Updated: Mar 27, 2020
Since 3D games took over in the mid-Nineties, it has become easier for developers to scare your average video game player. With improved graphics and sound, came greater immersion, and therefore a greater ability to suck the player into a spooky world, only to shock them with a beautifully-rendered slithering alien or oversized poisonous arachnid. But thirty years ago, games designers didn’t have the luxury of realistic graphics or ambient sound; they had to rely on other methods in order to creep the player out. So here are Antstream Arcade's seven retro recommendations to put that tingle down your spine this Halloween!
Night Stalker (1982)
Released for the Mattel’s Intellivision console, Night Stalker places the player inside a dark one-screen maze full of enemies - but this ain’t Pac-Man. For stalking you this night is an ominous robot, vampire bats and a giant spider, all intent on making you their prey. Fortunately a pistol can be picked up to help fend off these nasties, although it has limited ammunition, and often appears on the opposite side of the screen, creating an extreme game of cat and mouse, over a decade before Resident Evil coined the phrase survival horror. Yet perhaps the most ingenious part of Night Stalker is its soundtrack, an oppressive, gloomy beat, repeated over and over again, incessant and never-ending, as if the Intellivision itself is trying to haunt your dreams and nightmares.
Looking at the screenshot for this Argus Press movie adaptation conveys none of the terror of playing it. For as with Alien Isolation 30 years later, Alien forced the player to rely on their wits, while managing a spaceship crew liable to lose theirs at any point. Alien mirrors the movie, as the player must not only locate the deadly xenomorph (having emerged from a poor random crew member), but also find a way to dispose of it with minimum casualties. The vulnerability of each character – both physically and psychologically – cranks up the tension, often to unbearable levels, as the player slowly shifts from room to room, uncovering the tell-tale signs that the alien has been nearby, such as an open ventilation shaft. And then suddenly, it’s there, dripping saliva and flicking its tail malevolently at the player as it eyes up its next hapless victim.
Go To Hell (1985)
Released by the unsubtly-named Triple Six Software (actually the publisher Activision), this was a pre-cursor to coder John George Jones’ notorious Soft & Cuddly, and a little more disturbing thanks to its relentless religious symbolism and gory depictions of a macabre descent into madness. Playing a remorseful character sent to hell in order to rescue a person you told to ‘go to hell’, the player must collect a set of crosses before facing off against the devil itself. Throughout the tortured maze, screaming souls cry out from within the crimson walls; a giant saw labelled simply ‘die’ digs away at a zombified head; a medieval rack pulls apart some poor victim. The continual hunting of the player by numerous creatures gives Go To Hell an oppressive atmosphere, rarely replicated by video games back in the cheerful 1980s.
London publisher CRL had already made its name thanks to the first BBFC-rated game (Dracula) and then the first X-rated game, Jack The Ripper. This further horror adventure from the mind of author Rod Pike, cemented that reputation, not least because of the nature of the role the player assumed. No longer were you an innocent bystander or vampire investigator; the Wolfman thrust you a fevered mind tortured by lycanthropy which, come full moon, will delight in terrorising anyone within howling distance. Pike’s elaborate and detailed words established a tone that sent shivers down the spine, with a series of gory and animated deaths the icing on a blood-red cake for horror fans. Some scenes may be unsuitable for small children.
Project Firestart (1989)
Sci-fi horror is a particularly evocative cross-genre thanks to its potential to throw even more bizarre and shocking things at the player. This Commodore 64 game begins with a common mechanic: a distant space station has dropped out of contact, and you’ve been sent in to investigate what’s gone wrong. With the bodies piling up and the gruesome results of medical experiments troubling the player, the mystery soon deepens. Project Firestart’s hook is its perplexing story of a genetic experiment gone wrong, the tale drip-fed via computer terminals and other clues left lying around by the now-dead scientists. Being hunted by the unnatural monsters with a strictly limited supply of ammunition only heightens the tension – and the fear.
Clock Tower (1995)
An eerie point and click game, this is one that transcends the supposed kiddie-friendly platform it was created for (Super Famicom), although this first game in the series was only released in Japan. Playing a young orphan named Jennifer Simpson, the player is part of a small group of children sent to the Burrows mansion in order to meet their new carer. Things soon naturally assume the shape of a pear, as Jennifer is relentlessly stalked by a demented serial killer called Scissorman, who wants to decapitate the poor girl with his giant razor-sharp shears. The terror from Clock Tower comes from Jennifer’s inability to fight back. All the player can do is hide and wait the Scissorman out, or run as fast as they can, fending off the rising panic meter that causes Jennifer to trip up in true horror movie fashion. The helpless nature of Clock Tower creates a true survival horror, in which there’s never a shotgun or machine pistol there to help you out. Like Alien Isolation 20 years later, the only tactic is to hide or run.
While admittedly released in the era of gaming we are attempting to avoid, Sanitarium’s game play is defiantly old-school, and was even more so in 1998 as first-person shooters ruled on the PC. A point and click adventure in the mould of classics such as Maniac Mansion, Sanitarium’s beautiful graphics portray a world warped through the eyes of a man desperately unsure of his own sanity. Full of blink-twice imagery, such as a sallow inmate head-butting a blood-stained wall or a huge clown head complete with bulging eyes, Sanitarium twists and turns inside the mind of its lead character, so that by the end you’ll have no idea what’s real and what is not. The sanatorium itself is a grimy, gothic prison – exactly how you’d envisage that sort of place in your own nightmares.