Ah, the past. What a wonderful time for videogames of every kind. No patch updates, no online opponents to make you feel depressed about your lack of button-pressing prowess. Just a range of simple challenges, usually served up in convenient, bite-sized doses that you could either play for a couple of minutes or immerse yourself in for hours as you saw fit.
It wasn’t all about fancy graphics back then, either. And you could play an arcade machine all afternoon and still have enough money for the bus fare home. But if we can remove our rose-tinted glasses for a moment, it’s important to remember the drawbacks of those old games, too – which brings us onto the subject of this article: horrifying noises.
We’re talking about the sorts of sounds that either made us jump in fear, had us clutching our ears in agony, hammering buttons in a panic, or squinting at the screen with confusion. A gamut of emotions for a range of sounds, then, from nasty warbles to truly unpleasant digitised speech. In many instances, the games themselves are true classics, but the sounds we’ve picked out, for a variety of reasons, continue to haunt us to this day.
10. Screaming baby Mario – Yoshi’s Island (Super Nintendo)
Before we go any further, we must state the obvious: Yoshi’s Island is quite possibly the finest platform game on the Super Nintendo, and one we still return to all these years later. Arriving late in the SNES’ lifecycle, its creators introduced a charming hand-drawn world apparently rendered with crayons and marker pens, which means it still looks fresh and modern even now.
Beneath that cute exterior, however, lurked a heart of stone. Early levels may have been simple enough, with Yoshi invulnerable to attacks and capable of killing shy guys with carefully-aimed jumps or one of his bullet-like eggs, but later levels became fiendishly difficult, with insta-kill drops, spikes and labyrinthine level designs. Mario – appearing here as an infant – was also a liability, and would float off screaming into the breeze whenever Yoshi took a hit. Baby Mario’s constant wailing added an extra layer of stress and panic to trickier stages, as the player scrambled to save their protectee and their own crumbling sanity.
9. The very first note in Wizball (Commodore 64)
Wizball was an extremely nifty scrolling shooter courtesy of Jon Hare (later co-founder of Sensible Software and designer of Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder), with an engaging, unusual weapons system and a really weird story about a spherical wizard and his pet ‘Catellite’.
Great though the game itself was, the opening note – a sort of 80s approximation of a sustained whine from an electric guitar – is absolutely terrifying. No matter how many times we loaded the game up in our youth, and in spite of our lasting affection for the work of chiptune composer Martin Galway, nothing would ever prepare us for that deafening first howl from the speakers, which would often cause the shocked upset of a bowl of Coco Pops, or the anguished shriek of a nearby cat.
Mind you, when you hear the same tune again played on a proper electric guitar, played with fleshy fingers and everything, it begins to take on a new sense of rock majesty. Behold:
8. Gargling – Fantasy World Dizzy (ZX Spectrum)
As well as featuring some loveably bouncy music courtesy of David Whittaker, the Dizzy series of 8-bit adventure games also, on occasion, harboured an abrupt blast of scratchy digitised speech. In 1988’s Treasure Island Dizzy, the excitably recited line, “Okay, it’s loaded!” acted as a clarion call for youngsters who’d wandered off to have their tea while the game took its requisite 10-or-so minutes to load.
The opening speech at the start of 1989’s Fantasy World Dizzy sounded slightly worse for some reason, with the voice shouting the game’s title sounding remarkably like Nic Cage gargling with bees at the end of The Wicker Man remake. Fortunately, Whittaker’s bouncy theme tune quickly kicked in, and that garbled voice of Satan was soon just a memory.
7. Drowning music – Sonic The Hedgehog (Mega Drive)
There’s a bit near the beginning of Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner, where replicant Leon (played by Brion James) is being subjected to the Voight-Kampff test, which is designed to distinguish real humans from the artificial variety. One of the series of questions put to Leon, as the Voight-Kampff machine breathes ominously in the background, is about a turtle lying helplessly in the desert. “You’re not helping, Leon,” says inquisitor Holden, as Leon sweatily considers the scenario’s possibilities. “Why aren’t you helping?”
The subject of this entry does precisely the same thing, albeit at a faster pace. Allow Sonic to remain submerged in water for too long, and this little piece of music plays over and over again, gradually increasing in speed until Sonic is either dead or back on dry land. “Sonic’s drowning,” the music seems to say. “Why are you aren’t you helping? Why aren’t you helping? Why aren’t you helping?” And so on.
If you were to play this cycle of notes in a bank during a robbery, we’re certain the villains would panic, run around in circles for a minute, crash into one another, then collapse on the floor in a flood of tears.
6. Sinistar’s roar – Sinistar (Arcade)
An unrelentingly hectic entry in the multi-directional shooter, Sinistar was released during Williams’ golden age, with 1982 also seeing the release of Joust and Robotron: 2084. Sinistar was notable for its titular boss, an intimidating giant skull which goaded the player with such sound bites as, “Beware, I live!” and “I am Sinistar!”
