A Brief History of Retro Horror Gaming

Horror games have been around since the early 1970s. Let's take a look back at the birth of one of gaming's most popular genres...

More than 40 years since the first horror game hit arcades, the genre is still going strong. Why? For the same reasons that people still watch horror movies today – they are fun, and, on a deeper level, they tap into our shared fears about death and the unknown. Scary titles have been around since the birth of the video game industry.

We thought it would be fun to take a look back at some of the most notable retro horror titles. Some of these will be as familiar to you as the hoodie you wrap around yourself to keep away the chill on brisk autumn nights. Others will be mere curiosities, forgotten relics of an arguably simpler time. Yet despite their individual merits or flaws, they all share a noble goal: to scare the crap out of you. Let’s take a look a look at what retro titles from the early generations of gaming (roughly 1972-93) tried to thrill and chill you.

Perhaps the earliest “scary” game of note is Sega’s Killer Shark. Originally released in 1972, the game had players attempting to destroy a massive shark by firing a light gun at it. Although the gameplay was crude and rudimentary, Killer Shark remains a favorite among retro connoisseurs to this day, thanks to its great cabinet graphics and the fact that it was featured onscreen briefly in Jaws.

Ten years after Killer Shark was first unleashed upon the gaming public, Atari forever changed the way people spent their free time by releasing the Atari 2600 game console. Now, even your grandmom could be diagnosed with a case of video game fever thanks to the huge array of cartridge games that were available.

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Back in the 1980s, Atari’s graphics weren’t exactly great, due to the technological limits of the era. To mask this shortcoming, they gave each of their titles elaborate cover art. Arguably, the best illustration was that for the Haunted House game, which featured wide open, terror struck eyes, an upside down hanging bat and a spider building a web (you can see the illustration above). This imagery was simple but effective, tapping into potential players’ primordial need to be scared. Too bad the game was such a dud.

Even though today it is widely considered to be the very first survival horror title, the unfortunate truth about Haunted House is that it was more stupid than scary. Players, represented by a set of eyes, had to wander around a house in the dark collecting items and constantly bumping into things. Not exactly Silent Hill territory, but it was a very important start.

On the heels of Haunted House, Wizard Video Games released a cartridge based on John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1983. This was awesome. Take a look:

First off, the 8-bit rendition of Carpenter’s classic Halloween theme doubtlessly inspired countless chiptune bands. Then there is the casual violence, the exact type of which would get Splatterhouse (more on that one in a bit) into hot water less than a decade later. The deaths in this game are sudden and brutal. Just look at the way the blood spurts from Tommy Wallace’s head. Sheesh. It’s a good thing Tipper Gore didn’t know about this one. Point to ponder: Does this game capture the spirit of the source material better than Rob Zombie’s remake?

Although not horror per se, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Activision’s Ghostbusters game. Released in 1984 at the height of bustin’ mania, it does the impossible by capturing the immense fun of its big screen inspiration. This is thanks to game designer David Crane, the man who previously brought us Pitfall and went on to create innovative titles like Little Computer People and the underrated A Boy and His Blob. From the opening title screen, which features a follow-the-bouncing-ball rendition of Ray Parker Jr.’s megahit, to the then-revolutionary inventory control/upgrade portion of the game, it was clear that Activision’s Ghostbusters was something truly special. At least on the C-64. For whatever reasons, much of the title’s weird inventiveness didn’t port over to other systems and consoles nearly as well. Bummer.

In 1985, some much needed, er, life was breathed into arcades struggling with the video game crash thanks to Ghosts ‘n Goblins. This side-scrolling masterpiece remains one of the most addictive and fun entries from the golden age of videogames. While the game was successful enough to spawn a franchise that includes follow-ups like Ghouls and Ghosts and Maximo, it never quite captured the imagination of a Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog. Probably because Sir Arthur couldn’t keep his pants on. (For another look at a videogame from 1985 that featured a protagonist who was often in his underpants, check out The Rocky Horror Show for the Commodore 64).

While players were trying to keep Sir Arthur’s armor on in the arcades, home gamers faced a more daunting task: avoiding getting killed by Jason Voorhees in Domark’s Friday the 13th: The Computer Game. This bizarre Commodore 64 title from 1985 was all about keeping players unnerved, from the idyllic sounds of “Teddy Bears Picnic” on the soundtrack to this image that would appear whenever a camper was killed:

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Yeah, so there’s that. It’s worth noting that Friday the 13th was later adapted by LJN for the NES in 1989. Although that game’s Jason makes for a cool looking action figure, it is the C-64 release that is more true to the spookiness of Camp Crystal Lake’s cinematic counterpoint.

