Thursday, November 3, 2011

Top Ten Classic Horror Video Games - Honorable Mentions

In the 70s and early 80s, the idea of a game that could be genuinely scary was a bit premature, and the few games that attempted to bring horror to console games were poorly designed, such as adaptations of Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, or original titles like Haunted House and Frankenstein's Monster (the logic that makes these horror games could easily apply to Pac-Man). Arguably, it wouldn't be until the CD-ROM age, with FMV, realistic graphics, improved sound design and more memory for all that storytelling that games would stand on par with films at delivering a horror experience. There were a few gems along the way that certainly deserve credit for starting the genre that has since exploded into such a large category that a top ten list really does little justice, and I'll present these in order by date, leading into the CD-ROM era.

Maniac Mansion
Release - October 1987
Purchase - Out of Print, NES version at Amazon.com

Maniac Mansion was the start of it all for Lucasfilm Games, now iconic in the adventure gaming market, before their nausea-inducing whoring of the Star Wars franchise (as LucasArts). Maniac Mansion was the first of its kind to bring text-based adventure games to a completely GUI-controlled engine, a standard in the genre today.

While more horror-comedy than straight horror, Maniac Mansion takes its inspiration from the B-horror sub-genre  which is difficult to take seriously anyway. Talking tentacles, blue-skinned scientists and teens with over-the-top personalities are the staple here. The plot involves a missing girl, Sandy Pantz, whose boyfriend believes her to have been kidnapped by the owner of a stereotypical creepy mansion. The owner is Dr. Fred, who is rumored to be stealing human brains for his experiments.

The game has a sense of humor that has become a standard in LucasArts adventure games. Some puzzles are solved in cliche ways, like discovering the key to the mansion under the doormat, while players can perform totally unnecessary actions for the sake of humor, like microwaving a hamster. What gives the game a horror feel is the unusual cast of antagonists, who can appear on any screen at any time in the game, and will imprison the character if they come in contact with them. Still, like the genre it draws from, the game is more fun and humor than horror, and the absurd characters draw more of the audience's focus than the horror elements.

Maniac Mansion doesn't hold up very well today. Its slow, crawling movement and dated point and click interface just beg for an upgrade, which fans have acknowledged. Maniac Mansion was followed by Day of the Tentacle in 1993, by all accounts a superior experience and one of the best adventure games ever made, but more science-fiction themed than its predecessor.

Castlevania II: Simon's Quest (ドラキュラII 呪いの封印)
Release - August 28, 1987
Purchase - Amazon.com, Virtual Console

When Castlevania II: Simon's Quest was released in 1987, it met with almost unanimous praise. Its open-world system allowed the character to go anywhere from the start of the game, though exploration would be limited by items in the character's inventory similar to the Zelda series. It introduced an RPG-like leveling system, a bartering system, and a morbid story that involves collecting the defeated Dracula's organs in order to resurrect him and defeat him again, ending the curse he placed on Simon and Transylvania for all time. It was weird, novel, and formed the basis upon which Symphony of the Night and its sequels were built.

But like Resident Evil, Simon's Quest has become known as much for its flaws as for its ingenuity, thanks in no small part to a 2004 short produced by James Rolfe. Rolfe entertainingly reviews the game as a character who hates it for ruining the Castlevania trilogy on the NES, treating the video he's making as a PSA to warn people away from the game. While most of his complaints are completely valid, a lot of the game's impossible puzzles came from the fact that its translation was horrible (as were most NES games of the time). For a game that relies so heavily on learning clues from townspeople, this is totally crippling. If you happen to follow a guide and don't mind the day-night transitions, it's not a bad game and offers some fun somewhat-linear gameplay, though whether or not the payoff is worth it is up to you.

In the words of The Nerd, "The ending sucks, too."


Friday the 13th
Release - February 1989
Purchase - Amazon.com

Unlike Simon's Quest, Friday the 13th has universally been called one of the worst games ever made since its release. It's hard to argue against that statement, but Friday the 13th does have quite a few novel elements working in its favor that are often ignored by reviewers boggled by just how bad the mechanics of the game can be.

You play as one of six counselors being stalked by Jason at Camp Crystal Lake, and can switch between counselors at any time by entering the small cabins along the path. The goal of the game is to survive for three days and defeat Jason three times. If all of the counselors and children die, the game ends. During the game, the player will randomly receive a notification that Jason is attacking someone, and the cabin where he is will flash on the map screen. The player can then run to that cabin, or switch to a closer character. Each alarm allows sixty seconds for the player to hunt down Jason before he kills his prey and moves on.

