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Feature: Fun and Frights on Nintendo - Part 1

Posted by Thomas Whitehead

How horror has evolved

At this time of year, it’s no doubt common practice for many gamers to find their favourite scary game, turn off the lights and get into the Halloween mood. There’s something about frightful gaming experiences that's unique in the entertainment industry. Unlike horror movies or tense, nerve-wracking books, video game fear is a different beast; playing a game is an immersive, participatory experience, whereas we watch films unfold as spectators, with literature only allowing imagination within the bounds set by the narrative. In a game, the person holding the controller is master of their own fate, attempting to defeat the horror on their own.

In fact, we’ve already written about this in great detail: if any of you missed it, check out our fear in gaming feature from last Halloween. This year, and in this first part of a double feature, we’re going to give a brief introductory outline of some of the horror trends in home console Nintendo gaming and a sense of how scary games have evolved. In part two on Saturday, some of the Nintendo Life team will share their varying experiences and thoughts on this practice of playing in fear.

Firstly, let’s look at the era of scary sprites.

Not many bits, lots of terror

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest perhaps represented one of the earliest attempts at truly immersing the gamer in a frightening environment... in some regards it was ahead of its time

Looking back to the role of horror on the 8-bit NES, it’s a world apart from modern expectations of the genre. With the entire gaming landscape being based on 2D sprite-based graphics, there were limitations for what could be achieved. Nevertheless, it was possible to create gloomy, gothic environments with some creative programming and art design. In many respects, the three Castlevania titles released on the system still stand out as the best examples of the genre. While the first and third titles were action focussed, with the scares coming from well-known monsters and villains alongside intense difficulty, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest perhaps represented one of the earliest attempts at truly immersing the gamer in a frightening environment. With villagers to talk to, a day/night mechanic and some mysterious secrets to unravel, this was more than an action game with a darker colour palette. It had plenty of flaws, with some arguing that it pales in comparison to the other two titles on the console, yet in some regards it was ahead of its time.

A lot of other well-known NES horror games were based on famous movies. We use the term ‘horror’ in the loosest terms, as these titles have a bad reputation for being sub-par cash-ins with disappointing gameplay. Beetlejuice, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street are examples of NES games that, arguably, failed to come close to recreating an atmosphere or gameplay experience relatable to the source material.

It clearly wasn’t easy to create spooky experiences with 2D sprites, though the upgrade to the 16-bit SNES did bring improvements to existing ideas. In the Castlevania series, Super Castlevania IV expanded on the legacy on the NES originals with enhanced visuals, sound and level design. The extra processing power allowed for more detailed environments, meaning that although it still wasn’t horror gaming as we may understand it today, it was certainly gothic. The same can be said for Super Ghouls ’n Ghosts, a title that utilised the SNES and Mode-7 capabilities to bring an entertaining action title into the home, with a suitably spooky vibe.

The Super Famicom also boasted one of the pioneer ‘survival horror’ games: Clock Tower. Only released in Japan, this is an early example of a point and click game, albeit optimised for d-pad control. If gameplay impressions are to be believed, there was even a form of quick-time events, when an enemy would suddenly appear and a ‘panic’ button had to be quickly tapped for a successful escape. Although few will have experienced this title, it appears to be one of the earliest examples of game developers attempting a shift in horror gaming, away from action platforming and towards a more cinematic design.

Blocky polygons – scary in more than one way

The emergence of the Nintendo 64 and its focus on polygon-based 3D visuals meant a shift in styles for horror games. This wasn’t necessarily a positive thing, as developers were faced with the difficult challenge of producing gaming experiences on new technology. In fact there aren’t many mainstream, recognisable N64 titles that fall into the horror category.

Possibly the most well-known is Resident Evil 2, the first in the series to reach a Nintendo console. This is one of the standard bearers of the survival horror genre, with cheap scares, terrifying monsters and an increasingly limited amount of ammo being prominent features of the title. Perhaps less highly regarded are Castlevania and Castlevania: Legacy of Darkness on the N64. While Resident Evil 2 utilised a 3D engine with limited movement and space, the Castlevania titles attempted to modernise the series’ 2D action roots into a 3D adventure. While some games such as Super Mario 64 made a successful and, at the time, revolutionary move into a new style of gaming, these titles failed to inspire wonder and critical acclaim. Despite mixed results, improving technology was starting to shift gamer’s expectations, with exciting possibilities for fright fans.