Also released for the Commodore 64 in 1985 was Creative Sparks’ Mad Doctor. You probably have never heard of this one, but you should go through the trouble of searching for it. Playing as a, well, a mad doctor living in a small English village, you must find the body parts needed to make your own Frankenstein’s Monster. To achieve this goal you will either do some grave digging or just straight up murder townspeople who were foolish enough to go walking at night. Then you must avoid the pitchfork-wielding locals and make your way to a Stonehengy locale to bring your creation to life. Sounds fun, no? What is so great about Mad Doctor is that it gives you the opportunity to be evil for a bit. Trust us, there’s nothing like taking your frustrations out on an 8-bit simulation of an imaginary English townsperson.

Uninvited was a point-and-click game that debuted on the Apple Macintosh in 1986 before being somewhat revamped for the NES (with perhaps the most metal cover ever) in 1991. In it, players must explore a creepy abandoned house in search of their lost sibling. These days, the game seems about as menacing as The Oregon Trail, but at the time it felt groundbreaking. Uninvited was a gamechanger by using the forum of a video game to build a tangible sense of dread. It’s influence is still felt today, and for that we should all be grateful. Unless it gave you endless nightmares, in which case, oops.

Debuting in 1987 on American shores, Castlevania brought side-scrolling, vampire-killing fun to the NES, helping establish Konami’s reputation as a gaming innovator along the way. The Castlevania franchise now numbers over 30 games, including the most recent Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. Your idea of which of these is the most fun likely depends on which title you started with. (For the record, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse is our foreverlove).

In October of 1987, Lucasarts released Maniac Mansion, a game that still seems ahead of its time. This point-and-click adventure immediately resonated with audiences because of its humor, versatile gameplay (the characters you played with impacted the story, resulting in multiple outcomes), and memorable music. It was so popular that it spawned a lackluster NES port in 1990, as well as a tremendous-yet-forgotten TV series that ran for three seasons and featured many SCTV alumni, including Joe Flaherty as Dr. Fred Edison and Eugene Levy, who executive produced and starred in one episode as a meta version of himself. It also got a sequel, the equally excellent Day of the Tentacle, in 1993.

Maniac Mansion’s true legacy may very well be how it once and for all convinced gamers that a title doesn’t have to utilize a joystick to be worthwhile. It remains a game rich with fun and invention, which ultimately should be the point of these things in the first place.

It’s a far cry from their Pac-Man days, but Namco also got into horror gaming with the 1988 release of Splatterhouse. The original Japanese version of the game was absolutely gonzo in terms of unrelenting violence. Players take on the guise of a college student who has donned a Jason Voorhees-esque mask and make their way through a vast mansion in search of their missing girlfriend. Along the way they must slash and punch foes ranging from demons to, um, bubbles. Because of all the outrageous gore present, the game became a firestorm of controversy, especially when it was ported to the then-new Turbografix 16 console. When the heat died down, the sad truth was revealed that beneath all the excess Splatterhouse’s biggest crime was being an uninspired button basher.

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Speaking of controversy, no game in recent memory has caused as much of a kerfuffle as the 1992 Sega CD title Night Trap. Infamous for its violent content, suggestive sexuality, a starring role for Diff’rent Strokes star Dana Plato, and its unforgettable theme song, the game caused an uproar that helped establish the ESRB ratings system. But really, the uproar just really might have been about the dangers of singing about partying off-key.

In late 1992, Clinton was prepping for his first term, Nirvana was at the top of the charts, and Infogrames had recently released a title that, along with Doom, would come to define the next two decades of horror gaming…

The creators of Alone in the Dark released a Brundleflyian fusion of their influences upon an unsuspecting public, and the survival horror genre was, a decade after Haunted House hit stores, finally a sensation. It took familiar tropes like a creepy mansion and strange creatures and built a tapestry of thrills upon them. The puzzles were challenging, but never impossibly so, and the game left players wondering what was around each corner. For the first time, a computer game was generating its own scares. This was intoxicating to audiences, and so a revolution was born out of a pixilated Louisiana town of the 1920s.

Oh man. Doom. This was the game that exploded first-person shooters upon the public’s consciousness when it released in 1993, while also proving that giving free shareware levels to players can be a viable business model. But you probably know it best as the game that ate into your SAT prep score. Doom changed everything. It went from an unassuming MS-DOS game to a global phenomenon (let’s just pretend the film didn’t happen though, okay). It shook up the whole of the gaming industry, and caused console makers to briefly panic. If there’s a patient zero for all that videogames have spawned over the last 20 years, it can probably be traced to Doom. We’ll leave it to you to decide if this is ultimately a good or bad thing.

That’s our very brief history of retro horror gaming. Did we miss any other classics? Tell us in the comments!

A version of this article ran on October 31, 2014.