Feature: Fun and Frights on Nintendo - Part 1

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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