As Sheriff Leigh Brackett correctly stated in John Carpenter’s slasher classic, “It’s Halloween – everyone’s entitled to one good scare!” And scare us Halloween did, along with any number of horror movies before and since. But, with the day of pumpkins, trick-or-treaters, and apple bobbing almost upon us, this got us wondering: at what point did video games become scary?
These days, we fully expect modern video games to have us cowering behind our sofas, with present-day computers and consoles able to render all sorts of things you need for a properly scary story: rain, blood, that sort of thing. But way back in the mists of time, at the dawn of the video game medium, that kind of realism simply wasn’t possible.
Instead, the makers of early horror games had to come up with all kinds of creative ways to scare or unnerve players – and inevitably, some of these techniques worked better than others. So to celebrate Halloween, here’s a look back at 10 games from the ’80s and how they used blocky graphics and bleepy sounds to terrify the life out of us.
Haunted House (1982)
Memorable for its stunning box art (as were many Atari 2600 games), Haunted House was also one of the earliest – if not the earliest – attempts at interactive survival horror. Trapped in the title residence, you have to find an enchanted urn and head for the nearest exit, all the time avoiding bats, spiders, and the ghost of Mr. Graves, the mansion’s owner.
Fear factor: 5
Although hamstrung to a certain extent by the Atari 2600’s simple hardware, there’s something oddly disturbing about Haunted House. Maybe it’s because your on-screen character consists of nothing more than a pair of eyes, which glance anxiously about as you move from room to room. Or maybe it’s the weird minimalism of the sound and the single-colored walls of the mansion itself – the act of repeatedly charging around almost identical screens being like a blocky recurring nightmare.
The Evil Dead (1984)
Palace Pictures distributed Sam Raimi’s breakout horror classic The Evil Dead in the UK, and it was thanks to them that we ended up with Graham Humphrey’s stunning poster illustration, with its appropriately lurid colors and approving quote from Stephen King. A subsidiary of Palace – Palace Software – also made this 1984 video game tie-in, which appeared on the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum.
Like Haunted House, it’s essentially a top-down maze game, except you control Ash, who has to keep the demons from entering the infamous cabin in the woods. Tasks include closing windows to keep the demons out and killing possessed friends with an assortment of guns and sharp implements.
Fear factor: 3
Little touches, like the ominously moving swing on the veranda and the flickering embers in the fireplace, add atmosphere, as does the eerie absence of sound. Unfortunately, the tension’s undercut by the ease with which the possessed monsters die, and also the appearance of the demons themselves: depicted as a gas-like miasma, all semblance of fear is lost once you realize that Ash looks as though he’s running away from a deadly cloud of flatulence.
This belated film tie-in attempted to cram all the fear and suspense of Ridley Scott’s 1979 haunted house in space into an 8-bit computer, and programming duo John Heap and Paul Clansey did a remarkable job. Alien takes the form of a strategy game, with the aim being to either flush the dreaded xenomorph out of the Nostromo’s airlock or get to the escape ship with Jones the cat in tow.
Fear factor: 8
It might not look like much from the video above, but Alien is a quite brilliant exercise in slowly-building tension. The characters under your control – all named after the ones in the film – will sometimes refuse to follow orders if they get too scared. One of them’s an android intent on protecting the alien. Jones the cat likes some characters, but not others. And all the while, the xenomorph’s somewhere on the ship, waiting to pounce…
Go to Hell (1985)
A year after Evil Dead came this exceedingly strange horror game, which actually captures the gleeful Grand Guignol atmosphere of Sam Raimi’s movie a bit better than Palace Software managed to. Having ended up in the depths of hell, you have to navigate your way around its ghoulish network of caverns and find seven crosses in order to escape.
Fear factor: 5
A simple maze game though it is, Go to Hell is livened up considerably by its macabre graphics. Bodies are stretched on racks, a gigantic saw grinds through a screaming crimson skull, and bloodshot eyes glower out of the screen. The crude nature of the sprite design makes Go to Hell more comical than frightening, but then again, the gaudiness also gives the game a sort of neon-drenched, nightmarish air to it – like Hotline Miami, but with crucifixes instead of shotguns.
Games don’t come much more Halloween-themed than this little ’80s curio from Palace Software (the ZX Spectrum version even included a copy of Evil Dead on the B-side, fact fans). Apparently, Cauldron was originally planned as a tie-in game based on John Carpenter’s Halloween movie, but designer Steve Brown, unhappy with his work in progress, went off in an entirely different direction instead. A hybrid platform-shooter, Cauldron sees the player take control of a witch, who’s on the hunt for six ingredients – once chucked in her cooking pot, these will form a spell which she can use to defeat her mortal enemy, the Pumpking.
Fear factor: 4
Taking place beneath a full moon, and with locations later extending to gloomy, bat-filled caves and haunted dungeons, Cauldron certainly had a decent atmosphere, and for the time, the graphics are really colorful and detailed. It’s more like an interactive Saturday morning cartoon than a horror game, but its approachable sprite design masked an astonishingly high difficulty level, with bouts often ending in screams and blood-curdling howls of anguish.
The sequel, Cauldron II: The Pumpkin Strikes Back, was even better, and the witch on the cover looked like Bruce Forsyth in a green wig. No, really.