True role-playing horror

We now approach the current state of affairs in the field of scary games, with a look at the progress made on the GameCube and Wii. A standout title in the GameCube era was Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, which truly pushed boundaries in game design and creativity. The ‘sanity meter’ was a clever way to change the environment depending on your performance in the game, with some effects of deteriorating sanity even giving the impression that the console itself was affected. The increased graphical fidelity of the GameCube made titles such as Resident Evil 4 a possibility, with confined spaces and scripted events overhauled for more open environments. Not necessarily the same kind of horror as the earlier titles in the series, but horror nevertheless. Due to its popularity we will mention Luigi’s Mansion: not horrifying for the player, but deserves acknowledgment for the portrayal of Luigi’s comical sense of fear.

The Wii has enjoyed its own version of Resident Evil 4, utilising the Wii Remote pointer functionality, while Silent Hill: Shattered Dimensions is a notable experience on the console. This title impressed graphically, while utilising the Wii Remote cleverly for shining a torch around the environment. The terror was exacerbated by the lack of any weapon, the player forced to run for their lives while caught in a hellish alternate-reality. Dead Space: Extraction, meanwhile, was a positive example of how an action genre such as on-rails shooters can be designed to elicit dread and fear. Not all spooky Wii titles have fared as well in terms of sales or widespread critical acclaim, but there have been quite a few horror games nevertheless: Calling, Ju-On: The Grudge and Cursed Mountain are examples.

Important developments in the GameCube and Wii era have been the increasing scope of 3D environments and the expanding usage of cinematic flourishes. Technological improvements are changing the face of horror titles: no longer dependent on utilising 2D gameplay with gothic environments as compensation, modern games can make full use of 3D environments to provide action, on rails shooting, adventure or a mixture of experiences capable of eliciting fear in the gamer. The upcoming Resident Evil Revelations on 3DS will add stereoscopic 3D visuals to the mix, while the dual screen format of Wii U is full of promise. Scary games will continue to haunt TVs for a good while yet.

Part 2 will be published on Saturday, as members of the Nintendo Life team will share their opinions and memories of horror gaming.

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User Comments (21)



kingothekoopas said:


Friday the 13th on the NES was actually kind of interesting. it was sort of open world. you had to explore different areas, and even some houses. you would eventually find jason at some points, and have to fight him off inside the houses.



JonWahlgren said:

I remember squishing a lot of bugs in Beetlejuice, but beyond that all I recall is it being based on the cartoon and that it was a platformer.

It's cold and raining out today so when I get home I'm going to curl up on the couch and play some Splatterhouse. oooOOOooOoOOooooOOo



Ren said:

Shattered Memories was so scary and interesting and well designed that I wanted more like it. I tried Dead Space and it was ok for shooting but not scary and had a really tired and convaluted story. I tried Cursed Mountain and it was plain ol' dumb. Lots of emptly environments and rooms too dark to see in; when you do find a ghost it always looks the same; woo.
I got Eternal Darkness, felling pretty disheartned by then and Blam! Coolest game in a long time. GET IT, people while you still have GC compatability in your Wii.



Omega said:

For me, the origin of spooky games is Ghosts'n Goblins. The Commodore 64 version (which I played until the tape broke) has that fantastic music from Mark Cooksey which no other version has. It has that nightmarish sound that makes the song creepy and rocking at the same time. And the graphic was fantastic for 1986 while the game was (and is) a blast to play.



Ryno said:

The NES had some great spooky themed games besides Castlevania and the infamous movie tie-ins such as Maniac Mansion, Shadowgate, and Monster Party.

I have Cursed Mountain but never really got too far and then just quit playing it. Maybe I should give it another try.

I really wish Sadness would have made it to the Wii. I was really interested in that game.



ecco6t9 said:

It's a shame that Cursed Mountain(Lost in Shadow,Boy and his Blob) rot on Gamestop's shelves.



pntjr said:

I'm not one for horror games.
Not even for horror movies or books!



TheGreenSpiny said:

@4 Ren: Yeah I liked Shattered Memories, but it was too damn short and at times too boring. It needed some combat to spice up the action. That and the story was full of plot holes.

How was Dead Space not scary? I loved the psych-out moments, they reminded me of Eternal Darkness.



Aqueous said:

Strangely enough medabots the rpgs for the gba is what I play at this time of year.



AVahne said:

What? Even if it's Japan only, how about the Fatal Frame games/spinoff that hit/are hitting Wii and 3DS?



antster1983 said:

Beetlejuice, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street all sucked because they were made by LJN. (and yes, I'm a Nerd fan )

Know what other NES game sucks? Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.



darklinkinfinite said:

Just for the record, Castlevania 64 was initially well received and currently holds a 78 on Metacritic.

