Published on February 20th, 2013 | by Michaela Buckley0
History of Horror Games: Origins
I think it’s safe to say that Space Invaders had bigger obstacles to overcome than making the patent invasion more terrifying. The earliest days of gaming are virtually divest from horror, unsurprisingly so as it requires some form of immersion, a diffficult feat on older consoles, it’s hard to invest in blocky pixels, however adventure elements were used to the fullest effect on the earliest consoles in order to achieve a desired result.
Lots of early horror games are very Lovecraftian, probably due to tech not being able to deliver on visual thrills and if choosing a style of writing that can evoke fear with words alone, Lovecraft is definitely the right choice, with character focused terror and mysterious unseen evil.
Strangely these early entries seemed to be obsessed with using “House” in the title, like:
The Screamer (1984/5) was released on the NEC PC 88, an RPG a bit like Wizardry with battles that turn into a 2D side-scroller shooter – a revolutionary game, that has influenced many succeeding genres, like action-RPG, and somehow the partial translation that was knocking around the Internet’s basement seems to have disappeared, which is a shame as there aren’t many good cyberpunk games let alone a cyberpunk horror RPG.
There were a few other games like The Uninvited (1986) on Macintosh, a point and click with a bit of a cult following that was later ported onto a number of consoles including the NES.
Text adventures games especially thrived with the era’s graphical limitations forcing games to take a more literal route, Lurking Horror on DOS came out in 1987 and featured yet more Lovecraftian style horror and also came with extra physical stuff like a rubber toy of a creature from the game and various maps of locations featured.
As arcade experiences were now able to be experienced better at home with the new 3rd generation of consoles, the Master System and NES, arcade-style action games became popular.
It’s about here that the odd “house” trend decided to have a second rising, this time with other kinds of abode, in 1986 on the Mastersystem came Ghost House, a side-scrolling action game then on Famicom disk system was Castlevania in 1986 and also 1988’s Arcade game Splatterhouse, where you play as the bad guy and was controversial for its extreme violence.
These games are pseudo-horror games, with no intent to scare, but incorporate horror themes, like vampires and werewolves etc.
Soon after the Arcade fad, Horror RPGs became popular with Shiryou Sensen: War of the Dead on MSX 2, Laplace no Ma on NEC PC 8801 and most famously Sweet Home.
Sweet Home was made for the NES by Capcom in 1989 as a tie in to a Japanese Horror film that was released.
It is often credited with being the main influence to Resident Evil and so called the first survival horror game, with limited item collection and adventure puzzle elements. Every character in the game has a unique item, when they die, it is permanent and you have to find an alternative way to finish the puzzle.
Project Firestart was released in 1989 for the Commodore 64, talk about arriving late, a side-scrolling action game inspired heavily by Aliens and strangely set onboard a ship called Prometheus. Odd.
Then came a slew of PC games;
Alone in the Dark – The most famous of the early horror games was released on PC in 1992, a traditional adventure game with survival horror themes and a heavy puzzle elements. The game spawned many sequels, including a really rough one on the 360, do avoid.
Darkseed – HR Giger designed adventure, System Shock, a Sci-Fi FPS and the spiritual predecessor to Deus Ex and Bioshock, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream another adventure game based on a short story by Harlan Ellison and Cosmology of Kyoto which is Roger Ebert’s favourite game.
Finally one of the last games before the beginning of the “Golden Age” of Horror is Clocktower, a late SNES game from 1995. It has slight branching storylines and features a minimalist HUD.
Unfortunately like many games described here, this did not see a western release and you have to rely on emulation in order to play it.
Many other early games had some horror in, Wizardry, a first person RPG had a superficial fear in that the confusing maps and the way enemies spring up on you is quite tense.
Metroid on the NES was inspired by Alien and has some really creepy atmosphere and music.
Famicom Detective Club is a game on the Japanese Famicom, shocking stuff, it’s an adventure with a mystery theme and there is quite a spooky feel about it. On the SNES Earthbound/Mother 2 gets increasingly disturbing as you progress, with the end boss essentially being a foetus.
Pre-Playstation games mostly sport Lovecraftian prose and Giger-esque visuals, western horror was probably at its peak in this age, there were lots of PC games whose demographic are a little older and more suitable for horror than console players who tend to be quite young. I lament E.A. Poe not having much press in games.
Psychological horror dominates older horror games and the minimalist style of the games serves to increase the players’ self-invented fears. There were many esoteric titles as the genre was starting out, so many of this era’s games are vastly different from one another.
I will be looking into the Golden Age of horror next, when Resident Evil made horror into a bankable part of gaming and zombies became the go-to video game monster.