an amazing game but its not scary.  The enemies (dragons, ghouls, ghosts, etc.) are scary creatures, but they don’t feel scary in the game.  The most that can be said is that you might fear facing them due to their difficulty.  The lack of fear doesn’t make this bad game.  It’s a fantastic game.  The problem is that I am looking to be scared.

Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th are similar games.  Both of them are based on movies that gave hundreds of kids nightmares.  At the time, these movies were scary as hell.  The issue, once again, is that this didn’t translate into terror in the game.  The enemies are ones that everyone knows are scary, but, as little 8-bit sprites, your heart rate won’t increase at all.  The best thing I discovered while playing these is that they are actually still fun.

Monster Party was the closest I found to horror.  Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t scary.  What this game did right was have a very gruesome background.  You play as a kid with a bat, who sometimes gets transformed into a dragon that shoots something out of his mouth.  The game is a lot of fun and I plan to keep playing it.  Sadly, still no heart rate increase or nightmares.

When it comes to the SNES, the fear outlook isn’t much better.  Games like Laplace no Ma and Clock Tower: The First Fear show that eerie storytelling is improving.  The story can do a lot for fear, but it doesn’t do enough.  You have to have the atmosphere or jump scares.  Scary stories around the campfire work because its dark.  The recipient needs to feel like they are in the situation.  It feels like that can’t be possible with the SNES. 

The “horror” game that topped most lists made me laugh.  Zombies Ate My Neighbors was often the best horror game of the SNES, but this was not based on the scare factor.  This game is amazingly fun and a great co-op option.  It’s a little goofy and not scary at all.  Yes, you are fighting zombies, but just like 8-bit, 16-bit zombies aren’t scary. 

Zombies ate My Neighbors

I eventually just attempted to search out the first truly scary game.  This ended up being more difficult than I expected.  The best I could find was a game called Alone in The Dark, released on PC in 1992.  The game has all the elements of a good horror game except the technology.  The sounds are there.  The element of the unknown behind every door is there.  The evil creatures are there.  This should be a solid horror game.

As I watched gameplay of Alone in The Dark, I felt no fear.  Part of this could be that I wasn’t actually playing.  The other part is that the game just didn’t feel scary.  The graphics were pixels and didn’t feel real.  The game wasn’t dark enough.  I never felt like I could be in there with the character.  I wonder if its just a matter of comparing it to scary games now.  Maybe kids were scared by this back in the ‘90s.  Keeping this question in mind, I had to search my memory for when I first found true fear in a video game.

Resident Evil 2 was the scariest game of my childhood.  This was the first game called a survival horror, but it wasn’t the first game to scare the crap out of me.  In 1993, Doom was released, and it was amazing.  Any kid who played it back then would have to tell you it scared them.  How could it not?  You are playing in first person and trying to gun down demons from hell. 

My problem labeling Doom as the first horror game that scared me is that it’s not the horror that got me.  I don’t remember the demons feeling scary in and of themselves.  I don’t remember the atmosphere feeling ominous.  I just remember being scared because bad guys were coming at me quickly. 

Doom

The biggest scare I ever had from Doom made me jump out of my chair.  We had just installed good speakers on our PC.  I had them cranked up and I cheated my way to the final area of the game.  The boss was nowhere to be found so I just spun in a circle.  All of a sudden, BOOM!!!  The boss had shown up and shot me.  The Speakers about blew out and I jumped sky-high.  This scare was real, but it wasn’t because the game was scary.  I was just an idiot kid.

As I dig down deep and find the games that haunted my dreams, two come to mind.  The first game I felt was truly scary was Myst, released on PC in 1994.  This is a game where you move around an empty island, interacting with everything you can.  Basically, you are trying to solve puzzles.  Honestly, I don’t know that this was trying to be a horror game.  There weren’t any jumps or scary creatures.  It was just the feeling that the island gave.  I felt incredibly uneasy as I played this.

The other game was The 7th Guest, released on PC in 1993.  Now this game was horror and I remember it doing that well.  The gameplay is all about solving puzzles, which I loved.  The fear comes from the feel of the mansion and the ghosts acting out the events of the night.  You are trying to help a young boy escape with his life.

Once again, the game being in first person helps a lot with making the player feel as if they are in the scene.  Without that, the fear factor might have bee much lower.  Even though this came out in the SNES era, being a PC game meant more graphical power.  The ghosts were still not really scary, but they looked better than what the SNES could do.  Still, the mixture of story, ghosts, and ominous feel of the mansion made this game truly scary to 13 yr old me.

I’m not sure what I was hoping for as I dove into writing this.  I think it started as an excuse to try out more retro horror games.  In the end, my searching reinforced my idea that the NES and SNES could not produce a truly scary game.  Lucky for me, I wasn’t into those types of games until the PS1 came around, and that’s when the true scares were easy to find.


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