Soft & Cuddly (1987)
Go to Hell programmer John George Jones returned two years later with a game even weirder and grotesque than its predecessor. A flick-screen arcade adventure, the aim is to retrieve all the parts of your dismembered android mother, all the while avoiding assorted floating monsters and admiring Jones’ trademark nasty scenery, which this time includes conjoined babies, dismembered body parts, and a bouncing sheep.
Fear factor: 5
The “more comical than scary” comment from the Go to Hell entry also applies here, but it’s worth mentioning that Soft and Cuddly was mildly controversial at a time when graphic gore in computer games was still relatively unusual. Remarkably, Jones once claimed in a Sinclair User interview that Soft & Cuddly was originally more gory and violent, but he changed the graphics before release.
Mind you, he did also state that “My game is the best game ever written,” so maybe we should take this with a pinch of salt.
Fun fact: Soft & Cuddly‘s inlay art was created by fantasy illustrator Tim White, and also appeared on the cover of a 1985 H.P. Lovecraft story collection, Dagon and Other Macabre Tales.
Although better known for their cheerier output in the ’70s and ’80s, such as Pac-Man, Galaga, and Mappy, Namco took a trip to the dark side for Splatterhouse, a beat-em-up inspired by a legion of horror movies. The protagonist, Rick, is clearly modeled on Jason Voorhees, and the other film references are easy to spot, from demonic disturbances straight out of Evil Dead to mutated monsters from The Thing.
Fear factor: 6
More a straight action game than an exercise in creeping terror, Splatterhouse did still manage to throw in some moments to make unwary players jump. I still vaguely remember playing Splatterhouse in a coastal arcade and letting out a little yelp of fear when the hooded boss wielding two chainsaws leaped onto the screen.
It’s also worth mentioning Splatterhouse Wanpaku Graffiti (1989), a cute, Nintendo Famicom-only parody starring a super-deformed version of Rick, and even more TV and film references than its arcade parent. A vampiric Michael Jackson lookalike leads a Thriller-style zombie dance at the end of the first level; a girl has dozens of Alien-like creatures spring from her chest, then shrugs and wanders off; and in one hilarious scene, the player fends off demonic roast chickens as they leap out of a haunted oven.
British developer and publisher CRL really pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in gaming through the latter part of the ’80s, with the gory imagery in the likes of Jack the Ripper, Frankenstein, Dracula, and the subject of this entry, Wolfman, rewarded 15 or 18 certificates by the BBFC. Ironically, these claret-spattered graphics were largely extraneous, since all of these games were text adventures – interactive versions of classic tales or, in Jack the Ripper‘s case, a fictional story based on a true murder case.
Fear factor: 9
Although all of CRL’s games were really good at creating a creepy atmosphere, Wolfman was, in this writer’s estimation, the scariest from the opening paragraph. You wake up with your clothes torn, your hands covered in blood, and angry townsfolk gathered around the corpse of a woman outside.
Brilliantly written by Rob Pike, Wolfman casts the player as a monster who must find a way to control his killer instinct, and it’s impossible to sit through the game without an occasional shudder – proof that the scariest encounters rely not on dazzling graphics, but the player’s imagination.
A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday The 13th (1989)
In the late ’80s, the US toy company LJN began firing out licensed games at a ferocious rate – if you wanted them, there were movie tie-ins as varied as Jaws, The Karate Kid, Warlock, and Back to the Future – in fact, look closely at the second-hand shop window in Back to the Future II (the movie, not the game), and you’ll see a copy of Jaws for the NES prominently displayed.
Like most tie-ins in the late ’80s and ’90s, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th took the form of side-scrolling platform games. In the former, you rushed around in a dream world, punching rats and snakes and collecting the bones which formed Freddy Krueger’s corpse. In the latter, you ran around Camp Crystal Lake, trying to find weapons to kill Jason Voorhees.
Fear factor: 3
Although based on decidedly adult properties, neither game brought with it lashings of gore or terror, though Friday the 13th did feature a gigantic, floating head of Mrs. Voorhees. Truly the stuff of nightmares.
Sweet Home (1989)
Widely regarded as the creepy parent of the Resident Evil series, and the modern survival horror genre as we know it, Sweet Home was a pioneering adaptation of the Japanese movie of the same name, as overseen by its director, Kiyoshi Kurosawa. A top-down RPG, Sweet Home sees five characters hunting for an escape route from a mansion with a grim history – and just to add to the fun, the building’s teetering on the brink of collapse.
Fear factor: 8
Sweet Home was one of the earliest examples of a game that uses its mechanics to unnerve the player; weapons and supplies are in short supply, and once characters die, they’re gone for good. In fact, the later Resident Evil shares several elements in common with Sweet Home, aside from its mansion setting – the switching of play between characters, the use of an inventory with limited space, and the use of notes and other items to relate the building’s story.
Rather than attempting to pummel the player with jump scares, Sweet Home instead gradually builds a sense of claustrophobic unease. It may look like a basic game by current standards, but just look at how far video games traveled between 1982’s Haunted House and the end of the decade: with its reliance on puzzle solving and suspense rather than combat, Sweet Home pointed the way ahead for a new generation of survival horror.