The Jason timer is surprisingly considerate; as long as you respond immediately and keep someone near the lake to defend the children, you'll always get to Jason in time (unless, of course, you get stuck in the woods or cave). Fighting him is a totally different story. Jason attacks with his fists, machete, and axe in a Punch-Out!-style fight, which requires dodging his attacks with a very particular dodge move (holding the D-Pad in the down-right position) which the game never tells you to do. Until you discover this move Jason will wipe you out every time. Once you figure it out, the timing is relatively easy and Jason retreats after eight hits or so. True to character, however, he comes back again and again, and it takes fighting him at least a dozen times to actually kill him. Once.

There are several nods to the series: defeating Jason's mother's disembodied head can give the player her sweater (which will discourage Jason from attacking on the path) as well as a pitchfork weapon. The casting is true to genre, with three male and three female characters. Two of the girls are the best characters in the game, putting Friday the 13th with Super Mario Bros 2 as games where boys will play as female characters given the choice.

Though I've never beaten the game, I personally enjoy the challenge. With today's expectations, a game is only fun if it's possible for just about anyone to beat it, but being able to kill a slasher just ruins the experience. Consider Nightmare on Elm Street, also for the NES, where Freddy Kreuger is an absolute joke. Somehow, Friday the 13th on the NES is still the best game based on a horror slasher franchise. It had the right ideas, and later games like Resident Evil 3 and Clock Tower show that these ideas can translate well to a console.

Alone in the Dark
Release - 1992
Purchase - Good Old Games

Following in the vein of the Japanese-only release Sweet Home comes Alone in the Dark, a creepy 3D-style horror game that bridges the gap between traditional games and the CD-ROM era. Based loosely on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, the plot involves the investigation of a suspicious suicide, and is told mostly through found documents.

Alone in the Dark pioneered the idea of third-person 3D models in prerendered backgrounds, which gave developers the option of placing the camera at key locations to emphasize the horror elements: low-angle, high-angle, framed and corner shots are all fairly common during the course of the game. Unfortunately, this also means control is painfully stiff, requiring a character to stop moving forward, spin anywhere in a 360 degree path, and resume moving forward to change direction. Each time a camera shift takes place, the player has to quickly reorient themselves, and some camera shots make it terribly difficult to tell where your character is going.

Sadly, this control style, paired with how slow everything moves, makes the game borderline unplayable by today's standards. To be fair, the control is a bit typical of a keyboard-based input system: while many PlayStation games kept the 3D model/2D background method, most chose to go with a more fluid "up goes away from the screen, down goes toward it" control model that paired well with the joystick-based controller. One of the games that kept Alone in the Dark's control style was Resident Evil.

Diablo
Release - November 30, 1996
Purchase - Amazon.com

Diablo deserves mention here for its use of demonology and the sheer number of skeletons you'll see, but it's difficult to classify as horror so much as it is dark fantasy, like The Dark Crystal or Legend. It's a near-endless dungeon crawler that has the rare characteristic of changing the layout with every playthrough, making no two experiences alike. Players can choose between the three typical fantasy classes: Fighter, Archer or Magician (Warrior, Rogue and Sorcerer here).

What put Diablo on the map was definitely the multiplayer experience. Up to four players could work together to solve the game's sixteen levels, and this is definitely the best way to play it. Of course, having three people to help you takes a bit away from the potential horror experience, and whether or not horror games should include coop modes continued to be a debate until Resident Evil: Outbreak (バイオハザード アウトブレイク) in 2003.

Grim Fandango
Release - October 30, 1998
Purchase - Amazon.com

Despite a Halloween-timed release date, Grim Fandango is themed after the Mexican Dia de Muertos, a Catholic update of ancient Aztec festivals. Another LucasArts offering, Grim Fandango is frequently cited as one of the best adventure games ever made, and it's a fair reputation: the puzzles are clever, the humor is spot on, and its cultural awareness gave it a unique flavor that few games have bothered to match.

Of course, like Maniac Mansion, Grim Fandango's emphasis on humor keeps it out of most horror game discussions, as well as the plot's emphasis on noir detective stories. It is an incredible game, and it does play around with the idea of the Grim Reaper and what his job might actually be, so it's worth checking out for its bizarre imagery and fun storytelling.