In their original review for the game 12 years ago, IGN's review said "The good news is that almost everything else remained intact, making the N64 Castlevania a great first step into the third dimension. It's not as good as Symphony of the Night, but it's certainly one of the top third person action games on the N64."

Much of the Castlevania 64 hate came later, probably a combination of the change over to the Metroidvania-style, the fact that the N64 was losing its console war against the Playstation (which hosted the most popular game in the series), and Igarashi's attitude toward the game among other things.

(sorry all the recent Castlevania articles have left me with Castlevania on the brain)



Ivol said:

The atmosphere in Cursed Mountain is great, i just couldn't stop climbing the damn mountain....




Nice, I'll have to get the games on my Wii. In other news, I just want to see Capcom combine Resident Evil 4's game mechanics with the previous Resident Evils' unrelenting atmosphere, truly frightening enemies, and a bit of Gothic architecture. I don't want to see more action-oriented atmosphere reminiscent of present-day shooters.



GamerforGod said:

I remember towards the end of my freshman year of college I was getting most of my exams and classes done, so I had a little bit more time to play games than I had during the rest of the semester. So I played Luigi's Mansion and beat it, which was a blast, but I remember one day I was browsing through a rom site, and I saw a rom for the Super Nintendo called Clock Tower. I had heard of it many times before, but I still had no idea what it was. For some reason I got images of a game called Clockwork Knight on the Sega Saturn in my head. But, at any rate, I decided that I need to play it and find out why I was always hearing about this game. So I began playing it, and I soon realized that it was a survival horror game, and amazingly, it was actually quite scary. I didn't think that was possible for a game made for the Super Nintendo, but Clock Tower did it well. After playing the Clock Tower SNES Rom, I found out that the series had made its way over to America on later consoles, namely, the Playstation One and the Playstation Two. I own all the rest of the series (that is available in America) now, and even after playing the later ones, the original is only surpassed by the first Clock Tower on the Playstation One (which was the first Clock Tower that America received). The scariest part in the Playstation One version is when a fax machine goes off, and you finally think someone is going to contact you to help you get out of this building that you're trapped in, only to read the fax which says (in very scribbly hand-writing), "Get ready...I'm coming for you!!!!" At which point the door breaks down and Scissorman (the game's villain) comes to chase you. I even reenacted that scene on a friend one time (with a printer rather than a fax machine), and it scared him really bad!!!! Anyways, I've rambled on long enough, but suffice it to say Clock Tower is really good (especially if you like games that are less about fighting the monsters, and more about thinking without weapons), and you should play it!!!!



retro_player_22 said:

Wow all these article about horror games and Halloween and no mention of Zombies Ate My Neighbors for Super NES and Genesis. For shame. That game is way scarier than any of those and you actually die in that game (many times over).



alLabouTandroiD said:

@Nintendo: If you want us gamers to have a really amazing Halloween bring games like Clock Tower, Fatal Frame IV and EarthBound (you know there is a very spooky part in this game) to the entire West officially. I don't care if it takes until next year or even longer, i just want it to happen.



ThomasBW84 said:

@darklinkinfinite - Indeed, Castlevania had a decent reception at the time, but my point was that it didn't transition as well as other NES/SNES franchises, such as Mario/Zelda etc. As I said, failed to inspire wonder, and received some praise in the media, but not widespread acclaim. Anyone I speak to about those games either says they're 'alright' or 'decent', or they hate them

@retro_player_22 - Zombies Ate My Neighbours is pretty good, this article was an introductory type feature though, not designed as a comprehensive history of all games that could be argued as 'horror' titles. The main point was to give a short overview of the progress of horror games from 2D sprite, to early 3D, and onto the more cinematic, fully realised titles of today. Some mentions slip through unfortunately.



warioswoods said:


"Yeah I liked Shattered Memories, but it was too damn short and at times too boring. It needed some combat to spice up the action."

Disagree, but that's a personal preference for atmosphere, pacing, and story over combat. The lack of combat was in fact the key to this game's greatness, IMO.

"That and the story was full of plot holes."

Wait... what? Did you finish it? I'm not sure where plot holes could really be pinpointed given the nature of what's happening in the game (which we can't discuss here for spoilers). On that note, there are actually 4 or 5 very different endings, so I don't know which you found.

And it wasn't short in the slightest if you take it at my pace, then replay it to see how much everything changes based on your answers and actions. There is so much content you miss on a single playthrough.

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