Halloween is almost upon us, with many gamers making plans for a night of terrifying gaming. Whether these are modern titles or retro, old-school goodness, there are plenty of scary games to enjoy. In the first part of our Fun and Frights feature, we gave a brief outline of how horror games have developed through the generations of Nintendo consoles. The transitions from 2D, to early attempts at 3D environments, through to modern cinematic game design, have brought a wealth of spooky experiences to gamers.
As we all prepare for the darkest of nights, some of the Nintendo Life writers now take the chance to share their opinions and memories of horror gaming.
Philip J Reed
I've always been fascinated by scary games, and I'm not exactly sure where that started for me. Possibly it was with the NES version of Maniac Mansion. For those who haven't played it, think of it as a comedic forerunner to the original Resident Evil, as the two games have more in common than either would probably care to admit.
At the time I think I was more fascinated by its brilliant, effective attempts at world building and characterization. It had a tighter focus than most other games of its time. Rather than advertising a gigantic, explorable world, the entire game was confined to a single house. Rather than a cast of thousands and myriad enemies, it was just one family. I always get frustrated nowadays when I read reviews complaining that one game's map isn't as big as some other game's, or that you can "see everything" too quickly. Maniac Mansion smacked that erroneous complaint out of me a long time ago: it's never the size of the game; it's always what you accomplish within those boundaries.
What Maniac Mansion accomplished for me was a sense of forboding, a sense of helplessness, and, above all, a sense of fear. It didn't hurt that it was funny, edgy and sometimes even sad, but it really made me feel as though I was the one exploring the spooky house, and that makes all the difference. Even though I knew it wasn't "me" inside that game, and that the characters I controlled had names, appearances and personalities that were totally distinct from mine, I felt an element of responsibility for them, and that's why scary games (good ones at least) are so effective: there's no distance. You are directly culpable for the outcome.
When you watch a scary movie, it's easy to separate yourself from the characters. Every time you exclaim something like, "Don't go into the basement!" you are doing exactly that. You're expressing the difference between what you would have done, and what the character on the screen just did. You are not in danger, and you are able to revel in the luxury of believing that you would have behaved much differently.
Games don't give you that option. You can still shout "Don't go into the basement!", but if the game doesn't progress until you go into the basement, then the basement is where you're going. You open the door, you guide the character, and you plunge along with him into danger. It's all in your hands from here. The game may have forced him into the basement, but it's up to you to get him out alive.
Maniac Mansion never gave me nightmares, but it changed my preconceptions about what games could accomplish. Rather than sending me out into the world in search of powerups, it stuck me in a musty old house and asked me to learn about a bizarre family with a sentient meteor in the basement.
Sure, much of it was deliberately silly, but what gamer didn't jump out of their skin the first time they pulled the shower curtain aside to find Dead Cousin Ted in the tub? What gamer didn't desperately abuse the controller to outrun Nurse Edna? And what gamer didn't find themselves speechless for at least a few minutes after the first time they triggered the game's infamous "nuclear annihilation" ending?
You can still shout "Don't go into the basement!", but if the game doesn't progress until you go into the basement, then the basement is where you're going
Its tongue was very firmly planted in its own cheek, but the wealth of instantaneous (and creative) death sequences meant you weren't going to laugh your way out of this one. The game prioritized atmosphere, and then deliberately undercut that atmosphere. It was a complex and self-aware attempt to push the boundaries of gaming, and it did so by aiming so much smaller and closer to home.
And that's what the best horror always does. There's nothing truly frightening about whatever unfolds in distant lands, or on other planets, or anywhere we're never likely to be. The scariest place to be is where we are already when the lights go out. The scariest call always comes from inside the house. And sometimes the only way out is through the basement.
Horror movies can provide disturbing images, but horror games make us responsible for what happens next. They may not transport us to another world, but they put us in charge of it. That's exhilarating, that's disarming, and that's engaging.
Long live the scary games.