Silent Hill
January 31, 1999
Purchase - PSN, Amazon.com

For some reason, Silent Hill and Resident Evil are often paired as competitors, but aside from frustrating controls, the two games share very little in common. Silent Hill is a psychological horror/thriller set in the fictional town of its title, with an arguably unreliable narrator and potential supernatural element. We never know how much of what's going on is actually happening, which is much more in line with modern horror films than the B movies Resident Evil seems to borrow from.

Everything about Silent Hill's execution is incredibly atmospheric and moody, and the design goes well with the psychological perspective: locations change entirely at different points of the game, which makes backtracking a little less monotonous. All of the indoor environments are pitch-black, leaving a flashlight as the only source of light. A pocket radio allows the player to know when monsters are nearby, emitting a high-pitched white noise in their presence.

Silent Hill may be considered a classic by some, but for me, it doesn't feel like a classic; it feels like any other modern game. Like Metal Gear Solid and a handful of other PlayStation games, it still plays well next to its big brothers on the PlayStation 2, and had the benefit of coming four years after Resident Evil, toward the end of the PlayStation's life cycle. This one would have been number eleven, had I gone past ten.

System Shock 2
Release - August 11, 1999
Purchase - Amazon.com

I mentioned System Shock in my Half-Life comments, and System Shock 2 improved much upon the precedent set by its predecessor. The concept is virtually identical, with a rogue AI taking over a starship, and trapping the player upon it. A roleplaying system is included, allowing the character to choose a background like hacker or psi user, and puzzles are solved in different ways based on the tools at the player's disposal. Inventory space is limited, giving the game a bit of a survival horror feel.

Of course, the premise allows us a creepy AI, and we hear her everywhere in the form of SHODAN, a returning character from the previous game. She taunts you as you progress, producing an effect both intimidating and encouraging. You'll also be up against zombie-like bioorganisms, so there's that. The sound design is beautiful and immersive, from the sounds of creatures, the distorted voice of SHODAN, to the moody industrial soundtrack.

This game was fairly well-received, but not quite as popular as it should have been. It does have a huge cult following, however, and fans have since put together texture packs and mods to keep the game looking and playing as beautifully as ever. If you have yet to play this masterpiece, put it on your to-game list ASAP - if you can find a copy of it.

Persona 2: Eternal Punishment
Release - June 29, 2000
Purchase - Amazon.com

The Megami Tensei RPG series has a long history in Japan, but the US got its first glimpse with the spinoff title Revelations: Persona in 1997. Persona revolves around a group of teenagers who discover an ability to awaken "personas", facets of their personality with the power to cast magical spells and cause serious damage. The idea is that, when stressed, the character becomes someone else for a brief time in order to fight, and the literal manifestation of a second personality in the form of "Persona" is pretty brilliant.

Persona 2: Eternal Punishment was my entry into the series and probably the darkest, as the plot focuses more on the adult characters than other Persona games. The story involves a reporter for a teen magazine, who is investigating a series of murders rumored to be committed if a person calls their own cell phone number and gives the name of the person they want killed. There's a ton of genuinely creepy imagery in this one: the killer, known only as "JOKER", is portrayed wearing a paper grocery bag over his head with a smile painted on it.

The "monsters" in this game are various myth-inspired demons, and the player has the ability to try talking to them before resorting to combat: certain demons are affected by different methods, such as flirting or shouting, and failing to talk them out of fighting will typically give them a head start in combat, or a buff of some kind. Succeeding gets their card, which can be used to avoid future encounters with that particular species. It's a fun system, and mastering it can make the game far easier.

The Persona series didn't really gain mainstream appeal until Persona 3, which introduced the dungeon-crawling to a high school simulation that, while a weird mix, seemed to work exceptionally well. Players could choose when they wanted to explore dungeons, and when they wanted to work on friendships or academia, though there is a sense of a time limit through the game that requires a particular amount of dungeon progress per game month. Of course, Persona 3, while widely regarded as the best in the Persona series, has yet to age enough to be considered a classic.

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I hope you enjoyed reading about these great games, and if you haven't played something on my lists, I'd certainly encourage you to do so, whether it's Halloween, or just another Fall evening with a suitable chill in the air. The horror golden rule remains: play these games in the dark, wear headphones, turn up the volume, lock the door, and prepare to be frightened.

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