Spookytacular 2015: 5 classic console scares
We have reached Halloween, the spooky time. There has thankfully been a groundswell resurgence of good horror in media these past few years. Alien: Isolation last year, Until Dawn on PS4, the films It Follows and The Guest (and the V/H/S films by the same guys) are all very effective for a lot of reasons. Importantly, these games and films access concepts and aesthetics of horror was better in a way that hasn't been done in too long.
The sweaty-palm inducing anxiety of being adrift in space with a nine foot tall insect murderer Alien, relying on tape drives and buzzing CRT displays, was fantastic -- and a throwback to a classic horror experience. Until Dawn and It Follows mined and examined teen slasher/supernatural horror in broad and subtle ways that are, in the end, more interesting than Scream and Cabin in the Woods (which was still pretty fantastic).
This is the upshot of what is becoming alarmingly short-term media nostalgia: we get to dip back to the good stuff more freely and without shame. Star Wars is back, Surge is back, and decent horror is back. I thought, as we near the prime spooky time, I’d take a look at some older console titles that I think are worth going back to, taking a look at, and taking ideas from.
Let’s make nostalgia work for us.
Friday the 13th
Some developers are ahead of the game. The not-quite-finished Kickstarter for an asynchronous competitive multiplayer game based on the Friday the 13th slasher franchise looks to be impressively faithful to the source material. In order to ablate any accusation of conflict of interest I feel like I should inform you that I have not backed this Kickstarter due to the fact that I am cheap as hell.
At the time it came out -- and to this day -- people seem to dislike the 1989 Friday the 13th game for the NES. It is too difficult. Death at the hands of Jason seems inevitable. It is nonsensical, though I would argue that the films were as well, making it a fairly accurate adaptation.
Watching your friends die one by one as you race from cabin to cabin, only to be confronted by a gigantic deformed murderer who throws machete after machete at your tiny, terrified body is kind of a crushing experience. This is why I have a lot of affection in my heart still for this awful, intense little game. It was released in between one of the best in the series and one of the worst: Kane Hodder’s best Jason in Friday the 13th Part 7 and the depressing Manhattan-taking mess of Friday the 13th Part 8. Tellingly, the title screen is the iconic image from the apex of the series, Part 4, The Final Chapter.
Haunting: Starring Polterguy
What if I were to tell you there was tactical gentrification revenge fantasy game for the Sega Genesis/MegaDrive? I am not a liar my friends, the game is real. You play the ghost of a leather-jacket-wearing greaser who was apparently murdered or led to death by a family of awful real estate developers. It is implied they priced him out of his home and he died on the street. The object of the game is to give each family member a nervous breakdown, even the young children, by scaring the hell out of them, relentlessly. You dive into beds which turn into giant, hungry mouths. A dead animal falls out of the oven and flies around the room. The neck of guitar becomes a snake which vomits all over their legs. Walls melt open and fleshless screaming men grasp out of the black, empty hole.
In a lot of ways it feels like a predecessor to Tecmo’s Kagero Deception series, in that you spend your time setting traps for hapless and awful people, though in this instance you are just making them lose their minds through terror instead of cutting them in half with a big toilet brush. It's densely packed with a lot of fantastic animation and is still worth taking a look at, for a bit at least. Their family dog is the Devil, by the way. It is in the manual so I am not spoiling anything for you. I am playing through it as I’m writing this and a goblin just crawled out of the toilet and started throwing human waste at a screaming adult man. It is a great experience.
You play a gigantic rotten head! You fly around shooting your tongue and eyeballs at enemies across America!
Yes, I know, it is only vaguely and arguably horror, but hear me out. One of the central design elements of the core Metroid series is the general sense of foreboding. Let’s take apart a brief moment around the middle of a playthrough.
The shift in atmosphere and pace in between the rest of the game and the ghost ship segment is one of the most unsettling moments in that generation of gaming, easily. And it's done in such a simple way! The minimal presentation and lack of context you are given lead you to make your own conclusions. Alien ghosts in centuries old wreckage, depicted nonverbally. A strangely silent interlude in a game that is otherwise pretty bombastic.
This is why the Prime games always felt a little flat to me. It is an interesting and foreboding experience when it is abstracted like this, and that is the part of Metroid and Super Metroid that I think make it stand out in the end. There is a purple pterodactyl and laser-vomiting brain that hate me. I am apparently a woman. I don’t need to know that I am a woman who was raised by bird men aliens, or the pathos behind the purple pterodactyl and his friend the brain. If you feed me paragraphs of text and backstory about every single little item it underscores the inherent silliness at the heart and brain of Metroid and turns it into a fun puzzle platformer in a world of fun puzzle platformers. The strange and incomprehensible nature of the world was a strength, not a weakness.
Finally, another NES title from 1989. Sweet Home is a team-based Japanese survival RPG that was released in conjunction with a decent haunted house film of the same name. They were released on the same day, all the trailers featured the game, and the stories mirror each other as well as something at the fidelity level of an 8-bit game can manage. You play the members of a documentary film crew investigating a mansion in the woods that is said to is said to hide beautiful frescoes by a famous artist. It also continues to be the home of the ghost of the artist’s wife, who had accidentally tossed their two year old son into the furnace and then set about murdering all her child’s friends so it would have someone to play with before she committed suicide.
The game also includes hundreds and hundreds of ghosts and monsters that you murder because it is a Japanese roleplaying game, and that's how these things work. Each character in your party has a set of abilities that only they can manage in a system similar to the 1987 LucasArts game Maniac Mansion filtered through the Final Fantasy job system.
Sweet Home was never released globally due to scenes of graphic violence and too-spooky monsters, but has since been translated, becoming an often-noted cult favorite horror game. It's is smart, long, very difficult, and a direct inspiration for the mechanics and tone of the original Resident Evil. After we let Resident Evil finally die maybe we can bring this game back.
If you like the idea of a bleak and almost impenetrable experience that ends with you feeling awful about the choices you have made, but also you would like to see some really cool monsters, you could do a lot worse than Sweet Home.