Most terrifyingly of all, Sinistar would occasionally emit a primal roar, which when heard at high volume, was enough to have youngsters everywhere cowering before the arcade machine in fear. Even now, that digitised scream sends a shiver down our spines.
5. Eerily soulless scream – Impossible Mission (Commodore 64)
“Another visitor. Stay a while. Stay forever,” the mad genius Professor Elvin Atombender chortled at the start of this classic platformer. It was a surprisingly good bit of sampled speech for the time, and the low pulsing sound in the background really made you feel as though you were sneaking around a high-tech underground lab. In fact, the sound in Impossible Mission was extremely well-done for the most part, with the protagonist’s footsteps making little echoing thuds as he padded around the various lifts and gantries, while security robots menaced him with crackles of electricity.
But it has to be said that the scream that emerged from the speakers when your secret agent fell down a hole was one of the most unsettling in 80s gaming – not because it was piercing or poorly sampled, but because it sounded so disturbingly soulless. Listen to it again. Does that sound like a spy falling to his doom, or a lonely homeowner shouting impotently at an expensive gas bill? Chilling.
4. Almost every noise – JailBreak (Arcade)
The mid-80s saw Konami at the peak of its creative powers, with a string of classics including Gradius, Green Beret, Shaolin’s Road, Twinbee, Yie Ar Kung Fu and Contra. These arcade games (some of which were highly influential) were followed by several remarkably faithful ports to the Nintendo Entertainment System, making Konami one of Japan’s most prolific and consistent developers.
JailBreak, released in 1986, was popular enough at the time to be ported to all sorts of home systems, but it’s rarely discussed these days. This could be because it was incredibly difficult – but then, all Konami’s games were – or maybe because of its disquieting subject matter, which saw a psychotic law enforcer gun down escaped convicts in an 8-bit bloodbath. It’s also possible that its eccentric range of sound effects put people off in the long term.
The usual range of thuds and whooshes accompany bullets and explosions, while convicts go “Ooh!” and “Aagh!” when shot. But these sounds are overlaid by all kinds of horrible sirens and whines, plus there are skimpily-dressed women saying, “Help, I’m over here,” in posh comedy lady voices, and small children whining constantly. Heard at top volume, the resulting backwash is nothing short of cacophonous.
3. Assorted screeches – Pac-Man (Atari 2600)
When Pac-Man thundered into arcades in 1980, it became an immediate phenomenon, with its jaundiced lead character immortalised in cartoons, board games, pop songs and bubble gum cards. It took two years for the official port to arrive on the Atari 2600, which should have marked Pac-Man’s triumphant (and official) arrival on household television screens.
Unfortunately, the port was infamously botched, and looked more like a surrealist’s impression of the arcade game rather than a faithful translation; ghosts flickered from place to place, making them almost impossible to avoid, while the mazes bore almost no resemblance to the original at all. Then there was the sound. The diminutive Atari 2600 couldn’t hope to recreate the distinctive wocka-wocka effect that made the coin-op sound so distinctive, but did we really need that hideous two-tone screech that marked the start of each round? And why was each munched pill accompanied by the computerised honk of a tuba?
Carried along by the sheer hunger for the Pac-Man brand, the conversion sold seven million copies in spite of its shoddy coding. Imagine the cries of anguish, mixed with the horrible electronic bleeps and parps, as an entire nation first plugged their Pac-Man cartridges into their Ataris in 1982. A truly dark moment in history.
2. Evil space birds – Phoenix (arcade)
This 1980 Galaxian-like shooter from Amstar soothed players into a false sense of security with a bleeping rendition of the classical guitar piece Spanish Romance before unleashing its deadly aural assault. From the second play commenced, Phoenix pummelled the ears with a succession of sirens, wails and digital screeches – meaning that its noises were infinitely scarier than its winged opponents.
Flapping birds hurtled down the screen to a piercing accompaniment, while an otherwise thrilling boss encounter (which entailed chipping away at the underneath of a giant flying saucer until the vulnerable alien in the middle was laid bare) was joined by a whine so keening that dogs near seaside amusement arcades reportedly threw themselves into the Atlantic to get away from it.
By way of apology, the makers of Phoenix placated customers with a quick blast of Beethoven’s Fur Elise between bouts, before unleashing the sonic horror once again in the next round. Incredibly, the chap playing Phoenix in the video above manages to play for almost four minutes without screaming for mercy.
1. Shouting and laughter – Ghostbusters (ZX Spectrum)
Ah, Ghostbusters on the ZX Spectrum – a videogame tie-in so good, we could only bear to play it once. In fact, it says quite a lot about Activision’s rendering of the hit movie that, almost 30 years later, all we can remember is the terrifying first few seconds. Upon loading, the game would abruptly scream, “Ghostbusters!” followed by a maniacal cackle and a chiptune rendition of Ray Parker Jr’s hit theme song.
The loading screen reveals that the speech belongs to one David Aubrey Jones, a programmer responsible for such 8-but games as Deathstar Interceptor and H.E.R.O. Thanks to YouTube, Jones’ ear-splitting contribution to our formative gaming years has been preserved for posterity.